A scene from Jeff Orlowski's "Chasing Coral"

Interview: Composer Dan Romer on Marching to the Beat of His Own Drummer

This week, we’re celebrating the people who made some of the best films of the year possible from behind the scenes.

“I feel like before film scoring, my life was just mostly around getting drum sounds,” says Dan Romer, who has found that skill has paid off as a composer of some of the finest backbeats in the business.

Mind you, Romer’s definition of drum sounds may be different than yours. Take, for example, his score for Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation.” In order to create something beautiful that becomes broken to detail the plight of a child soldier, Romer had devised a drum kit comprised of string instruments with towels placed over them to muffle the notes, rigging a chopstick onto a pedal to transform an upright bass into kick drum and doing the same for a violin, a banjo, an acoustic guitar and a ukulele. The familiarity of musical phrasing coupled with soul-stirring instrumentation that offers new and unexpected sounds is a way of leading audiences to a place they’ve never been before without the desire to retreat, a necessity in particular for Fukunaga’s journey into the darkness, but a quality that might be the only common link between every one of the distinctive scores Romer has composed since his friend from Wesleyan, Benh Zeitlin, asked him to work on the music for “Beasts of the Southern Wild” with him.

Since then, Romer’s selection of projects to work on has been nearly as adventurous as the scores he’s composed for them, a diversity that was reflected as strongly as ever in 2017. Somehow finding the time outside of his successful career as a music producer, behind such pop hits in recent years as A Great Big World’s “Say Something” and Shawn Mendes’ “Treat You Better,” Romer began the past year with Jeff Baena’s medieval comedy “The Little Hours” and Jeff Orlowski’s urgent environmental doc “Chasing Coral” premiering at Sundance and continued collaborations with Joe Swanberg and Jonas Carpignano with evocative scores for the gambling caper “Win It All” and the coming-of-age tale “A Ciambra,” respectively, while branching out into television with “The Good Doctor” and “Atypical” and video games (“Far Cry 5”). Fittingly, he closed out the year with fireworks when Oscilloscope released “Brimstone and Glory,” Viktor Jakovleski’s euphoric portrait of Tultepec, home to Mexico’s National Pyrotechnic Festival where the colorful showers of light in the sky threw off sparks that flared once more with every note of an almost entirely percussive score, co-composed with Zeitlin, that exuded the handmade feel that has brought the experience of the films he’s worked on so close while giving them a propulsion and verve as if to make them ethereal.

Recently, Romer reflected on a year that might be punctuated with an Oscar nomination for his work on “Chasing Coral” (the song “Tell Me How Long,” which he co-wrote with Teddy Geiger, was recently shortlisted for a potential nomination), adapting his work to serve stories in multiple mediums and still finding new ways to create drum sounds.

A scene from Jeff Baena's "The Little Hours"If we’re covering the whole year, I wanted to start out at the beginning with “The Little Hours.” Both comedy and medieval times seem like new territory for you, so what was it like working with Jeff Baena?

When I first watched a cut, I loved the movie so much. I loved the cast and the premise and I also thought it was so cool that it was based on such an old text [because] it’s not often that text hundreds and hundreds of years old gets adapted into a comedy. Somewhere towards the middle [of the film] Jeff [Baena] was having a hard time figuring out what kind of music that he wanted and he was leaning more towards ‘80s or ‘70s kind of synthetic feeling, but they temped in a lot of period-accurate medieval music, which worked really well because generally when a comedy has music that feels serious for the time and place that the movie’s based in, it’s funnier. Like for example, it’s cool that “Rick and Morty”’s music feels like legit sci-fi music.

So I said, “Well, why don’t we try making medieval music that has that same kind of [‘80s synth] feeling, but you’re using medieval instruments?” We tried that and it didn’t really work, but we started introducing some synth elements and then the concept of the story became that it started [out as] medieval and as accurate as you could get and then over time, as people started giving way to their urges and being not so proper as the church wants them to be, we [began to] introduce more synth elements.

Your scores seem rooted in place as much as characters. Are you as inspired as much by the place where things are set as much as the story being told?

The setting has so much to do with the sound of the music. I hope I’m not getting ahead of myself, but for example on “Chasing Coral,” we wanted all the music to sound like it was coming from under the water, which is why the music sounds the way it sounds. They showed us stuff from “Chasing Coral” with the “Beasts of the Southern Wild” music [temped] over it [with] real strings on it and the sound of a bow hitting the violin going through air sounded wrong to me for a story about the ocean. So I proposed that we run as many instruments as we could through a bathtub to make [the entire score] sound like it was underwater.

How did that film come about?

Jeff Orlowski, the director, contacted me and in general, if it’s a documentary that has social value to it, that makes me happier to do it. I would love for my work to be part of social change in any way it possibly can, so when Jeff showed me the film, it was so beautiful and it has a very important message that I wanted to help get across, so I agreed to do it. And I scored it with Saul Simon MacWilliams, who I co-scored “Gleason” and “Jim: The James Foley Story” together [with]. He was my sound designer on “Beasts of No Nation” and he scored a documentary about Martin Luther King that’s going to be premiering at Sundance.

Is there any difference to you in how you approach scoring a documentary versus a narrative film?

I ask myself that all the time and I don’t know the answer, to be honest with you. Every film is its own thing, so it’s really hard to talk about this is what documentary is like and this is what narratives are like. Really, it’s just story-based. There might be some decisions that I make slightly different considering that I’m trying not to put as much of a narrative spin on something, but I don’t think there’s really anything different.

I ask because, off the top of my head, in “Gleason” or “Chasing Coral,” you have those montages that condense time where the score is really allowed to take over since it’s a very pure distillation of the music and the images.

It’s interesting because there are different modes of montage, whether it’s like a half-montage [where there might be some] audio going on over it that’s not music, but you’re not supposed to be paying attention to it that much, so it still has that montage feel, but those are always equally exciting and daunting because those are moments where you have to [ask yourself] how do you say this the right way? Not like you aren’t giving everything else [in the score] your all, but that’s your moment to say here’s what the music of this movie is like and this is my artistic statement about this world [of the film]. If you’re doing nothing but montages, you’re going to think to yourself, “Oh, when can I make some music that’s just slightly framing the narrative?” and then if you’re just doing things that are all wallpaper and all backdrop, it’s like, “Oh, when am I going to get to do a montage”? They’re both things I love doing for different reasons.

Before moving off “Chasing Coral,” how did the song “Tell Me How Long” come about?

That all stemmed from Jeff’s idea for this song having the lyric, “I scream in color…” I asked Jeff for a list of phrases that resonated with him and that was one of the first ones he came up with, so that was the bridge [for the song]. Then [I reached out to] Teddy Geiger, an old friend of mine — he wrote the song, “Treat You Better” by Shawn Mendes and we produced it together and we’ve worked on a few other things here and there — and we wrote [“Tell Me How Long”] and we produced it out. We showed the song to Kristen Bell and given the other stuff that she’s done, I think it’s so cool to hear her voice in this context.

A scene from Viktor Javlovski's "Brimstone and Glory"The other documentary you worked on is also quite extraordinary — “Brimstone and Glory.” How did that collaboration come about?

The first footage I saw from that was of a bull exploding, and it must’ve been 2014. It was amazing. At that point, Benh [Zeitlin] and I had scored two films together — “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Mediterranea” — and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” had a ton of strings and folk elements and then “Mediterranea” was a bit more ambient. It still had strings, but much more tame strings, so we were trying to figure out what would be our musical language [that] we hadn’t done before. No one wants to just say, “Oh, let’s do the same thing we did in this other thing.” Benh and I scored pretty much the entire thing in early 2016. I set up a studio and I was living in this tiny little back house in the Court 13 [Headquarters] in New Orleans and when Benh and I work together, we work very, very long days, working very intensely for like a month or two on things, which is how we did “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

The first stuff we were trying [for “Brimstone and Glory”] was droning cello music that felt more like solo strings than a string section. We thought it would be interesting to make it sound more like soloists playing together as opposed to an ensemble. Something about it felt a little sleepy, so we tried different stuff and I had this idea where I just ripped a ten-minute clip from YouTube of a guy soloing on a hand-drum very aggressively. [When] I tried putting 10 minutes of percussion over the movie, it felt like, “This is what we have to do. We just have to write really aggressive percussion music.” The idea was to make an entire score with absolutely zero instruments that weren’t percussion, so we were saying “let’s just make the score 100 percent drums.” There was one thing where we were hitting a cello with a stick, so we still counted that as drums, and we ended up going back and adding an orchestral piece at the beginning, but If we hadn’t tried [doing it strictly as percussion], it wouldn’t be the same as it is now. We had pretty much made it through half the movie without using anything but drums. And when we got to the first big Phantom shots [which use a high frame rate to slow down images], we were like, “Alright, we have to start including some elements that aren’t drums,” so that’s when we started bringing in the orchestral stuff.

A scene from Joe Swanberg's "Win It All"You also have those great taiko drums in “Win It All” to ratchet up the internal tension for the gambler played by Jake Johnson. How did that come about?

The score stuff for [“Win It All”] was totally Joe [Swanberg]’s idea. Joe would say that he wanted to score Jake’s inner monologue with percussion and he showed me some taiko recordings that were really cool. We got my friend Oscar Chabebe, who lives in the Dominican Republic, to come play some taiko drums. We put him in the studio and he just did a bunch of improvs and I directed him and cut the pieces up, but what you hear is what they are. Oscar is one of my favorite musicians in the world. He co-scored “The Last Season” with me, which was him and Osei Essed, and the three of us — me, Oscar and Osei — were in an Americana band back in college together where I was the bass player, Osei was a banjo player and singer and Oscar was the drummer, so I’ve been working with Oscar on and off for the last 16 years.

Speaking of ongoing collaborations, “A Ciambra” has yet to come out, but what was it like reteaming with Jonas Carpignano for his latest film?

We already had a basic musical language off of “Mediterranea,” but we wanted to make it its own thing. We wanted to make it feel a little bit more based on our protagonist than the “Meditarranea” score, and since I scored “Mediterranea” with Benh [Zeitlin], I talked to him before starting “A Ciambra” and we talked a little bit about what kind of score it should be, but it was a very collaborative process between me and Jonas. He understood that world a lot more than I do, so it was definitely not a case of me just saying, “Here’s your score.” Jonas had a lot of ideas — the idea of speeding up the ticking of the dulcimer, which happened a few times in the movie — that was completely his idea. I had written that piece with ticking in it, but he was like, “What if we did it like an engine starting? If we started slow and sped up over time?” I also think that was my fourth or fifth movie with Affonso [Concalves, the editor] who did “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Brimstone and Glory,” and “Mediterranea” and “A Ciambra,” so I worked with the editor a lot.

When you started composing for film, did it come naturally or was it an adjustment?

There’s definitely an adjustment period for somebody who’s band- and pop-oriented to switch over to film scoring. It’s very common when a band scores a first film to take a very long time on each cue, really putting in weeks of work on a cue whereas film scoring is more about making a lot of music in a shorter amount of time that’s more specifically targeted at the emotions as opposed to music that has its own emotional value for its own sake.

This past year, it seems like you’ve also really branched out into other mediums, whether it’s a video game like “Far Cry” or a TV show like “The Good Doctor.” Has that been exciting?

Yeah, it’s been very interesting. I love how storytelling works in serialized television and I love how storytelling works in an hour-and-a-half to two-hour-long movies so they’re different things and I love them both with all my heart. And scoring a video game, it’s the most music I’ve made for anything in my entire life. “Far Cry” has about four hours of score and then I wrote about ten songs [that] pop up in different ways, so it’s a sprawling game with tons and tons of music and it was really exciting to make that kind of music. The projects that I love the most are the projects that I get to experiment with sounds that I’ve never gotten to experiment with before. It’s really fun with “Far Cry” to say, alright, how aggressive can we possibly make this music? [We use] almost industrial percussion [in “Far Cry”] that I haven’t gotten to do in a film score before and it’s exciting to get to do it now.

With how busy you’ve been, have you been able to enjoy any of the spoils of having your many works premiering this year?

Yeah, I made it to Sundance this year, so I was at the premieres for “Chasing Coral” and “The Little Hours” premiere and there was no “Good Doctor” premiere, except for on TV. [laughs] But the reward hopefully for things that you make is the joy you feel while you make them, above the ceremony hopefully.

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