Interview: Composer Jay Wadley on Music as Memory in “I Carry You With Me”

When Heidi Ewing was looking for a composer for “I Carry You with Me,” it was always going to be something of an adjustment for the filmmaker who largely resisted any artifice coming from documentaries such as “Jesus Camp” and “One of Us” (with Rachel Grady), but in making a sweeping romance, cutting across decades and borders with a pair of lovers (Armando Espitia and Christian Vazquez) who sacrifice everything for one another, she wanted a sound as overwhelming as the feelings her characters had for each other.

“I’d never done such a classical big, orchestral score, and there’s not a ton of dialogue in the movie, so there were a lot of opportunities for big, transitional pieces of music where the music and images are working together to tell a story without any talking,” says Ewing. “Jay was wonderful because he was able to bring the emotion into those wordless moments. It was a different experience for me because the narrative process of writing is very different — the scoring starts a lot later than it does in doc, but I really loved it a lot.”

“Jay,” would be Jay Wadley, who in just a few short years has established himself as versatile as a composer as he is a musician, once playing drums and guitar in punk bands as a teenager in Edmond, Oklahoma and not letting the piano lessons he took as a kid go to waste when it’s often provided the heartbeat for his work now. The inability to pigeonhole him has become one of his most distinguishing traits, moving effortlessly from the elegance of James Schamus’ drama “Indignation,” in which the heart felt like the violins with all the strings being pulled, to the synthetic fantasia of Jeremy Teicher and Alexi Pappas’ energetic romantic comedy “Olympic Dreams.” (Or one merely could take in his magnificent work for Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” to experience the full gamut.)

“My career has in no way been very straight and narrow in that I do a very wide range of work,” said Wadley. “I’ll probably be narrowing in a little more as I go, but when I was getting started, I was doing everything from orchestrating for Rufus Wainwright to doing parody work for College Humor to scoring independent films, so I’ve had a lot of experience doing a lot of different things and it’s continued to help me hone my skill set and understanding of how score works to really heighten the narrative.”

That formal fluidity made Wadley the ideal choice to score “I Carry You With Me,” which is special because of how it defies convention. Although Ewing had tried for some time to make a nonfiction film about the remarkable journey of her friends Iván Garcia and Gerardo Zabaleta, New York-based restaurateurs who braved crossing over the border from Mexico to let Iván’s passion for cooking flourish and the two could live together more freely than they had in the conservative town of Puebla, the director realized she could only tell a story in the present day when the duo couldn’t return to their home country, leaving her to reconstruct their past as a drama. Wadley not only contributes a piquant and deeply affecting score that is as flavorful as what Iván serves up as a chef, but affords the film seamless transitions between its scripted scenes and nonfiction and vividly expresses the feelings of characters who often have to hold them in.

When we caught up with Wadley just after Sundance last year where “I Carry You With Me” premiered, he was in the process of setting up a new studio to handle an increasingly busy schedule, filled with film and TV work he shares with Trevor Gureckas (“The Goldfinch,” “Old”), and with “I Carry You With Me” in theaters this week, he reflected on uniquely hitting the emotional beats of such an original drama as Ewing’s, embedding ideas regarding culture and the passage of time into the score, and his magnificent work on another of the best films to come out in recent memory in Andrew Ahn’s “Driveways.”

How did “I Carry You With Me” come about?

Mynette Louie, one of the producers on the project, and I had met in New York a while back and she reached out to me. It’s always one of those things where you meet people in the industry and then just slowly over time relationships develop and projects to come up that make sense. She put me in touch with Heidi and thought it would be a good match, so Heidi came over and we talked through some things. The first conversations are always getting on the same page as far as what the sound of the film is, how you see music functioning within the narrative, what people are vibing on as far as what type of instrumentation and the production style – are you leaning into something traditional or are you leaning into something that’s a little bit a newer take on things?

There’s a lot of experimentation upfront that we did and ultimately we landed on something that was a pretty eclectic palette. It’s things that you wouldn’t necessarily notice, like for instance, the camote whistle from tamale trucks in Mexico that you would just hear on the street in Mexico, we took that and we stretched that out and put some reverb on that and it became this really interesting color that we used in very specific moments that has this [quality] of calling back to Ivan and Gerardo’s memories of Mexico. [We used] everything from a pretty good-sized string orchestra to super-ambient textural synths and also super-spacey electric guitars, piano and solo violin to bells and glockenspiel, but all super-vibrant textures that we then started incorporating sounds from Mexico and from New York City as part of the palette of instruments. It’s a super-wide palette that I think really allowed us a pretty wide breadth of tones that we could really help draw the story out with.

I got the sense there was a background/foreground effect where you’d have piano or a string instrument that would rise to the surface and then fall back in. Was that actually something you were going for?

Yeah, because it’s a very quiet film and the dialogue is very intimate. There’s a lot of introspection in these very intimate and vulnerable situations and there is quite a bit of score in it, so weaving in and out of those moments and making sure it doesn’t step on dialogue and make transitions between scenes [was important]. Because there are there are these long, beautiful shots outside in Mexico in the evening time or in the early morning that are coupled with a very introspective [voiceover] and playing with that and then just trying to sit underneath that and create some mood around it, coming up in between transitions and making a little bit more of a musical moment, there were some really great moments where I got to shine.

One of the scenes I had to ask about is when Ivan talks to his friend Sandra about leaving and there’s no dialogue, but the music really carries the conversation. Is that an exciting opportunity?

Yeah, I love that. And that’s a callback to the opening and a lot of those sounds in that piano melody. The camote whistle is in that piece as well — that’s a piece that returns as Ivan is making one step forward into the next stage of his life, so it has this bubbling energy about it, and what I really love about the score is that while there is melody, there’s not one particular melody that stands out as the main line. It’s just got a lot of different swirling ideas together that have a forward motion to them that creates this energy that I think helps push Ivan to the next stage of his journey.

So much time passes in the film and you’re talking about callbacks – did you consider time much in creating this score?

Yeah, I didn’t want certain time periods to be super sonically different than the others. I wanted to feel like part of the same dream almost because there’s a lot of flashbacks and jumping forward and jumping back, so I didn’t want it to be jarring. I felt music could help tie those experiences together and help tie together the older Ivan’s reflection of his childhood and his interactions with his father and Gerardo’s interactions with his father. It could be a nice glue and thematic consistency to help connect those different characters and different time periods.

At what point in the production process did you come on?

It was around March 2019 when I came onto the project and they were still editing for quite some time after that, so I did come in somewhat early and we experimented with sound, just trying to find what the vibe was of the piece. The first piece that really clued us in to the sound of the movie was the opening section on the train with Ivan, with] current Ivan walking through the subway [station] and Ivan as a child riding through on the cart with his father and walking through the fields, then landing us in the kitchen. Once that scene came together, I approached that a couple of different ways — that clued us into what the rest of the film was going to feel like, so that’s how you got the static energy piano stuff that has these little melodies that pop out [with] the string orchestra and the textural synths, and it was the first time we did that camote whistle. That first piece gave us a pretty good road map for how the rest of the film was going to play out sonically.

I had heard that for “Indignation” that you had written a six-minute presentation for the producers to get the job, which made me wonder how much do you have to have an idea upfront?

It depends on the project. With “Indignation,” part of that was because I didn’t have a lot of film experience, showing the producers that I could write for film. But still, if I’m starting on a new project, I can definitely see that being helpful, like writing a suite based on the things that I know, like Hildur [Guðnadóttir] did some stuff similar to that in “Joker,” writing a lot of stuff before doing anything to picture, and [Trevor Gureckis], my business partner, has done that on a few projects. I think that can actually really clue you into how you’re feeling and your interpretation of the story personally and bring an interesting perspective on it, then put it onto picture and see how it plays. That can create some really interesting results versus just going straight to picture and just composing to a scene. You have that creative freedom to explore a sound world that is separate from picture and then see how they marry together.

Andrew Ahn had told me about “Driveways” that you had an emotional connection to it because of a relative that might’ve been a hoarder. Do you try to find something with each project you can attach yourself to?

Yeah, without a doubt. [laughs] As an artist, when you’re approached to lend a score to a film, in pretty much any scenario, you are trying to find a sense of humanity and something to connect you to the characters that allows you a deeper emotional connection because I have to help convey that connection to other people, so if I can find those things that I relate to and identify with, I can be a better partner when it comes to telling those people’s stories from an authentic place. I’m typically drawn to those things that I do find those connections in, but part of my job is to just really empathize and connect with characters and help amplify their experiences through music.

What was it like working with Andrew on “Driveways”? I know he hadn’t planned on having a score for it originally.

Yeah, I know. [laughs] And we ended up having quite a bit. That’s another super delicate, emotional and personal story as well and I’m not one of those people that because I’m a composer I think that music has to be plastered all over a film. And I try to assure directors when I begin working with them that I’m very much on their team to make the best movie that they want to make. I’m there to be a great partner and a great creative collaborator to make the movie as best it can and I’ll be honest, if I sit there and think music shouldn’t be there, I’ll have no qualms stating my opinion, but I always respect a director’s perspective on what they’re going for.

The way I’ve learned to communicate is by opening up this dialogue where it allows for experimentation and finding the sound and the right feel. That might be more music, that might be less, or that might be more active music or more subdued, [but I want to] make a safe space for us to explore without feeling like we’re forcing music upon them if they don’t want it. We ended up finding a lot of lovely places for some score to go in “Driveways” and Andrew was just super open and a wonderful creative person. I had a great time working on that theme and that film and I’ve been very fortunate to work on some projects that just have these really touching stories that I really relate to.

He had told me it was a search for the right piano sound. What was that like to find?

One thing that I try to do with my scores is just think about the timbre of the instruments and how the production relates to the quality and the pacing of imagery. [“Driveways”] is a slower pace unfolding of a very intimate story, so I felt space would be right for this movie and didn’t feel anything that had too much tact and presence. The way that [the film] was shot and [how] characters interact with each other, [the instrumentation] has to match it in size and in tone, so what we ultimately landed on was a grand piano that we put felt in between the strings and the hammers that brings out some overtones and some interesting imperfections, but you’ve got to mic it super closely, which I think paired well with that intimate story.

That reminds me of something I heard in “Indignation” is that you actually took great pains to create physical separation between violin players – what’s it like to oversee orchestration and contribute in that way to the feeling of a score?

That can completely change the tone of a film score and with “Indignation” in particular, I did my own orchestration for that, so I was in it for every note. The way I approached that was having a large string orchestra with a few soloists, like piano played a major role and a solo violin played by the incredible Tim Fain and a cello as well, that are just highlighted in certain moments that could really play towards the individual struggle and pain that those characters were going through. I definitely thought about how that would play out and it didn’t really ever call for the orchestra to double violins at octaves playing a huge melody. That was never going to really pair well with that film because everyone’s struggles were deeply personal and intense, fighting against external forces, so the use of a solo instrument in that helped us be able to tie ourselves to a person’s individual struggle.

Generally, when you were first starting out in film composing, did it come naturally to think of music in a narrative way?

One of the ways I was taught to compose and actually formulating structure for my pieces prior to composing them was something my undergrad professor taught me, thinking of music as story arc, so I think I always have been cinematic with my compositions, even prior to me doing film scores. I started out in classical music and I was doing concert works and while there’s not a particular narrative that’s programmatic in nature, the way you think about structure in a composition that lives on its own is very naturally tied to the concept of narrative storytelling and how you develop a character and how you pit a character up against another character and then like see how those relationships play out in time. I was naturally drawn to [that], but then it was reinforced through my education in classical composition, understanding the elements of melodies and the individual musical objects that I come up with. It’s still an art form that exists in time, so that’s one of the biggest correlations is that we have to reckon with the fact that it exists linearly.

You mentioned your business with Trevor Gureckas, Found Objects – what’s it been like starting a company with him?

Trevor and I have known each other for 15 years and we met studying classical music composition at Yale, and we started our company our second year there right before Trevor moved to New York and we’ve been building our company together ever since, always with the goal of having independent careers working in film and television and still doing concert works here and there. We’re just really lucky that he and I have always been on the same page with how we were going to go about that and through his work with Phillip Glass, we started to understand there’s a lot of different ways of structuring a company like this, building something that has a stable platform to be able to grow things off of.

At the time, Phillip was doing a fair amount of work with IBM and Verizon in the advertising space, so that’s something that we realized if we can get into that world a little bit, we can start doing that work that can help fund the independent film habits [because] it just takes a little time for a career to develop, so we built a foundation around that and we continue to pursue our dreams of doing bigger and better film and television work. Luckily, we’ve both had some success with it and we’re pretty excited to see what the future holds. I can’t tell you how great it is to have another creative composer in the studio 20 feet away from me that we can bounce ideas off of — we can help each other out if we need to and we can really be a support system for each other through really stressful times when you need to understand you’re not the only one going through this. It’s a difficult career to pursue, so I’m super grateful to have a partner in it.

“I Carry You With Me” opens on June 25th in Los Angeles at the Sunset 5 and Landmark and in New York at the Angelika Film Center and City Cinemas 123 and will expand in the weeks to come. Check here for theaters near you.