Marius de Vries and Nicholai Baxter on Keeping Track of the Emotions in “CODA”

"CODA"
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You pick up the first few notes of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” in “CODA” a few minutes before Ruby, the film’s frustrated heroine, can hear it for herself, too busy trying to clear her mind in a school hallway after being embarrassed by the resident mean girl. The song will eventually become what she’ll sing for her audition for Berklee College of Music, a place that not only holds the promise of starting anew with more like-minded students, but taking her away from the confining life she has faced with the burden of inheriting a career she wouldn’t necessarily want for herself as the daughter of a family of fishermen on the New England coast (comprised of mother Marlee Matlin, father Troy Kotsur and brother Daniel Durant) and the responsibility of being their sole communicator with much of the world when the rest of the clan is deaf, yet in its initial incarnation, the few faint sounds of piano keys that don’t entirely coalesce are a reflection of how far away from that dream she is.

It would seem natural to be able to plant such seeds in a film so subtly before they flourish, but that would disregard the fact that on most films, the responsibility for music can fall to a number of different parties working towards the same goal, but independent from one another as it takes a music supervisor to license a Joni Mitchell song and a composer to hint at it in the score, not to mention the work with actors when a character’s growth is expressed as much through an arrangement of a song as much as a performance of it. The thought of uniting these various tasks under the domain of one role known as a musical director is still relatively rare due to the skills involved and the few musicals Hollywood dares to try, but when they do, a call is almost always placed to Marius de Vries, who pioneered the position on Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet” after producing albums for the likes of Bjork, Madonna and David Gray and has since worked on “Moulin Rouge,” Max Minghella’s pop odyssey “Teen Spirit” and the Leos Carax/Sparks musical “Annette.”

After previously teaming up with producer Patrick Wachsberger on “La La Land,” de Vries was asked to summon the magic once more with Nicholai Baxter, a mixer and producer, for the remake of the French film “La Famille Bélier,” which had been in the works at Lionsgate before Wachsberger left the studio in 2019 and took the promising adaptation that “Tallulah” writer/director Sian Heder was shepherding with him. There is barely any sound other than the stirring of the sea at the start of “CODA,” but music finds its way into the picture, much as it does into the life of Ruby, who joins the choir as an extracurricular at school and is pushed to explore her natural talent by an encouraging teacher (Eugenio Derbez). Her personal evolution can be charted by the songs she’s asked to practice – “Both Sides Now,” Kiki Dee’s “I’ve Got the Music in Me,” and a duet with her classmate (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) taking on Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By,” eventually leading to an original, “Beyond the Shore,” penned by Heder, de Vries and Baxter, that exquisitely expresses how Ruby has come into her own.

To say there isn’t a false note in “CODA” would be an understatement when as impressively, there are never any more than are needed, making every musical and emotional beat settle in deep and recently de Vries and Baxter were gracious enough to talk about the ability to work holistically on a project like “CODA,” cracking the film’s original song that is bound to compete for an Oscar and breaking down the walls between acting and performing music.

I’ve heard Marius talk about “Teen Spirit” and working with Elle Fanning at a very early stage in the process so the music could inform the development of the performance and vice versa. Was it a similar process with Emilia Jones on this?

Marius de Vries: It shared some similarities because it was a case of a very accomplished actor for whom singing wasn’t necessarily their strong suit, so there was a lot of development and exploration to be done in pre-production to find out what the two actresses were capable of. Both of those were journeys of development in the process of singing and the work we did with the actresses to get them ready was informative in their dramatic performance because they had to simulate the same kind of rapid development within the story of the film. And a large part of the job — apart from dealing with confidence issues because people who don’t sing often find singing to be very exposing — is that for an actor, they tend to start thinking in a different way when they start singing, and that’s visible and feelable and palpable in the performance, so as well as building their confidence, you’ve got to instill in them the very important rule that if you’re acting, you don’t stop acting and start singing when it’s time to sing, you carry on acting. The singing is just dialogue with pitch. It sounds like a very simple concept, but to internalize that for people who aren’t used to doing it is often very challenging.

The evolution of the songs “All I Need to Get By” and “Both Sides Now” become markers of the character’s personal growth – were they in the script from the start?

Marius de Vries: “All I Need to Get By” was in the script from the start, and it was a passionate choice of Sian’s and we were lucky to be able to license it. “Both Sides Now” was something that as a group we discovered as we were searching for the pivotal song in Act III. We searched long and hard with some fairly sizeable constraints because we didn’t have a huge music budget. But we came across that song and as we explored it, we recognized how perfect it was for the story. Then fortunately we were able to obtain the rights to it and I can’t imagine now that any other song would’ve served as well, so I think we were very fortunate.

Nicholai Baxter: Yeah, it’s crazy looking back on that process now because you watch the movie and you can’t picture any other song there, but there definitely was a stage where we had a couple different songs in that slot. It was a puzzle for a bit, and we did have certain libraries we could choose from, but that one, it just fell into place. And it’s funny because I used to cover that song in college, so it was interesting coming at it from that perspective, having done it a little bit and I actually stopped playing it because it just was too weighty, playing it in a cafe [where it was] too emotional and heavy, so it was nice to have that experience with it and know what we could do with it.

Marius de Vries: And one of the things that attracted me to the movie was the ability to work on some choir arrangements because I do love writing for voices. If you think about it, the very first job I ever did in the film business was when I got signed on to work on “Romeo + Juliet” and I started working on the choir charts for that, where they did “Everybody’s Free” and “When Doves Cry,” so it’s always been something I’ve loved to do. Similar to the lead character’s journey, we had to track the choir’s progress from the pretty appalling first performances of “Let’s Get It On,” which needed to be pretty bad — and it’s actually quite fun writing bad music for moments like that, and seeing how that can come to life in the context of a dramatic scene. But then the choir gets better as the film goes on, and they have to be pretty good by the end when they’re singing “Starman” and collaborating with Nick and with the Pitch Slapped choir who performed those cool pieces on the movie was a very enjoyable part of the journey.

Nicholai Baxter: Yeah, we were able to collaborate with a group of Berklee College of Music singers, which is really great because it ties into the movie as well, and they were phenomenal. A lot of times with choral stuff, it’s really tough to mock them up, so you’re waiting until you can get in the room with the singers and mess around and it was a really great couple of weeks in pre-production and during production working with those singers to bring it to life. They were great about making sure it didn’t sound too good or too advanced and it felt authentic. We could draw on their experiences from high school choir, and they were a tremendous asset.

Marius de Vries: Having said that my favorite version of Let’s Get It On is still the first one I did when I sang all the parts. [laughs]

Nicholai Baxter: Agreed. [laughs]

You also composed the score for this, which is generally pretty light, and one of the beautiful things about it are how some of these fluid transitions it makes from where you’ll hear the first piano notes of “Both Sides Now” after an embarrassing experience that Ruby has at school and it’s the same piece of music that accompanies both a setback for the family business and Ruby’s first kiss, but played differently. What was it like to think about adaptability?

Marius de Vries: We definitely wanted the score to reflect the performed music, both tonally and in terms of thematic content to help give a flow to the overall music picture of the movie. But with the score, the biggest challenge was knowing when to leave it out because the whole thing became a conversation between music and silence. Or actually music and the noises that happen in a silent environment when a family like that is communicating. It was pretty clear to us early in post that a lot of those scenes just played so powerfully with the natural sound in, especially in the first half of the movie. Much of the music that I wrote just got pulled out because we wanted to live in that universe for a significant amount of time before we started to contaminate it with music that guides the emotion, so we let the natural sound lead the emotion to start with, and then as the themes of the movie developed, we started to bleed the score in. Calibrating that was very challenging. [Initially] we had all sorts of clever ideas about what we could do with the music in the context of deaf dialogue, but the answer turned out to be really a little bit simpler. And it was just developing a sense of where a scene would be better just left alone.

Nicholai Baxter: Yeah, and a lot of that [calibration] happened throughout post-production because it was something that we couldn’t really plan and foresee when sound design and the mix were coming together in tandem with the edit. We over-spotted the movie to start and wrote a bunch of music, and then you start to see it in context and feel it within the story and begin to pull stuff out, realizing you just needed a little hint of it. I’ve got to tip the cap to Sian because she stood her ground on those moments that ended up really not needing music and just embracing silence and it made the other music moments that much more powerful when they did hit.

Marius de Vries: Yeah, in the early days as we were working on some of those cues, I’d written them very simply in the first place, but Sian kept pushing me to make them simpler and often I’d be left with a single piano note that I’d play to her and she’d say, “Yeah that’s kind of it, but less.” And the only place to go from that is to remove the single piano note and then she’d go, “Oh, that’s it.”

Did you actually have to record the music remotely because of COVID?

Nicholai Baxter: We were right on the edge of COVID dropping with this one. The timing actually worked out pretty well because we had gotten through all the choral recording we did in pre-production and during production, and groups of singers are the hardest stuff to do during COVID times. We were actually in final mix before COVID hit, and really all that remained was the end credit song “Beyond the Shore,” which I think actually benefited from the COVID environment [because] we’re all craving interaction and it gave us an opportunity to collaborate — well, me, Sian, and another songwriter Matt Dahan. Everything simplified a little bit during that time and we had just this one song to work on, and I think it also benefited from lack of overproduction, just keeping it simple. A lot of the stuff was just played by me and Marius and all of that benefited the song at the end of the day.

Marius de Vries: And what we really wanted to do was have a song at the end of the movie that wrapped up the story and took us a little bit into the future. As [Ruby] drives off at the end when we hit the credits, you’re very invested in her story and wondering what happens next, so we wanted to answer that question and it’s not really an end credit song, which is like an afterthought or a postscript. It’s a continuation into Ruby’s future, and just as with “Both Sides Now,” which is a song about how life can seem different from two different vantage points, I think “Beyond the Shore” is a song about perspective and hindsight, and starts to answer the question of how she resolves many of the issues that she struggles with in the last third of the movie.

Nicholai Baxter: Yeah, we had always envisioned maybe score or reprising one of the choir songs in the end credits, but as the movie came together and we watched [cuts], it became clear that we needed something else in the end credits there. If there wasn’t COVID happening, we would’ve been much more busy and on deadlines and trying to get the mix done, but everything slowed down and allowed us to really serve the end of the movie in the right way. It took some time to get this song written, and I’m not sure if things had just continued to be crazy like they were before COVID if it would’ve been the same thing, but we really had the time to slow down and make sure we got it right.

What was it like seeing all this come together?

Nicholai Baxter: It’s so hard making movies because you’re with it for years at a time and you never see the story or the finished product in the state that everyone else sees it in. You have these incomplete versions, and there’s so many things pulling you out of the story that you’re fighting against, even when you’re on the dubbing stage that you see the final movie in its complete finished form.

Marius de Vries: I was just thoroughly delighted, because there’s at least a couple of moments which I think will stay in people’s memory for a very long time where the music and storytelling and silence combine to make some very powerful scenes, and credit to the cast for some amazing acting performances and to Sian for running the whole ship.

Nicholai Baxter: I have a tremendous amount of respect for people that can keep their eye on the prize, and that’s what we try to do [as well]. And this one was an amazing moment to be on the dubbing stage and finally see it come together with the way the sound and music landing. To see it, it was a magic moment.