Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin and Gattlin Griffith in "Labor Day"

Interview: Composer Rolfe Kent on
Giving Texture to “Labor Day”

As soon as Jason Reitman began to work on an adaptation of the Joyce Maynard novel “Labor Day” about a most unusual of romantic weekends, he began to trade sound files with his frequent composer Rolfe Kent, all named after different levels of heat.

“Jason had said the story took place one sweltering summer, so I came up with music called ‘blistering’ or ‘steaming’ and things like that,” says Kent of his fourth collaboration with the writer/director.

Temperature-wise, it was a different starting point for Reitman than his previous films, which often see cool, detached leads begin to warm up to life around them, a change that naturally necessitated a different process for Kent to create the score, one that ultimately proves as sumptuous as the celebrated pies that the doomed lovers in “Labor Day” bake to bond. With lush orchestration and a layering of sounds that Kent has credited to Reitman’s interest in deejaying, the film’s music started not with melodies but isolated acoustics that the composer mingled together to give the score an especially rich texture.

Not only did Kent deploy his full range of instruments for the project, but in the early part of 2014, audiences have been treated to his considerable dexterity, whether it was adding an extra tartness to his latest film with another longtime collaborator in Mark Waters’ “Vampire Academy,” or sharpening the already lethal satire in Jason Bateman’s directorial debut “Bad Words.” In the midst of what’s been a very busy season for the composer, Kent took the time to answer a few questions via e-mail about his evolving working relationship with Reitman, the rare opportunity to directly communicate with the audience in “Labor Day,” and the curiosity that keeps him going.

Jason Reitman has been getting more serious with each successive film, something you seemed to have also experienced in your work with Alexander Payne. Is it interesting to evolve with a filmmaker in that way?

It’s the most engaging to accompany an imaginative director as they explore new pastures. Much more interesting than playing safe.

Jason has said he’s usually got the musical palette in his head. For instance, he associated “Juno” with Yo Lo Tengo and “Up in the Air” with Hank Williams and “Labor Day” would’ve been a single-string guitar, but that he realizes during the writing process the music and words he writes ultimately say the same thing, so he wants to change it later. Is this part of what he tells you at the start?

Jason had both classical guitar ideas as well as very sustained mood ideas at the beginning, and both found their ways into the film. At some point melodic music, mostly on piano, also was called for, and that’s the one element that we didn’t know about at the start.

You’ve said you took intimate instrumentation and processed it to create moody ambiances – is the classical guitar possibly part of what you’re referring to?

Well, this wasn’t competing with the guitar idea; it was a way of conjuring up interesting and organic ways to work on his “sustains” idea; music that moves very softly and subtly, with organic flow and nuance, and taking simple acoustic sounds (such as guitar and charango) and then processing them through long and warping reverbs was my way of achieving this, in conjunction afterwards with more composed elements such as minimal strings and other interwoven elements.

There are two key moments in the film where the music simply takes over – the pie-baking sequence and a climactic scene involving a past miscarriage. Do you prepare for those any differently knowing the music takes center stage?

These are two very different elements, at least they were in their creation; for the pie sequence was one of the first, and was really the moment when I began to get a handle on how to voice this film, using both interesting but very slowly shifting textures that I had recorded and layered, as well as string chords fading in and out. The miscarriage sequence was one of the last pieces of music to be written. It marks the moment when I realized piano was going to be a strong melodic character in the movie and I was set the challenge by Jason that the music here “has to make the audience cry”, which was really a terrifying pressure, but also an awesome opportunity (as who gets to have such a profound emotional impact on an audience – the opportunities are rare) for which I went to my piano and, playing as delicately as I could, began to structure a simple melody of longing, tenderness, fragility, and heartbreak.

Since the story is told from a child’s point of view, does that impact what you wanted to do with the score?

Point of view is always important; the music always takes a point of view and in this, I was ever guided by the director, but it doesn’t always seem like it’s the boy Henry’s POV, but perhaps it is ours looking on, or [Kate Winslet’s character] Adele’s – it shifts, but you are right, the kid’s POV is a key element and certainly influenced the writing.

In your bio, you say it’s important to you that your work be a “counterpoint to what is often cited as culture mired in cynicism,” though some of the films you’ve worked on could easily fall into cynicism if it weren’t for your scores – has optimism been a guiding light in your work?

I wouldn’t say so. I am a happy person, and that no doubt influences how I write, and how I choose projects, but I also enjoy irony, I think it’s fun, and it can point toward the genuine. Most of all, I try to be genuine in the art form and find the true thing to say or express, so that may be a factor in shaping how a satire comes across.

I loved getting the chance to see “Labor Day” and “Bad Words” back to back at the Toronto Film Festival since I felt it showed your range – does doing something in one genre inform your work in another?

Sometimes, but not in this case. The two films were so different, and there was no way to draw on the discoveries made during “Labor Day” in the “Bad Words” score. The colors and atmospheres were too different.

Beyond the film you’re working on at a given time, are there things you find that inspire your work or are influences? There always seems to be a new instrument or texture in every production.

A curiosity to explore and discover, and a pleasure in creativity, I think these help keep it lively and interesting for me.

“Labor Day” and “Vampire Academy” are currently in theaters. “Bad Words” will be released on March 14th.

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