Emmy Spotlight: Composers Jeff Cardoni and Nainita Desai
Composing a score is no easy task, just ask any composer. Both Nainita Desai and Jef Cardoni have had successful careers in Hollywood, but it wasn’t always easy. The two have both done a wide range of projects from TV, film, video games, and documentaries. Desai composed the epic score for 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible, while Cardoni composed the score for the Tony Hawk documentary, Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off.
Both Desai and Cardoni share the fact that neither had formal music education, “[I’m] self-taught when it comes to music. I didn’t go to music college or university. In fact, I have a degree in mathematics,” said Desai, though she did take a post-grad course in music technology. Cardoni stated, “I didn’t go to music school. I mean, [the] piano is my thing, so I did all of the recitals growing up for about 10 years; that was my only formal training and then I picked up guitar and drums.”
Some kids grow up knowing exactly what they want to do in this little thing we call life. Desai always admired film scores, but unlike Cardoni, she always had the goal of becoming a composer in the back of her mind, “I always loved film and my dream was to be a film composer,” She cited John Williams and Ennio Morricone as some of her heroes. Cardoni actually did not originally set out to become a composer, “For a while, I wanted to be a guitar player in a band,” he said, though he was a fan of film scores and eventually connected the dots. Some of Cardoni’s inspirations include Thomas Newman, specifically his score for Less Than Zero.
But the hardest part of getting into the film industry is exactly that: Getting your foot in the door. Cardoni moved to Los Angeles at 28 and took some film music classes at UCLA. At this time, Cardoni would make his way to the back of The Hollywood Reporter magazine and send demos out to any company that would take them. “They used to have this thing before the internet became so prevalent on Tuesdays [where] The Hollywood Reporter would have a listing of all the films being made and all the things in productions and [I’d] comb through that and try to call people or fax them. I would ignore anthing with a big actor because I knew there was no chance,” said Cardoni. Despite those efforts, many wouldn’t ever call back and he would put flyers up at the American Film Institute stating that he was available to score short films.
But, as many know, simply getting to LA does not mean that you’ve automatically made it and have guaranteed success. Cardoni dealt with a lot of self doubt: “I mean, the doubt is always there. There were times where I was like, ‘Can I buy a latte?’ you know? It was tough to figure out where the money was coming from and figuring out if it was worth it.”
Desai got her start in the film industry as a sound designer, “I used to go record sound effects in the natural world around me. But I [also] had my hobby or writing music on the side and building up my own recording studio at home.”
Despite both getting starts in the film industry in one form or another, you may be wondering what their big breaks were, “I [worked as] Peter Gabriel’s assistant engineer,” said Desai. This experience with Genesis’ Peter Gabriel allowed her to work with some of the best engineers and record producers out there, and it eventually led her to be called to score her first project.
Perhaps getting your big break takes — as Paul McCartney says — “a little luck,” and Cardoni accredits his big break to that. His break came when he got a gig scoring CSI: Miami in 2003, “I look back and if all of those things didn’t happen exactly the way [that] they did, my life would be entirely different now because I didn’t come here [and] know anyone. I didn’t have any ‘in’s,’ you know?”
For someone not nearly as well-versed in music such as myself, I always thought that the process of scoring documentaries must be different than a narrative film. However, both Cardoni and Desai say that it’s not so different after all. “As a composer, I’m telling the story through the music just as much as the filmmaker is taking the audience on an emotional journey through the arc of the film,” said Desai.
When asked to describe their scores for their projects in three or fewer words, Cardoni used the words “poignant,” “inspirational,” and “atmospheric.” He revealed that some reviews of the Tony Hawk documentary actually give a positive shoutout to his score, “I was just looking on Twitter the day the movie came out to see what the reaction to the movie was in general and I was just happily surprised that some of them mentioned the music. I feel like for them [critics] to mention it and in a good light, it must have had an impact and it wasn’t like wallpaper.”
Desai’s choices to describe her score were: “epic,” “authentic,” and “intimate,” all of which are fitting for her score of 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible. I listened to the score while using an exercise bike and boy, I have never peddled so fast. Even without having seen the documentary at that point, it’s not hard to picture Desai’s score attached to visuals of mountaineers scaling huge mountains. What attracted Desai to the project was the emotional roller coaster that the film is, “the story takes you on an emotional roller coastal from danger to drama and intimacy and heroism and tragedy. It’s got everything.”
With two different documentaries with very different subjects, it makes sense that Cardoni and Desai’s missions were different. Desai wanted to explore the psychology of the documentary’s subjects, for lack of a better term, “What makes this man tick?” “What makes a man like him?” are two of the questions that Desai set out to answer. With 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible featuring 14 different mountains, Desai also wanted to make each mountain feel unique, “I wanted to portray each mountain in a different way, musically, and we wanted to create a real musical character for the mountains themselves. So not only do you have the human in it and his journey, but you have the character of the mountains,” said Desai.
Cardoni faced his own set of unique challenges. While he didn’t have to make 14 different tracks for 14 different skateboards, Sam Jones, the director of Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off, is both a skater and musician, so the expectations are higher when the man leading the ship is a fan of the documentary’s subject.
In regards to what’s coming next for these two composers, Cardoni has quite a few to be on the lookout for. First is a show called Ghosts, which will premiere on CBS, which he describes as his tribute to Beetlejuice and the nineties. He’s also beginning to work on the second season of Heels, a Starz drama about professional wrestling which Cardoni is extremely proud of. Lastly, he has two Netflix films, the first is called Me Time, set to premiere on August 26, and stars Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Hart, Regina Hall, and Jimmy O. Yang. The second Netflix film is Players, a heist-comedy that is directed by his friend Trish Sie.
Desai’s future projects show her versatility. The first is a video gamed, slated for a July release, called Immortality and is a part of the Tribeca Games Showcase. Also at Tribeca is her film, Body Parts, a documentary about sex scenes in Hollywood that she is excited about. Beyond those two, Desai also has a miniseries called Crossfire starring Keeley Hawes (Bodyguard, Line of Duty). These projects are very different for her and she enjoys the challenge of being taken out of her music comfort zone.
14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible and Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off are available to stream on Netflix and HBO Max, respectively.
Ginny & Georgia Composers Lili Haydn and Ben Bromfield Talk About Their ‘Eclectic’ and ‘Sensitive’ Score
Season 2 of ‘Ginny & Georgia’ is streaming on Netflix now.
From the opening scene of the second season of Ginny & Georgia, I was welcomed with an amazing musical score by Lili Haydn and Ben Bromfield. Whilst this show is not generally my cup of tea, the music was just so interesting. How does “Welcome Back Bitches” nail such a modern sound akin to LCD Soundsystem’s “oh baby”? How do they manage to shift between that tone and more of a somber, piano-driven number like “Not a Murderer” or the Americana guitars on “Childs Play (Hunter’s Song)”?
I had the pleasure of speaking to both Lili Haydn and Ben Bromfield about their latest work. We talked all about their fantastic score, but more importantly, we began by talking about cats. Yes, you read that right.
Be sure to check out the second season of Ginny & Georgia on Netflix now, and you can hear Lili Haydn’s latest single, “Woman Life Freedom,” here.
Coastal House Media: I have a sort of fun question for each of you to start. Ben, I’ll start with you, I was looking at your website and I saw a picture of a cat on your website, so I was curious, what’s their name and age?
Ben Bromfield: You know, we have a couple of cats in my family, so that’s Cammy. She’s now, I think 14 or 15. She’s going strong. She’s heavily medicated at this point, but she’s a sweet, happy cat. We’ve got another named Oscar who has rapidly gone from being a kitten to a pretty chunky guy. And then we’ve got our dog Jones, who is the light of my life.
Lili Haydn: [laughs] Well, the fact that you’re showing us pictures of your cats — you’re speaking my language because I am obsessed with my cats and I have the best cat treat in the world. And my kitten is gonna rear her head, and both cats are rapidly approaching. Both of them are circling the den [laughs].
You gotta get your cats this [shows package to the camera] — they’re chicken breast tenders. They’re really good for them and they go crazy for them.
CHM: Since you’re both cat people then can I ask you guys each, what’s your favorite thing about having a cat?
Haydn: Kissing them. Kissing cats is like my favorite thing to do in the world, I think more than anything else, to be honest.
CHM: Even more so than playing the violin?
Haydn: More than anything in the world.
Bromfield: I’m always amazed by how smart they are. There’s this thing called a puzzle box. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that, but it’s more of a dog thing where like you put a treat inside a cardboard box, and then you just leave the dog [to] go for it. And then they rip it apart and it’s fine.
I made one and Oscar just absolutely hijacked it. But my other cat, Cammy, does this thing, and I love old cats because they have so much character at this point, but when you pick her up, she wraps her arms around your neck and we call her a koala-cat and she just sort of like hangs on to you and it’s the sweetest thing. She really is the sweetest cat.
CHM: Aw, that’s adorable. Well, both of you guys have adorable cats. Lily, I was listening to your cover recently of “Kashmir,” I found it on YouTube, and I was just curious cause I know that you also opened for Robert Plant and Jimmy Page a few years back. I don’t know when that was recorded in relevance to that, but did they ever hear your cover of that song, and what were their reactions?
Haydn: I don’t know if Jimmy Page heard it, but Robert said he loved it. And I got their blessing before I did it because they’re real artists. I mean like they’re not just some pop sensation, as you know, and they’re not just legends that have let their golden days pass them by. They’re people that seek out new music that excites them. That’s why they were open to having somebody like me open for them. They really are curious and I wanted to honor the seriousness with which they approached their music when I covered it. So getting their blessing was really important.
CHM: Well, it’s an amazing cover, and you guys are both real artists as well. I don’t know if you guys have worked on any other projects together, but how were you guys paired up for Ginny & Georgia?
Bromfield: I’m gonna start this [and then] I’m gonna throw it to Lily this time. My career in scoring started in a typical way where I was a composer’s assistant before I was a composer, and I got to work on a bunch of shows and I got to know the process really well. And the majority of that work was done for this guy, Tree Adams, who’s a dear friend and mentor — I call him my sensei. Tree is a great TV and film composer, and I [have] worked for him for five years now. He plays with his band sometimes and they were playing a gig [and] I came out to support him and sit in a little bit on keys. Lili was also there because she had her own relationship with Tree.
Haydn: I used to play violin and sing for him a lot, and then I actually reached out to him when I was trying to pitch on a show that I thought that I was right for. But I knew I wouldn’t get taken seriously as a television composer having not done TV before without somebody who was a veteran, so I reached out to him and he was generous enough to say he would pitch with me. We didn’t get that show, but he kept me in mind so that when Ben, who I actually did get to meet and jam with at Tree’s gig, when Ben reached out to Tree for recommendations for a woman composer for this show to pitch, Tree recommended me and then we had remembered that we played together. It all kind of happened very quickly. And I was actually on my way to India for a performance and I was emailing and putting my reel together at the airport, and to this day we still communicate on WhatsApp because most of our initial conversations were done internationally.
So we just threw it together. We had a sense that we would work well together because we had jammed and Tree felt like we would, and we both work on the same platform, same program — Pro Tools — and we pitched and it just came together.
But I have to say [about] our chemistry, you never really know how you’re ultimately gonna work together with somebody in a pressure situation. And it’s just been magical [and] very lucky collaboration because we complement each other’s skillsets. While we’re both very fluid improvisers, and that has allowed us to create some music that neither of us would’ve created on our own.
CHM: Ben, you’ll answer for Lilly and vice versa. What is it about the other person’s style that attracted you to them and what did you think that they brought to the table with this score?
Bromfield: Great question. There’s a lot of things I could say about this, but I will just say [that] this is not the first time I’ve done a co-composer thing with somebody, and I think that in general, one of the things I like about it is that you get to learn from the other person. Now Lili has a very different way of thinking about music to me than me and I feel like I’ve just learned a lot from working with her about that mindset. I’m going to simplify it a bit and call it “quality over quantity,” which is great as somebody who has more experience spending a lot of time on less minutes of music than me because come from having to score and doing so much music so fast. There’s a sense where it’s not that it’s not quality, it’s just that you can’t really focus on anything [for] too long.
So I think from collaborating with Lili, as somebody who has done those deep dives into music, even if we don’t always have time to do that for Ginny & Georgia — because it’s a TV show — I think that I’ve gotten a lot out of that influence from her, which is something that I feel like you either need to find within yourself or you need to get inspired by somebody else.
And just to round that out, I’m now doing for the first time in my career of about 12 years or so, I’m creating music as art or not for score. I’m writing [and] releasing albums and creating music that’s just for people to listen to and I don’t feel like I would be as comfortable doing that now if it wasn’t for the influence of working with somebody who has so much experience doing that.
Haydn: Oh, that’s nice — thanks! I think it’s relevant to just say what our specific backgrounds are. I come from playing classical music as a kid and growing up with that, but I also started making records when I was 20 — and I’ve made a bunch of them. I started scoring and being a part of other people’s teams as a player and singer, so I didn’t have experience in television. But I think that the production skills [of] record making has been [useful], and there’s a melodicism that I come to the table with as a violinist and singer.
But what Ben brings to the table, first of all, just his incredible virtuosity as a player and composer. He’s a really smart problem-solver and also has an incredible work ethic — [he] just knows how to get shit done. And his experience as a consummate composer’s assistant, as a person who just knows how [to] get from A to Z just expertly, and politically, I’ve learned a lot from him in that way in terms of how I approach things more as an artist and I will sometimes speak my mind when it’s not necessarily the best political move [smiles], so I’ve learned to [say] like, “Hey, Ben, are you cool with it if I say ‘x, y [and] z’?” and he’ll say, “Why don’t you just dial that back a little” [laughs].
But just on a musical tip, I think he’s just so fluid. He’s got a can-do attitude so that there’s nothing that can’t be done. And so it’s like the sky’s the limit and we can do anything together. It’s really fun.
Bromfield: I will just say that your “squeaky wheel-ness,” while that maybe at one point I thought was a liability, has also been a good influence on me because now I’m a little bit of a “squeaky-ier wheel.” Sometimes I have a tendency to be a little quiet and let things just go along. Now I’m a little more comfortable just generally asking for stuff, because if people say, no, it’s not the worst thing, and so being a squeaky wheel can be sometimes good, I think, being somebody who just says what they feel. I think I could use a little more of that. And so that’s also been a good influence. Thank you, Lili [laughs].
CHM: I’m gonna put you guys on the spot again — I don’t know who wants to take this first, but I like to ask composers this question because you guys know the work better than anybody, but if you had to describe your score in three or fewer words, what would they be?
Haydn: I’ll start with one word; I don’t wanna do all three, I wanna pick some wisely — quality over quantity [laughs] — eclectic.
Bromfield: I thought of that too — [that’s the] first thing I thought of. I’m trying to think if I can think of another one. Eclectic; see, that one makes it hard because I could say another one, but it only applies to some of the music, right? Is it weird for me to say female? I mean, I think that the female aspect of the show is an important thing in the music as well. Sometimes [it’s] signified by Lilly’s voice, the way we use it in the score. I dunno, it’s hard [laughs].
Haydn: I think about the role of feminism or the female gaze in the show — most of the creative team are women — and they wanted a female composer to be a part of it. I don’t think of myself as a woman composer — although I am on the board of the Alliance for Women Film Composers — but I think that what is relevant about that is that because this show is very much from a woman’s perspective, being a woman, I pick up on subtle emotional threads.
In college, I had an eating disorder [so] I know what that looks like and they’re dropping subtle hints in the show. So there are moments [that] I’m attuned to, certain dramatic moments that I might not be if I hadn’t lived it, and that allows me to have a sensitivity to certain things that allows me to bring a little bit more sensitivity in the music to that moment. I think maybe the word is sensitive as opposed to female. But it’s really about being sensitive to the female gaze.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with that concept of the female gaze, but so much of what we’ve been inundated with in our Western culture has been from a male perspective. So when you get something that’s done from a female perspective, it’s a different lens and they call that the female gaze.
Another word that I’m gonna steal this from Sarah Lampert. I think she once described “Georgia’s Theme,” which is the first or maybe the second track of our Season One soundtrack, is used throughout the show and it’s represented in the season two soundtrack with some sort of remixed versions. Anyway. Sarah once described that piece as sardonic — and I really like that. I don’t know if that applies to all the music, but I think it’s a great word. And I think that there’s a sardonic element to this show that is winking at you a little bit, and I like to think that our music is helping with that and has some of that same quality. So we can say eclectic, sensitive and sardonic.
Bromfield: I like those three.
CHM: There are parts where, to me, your score sounded more modern, like in the first episode — I think it might be even the first time your score comes in — and then there are other times where it’s more of a traditional, orchestral sound. I want to focus on that opening modern track and ask about composing that specific track because to me that sounded so unique.
Haydn: Is that the “Welcome Back Bitches”?
Haydn: Well that’s fun because we often divvy up the work, but there are times when we get in a room and just play and fun things happen. And that [“Welcome Back Bitches”] was one of those instances where we were in the room, playing with keyboards like two kids in a sandbox, really. So I’m glad you like that one.
I think what makes it unique is that we employ a lot of the pop elements of the song licenses that they use because we wanna keep the energy. It’s a modern show, so we need that aesthetic, but we also need to employ the kind of dark, more emotional elements and we also need to employ some of the more traditional scoring techniques. So this [“Welcome Back Bitches”], it’s [a] blend of all those things that turn into this kind of really interesting stew of sorts. And also the way that I use my voice, — without lyrics — I think also lends itself to having a sense of a pop hook without it actually being that, and then it becomes more like an instrument.
So I think it’s the eclecticism that helps it be unique and uniquely suited for this show, which is its own eclectic blend of influences. And what I love about the show and what I’m also really proud of with our score is how with all of its eclecticism, it’s cohesive. It could very easily be a hodgepodge of, okay, and now we’re gonna do this, and now we’re gonna do that, but it really feels cohesive and there really is a sound of show, which to me, doesn’t sound like other shows. even though obviously, we’re not creating in a vacuum and there are obviously other influences. But, to me, it sounds like our show, and the more television and film I consume, the more I can hear when somebody’s borrowing from another.
I don’t know if you know what temp music is, but where they put in a temporary piece of music to sort of mark the spot where they want music. a lot of times in television I know exactly what they temp with because it sounds like that show or that sounds like that, and to hear those elements, it doesn’t come together as cohesively. And I feel really happy about what we’ve created.
Bromfield: It really is like [an] instrumental song — it’s [in] a song form. When we get together, we like to make music like that for the show. You know, we did that one before season two, and then we sent it to them. We wrote it together as a thematic track to be used in season two, and then we all found a place for it together. And I think a lot of the stuff we did in that session was similar — it’s kind of like its own genre of pop music. It’s pop music-influenced and it’s song-influenced, but the fact that it centers around Lili’s voice doing more of “ooh” [vocalizes notes] thing, I think is part of what makes it unique in the pop music world.
CHM: You just mentioned that when you guys jammed together and made that song on keyboards. I know a lot of songs sprout from the keyboard or piano, but were there any unique instruments you guys used throughout this score at all?
Haydn: Actually, the keyboard we used on that song is a fancy new keyboard that I just got — it’s a Hydrosynth, which is a really fun synthesizer. Ben has a lot of great synthesizers and he’s like “Keyboard Guy,” but I had been lusting after this keyboard for a couple of years and somebody had told me like, “You have to get this.” And it has this ribbon controller where you can do this portamento thing; you can slide from really low to really high and it gets that kind of weird, like your stomach is turning inside out kind of vibe, which I love [laughs]. That was the keyboard on this track.
We also incorporate rock and roll stuff. We have some different instruments [I] play a lot of my string instruments and we do a lot of sound design as well. For some of the modern influences we pulled in a programmer friend of mine who works with Kesha and Kanye West and like some big pop artists [because] we wanted to have authentic beats. So we used a couple of those beats in the show.
There’s like an instrument in the upper register that’s sort of going and that’s like [volcalizes]… I forget what it’s called…
Haydn: Ribbon Controller.
Bromfield: Yeah. And then you can also hear it in the piece called “George’s Theme (Dark).” It’s happening with the bass in that one [and] it’s a very cool effect. And each time you get a synthesizer like that, they all have their individual quirks, and that’s one really cool quirk of the Hydrosynth. And other than the fact that the sounds and the effects on it are really cool, the Ribbon Controller is really neat and it’s a fun way to do that — not every synth can do that.
Haydn: It’s modeled after a classic synth from the seventies called the [Yamaha] CS-80, which I had the pleasure of working with on my first album, and then sound design where you’re basically messing [around when] you’re creating sounds, you’re recording yourself doing this kind of stuff and tapping on your face and scratching things.
[In] episode eight, where we did the musical, the episode [is] mostly in the style of the musical, which was sort of classical music-influenced. I got out my violin and started doing all my little classical tricks. But one of the cues was influenced by my cat, actually, who’s not going to meow on cue, unfortunately, but she does meow [on cue] a little bit. She’s kept her little “Pixar kitten meow,” and you can hear that in one of the cues. I just did a little reel on my Instagram if you wanna hear it. It’s on the soundtrack also called “Max and Bracia Backstage” — please check it out.
CHM: Since you both live in LA that makes it a bit easier — I know some co-composers I’ve spoken to were in separate areas of the world, so that made it a little harder — but I was curious what the day-to-day kind of thing looks like. Were you guys always working together or were you guys, you know, separately and then collaborating over Google Drives and stuff like that?
Bromfield: [Are] you familiar with the [concept of a] spotting session? [It’s] the meeting that we have with the showrunners, so when we first watched the show down and we figure out all the cues and we might use this one thing, or this might be a licensed song or whatever, and then we’ll figure out how much music we need to write and what scene.
So from there, Lili and I will typically divide it up and we’ll each take a first pass separately in our own studios. Also, I should mention, we started working on this show right when the pandemic broke out. So season one, we didn’t get together at all—
Haydn: We had one session together!
Bromfield: Before COVID, yeah.
Haydn: It was like pre-COVID and then before our next session, he said, “You know, I don’t think we should be in the same room anymore [laughs]; we probably should isolate.” So, yeah, we only had one session, but that one session was very fruitful.
Bromfield: Yeah, we got our company cue out of that session that gets used all the time and reused all over the score. But yeah, we generally work in different places, but also it’s funny to mention that we work at different times. Lilli is a total night owl, and I’m typically — if things are going right — up at 7:30 trying to work out and then start my day and in bed by like 11 or 12, she’s working all night. And so that sort of signifies our yin and yang-ness that we have. I think with our creative approaches as well.
We didn’t have to do this much with season two. Season one was, I think, a bit more hectic, mostly because of COVID, [and] if we got something that we had to turn around [or] we got notes back at the last minute, she [Lili] probably was gonna be up anyway, so that that kind of works. There’s obviously all sorts of stuff going on in the morning and I’m willing to do that.
So we work in different places, [and] we sometimes work at different times, but we do work on the same pieces of music because we send stuff back and forth to each other. We’re both working in Pro Tools as Lili mentioned, and we’re on Dropbox. We don’t share any videos on Dropbox because we’re all very careful with that. But what we do is we’re sending a Pro Tool testing back and forth, forth, and we’re adding stuff to each other’s cues. Typically, we’ll both try and complete a cue as much as we can on our own and then send it to the other person to add stuff. And then they might send it back. And then a lot of the time with the music before it gets approved, we end up having a live session over Zoom with the creators.
This is a thing that I’m usually driving at this point — it’s usually on my rig. We’re all in on this session and I’m sharing the screen and Lili and I are solving problems in real time. It’s challenging but very fun and we make great music that way.
Haydn: But it would not be possible if Ben weren’t such a rockstar on the technical side of it as well. Without each of our skillset sets, this would not be possible. It’s a unique show to the show’s credit, the show creator Sarah Lampert, has a vision and also Debra [J. Fisher], her partner, both have a vision. But Sarah, in particular, has an exacting nature and she doesn’t stop until she gets exactly what she wants. I have the same exact kind of OCD as her [laughs] — that’s why I step out often because like I don’t stop until I’ve exhausted every possibility and however long it takes.
It can be challenging because we know that we’re not gonna be settling for anything less than something that is magical. And the funny thing is, we’ll be watching — I don’t know if you have this experience, Ben — we watched it, my husband and I, and cues that are you can barely hear, they’re almost subliminal [and] like, yeah, that took us a week.
Bromfield: I can relate to that, sure [smiles].
Haydn: We do wanna just talk about the musical before we all part ways, of course. The musical was really important this season and it’s really kind of a subplot [that is] mirroring and representing character evolution and character development and the relationships that are in the plot.
Ben and I have different backgrounds that allowed us to do that. Ben’s musical theater background and my songwriting background, as a recording artist, and the confluence of that really just lent itself to something that we’re both really proud of.
The second season of Ginny & Georgia is streaming on Netflix.
Florian Zeller Talks The Son and the Interesting Way Hugh Jackman Landed His Part | Interview
Father, Son… Mother? Florian Zeller discusses his new film, ‘The Son.’
In my family, a good metric to measure how good a film was is how quickly me or my dad — the physical media buyers in the family — purchase it when it hits shelves months after its theatrical run. If we liked the film, the time ranges usually vary between immidetly upon release, wait a few months in hopes of Target or Best Buy putting it on sale, or the classic “wait until Black Friday” strategy (if it’s Criterion, we wait until July or November). But as our collections have grown and wallets have emptied, buying new releases — no matter how much we loved them — upon release is a rarity.
The one to buck the trend was The Father, Florian Zeller‘s first film adaptation out of the trilogy of his plays — The Mother, The Father and The Son. While I enjoyed it personally, the film hit way too close to home with my own grandmother who had dementia similar to Anthony Hopkins‘ character. That grandmother was my father’s mother, and despite my own belief that it’d hit even closer to home, he enjoyed it and made an effort to buy it once it went on sale.
All of that is to say, The Father is held in such high regard in my family. The Son will hold a special place in my heart as the casting of Vanessa Kirby was one of the first news pieces I wrote for the first outlet I interned at, so it feels like this film has come full circle for me. That’s why it was such an honor to speak with Zeller ahead of the nationwide release of The Son. I picked his brain on adapting his stageplays for the big screen while also finding out the interesting way Jackman landed his role. Oh, and I finally got clarification on the continuity of Hopkins’ characters in The Father and The Son (which has bothered me since seeing The Son).
Coastal House Media: I just wanted to start by talking about how out of your plays/films that I’ve seen, they’ve talked about such human emotions and situations. For example, The Father was very relatable for me because my grandmother had dementia towards the end of her life and it was hard to watch as a result, but it felt so real. So I was just curious if your plays/films are born out of experiences that are personal to you.
Florian Zeller: I would say yes. I don’t know how it could be something else than personal, but it doesn’t mean that these [are] my stories, you know? It means that [these are] emotions that I’m familiar with — territories that I’m no stranger to. When I did The Father — as you said, it’s about dementia — I knew a bit [about] what it was to go through this kind of process and to be in a position when you want to help someone and you cannot do it because I [was] raised by my grandmother and she got dementia when I was 15 or something. But when I was writing the script, I was not really thinking about her; I was thinking about emotions that I knew, and for The Son [as well].
The Son is about [a] father trying to help his teenage son going through depression. And again, it’s coming from a personal place, but I very quickly realized that so many people are concerned by this kind of situation, so many people have experience as [a] father or as [a] mother, you know when you are in a position where you do not know what to do anymore to help your son or your daughter or anyone else, and it was the reason why I wanted to make a film. I mean, it’s not enough to want to tell your own story to make a film, it’s because you wanna share emotions and you feel like you could be relevant for everyone to share these emotions.
CHM: And from a more technical standpoint, I’m curious about what it’s like for you to get to adapt your plays. Of course, you have more space to work and you can show more than just what you’re limited to on a stage, so do you ever feel like with either The Father and/or The Son that your plays get to be even more realized or explored through that medium?
Zeller: No. Just to shoot a play is not very challenging and it’s not very meaningful, so you have to find a way to find a cinematic language that would add something, you know? And for The Father, the conviction started like that, whereas the idea that [something] on-screen could be done that couldn’t be done on stage. And it was about trying to create this very subjective experience for the audience, to really experience what it could mean to lose your own bearings and as if you were in the main character’s brain, somehow.
And for The Son, I also felt that there was a reason to do it on screen, but it was a completely different strategy and it was not about trying to put you in the main character’s brain. My intention was to tell that story from the parent’s perspective — those who are around someone who is suffering and they do not know [what] to do to help. They have questions that they have no answers [for]. They are trying to open the door to help, but they have no keys, in a way. And because I really wanted for the audience to experience this feeling of being important because I know that there [is] so much shame and so much guilt and so much ignorance on this topic that I really wanted to raise these questions and to open a conversation — and my way to do that was to make that film.
CHM: I haven’t seen the play version of The Son, but I was curious because The Father, the film, felt like a play because most of it takes place in Anthony Hopkins’ character’s apartment whereas The Son jumps a little bit in scale. A lot of it still takes place in Peter [Hugh Jackman]’s apartment, but was this jump in scale similar to the play at all?
Zeller: I mean, it [was a] decision, but every story requires something different. When you started thinking about adapting a play into a film, the first advice you get is always to try to write new scenes outdoors to go as far as possible from the stage and most of the time, it’s probably good advice. But this is not what I did in The Father, because I really wanted to use the set as an abstract lab where you would be lost as an audience.
And if I had written a single scene outdoors, it would’ve broken this convention. So it had nothing to do with theatre, it has to do with cinema [and] the idea of being in an apartment and to use the apartment as a way to tell the story of being lost. And for The Son, I wanted to have something more straightforward, very linear and as simple as possible and try [not] to do a gimmick about that topic (depression) but to try to dare to be very simple in order to reflect my approach, which was to try to face this pain without shying away and also without trying to explain it or without trying to justify it. That’s the difficult and slightly uncomfortable thing about it.
There is no simple explanation about why sometimes you are in pain, and it takes a lot of courage to accept [that] there is no meaning, no justification when you’re going through such a pain [and] you need someone or something to blame for because it’s unfair when you see that it looks so easy for everybody and for you, everything is so difficult.
And in [this] story (The Son), this is divorce. The characters are talking a lot about the divorce and Nicholas [feels as though] this is because my parents got divorced and the father feels so guilty that he feels maybe [it’s] all my fault. But that’s not my perspective. To me, there [are] so many layers, psychological, but also chemical, biological reasons why you can feel in pain. So it was not to try to simplify things to say [that] because of divorce, it could lead to this situation.
It would make no sense, for example, to blame anyone for having a heart issue or stomach issue — and I think it’s the same for mental [health] issues. It makes no sense to blame anyone for experiencing this pain. And the more we could see mental health issues as we see physical issues, meaning without guilt, the more we could help people to go through these kinds of situations.
CHM: You have a lot of established names and a younger actor as well in The Son — can you talk to me about the casting process for this film?
Zeller: Yeah, the casting process started with Anthony Hopkins. We did The Father together and it was such an emotional experience, to do a film together, [that] I really wanted to see him again. Also, just after The Father, there was COVID and so we hadn’t seen each other for two years or something, and so when I finished the script, he was the very first one who read it and he told me, “Okay, I really want to be part of it.”
And I was really happy about it because I do adore him and also, so many people came to me after The Father saying, “Is he okay?” as if he was going through dementia. And I was like, “Yeah, he is. He is in great shape. He’s just an extraordinary actor,” so it was funny for us to do the exact opposite because in The Son he’s so cruel. He is not losing the situation, he’s controlling the situation so well.
And then I’m starting [to] dream about the cast and that’s all I knew about it. It was Anthony involved and that’s it. And I received that letter from Hugh Jackman. This is unconventional, but this is how it happened: He knew the play, The Son, he knew that I was working on the adaptation [and] he knew The Father. And so he wrote this letter to me saying, “If you’re already in conversation with someone, please forget my letter. But if you’re not, I would love to have 10 minutes to let you know why I should be the one to do this part.”
And of course, when you receive this kind of letter, you wanna meet that person because it’s really something special for an actor to be brave and honest enough and humble enough to do this. And when we met, we talked a lot about many things, but it’s not something he said; it’s more something I felt about who he is. The fact that he was not trying to be this actor looking for a part, or he was not detracted by the performance that could be done here, it was just a man, you know? And I felt that he was as a father and as connected to that issue that he knew what it was about. He knew these emotions and that it would be the opportunity for us, through the camera, to allow himself to be himself and to try to reach something that was truthful and honest. And that’s something very difficult to do, I think, for an actor. And I was really impressed during the shooting to see him daring [and] exploring all the time the true emotions that he has in himself. And I think that’s why, in my opinion, his performance is so honest.
CHM: I’m running low on time with you, but this question has been bothering me since I saw the film, so I gotta ask you of all people given that this is your baby. So I had heard that The Son is a “prequel” to The Father, but this confused me with Anthony Hopkins’ characters. I know in The Son he’s in America, but I think in The Father, he’s in England. Can you just explain the continuity to me?
Zeller: To me it’s not a prequel. [They’re] not the same characters. It’s the same actor, but you’re right — One is American [and] one is British, so it’s already different. And what [is] meaningful to me is that to have similar stories that are not [with] the same characters, not the same stories, but somehow they are connected, you know? The themes and something [is] connected in between these stories, and so as a viewer, you have to question the connections, the conversation almost between these pieces, and I like what it brings to the table, meaning that as a viewer you have room to question the meaning of this.
For example, as a viewer, I remember that I really loved this Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, who did the [Three Colours] Red, White and Blue and it’s three different stories. They have nothing to do with each other, but it’s just you trying to understand the layers, the conversations, and that’s it. Nothing more. [They’re] different stories.
CHM: My last question for you is: Are you going to adapt The Mother and would Anthony Hopkins be a part of that?
Zeller: I dunno. I really don’t know [laughs]. We did The Mother in New York, on stage, right with Isabella Huppert, and she’s one of the greatest actresses — I love her very much. But I don’t know. I don’t know yet.
The Son was released for an awards-qualifying limited run on November 25 and will be released nationwide on January 20.
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