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Miriam Cutler Talks Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down Score | Interview

The veteran documentary composer discusses composing the music for Gabby Gifford’s inspirational story.

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Some of this year’s documentaries have ranged from unique audio-visual experiences (Moonage Daydream), some straightforward (yet informative) standard documentaries (The Princess), but very few are as emotionally-compelling as Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down — which is available to rent on digital platforms now.

With such heavy subject matter, it can be hard to add any levity to a film like that. Enter, composer Miriam Cutler. Cutler is a seasoned documentary veteran and has worked on dozens of projects throughout her lengthy career. Because of the density of this interview, I’ll keep it short but say that this was a wonderfully insightful chat and we discussed her career leading up to Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, the changes of the music industry and so much more.


Coastal House Media: Can I start by asking how you got started in this crazy world of composing? Every composer I’ve spoken to has a different story from starting in rock bands or they knew somebody in the industry.

Miriam Cutler: I come from a musical family but nobody was supposed to be [doing it] professionally, so it never even occurred to me to be a professional musician. I just played in bands and had a good time. [I] wrote songs, went to college. When I started, I thought, “Well, I’ll major in music because I love music,” but I hated [musical] theory and I changed my major my very first quarter. I changed to anthropology, but I still kept up my music. I played in ethnic bands and stuff, and I kind of got into playing in bands because I played clarinet among other things. But I was a folk dancer in high school [and] I always loved world music and we’re talking about the 1960s, so, it wasn’t well known back then. And so I was a folk dancer, and then they found out I played clarinet so they got me playing in the band. And I continued that in college and took anthropology. I was jamming with my friends and stuff, but then I became an activist, which all ties into how I ended up in documentaries. I was moving towards a career in either journalism or maybe being a civil rights lawyer or something like that and got very inspired by the women’s movement; it was the second wave. And so after college I was in three bands and one of them was the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. I had my own band and we did a lot of satirical comedy, you know? Political satire and stuff like that.

But Danny Elfman was scouting, he was taking over the band from his brother and he was looking for female musicians and somebody saw me in a club with my band, and so I got an audition and when I walked in, they just handed me a tenor sax and said, “Can you play this?” and I went, “Well, I’ve never played a tenor sax, but I played clarinet.” So I played it and then they sat me down [asked], “Can you do this?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”

And then we did some west African music, and I’m also a singer, so it was perfect. Plus, Steve Bartek, the guitar player, [and I] went to college together and we were in ethnic bands together because he loved ethnic music too, so it was really fun. But what happened while I was in that band, my band was more kind of like loose and just fun. And [amongst] these guys, there were some amazing musicians. I mean, Steve [Bartek] is amazing, Sam Phipps, and Danny [Elfman], so I got more serious. All of a sudden I got more interested in music again, and I actually went back and took music courses at Santa Monica College after I had gone to grad school for anthropology. But I got my interest up again and being in such a good band, even though it was very wacky, it was really inspiring to be with such great players. I mean, I practiced all the time. We used to rehearse four times a week. We didn’t even have gigs.

I was in that band for about three years and it got me much more serious about music. But making the switch, after that I had my own band again, and then I was a songwriter.

In the old days you could be a player and you could make a living. You could travel or you could be a studio player. There used to be tons of studios in LA and different orchestras and there were road tours and albums being recorded. So that was considered a working musician and over time that’s really changed.

If you’re wanting to be a working musician nowadays, what that means is you have a little studio and you can make music for media; there’s not that many jobs for players. [It’s] not like it used to be.

One of the fun things about being around so long is I’ve really kind of been with it from the beginning of when it became more [inclusive]. Before that, though, it was more like a small group of elite guys who worked with orchestras and bands and had a gig at the studio. Writing for television [and] writing for film, it was a very different thing in those days. It was kind of elite [and] women weren’t in it very much. So anyway, I put together a little recording studio. At first, I had a four-track cassette, then I had an eight-track [cassette], and then I had a 16-track semi-pro machine and I was writing songs. I used to make a living playing in a band four nights a week, but that went away so musicians are like, “What do we do now? Okay. We’ll write songs. [and] movies,” so that’s what I did. And I had some songs in movies, [but it] really was getting hard to make a living; I was about to give up. [I[, ended up starting a swing band and that was the four nights a week, and what happened was I was playing in my band and somebody came up and said, “Hey, I have a little movie. Would you score it?” and I went. “Me? Score a movie?” So I brought it home and in those days there was no synchronization, so you just looked at the movie and [would] write some music and then the music was edited anyway to make a short story longer. I think I put my hands on the keyboard and looked up and saw the movie, and I went, “Wow, this is really cool.”

I also was a huge movie fan when I was a kid. I watched tons of movies; I just never thought of myself [as a composer]. I thought Bernard Herrmann, Nino Rota, Elmer Bernstein, these are film composers, not Miriam Cutler. Over the next period of time, I started working on stuff and I just really fell into it. A friend of mine was making these really low-budget horror movies for this really terrible company and he’d said, “Do you wanna score my movie?” So I scored it and they loved me and I did about 15 movies.

I could patch together a very nice living, so it was really great. And I did that for about 10 years, [but I did] all kinds of different stuff; I even wrote music for a circus for eight. I was there in residence for 18 years. But then I woke up one day and said, “My God, I’m making music all the time and I’m making my living doing this, but I’m miserable. Will I ever get to work on anything good?” And I thought, “You know, I went to college, I’m really educated, I’m very political, what is going to happen? I can’t do this anymore.” And I really was like, “I gotta stop. Maybe I’ll go back to law school. Maybe I’ll do something else.”

And then I met this guy in 1997 at a screening of one of my kind of mediocre movies. I met this filmmaker named Arthur Dong who, I didn’t know it at the time, but he was a very, very highly-regarded documentary filmmaker. And so he was making this film and he told me about it. And he said he was a gay man and he was making a film [about] these gay men who are in prison for murdering gay men and I thought to myself, “My God, I have to work on this movie. This is so important,” We really hit it off and I worked on the movie and then he took me to Sundance. I didn’t even know about Sundance *laughs* and when we were there, the film was a huge success. It won two awards and I looked in this room and all these people were documentary filmmakers and they were all working on amazing projects. And I thought to myself, “I think I [have] died and went to Heaven. I could actually do what I’m good at and love to do. And it has meaning; people are passionate about what they’re doing. They’re very committed.”

So that’s why I focus on documentaries. I mean, I’ve done it all, but I really focus on documentaries because I consider it sort of an application or a mission; it makes me feel like I can contribute in some small [way] to making the world better.

A still from Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down. Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment.

CHM: You mentioned Danny Elfman, what was you working relationship like with him?

Cutler: I was in his band, but it was his band. He had a real strong vision and whenever he changed his vision, you just went with it. But what happened was, I think what was really going on was I was always a front person; I was always in charge of my own bands and I’m not really a side man and I think it was just getting harder and harder. I kept feeling like he just wanted to squish me down so I didn’t stand out and I felt like I had to move on because I didn’t care for the material that he was starting to do. The kind of “I like little girl” stuff; I’m too political. You know what I mean? I’m a feminist, so I just couldn’t be involved in that. Even if it’s a joke. So nothing bad about him, it wasn’t for me, it wasn’t what I wanted to do.

CHM: You talked about the way the industry has changed. This is coming from my very mainstream viewpoint, but I’ve noticed how the whole music industry has changed in the way albums are released and put out. Can I get your assessment of this?

Cutler: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I always say technology giveth and it taketh away because when I was around, we just had AM radio. When I first was a kid and then it went to FM and we found underground radio where they played albums on the radio. And we would go to the record store all the time. I remember going to a record store and there’d be four walls and that would be all the records. There’s so much music now. And what’s great [is that] it has been very democratized in the sense that I could put out an album and if it just happens to get picked up by someone, you can have a mega hit and that’s what’s happening with Facebook and TikTok and all that stuff. And so in one sense, it’s really great.

But there was a tactile connection when you would buy a record, you would touch it, you would look at the, you would read everything on the label and especially albums, there was album art and then there were liner notes [that] you could just read over and over and over and learn about the person behind the music and the band and all this stuff. I still have a collection of about a thousand LPs; I don’t even have a turntable, but I can’t bear to give them up. I love taking them out and looking at them. I have some originals, from the 1960s and stuff that I bought when I was a kid or that I acquired, so I think it’s really changed in that when an artist made an album, it was like going to a concert. They laid out [and] created the experience of what they wanted to share with you. They would do an A-side, usually there’d be a concept, and then you turn it over and side B another concept or a continuation.

When cassettes happened, everybody started making their own mix-tapes. Now you’ve got Joni Mitchell next to Grace Jones and you can put everything together, which is very democratizing, but it’s sort of taken away some of the vision of the artist in what they wanted to present to you in its [entirety]. That’s why people like to go to a concert because the artist puts together their rendition of what they want to present. Of course, now a lot of audiences only want to hear hits, and that was also what was so great about underground radio. Before that, you were stuck with hits, all you ever got was the A-side and so you’d buy the 45 for the B-side [and] then you’d go, “Wow, what’s this?”

The music business has turned into a hit [and] star maker [industry]. And there always was that, but then you could also get albums by the old blues guys [and] I have a very large range of taste [as a result]. I like almost all music. I just don’t like “fake” faith music when it’s not authentic [and] coming from the heart or something. But there are some young artists that are quite interesting.

I think Billy Eilish is just a blast from the past. That’s the kind of artist we had regularly. We had a Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro at the same time. I also really love old jazz because I started learning to play old jazz with Danny [Elfman] and those guys, we used to have another band that we played in that played like stuff from the 1930s and 1940s. It’s really wonderful as a musician, especially as a composer to have access to thousands of years of global music that we can be inspired by. And that’s what is really great about nowadays. If I wanted to find music and find out what kind of music they played in [a given culture], I’d have to call every record store in the county and then I’d have to run around and try to find an album. It was so hard and now, the whole world is at your fingertips; it’s quite overwhelming in some ways, but it’s also amazing, like research takes one second. I used to spend weeks trying to find some guys that played [certain] music, or even just to hear what it sounded like. It would take a long time. So in that sense, the technology has giveth and it’s made us a more global world. I think in the end, that may be what saves us; is that we’re all connected through this music and art and clothing.

A still from Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down. Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment.

CHM: I don’t want to put words in mouth, so correct me if I’m wrong, but you find documentaries fulfilling; you find purpose in them. Could you talk to me about that a little bit more?

Cutler: [Documentaries have had] quite a resurgence. I mean, man, they’re being made like crazy. I think [it’s] because they’re inexpensive to make compared to a big tentpole movie. I think that it’s fun to learn new stuff, and the stories are super compelling. I mean, they’re real-life, so they’re very traumatic.

I’m always learning something, [and] I become an in-depth expert about whales, or an elephant, or a war, or [the] ghosts of Abu Ghraib, I’m always in a new reality with [a] whole different film group and it also helps keep my creativity fresh. Because I’m always working with a different crew and with different subjects, there are different styles of filmmaking, because  within documentary there’s so many ways to go. Especially now with the younger filmmakers, they’ve brought all the wonderful craft of filmmaking into documentaries. For me, I find it extremely challenging; I’m never bored. We [the filmmakers and I] share values and it’s a respectful environment to work in; it’s fair, and it’s because the money is not as big as it is in Hollywood, so it doesn’t attract people that just want to make money. I mean, if you’re making documentaries, there’s much more to it for you. And that’s what I like about it. So in my opinion, what I’ve been able to do by working in the documentary community and being part of it is live an artist’s life but make a living, I don’t do bad, but I also get to live my values. I don’t have to work with anyone [that] I don’t want to work with. I want to work with people I respect and [that] respect me. And so it’s created a lifestyle for me that really has worked; I’m very indie.

CHM: Then let’s talk about Gabby Giffords: Won’t Back Down. I always like to ask this to composers, but can you describe your score in three or less words?

Cutler: Every score is different, and it depends on what the film asks for. Films really tell you and then the director helps you understand what you’re being told sometimes. In this film [Won’t Back Down], I tried to do what the film needed and what the directors envisioned and what it was is that she’s Gabby.

These particular filmmakers, like on RBG as well, they really like to key in on the music that their subject is into. They kind of use that as another part of way of expressing who that character is. RBG was into opera and classical music. And so they used a lot of the music that she would listen to and then my job was to score her. It was like I was to score her personal story. So it was a little more romantic and stuff like that. Gabby loved 1980s rock, which wasn’t even close to my favorite time in rock and roll , but I totally respect it. There were some really great songs in that era and it helped her heal and she would be singing. She couldn’t speak, but the part of the brain that relates to music wasn’t injured, so she could sing full songs with the lyrics even though she can’t put together a sentence.

She’s singing a lot in the film, so they licensed a bunch of songs and my job was to sort of integrate [into] that and also keep a very upbeat feeling as much as possible about a very serious subject, because Gabby is this phenomenally-inspiring person. I mean, she’s just unbelievable. You know, you hear [that] there’s a shooting, some people die and some people live, and then that’s the end of it. You don’t hear what it does to their life, you know? And I think that it’s really important that people understand that after 11 years, she’s still really injured from this experience but she has a spirit that just won’t quit and she’s been an effective lobbyist for gun legislation and stuff.

CHM: Well, that’s a balance that every composer kind of talks about, especially with a documentary where you’re trying not to overstep boundaries, you know? A lot of your music comes in and like personal scenes where she might be like in the hospital or in recovery, so could you talk to me a little bit about how difficult it is as a composer because you’re watching this stuff over and over again and this is kind of a heavy and as I said, it’s hard to watch, right?

Cutler: So my job is to help people. It’s kind of like with the filmmaker, we have to make decisions about how much can the viewer take before they switch it off. You know, you don’t want them to lose [interest in] the film because they can’t watch this because you’re just pushing it too hard. So you find a balance within the pacing within the film where we pick where we’re gonna go “heavy duty” and sometimes no music is better. Because if you do too much, then it’s just too much and you don’t want to lead the audience, you want them to really have the experience unfold for them.

Part of great storytelling is [figuring out] how you unfold the story and keep it interesting and fresh but never pound people with it. I worked on Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, I mean, that was tough, and I’ve done films about global child slavery. So you look for the areas where you can keep it energized, if not positive — I call it neutral — and travel [within the] music.

So did you find it hard to watch?

CHM: I did, yeah. It’s not pleasant to see somebody going through recovery, but it was also inspiring. I thought the score was inspiring.

Cutler: Oh, thank you.

A still from Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down. Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment.

CHM: Was there anything unique within the composition of the music? Perhaps the way you wrote a number or an instrument used.

Cutler: Because I come from a band background, I came to strings rather late. I love combining all kinds of things. I think for this one, there’s a thing that — I don’t know if you recognize minimalist kind of approach to scoring, which is kind of like Philip Glass, but it actually is really effective in documentaries. You can create a lot of turbulence without doing a lot.

And there’s really interesting things you can do with strings rhythmically, creating patterns. You know, we all have our own style of how we do it and so I’ve been kind of leaning towards that cinematic thing more lately, and they wanted a lot of the score to reflect her joy. I wanted it to sound kind of like rural a little bit, but not too rural, you know what I mean?

I happen to love acoustic guitar and I have a wonderful player and he has a guitar, we call it “Spike,” it’s the same kind of guitar Elvis Presley had. A friend of mine saw it for sale at a garage sale — it was all cracked and everything — and it had “Spike” engraved in it.

CHM: What are you most looking forward to audiences seeing in this film?

Cutler: I want them to see hope, because I think if Gabby can have hope and keep trying to make things better with all that’s going on with guns right now, this couldn’t be better timed. I mean, what’s it gonna take? I think if people understand [that] it’s not a movie — you don’t just get shot and then we cut back four months later and you’re better. Here’s a woman, 11 years [later] and the damage is permanent. She can’t come back completely from it. She’s paralyzed [and] she can’t speak. And this is a person with a brilliant mind who was a beautiful communicator. She probably would’ve been a Senator by now. I mean, the country has lost an important voice, you know?

So I think that if people can be inspired by her ability to have hope and also to get this momentum going for real change. I think we’re — Americans — all are so exhausted right now. [This] may be the closest thing was when they had the Dust Bowl and everything in the thirties that happened. But if we want to make it better, we have to try harder.

CHM: Finally, I’ll close out by asking you, can you recommend me and anybody else one of your past films? It can be any of your filmography.

Cutler: Gosh, I mean, I pretty much fall in love with almost every film. I mean, Lost in La Mancha about Terry Gillum is one of my comedy scores. People forget I actually was in a comedy band. I do all the serious work, but I do love it [comedy scores]. It was kind of like a Spanish-tinged, circus-y kind of film score. So I always enjoyed that one.

And, of course, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is a classic for the history. It really was the first film about Abu Ghraib and Rory Kennedy had tremendous access. I mean, there’s so many wonderful films [such as] Love, Gilda.

I’m working on a film right now about about Shari Lewis and it’s actually another really inspiring story about a woman who was in children’s entertainment, but she was so sophisticated and really the pioneer before Lucille Ball [with] a woman owned and operated entertainment studio — and that’ll be coming out next year.

I did this film called ‘Til Kingdom Come and it was so amazing. Like it was so harrowing. It was about [former President Donald] Trump and the evangelicals and if you’ve ever asked yourself, What is it with Trump and the evangelicals? Why do these religious people care about him? it really told that story and it told how very deep and far it went in terms of the money that was raised and the way he let the ultra-right[winged], Conservative religious into the White House and into Congress. A lot of people in his government were evangelicals, including Mike Pence.


Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down is available to rent on digital platforms now.

FILM RATING

Andrew is an entertainment journalist and film "critic" who has written for the likes of Above the Line, Below the Line, Collider, Film Focus Online, /Film and The Hollywood Handle among others. Leader of the Kaitlyn Dever Fanclub.

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Interviews

The Menu Composer Colin Stetson Talks About His Flavorful Score | Interview

‘The Menu’ is in theaters now.

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Original cinema lives! Despite three new wide releases (Strange World, Glass Onion, Devotion) coming out during the Thanksgiving weekend and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever still holding down the top spot, The Menu found a way to continue its strong box office run and coming in at fifth place during its second weekend open grossing $5.2 million. After opening to $9 million domestically a couple of weeks back, The Menu has gone on to gross $18 million domestically and $33 million worldwide. 

Sure, the film has the likes of Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy in its ensemble, but The Menu’s success feels like a win for all movie lovers who want a substitute — something you shouldn’t ask for in Fiennes’ restaurant in the film — to all of the IP galore that typically dominate the box office discussion. 

A still from The Menu. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

And the film is just great. It’s certainly one of my favorites of the year and I just loved the way that it serves as a metaphor for the ideas of critics and artists. The Menu is like hardcore Chef (2014) — another film with John Leguizamo that is well worth a watch — and I can’t recommend it enough.

Colin Stetson’s an accomplished composer who has composed many haunting scores including this year’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboot/sequel and Ari Aster’s Hereditary. While it’s unfair to call The Menu a “horror” film, it’s certainly got thriller elements and Stetson finds the balance in his score. Coastal House Media spoke with Stetson about getting involved with The Menu, the instrumentation of his score and some unique objects used in the studio.


Coastal House Media: Congratulations on The Menu — I loved the film. It blew me away the first time I saw it. I wanna start at the beginning and just ask how you got attached to the project. Had you worked with the director before on any projects? 

Colin Stetson: I hadn’t, no. And so obviously this was going on without me, but what ended up bringing me into the orbit was that Mark [Mylod] and Chris [Tellefsen], the editor, had been working on the edit and as temp music was coming in, a few of my pieces got brought in on the temp and then a few more.

As that was feeling good, the idea of at least having a conversation with me about scoring [the film] got brought up. And at that point then, I was told and sent a script and I read that. If you’ve seen the movie then you can pretty much surmise that the script was excellent. It was really doing everything that it needed to do, It moves really freely and really, it does so in such a very lean and concise way — which is certainly not always the case with the script. And it was telling a story that I had not seen before.

So I got really excited, as I do when I read something that I haven’t seen a million times before. And, then we set up a meet[ing] and talked about what my initial reactions were to the film — oh, well, I mean, at that point, I hadn’t seen any footage; it was just a script there — which is a really fun moment for me just seeing what a director’s ideas are for the film already. You know, how my ideas then are feeling, for them, how those things work together and how open they are to what [I suggest]. I mean, ultimately it’s a pitch so [it comes down to] how open they are and how receptive they are to what it is that I’ve imagined based on that script and started to think up. So we had great initial talks and it just went well. 

CHM: Can I ask you what some of your initial pitch was? Because this movie is so unique and I can’t even imagine you just reading the script without being able to visualize it. So I’m just curious what your ideas and what your kind of mission was going in when you were pitching your score. 

Stetson: It’s really what the music ended up being. I mean, of course things get fleshed out as I start to really bring in more instrumentation, but the core of it was there. In the days after I’ve read a script, I do some deep-dive sits with the piano and with other instruments and just record all of that, I mean, it’s not improvising, but it’s improvising and grabbing hold of certain things and fleshing them out. 

And so those initial notes really ended up providing the basis for a lot of the music for the film. I wouldn’t say that the whole of it was intact entirely from those initial imaginings, but there was a lot there.

CHM: And I feel like your score kind of jumps a little bit between different sounds — I can’t really hit the nail on the head with what they are. So I’ll ask you, the expert on this score, would you be able to classify this score under a certain genre, or is it too diverse?

Stetson: I actively don’t classify things [by] genre. I’ll always walk that question right outta the room.

CHM: Fair enough, I like to put composers on the spot, and you might not be able to answer this, but would you be able to describe your score in three or fewer words? 

Stetson:  How about “delightful,” “driving” and, for lack of another “d” [word] — although I’ll probably think of it later — “triumph.” 

A still from The Menu. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

CHM: And I wanna talk a little bit about the instrumentation within the score. Did you use any sort of unique instruments?

Stetson: The basis for much of the score is a kind of chamber strings, a bit of a chamber orchestra. There’s very little brass involved in it, but it’s mostly a string ensemble. A lot of Pizzicato strings, violins, violas, cellos, basses, a bit of mandolin. There is a lot of percussive, plucked piano strings. They’re bo a lot of bowed piano strings. Although not primarily [in] there, there are quite a bit of Tibetan bowls played with bows. There’s an enormous amount of saxophones throughout.

Additionally, there are a few odd elements, things like water glasses and pots and pans that were played in various ways to give like a pointillism to certain sections and certain cues. Some of the key driving and more abrasive kind of grotesque string stuff is playing an instrument called a Nyckelharpa, which is a keyed, stringed folk instrument from Scandinavia. There are a lot of different things in play but that pretty much gets to most of it.

CHM: And the instruments in the string section that you talked about, are they something that’s unique to this film in your work, or is that something that you’ve used before? I noticed you did the score for Hereditary — it’s been a while since I’ve seen the film — and I felt like it may have shared some similarities to your score for The Menu.

Stetson: I’ve used strings for sure. I didn’t use any strings on Hereditary [but] I used a ton of strings on scores like Color Out of Space, a show called Barkskins that I did for National Geographic,] a show called Among the Stars [and] there was a documentary about NASA that I did for Disney last year. A lot of strings in those, in those projects to varying degrees and other things. So yeah, it’s certainly not something that is unique to this project for me, no. 

I think that if there’s anything that sets this one apart, it’s [that] a lot of the rhythmic nature of it is different maybe than some of the things that I’ve done in the past. It’s just decidedly more rooted in the rhythmic and the polymetric. 

CHM: I love the way your score sounds during the little segues that you get in the film between courses, you know, and they show like a dish or something. I felt like the score really came through in those moments. Was there anything different about those scenes or is it just that I was noticing it more in those moments?

A still from The Menu. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Stetson: These are moments where there’s no dialogue and there are very little sound effects in terms of what’s going on on-screen and so I think at its most rudimentary, you’re probably noticing because those are the moments where the volume is up the most on the music and so throughout there the music is pushed [to the forefront]. 

This is just something that ultimately, I don’t have much say in but the mix that happens throughout the course of it, there are times when music is quite far back and other times when it is very, very far forward and those moments are some of those that the music is quite forward. 

CHM: Earlier, you mentioned that in the studio there were also some — what’d you say? — pots and pans present in the score and whatnot… were those used to replicate the sounds of a kitchen, or were they also being used as an instrument, if that makes sense? 

Stetson: Oh, no, no, no, no. We weren’t doing any Foley or anything like that. We were taking some of these elements — glass [and] metal — so to use a little bit of the DNA of that world, what was happening on-screen [and] use a little bit of the DNA of that in the sound world. But I kind of purposefully avoided doing anything that was either too on-the-nose — kind of pots and pans drumming or [that] emulated a kind of chaotic [sound or] something that could be construed as being part of the sound effects from the actual space on-screen.

So the majority of the things that were done with the pans and with the glasses were these more pointillistic, expansive, sort of shiny, shimmery walls of sound things that happen in several moments throughout the film. 

A still from The Menu. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

CHM: My favorite track listening to the soundtrack again — and when I watched the film — was “The First Cheeseburger You Ever Ate.” Is that any different from the rest of the score? Cause that really felt the most poetic and I really love that track for some reason. Is there some reason I have some attachment to it? 

Stetson: Well, it’s louder [laughs]. It’s a moment where the music is very forward, the music is very vocal. There are several very vocal-forward, choral-forward moments throughout the second half of the film. I would say, although there are vocals throughout, it really starts to become more of a heavy element.

I wanted there to be a kind of reverent, almost like “church-y” sort of vibe that happened throughout the end. And that scene is a very loving, sincere scene and such care was taken in the shots of capturing the moment of crafting and so the instrumentation there is kind of a combination of what was used before the bed; this sort of bed of arpeggios [and] dreamy saxophone and then the choir all over the top of it singing the melody and the harmonies. And then woven throughout the mid-step of it [are] bowed piano strings [that are once] again, kind of doing this squeeze box-y rhythm that almost sounds a bit like a harpsichord, so it has a sense of the baroque in it, but it definitely sounds like worship music.

CHM: When talking to people about the film, how do you pitch it to them?

Stetson: Thankfully, my job is not pitching the movie. Like, I’m not advertising the movie. I don’t have to market it. I don’t have to be the person who tries to put it in a box to sell it. I get to talk about the music, which is fun, but I don’t have to do that. 

If I’m telling friends about it, I simply say, don’t watch trailers, don’t read anything about the film, just go and see it. It’s well worth the watch and it’s very fun. It’s great storytelling. It’s really clever but it’s also able to be very able to smuggle in a lot of very real human moments in[to] something that is a very odd and novel and very funny, almost absurdist film. 

It’s something that I’ve certainly never seen before. 


The Menu is playing in theaters now. 

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Dan Perri Talks The Art of the Title Sequence | Interview

The legendary title designer’s exhibit is on display at the Museum of the Moving Image now.

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Speaking with legendary title designer Dan Perri enlightened me to a whole new aspect of film. Sure, we’ve all seen the Star Wars opening crawl or the smoking opening credits of Raging Bull, but have you ever wondered what the creative process of that looks like?

I was lucky enough to chat with Dan about his career and exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image and was very fortunate to be able to visit the exhibit for myself in Queens a week ago. In this interview, Dan and I talk about his career, working with Martin Scorsese and what to expect in his exhibit.

Thank you so much to the lovely folks at Sunshine Sachs for this opportunity and for allowing me the chance to see the exhibit myself!


Coastal House Media: Dan, let me first say thank you so much for your time. It’s really a pleasure and an honor to speak to you. I was looking through your filmography and you’ve worked on so many films that I’ve seen. It’s actually amazing. First I want to ask you just to start off, I haven’t spoken to a title designer, but could you tell me some sort of tidbit about doing this that maybe the average moviegoer doesn’t know?

Dan Perri: Well, in the future film business, and even independent and studio films, there are requirements that they have to have certain titles on screen because of tradition and contracts. So they have to present the name of the film, of course, and then usually there are contracts that tie the actors to the title. Like they have to be the same size, precede the title in some cases, and then other technical people might be tied to it as well. So there’s this whole string of requirements. 

Over the years, filmmakers have realized the benefit of [title sequences] since the titles have to be there. [They realized] that they could use that screen time while introducing the titles and help the viewer to get into the film. So they will hire someone like me who is a specialist at creating something that helps the storyteller tell his story.

So, I go trying to find the elements of the story, whether it be the character, the personality, the setting, the era [or] anything unique about the story that I could find images from to emphasize that and therefore introduce that main element to the viewer and at the same time knock off the titles.

So for me, the titles are not the most important thing. It’s the story that might be behind the titles that I try to embellish and bring to the film and the storyteller and incidentally, the titles take place. Now, of course, there are times that only the titles on the screen, you know, screen’s black or red or brown or whatever, and so the personality is the only thing there. Then the job gets harder because you gotta find elements in the type you’ve chosen. And all the subtleties of that. Once you’ve chosen the type style, how they’re set, how they’re arranged, how they’re stacked up, how they come in and out, what color are they, what adjustments to the design [of] the letters — maybe some letters that joined together to create a logo. There’s a myriad of things that you can do in the simplest form, [like] just typing over a background, but all those separate elements in that simplest form are relatively insignificant separately, but collectively, they make [an] impression and impact on the viewer and on the storytelling as well. 

Dan Perri and the Art of the Title Sequence — photo courtesy of Sunshine Sachs.

CHM: It sounds like you’re contacted by a studio for a certain film, what was the first big project that kind of got you started on doing all of these projects?

Perri: The first big studio film I did was for United Artists called Electro Glide in Blue. Robert Blake plays a cop in the film, so it’s widescreen and images. Conrad Hall shot it and it’s set in the West and it’s about these kinds of Western cowboys who are cops. So I brought these Western elements to it and selected shots from the film and treated them in a graphic way so that it felt like they were from the 1880s.

And I did hand lettering for all the titles and did free frames and subtle dissolves and fades and so on, and it worked very nicely with the music. So that was the first big studio film. And then I learned later that — this was 1973 — Billy Friedkin heard about the film [and] that it had really good sound, so he went to see the film one day to evaluate the sound, and he later hired that sound editor for The Exorcist but he saw my work on the film and it’s hired me to do the titles for The Exorcist

And once that film — which was one of the very first blockbusters — hit [theaters], I was known throughout the industry and everyone suddenly wanted me to work on their films. And I’ve been very fortunate [and] because of that and pretty much I’ve been working ever since.

CHM: Before I get into your exhibit, some of my favorites of your title sequences are your collaborations with Martin Scorsese — my favorite being the Raging Bull title design. it’s amazing. Do you have any tidbits about the work you’ve done with Scorsese? 

Perri: Yes, my first film with him was Taxi Driver, and then I did seven more in a row and I was kind of his in-house, well, that’s the wrong words. I wasn’t working for him, but on every film he did, it was just a given that I would do it. So whenever it was time, he call me [and] I’d come in. I mean, I was presenting ideas and competing with others and because of the way he works, he’s so collaborative and willing to work with all of his creative people and support them and encourage them rather than tell them exactly what to do. And so as a result of that, he gets the best work out of those people. 

And just the way he casts his actors, I see that he casts his costume designer and he casts his cameraman and he casts his title designer as well. So he chooses the right person and then he lets them do what they do. And as a result, he gets their best work. It then allows him collectively to do his best work. That’s why his films are so good.

I’ve done my best work with him cause of how he’s collaborated with me and supported me and always loved the ideas I’ve brought to him. So I can do them at my best, make all of the choices and the decisions along the way, and then bring the final product to him. 

Dan Perri and the Art of the Title Sequence — photo courtesy of Sunshine Sachs.

CHM: And a follow-up on that, just because I’m curious about how the process works, this can be in regards to any of the films you’ve done, but when you’re brought into a certain project, what have you seen at that point? Like, I don’t know if the film’s finished or if you have anything that you can base the font on and then how do you then come up with the ideas?

Perri: Well, I’m always brought in while the post-production process is taking place. Usually, they’re still cutting, so I need to see the film in whatever form it is in so I can have my own emotional reaction to it. And out of that ideas just come into my head. I still don’t know how that happens, it’s still a mystery, but fortunately, they still come.

And not just one idea; it’s always three or four or more ideas. So I have to sort through all of those as if another designer has brought me these ideas and I’ve gotta look at them all and decide which one I think is best. So I’m working with myself in that way, and these ideas come to me. I always work in the exact same way since the very beginning: an idea that pops into my head and I have to literally scramble and find a piece of paper, something to draw it on, on the paper with a pencil — it’s always a regular old pencil with me eraser on it so I can erase something and change it — but if I don’t jot it down right away, sometimes it goes away. It evaporates, it’s gone. I can’t even remember it. 

So it’s that process has always been present in my work. Ever since I was a kid, when I started designing graphics and doing sign painting when I was in high school, I work with a pencil and a piece of paper and that has worked for me. So it has never changed. Of course, after I’ve made the drawing, I will scan it and take it into the computer and then I can manipulate it. [When] I would do that on paper and, one after the other would paint and brush and now I use the computer for that. But the idea still comes the same way and putting it down to visualize it is the same way I’ve always done.

CHM: That’s amazing. It’s like a musician when they think of a melody or something and they’ve gotta run home and jot it down. 

Perri: Yeah, exactly. I was on a plane one time with Stevie Wonder — he was on the same flight [and] I wound up having dinner with him — but he and his assistant were together in two seats and every so often Stevie would motion to him and this guy would jump up and go to the overhead and bring down this little machine. It looked like a court reporter machine that Sony had made for him. And instead of typing letters and so on, it would type notes and anytime Steve would get a musical idea, he would write it on this machine that had been made for him. 

So he worked exactly the way I worked and I think a lot of creative people do. You have ideas and you get them out in some way that you can translate and develop them. It’s a successful way of operating. 

CHM: Not to keep you off of the topic at hand too much, but I do wanna transition to your exhibit. Is this the first time your work’s been in an exhibit before or have you done something similar to this before?

Dan Perri and the Art of the Title Sequence — photo courtesy of Sunshine Sachs.

Perri: It’s the first time. I’ve never shown my work except for occasional screenings I might have for friends who wanna see the body of work together. And this is the third phase of a program that I’ve wanted to develop and apply, and that is the process of sharing my work, which has come out of my desire as a teacher to pass on and share what I’ve done and what I know.

So it’s my knowledge and my work that I feel obligated to pass that on to mostly students because that’s who would benefit [from] it, but there are lots of people who are fans of the work and fans of film and of title design and so on and I regularly talk to those people. But it’s mostly students and schools that I visit. I’ve had tours all over London, France, the U.S. Two weeks ago, [I] spoke to USC, their film department, and I’m talking to Cal Arts out here in L.A. next week. So I keep getting invited to these different places and I simply show my sample reel, which is like a minute-and-a-half collection of just the logos of different films and then there are tons of questions and they wanna hear the stories and like [what it’s like] to work with Scorsese George Lucas or whatever it might be. So, I greatly enjoy that. The sharing is where it’s come from, and that’s the first stage is to teach and share it with students, the second phase is I wrote a book about my career, which I self-published. It’s now on my website, danperri.com, and people from all over the world are buying it. I’ve sold about 500 of the 1,000 that I printed, but I get orders all the time from every part of the world and I shipped them a lot myself personally. So that’s the second stage to reach more people and share the work.

And the third stage is to exhibit the work. So I approached, uh, the Museum of the Moving Image and suggested they do an exhibition of my work and they loved the idea. So over the months, we developed it and cultivated and discussed the approach and so on. Barbara Miller and her guest curator, Lola, who runs Art of the Title, you know that site [and she] collaborated with Barbara, and they together curated the show.

I haven’t seen it yet — I’ll see it Sunday when I go there for the reception opening of it. But I’ve seen pictures of it, I imagine you have too, and it looks wonderful. I’m really thrilled with what you’re done with it. 

CHM: Well, I’m going on Saturday and I’m so excited to see it. It seems like you had this yearning to start the exhibit, but how long did these conversations take and what exactly was being discussed? Was it hard to pick and choose what would go into the exhibits?

Perri: Uh, yes. Barbara initially had a good idea [when] noticing that a lot of films I’ve done happen to be set in New York or with New York directors. Like most of Marty [Scorsese]’s work is based in New York. Walter Hill, for example, did The Warriors which was set in New York so we were looking at the notion of the show being heavy on films that are set or take place in New York.

And so the films that Barbara selected were in that vein. But there are many that I felt were important to represent my work that wouldn’t have been in the show because they [weren’t] New York-based films, but still, they’re good examples of what I’ve done. So we kinda expanded that and there are now two video presentations.

One [features] sequences from the core films and then a group of others that are more general, that represent things I’ve done that were important to my growth as a designer and some of those films that are not as successful perhaps, but good pieces of work. So that’s how that happened. 

CHM: My last question for you is, I know you kind of mentioned that the presentation of some of your work, what else can people like myself that are gonna go expect to see? Are there storyboards or anything like that?

Perri: Uh, no, I don’t really do storyboards much. There’s, there’s one on, on, I think the, uh, excuse me, the Species sequence, which I hand-animated, but it’s just the opening of the actual title. So there’s a storyboard on that, but I don’t. I don’t find [that] storyboards are effective to present ideas.

There are lots of artifacts from different films. I like to create things in reality whenever I can. Like [with] Caddyshack, the idea was the golf ball instead of the word “Titleist,” it has the word “Caddyshack” and it’s in the same type style as the word “Titleist.” So I had a ball made and they couldn’t make it the size of a golf ball cause it’d be too small to properly letter the letters so they made it the size of a softball. I then filmed it, and without anything around it, it looks like the size of a golf — so it served the purpose. But that [the golf ball], that is in the show. It’s in a glass case somewhere. 

Dan Perri and the Art of the Title Sequence — photo courtesy of Sunshine Sachs.

The license plate that I had made from Star 80 is in the show, which I had made and had chrome-plated and filmed it live and moved lights around so it looked like it was alive. There’s the logo from Freebie and The Bean, which was a big saddle with multiple colors of neon lights on it. So I painted that by hand like an animator would, and I filmed it with a live camera and then superimposed it over shots from film. 

There are a number of original designs that I did on tissue paper and pasted down onto a piece of cardboard and put a flap on it and brought it to George Lucas on Star Wars. A few of the alternate ideas that are there in the case as well. There are the wooden letters that I used for Gangs of New York [which] were original letters that were used to print headlines in newspapers from the 1850s, which I found at an old type shop and assemble them, photographed them, and became the logo for the film. Those letters are there as well, and a few others that I can’t remember at this moment. 


Dan Perri and the Art of the Title Design is on display at the Museum of the Moving Image now until January 1, 2023. For more information, click here

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Interviews

Frankie Corio on Aftersun, Olivia Rodrigo, Paul Mescal and *that* Karaoke Scene | Interview

‘Aftersun’ is in theaters now.

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Aftersun is my favorite film of the year, full stop. It’s a beautiful portrait of a father and his young daughter as they take a holiday in Turkey. The film is so tender and melancholic and sure to require tissues upon viewing. But on top of all of that, the film not only serves as an amazing feature-length debut for writer-director Charlotte Wells and another great performance on Paul Mescal’s resume, but it also features the amazing debut performance of the young Frankie Corio.

Corio’s first professional role is in Aftersun, but you’d never be able to tell from her performance. Over the last few decades, we’ve had an increase in the number of great young performances whether it’s Jacob Tremblay in Room (2015) or Woody Norman in last year’s film, C’mon C’mon, none reach the heights of Corio in Aftersun, in my humble opinion. There’s such earnestness and authenticity in her interactions with her on-screen father Mescal, and her performance reminded me of Natalie Portman in Léon the Professional many years ago.

I was genuinely over the moon when I was given the green light to speak with Corio. Thanks to A24, I had the privilege to chat with her last week over Zoom. Corio may be a relative newbie to this whole acting thing, but she’s a total pro both on and off the screen. Of course, we talked plenty about Aftersun but we also discussed our favorite Olivia Rodrigo tracks, New York memories and that karaoke scene. I genuinely hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it. Consider this my claim of a spot on the Frankie Corio bandwagon when she inevitably wins an Oscar someday.


Coastal House Media: First off, congratulations on Aftersun and, thank you so much for all of your time. It’s my favorite film of the year, and your performance is a major reason for that. What has this whole experience been like for you? Is this what you imagined when you signed up to be in the film industry?

Frankie Corio: No, it’s very cool and different. Definitely different. It’s mostly cool and exciting because I get to travel all over the world. 

CHM: Do you have a favorite experience along the way? Maybe in New York for the film festival?

Corio: I loved [it] in New York, definitely. That was the best place ever because it was very fun. And we went to Empire State Building. 

CHM: Did you try any pizza while you were in New York? 

Corio: I don’t think so. I had lots of bagels because I love bagels [smiles].

CHM: Next time you’re in New York, you’ll have to try some of the pizza! To get into the film a little bit, the film mostly rests on the shoulders of your chemistry with Paul Mescal, who plays your father in the film. What do you think it was, in your estimation, that led to such believable chemistry? 

Corio: I am not sure, but I think even without hanging out before [I knew that] we would still get along very well. 

CHM: Really? What was it about Paul that made you think you’d get along? Do you guys have similar interests or something like that?

Corio: We both like Olivia Rodrigo, so that’s a good thing. And obviously, he is very easy to get along with and he’s cool and funny.

A still from Aftersun. Photo courtesy of A24.

CHM: I actually saw Olivia Rodrigo because my cousin had an extra ticket and she took me to see her earlier this year in New York. Did you get to see her on tour at all this year?

Corio: No, I never got to go. At the time she was here in Scotland, we were gonna go, but we were on holiday.

Leona Corio (Frankie’s mother): She sent you a message for your birthday, though.  

Frankie: Yeah, I got a video of her for my birthday. 

CHM: What’s your favorite song on her album?

Corio: “deja vu.” 

CHM: I’ve gotta get your thoughts on this song. My least favorite song on that album is “jealousy, jealousy” — I just never vibed with it. Do you like that song? 

Corio: Really? I like that one, The one I don’t like is “enough for you.” 

CHM: Interesting; that’s one of my favorite songs. I guess we’re juxtaposed on that.

Corio: [laughs]

CHM: Speaking of music, I know that you have the performance of “Losing My Religion” in the film — which is great — but was this a scene that you were looking forward to, either excitedly or anxiously, and how did you prep for it? 

Corio: I was not excited at all! So me and Paul had that two-week thing before we started shooting and every time we went there we would always go over to that bit where I sing it and they would try and make me stand up on the stage and sing it. But I couldn’t, I just hated the song and I hated the thought of having to do it. 

I was excited for it cause it was gonna be funny. I got up and before we started filming, I started just speaking [into] the microphone cause I liked it but I was also nervous cause it was a bit cringe [laughs]. There were a lot of people there, so it was a bit weird.

CHM: I know you said you don’t like the song, but have you been able to listen to it ever since then? 

Corio: Every time I hear it, I’m like [jokingly hyperventilates].

CHM: So if you watch the film again, can you watch that scene? Is it easier for you to watch it than it was to shoot it?

Corio: Yes, but I went to go and watch it with my friends on Tuesday, and it was extremely embarrassing and cringy. I just like, “ugh,” I was hiding in my jumper. I hated it. But I mean, I’d rather watch it than have to reperform it again.

CHM: I read another interview where you mentioned Millie Bobby Brown as a big influence on your acting. Do you have any other influences? Truthfully, your performance really reminded me of Natalie Portman in her first film, Léon the Professional. I don’t know if you’ve gotten that comparison, but are there any other actors that really influence you?

Corio: [gleefully gasps and smiles] Again, like I already said in so many other interviews, the whole Stranger Things cast are [a] big influence on me. Tom Holland, Mason Thames from The Black Phone and the girl [Madeleine McGaw] also from The Black Phone. But yeah, all the modern stuff [laughs], all the people that are in modern stuff are my influences. 

CHM: So you’re a Stranger Things fan… I’ve actually never seen the show. 

Corio: [gasps]

CHM: I’ve seen a bit of the first episode and then my cousin tried to force me to watch part of season four, but what is it about the show? Why should I watch it? I’ve never gotten into it.

Corio: It’s just really cool and it’s great to watch because it just is. Plus, the main character is some sci-fi girl with weird powers, like, who wouldn’t want to see that? Plus, Millie Bobby Brown is in it and her acting is amazing. So like, who wouldn’t want to watch it? 

CHM: Okay, well maybe I’ll give it a shot. Did you pick up anything from your director on this film, Charlotte Wells? What was she like as a director? 

A behind-the-scenes photo from Aftersun. Photo courtesy of A24.

Corio: Uh, [she] was amazing. [She was] such a great director and she just helped me [with] so [much] stuff. Not stuff that I would be able to remember right now, but at random points, she would be able to help me with stuff, to see stuff and yeah, very good. 

She would make me do it — not make me [laughs] — but me, her and Paul, before we started filming, this was mainly for my sake, we would do like a two-minute mindfulness thing so that we could all calm down — mainly me [laughs] — but yeah, she has some great tactics [and] directing skills. 

CHM: I don’t know if you would remember whether or not the film was shot in chronological order or not, but was it? 

Corio: [shakes head]

CHM: My next question has to do with the final scene where you’re kind of waving goodbye to Paul. Was that shot last by any chance? 

Corio: I think that was shot last actually. I think they had to go back to London to shoot that, didn’t we? Yeah, I think those were definitely shot last, the airport bits, but I think those were the only things that were in order; the rest of ’em were filmed at different times. 

I had to wear long sleeves so I wouldn’t get tanned [laughs], so I wouldn’t be going through different shades every scene. 

A still from Aftersun. Photo courtesy of A24.

CHM: So then with that final scene, did it feel emotional for you given that it was the final scene? I know that once “Cut!” is called, you know, you could still hang out with Paul, but did it feel like a final goodbye at all when you were filming it?

Corio: Not really; I dunno why. I don’t think [during] the whole [time] of filming, I was never really like, “This is gonna be the last time I’m gonna see you for ages,” [laughs]. After I left, we just like hugged. I was like, “Bye; see you soon.”

It was mainly at all the film festivals. Even though that’s when I’m gonna see them next, I’m still just like, “Do we have to leave? I don’t want to,” because people love being around me [laughs] — I’m joking. 

CHM: Do you have any sort of mementos from the shoot?

Corio: Yeah, I’ve got two t-shirts with signatures on them.

So for my birthday, I got a white t-shirt and everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to [me] — I have that still. I was very close with all the teenagers that were [in] the film, and obviously, Michael, who I kissed [smiles]. The boy that plays Michael is called Brooklyn [Toulson], [and] it was Brooklyn’s last day — well, [the] day before [the] last day — so we all signed shirts, like six or seven of us, and we’ve all got the hand prints on the back of the shirts where we have our names and the people that we play. 

CHM: That’s cute! And did you say it was your birthday during the shoot of the film?

Corio: Yeah, it was my 11th birthday on the 7th of July. 

CHM: So did everybody sing “Happy Birthday” like you do to Paul’s character in the film? 

Corio: Yeah, I got a big chocolate cake. I never even knew what was happening, I just got told that I was gonna go to the catering for lunch today, I was like, “Okay, sure,” went down [and] sat down with Paul and my family. I should have been more suspicious because everyone was there — normally they were all doing their own thing — and then they started singing “Happy Birthday” and brought out a big, fat chocolate cake with strawberries and meringue on it. And I got a flower crown. 

And it was after doing a pool scene. I remember [that] because when I look back at the videos, my hair was all soaked and I was wearing my dress and gown [laughs].

CHM: My final question for you is, looking back at this whole experience, I know that you’re gonna have a lot of work ahead of you, but is there anything specific that you’re gonna take with you from this experience on Aftersun and apply it to your next films? 

Corio: If I ever have to do a karaoke scene again, I will make sure I sound a bit better next time, that’s for sure. 


Aftersun is in theaters now.

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