Interview with Aaron Zigman

There’s dropping out of the rat race. And then there’s really dropping out. For the sardonic, disaffected Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston), it’s using a breakdown in his usual commuter train route to NYC suburban malaise to take a trip straight into his garage attic. There he stays for months, and maybe forever, looking across his driveway to watch his wife and daughters cope with his seeming disappearance, and grow to discover a new life without their jaded breadmaker.

Staying mostly silent throughout (apart from the flashbacks that show what drove Howard to isolation), it’s Wakefield’s first-person narration that imparts the listener with his caustic viewpoint, sardonic self-recrimination that gradually grows into a far more meaningful spiritual realization. The same can be said for Aaron Zigman’s profound, hauntingly melodic score that gets into Howard’s headspace and makes us understand a man alone, even when he once was part of society. “Wakefield” is a multi-layered, multi-thematic score of dazzling complexity, the summation of a prolific composer who’s ranged from the tearful emotionalism of “The Notebook” to the epic fantasy that paved “The Bridge to Terabithia” and the wacky comedy of “The Proposition” among dozens of scores.

Zigman’s time with Howard’s physical, and mental transformation opens up a world of styles to explore here, searching through tender strings and piano, rat race rhythms, eccentric humor, jazzy hubris, blissful godhood and the panic of being chased by Russian scavengers among the many facets of Howard. Capable of intimacy and lush orchestrations, Zigman’s “Wakefield” is the height of musical introspection and suspense, as well as the vital glue that, along with Cranston’s daring performance, hypnotically fills Robin Swicord’s beyond-intimate film. For Zigman, it’s music that’s as much about his own journey to reach a personal, and professional apex as he fills a garage’s second story with an enormity of an unlikely hermit’s life choices.

You’ve always had a skillful approach to melody in scores like “The Notebook,” “The Bridge To Terabithia,” “Flash of Genius,” and “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” which you co-composed with Alexandre Desplat. Do you think that’s something missing in many of today’s scores?

I think that memorable tunes that are achieved primarily by the four bar phrase—or just melody in general—are somewhat diminishing in today’s film music.

You’d scored Robin’s directorial debut “The Jane Austen Book Club.” What was your collaboration like this time?

Robin Swicord - Photo by Gilles Mingasson.

The collaboration was only different in the sense that Robin and I had already worked together before, so there was a deeper understanding and a more intuitive process. I had known about this script four years ago, so I was able to send Robin a lot of material that we could cull from. We were also not emulating a piece of temp music, but rather working from a concept, which, in my opinion, paved the way for a more original score.

There are a remarkable number of themes in “Wakefield.” Could you talk about developing them?

Years ago when Robin was writing this script, she and I spoke and she said she wanted a score in the style of “Vertigo” by Bernard Herrmann. My response was a piece of music that I sent her in that style while retaining my own voice and she was really moved by it. That piece of music was like an overture to the story. One of the things I’ve always felt strongly about is that when a script is well written I don’t need to see the picture to write themes for the various characters. That was the case with “Wakefield.”

How did you want to convey the meaningless, suburb-to-city rat race that starts “Wakefield?” as well as Howard’s yearning to break free from it?

Jennifer Garner, Bryan Cranston - Photo by Gilles Mingasson

Actually, I did not want to stamp the story as present day, especially in light of the fact that the original story was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1835, with a variation of the story written by E.L. Doctorow. I trusted my instincts and used music that wouldn’t comment on modern present day but convey almost a timeless impression so that whatever “Wakefield” said in the narrative, written by Robin, it would not be foreshadowed by the music.

Most of “Wakefield’s” dialogue is heard through Howard’s first person narration. What challenge did that give you in the respect that a great deal of Bryan Cranston’s performance is silent, and your music has to speak for what’s going on in his head?

I so identified with Bryan’s character—not about doing the unthinkable—but with his yearning to break free of the things that bound him to a lifestyle that was not working for him because I am a person who believes in behavior modification. Over the last four years I have worked on myself and breaking free of chains that hold me back. I, too, am exploring a metamorphosis like this character.

When you have a film about a person secreting himself in an attack, it’s usually the domain of outright horror films like “Hider in the House.” How did you want the music to convey that “Wakefield” wouldn’t go in that direction, while also giving suspense to just what Howard is going to do?

Bryan Cranston - Photo by Gilles Mingasson

I wrote music not indicative of that style. It was actually the antithesis. I created music that used melody to convey an emotional fabric and I tried to stay away from being literal in any sense. To me the attic was not a creepy place, rather it was a place of refuge for Cranston’s character to sit with his thoughts, wrestle with his own human frailty and deal with his own self-grandiosity so that he could make his eventual transformation.

There are many spying sequences of “Wakefield” that recall “Rear Window,” as well as the danger of him going outside of his attic. How did you want the score to communicate that kind of on-edge creepiness, as well as the emotion of what he’s missing out on?

I used very dissonant harmony, not in the sense of the horror genre, but to convey anxiety.

Some people might look at Howard’s quest to find himself as a highly selfish act. Was it important for you to give the character empathy he might not otherwise have without the music? And did your scoring of Howard change your own opinion of the character?

Absolutely. It was important to use the music to create a path of emotionality and tenderness so that the viewer would be open and empathetic to the fact that this guy is not only a self-absorbed person but also a man who might be seeking to find himself. I wanted to create beauty in the music so that the audience would not interpret the movie in a myopic manner.

Did you want the garage attic to become a musically magical place, capable of bliss as well as danger?

I wanted the attic to become a place of quietness. I stayed very minimal in the attic and I wanted to sustain that sense of a place where the character could organize his thoughts and change his viewpoints on life. I didn’t see it as a magical place as much as a place of solace.

There are a surprising amount of musical styles to “Wakefield,” one of which is jazz, which is mixed with a particularly lush and sensual orchestra for Howard’s wooing of Diana in a way that’s film noir-ish. Did you want to go for that kind of classic, retro use of jazz? And were there any composers you wanted to pay tribute to in that respect?

Jennifer Garner - Photo by Gilles Mingasson

There were actually only two short jazz cues in the film, both of which were in the style of Thelonious Monk. I used these to convey some comic relief in an otherwise tense drama. The music of this film was more about paying homage to some of the great film composers of our past like Nino Rota and Bernard Herrmann.

There’s also playfully twisted, almost waltz-like comedy to “Wakefield” to reflect Howard’s sarcastic worldview, and even very funny doorbell-ringing suspense. Is it difficult to put absurdist musical humor into an otherwise dramatic score?

I wrote some waltz-esque rhythmical cues, but I tried to stay away from the traditional pizzicato articulation. I had the strings play an arco articulation so that the chords could be heard and felt and you could feel the oddity and the skewed quality of its dissonance. I wanted the comedy to be left-handed instead of using a generic or more pedestrian approach. For instance, I even used gamelan instead of marimbas to create a percussive feel in the comedy sequences.

Howard develops an almost Jesus-like relationship to the challenged kids next door to him. How did you want to convey their giving, emotional purity and the potential salvation they deliver to Howard?

Bryan Cranston - Photo by Gilles Mingasson

The autistic children that were used in this film by Robin Swicord were an example of purity to “Wakefield” because they were untainted by life’s adversities and every day problems. They were a mirror for Cranston’s character to be able to see himself through a transparent lens rather than a translucent one so that he could reconnect to humanity in a different way, in a way that is loving and kind. Instead of being threatened by these characters, he realizes through these children all the things that he was missing in humanity, such as kindness and unconditional love that so rarely exist in the universe. So I wanted the music to have an emotional quality whenever he was with these two characters and have a real poignant effect on the viewer so that they could see “Wakefield” in a different light, as well as pave the way to make his journey toward redemption.

Given the intricacy of “Wakefield’s” score, what are some things about the score’s construction you’d want people to realize that might otherwise elude them?

The most important thing is that I want them to understand that this is a period score to a modern drama. And, in my humble opinion, with the exception of many of our great writers, the scores in the past were more sophisticated in their harmonic construction and I would hope that audiences sense that about this score, too.

I can only imagine how many endless hours you’ve spent locked in your studio. In that way, how did you draw upon your own experiences with the self-realization that comes from isolation, or even moments of madness, to create the musical character of Howard?

I do identify with this character because I have had to deal with a lot of adversity and I have had to take accountability to achieve redemption. I really responded to his metamorphosis. Especially the aspects of contrition, self-examination and being open to change and focusing on the things in life that is important. So, it was quite easy for me to stay in my studio for hundreds of hours and write this music. I could have happily worked on this score for a lifetime.

With all of the scores you’ve done, “Wakefield” just might be your best work to date. What do you hope that “Wakefield” does for peoples’ musical impression of you?

I’d like filmmakers to recognize that I know how to be emotionally evocative without being saccharin. I hope that my work conveys that I am a serious dramatic writer who can write music that can achieve a director’s vision while saying something powerful and meaningful without overwhelming a film.

What do you think that “Wakefield” and its score have to say about the human condition when a character so starkly deals with himself?

Aaron Zigman - photo by Eugene Powers

In contrast to the question, I want to respectfully say that Howard’s actions and condition never seemed stark to me. I saw his predicament as a matter of life and death. If Howard never left his family and the comforts of his seemingly successful career and lifestyle, he never would have become the enlightened human being he becomes and he never would have achieved redemption. He would have died an unevolved person. Every human being should have the chance to become the best person they can be. And that message is the power of this movie.

“Wakefield” opens in New York on May 19, then in Los Angeles and select markets and on VOD on May 26, with Aaron Zigman’s score available this summer on Decca Gold

Visit Aaron Zigman’s website HERE

1 Comment

  • May 18, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

    Great interview. Love that the composer approached it with intellectual depth. Don’t read that a lot nowadays. Will definitely see the film so that I can hear the score!

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