Interview with Daniel Hart

Composer Daniel Hart (photo by Emily Ulmer)

It’s been ages since an eternal tale of an Arthurian quest has enchanted discerning viewers and critics to equal degree, let alone depicted often straightforwardly told tales of valiance in such bizarre shadings of color. But heads off to “The Green Knight” for accomplishing its mission in such a darkly magical and poetic fashion. A miasma of “Excalibur” meeting the eldritch atmosphere of H.P. Lovecraft in a world drenched in surreal Catholicism, it’s the latest, auspicious teaming between the filmmaking and musical Merlins of David Lowery and Daniel Hart. 

Bringing innovative lyricism to the outlaw of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” the folksily soaring symphony of “Pete’s Dragon,” the poetically ethereal vigil of “A Ghost Story” and the whimsically jazzy bank robbing “Old Man & the Gun,” “The Green Knight” stands as Hart’s most bewitchingly far out collaboration with Lowery yet. Looking, and sounding nothing like the round table missions launched to majestic strains by the likes of Miklos Rozsa, Richard Wagner, Hans Zimmer and the De Wolfe Music Library, Hart takes an unplugged, seemingly period-specific approach that makes “The Green Knight” seem more weirdly authentic than any Arthurian score before it. Mixing religious voices, stark percussion, devilishly playful winds and Medieval-size bands to establish a time-lost round table, Hart’s further inclusion of dream-like electronics and eerie strings make its fateful voyage take place as much in its hapless knight’s head as much as some beautifully abstract, fog-drenched world – one that beckons the listener ever forward to hear just how intoxicatingly strange its tone poem will get.

Conversely, viewers and old school soundtrack fans who want a quest of a different sort served to them in wonderfully comforting dollops will have it poured by Hart in the sumptuous romantic melodies for “The Last Letter from Your Lover.” It’s a resolutely Netflix-ian love story that offers up beautiful locations and people as it ties together the story of illicit passion with a romantically luckless journalist’s attempt to unite the strands of their love letters in the present. Hart’s resolutely melodic score is a yearning valentine to these sort of movies that have gotten a bit more passionate since the days of “Brief Encounter,” luxuriating in orchestral feeling and poetic mystery in a way that other composers might shy away from, yet going for the lush embrace with an intelligence that is anything but old fashioned in its sumptuous approach. With honor and romance fulfilled, the contrasting shades of Daniel Hart’s work continue to show a composer whose explorations yield striking musical rewards. 

Filmmaker David Lowery and composer Daniel Hart (photo from the Dallas Observer by Daniel Driensky and Sarah Reyes)

You’ve been with David Lowery from the start of your feature career with “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” What was that first project like, and why do you think you clicked as collaborators since then?

Well, we actually started working together a few years before that, when he asked me to write two cues for his first micro-budget feature “St. Nick.” And I thought that sounded like fun, so I made a couple things on a software version of a mellotron (M-Tron) in between St. Vincent tours at a shitty apartment in East Hollywood. I had no idea what I was doing, but after watching a couple scenes, musical ideas started popping into my head immediately. And David liked what I had written, so he then asked me to score his short film “Pioneer,” which premiered at Sundance the following year (2010? 2011?). I would call Pioneer my first real scoring job, in that I composed music for the entire film (about 7-8 minutes of score), and I was working directly to picture, trying to write for specific moments, and help tell that specific story.

But I think I still had no idea what I was doing, and I brought that ethos into “Saints”. On the one hand, even now there are basic things I should know about film scoring that I am embarrassed to say I do not, because I never went to school for it. On the other hand, I think that gave me a freedom of expression with the “Saints” score I would not have had otherwise i.e. because I didn’t know any rules, I couldn’t know if I was breaking those rules. And so I wrote whatever I felt, based on the film I was watching. I learned quickly on my next feature without David as director that being given such freedom to explore musically is a true gift, and it is rare. That’s probably a big part of why we work together so well: he likes to give his collaborators a lot of freedom to explore and inject their ideas into his films, and I like having that freedom. Beyond that there seems to be some inherent shared aesthetic for storytelling, maybe because we both grew up in suburban Dallas? But I think there’s more to it than that. We don’t have to talk much to understand what the other person is trying to say, most of the time.

You’d score two very distinct fantasies with David for the heartfelt big studio remake of “Pete’s Dragon” and the indie, existential “A Ghost Story.” What were those experiences like playing for the emotionally rousing, and ennui extremes of the spectrum – the latter which is most similar in tone to what would come with “The Green Knight?”

It sounds like quite a rollercoaster on paper, to do those two films back to back. But I don’t remember it that way. It felt natural to me, I think? Well, the “Pete’s Dragon” process, working with Disney for the first time, was very surreal in almost all aspects, from auditioning for the job, to not getting it, to auditioning again 1 1/2 years later and getting the job, to spending months in a post-production suite on the studio campus, working nonstop on music for a 90-something piece orchestra 7 days a week 12-14 hours a day.

But, as strange as this may sound, the actual composing of music for both films wasn’t all that different. Yes, I did have to respond to layers and layers of feedback on my orchestral demos at Disney, and conversely I had essentially no one to answer to on “A Ghost Story.” But when I think back on both films, I feel like in both cases I wrote the music that best fit the stories David was telling, and David has a very particular way of telling stories that comes through no matter how big the story is. And both stories were equal parts intimate and epic, and both stories required a lot of dynamic music. “A Ghost Story” was one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever had, and I think about 80% of the score is my first draft, which never happens. But, despite all the revisions requested by Disney, I also feel like the music which ended up in “Pete’s Dragon” is my vision for how the music should have been. They definitely gave me plenty of guidance, but in the end, I think it still sounds like me.

How was it to score a whimsical life of crime with David for “The Old Man & the Gun?”

“Old Man” was also a very easy job for me. I had a vision for a jazz-heavy score, David let me pursue that vision, and in the end it was the right fit for the film. And I have a very intense passion for jazz, which I played a lot when I was in my 20s. But I hadn’t sought out as many opportunities to play jazz in my 30s, and that desire had bottled up inside me to the point where I really needed an outlet for it. Lucky me David decided to make this film.

I was a big fan of CBS All Access’ “Strange Angel,” which ended just as it got to the most interesting part with the introduction of L. Ron Hubbard into Jack Parsons’ life. What was the experience of scoring David’s series like with its combination of science and the occult, and where do you think it’s music could have gone?

While David directed the first two episodes of season 1 of Strange Angel, he was very hands off after that point, too busy with other projects. So the show really belongs to its creators/showrunners: Mark Heyman and David Digilio. They were my central collaborators on both seasons of “Strange Angel.”

I live near the Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL), and whenever I tell visiting friends about Jack Parsons’ background, and the founding of the Laboratory, they’re absolutely fascinated. I guess amateur-rocket-scientist-turned-sex-cult-leader isn’t that common a story? I have NO idea where the music would have gone in season 3. Mark and I never discussed what he wanted to do if the show had been renewed. Both he and Mr. Digilio had asked me to make big stylistic changes between seasons 1 and 2 in the score, to reflect the changes in the main characters’ circumstances. And there are several quintessential noir conventions in the season 2 score (brooding solo trumpet, mournful clarinets, a lot of fast-paced cymbals played with brushes) that didn’t show up in season 1. But I fought them a bit on changing everything, because I wanted to keep some of the bigger ideas, themes, and instrumentation we had used in season 1 to provide a musical continuity across seasons. I probably would have tried to do the same for season 3.

THE GREEN KNIGHT, Dev Patel as Gawain, 2021. ph: Eric Zachanowich / © A24 / courtesy Everett Collection

One doesn’t expect a straightforward take on a genre when David takes it on. What kind of approach did he want you to take with “The Green Knight?”

Our first conversation on most scores revolves around instrumentation. And my biggest takeaways from our first Green Knight music conversation were that:

  1. I could do whatever I wanted, at least to start
  2. he wasn’t afraid of musical anachronisms, and in fact had envisioned big synths in certain sections.

We both thought there would be a lot of music in the film (we were right). I don’t think either of us anticipated how hard it would be to find the right music for this film. “Green Knight” is our most difficult collaboration to date, because for a long time, David wasn’t happy with the film he had made, and it seemed like so much of the music I was writing along the way didn’t quite solve the problems he was trying to solve in wanting to improve the film.

Thought it bears little resemblance to straightforward Arthurian films or scores, did you take them in anyways for research?

Let’s see, I watched part of “King Arthur”, the 2004 film with Clive Owen (and, ironically, with Joel Edgerton playing Gawain). I watched a little bit of “Monty Python and The Holy Grail” again. I think the answer to your question is no, I did not truly watch other Arthurian films for inspiration. I listened to a whole bunch of Middle English poetry being read by medievalists, though. And that was hugely helpful, both in trying to write lyrics in Middle English, but also in a more general sense of how this language likely sounded when spoken, and how the sound of that language might translate into how instruments are played and voiced.

This is certainly one of the more musically realistic approaches to an Arthurian fantasy, yet is visually very Lovecraftian. Could you talk about the instruments you picked, and how you wanted to give them a gritty, yet unearthly flavor?

The instruments I picked were reflective both of everything I knew about the film at the time I picked them (which was very little), and of things I was personally interested in exploring. Like many people, I was really taken with the score to “The Witch.” And when I found out that the nyckelharpa is one of the main reasons why, I had to have one. It also happened to make sense to have a medieval Swedish stringed instrument in a medieval fantasy film, but I likely would have gotten one anyway, as a string player obsessed with most string instruments, especially the most haunting stringed instruments. Earl Holzman of Holzman Folk Traditions very kindly built one for me, and I am in love with it.

Tell us about the role of the chorus and voice here. How do you think they give the score a religious quality, and did you study the plainsong of the time, especially given that film is based around Christmas?

My parents are both choir directors and church musicians (retired now), so choral music has been a big part of my life since I can remember. I used to sing in my parents’ church choirs. They took me to Europe with my father’s college choir when I was five years old. My parents are Episcopalian i.e. Church Of England, so there is a lot of liturgical music in an Episcopal mass with direct ties to the music of the 15th century. To that end, a lot of it is just in me, from a very early age. 


I did do choral research for this film. But I didn’t spend much time with 15th century plainsong. I spent more time with Hildegard. Her music has absolutely captivated me ever since I had to research her in writing music for season one of Fox’s The Exorcist, back in 2016. And I liked the idea that Gawain’s sister-witches would be more into Hildegard than the church music of the time. 

When I listen back to “The Green Knight score now, the choir is what makes it for me. I’m so happy with how it all turned out. We had three sopranos and four altos recorded at AIR Studio One in London, for a few sessions. They absolutely knocked it out of the park. Hearing them sing was a revelation. I would write them into every score from now on if I could.

How did you want to contrast lyricism with an unnerving, if sometimes nightmarish quality?

The thing I adore about David’s ghost stories is that their purpose is more to haunt, than it is to scare. And that difference really resonates with me, so I tried to reflect that desire to haunt in the music as well. To that end, I don’t know if any kind of contrast was apparent to me when I was writing this music. It all felt like part of an epic same to me. The film is a very thorough exploration of the vulnerability of existence, the fragility of being alive, the courage it takes to truly be one’s self, and whether you’re dealing with a beheading or not, that is a massive journey. I tried to make music that would reflect every aspect of that journey.

How did you want to incorporate electronics into the score?

I used a Prophet Rev2 for 99% of the synths in this score, and in fact got the Prophet so I would have something new to me to explore for this film. I listened to Wendy Carlos’ cues that made it into “The Shining” and thought, “it should be like this”. And then I tried to make something that felt like that to me. I think you can really hear it in some of the synth parts, like a very similar timbre and melodic structure. But hopefully in a way that’s reverent more than derivative. Beyond that specific desire, I just kept the Prophet in the back of my mind when I was examining scenes. And so I would ask myself every time, “does it fit here?” I also tried to limit my synth parts to a few patches, so that the synth parts would feel cohesive.

Were there any limits on how far out your approach could go?

No. Only the limits I placed upon myself i.e. wanting to keep to specific instrumentation to provide consistency, and wanting to use leitmotif for certain characters and character relationships. There was stuff I wrote that David gave the axe, but it wasn’t an axe for any specific approach. There were just cues he liked and cues he didn’t. I felt like both of us remained pretty open to all possibilities throughout the process.

What kind of modern classical composers influenced you for “The Green Knight,” and in general? And how do you think that your approach for “Green Knight” follows other scores that might seem confrontational, especially to what we’ve heard before?

One of the biggest influences on this score was Michiel Mensingh’s “Wicked”, for recorder quartet. I knew early on that I wanted recorders in this score. But I didn’t know anything about modern recorder music. I reached out to Michiel, who was very kind and very helpful. He basically gave me the car keys that allowed me to drive through that world.

I listened to a lot of Caroline Shaw’s choral music while working on this score as well, in particular the Partita that won her the Pulitzer a few years back.  I heard the premiere of Christopher Stark’s “Cascades” and Unsuk Chin’s “Spira” by the LA Phil at Disney Hall while I was working on “The Green Knight.” Both pieces made a HUGE impression on me. I also heard Sofia Gubaidulina’s music for the first time in 2020. I listened to “Offertorium” several times this past year.

I imagine that when David recut the film during the pandemic that you needed to re-compose (or rescore) it. What was that challenge like, and how do you think the music changed with the new edit?

So many changes. He recut it a couple times during the pandemic. A lot of the songs, which now play a big role in the score, were written during those changes, because David was unsatisfied, and searching for new music that might work and asked me, “How about a song in this scene?” I think the first one of those was “Aiganz O Kulzphazur”. And when that worked as well as it did, David kept asking me to write songs for other scenes.

Could you talk about the song “Blome Swete Lilie Flour?”

I wrote that song not too long before we recorded everything at AIR in London. I wanted to make something in a 60s folk style a la “Scarborough Faire” or an acoustic guitar version of “Greensleeves”, but something even sadder than that. The song is a meditation on death and dying. “I go to see St. Mary” refers to the saint, but also the name of an old English cemetery, that might have been around in the 15th century. 

Tell us about scoring the “Last Temptation” mini-movie that’s the climax of the film, and is entirely driven by music.

That was a tough assignment, for sure. I think what you hear in the film is mostly from the third draft I wrote. David was looking for something to tie the end scenes together musically, more than my first couple drafts had done. After the success “I Promise You Will Not Come To Harm”, I thought violin arpeggiando could again provide us with that through-line. So various arpeggiandos do drive that whole section. The other thing which really drives it near the start is a reprise of “O Nyghtegale”, a lullaby sung on camera by Atheena Frizell (as one of Gawain’s sister-witches), and consequently the first piece of music I ever wrote for “The Green Knight.” I weaved that melody throughout the score, but this is its biggest and most direct statement.

What do you think that the film and score says about the idea of knighthood?

I think the film says a lot of things about knighthood, and the score is simply trying to give passage to all of the ideas being presented. But my favorite thing it says about knighthood is what Lord de Bertilak says, when he’s questioning Gawain about why he’s on this quest at all. The idea that doing this one thing, that facing the Green Knight essentially changes him from a boy into a man of honor, is both the premise of the story, and it’s ridiculous. “Oh how I wish I could see the new you”, the lord says. It feels both sincere and mocking at the same time, and I love it for that.

I can’t imagine a more contrasting film or score to “The Green Knight” an unabashedly romantic project like “The Last Letter from Your Lover?” What was it like to get the opportunity to play full-blown romance?

It was a treat! I’ve done some romantic comedies before, but never a straight romance like this. I think I’m a romantic at heart, so I didn’t have much trouble immersing myself in this story.

DSC_4957.NEF

Traditionally scored melodies and themes that really “go for it” are often seem in short supply. Do you think that love stories particularly afford that opportunity?

I do. At least films like this do. I really love a huge, sweeping melody. Those are often the most memorable scores for me, and I like being able to remember scores I’ve heard, to be able to play them back in my head.

Did you find yourself looking into your own “could have been” part when composing this score?

Romantically speaking? If so, then yes, I did. But I think about that stuff a lot. What could be in the future, what could have been in the past, how making a different choice years ago would affect what my life is like now. Even with music – if you had asked 2011 Daniel, I think he would have been happy to just keep touring in bands forever. But I got fired from my main touring job in 2011 kind of last minute, and I was looking for ways at the time to still make a living as a musician. That’s when film scoring fell into my lap. Had I been on tour for more of that year, maybe I would have turned down that first film, and I wouldn’t be here. Impossible to say now.

How did you want to set up a structure that could draw past and present together? 

The director Augustine Frizzell and I talked about this quite a bit. Should the score have any bearing on the time period? Because, unlike “The Green Knight,” we’re not talking about centuries of difference. Most of the instruments we use today, especially in film scoring, were around in the 1960s. I did reserve some instruments for certain time periods, as a way of giving little clues as to when the current scene is happening. But so did the costume design, and the production design, better than I could have. We also had 60s songs, like Marianne Faithfull’s rendition of “This Little Bird”, to help set the time period.

David is next realizing the Neverland of “Peter Pan & Wendy.” What can we expect from this film, and how do you think that “The Green Knight” has influenced it?

I think it’s too early to tell. I haven’t seen enough footage yet to know how “The Green Knight” influenced David’s direction, or other behind-the-camera kinds of decisions. Musically speaking, I do feel like I have the freedom to explore a bit more than I might have explored beyond traditional orchestral techniques pre-“Green Knight,” and beyond what I did with the orchestra in “Pete’s Dragon.” And that prospect excites me.

Daniel Hart (photo by Emily Ulmer)

With David’s films and “Letter,” do you hope to keep straddling the world of art and mainstream scoring?

I hope to keep working on stories that inspire me with people that inspire me, regardless of where they sit on the commercial spectrum. I don’t think anyone is coming knocking on my door for “Fast & Furious 10!” But if a big film like “Peter Pan and Wendy” can afford me a little room to be musically adventurous, to keep challenging myself, then I’m happy to work on big films. And if someone wants to make another weird medieval fantasy, well…I’ve already done the research.

Watch “The Green Knight” in theaters, and “The Last Letter from Your Lover” on Netflix, and get Daniel Hart’s scores on Milan Records and Sony Music HERE and HERE

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B098832XK7?pf_rd_r=FH6SB95HPFCCV980WBFP&pf_rd_p=5ae2c7f8-e0c6-4f35-9071-dc3240e894a8&pd_rd_r=a3f085ce-7c32-46e1-ae94-e2dbca62d81d&pd_rd_w=gjKNF&pd_rd_wg=LyYxz&ref_=pd_gw_unk
https://www.amazon.com/Letter-Original-Motion-Picture-Soundtrack/dp/B0999KMSZ4/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=last+letter+from+your&qid=1628096329&s=dmusic&sr=1-1

Visit Daniel Hart’s web site HERE

https://www.danielhartmusic.com

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