There’s no greater question facing any living person than “What happens when I die?” It’s one that movies have answered since their birth with visions both horrifying and wondrous, painting visions of what’s facing the departed in terms both religiously absolute, and in defiance of the iconography of heaven and hell. Just as immediately recognizable is the image of a ghost that first comes to any child’s mind – that of a human figure buried under a white sheet, with only eyeholes hinting at expression.
Such is the stock in trade of director David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” in which the seemingly unbreakable love of “C” (Casey Affleck) and “M” (Rooney Mara) is unexpectedly sundered by the reaper. But as life, and new romance continues for his wife, “C” must hang around as a sheet in the wind as such, forever watching without being able to touch, haunted by all now denied him.
Just as this acclaimed picture brings back together Affleck and Mara from Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” “A Ghost Story” continues the director’s collaboration with a composer who matches his soulful resonance in Daniel Hart. Familiar to alt. rock fans from his work with such bands as Broken Social Scene, The Polyphonic Spree and St. Vincent, Hart’s voice as a composer first resonated for Lowery on “St. Nick” before truly making an impression on the indie film scene with “Saints.” It was a dreamy score that brought new musical originality to the rural crime-scoring scene, matching Lowery’s lyrical touch for the genre. Their next collaboration would be a major step up into the sky with a reptile on the lam for “Pete’s Dragon,” a soaring, serious reboot of Disney’s animated musical that not only offered Hart’s folk-tuned emotion, but a sweeping orchestral sound to his repertoire worthy of James Horner at his fantastical height.
Now “A Ghost Story” brings Hart and Lowery back to earth, where it remains to watch life go on in artistically stark, determinedly independent terms. For a prodigy born from church musician parents, Hart paints a gorgeously sad plea for uncomprehending oblivion. His favored instrument of a violin abets a chamber approach reminiscent of such modern classicists as Arvo Part – scoring that conjures loneliness as opposed to fear as the score grows through the stages of ghostly acceptance. Guitar, glass-like sounds, voices and Latin chorus grow from from intimacy to a much larger, cosmic scope. Even that old afterlife scoring chestnut of an organ becomes something new and transcendent given Hart’s memorable evocation of what comes next, with his song “I Get Overwhelmed” creating an alt. plea for a spirit desperate to communicate. As far from a horror score as imaginable, Daniel Hart has conjured the musical afterlife in all of its melancholy, speaking for a silently anguished husband in a hauntingly unique musical voice. It’s “A Ghost Story” that typifies Hart’s increasingly impressive body of soundtracks, especially when in the company of a kindred spirit like David Lowery.
Talk about your first explorations of music. Did you ever imagine yourself becoming a film composer?
I’ve been playing the violin since I was three years old, but I think my first real explorations with music happened when I was a teenager. We learned and performed a piece in high school orchestra called “Jazz for Strings”, or something like that. I may be making some of this up, but I remember there being a very small section in the piece for a violin soloist to improvise. It was probably a five-second solo, but I volunteered to take it, and that small window into the possibility of musical creativity beyond learning Western Classical violin technique in the formal ways I had done so up to that point (violin lessons, high school orchestra, playing in a string quartet…) really shook me, planted a seed in me.
Then I got to college, and I started playing in a band called The Doubting Scholars. It was a band mostly made up of students, but spearheaded by Kevin Hanlon, from the composition faculty at Southern Methodist University. While I know Kevin enjoyed performing for an audience, he treated that band very much like a class for the students he had recruited to play with him. We learned Irish reels, American blues, Bob Wills covers, jazz standards, Beach Boys and Oingo Boingo songs, and we wrote originals. The songs I wrote for the Doubting Scholars were the first pieces of music I wrote that approached anywhere near worth hearing.
So I never set out to be a film composer. My main interest was in live performance, and I spent five years trying to tour full-time and then another five years touring full-time before I ever really tried to score a film.
How did you work with bands like The Polyphonic Spree and Broken Social Scene influence your own instrumental approach?
My main take-aways from my time in The Polyphonic Spree were more about how to be the best entertainer I could be, and about keeping my mind open to any possibility. Tim DeLaughter was a true frontman: he danced, he shouted, he called people to action, he was electrifying. I wanted to be that as a performer. And the fact that he could do that in front of a 26-piece band which somehow sounded cohesive…well the idea itself sounds impossible in an ever-shrinking music economy, but he and his wife Julie somehow pulled it off for years and years.
Broken Social Scene was also a spectacle of a performance, and I greatly admired Kevin Drew’s ability to push that incredibly talented band to be so free on stage. But because I only toured with them after being a massive fan – and only for half a dozen shows or so – I think their music was much more influential on me. “You Forgot It In People” is still one of my favorite albums to this day, and I think they translated that freedom and energy from their live performances into their recordings, which is a rare feat. Though never in a conscious way, I’m sure that freedom, that human touch in their recordings, is one of the reasons I try to have as many live instruments in my film scores as possible. I want to feel that human element.
How did you come into David Lowery’s orbit for your first composing credit on “St. Nick,” What impressed you about his work as a filmmaker, and make you realize that you’d essentially become his go-to composer?
David had heard my old, old band – The Physics of Meaning – from his writing partner, Toby Halbrooks. Toby and I were from the same neighborhood in Dallas, and Toby and I were both in The Polyphonic Spree at the same time. After hearing that band, David asked me to write some music for “St. Nick.” I watched the film and wrote a couple pieces based on what I had seen, not meant for any specific part of the film, just a general feeling. David liked what I sent him and put some of that music in “St. Nick.”
I think David’s work as a filmmaker has a sincerity that resonates with me, that feels like a kind of storytelling I can relate to. But because I had never set out to be a film composer, I wasn’t thinking in terms of a lasting partnership when I started writing music for his films. I was just trying to help him tell the stories he was telling in the best way I knew how.
After “St. Nick,” David asked me if I would score his short film “Pioneer.” That’s when David and I really started developing a musical language based around our mutual aesthetic. I think all of his films have a very grounded quality to them, a very earnest quality. For whatever reason, when I see the films David makes, musical ideas immediately start popping into my head. He’s certainly not the only filmmaker with whom I’ve collaborated where this has been the case, but I think he may be the clearest one for me. He’s telling stories in the ways I want to be telling stories. I think “A Ghost Story” is the best testament to that feeling of mutual understanding we have when it comes to his films: over half the score in the film is my first draft, with no changes. That may not always be the case, but I feel like it gets easier with every film as we get better and better at telling these stories together.
Tell us about your collaboration on “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” and the unique spin you both put on an otherwise typical “crook on the run” story?
“Saints” has many elements of a classic Western – the thief, the sheriff, ill-fated love, questions about the nature of man in an unsettled land. But David moved those elements around, reorganized them in ways that felt less conventional to me. So I wanted to do the same thing with the score: use instruments commonly used in westerns (violins, banjo, mandolin, various percussion), but use them in less conventional ways. So I played the banjo with an e-bow, giving it a buzzy, sometimes twinkly, darker timbre. I fingerpicked all the mandolin parts, to make it feel softer, more vulnerable. I used old funk breakbeats as the rhythm templates for the handclaps and the knee slaps. “Saints” was the first feature I ever scored, and I was really shooting in the dark most of the time, but I’m still very proud of what we created there.
“Pete’s Dragon” took both you, and David’s work from the indie scene into a whole new studio stratosphere. What was that experience like, especially given how you were able to spread your symphonic wings on it without “selling out” as such on the qualities that attracted Disney to you as a team?
“Pete’s Dragon” was probably meant to be the real test of our collaborative relationship, a trial by fire. Because we were both treading in unfamiliar territory, I was apprehensive that I would be able to pull it off (by the time I started, it was already clear that David was pulling off a huge studio film with the most brilliant flying colors). I played in orchestras growing up, and I’ve done plenty of arranging for small ensembles over the past decade, but I had never worked on any musical project approaching anywhere near the scope of the score needed for “Pete’s Dragon”.
And yet, just as it’s been with all of David’s films, musical ideas starting popping into my head immediately. There are five or six big themes in that score. Of those five or six, three came to me in the first week I was on the film. The biggest theme, which first shows up at the beginning of the film, as the title card comes on screen, was one that I wrote on my second day of work, once I got to Disney and got started. To that end, I consider myself incredibly lucky, as we had such limited time for such a big score, and as Disney took a big risk in hiring me to work on the film.
“A Ghost Story” uses the iconic image of a person with a white sheet over them. Given the inherent goofiness possible from that image, how important was it for the music to make you take the movie’s conceit seriously?
I actually wasn’t thinking about this question at all when I was writing the score for “A Ghost Story”. Once again, this film of David’s is so grounded and so earnest in a way that resonates with me. The fear of cutting away at meaningful storytelling with goofiness, silliness, or ridiculousness never crossed my mind. I will say that I don’t think the film would work anywhere near as well as it does if our ghost was portrayed in any other way.
How do you think “A Ghost Story” fits into the more traditional genre of ghost films?
I don’t think it fits very well at all into the more traditional genre of ghost films, and that’s what I love about it. It’s not a film meant to scare you or shock you in any kind of horrific way. To that end, there are very few moments in the score where I had to write traditional haunting, scary music. This is more a film about a relationship between two people, and about what happens when one of those people can no longer participate in the relationship, but only observe it from afar. For me, it’s meditative and heartbreaking, full of loss and beauty.
How would you describe Casey Affleck’s screen presence, and what it adds to your music- even when covered with a sheet?
There’s a scene in the film where the ghost tries to run its “hand” over M’s shoulder and arm as she lays on their bed. It’s my favorite scene in the film. I just found out today that the day they filmed that scene was also Casey’s first time under the sheet, as the ghost. It’s an incredibly emotive scene, with Rooney’s character grieving so intensely, while the ghost of her former partner tries to comfort her in vain. There’s no dialogue happening, but both of the actor’s movements tell me more than any dialogue could.
Given that “C” never utters a word once he’s in ghostly form, how did you want the music to communicate his emotions? Or did the white sheet give you a blank sheet for you to transfer musical emotion onto?
I think the nature of the sheet gives everyone, especially the audience, a canvas onto which they can put their own interpretation of what’s happening in the ghost’s mind, or being. Since the dialogue is so limited once the ghost arrives, the music is often right up front and center, whenever it’s happening. To that end, I always want to be careful not to take over the scene. I want to avoid having the music become overbearing. It’s still only one element in the storytelling going on, so I was actually trying to avoid having the music communicate the ghost’s emotions too much. Instead, I tried to play to the action of the scene, which made my job much easier.
How did you want the score to grow from its chamber music beginning to essentially capture the emotional stages of death and the acceptance of it?
I realized pretty early on in the composing process for “A Ghost Story” that this should be a score with choral elements, with voices, and text being sung (as opposed to a solely instrumental score). The Virginia Woolf story “A Haunted House” is referenced a few times in the film, so I started by borrowing some text from that story, and using it in a couple of score pieces. Then I began looking for text from other sources that could be relevant to our story. I ended up with “Bardo Thodol”, the Tibetan name for The Book of the Dead, and with a passage from The Bible – Ecclesiastes 5:9. Being able to use these texts, which are all very different meditations on death in their own right, provided some guideposts for me, in creating a score that would also act as some kind of response to thinking about death, and the various ideas of what happens afterwards.
Given your lifelong love of the violin, what kind of emotions do you think are particular to the instrument, especially here?
Sometimes I think I’m better at communicating with a violin than I am at expressing myself with words. There is some solo violin in the score for “A Ghost Story”, but most of the time violin shows up, it’s part of a larger string section. And similar to the choral elements I wanted to incorporate into this score, I wanted a sea of strings floating around these images. And so I used quite a bit of what’s often referred to as “ghost harmonics” on the violin. They sound ethereal to me, and wispy, fragile: like they could break or die off at any moment. I suppose there’s no other movie where using ghost harmonics would be more appropriate than this one.
Did minimalist, yet emotional composers like Arvo Part play a part in your approach? And did you draw on any past scores for inspiration here?
Arvo Pärt has written some of my favorite music of all time, but also his influence is present in so many of the film soundtracks I’ve heard from the past 40 years or so like “Fearless.” Especially now, directors and editors love to use Pärt pieces as temp music while they’re cutting a film together. Consequently, I end up listening to a lot of Pärt as a reference when I’m starting on a film. The opening track from “A Ghost Story” – ‘Little Notes’ – has tintinnabuli strings near the beginning and the end of the piece, in the style that Pärt pioneered. Those same strings show back up in “Post Pie”.
Beyond Pärt, the other music David referenced directly in relation to the film was John Carpenter scores from the late 70s and 80s, like “Escape from New York”. We went in that direction for the scene in the hospital, but it ended up being too big, so most of the Carpenter-esque score elements were dialed back, or removed completely.
The other composer who influenced the score indirectly is Komitas. I scored Fox’s TV show “The Exorcist” last year, and as part of composing music for that show, I had to replace his stunningly beautiful “Chinar Es”, which was used as temp music in one of the Satanic ritual scenes. I wrote a piece called “Ha Ate Am Anane” for soprano, string section and piano to use in that “Exorcist” episode, and hired the incomparable Katinka Vindelev to sing the soprano part. I was so happy with the way that piece turned out, that I ended up writing a sister piece for “A Ghost Story”, with the same arrangement, and with Katinka singing again. This is the track “Viventes Enim”, which took its text from Ecclesiastes.
Talk about your music capturing the passage of time?
I have to defer to the film itself here. When I’m scoring a film, I always see my job as helping to tell the story that’s being told, to the best of my ability. I look at what’s happening onscreen, and I try to write music that is true to what I see. Because this film is indeed a meditation on not only life and death, but also the passage of time in a larger sense, then if I hit my mark at all, the music will have captured some of that story. But I think if I had set out to write music which would capture the passage of time, or had kept such a huge concept in my mind when I was composing this music, I never would have come anywhere near expressing that idea. It’s too big to capture.
Given that “A Ghost Story” is a supernatural movie, how much of a “genre” element did you want give the music, especially when it comes to the difference between being “eerie” and ”scary” in capturing a sort of life after death?
Both David and I found out pretty quickly that having the music veer towards “eerie” or “scary” didn’t serve the story very well, which is why we ended up losing a lot of the Carpenter-esque elements I wrote. For me, the film is more about love and loss than it is about fear and haunting. So if any words could live at the center of this score, love and loss would be the words in my mind.
How did you gradually want to bring human voice, as well as happier emotions into the score?
The first piece of music that went into this film was the song “I Get Overwhelmed”, by my band Dark Rooms. The song itself was written over a year before I ever read any script for “A Ghost Story”, and was never meant for the film. But when I played it for David last year, he decided to write it into the script. So the first piece of music related to the film already had quite a bit of the human voice in it, both through my vocals, and also through the synthesizer I made by sampling my own voice and re-pitching it. That may be one of the biggest reasons I felt motivated to put more vocals into the score. But I also think the lack of dialogue in the film made me want to fill some of the wide sonic space left open to me with words.
As for happier elements in the score, David told me early in the process that he wanted to end the film with a piece centered around a drum machine – that the drum machine felt warm and comforting to him. I don’t know if we were ever aiming for “happy”, but I think the closest we ever got to it was with “Safe, Safe, Safe”, the final piece of music in the film.
Did you own upbringing in a family of church musicians give any kind of religious quality to your approach in “A Ghost Story,” especially with your use of the organ and in its use of a Latin hymn?
There is no doubt in my mind that my upbringing in a family of church musicians influences every musical decision I ever make, one way or another. There are certainly spiritual qualities to this film, aren’t there? Since death and the afterlife are at the center of so many religions in this world, I suppose a film in which one of the main characters is dead for 2/3 of his time on screen is going to feel spiritual and possibly religious in some way, regardless of David’s intentions. I did turn to religious texts first, when I was trying to find words to use in the choral parts of the score. I chose Latin because it’s a dead language, and because it’s a fairly old language. And this film feels very old to me. I did also try to incorporate some Aramaic lyrics into the score, but it proved too difficult to find proper translations and pronunciations in Aramaic this time around. The same went for a couple other old languages I tried and failed to use.
How did you want the song “I Get Overwhelmed” to serve as a theme in the film?
I played the song “I Get Overwhelmed” for David for the first time back in February 2016, while we were working on “Pete’s Dragon”. I played it for him because I share all of my music with him, just as friends. He really loved the song immediately, and it was his idea to put the song into the film. Since it plays such a prominent role within the story, it seemed to me like the best starting point for work on the score.
To that end, I took stems from “I Get Overwhelmed” – the guitar track, the string section track, the vocal synthesizer track – and ran them through PaulStretch, which is an algorithm designed to dramatically slow down audio, often with the intention of turning it into an atmospheric soundscape. Pieces which are three minutes long can be made three hours long. I ran multiple elements of the Dark Rooms song through PaulStretch to create these washes of sound, and they became my first palette for the score. In fact, they’re the first music heard in the film, at the beginning of “Little Notes”, and then they show up many more times throughout the score as a theme. Maybe that’s the best way the music conveys the passage of time: as something incredibly slow, hard to identify, and pretty.
If there’s a running theme through David Lowery’s movies and your scores for them, how do you think “A Ghost Story” fits it?
Because I see David’s films as incredibly grounded stories, I try to write music that will also feel grounded in a similar way. Beyond that, I’m really happy that our films have allowed me chances to move in so many different musical directions. “Pioneer” and “Saints” were full of heavily folk-influenced music. “Pete’s Dragon” was mostly performed by a 96-piece orchestra, and a 32-person choir. “A Ghost Story” has 808 drum machines, atmospheric soundscapes, Latin choral parts, and a lot of synthesizers in it. I can’t wait for the next one.
Before “A Ghost Story,” you dealt far more overtly with the supernatural in Fox’s TV version of “The Exorcist,” which turned out to be a surprisingly great show. Could you talk about your experience on it, and what’s ahead now that the show’s been renewed?
Well, I will say that I’m really happy with so much of the music I wrote for Exorcist Season One. The show runner Rolin Jones knew more about contemporary classical music than just about anyone I’ve ever met, and he wanted a contemporary classical score for The Exorcist. That’s not something I get to do all that often, and I really enjoyed doing it.
What are you up to next with David?
Our next film together will be “Old Man and The Gun”, on which David just wrapped principal photography a few weeks ago. I visited set for a few days, and watched some incredibly entertaining outtakes between Robert Redford, Danny Glover, and Tom Waits. We haven’t gotten very far with it yet, but David and I are both thinking this will be a very percussion-heavy score.
What do you hope happens when you die? And would you want to stick around to see what happens to your loved ones?
I’ve been thinking about these questions too much since I wrote the music for this film. I can honestly say I have absolutely no idea what happens when I die. Whatever it is, my guess is that the consciousness I have now will no longer exist. Maybe I’ll become a star up in the sky.
The idea of becoming a ghost and watching my loved ones live on after I’m gone sounds as difficult and heartbreaking to me as the film makes it out to be.
“A Ghost Story” opens in theaters on July 7th, with Daniel Hart’s score available on Milan Records HERE
Visit Daniel Hart’s website HERE