Interview with Dara Taylor

In an age where the line between self-justified payback to the other peoples’ property and the pure anarchist joy in its robbery and destruction is an incendiary topic, Seth Savoy’s feature debut “Echo Boomers” puts crowbar to the metal, ceramic, canvas, glass and just about every fragile piece inside the mansions of Chicago’s upper class. Woe to them when a gang of young people adorned with hoodies and skull masks smash through their doors and reduce what they leave of their belongings to waste. 

Putting a stylish thrill into their acts, while playing the emptiness of it all is upcoming composer Dara Taylor, whose impressive score for “Echo Boomers” is the latest hybrid evolution of a pulsating, hip gang-heist genre whose score ancestors include “Drive,” “Heat” and “Thief.” An old school robbery approach is definitely not in Taylor’s tool bag for these blunt, cutting edge characters. Instead, she uses washes of guitar, voice, warped cellos and hypnotic ambience to bring a contrasting, dream-like melody to the joyfully vicious break-ins and bad behavior of these “Boomers.”

Their screwed reasoning jumps from narrator to narrator as the perfect crimes of course come tumbling down to the great displeasure of their fence Mel (played by an always wonderfully edgy Michael Shannon). As principally told by their fresh-faced recruit Lance (Patrick Schwarzenegger), Taylor brings a haunting, intimate sense of emptiness that’s not so much a tisk-tisk finger as it a sideway headshake, an unforced sense of emotion that gives her score and the film an unexpected emotional bite.

As a member of the musical gang belonging to Christopher Lennertz, Taylor has been an instrumental additional composer at contributing to the bad behavior of “The Boys,” “Bad Moms” and “Shaft,” as well as the more symphonically conventional approaches of “Lost in Space,” “Uglydolls” and “Tyler Perry’s Acrimony.” With her own talent being singled out as part of the Sundance Institute Composer’s Lab and the BMI Conducting for Composers Fellows, Taylor’s own features have included “Reel Nightmare,” “Are You from Dixie?” and “Wildflower” amidst numerous shorts. But like the sharp crash of a door breaking in, it’s Taylor’s contrastingly surreal, and surprisingly thoughtful score for “Echo Boomers” that will make her biggest solo impact yet in summing up what new composing talent can bring to the time-honored musical break-in.   

Tell us about your musical start. 

I was a musical nerd and a band geek growing up. My mom was the choir director at her church, so I always grew up singing in choirs, choruses, musicals, show choirs, a cappella groups, what have you. I studied classical voice as a mezzo-soprano at Cornell University which is also where I caught the composition bug, studying contemporary classical composition under Zachary Wadsworth and Steven Stucky. I then went on to the NYU Film Scoring masters program and studied under Mark Suozzo.

At what point did you start gravitating towards composing? And were there are any inspirational musicians or soundtracks that steered you along that path?

In high school I feel in love with Sondheim and particularly “Into the Woods.” Then sophomore year of college I was in my dorm room listening to Harry Gregson Williams’s “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” score and had an “aha” moment where I realized that was where I wanted to focus my musical energy. 

How did you start assisting Christopher Lennertz? And what do you think it was about your work for him that had him give you your break as an additional composer?

When I first came to LA I didn’t really know anyone, but I knew the Society of Composers and Lyricists from its New York City chapter. Catherine Joy, a friend I met through SCL events was invited by Mark Robertson to watch a Revolution scoring session and asked if I wanted to go with her. That is where I first met Chris and also reconnected with Alex Bornstein, Chris’s assistant at the time and an old classmate from NYU. From there I started interning at Sonic Fuel, then was studio manager for a few months before I started assisting Chris. I’ve always tried to show that I’m open to learning, being useful and being proactive. I’ve grown both personally and musically under his tutelage. 

Composer Dara Taylor works on ‘Colewell.’

What would your advice be to assistants who are looking to make that jump? And do you think it takes a particularly empathetic composer to allow it, as there are many with assistants and co-composers who are never “allowed” that opportunity?

I’ve had the great privilege of working for one of the kindest and most supportive souls in the biz. I’ve never tried to get too big for my britches and instead have waited to be encouraged to make every step I’ve made along the way. I’m not saying that that’s the only way, just my way. In my experience, being appreciative of every opportunity you have, every connection you make and every stage you reach is a nice way to have a happy and healthy working relationship. 

While you started out your solo career in the horror genre with “Reel Nightmare,” you’ve since done character-based scores like “Colewell” and “Turner Risk,” as well as documentaries like “Are You From Dixie?,” an episode of the excellent Netflix series “Trial by Media” and the black “reading” series “Bookmarks.” Could you talk about having an especially prolific career right at the start of your solo one, and were there particular subjects that appealed to you?

Haha, thank you – prolific is a generous word. I’ve discovered a lot of new loves both in terms of musical and film drama by diving in head-first and doing them. I’ve also had the pleasure of writing additional music in a wide variety of styles. Whatever the style, I love the opportunity to play around and do some genre bending.

How did “Echo Boomers” come your way?

I’ve gotten to know the illustrious music supervisor Joel C. High over the course of 4 projects where I wrote additional music and score produced for Chris and Philip White. We’d developed a friendship over those years and when a good fit arose he put my name in the hat and I am so incredibly thankful for that. From there I met with Seth Savoy and did a demo to a scene and was absolutely delighted that our sensibilities meshed so well.

Tell us about your collaboration with Seth Savoy, who makes his feature debut here. How do you think his background in music videos played into the high gloss look of the film and its visual rhythm?

Seth’s visual storytelling is masterful. I’ve found a lot of my rhythm and pacing not just from cuts but from motions, smashes, looks, etc. The picture was the band leader and I was the bass player following its lead. Seth and I spent a lot of time discussing emotion, character motivation and story arc. We discussed relationships between characters that led me to make a lot of thematic decisions being cognizant of whom and what I connected musically.  

Could you talk about the instrumentation, sampling and gear that went into the score?

We all knew that we wanted something atmospheric, but still not too heavily synth based so my solution was to use organic instruments but process them. The cornerstone instrument of the entire score was an electric cello I purchased specifically for this score. Do I play the cello? Absolutely not, but I bowed it, struck it, strummed it, and ran it through guitar amps – anything to make it not sound exactly like a cello but also not sound exactly like a synth. When a cello actually needed to sound like a cello though I went to the experts and used an acoustic cello (played by Ro Rowan) to heighten dramatic and emotional moments. I also sampled my own voice and used it throughout the score.

How did you want to convey the thrill of destruction, as well as the emptiness to it at the same time? Was that emotional, almost mournful component of particular importance to you – especially as captured by your unusual use of strings and voice?

Definitely. Again I took the lead from Seth’s filmmaking. He approached many of these destruction scenes in slow motion, so the audience is more captivated by what each act of destruction means to the characters rather than just the act itself. It’s almost ritualistic so I approached it more pensively to try to capture both the ritual (vocals) and the utter wrongness (aleatoric, processed strings) of it all. 

Though the gang is on a time “limit” for their robberies, the movie takes its time in showing their slo-mo vandalism and robbery. How did you want the rhythm to get across both ideas?

There are two highs happening on each heist. There’s the high of destruction with a lofty message and the self-righteous rush of getting away with it. I chose higher paced rhythms and syncopations when they arrive, when they break in, and when they run away, but when the ritualistic act of destruction happens the rhythms fade away and you’re with the characters for every tear of fabric and every falling shard of glass.

The narrators of “Echo Boomers” end up switching between characters. Did you want to shift the score tonally in that way?

I particularly wanted to use the score to connect Lance and Allie as they are the two characters who change their outlooks the most – though in opposite directions. Lance starts the film as the moral compass and Allie ends as it, so I linked their respective first and last destruction scenes motivically, using a modal, cascading piano theme.  

One of the gang reasons that “if they won’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep.” Do you think in way that line plays into the dream-like sound of some of the scoring?

Yes, in a way. Their manifesto is broad and lofty and their hopes to maintain such a volatile lifestyle is in a way a thing of fairy tales, so I wanted to reflect their mindset with an otherworldly sonic palette. 

The robberies and vandalism until the end make a point of not trying to involve people, only property. What do you think that adds to the tension of the score given that the threat for the most part comes from the always-intense Michael Shannon as their fence?

They are quite convinced that they are great at what they do and take pride in their process so for them, the jobs themselves do not pose the threat, only the reward and the thrill. Michael Shannon’s Mel character is in a way the main threat to their way of life and their message and therefore merits the most tension, the most dissonance, and musically, larger ranges in register to represent his unpredictable, pressure-cooker demeanor.   

The fact that the destruction is always property-based keeps the characters redeemable. Yes, what they’re doing is wrong, but it’s the ultimate wrong and it lets us ride with them more comfortably and almost get lulled into their warped sense of reality like Lance does. The whole film and score are in a way a long, corrupting lullaby. 

Given that Allie is the only woman in this “boy’s club,” let alone the only minority in it, did that make scoring her character of particular importance to you?

No, not particularly. She, like I, does not seem to be bothered by this dynamic so it didn’t feel dramatically relevant to score her differently for those reasons. Again what I honed in on is her shift of conscience and her dramatic and musical connection to Lance as she watches his innocence slip away like she once watched her own. 

Do you think that the music gives a moral point to “Echo Boomers?” Or do you think there should even be one?

I tried to speak to their hearts and their motivations, but nothing is left purely emotional. There’s always an air of unsettling “corruption” via sul pont strings, added dissonance, etc to reflect the underlying wrongness of everything they’re doing.

How do you think your score for “Echo Boomers” fits into the alt. hybrid sound of crime thriller scores in the new millennium?

What I tried to do with this score is to comment most on the characters’ inner demons and motivations as the film does the same. This way the larger rallying moments speak louder which is not an unfamiliar approach to contemporary dramas and thrillers.

Your next projects are the comedy “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” and the female Tanzanian-set drama “Binti.” What can you tell us about these pictures and their music?

The films are worlds apart in terms of musical tone and narrative genre, but they are both stories of women rising above what they think they’re capable of and proving to others and themselves that they’re unstoppable. “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is a hilarious adventure starring Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo that I had the pleasure of co-scoring with Chris Lennertz and musically it features everything from gothic choir to silly wah trombone. 

Do you think there’s a new renaissance for black composers, and particularly black women composers now? And if so, do you think the message for more diversity in Hollywood is finally getting through, even in the midst of this “new normal?”

What I think is important is to acknowledge that all types of people can contribute their unique voices to a variety of projects because everyone has a different story both musically and personally. It’s everyone’s unique “themness” that ironically brings us all closer together to tell a wide range of stories. 

Buy Dara Taylor’s score for “Echo Boomers” on Atlantic Screen Group on Friday, November 20th

Visit Dara Taylor’s website HERE