Interview with Dustin O’Halloran

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One of the truly soulful composers who’s fused his acclaimed alternative sound into a growing, impressive body of scoring work, Dustin O’Halloran’s music often seems to be on a journey of self discovery. First joining with singer Sara Lov to front the Devics, O’Halloran relocated to Italy, where he drew on the memory of the music of the ballet classes his mother taught for his solo album debut with “Piano Solos.” Its poetic sound caught the ear of director Sofia Coppola, who brought his piano pieces to the distinctly hip costume drama court of “Marie Antoinette.” O’Halloran has since given his mesmerizingly intimate emotion to the immigration-effected young lovers of “Like Crazy,” the cello-driven seduction of “Breath In” and a doomed Marilyn Monroe stand-in for “An American Affair.” Teaming with Jill Solloway to win an Emmy for his title music to Amazon’s “Transparent,” O’Halloran received further award notice when he and fellow indie-centric scoring artist Houschka received an Academy nomination for “Lion,” a movie about reclaiming lost identity that opened up a whole new world of ethnic sound for the often overseas composer – just as much as his indie music work with Adam Wiltzie would show off ambient explorations as A Winged Victory for the Sullen.

Dustin and Adam Wiltzie are A Winged Victory for the Sullen

Even from Berlin, O’Halloran took note of the home fires burning in America as one unprosecuted police shooting followed the new to spark demonstrations from victims who were often urban. It’s inspired a new wave of social justice from a populace that won’t take it anymore, their growing need to take action inspiring Angie Thomas’ bestselling book “The Hate U Give,” and now a powerful film adaptation from director George Tillman Jr. (“Soul Food,” “Notorious”). It’s heroine Starr (Amandla Stenberg) has seemingly navigated a life in two worlds, reveling in her cultural identity in her gang-blighted neighborhood, while wearing the schoolgirl costume of a private academy on the other side of the tracks, where she’s found both friends and a beau. But when an innocent car ride with her longtime crush Khalil (Algee Smith) sees him gunned down by a trigger-happy white cop, Starr suddenly finds her dual existences colliding as she must determine whether to reveal herself as a witness for a jury that will determined if the officer goes to trial.

While O’Halloran has played high dramatic stakes before, “The Hate U Give” has a social resonance that goes beyond just any simple movie going experience. Yet as opposed to an in-your-face call for change, both director and composer take an unusually poignant voyage to that point where Starr will affirm her identity. As heard through a building sense of desperation and life-changing determination, O’Halloran is very much in his own, subtle territory here. With a lyrical piano theme, aching violin and an intimate orchestra, O’Halloran’s impactfully muted approach creates a sense of yearning and growing anger that’s both suspenseful and emotional. It a sense of lyrical somberness for Starr’s balancing act loosing its cool, mixing with more menacing electronic tonalities that hear the very real threat posed by the gang who doesn’t want her drawing attention to the drug dealing that’s used by the media as a weapon in dehumanizing Khalil.

O’Halloran’s beautiful, brooding score steadily gains its moving power without musical cliché, instead choosing to hear itself through a wounded young woman’s realization of who she is, and the price will bring. It’s a low key approach that will likely captivate audience members to not only understand the realities of urban existence, but help change their thoughts in a battle for social justice that goes from the streets to a very White House. As captured with a hush instead of a scream, O’Halloran’s impressive score for “The Hate U Give” marks both an impressive new chapter of in his sound, and continuing theme of characters realizing their worth.

Your first score was for Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.” She’s a filmmaker who has a definite appreciation for the world of indie and alternative music that you were coming from.

I think it was a great film to be a part of because it had such a great collection of music. It was also a good starting point for me as a composer to understand that film scoring doesn’t have to be this classical idea of what film scores should be. That’s sort of stayed with me – that film scoring is an evolving art form that should evolve and should move forward. In the same way, Sofia Coppola had a lot to do with thinking about how filmmaking can evolve, especially because she was into such different music that brought a whole new life to her movies.

Two films that got your further notice were Drake Doramus’ “Like Crazy” and “Breath In,” two relationship films that again drew on your alternative string and keyboard sound.

I felt I really had a lot to myself to bring to them, because that was the music I was interested in making at the time. Drake is a big lover of music, and he wanted everything to feel very fresh. He wanted the soundtracks to feel like a playlist instead of a film score he wanted it to feel like a playlist instead of a film score. I got a lot of room to really make good pieces of music because there was so little dialogue in those movies. The score was put up front. It was only after Drake’s movies that I had to do underscore and learn how to make music work with dialogue, which is a completely different way for me of making music for films. My scores for Drake are still two of my favorites.

You were were really put on the Hollywood map when you and Hauschka got an Oscar nomination for Garth Davis’ “Lion,” which also revealed a whole other ethnic side to what you were capable of. What was that experience like?

Dustin and Hauschka

Garth was a really wonderful director to work with and he gave me a lot of trust and creative room. So everything that came after that was fun and a really nice experience. It was really great to be in a Hollywood situation where at the end of the day just the film is enough. But I got acknowledged, and I got to bring my mom to the Oscars!

You do a lot of your work in Europe. What is it about being over there that adds to your music?

Europe is always a place that’s much more focused on the arts. It’s less a career-oriented place than New York, LA and London, which are expensive, career-driven cities. So it’s nice to be in contact with musicians and artists that have that different perspective, especially when I shared a studio with Jóhann Jóhannsson in Berlin. So it was great to have this kind of environment with artists that I really admired and appreciated. That kind of process that I’ve had in Europe doesn’t happen everywhere.

What do you think that being in a studio with Jóhann brought to your work?

Jóhann Jóhannsson and Dustin O’Halloran

Jóhann was just uncompromisingly strong in his vision. He was so intent on pushing himself and his music forward. He never, he never sat back and rested on his laurels. He was always pushing, and always very inspiring. In the short time that he was making films he made a huge impact on the sound of Hollywood. So many films now are referencing his scores. Very few composers have had that kind of impact. Jóhann was definitely one of the masters.

Even working overseas, I imagine that you were hearing the near constant stream of news of white cops shooting black people and getting away with it. What did you think of those stories?

America is a very divided country right now. There’s a lot of social division. We’re just seeing it in our government and a lot of places. It’s definitely much more of a topic in the United States, though. Europe is going through their own social issues. But I mean, what can you say? It’s a divided time.

What do you think it was about your music that made George think you’d be right for “The Hate U Give?”

The Hate U Give director, George Tillman Jr

Well, I think this is a tricky film because George was looking for a score that could hit a lot of the different emotional spots of the film in a very honest way, one that wouldn’t be this big Hollywood score, He wanted the music to feel like it it was inside of Starr’s character. I guess George had heard “Lion” and really liked it. In a lot of ways, both “Lion” and “The Hate U Give” are the kind of soundtracks that I’d never really done before. George and I had a lot of conversations about how he envisioned the score, which I had to show him, as I didn’t have a lot of past work that would sound like what he was looking for. But we just really got along very well. I went away and worked for about a month, then came back with about half of the score to play for him. It went really well, because he’s a great director.

Given how incendiary “The Hate U Give’ could have been in its cinematic and musical approach, how important was it for the score to remain low key, almost as a counterpoint to the heated emotions that are happening in the story?

Dustin and George at the scoring of ‘The Hate U Give’

I got the sense that George wanted to make a film that a lot of people would see and understand – to be inclusive. “The Hate U Give” doesn’t want to divide. It wants to show a humanistic approach to some big social issues and for the audience to walk away with something. The music was to ultimately help that. It isn’t referencing musical genres, but Starr’s emotion. I could actually get pretty abstract about that because George let me go pretty far with my ideas, which I was really excited to do. I got to experiment with getting away from tonality because I felt that sometime melodic content was too much for this film. That let me create more of a sense of feeling rather than a lot of “melodic” moments. They’re definitely in the score, but there also these soundscape moments that are about the intensity of what’s happening.

A theme to many of your score is that they’re about characters that are trying to find themselves, and their way through life. How do you think that applies here?

Music is such a subjective thing. It’s different for so many people. So, it’s hard to say exactly what it is that’s common about my music. But to me, I think it’s reflecting the idea of time, which is why it works with these kinds of characters, because they’re trying to define their emotions.

How did you want to play the key scene in the film with the police shooting of Khalil?

I just felt like I wanted it to feel like how something like that would feel. There’s little bit of melodic content in the scene, but not a lot. Mostly I just wanted this visceral feeling of like when something dramatic is happening in real life, because you don’t hear this melodically sweeping score. It’s an intensity that sounds abstract. You feel that in the way that George shot the scene, and from the emotion that Amandla gives to it. She’s an incredible actress.

Like Hamlet, Starr spends much of this story deciding if she’s going to take actions against outrageous events. How did you want to play that rising need to reveal herself as the passenger in Kahlil’s car?

I think I build the score to that moment. It’s a dynamically escalating score because Starr is dealing with all of these conflicting emotions. It is Shakespeare for sure as she defines who she wants to be. Because she’s always evolving as a person, there’s a lot of music in film – about 75 minutes. Because the story is constantly shifting, there aren’t a lot of themes to come back to, though there certainly are motifs.

How does Starr’s narration of the film impact your own musical storytelling?

I’m always playing her emotional perspective. So I guess the answers to that question is that the music tells you that it’s always about her journey.

The movie starts very impactful with Starr and her family being given “The Talk” about how they should behave when a cop pulls them over so they’ll survive the encounter. That will likely to be eye opening for audiences. In that way as a white composer, what did you learn about the black experience through “The Hate U Give?”

I think that really goes back to the prescriptive that George brings to the film. When we come to the big riot scenes at the end. He was really conscious about the music for the crowd not sounding dangerous. He wanted that protest itself is a good thing, even though it goes out of control in the film. The music shouldn’t play them like they’re the dangerous ones. It’s their right to protest. So I really followed him about how the music should be sensitive to those kinds of situations. For me, “The Hate U Give” is a really important movie to be a part of. We have a big problem now in America, and it’s great to work with a director who’s sensitive to that.

The other movie you’ve scored this year about a woman discovering herself is “Puzzle,” where the character literally puts together the pieces of what she’s missing from her routine as a housewife. What was that experience like?

I think “Puzzle” is a very topical film as well in a time where there’s a lot of awareness of women’s issues. This isn’t a big dramatic film, but a very subtle and interesting film about a woman discovering who she is in a typical patriarchal relationship. She doesn’t even realize that she needs to find out about herself. What’s special about “Puzzle” is that there are probably a lot of women like that, women with gifts that they don’t realize. Real life is a lot like “Puzzle.” It’s not big and dramatic, but super small. It’s about people who realize they’re big inside of their own worlds. And I think Kelly Macdonald is such a great actress to portray this very internal world because her acting style is so subtle. I’ve always loved her acting, and here it gives a lot of space for the music because her character is so internal.

It’s resulted in a lovely chamber score from you.

That score was done very quickly in about four weeks. I really loved how it came out because you never know how the music’s going to come out when you don’t have much time. You’re starting to film and we don’t have that much time. But I was really happy with how “Puzzle” came together.

I’d love to hear how your and Hauschka’s score came out for “The Current War,” but it’s tied up in the whole Weinstein company mess. What can you tell us about the soundtrack?

I don’t really know score the status of the film, but I’m very proud of it. It’s a very contemporary electronic score with a lot of percussion for prepared piano and analog electronics, modular synths and a lot of sound design work. It was deep diving it to try and creating something that was musically new. It’s a painstakingly detailed score, so it’s frustrating that the movie hasn’t come out yet. I hope it’ll see the light at some point.

Your upcoming score for “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is about a dog and racing cars. What can you tell us about this seeming change of pace for you?

Well, it’s not a cartoon with a talking dog in it! It’s more an existential family drama that’s based on Garth Stein’s book, which is told through the eyes of a dog. He’s definitely thinking in it. He’s the vehicle through which the life of the family is told. It’s a dramatic film that I just got started.

As a musician who straddles both the, the film scoring in the Indie rock world, how do you think your sounds contrast and compare with each other?

The Devics’ Sara Lov and Dustin O’Halloran

All the music that I’ve done for myself has been a very important part of how I approach film scores because recording something in a rougher way or the way I use analog effects shows how I’ve grown with music, where I’ve always recorded myself. So how I approach recording has just as much to do with the composition as the notes do. So that’s something that’s different about how I work. Some composers don’t know anything about recording and they just go to a studio where they record their music and have a very great-sounding score. But sometimes it’s not about recording in the most beautiful studio, Maybe it’s about recording a cellist in your studio, close miking a piano or putting something through an old delay pedal. That can create an emotion in just the same way. That’s what I’ve learned from making my own music is how you can record the same piece of music on five different pianos and in five different ways. And maybe one of those versions on an upright piano has a lot more to say than a beautiful nine foot Steinway recorded in the most beautiful studio.

Do you hope that the film gets out young people to vote in the November mid-terms, as well as making them ask why police don’t face justice for shooting innocent, unarmed blacks?

I hope so. The worst thing that can happen is that we are having a conversation and that we’re letting fear dictate our democracy. And I think that when people start to understand what’s happening and see the other perspective and educate themselves, then there’s less fear. I think our country is now starting to find that understanding. Hopefully it can bring about a more humanistic viewpoint, because there are a lot of different people in our country. We’re a melting pot, which is a beautiful thing. It’s just about trying to understand people’s positions.

“The Hate U Give” opens on October 5th with Dustin O’Halloran’s score on Milan Records October 19th

Buy Dustin’s scores to “Like Crazy,” “Breathe In,” “Lion” and “Puzzle” HERE

Listen to Dustin’s “Piano Solos” HERE and his work as The Winged Victory for the Sullen HERE