Interview with Graham Reynolds and Richard Linklater

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For a composer-director partnership born in the hipster world of Austin, Texas, “Where’d You Go Bernadette’s” voyage from white privilege Seattle to the ice-filled continent of Antarctica represents another giant leap for a duo firmly fixated on inner character. Put on the Hollywood map by his smart, satirical portraits of rootless young adults in “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused” and “SubUrbia,” director Richard Linklater would look at a bigger picture as he chronicled relationships over decades from “Before Sunrise” to “Before Sunset” and “Boyhood.” He’d venture to the Texas territory of Depression-era bank robbers with “The Newton Boys” and look at an American where all-consuming capitalism had amuck in the “Fast Food Nation,” all while playing a humorous multiplex tune for “School of Rock” and “Bad News Bears.” But it was with Linklater’s most outré effort of 2006’s “A Scanner Darkly” that a decidedly unique voice filled his soundtracks as indie musician Graham Reynolds came into his eccentric fold, weaving a melodically distinctive sci-fi miasma from the cartoon-ized embodiment of Philip K. Dick’s tale of futuristic mind control.

Linklater and Reynolds have since taken more down to earth, if no less horizon-expanding looks at the human condition with “Bernie,” a score that combined high-flying dreams with the woeful strings of a happy-to-please funeral director turned lady killer, The intimate score of “Before Midnight” took the moonstruck lovers of “Before Sunrise” to an unsure, middle-aged conclusion, while the characters of “The Last Detail” were given a nobly bittersweet trip across America to lay a friend’s son to rest with “Last Flag Flying.” But it’s with “Where’d You Go Bernadette?” that this emotionally adventuresome duo reach their most interesting, and affectingly offbeat destination yet with a caustically smart woman who’s determined to put just about everyone in her orbit at the greatest distance possible.

Once the darling of the architectural world before moving to Seattle and walling herself off for decades inside a major fixer-upper that used to be a boarding school, Bernadette (played with colorfully tart “Blue Jasmine”-esque flair by Cate Blanchett) has pushed her Steve Jobs-eque husband Elgie (Billy Cudrup) away with her self-obsessed motherhood, an attitude that hasn’t exactly endeared her to oh-so perfect neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wigg), whose house she inadvertently swamps. Practically forced into in Antarctic vacation by her sympathetic daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), Bernadette soon finds herself on the run to the last continent on earth when her cyber-assistant addiction and an medicated attitude brings an intervention to her front door.

For Linklater and Reynolds, it’s a woman’s environmental escape from reality that brings out some of their best work. It a film, and score that’s as idiosyncratic as you might expect from them, yet one that’s winningly mainstream with its dramedy approach. Beginning with the pokey rhythms of a Seattle where affluent suburbanites put on tribal performances, Reynolds’ score finds pluckily inherent humor with an endlessly inventive instrumental grab bag that conjures Klezmer, Zydeco, smartass vibes and an especially skewed take on “Jingle Bells.” Playing Bernadette’s obsessive buying and pill popping with the cunning of a bank rip-off, Reynolds uses a similarly intimate, poignantly melodic touch with guitar, piano and strings to play an unspoken dream for salvation for Bernadette’s brilliant career that could have been.

“Where’d You Go Bernadette?” takes its most musically dramatic and ethereal shift once we track mom to Antarctica for a long-needed spiritual awakening as comedic rhythm settles into entrancing notes that let the great icy outdoors soak in. It’s these visually beguiling sequences that bring new scope to Linklater’s work, allowing Reynolds to show unexpected emotional power on an intimate scale with evocative electronics and organic instruments. It’s an approach that makes the stark environment into a poetic place for creatively rejuvenating wonder with a tone that’s beautifully stripped-down, yet evocative in its mood swings that warm up an ultimately lovable curmudgeon. With “Bernadette’s” penguin-surrounded epiphany in which Linklater and Reynolds movingly capture the wandering, spirit, the duo reach their wistfully endearing, multi-thematic high point way, way down under.

Richard, how did you first come upon Graham’s music, and what about it made you think he’d be an ideal composer for you?

Director Richard Linklater (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for SXSW)

Linklater: I first became aware of Graham in the later 90’s while he was doing music for avant-garde theater here in Austin. He was also playing live to silent movies, which was way cool. So I was thinking he’d be fun to work with.

Would you say that Graham has found a different style for each of your collaborations?

Linklater: Yes. It’s been amazing to see him push himself into new genres and styles as the films often dictate.

Graham, when Richard told you he’d be adapting Maria Semple’s book, what was your reaction to going from a male-centric, tragedy-draped movie like “Last Flag Flying” to a more light-hearted one that would have a female point of view?

Reynolds: Every time I’ve worked with Rick he’s headed in a totally different direction, at least as far as the overall frame goes. You can always tell that it’s a Linklater movie though.

Did you first read Maria Semple’s book to get a sense of the story?

Reynolds: Anytime we’ve done something based on a book, the first thing I do is read that. I think of the first stretch of the process as the incubation period, when I’m not actively composing, but instead immersing myself in the world that the film will be in. That way the ideas come out more organically when I’m ready to sit down and compose.

Given how literally far out there “Bernadette” is when compared to your other films, what kind of musical approach did you think you’d need?

Linkater: “Bernadette” is an original, so we wanted an original sound for the movie that reflected that, both ethereally for her awakening as well as lighthearted to underscore the comedic moments. And of course we wanted the score to reflect the utter complexity of her personality and predicament

With each score for Richard, you seem to hit upon a different style. How would you describe “Bernadette’s?” And would you say your collaboration differed here?

Reynolds: I love how collaborations send me in directions that I wouldn’t have found on my own. For “Bernadette,” I worked on two main palettes, one for Seattle and another for Antarctica, with a melodic family theme of sorts that bridges both worlds. Antarctica is contemplative and gentle, mostly evolving synth pads, while Seattle is fun and quirky with pizzicato strings, drums, etc. Every collaboration is different, partly because the subject matter is always so different and the performers have their own distinct styles, and partly because over the years communication has gotten more efficient.

“Bernadette” has an especially quirky mix of comedy, and drama. How difficult was it to achieve those mood swings as a director, let alone collaborating on a score that would achieve that without being overly sentimental?

Linkater: We eventually found a theme that seemed to work for her life in Seattle, the pizzicato approach, which fit the environment of Bernadette’s world within her home, the house, and the rain. Graham somehow captured both the lightheartedness and the complexity. Early on he came up with the more ethereal theme for Antarctica and we relied on variations of that theme throughout as well. I feel it’s really beautiful and works well with all the icebergs and Bernadette’s awakening. There’s a waltz theme that comes into play to underscore the increasingly emotional family scenes. We used that melody sparingly in a way that would be moving and sentimental enough, without becoming too much. It’s a dance.

A lot of the humor of the film comes from the abundant Seattle privilege at hand, as well as a bit of musical cultural appropriation. Did you want the music to reflect the irony, and setting at hand?

Reynolds: I think it was less about the precise location and the music would likely have been similar if the initial city was Chicago or Austin or another American city. I do think it’s about the situation and circumstances, including the privilege.

Do you think this is your most “comedic” score yet with its often eccentrically plucky vibe? And what’s the challenge of taking a percussive approach to this film’s particular brand of humor that ranges from the smart-ass to the scheming and the whimsical?

Reynolds: I agree that this was the mostly overtly comedic score I’ve done for Rick, though “Bernie” also had funny elements, largely because that comes so naturally to Jack Black. However, that score played less of a role in creating that light-heartedness. And I like any opportunity to use percussion. Everybody likes drums!

Did you want the idea of Bernadette’s career as an architect to factor into the score?

Reynolds: Architecture and music are fast friends in the world of arts. They both use more math than anyone else. I don’t think that Bernadette’s style of design factors in very directly to the score but the style of the whole film is an inspiration and a lot of that comes from an imagination of what’s in her head, especially with what she’s done with the school that serves as their home.”Bernadette’s character is a once-in-a-generation genius, that sets too high a bar to try to pretend mirror in the score.

For a great deal of the film, Cate Blanchett’s character is only slightly more likable than her role in “Blue Jasmine.” How important was it for the music to generate sympathy for her, even when Bernadette is being impossible to just about everyone around her?

Reynolds: Cate’s character is going through the most challenging period of her life and that weighs on almost everyone around her, though her daughter is always clearly loved. I think that relationship with the daughter is what keeps us sympathetic to Bernadette and the music for that relationship becomes key to helping us like her.

Linklater: It’s designed that you like her more and more as you get to know her. Once you understand somebody and have lots of context, you can see them more clearly. We didn’t really want the score to dictate that issue because people will see her differently and on various time schedules.

Would you say that Bernadette is mentally ill? And if so, how did you want to reflect her constantly addled, yet sharp thought process and it wild mood swings?

Reynolds: I’m not sure whether Bernadette would be medically diagnosed as ill or not, but she is deeply unhappy with everything and everyone in the world other than her daughter and one old friend. That mother-daughter bond comes out in tender music that plays it relatively seriously, while the relationship with the father is more often, but not always, in the light-hearted world, leaning towards comedy.


A lot of the humor of the film comes from the abundant Seattle privilege at hand, as well as a bit of musical cultural appropriation. Did you want the music to reflect the irony, and setting at hand?

Reynolds: I think it was less about the precise location and the music would likely have been similar if the initial city was Chicago or Austin or another American city. I do think it’s about the situation and circumstances, including the privilege. I think the comedic music is less about irony and more about playfulness, quirkiness, and fun. For example, I use a rubber band bass for much of that music. It’s a great Kontakt instrument from Pendle Poucher at Sound Dust. I love his work.

Tell us about your particularly skewed version of “Jingle Bells” here.

Reynolds: Some of the score-as-source music allowed me to explore some different styles not present in the rest of the score. In this case it was the backgrounds of a drugstore and a restaurant. I enjoy these opportunities to explore outside of the established palette while still having control over the mood and feel.

Where many comedies of this sort paint characters in singular brushstrokes, what do you think that the dimensionality that “Bernadette” gives to everyone affords the score?

Reynolds: It’s hard to imagine Rick doing a film where the characters don’t have serious depth. With the depth of character here, even in the comedic sections, it allows us to pivot to the more serious stuff when the mood and palettes shift so dramatically. If the comedy had been too light, I don’t think the later part of the film would have hit as hard.

Linklater: We had probably the longest post-production of any of my movies, but the upside of that is we had lots of time to work with the slowly-getting-whittled-down versions of the film. Graham had ample time to find the pitch perfect score to underscore the comedy, which adds a lighthearted touch without being too broad. We take all our cues from Bernadette, which means conflicted at times, and outright funny at others.

Bernadette’s husband Elgie makes a point of telling her how a creative person can be stifled in a relationship. Have you ever found that to be the case in your past? And if so, did that make you relate to Bernadette?

Reynolds: I haven’t had a dive as deep as Bernadette’s but every artist experiences dry spells, doubts, and periods of lower creativity that result in emotional strain. Bernadette is an extreme example of that. Every artist has their own way or ways of breaking through a creative block but Bernadette’s have ceased working. The poison that that creates for her and the people around her form the basis of the dramatic situation. Only a trip to Antarctica will fix the problem!

Once Bernadette gets to Antarctica, how did you want the score to change to reflect both the environment, and her own self-awakening?

Reynolds: The Antarctica palette is heard at the beginning of the film and then we finally find our way back to it. I loved having the opportunity to work on a score with such a wide scope and a deep shift in mood. I have quite a few soft synths. Omnisphere is usually what I break out first because it’s so deep and I can find the sounds I need very quickly. But Serum was the solution to this one, it’s a synth that I still have a lot to learn about but I love all of the visual feedback you get. For live performance lately and for some scoring, I’ve been learning Sylenth1, because of it’s low CPU usage, great sound, and ease of use. Plus it’s stuck around for all of these years while most other soft synths have given way to newcomers.

Linkater: The tone of Antarctica is practically a character in the movie. This theme returns once she’s back there, where it’s open for inspiration and revelations.

What kind of spiritual effect do you think that travel has on an artistic person, especially when it’s to a land that’s totally alien to them?

Reynolds: Travel has a dramatic effect on the mind, giving a person new perspectives, whether it’s in a crowded and intense city or a contemplative walk in a natural environment. With a setting as otherworldly as Antarctica the effect must be profound, though I’ve never been there myself.

Linklater: Everyone’s different of course, and works from different places that are personal to them, but this extreme geographical dislocation is exactly what Bernadette needs and she’s almost mystically drawn to this place.

I imagine there was quite a bit of quiet when shooting in Antarctica. Could you hear “music” as such playing in your head? Or do you think that’s an experience a director has on any film?

Linklater: It was an incredible place to be for all of us, but I guess I didn’t hear angels singing or anything. I felt we mostly approached it as not that much different than the way you’d approach any other location, however different.

Do you think the most difficult thing for any score to do is represent the creative process, something that Bernadette secretly pines for?

Reynolds: Yes, in years of watching films and listening to the scores as well as composing them, the scenes that require the music to accompany moments of creative discovery and genius are consistently some of the hardest to score effectively. Even for the greatest artists in history, not every creation is equal in depth and inspiration. When trying to score peak moments of creative genius, it can be a pitfall to pretend that you, as a composer, are a similar creative peak. I think you want to support and frame the situation but not attempt to reflect that genius directly.

Linklater: Again, the challenge was to be as original as Bernadette herself. It was certainly tricky to come up with 3-plus themes that kind of spoke to Bernadette’s journey, both her inner life, her family life, and her general conflicted and quirky self.

How important was it to balance the score’s funny moments with its more serious ones, all while maintaining a consistent tone?

Reynolds: Each palette had to balance the other while not stepping on it or pulling you out of the film’s experience. It was important that the audience buy into the transformation and go through that with Bernadette. In this case, the setting for the last third of the film was revealed in the opening scene, a narrative teaser that works to create tension as to how and when we’re going to get back to this setting. It works the same way for the audio, where we hear a sound world that we won’t hear again until much later in the film.

Given how diverse the score’s orchestrations and themes are, how do you think the score shows how a family that’s split apart comes together by the end?

Reynolds: The piano, violin, and cello trio tries to tie this together. These are time and place neutral instruments that play well to emotion and intimacy. While the Antarctica and Seattle palettes are tied to places and situations, this trio is tied to the characters, especially their emotions. The versatility of the piano is one of the main reasons that it has been historically and presently the most common instrument of choice for composers. That versatility allows it to cross over into both parts of the film.

Tell us about your upcoming score for “Sister Aimee.” What was it like to play a duplicitous female preacher – especially given today’s state of religious affairs and gullible masses ready to follow any self-proclaimed prophet?

Photo Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Reynolds: “Sister Aimee” was fun to score. It was a period piece and the music reflected that. Everything was 20’s inspired, including the drum set we put together. She was one of the first and biggest celebrity preachers in the age of radio.

What have you been up to in your performance end of things?

Reynolds: We’ve been touring with my opera “Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance,” made with Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol from Mexico City. I’ve also been performing a live score to a community dance piece in collaboration with the City of Austin Aquatics Department and long-time collaborator Forklift Danceworks. Other projects have been developing MXTX, a sample library, album, and doing concert made by composers and DJ-producers from Mexico and Texas, led by my non-profit Golden Hornet.

How do you think “Where’d You Go Bernadette?” broadens Richard’s horizons, as well as your own with its stylistic diversity?

Reynolds: This film isn’t like any of Rick’s other work, at least at an initial glance, and that send the music into new stylistic territory for me. That’s my favorite part of any collaboration. This film has many light-hearted elements but it’s also a story of substance about a struggling artist and their family. Composing music that works for the comedy without undermining the serious elements of the film pushed me creatively.

What destination do you see you and Richard going to from here?

Reynolds: I never know where Rick is going to go next other than it won’t be like anything we’ve done before. Each film has been its own world. We talk a lot about books, visual art, and of course film and his interests are wide and always expanding. That intellectual curiosity is what keeps his work fresh and relevant. It’s also what makes me excited to work with him every time.

Linklater: It will be another step in a long progression, I hope.

“Where’d You Go Bernadette” opens on August 16th, with Graham Reynolds’ score available on Lakeshore Records HERE.

Listen to Graham Reynolds’ soundtracks HERE

Visit Graham Reynolds’ website HERE