There’s always been something winningly offbeat to artistry that’s emerged from Down Under, especially when it comes to the work of filmmakers re-defining the western to their eccentric tastes like George Miller (“Mad Max”) or the composing duo of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (“The Proposition,” “The Assassination of Jesse James”). It’s in the latter team’s ironic, authentic rhythms in playing the unplugged, poetic mythos of the American outback that musician Jed Kurzel impressively follows, making the trek along with a hopelessly romantic English kid to the beautifully threatening, heartbreakingly funny environs of “Slow West.”
Kurzel is also in the far more assured company Beta Band member-turned-filmmaker John Maclean, who brings a visually striking, loopy tune to the movie’s mix of murder and friendship that will happily remind some viewers of Jim Jarmusch’s off-mark gunslinging for “Dead Man.” It’s a cult pedigree that “Slow West” does waltz time with as our out-of-place English innocent Jay Cavendish (Kodi-Smit McPhee) is taken under the wing of Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a crusty bounty hunter to find the youth’s fled object of affection – each man for their own reason. As this likable odd couple roam the gorgeously stark landscape in a series of incidents as capable of brutality as they are of humanity, Kurzel’s haunting score also moves in unhurried irony. A waltz-time theme is played with an authentically rustic chamber orchestra, an unplugged vibe well suited to the story’s measured rhythms as it is “West’s” sense of black-humored whimsy. It’s music that’s at times pokey, at others lyrical as it wanders into other fishes out of water, as captured in ethnic songs.
“Slow West” affirms Jed Kurzel’s unique, rising voice in the domain of indie cinema, a score whose unplugged, acoustic sound has its roots in the composer’s Aussie band The Mess Hall – their folk-rock rock stylings bringing comparisons to The White Stripes. Making his scoring debut for brother Justin’s true-like serial killer film “The Snowtown Murders,” Kurzel’s evocative work has often graced shattered family ties, from the nerve-jangling music of a mother and son terrorized by “The Babadook” to the mesmerizing minimalism of a young thug trying to impress a seasoned criminal in “Son of A Gun” and the exhilaration and downfall of Australian skateboard brothers in the documentary “All this Mayhem” Now giving us his most stripped down, and lyrical score for “Slow West,” Kurzel brings a distinctive, Australian wryness to a universal genre while providing yet another unclassifiable, ear-catching score.
Could you talk about getting your music, and composing start in Australia?
My composing start really came with my brother Justin Kurzel’s first film “The Snowtown Murders,” or “Snowtown” as it was called in Australia. I’d previously been playing in bands but at home I was making a lot more instrumental music. It wasn’t something I was doing with any grand plan in mind, just a creative itch I needed to scratch. The only person I was ever sharing this music with was my brother, so when he decided to make “The Snowtown Murders,” he asked me to compose the music. Everything I’ve done since has really stemmed from that film.
What was the “Snowtown” experience like?
I think I’ll forever be chasing the experience I had on that film. I had no preconceived ideas about composing, everything was new and we worked very much from instinct rather than trying to reference other scores. My brother and I are very close. We share a similar aesthetic and over time have developed a shorthand in how we communicate ideas. This immediately cuts through any bullshit and allows for honest discussions about what works and what doesn’t.
I started working on the film while they were shooting. Justin would send me rushes and rough cuts of certain scenes and I would send music back to him. During the edit we went back and forth like this a lot until the music started informing the cut. The beginning and the end of the film changed completely because of the music I was sending to them. I was very conscious of not referencing other soundtracks. I grew up very close to where the events of the film took place. The key for me was to respond directly to the environment, never to hold the audiences hand emotionally.
Another movie about youth-gone-wrong was the powerful skateboards-go-bad film “All this Mayhem.” Tell us about how you wanted to capture that lifestyle? And were you a fan of the Pappas Brothers?
By the time I was approached to work on “All This Mayhem,” the director Eddie Martin and the editor Chris King had settled on a pretty interesting tone for the first half of the film. It was kind of Disney music or the kind of score you’d find in a cartoon. They had temped the edit with this music and it captured the spirit of The Pappas Brothers when they’d just discovered skateboarding as kids, before all of the insanity. All of us agreed that it was working really well so I took on the job of finding a theme for Ben and Tass and scoring a lot of the darker sections through the last half. It’s such a wild story, Shakespearean in parts and very moving. I’m very close to my brother so I could relate to it on that level. I skateboarded a lot as a kid too so I was aware of how incredibly talented the boys were.
You gave the visceral “father and ‘offspring’” crime drama “Son of a Gun” a truly unique, minimalistic approach that distinguished it from the typical action score one might expect. How did you hit on its hypnotic approach?
It was a genre I hadn’t tackled before and this was one of the big reasons I decided to take the film on. I like a challenge, there’s always a lot to be learnt from working outside of your perceived comfort zone. “Son of a Gun” was different to other films I’d done as it was more genre based and the music had to have a certain scale and rhythm about it, particularly during the second half of the movie. I was aware of writing themes particularly for the character of J.R., but also having music that could weave itself in to the sound design of the film and become quite subliminal.
“The Babadook” gave you the opportunity to deal with a mother and daughter relationship, under some particularly trying and nightmarish circumstances. What were the challenges of scoring a horror movie that could very well be taking place in the woman’s head?”
“The Babadook” was more in line with the kind of horror films I’ve always loved like “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Who Saw Her Die?” The director Jennifer Kent had a really strong vision for the film. She’s very much into sound design and the way music and sound can play off of each other to create a creeping, more internal horror. We avoided the usual tropes like string stabs or shock tactics often employed in horror films and went for something where you weren’t sure where the sound design finished and the music began. I ended up experimenting with my four-year old daughter’s voice, cutting, looping and delaying it to make unnerving pieces that felt like trapped voices within the mother Amelia’s head. Sometimes more structured musical pieces would form out of this idea and other times the challenge was to sit everything subtly within the mix and give the audience this sense that maybe like Amelia they were hearing things.
How authentic did you want to be to the period of “Slow West?” And did you do any kind of research into its instruments and folk music?
John and I weren’t really concerned with being period specific. It really feels like a time in the West where the period itself is in a state of flux. You have characters from all different cultures roaming around trying to find their place in this violent landscape and amongst this is Jay, a young Scottish romantic, viewing it all from a uniquely European perspective.
Could you tell us about the “band” of instruments you’ve come up with here?
I remember having an early conversation with John about the music feeling like it’s a band playing specifically for Jay, almost as if it’s literally following along behind him throughout the journey. In keeping with this idea, I settled on a smaller section, just the quartet with a double bass and me plucking away at an old mandolin or classical guitar. I think in the end you get this European flavor with the strings but the mandolin and guitar give a slight nod to the genre.
Though “Slow West” has a strikingly intimate approach, were there any larger western films or scores that influenced your approach?
No, we were very mindful of not going into that very genre specific territory. Obviously Ennio Morricone casts a huge shadow over the genre and as much fun as it would have been we kept the whistles and the twanging guitars out of the room. I really like Tom Wait’s score for “One Night On Earth” though. It’s very simple and there is this great sense of time passing in the way the music is played.
Your work on “Slow West” also brings to mind the approach of your fellow Australian musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis on such outré westerns as “The Proposition” and “The Assassination of Jesse James.” Were they an influence on your approach as well?
Not directly, I think “Slow West” is probably a bit more playful than the scores you mention. Having said that though, growing up in Australia, they’re hard not to miss. The Bad Seeds are great and I’ve always been a fan of Warren Ellis’s band The Dirty Three, they’re so uniquely Australian and I think Warrens approach to film music is a beautiful extension of that sound. In the end our approach is very different though. They are a duo that has played together for a long time, so you can hear the idiosyncrasies of that relationship in their music. I assume they work a lot quicker than I do too.
Do you think that taking a spare “lo fi” approach to “Slow West” makes it more realistic?
I think it just gives it an honesty and intimacy that the film really responds to. It’s also the way I like to hear strings. I don’t like to add too much to the production, I avoided overdubs and editing and tried to get a true reflection of the musicians in a room playing together. I love the rawness and honesty of smaller sections when it comes to strings and I think that has a lot to do with coming from Australia.
The theme has a waltz-like quality to it. How did you come up with that approach?
John gave me two very specific directions. He wanted something he could whistle and he wanted it in 3:4 time. Like Jay, The waltz feels distinctly European and very much at odds with the violence of the landscape. My previous scores were more drone-y, experimental and dark I guess. “Slow West” was the complete opposite. There was a formality to the writing, as the focus was more on melody. It was a process that was more akin to songwriting.
“Slow West” is the most self-consciously eccentric and beguiling western I’ve seen since “Dead Man.” How did you want to suit its quirky brand of hip humor, as well as its very ironic, and blackly funny portrayal of brutal violence?
Probably by not playing the violence or commenting on the film in an overtly emotional way. The humor is very dry and dark. As an Australian I could relate to that. It’s ingrained in our sense of humor. The last thing you want to do is sign post it in any way. Again, John was very clear in his direction and how the music related to Jay and his unrequited love.
As John was a musician as well, how did that contribute to your collaboration?
John was in The Beta Band, so he’s had years of experience with music. Directors can over complicate things when it comes to discussing music. It’s a difficult thing to articulate. John would just give really clear and simple directions. I remember we talked about hip hop a lot, just how great it can be when it’s stripped back and simple. With any other director a conversation like his could have been completely misleading but with John it all made perfect sense. Like anyone who’s played in a band, he communicates a lot with winks and nods, I like that, because you know really quickly what works and what doesn’t. John is also an avid collector of soundtracks, so he knows his stuff.
“Slow West” is an especially poetic film in terms of its visuals, which reminded me of Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven.” How did the look of the film influence you?
The look of the film was the first thing that struck me. It was such a fresh take on the genre. Because it’s shot in New Zealand, you get this strange feeling like it’s the West as seen through foreign eyes. The look of the film reminded me of the paintings early settlers did of Australia. The landscape looks European. It’s like the artists couldn’t wrap their heads around how alien the landscape was so they had to infuse it with something familiar. I hadn’t seen this idea in film before and it was a clever move on John’s behalf and one that could have gotten lost in the wrong hands.
There are also authentic songs in “Slow West,” from African to Hebrew. How do you think they add to the musical tapestry?
The idea of the West being a kind of cultural melting pot hasn’t really been explored too much and the way John uses music to highlight this is really effective. I think they ground the characters culturally in some way and give them a clear sense of identity outside of this foreign landscape. They maybe add to the “fish out of water” element too.
When you look at your career so far, do you think the theme of bonding between unusual, often clashing “families” is a running motif? Do you personally identify with that at all?
I think we all identify with the intricacies involved in a family dynamic. I haven’t actively looked for these types of films but there does seem to be a pattern in what has come my way. I find it interesting how tenuous the bond between a family can be, how easily it can be shattered. I also find it fascinating how a community can build something akin to a family, like in “The Snowtown Murders,” which is not bound by blood but is exposed to all of the same variables of a traditional blood related family. I think we’re all looking for somewhere to belong, a kind of grounding. There is a freedom and a terror involved in being cast out to sea and this is always an interesting angle to be approaching music from.
What do you think it takes to be an unquantifiable composer such as yourself, where one score after the other goes for an eccentric, often innovative sound? On that note, could you see yourself doing a score that was more mainstream?
I’ve always been pretty curious. I like trying out different things and I think it’s important to not be afraid of failure. I really enjoy making mistakes too. I’m always listening out for the good ones. A great mistake will always lead to something really interesting.
Film is such a collaborative process and that’s what separates it from other art forms. When everything lines up and all of these disciplines like cinematography, design, sound, performance, editing etc., are working together it’s unbeatable. I really love that and when you find yourself working with a great team of people who are all bringing something unique to the table it forces you to work outside of yourself and come up with something that adds another layer to the mix, an element that wasn’t previously there.
It feels like a pretty interesting time to be composing for film. Directors seem to be taking a lot more chances when it comes to music, no matter what the budget is. In saying that, I don’t think I’d discriminate between mainstream and non-mainstream films. I’m more interested in who I’m working with and their vision. In the end you’re only ever as good as the director you’re working with.
You’ll again be working with your brother Justin for “Macbeth,” which also reteams you with star Michael Fassbender. What kind of score can we expect, and do you think doing a period film like “Slow West” has helped for a movie that reaches even more centuries back?
“Slow West” and “Macbeth” are two very different films. However, Justin has always talked about Macbeth being like a Western…. Macbeth comes with a lot of baggage. People are familiar with the play and everyone has an opinion on how it should be done. Scoring for Shakespeare is whole different ball game. You’re dealing with a very lyrical text and you really want to keep out of everyone’s way and pick your moments. Much like “Snowtown,” my focus was very much on the landscape where that the music is kind of born out of this cursed environment. I was lucky to work with The London Contemporary Orchestra again in developing a kind of earthy foreign texture that suited the film. I was after something that sounded ancient and timeless, but very modern in its approach, the LCO were incredible to work with, very open and up for trying anything.
Would you hope to make the move to Hollywood? Or do you think Australia offers more interesting films, and scores as a result?
There’s interesting work anywhere, so I’m happy to go wherever that takes me. Australia has some amazing talent and I’ve been lucky in who I’ve worked with. It’s a great place to make a first film, you are kind of left to your own devices and don’t have the constant scrutiny that you have in the US. It provides a great breeding ground for talent. I think it gives directors the opportunity to focus on bringing their own vision to life without too many distractions.
“Slow West” is now in theaters and on VOD, with Jed Kurzel’s score available on Lakeshore Records HERE. Listen to Jed’s score for “Son of a Gun” HERE. Watch “The Snowtown Murders,” “All this Mayhem,” “The Babadook” and “Son of a Gun” on Netflix Instant