Interview with Mandy Hoffman

One might say there’s a waltz to the Pas De Deux of infidelity, the steps taken to hide illicit lovers while feigning the deadening routine of a longtime marriage, or long term relationship. But then, while we Americans might poo-poo this sort of thing, dallying with mistresses and Lotharios seems to go down just non-judgmentally fine in France, especially in their comedies. The American indie “The Lovers” delightfully has it both ways, no more so than in its gorgeously swooning score by Mandy Hoffman. Dallying with the classic romantic spirits of Georges Delerue (“Jules and Jim”), Nino Rota (“Amacord”) and Paul Misraki (“And God Created Woman”), Hoffman’s music casts a rapturous spell as schlubby husband Michael (Tracy Letts) and nonchalant wife Mary (Debra Winger) fall in love again. The neat conceit of filmmaker Azazel Jacobs (“Terri”) is that they turn into cheaters on the people the high-strung dancer and wannabe poet (Melora Hardin, Aidan Gillen) that they’re cheating in – resulting in the kind of roundelay that’s been the stuff of life for such directors as Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer – as transferred to our screens. But listening to Hoffman’s wondrously full-blooded thematic score will likely make cineastes think they’re back in the Gaelic glory days, a sound whose waltzing orchestral richness ironically belies a quite intimate indie film – music that captures the spell of rekindled romance, as well as the moral blowback that must ultimately arrive.

Residing in Manhattan as opposed to Paris, where this sort of ultra-melodic thing is also the norm, Mandy Hoffman has composed a score that will perk up the ears with its pure, unashamed lavishness. A dead ringer for Zooey Deschanel, and with a talent that will hopefully reach those converse heights, Hoffman has long been about the indie scene with a far more alternative sound. Beginning her scoring career with Jacobs’ “The GoodTimesKid,” then reteaming with him for “Momma’s Man,” “Terri,” and the HBO/ SKY series “Doll & Em.” Hoffman’s credits have included such character-centric shows as “The Mop and Lucky Files” and the forthcoming Amazon series “I Love Dick,” as well as the film “Ana Maria in Novela Land.” “The Lovers” is her biggest jump from the cool eccentricity to a Hollywood-distributed film, and her biggest sound at that, revealing a symphonic talent that will likely land her more creative affairs to come.

How did you get your start in the business?

I was a musician as a child, I played viola and piano. They came to me very easily. I also had a real problem with discipline, I would start making up my own music. I had friends who were also musicians, and wanted to form a band with them, they didn’t get it. For a while I stopped playing music altogether, up until my twenties where I had a serious relationship with a songwriter and rediscovered I ended up in this ten-piece band called The Rogue Burns Ensemble. They were great musicians, but somebody had to help organize it, and that fell into my lap. I played these toy instruments while another guy read his poetry. We did soundtrack music as well. I particularly liked retro film scores like from the sixties that had really moody instrumental stuff.

Dana (L) and Mandy Hoffman (R ) on the piano

I ended up moving to Los Angeles with this guy I was in a relationship with, and had a horrible break-up there. I didn’t know anybody in town, but I decided to stay and just be by myself for a while. He’d given me this four-track. As time went on I kept hearing from people that my music was very cinematic. Yet even when I was a child, I always thought of myself as musical writer of narrative, a storyteller. The scores of John Williams really took me into movieland. And I finally got to see it when a friend introduced me to Josh Mancell. He was working at Mark Mothersbaugh’s company Mutato Music. I was blown away the creativity I saw, and knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life.

I asked if I could work there, and was told that I should to go to UCLA”s film scoring program study serious composition. Right when I started I met Aza, who he asked me to do his film score for “TheGoodTimes Kid,” which was like a toned-down version of “The Lovers.”

“Toned Down?”

Yeah, really toned down! I was going to school with a lot of jazz people, and some of them played on my hodge-podge score. People still mention it to me, and it really is one of my favorites. I did things on it that I probably wouldn’t do now, because I didn’t really know any better at the time. It just seemed to work. I got a couple of write-ups from a few critics who said it sounded like Nino Rota’s scores were “being slowly digested by a boa constrictor!” That wasn’t intentional, it just happened, because I was just writing from my gut. It made realized how much the scores from the 70’s and 80’s really had an effect on me, especially Nino’s “The Godfather.” It was really an era when film music was all over the place. You had disco. You had Bernard Herrmann, whose work for Hitchcock I also particularly loved.

How was it for someone who was self-taught to have had to learn “self-discipline” in film score structure by taking classes?

It was challenging because I didn’t have this corporate goal in mind like the people around me, who wanted to be the next Danny Elfman or John Williams. I didn’t want to be that. When Aza asked me to score his next film “Terri,” I wanted to do something big, but Aza didn’t want that. So we kept it small and innocent because of the children in the movie. I ended up working backwards because I had written a piano piece for the end, which Aza really liked, and wanted to base the score on that sound.

“The Lovers,” is certainly a score that sounds big, which creates a sense of irony for such an intimate film.

I felt that “The Lovers” needed a big score. The actors were delivering these solid performances, and the music needed to fill in the gaps that that they were intentionally leaving out. It was like there was this conversation being said without a word being spoken, and I wanted to show that part of the story. When we started, Aza had asked me if I wanted to work on certain themes for different couples and characters. I didn’t want to do that, but to instead have this universal theme for them.

Was it important for the score to give a certain empathy to the characters that are constantly cheating on each other, something many people wouldn’t particularly approve as being a likable trait?

photo by Rob Rosenfield

I didn’t think I needed to get into the characters in that way. I felt as if I were a bird nearby, watching as these events as they were taking place. So I didn’t feel so much pressure to make a “statement” about anybody’s behavior. My dad was really into French cinema, which I watched a lot when I was younger. In those old movies, everybody cheated on each other, because that that’s the way it is in France! I don’t think that’s as commonly seen in that way for American audiences. Everybody in “The Lovers” is seriously flawed. The adults just seemed like children. So it was about my score catching the in betweenness of their lives, their grey areas that are not the black and white realities that we’re so used to.

“The Lovers” essentially is a French comedy in that way.

I have gotten comments that my film scores sounded French. I really don’t know what that means but maybe because I play the accordion? I really feel that most 50’s French scores have a uniqueness that doesn’t sound like the comedies in America tended to at that time. Today’s film scores tend to sound very homogenous, where they use the same clichés over and over, something they didn’t do back then. They had a voice, particularly in France, where they used strange instrumentations.

photo by Charchi Stinson

What about “The Lovers'” waltz-like quality?

Aza loves waltzes, so I knew I would be writing in ¾ time for those moments. The whole waltz thing happened when I was banging my head tying to write for a key scene. Aza had mentioned an old French film to me at that time. He wanted this carnival-carousel kind of music for the film, for this kind of ride to be taking place – this kind of youthfulness happening for these immature people playing games on each other.

If you were to strip away the music, “The Lovers” might not end up being as funny as it is. How important was it to capture the humor?

Well, I try not to score things as being “funny.” I’ve done a lot of comedies. For me, comedy is all about timing. I don’t like the music to dictate what should be funny. I had struggled with another project where the director wanted me to score funny for this scene that was already funny to begin with. Humor works better when there’s depth to it.

You’ve really captured the joy of being swept up in newfound romance.

I have written romantic music before but this was more like “soap opera” music without being a soap opera! I was really inspired by Alberto Iglesias’ music from Pedro Almodovar films, which are like soap operas, without the cheese.

photo by Rob Rosenfield

There’s this weird brass thing happening in some of the score, which seems like it might seem like a mistake, but it ends up being really funny for Tracy Letts’ husband – a guy whom you wouldn’t think of as a babe magnet.

I felt that that was my “comedy” music for “The Lovers.” I had these strings playing pizzicato, plucking where the musicians felt that I was doing a big mistake. We actually didn’t use much brass for the film, but when I did, I wanted this kind of growling for one of the character’s frustrations. I had written this crazy, 50’s inspired violin run for one of the female characters, making her seem like a real psycho, which I really loved but they made me take it out. They felt it was too dark for the film.

“The Lovers” does get increasingly dark by the end. How did you want the music to capture that tonal shift?

photo by Rob Rosenfield

I tend to go dark anyway, and “The Lovers” seemed like it needed this graveness to it. In the end, I was inspired by the score to “Vertigo,” which was an approach that had different textures that were not in the rest of the score. I had the harp doing these harmonics throughout the film but I made it more noticeable by the conclusion. I also brought in this xylophone to create this weird harmony.

How did you get such lush symphonic quality for your score?

I worked with a great orchestrator named Patrick Zimmerli, who’s a great jazz composer in his own right. He’s a New York guy and he does a lot of “new” music. He normally doesn’t touch the film world. I felt like he is such a great composer that I wanted to live up to his standard, and wanted him to dig what I was writing. I really wanted to challenge him, too and he really enjoyed it. We really didn’t work too closely together, I just more or less just handed him the score and he did his thing. There really wasn’t too much change from my mock-ups, but he made it all sound a bit more human.

photo by Pat Reynolds

I wrote “The Lovers” pretty much in the same e-flat key for continuity purposes. Of course, there were some changes here and there, but it was mostly in e-flat. As you know, strings don’t play too well in flat keys, which I did on purpose because it had a darker sound, and I didn’t want the score to sound too happy. I think the e-flat has been compared to a “majestic” key because there’s something rich about that. In the last two cues, I switched to “sharp” keys. You can hear that the string players are much more confident playing in their natural keys, which makes it sounds brighter and happier, because Aza wanted this happy resolve to the score. That’s why I shifted my approach. There was this piece of temp music at the end that I liked a lot but he said it wasn’t doing anything where it should be happy and sweet. I was scratching my head on what he was trying to convey towards me. Then it hit me. What Aza really wanted was a lullaby! He wanted me to put this movie to bed, so I wrote this piece what he wanted and that’s what closes the movie. It was the last week of the film and I was able to pull it off this lullaby that’s like the carnival that ends the film, I was very happy at his suggestion and the score turned out better for it.

What’s up after “The Lovers?”

I’m working on a new Amazon comedy series called “I Love Dick.” It’s a story about these people who move to this small town in Texas, where they don’t really belong. I get to write some crazy Tex-Mex music and country music for the show that I play on guitar, accordion and pedal steel guitar. Pedal steel is such an underrated instrument. It has this depth and wit to it that really brings out something in the score. I would really like to work more with that instrument in future. I also got some horn players doing mariachi-style playing, so this is “comedy” music that’s more on the nose than “The Lovers’ ever could be.

What’s it like to be a female composer in Brooklyn?

Pretty much all of my clients are in Los Angeles, so it’s been a challenge. I think I have been passed over a bit because I am a female composer, no matter where I live. I think most in this business thinks that it’s a man’s job. These days I’m very excited to see female composers such as Mica Levi having such a strong voice and breaking all these rules. She has made some fucked up shit. She’s such a huge hero to me. I think a change is happening these days because of strong people like her. And I’ve been working with a lot of women directors lately. I find it kind of easier in a way to work with them, because they give you more creative room and trust. Aza is an exception being a sensitive guy of sorts, but I feel that female directors tend to give up a little of their power to entrust it to me. They don’t want to micromanage me.

Director Azazel Jacobs and Mandy Hoffman (photo by Pat Reynolds)

How do you feel about the potential of doing big budget films after so much time spent in the indie world?

They kind of scare me because there are too many cooks in the kitchen, and so many opinions can make the end result not as good. I see a lot of it in advertising. If you look at it, most advertising music is crap. There are too many opinions, but there are a couple of companies out there that are doing good quality work.

Do you view yourself as a musical non-conformist?

My husband David Morrin is a classically trained guitarist who’s really versed in pop music. He loves The Beatles and The Beach Boys, which I skipped. Being the musician that he is, he doesn’t always get what I’m trying to do. Even I don’t try to conform to what I’m trying to do!

photo by Daniel Schweiger

In the end, what do you want people to realize about your score for “The Lovers?”

That there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears in this film, especially because I happened to get pregnant during it. For the first time I felt that I didn’t have to give an explanation on what I was doing on a movie score. This is music that just speaks for itself.

“The Lovers” opens in theaters May 5th with its soundtrack available on Milan Records HERE

The “I Love Dick” soundtrack will be available for download on Amazon Music May 12th

Visit Mandy Hoffman’s website HERE

Special thanks to Alexander Portillo for transcribing this interview

(cover photo by Daniel Schweiger)