Interview with Michael Brook

(Photo by Giuseppe Asaro)

While his own birthplace of Canada might not immediately seem exotic to those residing in the creative land of milk and honey called Hollywood, Michael Brook has made an impressive career of bringing an intriguing, ethnic touch to his soundtracks that’s ranged from The Middle East (“Fires of Kuwait”) to Africa (“Ashes and Snow”) and India (“Kingdom of the Tiger”) as well as the murderous American hinterlands of the snow-draped “Affliction” and the Cajun double-crossing “Albino Alligator.” But even more importantly, Brook’s unique, often eccentric approach has captured the emotions of young characters trying to find their place in the world – hearing a doomed soul-seeker acoustically journeying “Into the Wild” and high school madness through an 80s emo rock groove with “The Perks of Being A Wallflower.”

Now, Brook has combined the best of both musical worlds as he ventures to “Brooklyn,” a score and film that just might have the luck of the Oscar Irish for this distinctive, often heartfelt musician. But then, there’s much affinity for hearth and home in this endearing tale by scripter Nick Hornby (“About A Boy”) and director John Crowley (“Intermission”). Set in a 1950s when everything seemed possible, especially for a budding woman constricted by her rustic Irish town, “Brooklyn” has the lovely Eilis (played by the Irish-blooded, Bronx-born Saorise Ronan) emigrate to America through her sister’s help. It’s in a welcoming concrete landscape where the lovely girl is finally able to come out of her shell with the affection of her soft-spoken, Irish-fixated Italian beau Tony (Emory Cohen). But when fate calls Eilis back home, she finds her new path in life might not so clearly spelled out anymore, especially given the attention of the unsuspecting Jim (Domhnall Gleeson) who can give Eilis the comfort and joy she once never thought she’d find in her town.

Old-fashioned in the best sense of the word, Michael Brook’s music in “Brooklyn” is as Irish as the rolling hills, following the film score tradition of “Angela’s Ashes,” Evelyn,” “My Left Foot” and “The Quiet Man” in their mix of a rhythmically ethnic orchestra and Gaelic instruments, with of course the quintessential violin for the conjuration of the quaint villages and rolling green hills. It’s in this lush symphonic approach that Brook’s music finds its unforced sentimentality, beautifully capturing the tenderness and spunk of an unassuming heroine who carries her home in her heart. It’s a tone of unassuming, yet moving emotion that’s also the thematic through line of much of Brook’s work in general – here with Irish eyes that smile with the joy of discovering a new world, then become misty back in the old one, where Irish movie music is smiling upon Brook’s intelligent continuation of its legacy.

You have a real affinity for playing young people in search of themselves. What were you own explorations as a budding musician like, and how do they help you relate to these kind of characters? Was it also difficult for you to break away from conventional expectations?

My first exploration as a budding musician was when I first started playing music as a guitar player in various rock bands in bars in Toronto. I enjoyed doing that very much and also kept thinking that maybe there were other areas of interest musically that didn’t involve singing, because I can’t sing. I then came across music from other cultures, particularly from India and Africa, and composers like Terry Riley and Brian Eno who made music that was accessible and focused on sound qualities as part of the compositional process. So I started to explore the use of electronics and electric guitar and really stumbled around for a long time before taking an electronic music course at York University, which had me getting involved with synthesizers and contemporary composition. I think the main way I relate to young people in search of themselves is that for the longest time I really felt that I had no idea what I was doing; it was purely exploring various areas of music and I still feel that as an unschooled musician there’s a large degree of stumbling that seems to be an inherent part of my process. It wasn’t particularly difficult to break away from conventional expectations, because I don’t have much expertise in traditional music. Partly that lack of expertise can make the process difficult or laborious and challenging, but it also forces me to be kept on my toes, which brings a certain freshness to the things that I do.

How did you land at “Brooklyn?” And could you talk about your collaboration with director John Crowley. What did he want your score to accomplish?

I was initially approached by the film’s producer Finola Dwyer who put me in touch with the director John Crowley. I think that John’s main goal with the score was to support and heighten the emotion without ever becoming cheesy, which can happen when you either push something too much or you belabor something that’s already present on the screen. John also brought something to the score that I hadn’t focused on that much previously. He was very intent on bringing out the thought processes of the actors as you watch them on screen having their internal monologue. For me that was the most intensely challenging and ultimately rewarding aspect of working with John.

Were you a fan of scripter Nick Hornby’s films like “High Fidelity” and “An Education” before working on “Brooklyn?”

I am a big fan of Nick Hornby’s work. I think he brings out a kind of enthusiasm for the human spirit that comes out in characters that are both good and bad. It’s very easy to identify with this in ourselves and the people we know.

How “Irish” did you want to make the “Brooklyn” score, and on that note, how “American” as well?

A big catchphrase on working on this with John was to create a “delicate balance” in terms of acknowledging a sense of place with both Ireland and America. But we wanted to be subtle about it and refer to these two cultures in a fairly light-handed way. So we have a bit of mandolin when people are in Ireland or thinking of Ireland and clarinet and upright bass when people are in America or thinking about America.

As a composer who has used a lot of ethnic music, what kind of exploration did you have towards choosing the Irish instruments that you wanted to use, and what do you think they have to say about Eilis?

We wanted to stay away from overtly ethnic instruments. One notable thing that gradually emerged was the violin as kind of a theme for Eilis; not so much as a melody, but as an instrument motif that was played by my wife Julie Rogers.

Do you think there’s something naturally anguished about the violin, especially when it comes to evoking Irish emotion?

I think that the violin is perhaps the most expressive instrument, maybe the degree of articulation and expressiveness that it is capable of suits music that in some ways is non-European – such as certain aspects of Irish ornamentation or Indian or Middle Eastern music.

What’s the trick to playing emotion in a “woman’s picture” like “Brooklyn,” while taking the relatively restrained approach that you do here?

Having said that we consciously steered away from trying to have any overtly Irish ornamentation, ultimately a stark, simple style of music seems to actually bring out the emotion in the most appropriate way.

What touched you about Eilis, and became the most important aspect of her to convey with your score?

What I found particularly touching about Eilis’ character was that she was in situations that she didn’t do much to create but she just had to deal with them and then ultimately she had to make very large decisions with insufficient information. She had to make her best guess, which is what we all have to do most of the time. I also was emotionally connected by the fact that Eilis’ trajectory almost parallels my mother, who went from post war England to Canada in 1949. She went for a two week vacation, and is still there.

What was the most difficult sequence of “Brooklyn” for you to compose, and why?

The most challenging sequence for me to work on was at the end of the film. Partly because it’s long, but also partly because she goes through so many changes which take her on a particularly large and varied emotional journey. It was very helpful that John had a clear and precise map of what the music needed to do throughout the end of the film.

A particularly stirring moment in the score is “Frankie’s Song,” where you develop a traditional Irish tune in Gaelic into an orchestral instrumental. What was the trick to making that flow so beautifully?

Funnily enough I had worked with the singer Iarla O Lionaird about 20 years ago when we did an album for Real World Records. So I actually had a bit of experience in transitioning from Iarla and Sean Nós’ singing into instrumental music.

“Brooklyn” starts off with a tone that’s very lightweight, especially given that Irish subjects are usually “downers” as such, a la “Angela’s Ashes.” But the film gets a bit heavier in the second half. How important was it for you to score Eilis’ weightier questioning of her purpose, without losing the more “fun” first half of the score completely?

It was always important to keep a mix of light and dark music in the film. I think if we just stayed with heavy things it would’ve been overwhelming and depressing and less effective.

If you just listened to the score without being aware of its subject matter, you could mistake “Brooklyn” for an intimate western – much like your work on the late, lamented HBO series “Deadwood.” Can you hear that at all in the score in terms of discovering a new land as it were?

Well I think there’s an element of Irish music in what we think of as country western or cowboy music. There certainly was an intention to give a sense of going to a new land and when she gets to America we introduced a couple of different instruments to try and give a sense of a different place.

Do you think there’s an emotional commonality to playing the story of an immigrant, no matter the nationality?

I think maybe one of the most universal aspects of the film that people can identify with is that in the modern world so many of us are immigrants. It seems to be a huge part of contemporary life. And although we achieve greater self-realization, perhaps we also pay a price for that as we are separated from our families and I think there’s a fundamental human need to be around family and community. Perhaps a great deal of contemporary angst comes from that separation that goes against our human nature.

As a Canadian, what was your own “immigrant” story like when moving to pursue your career in Hollywood?

America is actually the third country I’ve lived in. I lived in England for 10 years before moving to America. It’s exciting moving to a new country and it’s terrifying at the same time, because you leave your whole life behind you. So I strongly identified with some of the scenes in Brooklyn where Eilis was struggling to make a life in a new country. It is hard and it is lonely.

How was it making the transition to being a songwriter in tunes like “Ultramarine” (which was used in “Heat”) to doing underscores?

The main difference I found between making albums and scoring films is that when you score a film the music probably should be incomplete in some ways, because it’s part of a bigger whole. When I make albums I’m primarily following my muse and trying to make something that feels like a complete entity.

Your very first score was for 1992’s “The Fires of Kuwait.” And you’ve done quite a lot of them since with films like “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” “The First Year” and “An Inconvenient Truth.” What kind of musical discipline is necessary for that genre when compared to a fictional film?

I really experienced the difference between scoring for a drama versus a documentary particularly strong on “An Inconvenient Truth.” I found that whenever Al Gore was talking about environmental/scientific issues or conveying information, putting music underneath it felt false and like propaganda. However, when he was describing some of his personal history and events in his family life, music help created an emotional atmosphere that let the audience experience the film in a different way, and also told them that they didn’t have pay attention in the same way as when trying to absorb and process information.

As a politically-minded musician, do you think documentaries are more important than ever now?

In a way I don’t feel exactly “political”. My philosophy is that civil society should be governed in a way that maximizes the quality of life for the most people and protects minorities. This is inherently an imperfect process and a moving target. So that outlook has political implications, but I don’t particularly identify with being political, although maybe I’m being a semantic nit-picker here.

Your Golden Globe-nominated composing breakthrough was for “Into the Wild.” But to me, it seemed like you should have gotten more attention to your work in it. Is that the pitfall to working on a soundtrack where the song-driven focus of mainstream listeners always seems to be more concentrated on the rock star involved?

It makes sense that people, and the media, will always focus on fame first. There’s a kind of efficiency to that, and there is a downside, and an upside to working on projects with famous collaborators. So in the case of “Into The Wild”, yes many people thought that because Eddie Vedder wrote all those great songs for the film that he had also composed the score, which was a bit frustrating. To be clear, no fault of Eddie’s who took great pains to always point out that he had not done the score. On the other hand, some people came to appreciate the score who were initially attracted by the name of people that they had heard of working on the film.

Another impactful score of yours was for “The Fighter,” which had a quite unique, sound-design approach that you wouldn’t expect from an underdog boxing film. How did you hit on that?

Because David O. Russell had quite a few songs in “The Fighter” that supported many of the high energy scenes, he wanted the score to bring out some of the more nuanced and emotionally subtle parts of the characters, so we ended up with some very minimalist music for that.

Perhaps my favorite score, and film of yours was for “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” What were the challenges of not only doing in an 80s-set “period” score, but also one where the teenager not only had to deal with the pressures of fitting into high school, but his own madness as well?

The 80’s aspect of the film didn’t enter into the score that much, probably more in the choice of songs. In general, I like the challenges of scoring films that involve conflicting and contradictory emotions; where people might be mad, but also are sweet and caring.

You’ll next be dealing with another dramatic, life-changing story involving a female with “About Ray,” where the teen girl seeks to become a man. Could you talk about your score for that film?

“About Ray” is another example of that dichotomy, or unresolved vibe, that I like. Ray is trying to push a group of adults in her family – mother, grandmother, and father – to accept and facilitate her changing gender. They all love and care about her, but all have their own demons and shortcomings that impede Ray’s goal.

Do you hope to keep following the path of intimate, emotional scores with your career? Or do you think the sometimes lush sound of “Brooklyn” might move you onto grander approaches?

It was a great thrill to work with a larger ensemble, and I would love to do more of that, but not to the exclusion of anything else. For me it has always felt exciting and immersive to have a sense of not knowing exactly what I’m doing. Working in ways that I haven’t done before seems to foster a feeling of discovering something new; new for me at least. And that keeps things fresh. So yes, “Brooklyn” is a bit of a new direction for me and it would be great to do more of that kind of thing, and also explore other genres like sci-fi or crime, which appeal to me as well.

Listen to Michael Brook’s score for “Brooklyn” HERE, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” HERE and “Into the Wild” HERE

Visit Michael Brook’s website HERE