How This Composer and Director Collaborated on a SXSW Film

Mar 15, 2023
How This Composer and Director Collaborated on a SXSW Film
Collaboration is the key to creating movies and music. 

This post was written by P. Andrew Willis.

Last summer, director Chris Kasick, who I’d collaborated with on his previous film, Uncle Nick, got in touch with me about a project he’d been working on for several years. All I knew before we spoke was that he’d been filming in West Virginia.

Once we had a chance to talk through what the film was all about, he said I was the guy to compose the score. He said something to the effect of, “You’re from there,” Appalachia not exactly, but close, “we’ve worked together, you’ve worked with Errol [Morris, who we’ve both worked on projects for], and you’ve done true crime.”

All true. We’d had a marvelous experience working together on Uncle Nick, so of course I was in. That project was Citizen Sleuth which premieres at SXSW this year.

By the time I got my first look at a rough cut of the film, they’d had a temp score in place for quite a while. Chris, editor Jeff Gilbert, and I had many conversations about what the music should do, and how it should work and sound to bring the story to life.

How I Crafted the Score to Citizen Sleuth

There were three major kinds of lifting that the music would have to do in the film. There were Emily’s (the main character) conscience cues which were very spare and playing in little punctuated cells that worked around dialog, there was the music for the amateur sleuth/CrimeCon type segments which were more screwball eccentric, and then the investigative music that purposely mined tropes of the true crime genre – think pizzicato strings and vibraphones – as a slightly satirical nod. Later on in the process, we decided that there was a fourth type of cue that happened in a couple of scenes.

What separated these pieces from the other music, according to Chris, was that the music was driving the segments, compared to voices driving. It was the only two times in the film where music did the driving.

There were things about the temp score that were working well for Chris and Jeff, which is not unusual especially when a project has been gestating for a while. By the time I got started, we were hunting for some signature sounds and instrumentation some combinations that would stand out and give this thing its own sound world.

Like most film composers these days, I have a bunch of sound libraries at my disposal, but this called for some experimenting with different juxtapositions.

In the end, it was a funky little lineup: the Cristal Baschet, multiple types of organs, strings played by members of Boston’s Craft Ensemble, percussion, tuba, vibes, electric piano, and my old Radio Shack Moog (a KY garage sale find).

 P. Andrew Willis on crafting the score for 'Citizen Sleuth'
‘Citizen Sleuth’ composer P. Andrew Willis Credit: Courtesy of P. Andrew Willis

I love working with Chris because he has constantly evolving ideas about the music and it’s a fun challenge to see if I can actually make them happen. Often, I’m writing multiple variations of a cue that we’re going back and forth with before we hit on it – in this case, up until the final hour.

I appreciate the kind of direction he gives, too. One of his first instructions was to listen to a track from the Thin Blue Line soundtrack because he liked how there are two threads of music going at once. The “counterpoint,” as he called it. That became a term he often used to describe what he was looking for, referring to a specific section in the first cue I’d composed based on that description. I’d never worked with Jeff, and he was an extraordinary editor to collaborate with.

Great at communicating big-picture thoughts and ideas, but also really in tune with the minute details of the music. He also kept his hand firmly on the rudder when we started veering off course with some of the brainstormings we were doing. 

In the end, I’m psyched about how the score turned out. Thankfully, so are the rest of the team. The premier screening at SXSW will be the first time I’ve seen the finished film and I can’t wait to see how this thing plays to a live audience!

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.      

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