At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, first time feature-film director Garth Davis, who’s earned his stripes for his work on the BBC miniseries Top of the Lake, brought us the world premiere of his now hotly-anticipated and critically-acclaimed film Lion. Opening in US theaters November 25th, the film tells the real life story of Saroo Brierley, a young man who used Google Earth to reunite with his long-lost family in India after being raised by his adoptive parents in Australia. Based on his 2014 memoir, A Long Way Home, the film stars an A-list cast – which includes Dev Patel (playing the title role), Rooney Mara, and Nicole Kidman – and is, honestly, one of the most genuine, coming-of-age films that of which brilliantly explores the triumph of human will in the face of overwhelming chaos, heartache, and beauty.
With such a powerful story, who better then to have at the helm of the score than renowned composers Dustin O’Halloran, who recently brought us the enchanting, Emmy-winning theme for Amazon’s hit show Transparent, and Volker Bertelmann – better known for handcrafting incredibly inventive, instrumental compositions with what is called the prepared piano under his solo moniker, Hauschka. Together, they’ve built an arresting score that seems to perfectly convey those very universal, transcendent themes of family, love, and what it means to feel at home with a satisfying sense of charm and reverence to Saroo’s story. Like the film itself, it’s one to tug at your heart strings.
I recently got the chance to speak with the two busy composers about their experiences debuting the film at TIFF, their collaborative process when it came to creating the music for the film, and the benefits of multitasking multiple projects at once.
The Young Folks: You both have actually known each other, and been fairly close friends in the business, for quite some time prior to working together on Lion.
Dustin O’Halloran: Yeah, we met around 2007, actually. We met in Italy. Volker was playing a concert there, and we just got to know each other that way. We’ve been friends for a long time.
TYF: How did the both of you become involved on Lion?
Volker Bertelmann: Well, I was in Australia, in Melbourne. I was doing a show there, and on my way somebody called me and said, “Could you put a director on the guest list?” I said yes, and afterwards this director, which was actually Garth Davis, was standing in front of my merch table asking if we could have a chat. So afterwards, we had a chat about the movie…He showed me some photography stills [from India] of the movie, and it looked awesome. He then asked me if I would be interested in collaborating, and that he had Dustin in mind. I said, “Oh man, that’s interesting because I’ve known Dustin for a long time, and we’re already very good friends.” A couple of weeks later, we were getting the job.
TYF: I love how convenient that was – that you guys already knew each other.
DH: Yeah, and I think since Volker and I’ve known each other for so long, we knew we could do it. You have to let go of a lot of things when you collaborate, and Volker and I have already spent a lot of time touring together and being on the same label so I think there was already a sense of understanding of each other’s language, which really just helped going into it – rather than trying to get to know somebody and how they work. We both have an understanding of how we both work, so it felt very natural.
VB: I mean, it sounds like maybe we were an old couple already but we were not. [Laughs] I was very excited to work with Dustin. It was actually the first time we really collaborated – where we had to talk about themes. It was a real, exciting process for us, and I think that’s very necessary. If you want good music, you have to, of course, challenge each other in a way. And that was very nice, that kind of process.
TYF: Beyond your work on Lion, you guys have some pretty successful independent careers as well. Before you got into writing music for films like Marie Antoinette and Breathe In, Dustin, you were a member of the indie rock band Devics – from the early 90’s through 2008. What out of that experience with the band inspired you to begin composing music as a solo pianist? Listening to those records, it’s actually pretty fitting with some of the stuff you’re doing now.
DH: Yeah. Well I think, and it’s probably the same for Volker, when you come from a rock background there’s such an emphasis on sound and finding cool and interesting sounds. It’s always like a big part of the writing process. I was writing music basically for the whole band, everything except the vocals, and in a way you don’t really realize how it’s all gonna work together. For me, it was sort of my formative years of understanding instrumentation. Though I was always working on these piano solo pieces by myself, [which is] something that developed kind of on the side until I actually had time to record them. That’s how I got even deeper into instrumental composition. I think it’s fundamental to find your voice and the space that you need to find it within yourself. That band was a really important period.
TYF: Any chances on eventually making another Devics record in the future?
DH: There’s always that chance. Yeah, it’s always in there. Sara [Lov] and I are great friends. We talk about it a lot actually. Time is the greatest conundrum.
TYF: And so, [Volker], you’re also a pianist, though you actually play something called the prepared piano. What exactly goes into playing a prepared piano?
VB: Well, you actually tape material on the strings to change the sound. You can create on the piano a lot of different sounds like drum sounds and percussive sounds, and very awkward, strangely-tuned stuff. And what’s very interesting for me is that I’m sort of using it like an analog synthesizer. I can actually use my hands to create weird or interesting sounds rather than using an electronic instrument. I thought that was very interesting because while the piano was always my instrument, at the same time I wanted to do electronic music. So I tried to find a way of creating electronic music with an acoustic instrument. And that worked really well. In a way that stayed with the sound of my records for a while. But I’m also interested in normal piano music as well. I’ve played in bands, and have played a lot of synthesizers, so there’s like a huge range of diversity there, but the grand piano ended up being the instrument that helped me to tour and have my own records that are interesting and that people like. It’s really become my starting point.
TYF: Analog synthesizer is like the perfect way of explaining what it is that you do, since you were such an active keyboardist for a lot of those different groups within that techno world.
VB: Yeah, from 12 years old I was always playing in bands. I was writing music for my school bands and joined more and more bands…Then at some point, I felt like maybe if you are just a keyboardist, you can’t actually carry your own show by yourself. And I felt like I wanted do that. So, I started to become a front-man and was singing for a band, and was starting to find my role somewhere. Over the years, I felt like maybe the purest music that is actually me is the piano music I play at home. In the end, I think that has the most authentic output, and I’m very happy with that.
TYF: Were you at all aware of artists like John Cage, or did this happen purely based on your own experimentation?
VB: Yeah well, one can always say that afterwards. [Laughs] But I had no idea who John Cage was. That’s really true. I was in a completely different area of music. My connection was through rock and indie music…maybe at some parts John Cage was already influencing some of the electronic music. But at that time I was not connected with that “new John Cage.” With my first record, one that I released on a small indie label in Cologne, suddenly people said to me – when I first actually picked up the grand piano sound – they said “Hey, do you know John Cage?” and I said “No,” and then they just introduced me to his music. I was very fascinated because, in a way, he started this way of playing the piano as well out of practical reasons. He once wrote a dance piece [for the stage], though the stage was too small for piano and drums. The only way he could play the music was by playing the percussion with the piano. That, I think, was the first initial moment of how he was getting more and more into the grand piano. In a way, that was the same for me. I was always fascinated by electronic drum beats and noises.
TYF: So then in regards to Lion, when it comes to working together with each your own take on composition, what was the creative process for scoring a film like this? Did you work primarily in the studio together, or was it a process that was a bit more organic than that?
DH: It started in our own studios. And actually, maybe the thing that’s different for us than most other composers is that we used our studio as sort of an instrument as well. A lot of what we do is also how we approach the recording. It’s just techniques that we both sort of developed. So we wanted to kind of stay in our own spaces, where we’re comfortable, and just start the basic idea. We were sending things back and forth before Volker came to Los Angeles, and we worked in my studio for about a month or so. We worked on our own for about a month so then the second month we had lots of material to kind of work with. We got together and just started piecing it all and that was sort of when we started to work closely with Garth on the voice of the film and its themes.
VB: Yeah, and I think it’s very important that you start with your own strengths without any disturbance. When you start right away towards working together, sometimes you’re not given the quietness and the time to actually concentrate on what you want to express. So I think for us, it was very important to find our own connection, and then take the material that we had and bring it together and make a decision together thinking “this works very well, this doesn’t work.” What was very important, and actually a very nice part of working together, was that we were quite honest about what was working and what wasn’t so there was no ego about “That’s my idea! What’re you doing?” It was not important at all. We just really thought about what was working.
DH: And I think we both really just wanted to make what would best help the film. It’s really a beautiful, powerful film and when you get something like that, you really wanna honor it and get it right. The both of us stepping back from our own egos just for the film itself.
TYF: The narrative of the film teeters between two completely different worlds and cultures, with the story being set in both Australia as well as India. What was your approach in conveying those two different worlds musically in a way that also further examines the core themes of the film?
DH: Well, our conversations with Garth were never really about “Oh, this is happening in India. This is happening in Tasmania. So we need to represent this.” It was always about a more spiritual connection in order to actually break down those barriers, and equally show the human story. It’s about family and love and there’s definitely showing a lot of difference in equality between the two worlds, but at the end what is universal is that they feel family connection and there’s this love for his mother and how that really plays – no matter where you’re coming from. That was always sort of the heart of what we were working on.
TYF: There’s also two different actors of different age groups playing Saroo. Did that evolution in the character affect the scoring in any way?
DH: I think it did. In the beginning I think Garth’s idea was that the film had two halves and that’s why he wanted two composers to work together and represent those two halves of the story. And what kind of happened was, you know, Volker’s sound has this way of representing [young Saroo’s] inventiveness for surviving this crazy situation. We both kind of got into each other’s worlds though, but I think that was sort of the initial idea. That these two films would be tied together in a way. In the end, we just sort of connected the whole thing, which made more sense.
TYF: What was it like debuting the film at TIFF?
VB: Well, you know, festivals are kind of weird, artificial spaces. A lot of time is [spent] waiting for the moment. You know, for the red carpet. For interviews, and then you wait again and there’s the premieres, and the parties. I think that is a big advantage of being two composers because we can hang out together and have a good time. It was also nice to hang out with all the guys who were involved in the movie, and meet all the producers. We met a couple of the actors at some point as well.
It was exciting that people were acknowledging us for the score when we were standing on that stage. That was very nice. It was a little bit like a show. [Laughs] You get straight feedback, and that uplifts you in a way. I have the feeling sometimes film people, as well as theatre people, have a very short moment of getting acknowledged for their work – if they don’t win like a huge prize or something. Besides that, they don’t get any love from people who just saw it for the first time. In a way, I think it’s very interesting how these sorts of festivals end up working.
TYF: Just in how they bring to light the individuals working behind-the-scenes…those who can find themselves, at times, a tad overlooked anywhere else?
DH: Yeah. And when you work on a film that you really love, that you’ve put a lot of yourself into, it’s always nice to see it for the first time with everybody since that’s sort of the first moment where everyone has the most pure reaction. You’ve worked on the film for so long, and so you really begin to lose sight. You’ve seen it so many times. Like making an album, you just don’t know if it’s good or not. You don’t even know what it is cause you’ve worked on it for so long. It’s nice that you get that chance to see it from the audience’s perspective, and it’s probably the only time you’ll get that since the energy is there.
VB: I actually spoke recently with a director, it wasn’t Garth, it was a different director…who said to me, “You know, the only way we can actually see how the audience is reacting is from these festivals.” So we have like a week where we can go to two or three screenings, and a lot of time that’s the only place where the film and the output actually connects. Afterwards, a lot of times, you never know if it gets whatever big distribution. I mean with Lion, it’s different, but you never know really what comes after that.
TYF: Are there other projects you’re both working on now that you’ve finished Lion?
VB: I’m working right now on a new album for next year, which is nearly finished. At the same time, I’m also working on another movie called Ashes In The Snow. I’m scoring it right now. In-between, if I have time, I have to actually finish a compositional piece that involves a string section by the end of the month. I actually love working on two or three things simultaneously.
TYF: Do you think that kind of multitasking, with all these very different projects, helps you to stay in a more creative space, personally? One project sort of giving you the idea for another, and so on.
VB: In a way, yes. But at the same time, it’s more like finding distance with what you are doing. Sometimes, if you get to close to [a project], you don’t really give yourself allowance to actually put it somewhere in the cupboard and wait a little bit. You can then just grab it later to see how it really sounds. A lot of times, you’re working on something, it gets finished, and then you just fire it off. The record is released. Then you listen to it and your like “Ahh, I should’ve done that better.” I mean, that’s still happening, but I always have the feeling that it helps me a lot to clear my mind by doing certain things simultaneously.
In our world, sometimes you wait and nothing’s happening…then suddenly, in one month, four things are kicking off at the same time. And you never planned it like that. I feel very inspired by jumping between things. It gives me the chance to categorize things. Like if I’m working on a film that is very string-oriented, I try to then not involve some of those film compositions into my [solo] records, and maybe do something completely opposite. It’s sometimes my feeling that I just wanna find diversity in my work.
TYF: That definitely makes a lot of sense. And so Dustin, you’re working on more solo stuff as well? Do you find yourself multitasking almost in the same way? I know you’re also currently working on the score for the [Amazon] show Transparent, which you had won an Emmy for.
DH: Yeah, we just released our third season a couple days ago. But I have another project called A Winged Victory for the Sullen. It’s a musical project I do with Adam Wiltzie who’s from a band called Stars Of The Lid. We just finished the score for a French film called Iris with director Jalil Lespert, who actually did a movie about Yves Saint Laurent a couple years ago. So that is also coming out in November.
I’m also starting to work on some of my own music, as well as some other collaborations – trying to piece together a new solo album. Adam and I are also going to do another film with director John Curran called Chappaquiddick, which is about the Ted Kennedy scandal that happened in the 60s. We’ll start working on that starting the end of the year. I’m also doing a show in Tokyo the end of October, which I’m really excited about. It’s always a treat when you get to go to Japan. It’s wonderful.
TYF: I could only imagine.
DH: It’s not like doing a tour anywhere else. I feel sorta lucky to get to play there. I’ve been collaborating with Japanese electronic artist who goes by the name Ena. And so I’ll be working a little bit with him on this collaboration we’re doing. It’s all just a matter of time management.
Thanks to Dustin and Volker for taking the time to speak with us Young Folks. Click here to read our review of Lion, and be sure to check out the film in theaters coming this holiday season.