With the imminent release of the James T. Sale Trilogy on Air-Edel Records on the 5th July, we spoke with composer James about his longstanding collaboration with award-winning director, Sean Hanish, and their work on critically acclaimed feature films ‘Return to Zero’, ‘Sister Cities’, and ‘Saint Judy’.
Hi James! We’re really excited for the upcoming release of your albums on Air-Edel Records. Could you tell us about how you met Sean, your working relationship with him and how that has developed over time?
I met Sean in 1992 at the USC First Look screening where he was premiering his graduate film “Sales Tribe Grashecki.”. I met him and the writer of Saint Judy, Dimitri Portnoy that night and we all hit it off. We used to watch football together as we were fighting our way through Hollywood trying to get our careers going. We would support each other through the perilous journey of dating in LA and just kept in touch over the years.
Eventually we ended up working on commercials and short films together. He then made ‘Return to Zero’ in 2014 in which I got a chance to really work alongside him on a moving film about his own experience of loss.
Each of Sean’s recent films focus on societal issues, from loss to complex relationships, or fighting for what is right. How would you describe your approach to handling the needs of each project?
I handle his films the way I handle any film which is to take time to discover what the signature of that particular film is. Every film has a secret ingredient or signature that sets it apart from other films. How many love stories are there? What makes THIS one different? In the case of ‘Return to Zero’ I had to convey the deeper emotions of loss and it’s effect on the couple suffering it without interfering with the actors fine performances, something I would have to navigate on his later films. Even this film is essentially a love story, it just has a painful journey to fulfilment. Sean always gets fantastic performances from his actors so I am never “helping” the actors, I’m staying out of their way and hopefully, adding something to the scene.
‘Return to Zero’, the first feature which you collaborated with Sean on, tells the heart-breaking story of a couple preparing for the arrival of their first child which doesn’t go as planned. What were your ideas for the initial sound palette and how did that develop into helping the portrayal of the differing emotions we see on screen?
‘Return to Zero’ was driven by the need for a palette that was simple and sparse at times but still deep and resonant. Ambient and airy tones with live strings were my choice with a bit of an “electronic” departure from the score for Aaron’s relationship with his co-worker Dana. The music for them is intentionally hollow in comparison to the music for his relationship with Maggie. I always use a bit of electronica with live instruments in my scores but this was a separate gesture intentionally.
The score comes to a climax with the birthing of their stillborn child. It is still the most emotional experience I’ve ever had as a composer. How do you write music for the birth of a stillborn child without it sounding maudlin and manipulative? This is every parent’s nightmare and a real issue for too many couples so I was very careful to tread lightly. It was exhausting but a deeply moving experience for me. John Kurlander’s engineering was so helpful in getting the right sound for this film.
Sean’s second film ‘Sister Cities’, follows four very different sisters in the wake of their mother’s untimely death. How did you bring out the nuanced complexity of the sisters’ relationships and the secrecy of the story within the score?
Each sister had their own instrument assigned to them to reflect their character. I did this instead of separate themes for each daughter. Again this is a film with a lot of great performances and dialogue so subtlety and stealth were my tools. Only at the end when we reveal the love letters from their mother (Jacki Weaver), written lovingly to each of her daughters, do we get a bit larger and more emotional with the score. This climactic scene is the only time the live strings are on their own. Up until this time the score has been sparsely electronic with bits of guitar, piano and subtle abstract ambience. I wrote many versions of that scene to get it right.
‘Saint Judy’, your most recent project, has received great critical acclaim including several award nominations at Raindance and LA film festivals, and won ‘Best of the Fest’ at High Falls Film Festival. The powerful story focusses on immigration attorney Judy Wood, and how she initiated the change in U.S. law of asylum to save women’s lives. As this was your third time working with Sean, how do you keep the ideas fresh from project to project?
Every film has it’s own needs and parameters. It has a specific environment it must live in. I always spend time trying to find that world first before scoring scenes.
‘Saint Judy’ took a bit of experimentation to get to its final sound. Initially it was a jazzier, piano-driven score with a lighter feel to it. The fear was that we would slow the story down and overburden the audience with a dark musical background. Ultimately that approach was too light and didn’t address the weight of the struggle at hand. We had to find a delicate balance so the music ended up shifting to an agitated, motor-rhythmic motif driven by strings to convey Judy’s tenacious drive and spirit. There are also hints of Afghan flavour as we see flashbacks of Asefa’s story in her village but only just enough to capture the essence of it as this story is about women’s struggle for protection in general, not just Asefa.
Sean always has fresh ideas about how to convey the emotion in his films. There is a key flashback in the film where we see Asefa being assaulted and imprisoned by the Taliban that would normally be handled with tension and dissonance and that’s how I scored it intially. Sean had me go in another direction which was to play it as a memory and so it ends up being almost a minimalistic piece. A piece that conveys a memory over time with passing dark clouds. This piece called ‘The Arrest’ is sort of a departure from the rest of the score for a reason. I think it is successful and was an idea entirely from Sean. We work well together as we are always striving to get the music to serve the scene even if it means straying from our current palette.
Could you tell us a bit more about your recent and upcoming projects?
I have scored a couple of short films for friends, worked on a video game-music concert performed in Moscow, and am currently writing a concert piece for Bass Clarinet and Small Orchestra called “Dark Music” which will basically be a concerto for Bass Clarinet.
As always I look forward to Sean’s next film!
Thanks so much, James. We can’t wait to hear your next scores! The James T. Sale Trilogy will be released on Friday 5th July across all major platforms including iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon.