Composure: A conversation with composer Rolfe Kent

While attending the 38th Toronto International Film Festival Trevor Hogg had the opportunity to chat with Rolfe Kent about composing the musical scores for Labor Day, Bad Words and Dom Hemingway 
I don’t know if it’s a gift or a need to do it,” observes Rolfe Kent (Wedding Crashers).   “When I heard something on the radio I would spend time figuring it out, working it out.”  Movies were also a source of intrigue.  “I remember seeing Railway Children [1970] as a kid and loving it.  The point when I put the two together was when I was about 11 or 12 and realized I would have music in my head when I got home from the cinema.”  The epiphany led to the British youth pursuing a career as a self-taught composer.  “The business doesn’t require training.  I started in student theatre and then did industrial videos and student shorts.  I worked my way up.”  The lack of formal training is not a creative hindrance.  “You can be much more natural and intuitive when you’re not confined to any particular rules.”
“I have favourite music scores but that doesn’t necessarily mean much,” notes Rolfe Kent.  “My favourite music scores are often because I love the themes; somehow those scores speak to me.  It doesn’t necessarily mean anything else. There is lots of great film composing that isn’t memorable.”  The native of St. Albans, England explains, “Memorable scores with memorable music may upstage the film at certain points.  The film doesn’t suffer because it is carried along because of the music.  There are certain films where they’re scored brilliantly but you don’t ever remember the music or hum it. I enjoyed the score for The Social Network [2010].  I wouldn’t say that it was brilliant but was extremely effective.  I love the work of Cliff Martinez and his score for Drive[2011] is superb but I’m not too sure that I would choose to listen to it often.   The score brings a quality and ambience which couldn’t be there in any other way.”
Comedies don’t leave you much room for music,” believes Rolfe Kent.  “They’re not much emotional films so you can’t let the dogs out for a run in a comedy.  Drama is much easier than comedy.  Drama sets up much more opportunities and acreage to play in.”  Frequent collaborators of the Golden Globe nominee are Alexander Payne (Sideways) and Jason Reitman (Juno).  “There is a strong ironical or satirical point of view but it is still not drama in the sense of straightforward emotions and the opportunity to being able to write emotional music by in large.”  Kent states, “In terms of how to score a comedy there are no rules.   You find where the drama is to tell the story. For the most part it’s not about being funny.”  It is not about spelling out emotion.  “It tends to be about giving people a license to find certain things funny.” 
Two particular genres are musically suffering.  “I’m a bit depressed at the moment about thrillers and action films sound like,” remarks Rolfe Kent.  “A lot of the time it seems as long as you’re filling all of the frequency ranges and have the subwoofer throbbing then apparently you’re doing an action score.”  Kent has musically scored 45 movies.  “Generally I’m feeling fresh where I am in film because I don’t overwork and there are new things to do.  It would get repetitive if I kept on doing the same films over again.  I turn down things which are too familiar because I don’t have much to offer but as long as they keep making original stories and ideas then it’s always inspiring.”
Jason Reitman
Commencing with Thank You for Smoking (2005), Rolfe Kent and Jason Reitman have worked together on Up in the Air (2009), Young Adult (2011) and Labor Day (2013).  “We communicate very well.  Not always in shorthand but there’s always a great confidence and faith with each other, and that’s always a key quality to a good collaboration.”  Kent states, “Jason is a consummate artist and his approach is consequently one of finding the truth of the material.”  An unusual request was made by Reitman when it came to his cinematic adaptation of Labor Day.   “The moment I started giving things away or feeding an emotional response Jason would pull me up and guide me back to a position of balance.  It’s an extraordinary thing to be put through.  It’s an interesting question to deal with.  What it does do is draw attention and intensity to the moment.”  Tom Noonan (The Astronaut’s Wife) was used as a source of inspiration.  “He often brings is what I characterize as sophisticated neutrality.  You couldn’t nail down what it is bringing other than superb production value, a sense of moodiness, and a sense that this moment is the only thing you need to be paying attention to.”
“I started watching some of the films Jason talked to me about,” notes Rolfe Kent.  “I didn’t copy them in any way; however, I came to appreciate how slow the music could be.  How it mustn’t feed the audience.  There was a moment where we were talking about certain scenes with the idea that there’d be crickets in the background.  I experimented with cricket sounds and eventually found a keyboard playable slowed down cricket choir.  You don’t know what it is.  It doesn’t sound like anything particular.  It’s the first sound you hear in the film.”  Guitars and charango were incorporated into the musical score.  “There are lot of plucked instruments being processed in such a way that they create all of these organic washes.  Those organic washes are carefully sculpted to create flow and extremely subtle dramatic shifts such that you don’t really notice or hear them coming, but if you put them in the wrong place it throws things off.”
“It was interesting,” states Rolf Kent.  “I started out thinking that there was not going to be any melody in the film but there are two strong melodies that turn up a number of times but against the fact that the majority of the score isn’t melodic.  That was satisfying because I love melody.  It made me appreciate the idea of being extremely spare with melodies.  Instead of flooding a film with tunes all over the place you have two tunes carefully and specifically.”  The project has left a last impression.  “It was daunting, and was and continues to be inspiring because it made me explore a vocabulary of music which I had never explored which I now have a toe hole in.”  Kent remarks, “Labor Day is an extremely intense drama but I don’t know that it means Jason won’t keep his satirical arrow in his quiver.  “Jason is going to want to move wherever he wants to go and sometimes visit different genres at different times.  I don’t know what lies in his future but I don’t think he has given up his satirical perspective at all.”
Bad Words [2013] is more of what I’m used to,” states Rolfe Kent.  “We almost did it entirely with woodwinds and percussion which was great fun.  Jason Bateman [State of Play] said to me early on that he imagined that the clarinet might be a featured instrument.  I went, ‘Sure. Why don’t we don’t use anything but woodwinds?’  Jason went, ‘Oh, amazing!’  He loved that which was not the response I was expecting.  I imagined he would be, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’  The idea that Jason embraced a somewhat eccentric idea was encouraging.  The world of this spelling bee where the film is set is a small singular inward world.  I thought that woodwinds have this small ensemble feel.  It might be interesting to use that sound to give it a specific colour to the score of this particular world.  The actual music is quirky and has a sense of humour which I’m used to providing but with great leadership in this case.”

“There are certainly some things that are hard edged in the way the main character in Bad Wordsbehaves and it helps to have music gently nudge the audience to understanding this is funny not dark.”  The composer was impressed with what Bateman was able to achieve.  “When I first saw the film I was stunned.  Who makes a directorial debut that looks so fantastic, is so tight and so well put together?  Clearly he has a strong vision.  At first Jason thought he wouldn’t have much to say about the music but I told him so at the beginning.  ‘You think you’re going to let me go free reign but in 30 seconds you’re going to be telling me where I’ve gone wrong.’  That’s exactly what happened.”   The music that accompanies the dramatic moments between Chaitainya [Rohan Chand] and the character played by Jason were particularly enjoyable and satisfying.  “It was a great collaboration.  Jason is a great director.”
Dom Hemingway[2013] is a comedy but the music had to take it straight,” states Rolfe Kent.  “This man is freshly out of jail and out of control.  I scored about half of the film and then found a sound and grove that Richard Shepard [The Matador] loved.  I had throwaway everything I had written and start over because this was better than anything we had come up with before.  It’s a sound I’ve never used before.  The main melodic sound is a piano synth fusion.  It’s a heavy thing to play meaning instead of a piano that is cut through with quite a breath of sound this one cuts through with much more. It was tricky trying to figure out how to mix it so that it wouldn’t overwhelm everything that it played over.  That was interesting because it wasn’t doing anything you’d expect.  It didn’t carry Dom Hemingway’s [Jude Law] machismo; he already had it.  It had some interesting momentum and keeps on coming back.  It’s an odd and interesting sound.”
John Barry
“I’ve love to do something epic,” states Rolfe Kent.  “I’ve love to do some science fiction. I’ve love to do some thrillers and action films.”  Current composers could take lessons from three Oscar winners.   “I look back at Elmer Bernstein [Thoroughly Modern Millie], John Barry [The Lion in Winter] and Ennio Morricone [Days of Heaven] who were the very much the authors of their own work.  I would want my personality to be in the work.  That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a satisfying action score.  Quite the opposite, I could write a great action score but I would be creating one with a lot of me in it and at the moment I don’t see a lot of personality in most of the action work that I hear.”  To be able to have a creative signature is to be applauded.   “Terry Gilliam was brought in late to direct The Brothers Grimm [2005] and yet you look at those camera moves and go, ‘Terry Gilliam.’  I have no problem with that.  It’s terrific that the director has a visual stamp.  It doesn’t mean that they’re not bringing something new.  The same goes for the work of Danny Elfman [Men in Black]; he’s quite the chameleon.  Certainly in Tim Burton’s [Big Fish] realm, Danny Elfman tends to have a certain quality to the work which I’m sure is drawn from him by Tim Burton. But then you see Summersby [1993] and that’s a different Danny Elfman.”  Kent adds, “If you’re lucky you’ll get known and maybe that’s for one thing. Getting a solid reputation in one area of filmmaking which tends to be this ironic comedy is never where I set out to go.  I’m hopeful that Labor Day will bring in its wake a whole array of different kinds of work.”
Many thanks to Rolfe Kent for taking the time for this interview and make sure to visit his official website.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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