The Holdovers has been one of the most well-received films on the festival circuit generating sizable awards buzz. We sat down with composer Mark Orton to talk about the genesis for its score, mixing festive elements and a 1970 setting. He also discussed re-uniting with director Alexander Payne having collaborated with him on 2013’s Nebraska…
How did you find working with Alexander Payne again? You previously worked with him on Nebraska.
It was a different thing in this film. The first time around came about through the temp music process. So most editors are using music in the early stages of developing the edit of the film. And so with Nebraska, they were using a lot of my music. Richard Ford, his longtime music editor going back to Election doing all of his films, had been a fan of my work both in film, and also with an ensemble that I had that used to tour called Tin Hat Trio. It was like an Avant Garde ish trio of initially violin, guitar and accordion, that crossover into modern classical music, but we also toured for Blue Note, and we were kind of like in between jazz and classical or New classical music, but very melodic. hat music got licensed a lot into film.
That is my entrance into film scoring anyway, it’s not like I came up apprenticing at a big film studio in Hollywood or pouring coffee for John Williams. I came up really through licensing opportunities. Then I happened to have requisite skills because I am also a classical composer. My Dad was a conductor. I was an engineer. So, I could handle the tech side of things. I used to tour as an engineer, and I was heavily into the engineer side of things to collecting old vintage equipment.
So anyway, having come in Sideways, that is how I also developed my relationship with Alexander Payne. So, he was a case of what we call in the industry temp love, where he just loved this temp music that he was using. And then over time we ended up speaking and then I developed the music that had been in there, rerecorded it, some of it and left some of it as it was. So, it’s a very different job in Nebraska because so much of that score was established before I even came on board. So much of the tone of it and how it was getting used.
With The Holdovers, it was starting from scratch and actually working with him. Even before I was looking at the picture, he spent a week up here in Portland, Oregon, where I live in this very messy studio. We just spent a week talking about the music of the time period taking place in 1970. It is critical to his work on this one because he wanted it not only to feel like a film that was taking place in 1970 but truthfully to feel like a film that was created in 1970. I mean, he put those limitations on himself on the sound on the music side, even to go as far as to have an optical soundtrack, you know, with the film when you see it in a mono theatre, as it would have been in 1970. So opposite of Dolby Atmos and that aesthetic.
This was a quite different project because we were starting from scratch, we started developing music. I wrote a suite of songs based on the stuff we have been talking about. He is very musical himself so he was very much in – it’s not like he’s just reacting yea or nay. He is asking me about minor seventh chords. He’s getting into the nitty gritty of it and discussing instrumentation and the sides of music from that era, which there’s a huge range of it, that didn’t work for him or that at least in the context of the film. So even certain electric pianos that he would, you know, he wants Wurlitzer not Rhodes or things like this, he is getting into the specifics with me, just finding the stuff that resonated and did not. So then going into it, I had the suite of songs which we kind of used to see the film where we could and then also as kind of signposts or jumping off points for other cues once I was working with the picture.
You mentioned the 1970 setting. How easy was it for you to slot into the sound of the time?
I’d say there are two sides to that. One is I was two years old in 1970. But I had a brother 10 years older and growing up. Honestly like I as much as I connected with my father who was a conductor and composer of music. I really looked up to my older brother as a younger brother often does and I coveted his record collection more than I coveted anything on the planet. When I was like a little kid, like four or five years old, he, you know, he would buy me records. I started an LP collection early. So when I was five, he bought me five, like quintessential records. A lot of it was early 70s stuff, I’ll be leaning a little bit towards his tastes in Brit, Brit rock, and some prog from back then.
I got into that music then and of course, coming up in rock bands. And as much as I was doing the classical and the jazz stuff, I was also always in a band, I was always performing. The stuff we were performing was stuff from that era. Going past that, just whatever sort of nostalgia that brings back. For me now, as an adult, looking back, the other side of it is the era that people like me, we covet the gear from that era. So if you’re going to buy a Gibson, Les Paul, or Fender, Telecaster guitar, or Fender amp, or a piece of outboard equipment, like some API or Neve mic, preamps, they’re all from that era. So it’s also sonically, which was important for this, going after the sonics and being authentic to that it’s I’ve already got it all. I did go out and buy some sleigh bells, to tie into some of the Christmas stuff that leaned that way. But other than that, you know, I already own all this stuff. I actually am one of the I think as far as I know, one of the few composers who actually mixes analogue, through a console, and I have old tape decks, reel to reel tape decks. And, you know, I’m really into that. So I’m into the sonics, and the sonics I’m into aren’t the 1940s. They’re from the 1960s and 70s.
Were there any film scores from the time that influenced the score at all?
We mentioned several films, and we talked about films of the era. And there’s even the one that’s I won’t give it away, for folks who haven’t seen it, but there’s some there even some films referenced in the film itself. There’s some Cat Stevens in the thing, so we’re talking about, like, how Ashby and Harold and Maude. Truthfully, we spent more time listening to the music of the era. I think that’s that one of the reasons for that is he wanted to think of it more sort of, like purely on the musical front. And he’s a very musical person like I mentioned, so he, you know, so so we would we like we’re like when he’s up here, we’re listening to like Carole King’s Tapestry, or we’re talking about, we’re talking about music, honestly, more. And then he’s kind of counting on me to translate that into what it’s going to do with the film.
How was incorporating the holiday and Christmas feel into the score?
I think it gets at a kind of a deeper thing with Alexander, which is his general kind of tastes towards the what the music’s role is in a film. He never wants, at least in my experience, working with him, he never wants to music to lead the audience or to telegraph, how the audience is supposed to be feeling. He’s working with such excellent actors. I mean, in this thing, they knock it out of the park. Also, the writing is so fantastic. So, the music is there to support but not to lead or not to telegraph emotion, not to telegraph comedy.
I’d say that most of the Christmas, or holiday side of it, comes in the early stages before the plot and the characters or the cast get kind of whittled down to the three main ones. That’s where more of that stuff’s happening. It is probably it’s a little broader in terms of the comedic approach, and it’s sort of more chamber music and I am working in you know, some stuff that feels related to Christmas sounds again, with multiple sleigh bells and things like this, I’m using some created instruments like these block bells and triangles and metallic percussion.
I think that at the same time, it never wants to get campy. So, it’s a lighter touch with that. And the only other thing I would say that we did, we did go after in terms of like this sort of more Christmassy sound. But this also ties to the fact that it’s a boy’s school. And the opening shot is that of a choir rehearsing. I did use the boys’ choir on it. That also has something to do with tying it slightly to the source score, which is prevalent, the songs that are used in the film, are the music that’s not mine. So that because there is a fair amount of stuff, including the Von Trapp singers, Family Singers, there is, and there’s stuff Tallis scholars or there’s a there’s a British boys’ choir in there as well. So, I did experiment a bit with that, I think to good effect. I am proud of those of those cues.
Were you involved in picking the pop music used in the film?
I’d say that’s a combination of the music super Matt, and Richard Ford, the music editor, who I know chose a number of those things. Richard’s background, not only working with Alexander all these years, and a million fantastic other films, but he’s a great musician himself. He was the bassist in Joe Jackson’s band back in the day, and he co-produced the score with me and the soundtrack album that we went back and worked on. So, he was very much involved in that and no, I wasn’t choosing them, but I was certainly influenced by them.
The film shifts gears and becomes more of a road movie in its second half. How did that influence the score?
I feel in the score, as in the film, there’s a real turning point there. Because there’s also some stuff happening at that point emotionally, some connections are getting made with characters who have been at odds up until that point, and there are some shifts that happen. And so I think this score reflects that. I will mention a funny aside with this one, which I can’t overstate enough. And that is that when Alexander chose me for this, and we were discussing it, I had no idea that this was filmed just a couple miles from where I used to live. I didn’t know the setting of the film at all, and the area of Western Massachusetts where this is shot, I’ve lived in three different times in my life, once after college, and then twice more, because I was looking around the area to move there permanently. It’s a part of the world that I love and living on the West Coast, having decided to settle out in Portland, Oregon, 3000 miles away, I miss it. If I have a regret or a place that I like to visit, when I’m back there, this is it. So then if your task set as a composer, you know, I’ve got this sort of combined, nostalgic, emotional connection of my childhood listening to all this kind of early 70s stuff with my, my older brother and all that, but also just, I’m scoring a montage where they’re driving the same roads that I drove in winter, and just a part of the world that I really love and, and connect to. So you know, that made it easy I’d say.
How are you finding the awards conversation that’s circling the film?
It is well deserved. Alexander had, like many filmmakers and many people across industries, some near misses around the pandemic and some cancelled things. I love his brand of filmmaking. I was a fan long before I ever got to collaborate with him. And a lot of the critical stuff has been around this kind of conversation of a return to form. I think it’s very well deserved.
There are fantastic performances throughout the film, but I think it is so nice to see him reconnect with Paul Giamatti. They have this special chemistry, and they just line up so well and I just can’t, I can’t picture a more perfect performance than what he does with this, to be honest with you. That is after watching it. I mean it. I have watched it probably 100 times, maybe not all at once, but I’ve watched it throughout working on it for several months. It still rewards the kind of multiple viewings and I’m happy but I will say not surprised it is getting the accolades that it is.
Are you able to tell us what you’re working on next?
It’s fairly quiet as I’m sure you’re hearing from everyone with the strike going on. I’m working on something over from your side of the Pond with folks up in Edinburgh, a documentary directed by Amy Hardy. I’ve been working a bit on my material, I have somewhat of a midlife crisis project of lap steel drums and sub-bass clarinet, contralto clarinet along with a string orchestra project that I’ve been working on called The Steel Trio. I did a ton of work around this time. One aside is that, in the middle of working on The Holdovers, someone was approaching me to license some music. I was having this sort of back and forth in the margins of working on The Holdovers. And they wanted to get more and more music. Then they wanted to hire me to work on this Netflix series. And I said, you know, I’m busy with something else. I’m not sure I can. And then they said, well just sign this NDA. And so I did and found out it was Obama. So that that was the other big project I worked on more recently, was scoring his Netflix series, which was fun. It’s called Working Is What We Do All Day.
Is there anything else you’d like to cover about The Holdovers score?
My approach was a little bit different this time, in one major way. So, it’s most common for a film composer, you work with MIDI or digital instruments to mock up versions of the cues. Then you hand those off to the director, producer or team there, and they have to kind of do a kind of or take rather a kind of leap of faith in terms of the Sonic World. These are all digital instruments, digital recreations of violence, or whatever. And then once they are approved, you go in and do a scoring date, where you replace all that those digital instruments, with live instrumentation. So I chose not to do that this time, specifically, because I didn’t, I didn’t want that leap of faith to even have to happen.
Now. It’s a bigger risk if I’m bringing in performers early. Or just taking more of my own time, because I am a multi-instrumentalist and play all the instruments in a rock band. But I chose to do that really, that was intentional, because I wanted from the get-go, for it to feel right even if it meant that some of the songs and performances got left on the cutting room floor. And I, I spent some of my budget on that, you know, but it was worth it to me. So, there was a different, a different way of doing and I was working with performers all the way through rather than kind of supplementing digital with my performative stuff. So that was a difference and I think it paid off in the end and kind of helped me to develop stuff and fewer surprises on the mix stage for everybody. To help the true sound to kind of be there from the get-go.
Thank you to mark for taking the time for this interview. You can read our review of The Holdovers here.