Interview with Dustin O’Halloran

By • April 1, 2014

Whether it be battling robots or lustful murderers, film music often supportively speaks for characters, and situations that have no problem making a direct impression on their own. Far harder is scoring people who cry out to let music help communicate their emotions – especially when they are musicians. Such is the subtly anguished, and poetically realized assistance that Dustin O’Halloran provides to the exercise of “Breathe In,” one that allows the players’ melody to flow freely, if not their words, or the physical touch they so desperately yearn for. Told through beautifully poetic chamber melodies for piano, strings and alternative, acoustic atmospheres, O’Halloran gradually brings out the muted passion between Keith (Guy Pearce), an artistically frustrated teacher-cum-violinist and Sophie (Felicity Jones), the beyond-mature high school exchange student from England, a girl whose beauty and intelligence is destined to disrupt his family’s seemingly blissful suburban conformity.

While this kind of impending affair and the damage it wreaks on Keith’s teen daughter and complacent wife have the makings of far more explicit musical, and visual heavy breathing, it’s a credit to O’Halloran and director Drake Doremus that they’ve taken the high, restrained road, one that still doesn’t lack for raw emotion. Reteaming with the filmmaker after elegantly, and more emotively playing the obsessive relationship of “Like Crazy,” (in tone with Jones’ far more free-spirited love object in that film). O’Halloran finds a tender, pained lyricism in his score’s intimacy, seamlessly segueing from classical performances and piano duets in a way that’s just as much scoring as it is desperate, helplessly checked emotion – a feeling that helps make “Breathe In” a descendent of “Brief Encounter,” albeit in classroom, and concert hall circumstances.

Given a love story about gifted, intelligent people who should know better, even if it’s the honest thing to do, Dustin O’Halloran’s softly spoken approach to “Breath In” resonates with smart, transcendent choices that gracefully walk the line between modern classical music and alternative scoring. A classically trained musician gifted with the ability to see melody in color, O’Halloran has a vibrant career outside of film’s orbit in dance, art and rock work with the Devics, while his own Hollywood path has seen him progress from creating sound effects for the likes of “The Master of Disguise” and “The Wild Thornberrys” to composing additional music for “Marie Antoinette” His solo work has often dealt with youthful angst, from high school in “Remember the Daze” to a young man enraptured with a pawn in the Kennedy assassination for “An American Affair” and a girl’s last romance in “Now is Good.” With the inspiration of impossible love as portrayed in “Like Crazy” and “Breathe In,” O’Halloran continues to impress as a smart, subtle voice that now transfixes with the power of film scoring emotion at its most lyrically subtle,

Do you think you were influenced more by classical, or film composers in your musical appreciation? And was being a composer always one of your goals?

Classical was my first experience with music when I was learning to play the piano and its always stayed with me. But my years writing and performing with my band Devics was my first real experience as a working/touring musician I would say, and it had a big effect on me as well. Even though we were a kind of rock band there were always elements of classical and film music in there. So in some ways I was always composing, but I never thought its something I would end up doing. But it found me.

You might be one of the few composers who started in Hollywood as a foley walker. What was that experience like, and did it lead at all to your composing breakthroughs?

Yeah that was a funny time in my life. It didn’t really have any effect on me composing wise, except that I got used to working with picture. I was doing this in the beginning of working with my band …and basically I just needed a good job that I could support my band with!

Could you talk about working as one of the composers on “Marie Antoinette?

After I released my first solo piano album, I was contact by Brian Reitzell the music supervisor for Sofia Coppola, who asked if I could write a few pieces for her film. I had never really worked in film at that time…and I really loved her work, so it was a pretty natural. I started working on music before they filmed and edited, which was nice, as they could edit to the music. I felt pretty inspired by the whole story and feel and sent them a lot of music. Some made it into the film and the rest became my second album “ Piano Solos Vol.2.”

How did you first come to work with Drake Doremus on “Like Crazy,” and what do you think worked about that experience that made you his first “repeat” composer?

Drake contacted me when he was editing “Like Crazy” and I guess had always had me in mind for the film. The story is a personal one to him and I think my music was something he played a lot. So it was natural for him to reach out to me. I connected with the story also on a personal level as I have had almost the same experience with a long distance relationship. Working on the film was a very cathartic experience. Drake and I have always had a good connection musically and I really love how he uses music in his films. There is rarely underscore, and the music is always featured strongly.

Did you collaboration with Drake differ on “Breathe In?”

This was a much different story that was more dramatic and had more layers, and it’s also a film about music as well. I was involved from an early stage helping decided what music was played by the actors Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones. The score has a lot more layers and intensity to it, I think. But it was great that we had the chance to work together before, which create a musical language between us. I think this helped the process a lot.

With your self-description as a “post-classical” composer, was a movie like “Breathe In” made for you?

Drake has said my music was an inspiration for the story as well, so it really was a perfect fit.

Do you remember any teachers who seemed like they wanted to be somewhere else, perhaps because they felt they were wasting their dreams? And were there any kids who didn’t want to play because they were too talented? If so, how did you want to capture that quality in your score?

The film is about longing, and both the characters feel a sense of longing for something beyond their reach. This was what I tried to bring to the music. It’s a bittersweet emotion for them both as they have good things in their life, but are somehow unfulfilled.

Were you brought onto the film why they were shooting to work with Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones? And on that note, is there anything that catches your attention when you have non-musician actors playing musicians on screen?

I was not there for the filming, but I think both Guy and Felicity did a great job acting their instruments. This can be really tricky, and when done poorly, completely takes you out of the story. With a little editing magic I think they pulled it off pretty well!

As a musician, did you identity more with Keith or Sophie, and why?

I’m not sure I identify with either of them really. I love what I do and feel extremely lucky. I always try to choose my own path, even if it’s the harder one. But I understand longing for things. It’s a universal emotion.

How did you want the scores interplay between piano and cello to capture the relationship between Keith and Sophie?

There is obviously both piano and cello in the score, but this was only to echo the characters. I wanted the score to feel like its own world apart from the music in the film – the inner world of both characters.

Was it always obvious that the score would have a sort of “alt. classical” approach?

Of course it felt natural to have piano and strings, but I used them in a lot of different ways, with droning cellos and electronics as well. There is a lot of subtle soundscapes in there. Gyda Valtisdottiir from MUM played a lot of the cello parts, and also was my writing partner from my project. Adam Wiltzie from “A Winged Victory For The Sullen” played some guitar as well, so maybe its more “ alt” than classical?

With so much of Keith and Sophie’s building romance played with silence and longing looks, how important was it for the score to speak for them?

This was a very important part, and Drake left a lot of space for this in the editing room. And I think “silence” really became the 5th character in the film. It’s always speaking for them.

Would you consider “Breathe In” to be a traditional “music” movie?

Not really. The music is always evolving and there are no themes in the traditional sense. It was kind of like making an album, so the film has a musical sense to it. The dialogue is intersected with moments of just music.

Do you think there’s a “daydreaming” quality to “Breathe In,” especially as these characters wish they were somewhere else?

For sure. They both wish they were at some other point in their lives and they are seeking to find a way to reach it. They see it in each other, and this is the catalyst for the film

“Breathe In” takes an upscale, but “real world” look at the kind of plot that could have been fat exploitative in another filmmaker’s hands. How important was the music to conveying that naturalistic, elegant approach?

It was always important that the music didn’t over dramatize the reality of what was happening, so it’s restrained. Sure real life can feel dramatic, but there are never big drums pounding! I wanted to try to capture the emotions in an honest way, which is what I suppose I always search for.

How did you want the score to develop as the film takes on a darker quality?

The film starts with a very innocent piece and slowly the score develops to a darker tone as the story unfolds, and the outcome of the characters’ decisions effect those around them. The score follow this.

Could you talk about the subtle, sample “rock” element to the score?

I didn’t want the score to sound too classical or traditional and I wanted to mix other elements in to help separate the classical music played in the film from the score. I wanted it to sound contemporary since the film is in present times.

How does your non-score “post-classical” career intersect with your scoring one?

They both intersect in a way since a lot of the musicians whom I work with for soundtracks will also record and tour with me. I try to take projects that interest me and I feel I’m right for, and that somehow continues what I am interested in doing musically for myself as well.

When it seems there are more composers than ever doing “indie-alt.” scores, what’s the trick to being distinctive?

Finding your voice is an endless journey. I try not to be influenced by other film composers, but follow where I want to go. This is why working on my own music is so vital. It gives me time to explore ideas. A lot of times you just don’t have the luxury of time to do this when working on a film.

You have the ability of “synaesthesia.” Could you describe how you “see” music, and how does that come in handy as a film composer?

For me music is all colors, and I always see colors with music. Sometimes the colors in the picture are there the way I see it. But sometimes it’s so different that I need to get used to it. Sometimes it’s better for me to listen to the film when working on the music and not be too informed with the picture until later.

How do you think having studied art contributes as well to your musical work?

I think I have always thought of music in a visual sense, with light, shades and colors. So it’s been a natural progression to work this way in music. Composing is like creating a painting in some many ways, adding parts and taking them away. When I work on my own music I take a lot of time to finish the arrangement so I’ll be able to step back and look at it from a distance, and then continue working.

As a musician who does everything from dance performances to solo records, do you find the “restrictions” of film scoring to be both challenging and liberating?

This is a good question. I just recently scored a dance piece ATOMOS for the choreographer Wayne McGregor and it was an entirely different experience than film. I began working on the music very early on and the choreography was done more or less after the score, which allowed the music to breathe in a much more natural way, not being restricted by time cuts. Film work always has some constraints due to the editing process, and I suppose the best case is editing to the music. But I do enjoy the collaboration with film. When it works, it’s extremely powerful because it’s such a mix of so many art forms. It can bring things out of you that you can’t do without the collaborative process.

There’s a significant amount of additional music on the “Breathe In” soundtrack. How did you want to make the soundtrack work as its own listening experience? And what feelings do you hope it conjures in the listener?

We decided to keep the score release mostly just score, but it also features music from my other musical project ‘ A Winged Victory For The Sullen” a collaboration with Adam Wiltzie of Stars Of The Lid, which works pretty seamlessly with the score since it’s still me. I wanted the score record to feel like an album, something you could put on and listen to the whole thing and stay in the mood of the film.

What kind of musical relaxation techniques do you use?

Breathe! And sometimes a single malt scotch helps too.

“Breathe In” opens in theaters on April 4, with its soundtrack available on Milan Records HERE.

Buy the “Like Crazy” Soundtrack HERE

Visit Dustin O’Halloran’s website HERE

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