Interview with Rob Simonsen

By • April 21, 2015

We live in a day when the alternative sounds of dreamy synth percussion and rock and roll are taking over the increasingly youthful sound of cinematic romance. One composer in particular who’s carving an impressive niche within that increasingly hip world is Rob Simonsen. Having started off his career as an assistant and additional composer to Mychael Danna on such humanistic scores as “Being Julia,” “Capote” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” Simonsen fully teamed with his mentor on the loopy orchestral score for the hit hipster rom-com “(500) Days of Summer.” Simonsen ventured out on his own imaginative own to capture the young adult ennui of “LOL,” “The Way Way Back” and “The Spectacular Now.” Calling on an imaginatively humorous and often rhythmic sound that particularly suited such eccentric films as “Seeking a Friends for the End of the World,” “Girl Most Likely” “Wish I Was Here” and even the penis museum movie “The Final Member,” Simonsen showed that he could just as powerfully make his music run through ice-cold veins with suspenseful, somber true-killer crime scores of “All Good Things” and “Foxcatcher” while also providing the theme and numerous scores for the cop show “Blue Bloods.”

Simonsen’s music has often been hauntingly emotional, but never quite with the cosmic feeling he invests to “The Age of Adaline.” A sort of female Highlander minus the sword and sorcery, Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) is a sweet, unbecoming woman who gets struck by lightning in a submerged car accident, circa 1935. The result is that she becomes immortal, with all of the baggage that comes with the condition – namely watching her children age as she doesn’t, while being unable to hold onto any semblance of romance as potential suitors wither away before her. The result of the heroine in the film by Lee Toland Krieger (“Celeste & Jesse Forever”) is a woman who can “live, but never have a life.”

Simonsen responds with a beautiful, longing score that proves to be his most sumptuously traditional work yet. Beyond-lush romantic strings, angelic voices, gossamer bells combine for a gloriously thematic tapestry that’s nothing less than heaven-sent music. It’s longing beauty as the height or irony for a woman who’d like nothing better than to once again be touched by the hand of age – anxious music conveying a constant navigation of identities to hide her true self. For a character who calls back an older, more innocent age, Simonsen’s score will certainly offer old-school score fans the kind of unabashed, tender melody that seems to be growing ever-older in Hollywood. But it’s a score that’s contemporary as well as Simonsen channels his ethereal-alt. talents to convey a a star-filled mystery that he hears as more of a blessing than a curse – all with an appeal to the youthful romantic in all of us for a score that’s anything but old in its poignant touch of conveying life eternal, always hoping for emotional fulfillment as they years speed past.

There haven’t been many fantasy films of late in Hollywood. What was it like for you to get this opportunity?

A treat! Fantastical dramas are one of my favorite genres. I was honored to get the call, especially for such a well made, visually beautiful film.

“The Age of Adaline” is your biggest score yet. Were there any particular changes in the time-spanning scope of the film?

It didn’t feel necessary to change the instrumentation to match different decades in the film. The “modern” orchestra hasn’t really changed in the last hundred years, so it felt quite capable of matching any color needed for Adaline’s journey.

Did you want to go for a “heavenly” approach that centered on lush strings, piano, bell percussion and voices?

I think there is a celestial vibe to the film and that particular instrumental palette seemed to lend itself to more grand notions of destiny and fantastical elements as well as the more personal, emotional scenes.

How do you think your previous “relationship” scores for movies like “The Spectacular Now” and “Wish I Was Here” helped your own voyage of discovery on “Age of Adaline?”

In those movies I learned a lot about the power of simpler melodies coupled with interesting textures, and how well that serves movies about relationships. To have space and not create something too dense really helps characters and beats breathe onscreen. Especially for relationship-focused films, I think music should be an invitation rather than dictation.

In contrast, what are the particular challenges of doing a score from a feminine perspective, especially as your past “relationship” scores had a male viewpoint to them?

I think in every film the challenge is always to speak appropriately for the world and characters, male or female. Blake is definitely stunning in the film- there’s a timeless beauty to her, which I think helped drive a sense of elegance that we tried to capture. Mostly it was trying to catch a sense of her emotional self, which she has bottled up to try and protect herself from getting emotionally hurt and hurting others. With the immortality angle there’s a floating quality to her and her plight, so I suppose I tried to resonate with that a bit.

What do you think your main theme says about Adaline’s character, let alone of immortality-afflicted characters we’ve seen in movies before in terms of its benefits, and pitfalls?

There’s a beauty and sadness to Adaline and her plight. We wanted an emotional, pretty theme for her, but something that was also a bit melancholic. In the current day and age we find Adaline in, she’s decided to bury her feelings and true identity in order to emotionally survive. She’s in hiding. I think that’s one of the interesting takes on immortality in the film- that if you’re not a super hero or a vampire, but just a normal person who doesn’t age, there’s a lot of suffering involved in getting attached to people who you can’t grow old with, who you may have to watch die. It’s a lonely prospect.

If you have your own spiritual beliefs, how do you think they played into “Adaline?”

I think life occurring in general is pretty miraculous; I don’t need to look far to feel pretty special to be alive. The notion that there is a force greater than ourselves that’s is having an impact (or directly involving itself with) one of us little humans is a pretty exciting one, so making music for that thought is also exciting.

With no real “villain” in “Age of Adaline,” would you say the antagonist is immortality?

I would say the antagonist is Adaline’s aversion to being vulnerable and living a free life. She’s got a pretty solid justification for being so bottled up, but I think the triumph of her story is overcoming her fear of going through the pain of losing someone again, giving up control, and being vulnerable.

How did you want to play the more suspenseful aspects of Adaline covering up her past identities?

It felt like we were just getting a few glimpses of probably a lot of exciting things that Adaline has experienced in her life. I like to imagine she’s had a lot of adventures, and took the opportunity to speak to that idea and go a bit broader with the orchestra.

Did you want to give any kind of special musical character to the relationships she has?

The love theme starts out on the IV chord and goes to the V chord and back to the IV, so it creates a build without resolving to the I- kind of a starting over but never quite getting there feeling. The full, unfurled love theme goes to the I chord in a second section. When they kiss or have a real connection we go there, but it works in “hesitation mode” cause there’s romance but she’s holding back.

The use of bell percussion in “Adaline” connotes a child-like, lullaby feel. Was this an idea of getting across the repeated “births” of her character?

I like that idea! But that’s giving me more credit than due. It was more an idea of a celestial clock ticking.

There’s also a waltz-like quality to “Adaline.” How did you hit on that approach?

We hear Adaline’s theme in a lot of different contexts, sometimes it’s in ¾ time, giving it that waltz feel, and other times it’s in 4/4. I wanted to have her theme iterated in different ways, which is a nice thing to do in a score where the character has so many different lives but is essentially the same person in all of them.

Can you talk about the choral element of “Adaline?”

Boy’s choir to me is such a pure, magical sound. It seemed to really lend itself to a sense of magic and mystery. Adaline is floating through time and to me boy’s choir has a very floating quality to it.

Could you tell us about your collaboration with “Adaline’s” director Lee Toland Krieger?

Lee is fantastic and wonderful to work with. He’s very smart and creative. I loved the look and feel that he brought to the film- it was so beautiful already that doing the score was like putting icing on the cake. We both wanted to push to give the very best version of this film possible, so we experimented and worked hard to really try and nail each beat. He’s immensely talented and couldn’t be a nicer guy.

You can listen to “Age of Adaline” without knowing anything about the film, and think it accompanied a beatific sci-fi movie like “Contact.” Do you think that was perhaps an unintentional goal you were going for?

I wasn’t conscious of that, but thank you! I take it as a big compliment.

On that note, do you think that writing additional music for your mentor Mychael Danna on his Oscar-winning score to “Life of Pi” was a metaphysical bridge of sorts of “Adaline?”

Working on with Mychael has been a metaphysical bridge to a lot of things! Been grateful for my association with him, and we certainly traversed some similar waters in “Pi.”

After writing a deliberately cold score for an intentionally muted film like “Foxcatcher,” was it a welcome change of pace to dive into a truly emotional film like “Adaline?” Or in a way, is it “easier” to do a score without restraint?

There’s always the search for just the right thing. Sometimes it comes easier than other times, but it’s always a journey. It was definitely quite a different approach than “Foxcatcher” in terms of restraint. But we wanted to still be restrained in “Adaline,” just in different ways. It was wonderful to work on both films and be in different headspaces. I feel lucky whenever I get invited to participate in something good.

It’s becoming rare to hear an unapologetically orchestral “musical” score like “Age of Adaline” in a Hollywood film. Why do you think that is, and did that make this opportunity particularly special?

I think a lot of people think of orchestral scores as passé or old-fashioned. I understand where that’s coming from- popular music of today is often electronic, or at least a hybrid. And I think there’s a great impetus to be different and explore new sounds. And I love exploring that world- I’ve done scores where even a small string ensemble felt out of place. Ultimately it’s about finding the right voice for the film. And since I’m a sucker for a big, lush orchestral sound, it’s always a treat to get the opportunity to work with larger ensembles and forces. It definitely made it special.

Could you talk about creating the end title song “Start Again” with Faux Fix and Elena Tonra?

Faux Fix (L) Singer Elena Tonra (R)

At the finish line of the score we saw that we had an opportunity to write an original song for consideration for the end credits. We had about 72 hours before the final mix was over, so the window was tight. I called up my friends Nathan Johnson and Katie Chastain, who have an awesome pop project called Faux Fix. They’re tremendous writers, singers, music makers, and good friends. I asked them if they wanted to write a song over the weekend, and they said yes. So we worked off of a sketch that I had generated based on the last cue of the film. They came over and we worked over the structure a bit, and then they went away for a day, came back and they had worked out the lyrics and vocal melody. Then we went out to Elena Tonra of Daughter to see if she’d be interested in singing the vocal. She liked the song and was already in the studio with the band recording their new album. So she sang and it was beautiful. The song was well received and it went into the film. It was a weekend full of crazy ups and downs, but in the end I think it’s a great song and I’m proud of it!

One of your first big scores was for “All Good Things,” a thinly veiled fictionalization of his likely murder of his first wife. Now that Robert Durst has essentially been caught, how do you look back on the project?

I marvel at how that story has unfolded over the years with Andrew Jarecki’s involvement. It’s a strange story that got stranger as time went on. I applaud Jarecki’s relentless documenting of the case and telling of the story. It’s a deeply fascinating world and I’m honored to have been a part of his telling of the tales. I have a fond place in my heart for that project.

Would you want to be immortal?

I don’t think so. Having an end to things makes time and energy precious. I think that’s one of the greatest messages of “The Age of Adaline.”

“The Age of Adaline” opens on April 24, with Rob Simonsen’s score album on Lakeshore Records available on May 12 HERE

Visit Rob Simonsen’s website HERE

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