Interview with Rob Simonsen

By • April 3, 2017

Hollywood is a town of the young when it comes to the composers who get all of the cool gigs (perhaps excepting that 85 year-old duffer John Williams). On that note, there are few creatively hotter, hipster commodities than Rob Simonsen at finding unique, vibrant groove that speaks for a new sound of film scoring. Simonsen began his career as an assistant, arranger and then addition composer to Mychael Danna on such brilliantly non-conformist scores as “Where the Truth Lies,” “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” and the Oscar-wining “Life of Pi,” Making his solo feature debut with the knightly drama “Westender” (in which he played a role as well), Simonson has since amassed dozens of credits, with a particular emphasis on quirky, character-driven films. Tapping into an alt. rock sound so preferred by Gen X’ers and millennial audiences yet with a strong, old school sense of orchestral melody, Simonsen has chronicled their romantic angst for “(500) Days of Summer,” “The Way Way Back” and “The Spectacular Now,” as well as a rhythmic addiction to the net with “Nerve.” He’s heard the creepily symphonic sound of true crime with “All Good Things” and “Foxcatcher,” as well as using impossibly lush strings and electronics to mesmerizingly embody eternity in “The Age of Adeline,” or even hell’s kitchen with a cool, cutting-edge sample sound for “Burnt.”

With all of Simonsen’s credits, it’s ironic that one of his most clever, and thoroughly fun scores is a throwback jazz heist soundtrack with a hip, mature feel for “Going In Style.” It’s a hundred-and-eighty (plus thousands of more dollars) turn for both Simonsen and actor-director Zach Braff after their collaboration on “Wish You Were Here.” Gentle whimsy gives way to a rollicking, fat brass section, whistles, and a suspenseful orchestra that might befit the golden days of Steve McQueen barreling down the streets of San Francisco. But in this case, it’s the dream team of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin as three seniors who are mad as hell as their corporate mistreatment, and decide to take on a bank for the retirement robbed from them. Far more optimistic than the sad, gritty 1979 original, this “Style” is feel-good multiplex entertainment that gets the goods with well-weathered chemistry and symphonically jazzy flourish to spare, especially in Simonsen’s fresh retro grooves.

If these thieves might do their best not to get a rap sheet, Simonsen himself is getting labeled for comedy for good reason. At year’s end, he’ll be going on the lam with Owen Wilson and Ed Helms for “Bastards.” As their two man-children try to find their father in a series of screwball incidents and verbal squabbles, Simonsen provides an instrumentally eccentric take on a free spirit vs. stuck-up sibling. It’s a winning score that takes Simonsen on a road trip that’s familiar for its stripped down sound, but like “Going in Style,” offers the composer the chance to go for new, broader musical punch lines.

Certainly nothing if not prolific with the often musical chairs release dates of the many movies he’s scored, Simonsen also has the distinction of having another film scored by him on “Going in Style’s” April 7th opening date. And it couldn’t be for a more different movie, if beautifully familiar Simonsen score, than “Gifted.” Returning him to the company of “(500) Days of Summer” director Marc Webb, if in way more grown up surroundings, “Gifted” finds a math-magician little girl whose gifts are closely guarded by her single dad, who’d rather have her find a winning formula in life than becoming a guinea pig savant. At first depicting their relationship with ethereal magic, Simonsen introduces a more serious, symphonic sound for grown ups trying to tear them apart, yet with a subtlety that distinguishes the composer’s dramatically melodic instincts in a rich grab bag of distinctively vibrant, and stylistic scores.

How did you first connect with Zach Braff, and why do you think you were in tune as a composer and director?

Zach discovered me through an Apple commercial that I scored. He said he was watching TV and the “Photos Everyday” ad came on, which has no voice over or dialogue – just music accompanying all these beautiful shots of people taking photos on their iPhones. He loved the music on the ad and thought it was perfect for his film “Wish I Was Here,” so he did a Google search to find out who did the music and then found me. It was only after the fact that he found out I had done a fair bit of work with his editor and producers, so it all came together happily.

Not only is “Going in Style” Zach’s first “mainstream” film as it were, but it’s also a whole new, broader orchestral comedy sound for you, one very different from the kind of alt scores you often do. What were your mutual challenges like?

Zach has never made a film that was scored to this degree, so there was a lot of discovering about how to make the film work with score, which was achieved through a wonderful team Zach had with his editor, Myron Kerstein, music editor Andrew Silver, his producer Donald DeLine and music executive Erin Scully. Everyone wanted the same thing, but it took us time to figure out how to get there. Zach was very trusting of me and the process and we faced all the challenges together.

On my side, the initial challenge faced by all composers, is how to do something that hasn’t already been done – and done so well by the greats. In the journey of a working film composer, there isn’t always the opportunity to invent something new, so then it’s a question of how much fun to have with the genre and established approaches.

For me, this was a great opportunity to have a bigger, broader sound that harkened back to the 80’s and so many films I saw growing up. The fun, orchestral approach to “Back to the Future” was something we discussed in terms of how that score plays to the film. So really, it was trying to find unique musical material with melodies, motifs, etc, and then having fun.

This is definitely not your grandfather’s “Going In Style,” which was a very good, but downbeat movie. How important was it for you to establish a tone that was dramatic, but also played the lighthearted nature of the film?

Our rule was to never take away permission to laugh. Even though our heroes face real consequences, we were careful to never go dark. Zach’s films tend lean in with emotion so we also knew upfront that we needed warm fuzzy melodies.

When so many fun, jazzy “heist” scores have been done, what’s the challenge of finding something new for the genre?

As I was saying before, I think it’s about having fun with an existing genre. Not all films can handle experimentation, and they need to feel connected to their predecessors. So for me this was a chance to get into scores and records that I’ve loved for a long time, a love letter to Lalo Schifrin, Roy Budd, CTI Records…it’s musically referencing 60’s and 70’s but the approach and production is more of an 80’s, almost Amblin kind of thing.

How important was it to bring a youthful vibe to the score, while at the same time playing the particular challenges that reflect these characters’ ages, as well as their distinct personalities?

Zach wanted the youthfulness of the granddaughter character to come through in her scenes, so we needed something with energy there. And with our three main characters, despite their physical age, were playful and fun with each other. We never wanted to make their situation seem sad, we always wanted to lean into the fun and excitement.

A retro element would definitely come with aging characters like this who were in the primes of their youths in the 60s and 70s (as well as the 40s in one cue). How did that determine what kind of vibe did you want to explore for them, and how to incorporate that into a big orchestral sound?

I was definitely inspired to go retro, but not too much. Recording/mixing engineer Alan Meyerson was a brilliant partner in finding ways to give nods to the music we were referencing, while still staying modern.

What are your own favorite “heist” movies and scores, and why? How did you want the score to “track” the big, climactic robbery?

“Bullit” by Lalo Schifrin is one of my favorite scores of the genre (and films). John Barry’s stuff with the Bond franchise. Anything Roy Budd was doing in the 60’s-70’s like “Get Carter.” Quincy Jones, Deodato, Morricone. Even Sam Spence’s NFL Films stuff. I love the sound of electric bass and drum kit with orchestra.

There’s also a fun, subtle tropical flavor to “Going in Style,” as well as whistling and swinging flutes. How did those ideas come into play?

The whistling was actually an idea that Zach had, I think. It seemed like a fun idea so we went with it. There’s some body and mouth percussion in some spots as well. There’s a carefree playfulness to that stuff so it seemed like something to try and work in. The tropical vibe wasn’t intended, but maybe that’s just inherent with bongos and congas, of which there are a lot. We did a lot of Latin percussion, headed up by Pete Korpela, who is a fantastic player and brought a lot of groove to the whole score.

As fun as “Going in Style” is, does scoring a film like this make you reflect on your own mortality, and challenges that you’ll be face a few decades down the pike, especially in a composing industry known for its ageism. And if so, did that emotion play into the score’s more heartfelt moments?

You mean, was my own sadness about aging channeled into the score? Yes. Yes, it was.

“Bastards” is more in tune with other eccentric comedy scores you’ve done like “Girl Most Likely” and “The Way Way Back,” especially with its unplugged acoustical sound. How did you hit on this approach here, which also uses a more subdued orchestra?

“Bastards” needed something plucky and I wanted to find a way to get pluck without using plucked strings. I ended up using them a bit, but they’re 1:1 blended with palm-muted acoustic guitar plucks most of the time, so it makes it a little bit of a smaller, more intimate and hopefully unique sound. It still sounds like plucks I think, Ha! But the story for “Bastards” is really about a couple of brothers who are still trapped in their childhood selves in a lot of ways, and they reconcile by going on an adventure to find their father. So there needs to be a spirit of adventure driven by emotion, but big orchestra just felt too big and adult for that. It was the softer, quieter tones of acoustic guitar and upright piano seemed to match their characters.

It seems like just about any eccentric instrument is possible in “Bastards.” How did you pick which ones to use, whether it’s a dulcimer, a ukulele or a fuzz guitar?

Fumbling around until it felt right, pretty much. We used cimbalom, which is a fantastic instrument that I first heard my friend Chester Englander play with the LA Phil. It’s got a unique sound that can blend so interestingly with other things that we’re really used to hearing. It’s a fairly intuitive thing I think, just wanting something different and hunting for the right sound. I spend a fair bit of time at the outset just thinking about and experimenting with the palette.

How do you want to hit the difference between one brother who’s hopelessly wound up, and the other who’s a free spirit?

One is loose and goes with the flow, so we have something that’s laid back and relaxed, whereas the other one is uptight and needed something angular that is a little tense and also melancholic.

Like “Going in Style,” “Bastards” is a “caper” film of sorts, in that the mission is to do whatever it takes to discover who their real dad is. Tell us about capturing that kind of alt. jazzy sneaking about, as well as the idea of a multiplicity of potential, woefully flawed dads?

I think in the end I’m just tried to do what sounded sneaky to me. We knew there needed to be sneak in the score, but I think the discovery of the score was a theme that had a bit of hope and adventure. I imagined two young boys playing in the forest, setting out on a quest to find their lost father, the king. Waving a flag as they march into the unknown. There’s something sweet and earnest about that, and inevitably they get into shenanigans.

Is it particularly fun to play a road trip where bantering dialogue is as big a part of the physical comedy?

It’s quite different. Again, this was a bit of a broader film and score than I’m used to. But it was fun to play that up.

Despite its shenanigans, there’s an emotional core to “Bastards” about dealing with parental rejection, and wanting to be loved. How did you want to hit that without being overly sentimental?

Exactly as you said – to hit it without being overly sentimental. I was just trying to serve the scenes, which director Larry Sher did a wonderful job with. There’s some real emotion in that film. I get misty eyed every time I see it.

How was it for you to reteam with director Marc Webb on “Gifted,” this time as the sole composer?

It was great. I love Marc and he’s someone I’ve had a friendship with since we all did “(500) Days of Summer.” He’s a wonderful filmmaker.

Do you think there are instruments that naturally convey the innocence of children? And how did you want to play them here, especially given that this girl is super smart?

Anything small and bell-like seems to ring true for the sound of children. The main theme for the girl in “Gifted” is very simple. Elemental. She’s a normal kid in many ways, but a genius in others so we needed a more adult, complex sound from the orchestra that could keep up with that.

How did you want to play her bond with a dad of normal intelligence?

I would say he’s above average intelligence. But the life he is trying to give her is one of normalcy. He wants her to have a chance at developing without the pressure from the world to juice a mind like that. There are some interesting questions about the morality, ethics and responsibility of genius there.

There have been many kid’s “courtroom” movies that have gone wrong, especially given scores that tended to be treacly. Was that a concern here, especially as the score grows increasingly solemn with its dramatic stakes?

Yes, we never wanted to be too cute. McKenna Grace, the young actor that plays the lead is extraordinarily funny, smart, and entertaining and we didn’t want it to turn into cuteness.

You’re part of an “Echo Society” that stages new works from composers in Downtown Los Angeles. Tell us about the group, and what kind of creative outlet it gives you?

The Echo Society is a group of like-minded friends who gather to create new works of art, and share that with the greater LA arts community. This city is so rich with artists of all disciplines. We wanted to connect with other artists that we may not have a chance to work with in our “day jobs” of film composers, etc. For us it’s really important to make art for art’s sake – to see what’s possible and to cast a vision for something that moves us. We try to execute that with as much passion and commitment as we can in a way that will hopefully move others. It’s been wonderfully rewarding as a composer. I’m just as excited to be there to experience it as an audience member as I am to share it as a co-creator.

You’ve got quite an interesting film coming called “House of Tomorrow,” which mashes architectural legend Buckminster Fuller with the story of two punk teens trying to get laid. What can we expect from that score?

The score is all analog synths and glass flutes. The idea was to capture the sound of the future from the past. So there’s a ‘science documentary’ from the 60’s kind of vibe. It was wicked fun.

When you hear “Going in Style,” “Bastards” and “Gifted,” what do you think they say about your range as a composer? And where do you want to go in terms of exploring uncharged musical areas?

What it says about my range is a statement for probably for someone else to make, as I’m always just doing my best with any assignment. For me, a film score is always a chance to do something new. Maybe it’s just new for me, but that’s worthwhile. I’m always looking for ways to grow and develop as a composer and human being, and doing things I haven’t done before is always an opportunity for that. I’m also finishing up my first solo record and that will hopefully open me up more to making more music for music’s sake.

“Going in Style” and “Gifted” open in theaters April 7th, with “Style’s” soundtrack on WaterTower Music HERE and “Gifted” on Lakeshore Records HERE

Join the “Bastards” on their road trip at year’s end in theaters

Find out about the Echo Society’s latest LA performances HERE

Visit Rob Simonsen’s website HERE

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