Interview with Dave Porter

By • November 30, 2017

With his legitimately good talent, composer Dave Porter has often been called upon to play characters that are swaggering geniuses – even if it’s sometimes within their own minds. Rising from the ranks of Philip Glass’ braintrust, Porter went from scoring “Saved’s” crazed cable paramedics to a “Smiley”-faced serial killer and an adrenalin junkie in “Bigger, Stronger Faster*” to truly hitting it big with “Breaking Bad.” Creating the entire musical run for one television’s most acclaimed shows firmly put Porter on the TV map with his prolific scoring on “The Blacklist,” “Flesh and Bone” and “Preacher” A teacher-turned-meth dealer, a crime kingpin, ladder-climbing dancers and a super-angel possessed cleric certainly added to Porter’s repertoire of driven characters. Yet their need for success just might musically pale before the cinematic desire of Tommy Wiseau, the swaggering, real-life auteur of “The Disaster Artist.”

While those populating movie multiplexes might not necessarily be in the know, Wiseau is a legend to his bad movie cult as the architect of “The Room,” a haplessly inept, transfixing hilarious 2003 drama. Seemingly set in another dimension by a filmmaker with a skewed grasp of dialogue, let alone human behavior, “The Room” was the vision of an actor, writer and director who cut an unintentionally fearsome figure for a movie of its sex-filled type. Balancing Wiseau’s striking brand of charisma was the California surfer dude looks of co-star Greg Sistero (played by James’ younger brother Dave), whose book about The Wiseau Experience has now been turned into “The Disaster Artist.” But if “The Room’s” spoon-throwing appeal is making fun of Wiseau’s deeply personal work (one that its director has none-too-convincingly passed off as comedy for his sold-out crowds), “The Disaster Artist” does the furthest thing from mocking the tireless commitment of the enigmatic figure whose movie has entertainingly outlived far better ones.

Listening to the memorably proud, can-do theme that Dave Porter gives “The Disaster Artist,” one might think that he’s scoring a picture dealing with young, upstart people readying themselves for a rocket launch against all odds. And that’s the point for the composer as he joins uber-“Room” fan director / star James Franco in paying heartfelt tribute to Wiseau and Sistero’s unlikely bond. Joining strings with rock guitar, Porter counts down for “The Room’s” climactic premiere with the warmly inspirational string sound of the hopes and dreams driving so many fresh-faced (and likely older than that) Hollywood newcomers. But as rhythmically inspirational as Porter’s work is, the composer’s alt.-accented tribal darkness and off-kilter percussion are also a big part of the picture in hearing Wiseau’s perception of himself as “Frankenstein” out to find a personal connection. For if the similarly-themed “Ed Wood” was about a handsome director who wanted to finally make a truly good film, even more important for “The Disaster Artist” is finding a true friend. It’s an unexpected, emotional complexity for a mystery man that helps Porter create a score that’s both oddball and hopeful, one where obviously comedic music isn’t part of the equation.

Now with a score for a film that’s gotten way more legitimate acclaim than the disaster that gave it birth, Dave Porter’s stay in a greatly refurbished “Room” will hopefully help him enter a bigger cinematic domain, all as he continues to provide feature-worthy television with some of its most uniquely eccentric scoring.

Had you seen “The Room” before you got this film. And if so, what was your reaction to it, and your favorite “Room” moments?

I was aware of the “The Room” and the cult status it had attained, but had never seen it before I started work on “The Disaster Artist.” Once I was in discussions to sign on to the project, I read Greg Sistero’s book first and then watched “The Room.” Or tried, at least. I have to be honest and admit I’ve never made it through the whole thing in one sitting. By now I’ve seen all of it many times, but all at once has always been too much for me.

Have you ever walked away from a project because you knew it was bad, or taken up the challenge because you needed the bread, or hoped your music could somehow make it better? If so, what’s it like trying to musically hold up something that you know is doomed, or that you might be laughed at for doing?

I’m very fortunate at this point in my career that I can be more selective, but every composer coming up in the business has had to work on things that he or she wish they didn’t — either to gain experience or just pay the rent. My goal in those situations was always to do the best work I could, and learn something from the experience.

At what point did you realize you’d truly made it with “Breaking Bad?” And how do you think the show made people perceive you as a composer who could really capture characters with a rebellious streak?

If by “made it” you mean feel like I’d reached a point where I was comfortable in the belief that I would have a sustained and successful career as a composer, that didn’t happen until quite recently…. long after the end of “Breaking Bad.” One show doesn’t make a career, even a wildly successful one. You have to win the trust of a lot of people over the course of a lot of projects to get to that point. As for writing for rebellious and flawed characters, I think those are just the projects that tend to resonate with me the most. Human, relatable, intricate stories of characters at war with the system and at war with themselves… and discovering things about themselves through that fight.

How did “The Disaster Artist” come your way?

I’ve had the pleasure over the past few years of working with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg on the AMC/Sony television series “Preacher.” I believe that it was during one of those meetings that I overheard them talking about “The Disaster Artist” and was quickly intrigued enough to inquire about working on it with them. Luckily for me, they thought I’d be a good fit and introduced me to their friend and frequent collaborator James Franco.

Could you talk about your collaboration with James Franco?

Dave Porter and James Franco

I really enjoyed working with James, and his enthusiasm for the project was infectious. His level of preparation for everything related to the film was absolutely next level, which is immediately clear once you’ve seen him onscreen as Tommy. James and I, along with producers Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Alex McAtee, James Weaver, and picture editor Stacey Schroeder, spent most of our time discussing the tone of the film, which has to walk a very thin line…and the music plays a big role in that. The easy route would be to use the score as a means to make fun of these guys, or be overly foreboding in the knowledge that this was all going to turn out disastrously — but that was never the film James wanted to make. Finding that tonal balance was a process of trial and error, but ultimately I think we found a way to get to where we wanted to be — using the score as a thread that binds Tommy and Greg together and supports them throughout the film on their unique journey — viewing it all from a higher vantage point and highlighting their common struggle and then ultimately their success. When they are apart, the music tells differing stories, but whenever they are together, we connect those moments through the score. In fact, I believe the single repeated melodic theme throughout the film … written for guitar, bass and orchestra… is only used when they are together on screen, which was intentional.

Were you inspired at all by previous films, and scores about self-styled auteurs with the best of intentions, a la “Ed Wood?” And did you try to meet any of the original “Room” people?

No, I didn’t because I really felt like this film was unique… and also current. I’ve had some friendly conversations with Greg Sistero, and I credit his book as the bible that I followed throughout my creative process. For me, his viewpoint of the story is the most interesting and in some ways the moral backbone of the film. If you end up enjoying “The Disaster Artist,” by the way, I highly recommend reading Greg’s book — for all the crazy shit that is in the film, the film only has time to squeeze in a small fraction of what’s in the book.

How important was it for you to play the mindset that Tommy Wiseau was setting out to make the greatest movie ever, even if that’s certainly not what came out?

I do think it was important to underscore and appreciate how much Tommy believed in himself — even when no one else did – and how much he accomplished all by himself. His drive and confidence are the most important factor behind “The Room” — both its failures and successes.

Given that Tommy is a mystery in many respects, and has put on a great front with “The Room,” how important was it for the score to find the “real” person in him?

My hope is that the score is able to both heighten the mystery surrounding Tommy and also truly empathize with him — for me that very mystery and the strange mixture of being both shy and bold makes him all the more human. We were all able to follow James Franco’s lead in illustrating that Tommy is a complicated and multi-faceted person…. like all of us.

There’s also a primal, drumming vibe to whenever Tommy is trying to “act.” How do you think that showed his “process,” especially when he’s freaking out on the set?

I did use a lot of percussion in the scenes where Tommy is auditioning and doing his best to be a good actor – particularly when those scenes were ultimately humorous. Percussion can have the wonderful ability to be less emotionally judgmental than melodic instruments, which was part of my reasoning. The other was that I was trying to instill a sense of futility and frustration… that literal banging of one’s head into the wall that everyone who has ever tried to do something creative has felt.

Do you think your use of the strings imparts a necessary seriousness to the score?

An orchestra is a wondrous and powerful thing, but I very much believe that power is overused in a lot of film and TV scores. I think there is a sense that it is required to add “seriousness” or credibility when in fact it can easily overwhelm. I love writing for orchestra, but in some cases –“Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” for example, it simply isn’t the best creative choice. But if there was ever a movie that could support an orchestra, it is “The Disaster Artist,” which after all is the most Hollywood of Hollywood stories. My goal was to try to recreate the sweeping scale and emotion of the classic Hollywood film scores through a more streamlined and modern sounding score… and only an orchestra would do.

What did you think of Mladen Milicevic’s score for “The Room,” and did you want to capture any of its spirit here?

The score from “The Room” appears briefly during the premiere screening and again during the side-by-side “making of” comparisons at the end because in those moments we wanted to be authentic to the original film. I didn’t reference it in my own score. I wanted them to sound distinct, because the score of “The Disaster Artist” is telling a different story than that of “The Room.” Keeping them distinct did play into some of my orchestration decisions —- I avoided using piano in my score, for example, because it is featured in the original.

Could you relate to Tommy and Greg trying to make it in Hollywood?

I absolutely can. I had been struggling for many years before any success came my way, have had many highs and lows, and stumbled into roadblocks that made me want to quit. But I didn’t. And success, when it did come, came from a path I never expected…. and I’m sure that’s true for many of us.

In your own life, have you come across composers similarly deluded about their own talents, especially after you’ve watched a screening where the movie, and music was less than brilliant?

Yes. Me.

I’m a big fan of “Preacher.” Could you talk about scoring such a gleefully heretical show? And how do you expect to play God when he shows up?

I’m glad to hear that. It is such a brave show, and such a hard show to create, that I’m always gratified when folks are drawn into it. Obviously, it isn’t for everyone. But for those who can wrap their heads around it, it’s an amazing ride. In terms of the score the greatest challenge to “Preacher” is simply that there aren’t any rules or constraints… and in fact the more unexpected the better. That challenge is why I love it so much and also why it is sometimes so daunting to work on. As far as a score for God goes, we’ll have to see… but I can guarantee it won’t be harps and boy’s choir. That wouldn’t be “Preacher.”

Do you think it’s ironic that a good score, and film can be made from one of the most hilariously awful films of all time?

Not at all. There is no success without failure, and whatever I’ve learned about scoring films and television I’ve learned by making mistakes. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some terrific talents who understand that and allow for it in the creative process.

How do you hope that “The Disaster Artist” would help you break into features with the same success you’ve found on television?

If you had asked me when I was 15 years old what I wanted to be doing I would have told you I wanted to be scoring films. Anything else would be merely a stepping-stone to that pinnacle of the craft. Now, of course, the landscape has changed greatly. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on television shows that are the envy of most films, and the level of craftsmanship between the two mediums is no longer different. I will always love scoring great television dramas, and like most of the composers of my generation I relish the unique challenges and the creative variety of working in both mediums. Hopefully I’ll be lucky enough to continue to do so.

In a way, do you think your score, and “The Disaster Artist” has retroactively helped make “The Room” better? Would you hope that “The Disaster Artist” reaches the cult popularity of people throwing spoons at it? Or is it just too good for that?

I think “The Disaster Artist” will help make “The Room” better understood, and will certainly bring a new audience to it. I don’t believe that “The Disaster Artist” will be a cult film – quite the contrary. From the screenings I’ve attended it has all the makings of a film that will be broadly enjoyed, both by diehard fanatics of “The Room” and those who don’t know anything about that film. And that’s a great testament to the brilliance and hard work of James Franco, the entire cast, and everyone else who invested themselves so passionately into the project. The response has been very gratifying, and I feel very fortunate to have been a small part of it.

“The Disaster Artist” opens on December 1st, with Dave Porter’s score available soon on WaterTower Music.

Go “Breaking Bad” with Dave Porter HERE as he calls Saul HERE, then goes dancing with “Flesh and Bone” HERE and puts himself on “The Blacklist” HERE

Visit Dave Porter’s website HERE

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