In Conversation with Film Score Composer Nathan Larson
Until a few years ago Nathan Larson was lead guitarist and composer for US rock band Shudder to Think. A collaboration with Jesse Peretz from the Lemonheads in 1998 on Peretz's low-key relationship film First Love, Last Rites introduced Larson to soundtrack composing. From there he has gone on to contribute music to Boys Don't Cry, Dirty Pretty Things, Phone Booth and The Woodsman. In 1999 he swapped his rock star lifestyle to concentrate permanently on film soundtracks, and moved from New York to Sweden to complete the metamorphosis. Larson was guest of the 2004 Times bfi London Film Festival where he talked about his career and approach to writing film music.
After the Jesse Peretz collaboration, Larson went on to write music for Lisa Cholodenko's sexual drama High Art and what turned out to be his first major film project, Todd Haynes' fictional glam-rock biopic Velvet Goldmine. Producers had originally wanted David Bowie to score the film, but new songs needed to be written after the singer refused to collaborate at the last minute. Enter Nathan Larson: "It's the only score I've written before the editing process - before the film was finished - and the actors lip-synched to them", he recalls. Coming second place to David Bowie must have put considerable strain on the young rock musician-cum film scorer, but the result was a great original rock soundtrack, if a somewhat forgettable film.
Up until this point Larson had been leading a double life of writing film scores and songs for Shudder to Think. In the same year that he gave up the rock music side of things he began writing the soundtrack for Kimberly Peirce's girl meets transvestite girl tragedy Boys Don't Cry. "This was the decisive moment when I thought I'd moved from rock musician to film scorer," he remembers. "It was the first one I did all on my lonesome: a tough one for me as my first outing ." Whilst he was given a very low budget to work with on Boys Don't Cry, Larson admits that this led to a need to be more creative or inventive, and therefore more remarkable results. Larson usually hires soloists to play instruments that he can't, but in this case money meant that wasn't an option. Using only a guitar, an amp, keyboard and "really crappy mike" actually helped him to create what he describes as a "really interesting score". Larson also had the fortuity to stumble on a video of Lana Tisdel (Chloë Sevigny's character in the film) singing The Bluest Eyes in Texas in a karaoke bar that was her and Brandon Teena's (Hilary Swank's character) song. He got the rights and used it as a throughline theme for the film. Larson's wife Nina sings on the track and is a frequent collaborator in his work.
His next breakthrough came a year later on Tigerland where the budget was a little bigger. Director Joel Schumacher requested an Asian sound to the film, to complement its Vietnam war subject matter. Larson had heard a guy playing on a Chinese two-stringed violin called the Er-hu on the New York subway, and felt he would fit the role perfectly. After spending three weeks searching the subway for his busker, he eventually managed to find him. With no common language between them, Larson "paid the guy cash" and sung him the kind of music he wanted him to play. The result was Tigerland 's dreamlike and hallucinatory score.
Larson then went on to work again with Jesse Peretz on Peretz's comedy The Château, on Erik Skjoldbjaerg's study of depression Prozac Nation, and Todd Solondz's study of high-school youth Storytelling ("not a successful movie anywhere"). Storytelling was his first time working with Todd Solondz, whom he would collaborate with again three years later on Palindromes. Larson shared the Storytelling soundtrack with acclaimed Glasgow band Belle and Sebastian. One thing Larson says many people don't realise is that composers get comments scribbled on their music scripts from all sorts of people, in a similar way that a writer would on his or her script, and not just from the director. Various corporate executives contribute notes, many of which conflict with each other, and Larson finds his job as composer, as well as to write music, is to find a balance between keeping the director and the studio executives happy. Comments vary from criticism that he's not making particular characters sympathetic enough, to the fact that he's not moving the action along fast enough. Whilst this has become an accepted part of his job as a film composer, Larson says it was a different story for Belle and Sebastian: "Rock bands aren't used to taking notes on their music and don't know how to respond to it".
"For me it's about establishing a relationship with the director rather than the studio," he says, although differing artistic origins between director and musician can lead to communication difficulties: "It's often hard to find a common language with directors. They say: 'Make it more young', or 'Make it more blue'. They're coming more from an esoteric angle".
The following year saw Larson work on Swedish director Lukas Moodysson's Estonian based love story Lilya 4-Ever, and Stephen Frears' immigrant exposé Dirty Pretty Things. 2002 also saw him work with Joel Schumacher on the telephone thriller Phone Booth. Larson worked for two years on the film's score only to find much of it ended up being replaced by someone else, a situation he says often happens. A composer will work long and hard on a score, only to find that moods and decisions change and someone else is bought in to start again. Conversely, he has been the person recruited to provide an alternative score, and says there's no hard feelings involved. Studio executives felt his music wasn't making Colin Farrell's main character sympathetic or creating enough suspense. In the end he was credited as providing additional music. Respected hip-hop mogul Mos Def was also a music contributor on Phone Booth and both would later work on The Woodsman - Larson on the score and Mos Def in an acting role.
2004 has so far been Larson's year, as he penned scores for the much anticipated films of Nicole Kassell's The Woodsman, Todd Solondz's Palindromes and Shainee Gable's A Love Song for Bobby Long . Probably due to its controversial subject matter about a paedophile, Larson found The Woodsman to be one of his hardest scores to write: "It took ages and was another political situation between studio people . I did maybe 12 drafts, the most I've ever done for any film". Plus director Nicole Kassell introduces with a long credit sequence (some five minutes) which Larson says was very challenging to write a piece of continuous music for. In the end he triumphs with a low-key but dramatic score which won him The Gras Savoye Award at the Cannes Film Festival. "Again I relied heavily on the skills of my violinist friend Asa H., and a gritty old Echoplex. I wrote and recorded the central theme on a classical guitar with three busted strings ."
In Palindromes , Larson returned to a small budget score: "Solondz funded the film himself, so it was just him, me and my laptop", indeed it is the first feature Larson composed almost entirely on his laptop. Perhaps due to its surreal presentation (Solondz makes frequent changes to the actor playing the main character) and it's rather bizarre storyline of a 12-year-old girl desperate to get pregnant, Larson says Solondz referenced Rosemary's Baby for the soundtrack. It's Larson's wife's voice you hear on the film's score, and he says Solondz directed her singing in the studio which he hadn't experienced before.
Working with Shainee Gable on A Love Song for Bobby Long , Larson came up against his bête noir: the uncompromising studio exec. He and director Gable "pulled this one out of our asses as we had very little outside help, and a lot of external static; lo, we prevailed". Larson rages against one of the film's producers who accused him of "ruining this film and by extension John Travolta's shot at an Oscar nomination" with his minimalistic guitar-based music. He soon felt vindicated, however, when The Hollywood Reporter's review of the film described his score as "masterful".
Larson seems extremely content with his lot, creating his signature understated scores remotely from his home in Sweden and in New York. "I kinda operate in two worlds, both equally vile in their respective ways: I'm talking about the music industry and the film industry. You might say this: by night I am (well ok was) a charismatic rock and roller, and by day I'm a reclusive film composer, which means I'm the guy who does the music you hear when you're watching a movie that tells you if what you're seeing is supposed to be scary, funny, sad, or none of the above. These days I'm more into the filmwork than the rock, and here's why: it's something I can picture myself doing honourably into the twilight of my years (as opposed to trying to get a pair of leather pants up over my fat ass in some dressing room in Geneva on some soggy Tuesday night). Plus: it's way more lucrative (nice!), and plus it enables me to wear my pyjamas all day and lock myself in my cosy home studio. In this manner I don't have to deal with frightening stuff like other people, except via phone, fax or email......my shrink says this is both good and very very bad. I am working on this problem and will keep you updated."
For a rock musician, Nathan Larson has made the cross-over into film work look deceptively easy. He has successfully made a niche for himself, enhancing a range of reputable and intelligent films with his modern, spare scores. As many films now look to an existing catalogue of popular tunes in order to produce a ready-made soundtrack compilation of hit records, Larson shows that original music remains the more sophisticated and refreshing option.