There’s something so beautiful and enticing about the idea of leaving it all behind to chase down big city dreams in Los Angeles. The constant sun, show biz, the palm trees, possibilities…and traffic. It’s one of the most enduring cultural ideas and it’s fascinating how it crosses over from film and literature into actual reality. Many have taken the leap and embarked on this journey, including film composer Ronen Landa. Shifting from New York to LA, Landa has worked on a variety of interesting projects including The Pact, At The Devil’s Door, Eloise and horror-anthology Holidays.
Landa’s latest score is for the film 1BR, directed by David Marmor. The film is playing the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival taking place now in Montreal, Quebec. Here’s a synopsis of the film:
After leaving behind a painful past to follow her dreams, Sarah scores the perfect Hollywood apartment. But something is not right. Unable to sleep, tormented by strange noises and threatening notes, her new life quickly starts to unravel. By the time she learns the horrifying truth, it’s too late. Caught in a waking nightmare, Sarah must find the strength to hold onto her crumbling sanity…or be trapped forever in an existential hell.
Sarah‘s journey and initial situation is one that so many can understand and one that so many dream of. However, it’s safe to say things don’t go quite as she had planned. Accompanying Sarah along her journey is Landa’s beautiful, interesting and intuitive score. A true sonic glimpse into the mind and thought process of our leading character, Landa’s score is not only an incredibly effective storytelling mechanism but an intimate and alluring stand-alone piece of composition. I had the true pleasure of speaking with Landa and we discussed 1BR, his work with Education Through Music-Los Angeles, composing for horror and much more.
Rachel Prin for Nightmare on Film Street: 1BR is director David Marmor’s first feature film and it’s playing the Fantasia Film Festival! That’s so exciting for all of you! What was your working relationship like with David on this film?
Ronen Landa: It was really interesting! I have known one of the producers, Allard Cantor, for quite a few years and he usually works as a manager. So, when him and his partner came on as producers, they were managing David and they had the opportunity to throw my name in the hat. He presented my work to the team, they were drawn to it, plus I do have some experience in the genre. Then they invited me out to the wrap party when the film finished shooting and that’s when I first met David. We met up more officially shortly thereafter and had a really nice long conversation about music and film and what we were thinking about music for this movie. We just totally hit it off. We had a fantastic working relationship. It’s really interesting because even though this is his first feature, David is a real collaborator. A real natural collaborator. He knows how to work with other people and has really good instincts about his film, a good sense of when to experiment and he knows exactly what he’s looking for. Those are the kinds of things that make a working relationship with a composer smoother sailing.
NOFS: I love ‘house horror’ and I think that ‘apartment horror’ is an interesting extension of that. There’s an intimacy and a natural soundscape associated with a residential dwelling. Did the location of the film impact your creative, composing process at all? And if so, how?
RL: It was interesting because it has in some ways a different feel. I also scored a film called The Pact and it basically takes place inside of a house, so there’s that similarity there. But, this was a little bit different because it was an apartment complex and there are neighbors. That’s actually pretty central to the film. 1BR is about more than just one person or a small group of people in a haunted environment. Rather, it’s about the neighbors and their relationship so it’s a little different in that way. And so you have this really kind of a typical LA apartment complex, or Sarah thinks it’s a typical apartment complex, but it ends up being something very very different. So, the idea with the music, kind of the meta concept with the music, was to take music that we’re very familiar with. A lot of people do the found sound thing, and I do a lot of that stuff too; turning random household items into musical instruments. But this was more about taking musical instruments, things that we’re familiar with, and turning those inside out. Things like, guitars and vocals. We had all these signature sounds in the movie that were re-processed and re-imagined ways of hearing those instruments. So they’re organic, and they sound kind of familiar, but they are weird and twisted. Much like it was for Sarah in the movie coming across a typical apartment complex, but then everything gets, well, weird and twisted.
“…if an audience is going to be really scared, in a movie like this, they have to really care about the characters.”
NOFS: Sarah‘s journey is really relatable and interesting. She’s entering this new and exciting chapter in her life, but then somewhere along the line, it shifts. How did you approach this journey and follow along with her in the film score?
RL: The whole score, I don’t think there’s a single exception in the film anywhere, is basically meant to delve into Sarah’s mind and her mindset. It’s all told from her point of view, and that’s the key to the score I think. And when the music starts, the opening theme has this sense of innocence and a little bit of apprehension, but not fear. Because Sarah is new in LA and just finding her way, and that is really relatable, especially for any of us who have moved to this city, you know, chasing our dreams. [laughs] But when the film starts she’s in that mode of being excited and apprehensive. A lot of my themes in other genre movies have been quite a bit darker, but this had a certain sweetness because that’s where she is at the beginning of the movie. And as the story progresses we certainly get the kind of insane horror craziness, but there’s also a lot of drama and a lot of mystery and a lot of discovery that happens in the course of the score so we’re always tracking her psychology.
NOFS: I’d like to talk about the track ‘This is Why We Do The Dinner Party.’ You integrate classic acoustic instruments with some electronic elements in a really interesting way. Why did you choose to integrate the two worlds like that and what unique strengths do each bring to the table?
RL: It’s an interesting question and it’s one that I think about quite a bit. The way I think about all of this is in terms of the emotional resonance. Any of these instruments, whether they’re acoustic or electronic, we need to be thinking about the drama as film composers. We need to be thinking about the drama on-screen and what we’re trying to convey to the audience. Because the music is going to hopefully, glue the audience into that moment on screen. And, so far, to date, I’m yet to hear an electronic instrument that really has the humanity and depth of an acoustic instrument. There is something about a human performance and about recording the air vibrating and the experience of that hitting your ears, that’s just so far kind of unmatched.
Their ability is unmatched in certain ways to portray humanity and to portray empathy and to kind of draw us in to some of these psychological ideas. But at the same time, there’s a certain kind of cool. I’m trying to use the word not just as slang, but there’s a certain ‘cool’ that happens with electronics, a certain kind of interest. And what you can do in the studio to create otherworldly sounds, even if you’re using acoustic instruments as your source material. All that kind of stuff creates fresh and amazing sounds that people are less used to hearing. That element of surprise is really important too. And surprising people’s ears. So, the idea is to try and find a balance in some way. Some of these cues are almost completely acoustic and have very little if any electronics, and some of the cues are more heavily electronic. But for me, the piano,the harp, violin and clarinet, these kind of core instruments in this score were kind of driving the emotional aspect of the drama. And hopefully, I feel that if an audience is going to be really scared, in a movie like this, they have to really care about the characters. And to do that we have to kind of create that emotional glue.
NOFS: In this track, as well as some of your other works, you utilize space in a really beautiful way. I’m talking about the actual sound of the room, but also in the way you allow the music itself to breathe. Can you talk a little bit about the value of space as a composing mechanism in your music and especially in relation to a film score?
RL: A couple things come to mind. Certainly, dynamically, I think that when a score is just an onslaught and doesn’t let up, it actually kind of loses power. In some ways that’s interesting, but I think very often there’s a chance you risk the score losing it’s impact over time. I think of it musically. If you think of the whole score as one work, just like in any great piece of music there is the idea of a rest, the idea of a breath, the idea of dynamic changes of going from piano to forte. And, the reason all the great composers and musicians have used that technique is that it’s effective and it draws out the emotions in the music. So I think that knowing when to let the score simmer a little bit and when to let the score come full force is kind of a key idea. And I think that’s how I relate to the dynamic space that you were mentioning. And I also think the physical space is really interesting. I’m kind of strange in a way because I’m a trained composer, but all my experience as a producer and a mixer is almost entirely self-taught and by picking up what I can and learning what I can from other composers.
So, I think that sometimes my mixes come off a little bit left of center. I mean that politically, not in terms of the actual panning of the mix. They’re a little different. But I think that it’s so critical to think about positioning. For me it’s very much about, ‘What if there was a concert in front of you?’ Well, the harp would be out to one side and the snare would be somewhere else and how do I want that room to feel when we’re listening to the music. And in this movie particularly, we actually for the theatrical sound mix, came across a really awesome idea just in the sound mix. This was after I mixed the tracks myself and we brought it into the stage, we found a really unique element to throw into the surround mix to really fill out the room and that was such a revelation. It totally changed the experience of listening to the score in context of the movie. I’m so excited for people to hear it.
NOFS: When you are experimenting with sound, what is that process like? Do you have the idea for a certain desired sound first and then experiment to find a way to replicate it? Or are you discovering sounds that you then like and find a way to utilize them in your score?
RL: The answer is both. So, while I’m scoring a film I’ll often be thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to need some sort of high metallic sound.’ I hear it in my brain, and I’ll know I’ll need that sound or a long note or some sound that’s a fast, powerful breath. I know that I’m going to find it in a wind instrument or in a bowed cymbal and I’ll start to work through and record things I need to record or finding sounds that I can start to manipulate. And then, once I have sort of a source sound, I very often start experimenting with that to make it even more different. However, the other side of that is that I also do a lot of experimentation with musicians outside the form of the score. I’ve developed a kind of a practice of doing experimental sessions with musicians and ensembles. For this film, we had an ensemble of cool super low woodwinds that you don’t typically get to hear playing just by themselves. I threw together a really cool recording session with this low woodwind ensemble and we recorded lots of different experimental and aleatoric techniques, some atonal ideas and things like that. So, I threw together a whole kind of book of experimental sounds with this ensemble. And in the course of scoring the film I found places to use some of those experiments.
“When I approach horror I’m always looking to find the emotional heart of the story.”
NOFS: You’ve composed for a lot of different kinds of film as well as multiple horror films. How is composing for horror different and what about it do you enjoy?
RL: It’s a great question. I’ve been lucky to have a pretty varied scoring career. Horror is amazing because it allows me to flex a lot of different muscles. When I approach horror I’m always looking to find the emotional heart of the story. So, I actually get to write pretty dramatic music that isn’t just scary sounds. And I’m really looking for those dramatic themes that are really going to connect us to the story. But then of course, we have these totally wild and sometimes insane sonic worlds that we can explore. For someone who has a love of experimental music like I do, it can be just so invigorating and exciting to go and explore all these different ideas. I’m a huge fan of 20th and 21st century new music and all the kinds of techniques that composers have developed over the last 100 years or so. And so, finding a way to elicit a completely new sound out of a piano or a guitar I find that really, thrilling. Interestingly, it’s horror and comedy that I find I have to be extremely specific to the timings in a really careful way. That’s true of every film in a way, but it’s even more extreme in horror and comedy because you have to make sure that everything is landing just right. Strangely, I think that fear and humor are two sides of a coin.
NOFS: Oh totally! The intersection of the two genres is fascinating.
RL: And often, when we’re watching a screening of a horror movie we’re hearing people laughing once after they’ve been scared. And sometimes, you watch a comedy…I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience, but sometimes I’ll be watching Curb Your Enthusiasm or something and I’ll have to leave the room because I’m cringing so hard! It’s the horror of that! These two genres are so interconnected and as a composer, they both require really close attention to timing.
NOFS: I also really wanted to talk about your charity work. You serve as Associates Board Chair for Education Through Music-Los Angeles. Why is music education so important, especially in the public school system?
RL: I’m really glad you brought this up as it’s one of the things I’m most proud of doing here in LA. I’ve been involved with them for around 7 or 8 years now and it’s been amazing to be a part of it. We have around 15,000 kids who are now getting weekly music education in class [as] part of their curriculum. It’s been incredible to see how many kids are affected in just the best way by having a music education. We see their attendance go up, we see test scores at these schools go up and we just see kids so excited to learn music. It’s just unbelievable that we live in a world where think that somehow the arts and music specifically are optional. This is such a fundamental part of education. It’s about teaching people to work together, teaching people to listen and giving kids an opportunity to excel. These are kids that don’t necessarily have music education on their own. Having music in your life should not be only relegated to your socioeconomic status. It should be something that all kids have access to. And you go to these classrooms and see these amazing music teachers and see the kids being so inspired and they’re just learning so much. It’s such a joy.
I’ve also recently done a collaboration with a visual artist name Sheila Darcey called Art on a Loop which is a really cool project. It’s entirely a fundraiser for ETM-LA to try and raise awareness and get more kids this education. Basically what we did was, I sent her a playlist of my music and she created this artwork (she does these amazing free form sketches and watercolors) while listening to my music, kind of like a direct response to my music. She also created time-lapse videos of the process and then I took the videos and scored those. So we ended up kind of on a loop where my music was influencing her visual art and her visual art was influencing the music and the idea was to create this spin.
1BR celebrated its world premiere at the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival Thursday, July 18. The Fantasia Film Festival runs until August 1, 2019 in beautiful Montreal, Canada. Also, keep a lookout later this fall for his upcoming score in the dark-comedy Yinz, directed by Jeremy Michael Cohen (Band of Robbers). For more information on Landa and his beautiful body of work, you can find his website here.
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