A few years back we interviewed writer/director David Bruckner regarding his part in the horror anthology film “SOUTHBOUND” David’s latest feature film, “The Ritual” which premiered at the Toronto Int Film Festival in late 2017 is now available for streaming on Netflix. Days before the premiere we had the chance to talk to a few of David’s collaborators on this film, starting with composer Ben Lovett.
Ben is best known for his score on Magnolia Pictures’ “The Signal,” which received an Independent Spirit Award nomination. He has also scored the Duplass Brothers’ thriller “Black Rock,” and Magnolia Pictures’ sci-fi noir “Synchronicity”
Excerpts of our conversation are below, or you can listen to it, in its entirety below.
TCF: You’ve worked with writer, director David Bruckner a two or three times now…
Ben Lovett: Yeah. We met in college, and we worked on a lot of kind of experimental short film type formatted stuff when we were both coming up. Then we both kind of caught our first break at the same time when The Signal premiered at Sundance in 2007. In that time since then, he has directed, he’s been a co-director in a series of anthology films. So this was David’s directorial debut of an entire feature. He’s had a lot of success on several movies where there were multiple directors and each of them took a 20-minute segment, that kind of thing, movies like VHS, and Southbound, and The Signal was one that was like that. So when he had an opportunity to direct his first full feature, it seemed natural, especially considering that the story has a lot to do with old friends and relationships between guys that have known each other for a long time. It just seemed like a natural extension for us to kind of relink. But it’s been a long time since we saddled up together. So, it was great.
TCF: That’s been almost a decade, right?
Ben Lovett: It has. It’s interesting that these things kind of move in those cycles like that. It was 10 years ago this year that we went to Sundance and kind of kicked off … All he and I have been doing for the past 10 years is just making stuff and continuing to make movies. I kind of flirt in and out of … I have a songwriting and performing and I do album production for people. I kind of float in and out of the film world in that time because as a composer you can’t just decide, “I feel like scoring a movie right now.” They kind of find you. From time to time when things kind of slow down on that front, it gives me an opportunity to write some songs and go out and play some shows, things like that.
TCF: If you had to pick one, what would you say was more your calling? Is it the songwriting or scoring films?
Ben Lovett: Well, usually it’s the one that I’m not doing at the time. Because, the grass is always greener, and the other one always seems a lot easier when you’re not doing it. I think a lot of guys who spend a lot of time on the road, they think, “Aw man. It would just be so nice to just hang out in the studio and just make up weird noises, and work on movies all the time.” And then when you do that for months and months on end, you’re like, “Gosh, if I could just hit the road and just play a show and be in another town every night, that just sounds like the life.”
I’m fortunate that I so far have not had to pick, that there’s been some sort of weird, even though it doesn’t seem so in the moment, from the 30,000 foot view, there seems to be kind of a natural balance to it, where when it rains it pours in one area or the other. So, I’m either completely consumed with songwriting and producing and things on the sort of song side, or I’m just doing movies, like I have been right now for months and months, just jumping from one moving object to the next.
Ben Lovett: Yeah, and I kind of feel like at this point in time, to make a living where you’re making music for a living, for me, it developed as a survival tactic. Because, you have to be able to learn how to do a lot of things if you don’t wanna have to get a real job. So, for me, it’s just like a survival instinct to kind of say yes to a lot of things and get involved in a lot of projects so that you always got a pot on the boil, and keeps you out of the application line at the post office.
TCF: To a lot of people, what you do is the ideal of a real job. You’re able to be creative and make a living at it.
Ben Lovett: Yeah, and I believe in the value and importance of storytelling. I’m to the point now where I can kind of jokingly laugh it off and say I don’t have a real job, but I feel fortunate to have it, but I definitely take it seriously and put everything that I can into it, because I think storytelling’s how we got out of the caves, you know? It’s always been part of our collective experience, and I think it’s just a vital part of how we advance. It’s the one thing I know how to do. It’s kind of like I don’t really have a choice. I’m not really employable in any other field at this point.
TCF: That brings me to your process when you’re composing like say for a film or even specifically The Ritual. At what point when you come on to a project, are you familiar with the story, do you read the script, how does that all work out?
Ben Lovett: That usually depends. I have been involved in just about every possibility when a composer comes onboard a project. That is to say that sometimes you get a script, and they’re looking ahead, and they’re planning ahead before they’ve even shot. Generally speaking, those are the best types of scenarios, because you’re able to be in on the ground floor, and for something that is so fundamentally influential on the final product, to be able to be involved in that conversation and have time for those ideas to gestate and develop, is only gonna help the film.
But that said, too often that call doesn’t come until a movie is already in post, it’s already shot, they’ve already edited the thing with temp music, and then they start looking for a composer. Way too many productions do it that way, and what ends up happening it’s kind of like, “Well, we’re out of time, and we’re out of money, but we really love your stuff, and we’d love for you to come onboard. And, we’ve gotta get it done in about three weeks to hit this schedule deadline.” And it’s just such an unbelievable sort of consequence that you’re going to put the movie into, the circumstances of for something that is so influential on what you actually experience as the final product. So, I’m always encouraging producers and directors and people to get those conversations started early.
On The Ritual, I did have that luxury to be able to read the script, and I was aware of the project before it was even greenlit by way of my relationship with Bruckner. He said, “Hey, I pitched on this. It’s looking like it may happen. I want you to read it, give me some notes. I need some story notes because we’re gonna make some changes in the script.” And so we have conversations on a fundamental story level very early on. So, it was a little bit of both in that case, because I did have that, but the company producing the movie didn’t really make a decision until after they shot. So, they were already in post before they made a decision, and it was a requirement that the entire process be done in the UK, because it’s a UK based film. And just for tax incentive reasons, everything had to be done there. UK musicians, unions, studio, engineers, all the money had to stay in the country.
So I kind of was like, I’m probably gonna be sunk on this because they’re gonna say, “Well, why fool with having to bring somebody in from outside the country with the added cost and hassle of that. Let’s just hire somebody here.” But, I took a couple of meetings and my agent sent them stuff to listen to, and I think with David’s vouch, with the conversations that went well talking about the movie in the abstract when you get together and kind of discuss how you would approach it, it all just created that opportunity. And of course, they were like, “So, it’s not a problem if you have to do this in London, right? Do you know people here and have like a network.” I was like, “Yeah. I do all the time.” I didn’t know a single person. I didn’t know where to even begin.
But I’ve done this, not my first rodeo, you know? I’ve been doing this stuff a long time. So, I just knew that you don’t say no to that question, not if you want the job. So I was like, “Yeah, absolutely.” So I had to hit the ground running. And I had to show up in London with the clock ticking on me and had to source the entire thing. So I had to find arrangers, and copyists, and a studio to work out of, and engineers. And then, who am I gonna use for players? I had zero favor capital. There’s no friend rate or anything like that. You’re just standing out in the rain getting book rate on everything.
So all that said, it was safe to say it’s probably the most challenging experience I’ve had doing a score for anything. Because, I couldn’t rely on anything that I’ve done. All I could rely on was what was in my head. I couldn’t really rely on any other resources around me. All that stuff I had to find. And there were a fewer number of calendar days to create and deliver, like there was a larger number of individual instances of music needed. It needed like 60 something individual music cues, and there were like 60 days to do it or something. So, it was just an absolutely insane sort of kamikaze mission.
And I guess when you find yourself in that situation, one school of thought is you kind of give them what they pay for. Or, you sort of manage their expectations or manage how you approach it in such a way that you don’t kill yourself to actually do that. But I haven’t learned that yet. I only know one way to work, and it’s like full throttle, hell’s bells, as hard as you can. So, I didn’t let that really stop me from trying to make one of the most ambitious scores that I have yet. And so basically I’ve just shaved a couple of years off the end of my life over the course of that eight weeks.
But you know, there are things that come out of that kind of mania of it. Because everybody was going through it. All the guys were getting killed. The editorial, the sound guys, we were all just put through the meat grinder on that schedule. But I think because of that, sometimes it kind of sharpens your focus, and you have to sort of trust your first instincts a lot of times. And you don’t really have a lot of time to sort of dillydally and deliberate over like, “What if I do it like this, or what if I change the key?” You kind of just have to really try to hit the bullseye over and over. So, it requires a lot of focus. You gotta really become entirely absorbed into it. So, that’s what I did.
TCF: With these type of experiences where it’s very challenging or a bit insane if you succeed do you find that more rewarding?
Ben Lovett: That’s a good question. I think so, because you should always kind of be pushing yourself to see what your limits are so that you know where they’re at, and they can inform you in other ways. And so when you kind of go, “Wow, I didn’t know I could do that.” And then you’re like, “I better not tell anyone. I better never tell a producer that I created 65 minutes of original music, modern orchestral music in 60 days,” or whatever, to write, record, edit, mix, produce, deliver, meanwhile taking notes and meeting with people. I should never let anyone know that’s possible.
TCF: Have you ever hit a limit in a negative way, where you’ve reached the end and you can’t do it, or you can’t achieve it, or just not happy with it?
Ben Lovett: You know where I think I run into that is knowing and learning where my limitations, where I hit the wall in specific areas that are required. I’m self-taught. I didn’t grow up … I’m kind of from a really rural part of Georgia. And I kind of grew up in a place where I didn’t really know anyone that played music or there was no music teacher around. I was in high school before I ever met a kid that could play punk rock songs on a guitar. I was like, “Whoa, that’s awesome.” And he was like, “No, you can do it too. You just kind of put your hand like this, and you just kind of do that anywhere.” I was like, “Whoa.”
So, I got a really late start and never had the fundamentals of how to read and write properly. So, I’ve kind of had to pick up and learn a lot of that over the years by a lot of trial and error. And one thing I’ve learned is I can chart things for say orchestral players to a certain point, but then I’m not confident that I can actually put it on the page to communicate to them exactly the way I want it to sound. So, I’ve learned where I need to rely on people with those skillsets that I can say, “Here are the notes. Here is an audio reference of what I’m trying to get it to sound like. Let’s make sure that it’s on the page that they know those notes sound should this way.” Because there’s a million different ways to articulate those notes. If you say, “Play an E and play a G,” but there’s 100 different ways to do that.
So that’s where I kind of really start to fall off in a lifetime or a childhood of proper music education is missing. So I’ve just learned to kind of adapt and to not … I don’t let my ego get in the way of the music being good. I will go and source whatever help is required, because ultimately all that stuff’s just a means to an end. Or a performance, I will play some of the stuff and then there will be pieces where I’m like, “Well, it goes like this, but let’s get a real piano player to actually play this beautifully instead of me kind of clunkily working my way through it.” Because I can play enough to write these parts, but I often don’t need to be the one performing them in order to prove anything to anybody. It’s really just about trying to get something good in the end. All that other stuff’s just kind of links in the chain.
TCF: Right. You have specialists for every role, which is true in almost any business or performance.
Ben Lovett: Absolutely, especially filmmaking. The whole, “It takes a village,” thing is true. It’s not just production. Even in post you need a lot of people with specialized talents to make sure that everything that everybody’s doing is just top-notch.
TCF: When you are composing or writing something, do you sit there and plink away at a keyboard or do you internalize it, visualize, or imagine it throughout the day?
Ben Lovett: Well, I try that. Here’s what I’ve learned in years and years of doing this stuff. I’ve never solved a problem that way. I can hear the things. I’m usually trying to … It’s like you see one of those kind of things that you color in, paint by numbers or something, and the shape of it is there, and you have to … That’s how it kind of feels. I can hear it or I can sense like a shape of it, and I can feel, but you’re kind of feeling around in the dark and you’re trying to fill it in, and you don’t know which one’s supposed purple, and which one’s supposed to be blue, and which one’s supposed to be pink. But you have this instinct and you’re kind of following that. So in that way, it’s in my head, or it’s abstract.
But in trying to figure out, “What does this need?” Or, “What should I do about this?” Even for songwriting, “What is this lyric gonna be?” I have never laid on the couch, twiddled my thumbs or gone for a walk. All that stuff helps, but I’ve never really ever solved or moved forward on a problem in any other way than just sitting there with my hands on the instruments, on the keyboard, on the mouse, whatever it is, just kind of taking the hammer and taking the pin and just kind of tapping away until the wall finally cracks. For me, I’ve never really unraveled it in the abstract. I can only change my tactic in approaching it, but really it’s just a lot of creating accidents for yourself. Just creating different ways to maybe stumble into like, “Oh, yeah, okay. That’s great. That works. That’s what I was trying to get.”