Interview: ‘Manchester By The Sea’ Composer Lesley Barber

 

LESLEY BARBER (KATHERINE HOLLAND, 2015)

One of the most talked about films this Awards Season, one in which has continued to garner much well-deserved praise, is Kenneth Lonergan’s third directorial masterpiece Manchester By The Sea. Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, and rising young star Lucas Hedges (from both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel), the film tells the story of Lee, a Boston handyman (played by Affleck) who is crippled by the sanctity of his own bitter isolation up until he is, ultimately, forced to face those tragedies of the past as well as welcome life-changing obligations following the unexpected death of his older brother. Pressured to move back to what used to be home – a small New England fishing-village – Lee struggles to coexist with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) and teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges).

Since its world premiere at Sundance, followed by a showing at the Toronto International Film Festival, Manchester has gone on to seize a place for itself at the top of the Oscar ticket credited to its emotionally-honest and naturalistic exploration into the, seemingly, bottomless depths of grief, shame, and redemption. This is partly in thanks to long-time screen composer Lesley Barber, one of the most versatile talents in the world of film music, and her unconventional handling of such harrowing themes wistfully translated into the score itself. Barber is well-known for her work in film and theatre, most notably Mansfield Park, Hysterical Blindness, The Moth Diaries, When Night Is Falling, A Price Above Rubies, and the beloved children’s classic of the 90s Little Bear. Her musical contributions to Manchester is now quickly becoming a major contender for Best Original Score in this year’s Awards race, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

We got a chance to talk with Lesley about her collaborations with Lonergan, including the 2000 Oscar-nominated drama You Can Count On Me, her own musical influences, and inspirations for writing the score.

The Young Folks: Can you share a bit about your early beginnings in music?

Lesley Barber: Yeah, so I was fairly self-taught as a kid. And [when it comes to] my family background, there’s a lot of amateur musicians who were familiar with classical music and played piano and violin and sang. And my parents were really into pop music in the ’70s, so that was sort of my early childhood exposure to music. And then I decided to take it a little more seriously in high school. I studied piano and a few other instruments and went to university to study composition and piano and computer music and received a masters degree in music in my early twenties.

TYF: Were there also any early musical influences that had inspired you to get into film composing?

Barber: Well when I started noticing film scores, I was immediately attracted to them. Films like John Barry’s score for Goldfinger, Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Alien, Vangelis’ score for Blade Runner, and then later Angelo Badalamenti score for Mulholland Drive and Carter Burwell’s music. I really also loved Isaac Hayes’ score for Shaft, as well as Zbigniew Preisner ‘s [score for] Three Colors – that one really knocked me out when I was in university.

TYF: You’ve studied with Gustav Ciamaga and Lothar Klein while at the University of Toronto. Is there anything about those early experiences with Gustav and Lothar, or in academia in general, that have most informed your approach to your own work as a film composer?

Barber: I’d say both of those composers, Ciamaga and Klein, loved color. They have a beautiful use of color in their music – as well as tone and feel. So I was drawn to both of them as composers. With Ciamaga, he was one of the pioneers of electronic music and had become a very good friend. We worked a lot with computers and all the early synthesizers that are now coming back we were working with them. We were cutting tape, and doing every kind of computer and synthesizer approach we could, and I was really drawn to that.

TYF: And do you still sort of think digitally when it comes to your own orchestrated compositions? I mean you’re not doing electronica, but do you still sort of think of the process in that way?

Barber: Yeah, actually, I very much enjoy writing hybrid scores – scores where I can do some programming and use electronica and synths and mix it in with an orchestra – mix it in with unusual instrumentation and vocals. So most of my scores have some sort of hybrid quality to them.

TYF: The success of your first film score, When Night is Falling, had attracted the attention of Maurice Sendak’s representation who was, at the time, looking for someone to score Little Bear. You’d also done another animated series with him called Seven Little Monsters around that same time. What prompted you to dive into the world of children’s animation especially at a time where you were also starting to gain recognition as a more serious, dramatic film composer?

Barber: [Laughs] That’s a funny question, yeah. So when I was first sent Little Bear, I was right in the middle of doing a whole bunch of interesting, long-form feature films, and I kind of watched it and was just thinking you know this is a strange thing to do. And then I talked to Maurice Sendak and John Carl, a wonderful producer, who was Maurice Sendak’s partner in all of the Sendak projects. I really enjoyed Maurice. I loved the way he talked about music. I was drawn to what he wanted me to do with the music in the show, which I think is very unusual for a kid’s show. And I found the music quite easy to write in certain ways and thoroughly enjoyable. Each week, I got to work with a quintet of live musicians and then would have a week to write each show – we did 65 shows. It was fun to get into the world of one character, even if it was an animated little bear. [Laughs] It was really, really fun, and I had a little kid at the same time so I felt that it would be a lovely gift for her – for my eldest daughter. So it was a really fun process and it was a nice change from some of the feature work that was mixed in alongside. I was kinda doing both things at once.

TYF: You mentioned how in the creative process for something like Little Bear versus a long-form feature is that you essentially have something to give each week. Is that sort of the best way to summarize the differences between working in those two mediums – [film and TV]?

Barber: With the series work, you can develop some wonderful themes, and you can retool a little bit and see which scenes really develop with the character and the story. You do get this opportunity to enhance and develop your thematic material and your orchestration with each episode, but it is very intense. You’re usually doing, maybe, thirteen or seven at a time. And each week you have to finish at least one show if not two. It’s intense, and you have to enjoy that part of it, which I do, but it’s super fun.

TYF: Well I definitely appreciate it. Little Bear was pretty much the soundtrack to my childhood. [Laughs]

Barber: [Laughs] Yeah I get a few emails every week from people about Little Bear, and email with people who a few of them are now in their twenties who still love the show. Almost like Charlie Brown, you know.

TYF: What’s also great about that score is how it in a way feels very period – sort of like a contemporary take on some piece of Victorian British literature with musical elements reminiscent of some of the themes in Mansfield Park in a way. Which is really nice.

Barber: When I was asked to do Mansfield Park, it took my approach a little bit to Little Bear. With Maurice Sendak, we talked about Mozart and Schubert. But then we didn’t want it to be pastiche. We didn’t want it to be period music. We wanted it to be alive and breathing with the show to find the essence of the characters in a really fresh way. It sort of has some of the touchstones, harmony, and melody of that era but hopefully it takes it into a new place. I did that with Mansfield Park as well. There were other period films coming out at the same time, and a lot of them sort of had more traditional pastiche style. I wanted to sort of take the language and bring something of the now to it – so it would really feel like the issues were contemporary and the essence of what the characters were experiencing was contemporary. I felt like the music could help do that.

TYF: Kenneth Lonergan has one of the most distinctive voices in the American indie scene, and this would mark your second collaboration with him. How did the both of you first meet and begin working together?

Barber: I think what happened was that we had a mutual filmmaking friend who thought we would work really well together, and introduced my music to Kenny. And then Kenny had the script sent to me for You Can Count On Me, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I saw a fine cut of the film and was really drawn to the material. We started talking and ended up collaborating on that film. Then when he was doing this film, he was in touch again about it.

TYF: And has your process of collaboration evolved at all since working on Manchester – between these two films?

Barber: I would say in both experiences, Kenny is a real joy and pleasure to work with. He leaves space so that the composer can develop some ideas and involves the composer early on in the process so that you have the time and space to come up with something new and unique for that film. And sometimes with other films, you’re brought in and told you have a month to do the score, and I think sometimes that’s why we hear a kind of conventional filmmaking scoring style. I think when a director can give you real luxury of time, it just opens up the possibilities.

There can be a traditional sort of narrative scoring style where a piece of music runs alongside specific scenes that’s helped by music in a kind of traditional way. I think with Kenny, you have the opportunity to kind of understand what’s there, what isn’t there, what should be there, as well as look at placement and meaning and figure out how to create recurrent musical themes that will unify the score and blend in and support the meaning of the film and also work through the baroque and classical world, which Kenny also likes to use.

TYF: Speaking of themes, it seems that the heart of this film has a lot to do with the complicated ways people deal with loss – or maybe how people fail to deal with it. What was your approach in trying to translate musically the spoken and unspoken emotions of these characters, while also giving the score that much-needed sense of place?

Barber: You mention this thing about the character Lee, in that he’s experienced the unimaginable yet he can’t disappear. It’s gonna stay with him everyday, and he can’t make it go away. He just has to keep moving, and live with this. There’s a sense of something hanging over his head. At the beginning of the film, you get this sort of feeling that he’s numb or stuck in a way. And so, for the music, I was trying to distill that into something unique and something that would kind of us pull us deeper into that journey of Lee. And it’s very human. There’s an inevitably about it and a gravity about it without being overwhelmingly sad. There’s just an inevitably about it, I think. And so I was trying to create that sense in the music.

TYF: Almost like a silver-lining, film music sort of has that liberty of acting like this omnipresent character that knows everything but is also the guiding light for the story as well.

Barber: Yeah, that’s funny that you say that cause we were trying to go into it with that sort of idea. And we quite often used the score when there isn’t dialogue, and then sort of another voice in the film.

TYF: I also read somewhere in a recent interview with Lonergan about his use of flashbacks in this film. Do these types of scenes, scenes that break away from the natural rhythm and timeline of the plot, cause you to think of the composition or the music differently? 

Barber: Sometimes I would say that in other films, it does. But in this film, we didn’t have a schematic approach, like “this is what we’re going to do…”. It was a real intuitive quality to it. I didn’t really think about it in terms of flashback or present because if we’re in Lee’s mind, it’s all there simultaneously for him. I mean when he’s really present in scenes, like in the bar or the car, and he’s with another character, Kenny creates a sort of ultra naturalism in his films. And so you have the music that would be on the radio or music that would be in the bar, and that also gives power to the score and to the baroque music as well – the music that’s inside the scene. Quite often when the score is there, there isn’t dialogue. Sometimes it is in flashback. There’s something about time [in film] that is slower or faster than real time

TYF: Were there any specific pieces of music or literature that had provided some inspiration for the score?

Barber: Well, Kenny has a really deep knowledge of classical music – and pop music as well for that matter. And I knew there would be some baroque music in there somewhere and that my music would need to blend and support and unify the score as well as the various pieces of music. When I heard the vocal music that he was considering using it in some of the other spots, I didn’t really think about this in a conscious way, but I found myself being attracted to the idea of acapella vocal music and also really early music from New England since, you know, the film takes place in the Massachusetts area. So I was looking at really early 17th Century music that came from like the Puritan immigrants and early Pilgrim colonists. Looking at some of those pieces and the music that would come across with these settlers – who also had, you know, traumatic experiences resettling. So when I started hearing some of that music, it seemed to work well in terms of location and in terms of Lee in a way that would work. They’re creating a new beginning.

TYF: So when you’re putting together the music, how do you generally know how much music is enough? Since we were talking about those silent moments. How do you know when to let those moments take over?

 Barber: Yeah, that’s interesting. We don’t over-score at all in this film. And at the Sundance screening, I remember wondering if we put enough music in, though the response was just so positive to both the film and the score that it then felt pretty right. Kenny and I did go back in and shift some of the music, and again I wondered if there was enough music in some places. I felt that Kenny had been a wonderful director to work with in that sense. He really has a sense of where things should go, where they shouldn’t go, and we worked together on that. I really respect his choices.

TYF: You’re speaking of Sundance and some of these other festivals, how has your overall experience been at these sorts of big events? Getting much praise and recognition this film definitely deserves at this point.

Barber: The response has been just incredibly positive, and it was a fabulous ride. It’s been really a lot of fun to be at the premieres and to experience the reception. There’s a positive reception [at these festivals], which is great.

TYF: Do you feel just in this industry, there any unique challenges or hurdles – or even great moments of satisfaction – you’ve encountered in the business as a film composer?

Barber: I mean every score has its own challenge. You have to real sense of flexibility to really listen and want to get inside a script – which I thoroughly enjoy that. Finding a sense of what the director is trying to say in a film. I do think, in some ways, it’s the extreme sport of music. It takes a lot of time, just cause of the amount of pieces that need to fall in place in a very short amount of time and the kind of creative world we’re thrown into in each project. So, yeah, I love it completely. I love writing under pressure. It works well for me.

TYF: Is it the pressure that keeps you in that space to create, or simply that it just keeps you focused?

Barber: The pressure is just there. And when you’re writing music, and getting inside a film, it sort of goes away when you’re actually doing the work. After the fact, I’ll think “wow, that was interesting getting everything to land in that way”. But while you’re working on it, you just get inside your creative flow and it’s rewarding.

TYF: What are some of the other things that keep you busy now that you’ve finished Manchester By The Sea?

Barber: Well, I’ve been working on other films as well. Since January I would be working on my third film, I guess, since then. I’ve been working on those projects alongside, you know, traveling, hanging out…listening to music – listening to the new Solange.

TYF: I think that I saw that you’ve worked on some additional documentaries recently. What’s sort of that process like, working in non-fiction?

Barber: I’ve just been working in documentaries for the last few years, and they’re all really fantastic docs. There’s a little bit of a creative process when you’re into the project. The documentary filmmakers aren’t following a script. They’re compiling a vision of the story in the best way they can, and they can keep each part of the story-line open until they finish. So there’s a lot of shifts with the footage and sequencing of scenes. And so for a composer, you don’t have a script that you can follow along with. So it involves a lot of keeping in touch with the material as it’s evolving. Cause it can shift quite dramatically right up until the end.

TYF: In what way, have you observed?

Barber: Well, with How To Change The World, and really just all the docs I’ve worked on, huge sections of the film will get taken out and then put back in and shifted around. It’s all because you’re coming in while they’re still working on the documentary. So it’s inevitable, and really positive work. But it’s a little bit different because they’re not confined by a shot list or script. More with a feature film, with a story, you have a stronger sense that there’s a narrative arc that’s already been established. With the docs, it sort of reveals itself a little bit more as the process unfolds. And it’s fascinating to see that process, and work with it. But it can be challenging. Some of the scenes can shift because they decided the documentary needs to [change] emphasis on various other people in those stories. So you’re music’s gonna shift, and your score’s gonna shift too – quite dramatically at times.

TYF: Do you ever find yourself wanting to come out with something solo as well?

Barber: That definitely would be really fun. I love collaborating and I don’t get to do it that much. In that I’m composing for scores for films a lot these days but there are artists that I’ve collaborated with, and I would like to do more of that. I enjoy programming, so it would be fun to collaborate with someone from the R&B world, or some other different musical world, and bring some cinematic writing to that too.

‘Manchester By The Sea’ will be in US theaters on November 18th and in Canada on November 25th.

 

Jennifer Baugh is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and contributor for The Young Folks. She also writes and draws her own comics and other wonky illustrations over at her personal blog http://jenniferbaugh.tumblr.com.