Q&A with “Loving” Composer David Wingo

In an unprecedented season of cultural division that’s seemed to have made its way towards the center of American socio-politics, watching Loving can feel like a momentary antidote for some of our modern-day woes. Nichols’ commitment to respectful authenticity and restraint, focusing more on the humdrum daily lives of Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) in the midst of their forced exile from their home in Caroline County, Virginia, is a refreshing alternative to the usual degree of exaggerated melodrama that could be found in your more typical historical biopic. Rather than assembling oneself a political soapbox, Nichols instead chooses to pursue the framework of your more classic love story in his Oscar-worthy dramatization of Mildred and Richard Loving’s once forbidden, unconditional love.

Loving, having recently received Golden Globe nominations for both the performances of Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, lays bare the intimate lives of the reserved albeit strong-willed, interracial couple who’d unintentionally changed the discourse of constitutional law at a time of amoral anti-miscegenation policies by simply falling in love, getting married, and having a few kids. It’s a quiet and thoughtfully-orchestrated nod to Nancy Buirski’s beautiful 2011 documentary The Loving Story, brought to life by David Wingo’s heart-wrenching score. The composer has created soundtracks for Nichols’ past three films (Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special), and is well-known for his score work with director David Gordon Green – including the wonderfully heart-warming Prince Avalanche, George Washington, Joe, and the Jonah Hil-starring 2011 comedy The Sitter. Though outside of scoring films, Wingo has also proven to be a more-than-capable singer-songwriter as the front-man of his former, critically-successful band Ola Podrida.

We talked to Wingo about his experiences working with Jeff Nichols, the musical themes that run through Loving, and the time he toured as a bassist for Explosions in the Sky.

TYF: This is the second Jeff Nichols film you’ve contributed music for this year. Midnight Special, also starring Joel Edgerton and Michael Shannon, was released just this past March. Given there was a bit of a reprieve between those two projects, was there anything you watched or listened to before, or even while, creating the score that helped you get a little more acquainted with the landscape of a place like 1960s Virginia?

David Wingo: Not besides the documentary, The Loving Story. For Jeff, it was a character-based love story first and foremost. It wasn’t as much about basing it in time and place as say Mud. That score was very regional, and we sort of tried to give it the rustic vibe of rural Arkansas, Mississippi. Whereas with [Loving], Jeff really wanted to make it more of a universal love story that you could kind of relate to outside the circumstances. He had source cues in there. These kind of obscure, soul songs he and the music supervisor had found. So that helped to ground it in the time and place, for sure. But when it came to the score, he really just wanted it to, mostly, reflect [Richard and Mildred’s] emotional and psychological stakes.

TYF: You’ve worked on so many of Jeff’s film projects over the years. In what ways have you both helped to shape or sharpen each other’s artistic sensibilities, do you think?

Wingo: While I can’t speak for whether I’ve done that for him, in my own music as well as in my film scores I try to take a minimal approach when I can. Though that’s not always the first impulse. Just as a musician, sometimes you get more ideas and you wanna keep fleshing things out. Even though so much of the music that I’ve listened to and the film scores that I really appreciate most can sometimes be just so spare and minimal, it’s difficult for me sometimes to let myself do that. So Jeff has really honed that in me. That was the main learning curve that we had: me figuring out how powerful that can be when paired with his dialogue and the way he directs actors. He’s kind of going for the less is more approach most of the time. That’s sort of the consistent thing running through his films, in my opinion. Just letting the emotion be subtle and grow more powerful – like a slow-burn effect.

With Take Shelter, we were sort of on the same page the whole time. Mud was really a learning process of keeping things down, and it took a while for me to get it. It was the most difficult experience I’ve had scoring something for the first part of it because I just felt like I wasn’t getting it, and it was finally just a realization of how spare and minimal he really wanted things and how much that worked with picture.

TYF: Was it at first a struggle to hold the reins and allow the quiet moments to speak for themselves on Loving then?

Wingo: It really wasn’t. I think from working together on these three previous films, and really honing it on Midnight Special…which was a really a heart-wrenching movie. Michael Shannon’s character was always keeping it all boiling under. The music really just had to reflect that and never go too full on with it. We then took those lessons and applied them to Loving.

Since I’ve been working with Jeff and David Gordon Green so consistently, I’m hearing about these films well before they shoot them. So we’ve already discussed what the score should be like, what the movie would be like. We watched the documentary. And having honed our sort of communication, and my ability to translate what I think is [Jeff’s] vision through my music, Loving was, I think, the smoothest experience of not only working with Jeff but prolly smoothest experience I’ve ever had scoring. It just all came pretty natural and quickly for me.

TYF: Just in thematic terms, the film is really as much a classic, forbidden love story as it is about our longing to feel settled – whether in terms of romance or a literal physical sense of place. Social exile and [what it means to feel at] home being the operative through-line. There’s that scene in the trailer where Richard expresses his desire to build Mildred a home on a plot of land in the farm fields of their hometown in Virginia. What sort of creative decisions did you make when it came to translating these feelings and themes into the score?

Wingo: We had pretty much two distinct worlds in our opinion, musically. One was Richard and Mildred’s love theme and then the inverse to that, which was the melancholy, lost/having-to-leave-home theme. And they were both very classical, traditional, and orchestral score strings [paired] with brass and piano. We knew that we wanted there to be no contemporary elements, and no regional elements either. You know, trying to make a sort of classic love story by giving it the traditional, orchestral score treatment. The melancholy of the having-to-leave-home version is a relative minor to the major scale of the love theme. So they’re kind of the ying-yang of each other.

But the other world is, what we would call, the anxiety themes: when they’re being arrested, when Richard thinks he’s being chased, some of those elements come in when they’re driving back under the cover of night. The running anxiety theme, which is what we called it, had no orchestral elements. It was sample-based and sound designing and a lot of drones, scrapes and just a foreign feeling of feeling just so not of that world, not of their world. And that was the intention was just [incorporating] things that just feels so foreign – just that sense of displacement in the music. We really wanted that to reflect Richard’s [psyche], cause a lot of that when he’s driving, and he thinks he’s being chased, a lot of that is about reflecting his attempts to hold together his home while these other elements outside of his control are eating at him 24 hours a day. So we just wanted that music to really feel like it didn’t belong in the same world as [the other themes] because of those outside forces.

TYF: In-between scoring movies, you’ve also toured and made music with the band Ola Podrida. What’s the meaning behind the name?

Wingo:  It’s an inside joke to maybe fifty people. I started the band with a friend of mine from Richardson, Texas who went to the same high school as me and we wanted to name the band after something from our childhood. There was this crafts mall called Olla Podrida, which is the name of a Spanish stew. They named the crafts mall that, I guess, because it has a lot of different kinds of stuff in it. But we were all being kind of gringo about it and called ourselves ‘Ola Podrida’. We didn’t know you were supposed to say ‘Olla Podrida’. However, A.) it just sounded nice. It was kind of a nice sounding name and B.) it brought up nostalgia for us. it became kind of this inside joke of us calling it the wrong thing.

TYF: Do you find it a struggle at times balancing between those two very different spaces in music? Scoring films and making records.

Wingo: I didn’t until I did, and then I stopped doing the band. We haven’t played a show in three years, and I haven’t really been writing songs much at all because my film work just got so busy. I had to take out time to go on tours, and the tours were just sort of diminishing returns. I’m getting older, and I felt like it ran its natural course. I was getting more offers for projects, and it just sort of stopped making sense. So I stopped it.

I certainly wanna make more records. I definitely will. And I’m sure when I do I’ll wanna get together with people to play a show here and there. But I don’t foresee having a touring band anymore. I think my interests have kind of moved on to other things.

TYF: Is it your feeling that having to consistently tackle opposing tones and genres in your work as a composer is the thing that puts you in that mental framework of wanting to pursue more challenging, more diverse sounds with each new project outside of film?  

Wingo: I think probably so. I certainly am more of that mind now than I used to be. I would assume that some of the source of that comes from doing something different every time. That’s why I don’t wanna do another Ola Podrida record again. I have other musical interests and goals. So it’s like, why not pursue everything that I wanna do. And with Ghosts Go Blind, I felt like it was a different approach than before, since I had a band that played on the record with me. I wrote the songs – just sort of purposefully bare-bones. It wasn’t as sophisticated from a compositional standpoint of writing songs. I left a lot of room because I knew I was gonna have the band come up with their own parts and expand the songs in different places. Also, that they would take a different approach to some of the songs, which ended up really kind of upbeat and fast – while starting off really slow and brooding. I wanted to be able to let there be some spontaneity to them.

The main reason why I’d done that was from just working by myself on film scores so much. I didn’t wanna just make another record where I had all the parts and would have my favorite, talented band members just play the parts I wrote. I’d been doing that. I wanted to actually, truly collaborate. So it was a lot of fun on [Ghosts Go Blind], for sure.

TYF: Of all the films and albums you’ve produced over the years, do you feel at this point you’ve arrived at any one specific style? Those early Ola Podrida records, and even some of your earlier film scores, are pretty Americana though you seemed to have progressed past that sound a bit.

Wingo: Yeah, and certainly All the Real Girls and Mud do sort of have that vibe. That’s kind of how I came up playing music. What got me into writing music were artists like Neil Young and the like. So if I have a go-to, like bread-and-butter, it would probably be that. Though I’m also not interested in that anymore. It’s not what I’m gravitating towards. I’m finding it much more fulfilling working on orchestral music now.

TYF: So that could be something to maybe look out for? Something evoking, or at least incorporating, some sweeping, orchestral work.

Wingo: I would like to, absolutely. That’s what I have not done yet. It’s the itch I feel I have to scratch at some point. Some of my favorite records ever are like Zombies, early Belle and Sebastian, The Left Banke…you know, chamber, orchestral pop kind of stuff. I would love to do that. I just gotta write the songs first.

TYF: Looking back on your bio a bit, you actually got into film composition really by just doing. You weren’t necessarily intending to go in this route at least initially. You were just sort of creating these very cinematic, instrumental sounds at somewhat of an early age – [back in college]. What were you listening to during those early years that, you think, led you to scoring movies?

Wingo: Well, if I hadn’t grown up with and been best friends with David Gordon Green, there’s no way that would’ve ever happened. It wasn’t a goal of mine. Though what happened was I had gotten a four-track…all I had was like a keyboard and a guitar, and I was listening to some kind of like obscure New Zealand band where the guitarist was doing this sort of drone-y, home-recording music style stuff sort of like Roy Montgomery – who’s a New Zealand guy. [I also listened to] some kraut-rock and stuff that was in that vein. Labradford was a band I listened to a lot. Just the brooding guitar, kind of like ambient, affected guitars, home-recording kind of low-fi, guitar-based music.

I didn’t really have any grand plans with it. I was just in college, and I didn’t have a band going on. It was just sort of what I was doing for fun. So with David [Gordon Green], being my best friend, I would send him my four-track tapes just for him to listen to, and he ended up putting some of that to his student film that ended up being the inspiration for George Washington.

TYF: Prince Avalanche, David’s 2014 film, was a score you collaborated on with Explosions in the Sky. You also toured with them a bit after that – which is pretty amazing. What was that experience like?

Wingo: That was the best. That was the last bit of touring I did, after I had decided that I wasn’t going to do Ola Podrida anymore. They needed a bassist temporarily cause they’re bassist couldn’t do it for a while. They’re all friends of mine, including Carlos [Torres] who’s their bassist. He doesn’t play on the records. They brought him in once they started needed another [touring] bassist. They all grew up with him in Midland, and they just needed another member to play live. So when they were kind of done with their touring cycle, he went back to work and couldn’t do these couple of tours to Asia and then another one with Nine Inch Nails. I wasn’t working at the time, so I got very lucky that they asked me to do it. I was kind of finished touring with Ola Podrida. Sort of doing the van tours, you know, night after night with very little people showing up. So it was kind of a nice little gift to be able to end my touring live by touring on a bus with Explosions in the Sky – going to Asia, opening for Nine Inch Nails, playing for thousands of people. It was pretty crazy. It was a big change from my other touring life.

TYF: And it’s so fitting since you guys do share sort of that same music sensibility.

Wingo: Yeah, same age. Outside of Chris, their drummer, being all from Texas. All growing up with the same interest in music and film. They’re my main group of friends here in Austin.

But I was a huge fan before I ever met them. So it was really crazy to get to play some of those songs from Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place, which was the record my ex-wife and I would, like, listen to whenever we’d go on road trips – like when we first met and stuff. I have a lot of memories and feelings attached to those songs, so then ten years later…to be playing them live is such a trip.

TYF: Was Prince Avalanche your first introduction to them, or did you know each other before that project?

Wingo: No, we met years ago. David’s really good friends with them also, so there was always this idea of when we could all work together on something. David put Prince Avalanche together really quickly – like really quickly. Like he had gotten the idea, and a couple months later they were shooting. There wasn’t any budget for it, and we both had time off for other stuff, so we were like, “This isn’t gonna be a money gig at all. But here’s a chance for us to finally do something fun”. It was just like doing a cool art project with our friends. It was a really great experience.

TYF: Yeah, that film is probably among my favorites of [David Gordon Green’s]. A major part of its charm, I think, is that you get the sense it was built off a solid labor-of-love. That everybody was just generally there and in the moment while making it.

Wingo: Ah, I love that. I think it’s my favorite of David’s movies, and it might be my favorite movie I’ve worked on. I love it so much.

TYF: And so what films are you working on these days? 

Wingo: I’m working on two things right now. A movie called State Like Sleep. It’s by a first time feature director, Meredith Danluck. She’s really great. She’s done some work with Vice throughout the years. It’s sort of a Euro-art house, noir kind of a deal. Michael Shannon and Katherine Waterston are in it. I’m doing [the music] with Jeff McIlwain, who is an electronic musician I’ve worked with on several of David’s movies. I’ve been really excited about the music we’ve gotten a mixer for. It’s different from some of the stuff I’ve done before. It’s a little more psychedelic and strange and really cool.

Also, just getting started on a movie called Brigsby Bear which Kyle Mooney, from SNL, wrote.

TYF: Oh, nice!

Wingo: Yeah, I’ll be very busy through the holidays. It’s really high-concept, and a great script. The cuts are coming together great. It’s exciting.

Be sure to check out Loving, which is now playing in select theaters.

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.