On Sunday, as part of the Denver Film Festival, Denver-based band DeVotchKa will perform the music they've composed for the experimental Soviet film, Man With A Movie Camera. It's not the first film the band has scored. Others include Little Miss Sunshine, Crazy Stupid Love and Paddington.
Nick Urata, the front-man of DeVotchKa, joined KUNC's Colorado Edition to talk about his experience scoring films.
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Erin O'Toole: What’s different about writing music for DeVotchKa, versus writing music for a film?
Nick Urata: There are a lot of similarities, of course, but I think the big difference is when you're writing songs for your band and yourself, you're going from your bag of tricks and your narrative on life. And when you are presented with a film to score, you know you have a lot more moving parts — such as the story, the emotions of the scene, the performance of the actors. And the biggest factor is the vision of the director, so you're not exactly left to your own devices. There are forces pushing you and pulling you in different directions when you're scoring a film that you're not always in control of.
Do you enjoy having those, sort of, constraints on your creative process?
I think the most positive thing about it is it pushes you out of your comfort zone and into areas of music that you may have never explored before. Sometimes I have the experience where I look back and I'm like "Wow, I can't believe – did I write that?"
Walk us through the basics of your process. Do you watch it in full before you score it, or does it come in little bits of footage?
Sometimes. Usually they send you the script first, to sort of get your creative wheels turning. Then, if you're lucky, you get to see a rough assembly, because we're usually the last people that are brought on. Then you get like a big rough cut of the film, so you can see the overall story arc. Then it's off to the races. And as they're cutting the film down, you're scoring the various scenes.
This weekend, as part of the Denver Film Fest, you’re scoring an experimental Soviet film that was made in 1929. How did you come to work on this project?
It first came to us through the San Francisco Film Festival. They commissioned us to do a live score – but originally, they were just, "Pick whatever film you want – it's up to you!" Which at first I thought, "Oh, awesome," but then when you're left with that task, it's kind of daunting, because there's so many.
After a lot of trial and error, this one emerged as the most perfect one for us, because we were sort of having trouble with – there are so many beautiful, classic silent films that tell a narrative story. But we were having trouble with the pacing and the – they call them the inter-titles, where they show the dialogue, and they give you, like, 12 seconds to read it. And we just couldn't get around that barrier.
And then we found this amazing film… it has a little bit of an arc, because it's basically a day in the life of a person in 1929 – I believe it was mostly filmed in Russia, and some in Ukraine. But I mean, after spending so much time with it, you realize that it's basically timeless, and it's a beautiful snapshot of humanity. And that's what made it such an attractive piece for us to score.
How do you think about the role of different instruments in film scores?
It's always dependent on what's on the screen. With this one, the great thing is there's no dialogue to work around, which is really one of the biggest challenges in film scoring – working with your actors' performance and dialogue. You have to keep the registers of certain instruments in mind. It's one of the reasons why the piano has worked so well since the inception of film, because of course it's got a wide range and it just seems to sit beautifully with the human voice. All scores start with the piano and then branch out to different voices.
It's nice to know you can break out all the instruments with a silent film and nothing will clash with any dialogue…
Yeah. That's the great thing. And at first we were thinking maybe we should keep it time-sensitive, and not bring any modern instruments. And then we were finding that, actually, modern sounds fit really great with this film, and I think it kind of enhances the main takeaway that we got from this film – is that it's timeless.
You see yourself on the screen, you see your friends on the screen, you see your family on the screen. And really, the devastating part about it that keeps you engaged emotionally, is that you start to realize is that all these people on the screen that are so alive and bigger than life, and so beautifully shot, are all gone now. And I think that's probably the most powerful thing about this entire piece.
DeVotchKa will perform their live score during the screening of Man With A Movie Camera on Sunday, November 3, at 8:30 PM at the Denver Museum of Nature And Science. You can find more information here.
This conversation is part of KUNC's Colorado Edition for Oct. 31. Listen to the full episode here.