Fitting music to the Puzzle

Dustin O'Halloran talks about his latest score.

by Amber Wilkinson

Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle. Dustin O'Halloran: 'The film’s never about being big, it’s about what’s happening inside her and her journey'
Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle. Dustin O'Halloran: 'The film’s never about being big, it’s about what’s happening inside her and her journey' Photo: Chris Norr

Marc Turtletaub's English-language adaptation of Natalia Smirnoff's Puzzle - co-written by Oren Moverman - tells the story of under-appreciated mum Agnes (Kelly Macdonald), whose life revolves around her husband Louie (David Denman) and her two sons Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams), who are on the brink of flying the nest. When Agnes receives a jigsaw for her birthday, it opens a surprising new avenue in her life that leads her to meet Robert (Irrfan Khan), an avid competitive puzzler who triggers a reassessment of her situation.

Turtletaub's film is a subtle character study that allows Agnes to retain her shyness while also evolving her outlook and it is matched by a gently moving, lyrical score from Dustin O'Halloran. We caught up with the Oscar-nominated composer - who also works on his own solo music and alongside Adam Wiltzie as part of A Winged Victory For The Sullen - to chat about scoring the film.

At the premiere last night, the director said that he had originally used your music as a temp track for the film before you came on board. Were you surprised to discover that?

It’s happened before with films that I’ve worked on and sometimes that’s how they find me because they have the temp in there and realise that I would be the right voice for the film.

How is that, when you come to it and it has a temp of your own stuff on it – does it muddy things up at all?

Composer Dustin O'Halloran
Composer Dustin O'Halloran Photo: dustinohalloran.com
Well, like all temp music, you have to try to pull the filmmakers away from it and I definitely did something that was very different from what was in the temp. It’s always a process to find a process for that particular film and to give it it’s own identity. We did the score in a very short amount of time – I did the whole thing in about a month, which was a very quick turnaround. But the music is used, I think, in the right way in the film. There’s not too much music and there was enough time to get it done. You always have to get in there because after they’ve been living with temp music for a long time, they get used to it, even if it’s not right. You have to take time to get them used to a new path.

The music features a lilting piano – was that an attempt to match the character, or what led you to that?

The film is very restrained in a lot of ways. Things happen, but it’s very much internal and I think that you always have to choose the instruments that can be dynamic enough to tell kind type of a story. Piano is great because it’s so diverse and you can do a lot with it. It just felt that using a smaller chamber with cello, harp and woodwinds in a quartet, kept it more internal. The film’s never about being big, it’s about what’s happening inside her and her journey.

Do you like working with small ensemble groups?

I prefer to work with small ensembles because I like working with a lot of close mic techniques and recording in a way that gives a lot of texture to the recording, which I think adds a lot of character to the score as well. When you record with an orchestra, there’s more of an homogenous sound and I think that there’s people that do it great but I definitely like smaller groups.

A lot of composers tend to work with the same people again and again as they build up a dynamic – do you do that?

Definitely. I recorded this score in Brussels with an ensemble called the Echo Collective. I’ve worked with them for years so we have a lot of communication that’s already understood and that’s important, especially with small ensembles, because every voice is really heard and has a lot of character.

What drove you to start scoring for films?

It kind of came to me. It was something I was always interested in it when I was releasing some of my own music. The first film I worked on was Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. She asked me to write a couple of pieces for her film.

That’s a big film to start with – higher than most people.

It was a really nice entry and after that, I was able to score some films. It’s always a learning process because every film is so different. The dynamics of every director are so different. But I’ve always been releasing my own music and touring on the way, so I do both and I like to do both. I think it’s important to stay vital to the film world and to stay creative to my own self.

When you’re scoring for a film, do you feel that it’s a bit of a negotiation with a director because they have something in their head, even if they’re not particularly musical?

I think a filmmaker always has an idea of how their film is but I would be surprised if one has ever come out how they thought because you’re dealing with a lot of personalities and people who are bringing their own elements to the film – the actors, the editor, the musicians and composer. I think the best directors know when to let things happen and I think they have to let themselves be a bit surprised. That can be a process because if they have something in their head that doesn’t exist and you’re trying to search for that, it can be complicated.

Was the vocal at the end your composition as well?

Dustin O'Halloran: 'Kelly’s performance is amazing and nuanced and I think it’s going to resonate with a lot of women'
Dustin O'Halloran: 'Kelly’s performance is amazing and nuanced and I think it’s going to resonate with a lot of women' Photo: Courtesy of EIFF
She’s a Norwegian singer named Ane Brun. She lives in Stockholm and we wrote the song together. It’s really nice because that piece of music exists in the film in different scenes.

Yes, it’s like a reprise with the main character finding her voice.

It was nice that we were able to integrate a song in that way. It isn’t just a song that drops at the end, it’s a part of the film and lets it resonate more.

Was the premiere the first time you’d seen it on the big screen?

Yes. I thought the audience was great and really appreciated it. I think the film is really timely – it’s a quiet film in some ways, it’s subtle, but I think it has a really strong message. Kelly’s performance is amazing and nuanced and I think it’s going to resonate with a lot of women.

What else are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a new record for myself and probably another series of Transparent, which I’ve been working on for four seasons.

When you’re coming back to something like a series that you’re already familiar with, how does that differ from scoring a film?

This last season, we changed all of the music, so it was sort of like starting from scratch. Jill, the director, decided to take a new direction so we kind of started from the beginning, so I don’t know what the new season will be like, actually. For me it was the most fun season we got to work on because we got to do some experimental stuff.

Puzzle will open Edinburgh International Film Festival and be distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. No release date has yet been set on either side of the Atlantic.

For more about O'Halloran's work, visit his official site

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