Composing An Award Winning Film Score - An Interview with Dana Lund on The Dark Horse

   Imagining the life of a film composer conjures images of solitude - an isolated individual playing the same motifs with arduous repetition, making minuscule tweaks to harmonies they hear repeatedly hundreds of times in a row. Whilst dozens of bodies intermingle every day on a film's set during production, the routine of a composer, working in seclusion, seems detached and withdrawn.

   Yet, I wonder, how must it feel to experience the process in which a few notes gently pressed behind closed doors blossom into a full, swelling movie score? What must it be like to witness the sounds one has spent months cultivating alone, radiating into a vast auditorium full of individuals as they soak up the electric shadows of the big-screen and hear amplified versions of one's compositions washing over them? How can it feel when the intensely private becomes public in this way?

   I asked Dana Lund, the winner of a New Zealand Film Award in the Best Score category (for her work on The Dark Horse), to describe to me the sensations that come with sharing one's labour and one's soul on such a grand scale.

   "I saw the premiere in Auckland and the opening scene had my piano piece in it - The Dark Horse Opening piano piece - and I felt my heart was going to jump out of my chest," the composer recalled.

   "It was something that was so intimate to me, something so personal that I had been working on for so long and heard over and over... and then suddenly it was being blasted on the speakers, and shown to the images, in front of over two thousand people." Lund, in expressing the extreme emotions found within such a situation, further reminisces: "I suddenly felt quite panicky [but] it was also really exciting because I felt confident enough that people would respond well to it.... it was quite intimidating."

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   Indeed, whilst it may be hard for us to truly empathise with such a powerful sensation, it is not difficult at all to understand the composer's confidence in her score. Lund's work on the New Zealand movie The Dark Horse, a soundtrack comprised of contemplative piano-led compositions, represents a serene joy to listen to and one which challenges our notions on what to expect from genre cinema music.

   Directed by James Napier Robertson, The Dark Horse is, in many respects, the ultimate underdog tale - a brilliant but troubled chess player, Genesis Potini (played with incredible charisma by Cliff Curtis), uses his knowledge of the game to help improve the lives of disadvantaged children in his neighbourhood. The wisdom he hopes to depart to them, often, and particularly when shouting "Be crazy! Burn the school down!", can easily, and with understatement, be classified as unconventional. Yet, it is his advice which he hopes will keep the youngsters away from untoward influences and provide them with sound grounding in life.

   For anyone who has ever seen Rocky, or any of the many inspirational underdog stories Sylvester Stallone's movie inspired, the assumption would be that Lund's work for this tale of triumph-in-the-face-of-adversity would be full of the types of sonic blasts and bombastic fanfares which populate these features. This, however, could not be further from the truth.

   When listening to The Dark Horse, what we are presented with, instead, is a soundtrack full of gentle and austere compositions aiming to eke out as much emotion as possible with the fewest number of notes. Mutterings, for example, features a sustained drone bass over which tender, lilting harmonies develop slowly and gracefully over the top.

   I asked what the thought process was behind shying away from the more obvious, albeit perhaps cliched, approach to writing a soundtrack and embracing such an ascetic style.

    "I think that something that I don't like about some scores," Lund notes "is that they're quite distracting from the story or the images." Anybody who has recently experienced the percussive assault which soundtracks Batman v Superman must surely nod their (sore) heads in agreement with this statement. Lund, in explaining her thoughts, continues her list: "Or they're a bit too persuasive in telling the audience how they should be feeling or kind of giving away what's going to happen. For example, if you hear something very ominous in the score then you think 'okay that's the bad guy'... I find that a little bit boring. So, I find a score that's a little bit more subtle that blends in with the story and the images, I find that can make it a good score."

   It would seem that The Dark Horse's director, James Napier Robertson, shares this preference for film scores too. As I asked Lund to describe the process of her collaboration with the director, and how he described the sounds he was looking for in her work, the composer remembers: "He would describe the tone or the mood that he was going for and he would sometimes give me examples of other music or even other films that he liked the soundtrack for." Occasionally, to communicate the sounds he sought, the filmmaker would use single words as a starting point for Lund to create around. "I think he used 'sombre' and he also just said he wanted it to be very sparse because sometimes as a pianist I'd want to make [the compositions] a little bit busier. I was used to writing piano pieces on their own but this time I had to just tone them back - he did use the word 'sparse' quite a lot."

   Interestingly, too, the circular nature of the film's influence on the music, and the music's influence on the film, becomes clear.

   "We had met in LA - I was studying in LA - and he was just starting to work on The Dark Horse" Lund recalls of her initial interactions with Robertson. "He was just starting the first draft of the script and he told me about the project. I thought it sounded really fascinating and when he finished the first draft he had sent it through to me just to read - as a friend and to give my input - and I absolutely loved it. For the second draft he'd asked me for a CD of my music and he later told me he would write to my music quite a lot; [he] really liked the tone and the mood that it evoked and said it helped him write the script. And then once they got funding he asked me to score the film. I didn't have to audition or anything!"

  The relationship, and mutual understanding, was something Lund enthused over when looking back on the collaboration.

   "I think that with James, he gave me quite a bit of freedom. Especially at the beginning he just pretty much said 'just go for it, create whatever you want and then we'll take it from there'." I imagine that, for composers, there can't be many more satisfactory words to hear from a filmmaker they're working with. The process, however, evolved throughout the course of the project as the movie began to take shape.
   "So the first piece I wrote for the film was the Maui piece , the piano piece, and that ended up being used which was pretty lucky... but there quite a few others after that that didn't make the cut, that weren't quite accurate for what [Robertson] was looking for," Lund remembers.

   "I think the collaboration process was at first very free, I had a lot of freedom to do what I wanted but then, as time went on, it became more and more specific. [Robertson] started realising what he wanted, and then we kind of narrowed it down, and so forth." Yet, these restrictions were not at all negative. "I really enjoyed the collaboration and I think it really motivated me," the composer clarifies. "I was really productive during that period. It was a lot of fun."

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   So, having been told to "just go for it", I was intrigued to know what this entailed - how exactly does a composer conjure and cultivate their work?

   "Mostly," Lund tells me, "I always turn to the piano. For The Dark Horse I learned to play the cello - so a lot of pieces for that score I just sat down with a cello and experimented, and came up with stuff that way. And right now I'm learning to play the viola so I'm experimenting with that as well. [But] probably the piano is my first place that I always go to when trying to write a song."

    Whilst, most conventionally, film composers will craft their music to pre-existing scenes - a process known as "writing to picture" - I wondered if, like Hanan Townshend , Lund also eschewed this approach?

   "I actually did write quite a lot of the music before I saw any of the footage. It was kind of a combination of writing some of the music beforehand and then some of the music after I saw the scenes."

   How, I ask, do the two approaches alter the manner in which a musician composes?

   "I think when you're not writing to picture you have more freedom. Whereas when you have the picture, you can sometimes feel like 'oh, that might not work... that's probably not going to work'... you almost feel like a bit more of a perfectionist with it." I further asked what the benefits of not writing to picture may be. "I would say that you're able to experiment more freely," the pianist informed me. "I actually really enjoyed knowing what the scene was about... not even seeing the picture, and then experimenting and not feeling restricted."

   I further wondered if composing to picture would alter the tempo of a composition or, to reverse the equation, if editing the music would impact the rhythm of a movie. Lund replies with an earnest proclamation: "I'm not really sure actually - I'd have to ask the editor!"

   The collaboration between Lund and Robertson is clearly a successful one - reaping, as it has, an array of awards and widespread critical acclaim too. As such, its not a surprise to find that this was not a one off.

   "I am working on James's next film actually," Lund replies when I ask her what the future holds. I pry as to whether she can disclose any details at this point. "It's pretty early stages [but] its going to be a World War Two drama based on Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony. I'm kind of studying the score at the moment and picking out exerts and recording them on the piano and those will be used; they're intended to be used on the score but it's still early stages."

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   Whilst the future sounds incredibly exciting, I was eager to learn where Lund's journey had begun and what brought her to this point. After discussing the virtues of the scores for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Social Network and Animal Kingdom ("you kind of didn't realise there was music - it would gradually creep in" Lund marveled), I asked if there was one soundtrack which inspired her when she was younger, which made her think "I can do this".

   "I started writing when I was about six years old," Lund informs me. "I started writing piano pieces - they were very simple mind you. But I did start composing at at a really young age and really loved writing music."

   "When I was about eleven years old or so, the film The Piano came out, and the score was by Michael Nyman - I just loved that score. We had the soundtrack in my house and I got my parents to get me the piano sheet music and I started learning the music. I thought one day I'd like to write music like this and have it played in a film. I'd say that was a score that really resonated with me growing up."

   I imagine, once more, what it must be like having one's compositions used in a movie and played in front of a large crowd and how thrilling that must be. I recall, too, the glee and the nerves in Lund's voice as she remembers her experiences of this and how her young dreams of having her music featured in a film came true. Finally I think maybe one day I'll conduct an interview in which the musician won't evoke Michael Nyman as an inspiration but will, instead, hope to have their compositions featured in a movie due to the soft, sweet score of The Dark Horse as written by Dana Lund.


   I'd like to take this point to offer my gratitude towards Dana Lund for volunteering her time for the interview, for her perspectives and for graciously persevering with this writer's shoddy internet connection and a flu which probably made most of my questions unintelligible.

   The Dark Horse opens in selected theaters in New York and LA from Friday April 1st - more information about the film can be found here . You can find out more about Dana Lund, and her work, over on her website:

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