Piers Burbrook de Vere: Musical Monsters

January 31, 2019
Fresh off its successful premiere at Sundance, we spoke with the composer of Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters, who reckons the film is like nothing he has ever seen before.

Music can take you down various career paths, was film scoring always in your plans?

I always knew I wanted to do something in the arts, and music became the centre of my social life very early on; growing up in Western Australia we’d either be mucking about in the bush, or we’d be playing music together. I began violin lessons at age four, then received a formal classical training that was fairly intensive and far too competitive – in rebellion I took a film studies course at Uni, and from that moment never looked back. I think any number of paths could have led me here, but I’m fortunate to have had limitless encouragement from my family. My father didn’t play an instrument, but he truly loved music and never discouraged me from pursuing a career in the arts on the basis that it’s too risky.

Piers with Abe Forsythe at Sundance. Photo by Impact24 PR.

You have an ongoing working relationship with Abe Forsythe, can you tell us how it started and why it continues? [Producer] Jodi Matterson introduced me to Abe. She has opened several doors for me like that, and has been an enormously beneficial influence in shaping my understanding of filmmaking and pushing me to deliver creatively and technically, miles beyond what I think is my level of ability. Abe and I started by making a handful of short films together, I hadn’t met anyone so well-versed in cinematic language and history before, and I began learning from him instantly. As to why it has continued, Composers and Directors probably tend to make stretches of films together for the same reason musicians will make a number of records with the same band – you’ve developed the foundation of a complex language that you can keep building and improving upon, and you’ve established trust, which gives you all sorts of freedom. When you’re allowed to make mistakes, you can invent and take risks.

In Down Under, I thought that the ending should have really turned up the emotion for the audience through music as a cue to how significant that moment was. I know that Abe thinks the opposite. Do you ever have to argue points across when you believe in something and do you ever win?

There’s no such thing as winning and losing in our collaboration, it’s never felt even remotely like that. If there is a differing creative viewpoint it invariably means we just need to zoom out and revisit why we’re making the film. That might even happen several times on a single cue. Ultimately, to do your best work, you welcome and require feedback, because you wouldn’t have to reach very deep into the well if everyone loved the first thing you pulled out.

After seeing a rough-cut of Down Under, my initial reaction was to approach the material in precisely the way you just proposed. I found the ending so intense and shocking that I wanted to speak to the tragedy of it and make a big dramatic statement.

I always try as best I can to understand the reasons why Abe is telling a particular story, including the motivation behind his writing and what purpose the film needs to serve; that’s where all of the ideas need to stem from, otherwise the music won’t work regardless of whether or not I write a decent cue. During that process it became increasingly obvious that dramatising the conclusion of the film was only going to detract from its message. We already have a soundtrack for the ‘storyfied’ version of intolerance in our minds, that’s why “turning up the emotional music” for those scenes seemed totally wrong. Down Under is very effective as a comedy, but beneath the surface its themes are meaningful, earnest and increasingly relevant. I have previously heard commentary about that ending being a sudden gear change, and the reality is that it’s very deliberate. Abe tends to use comedy to entice his audience into a narrative before delivering moments that are decisively thought-provoking, and he writes powerful gear-changes into his scripts to that end. With each film I think he masters greater control over these tonal shifts, which always presents unique and often extremely difficult challenges for scoring. It’s exciting to be a part of that creative process.

Piers with Lupita Nyong’o at Sundance. Photo by Impact24 PR

Little Monsters characters actually play music – can you discuss that, and also, tell us whether you started earlier on this project than usual due to this?

We started some of the songwriting during pre-production, to prepare the playback for music that would be performed on-screen. It’s always a lot of fun, and it’s inspiring working with actors because of how fearlessly they throw themselves at these challenges. There are several distinct musical voices in this film, including a ukulele-wielding Kindergarten Teacher (Lupita Nyong’o); the world’s most famous children’s television personality (Josh Gad); and a washed-up musician still expressing his childhood angst through emotionally stunted stadium rock/death metal ballads (Alexander England).

Was it at all intimidating to have someone with Josh Gad’s experience working with your compositions?

I think one of the reasons filmmaking suits me is that there’s no time for anxiety, there’s no available mental space to worry about that sort of thing. The pressure of it all is ultimately very freeing. When you’re on a film and there’s well over an hour of score to write, you become naturally confident because the film demands it of you. Josh Gad is an absolutely wonderful performer and possesses an extremely high level of musicianship, the studio session was a lot of fun and basically very easy.

You have obviously seen Little Monsters numerous times, what can audiences expect?

There is always so much purpose at the heart of everything that Abe does, and when comedy is being used intelligently, as a lens, or as a device to express something, the experience can be equally as entertaining as it is moving. In this case, it’s a heartwarming film that’s often hilarious and at times also terrifying. I’m excited for a diverse audience to see and enjoy the film because it’s something very special, I’ve never seen anything like it before!

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