Hello ladies and gentlemen, Muldoon here with an interesting look behind the scenes with a Q&A chat with Louis Castle and James Bairian of THE GIFTED. Most recently the duo composed the score for the horror flick SOUTHBOUND. When I first caught the film back at Fantastic Fest, it felt fresh, a unique road trip of an anthology created by a handful of directors. The two gentlemen below were tasked with building a score that tied together multiple storylines as seemlessly as possible. As I was a fan of the film, the opportunity to pick their brains presented itself and felt perfectly at home here with MEET THE CREW, a sporadic series where we push past your standard "director / lead actors" with press tours in their contracts. MEET THE CREW is about seeing the bigger picture, the one filled with hardworking artists at every level, glamorous or not. So before we jump on into the Q&A, I'd like to throw a giant "thank you" to Louis and James (The Gifted) for taking the time out of their day to give us here a little insight into the world of scoring for film.
LOUIS CASTLE & JAMES BAIRIAN - COMPOSERS
So let’s just jump right on in. What is THE GIFTED? I know it’s you two, but how would you describe what it is you do as THE GIFTED, instead of two individual artists?
Louis Castle: Well, you know I think why we went by that moniker, a name where we don’t have to just rattle off both of our names is because we started doing so much stuff… We started scoring and started doing stuff for video games and commercials and we would also produce records and were just so unfocused that we thought “We will name ourselves something and then just make sense of it.” I don’t know, but it seems like it made sense at that time. (Laughs)
James Bairian: Yeah, I mean Louis and I had been working in a musical sense since we were fourteen years old. We were buddies and we just started playing music together and like he said we were doing all of these things and I’m 37 now and it just made more sense to do it that way and I guess you could say that THE GIFTED is… We work together on everything, so it’s not just two individuals like we’re both in separate rooms, we come together and really focus in on the idea, whether it’s a movie score or writing a song or producing a band.
That makes sense. Speaking of scoring movies, how did you get involved to begin with? What initially kicked that off for you? You’ve produce music, videos, and commercials galore… What specifically got you into the world of movies? What got you scoring SOUTHBOUND?
LC: Well the first movies we did, my dad was directing. He was like “Do you think you could do the music?” Of course I said. “Yeah I can do the music.” I had no idea how to do that, so me and James very quickly bought a bunch of programs and tried to learn how to use them. That was kind of how it first started and it was a movie called CONNOR’S WAR and then after that we did a couple more of the movies that kind of go “straight somewhere” then you never see, like “straight to Ccechoslovakia” or who knows… We did that and it wasn’t very fulfilling. The whole time it felt like we didn’t totally know what we were doing, so we were kind of learning as we worked. So we kind of gave it up and just went back to writing with bands as “this film thing takes too long” and “it’s just not very fulfilling creatively for some reason.” Years past, like seven years or something like that and when SOUTHBOUND came around it was like there were so many stars to come together to make that make sense and we could really do it exactly the way we wanted to do it and there were some personal things that worked. What they wanted from it seemed like something we would want to do. It really just made sense.
JB: Yeah, and I think the funny story behind it is Nick Castle… I don’t know if you’re familiar with his work, like THE LAST STARFIGHTER, is one of my favorites… He’s directed a bunch of stuff, so you know when we first had our initial meeting with the directors of SOUTHBOUND and found they were sitting around kind of like “This could be something cool to do” and they were talking about like “Here’s what we’re looking for, an 80’s throwback to the synth sounding scores, kind of Carpenter-esque” and then we just kind of looked at each other like “Oh my god, this is just too perfect for a number of reasons.” We are absolute nuts, especially Louis about vintage synths. We are surrounded by them right now sitting in our studio, everything from Prophets to Moogs… and the list goes on. So we were stoked to do it on that level creatively and the other thing is Nick, Louis’s dad, was the original Michael Myers (Laughs) and friends with John Carpenter and actually used to be in a band with him, which is just a funny little piece of trivia, so I guess that was kind of like “We have to do this! Right?”
LC: Yeah, it’s like some outside force was telling us to do it with so many weird coincidences and things that we loved already. It just made sense.
Louis, it sounds like this kind of music is already in your blood, which can’t hurt. SOUTHBOUND definitely has a mid-80’s, Carpenter, PHANTASM vibe, like a twisted carnival almost, so you clearly achieved what you set out to create. Working with so many directors, specifically with SOUTHBOUND, I want to say there’s like nine producers. I don’t know who all did what, but you’ve got nine producers and roughly five directors… how in the hell did you get one solid tone figured out for the whole thing with so many cooks in that kitchen?
LC: Well we first had a great meeting. We had a really long initial meeting, because all of the things you’re talking about were my concerns. I’ve had problems working with one director, (Laughs) so five or six… yeah that could be pretty tough. We got in the room and started to plot out how it all worked and everyone just seemed so flexible that we could kind of do what we wanted. So the freedom that we had was so nice and every time I would say, “I don’t want to do this,” they would be like “okay.” There was a lot of freedom to do what we wanted. You don’t want it to be dry… You don’t want it to just be a throwback. I really tired to also make it something that was… If you listen, there’s a lot of nuance hidden in those layers, a lot of sound design that works with the music and it all kind of goes… There are different things going on versus a big clunky 1983 synth score, you know? I think everyone was really flexible and that latitude for us gave us the artistic freedom we needed to make it successful.
JB: Yeah, for sure and during that meeting it felt like “Oh, this was terrifying going into it,” but all of these directors were really on the same page and there was this cohesion between their ideas and what they wanted and it was really discussed. I don’t know if that had been discussed a million times before or this was the first time in that room and it just happened to all work, but everybody seemed to be on the same page. So that made it really easy to glue everything together when we were working with the different directors.
LC: Also, the incremental deadlines we had. The first couple of ones, everyone was so positive, too. So it wasn’t like we started off badly either… You know what I mean? That can be a killer too, when you first turn in a pass and everyone is excited. Everyone was really pumped about it, so that also helped. These things take a long time to get perfect, so it’s really nice when everyone is excited about it. That really helped.
Realistically, how much time did you guys have to write the score? You touched on it a little bit, but what was the workflow with you guys? Specifically with SOUTHBOUND it feels like a lot of it feeling like one singular thing falls to you, perhaps even more than the individual directors. With the big picture and tying these drastically different tales together, that’s on you. What was the work flow actually like? When did you say “Yes, we’re going to do this” and when did you stick a fork in it with “Okay, we’re done. That was fun. See you all later.”
LC: That’s probably around seven months?
JB: Yeah. March was I think when we said “Okay, let’s find a tone of the movie” and worked on the opening, the SOUTHBOUND theme. We did that in maybe late March and then I would say that’s the first work that we did and the last work we did was just wrapping up the sound track, like figuring that out and sending that off to mastering and that was roughly two weeks ago. (Laughs)
LC: We also had a few other projects during that time. It’s only recent that we turned everything final in .We mastered the whole score probably two weeks ago.
JB: Yeah. We mastered it and were making tweaks on it and uploaded to The Orchard to release just two weeks ago, but I think I would probably say the majority of the score was completed and ready to mix by September. So it was March to September and the workflow was kind of chronological. We just started at the beginning of the movie and kept it going. I don’t want to give anything away, but you will see the connection at the end, so we knew we had to revisit themes from the beginning and the end. We’d worked with Radio Silence on the last one, so we knew we’d have these bookends, so we just worked on each individual segment and got theme to a good place and worked with each director until we got to the end and got back to the beginning and revisited everything and made sure there was this cohesion between all five segments.
LC: You know what was really helpful too in that initial meeting…. We came up with kind of a beat guide of emotionally what was happening or had occurred and had words for everything, because you want it as simple as filling in the blanks, almost like “Here’s a part were the reapers are going to feel present.” So we put together an emotional guide, which was really helpful.
Okay, just to back off SOUTHBOUND for two seconds, in general when are you guys brought on to a project? I assume it varies, but when it comes to a score, in an ideal world, when would you guys prefer to be hit up? Is it before they even start shooting or would you rather the film be complete?
LC: I’d rather the film be complete with them already having a sense of what they want, so it’s not “Hey! It could be any music in the universe” where they have a sense of what they want, they know emotionally what they are creating for everything. I’d like to be as close to the end as possible, even with sound design in there would be great, because then we know what you’re fighting with as far as levels and stuff like that. “Oh, I shouldn’t use this sound here, because there’s an explosive sound there.”
Do you find temp music that the director uses as helpful or do you prefer to see it without?
LC: It’s so helpful to have some kind of reference. I’ve done projects where they have some reference music before and it just never feels… I like to look at something and go “this is an awful idea” or “that’s great, now I’m going to do it my way.” It’s totally helpful.
JB: I can’t add anything to that, because I 100% agree.
Spoken like THE GIFTED, where you guys are in sync on pretty much everything, right?
JB: Towards the end of a project, at least! (Laughs) We have to work things out, but we always end up there.
A true collaboration. Other than you two, when you’re creating music for film, what other folks do you have to have around you? Do you guys play every single instrument yourselves? What are the other positions you bring in to help you out with?
LC: Well with this one, SOUTHBOUND, the budget was so small we couldn’t possibly bring on players. It wasn’t possible with the budget. We squeezed together money for mastering and that’s it. We did everything else, because that’s just what the budget allowed for, but it depends on the project. If I had a lot more flexibility with the budget, I’m going to hire musicians. I like how people play, where it’s not me and James layered a million times.
JB: Yeah, especially with percussion. Loops are great with creating it or us just playing it, but we’re not the best percussionists, you know? There’s something about having a real player and just getting that feel. As far as the synths go, Louis is just awesome at that. It’s really about finding the right sounds, the perfect sound that gets the emotion across and gives you that feeling.
LC: Bare in mind, with this one we really did try to be true to the early 80’s aesthetic and we did everything with all analog synth stuff. They’re all analog systems, so we had to find a way to kind of marry our limitations with a lot of analog keyboards. It was a fun logistical exercise.
JB: When you’re done, it’s fun, but while you’re doing it it’s like “This is challenging…” it ended up being a lot of fun.
It sounds like a lot of it is finding the right sound. I mean obviously sound and emotion are what we’re talking about with any score, though I’m curious about bizarre instruments. Has there ever been a moment where you’ve tossed in a kazoo or grabbed a spoon and made some weird music with that that “just worked?” How often does that happen, that you find something that’s not…
LC: All the time! I just did a track with someone with a kazoo and adding a few delays… it felt like something from another planet. That’s where the good stuff comes from, things you wouldn’t think about. “There’s no way this could work” or…” This could be perfect!” Or “Is tapping a pencil on the music stand going to make the most awesome rhythm when you run it through reverb, EQ it, maybe put a pan on it…” You’re like “Whoa, that wasn’t even an instrument, but that sounds cool.” We do that shit all the time.
That’s good to hear. I like seeing folks think outside the box. How many instruments would you say you guys play a piece?
JB: Play well or play? (Laughs)
LC: Yeah, I can pick up most any instrument, but maybe not any better than my four year old. I don’t know… like to the quality that can be recorded?
JB: I would say I play bass, electric bass, guitar, and percussion while Louis is pretty good at… Well he’s a trumpet player first…
LC: There are a lot of horns you can play if you can learn trumpet and you know, guitar, banjo, ukulele, mandolin, all of those types of things, stringed instruments… I don’t play any bowed instruments, which I find annoying. It’s one of those things where you really should learn your bow techniques early. That’s what I’m trying to teach my kids, to get used to playing them. I wish I had more of that when I was younger. I just sound awful every time I try to do it as there’s no natural inclination there.
JB: I have a little bit of a bow technique with bass, but one that I can’t really transfer to anything else, which is annoying, because cello, violin, it’s all different fingerings and you just have to learn them.
LC: And I left out one… Pro Tools.
JB: The “real” instrument these days.
Louis, you hinted at your kiddo and making him learn to play with a bow. I’m just curious what type of advice you might give to folks out there aspiring to score films in the future, maybe stuff that you had to find out the hard way.
LC: Yeah, find it out the hard way! (Laughs) It’s not that I’m pulling up the ladder now that I score… It’s not that, it’s just that it’s the best way to learn things. We learned everything through failing at it and failing better the next time. It’s really how you learn things and just have guts… Go try to do it and then fail at it, because then the next time you will fail better. You’ll never get better without failing.
JB: Yeah, and I would add to that as well as failing at your composition, your scores, and then learning from that, I would say on top of that “work at the social side of it, too.” It’s communication with directors and producers and that’s the side of it that you can’t just… You have to be flexible. You can’t just go in there and be like “This is how I hear it.” Maybe one day, but we’re not there yet. I’m sure certain composers can walk in and be like “I’ve got 500 scores under my belt and I get paid a lot, so I’m going to do it however I like,” but until then you have to be able to work and collaborate with the directors especially, but everyone involved in the process and that’s something that can be difficult for somebody, especially for us musicians who sit in a room all day alone making music and don’t have anybody to answer to, then you have to be ready to do that. It’s part of the job.
As we wind down here, I’ve got two more questions. One is almost the opposite of what I just asked… (Laughs) Do you have any advice for the directors and producers out there in regards to things that make your job easier? What are some key things the filmmakers in the audience should really think about before they hit up their composers to get the best result possible?
LC: I would say number one is positivity. The times that people have been really positive, I just react, and I will go above and beyond, because I feel like I’m part of a team and that I’m collaborating. That kind of establishing artistic trust is why I do this. Positivity and being honest with each other. It’s so helpful when the director knows what he or she wants, like from the score. That’s whether it’s putting the temp score and them knowing “Here’s why I love this temp score and here’s the emotion it creates. Here’s why I like it.” Having an explanation for it is key. Some times you work with people a they are like “I’m not really sure, just do something.” That lacks the excitement… Being excited about something and passionate about something with knowing what you want… we pick up on that and we go “Cool, okay I’m going to take what you said and then make that into music, make that work for your movie, because you know what you want and I want to meet that challenge.” So that’s what I would add.
Sounds like simply knowing what you want and being able to express that in a positive way, but also being open to suggestions feels about right. So what have you guys got lined up next, in terms of anything? What does THE GIFTED have going on?
JB: Well the most exciting thing that we have going on is kind of along with this SOUTHBOUND score release, shortly after we are going to release our EP, which is going to be six songs featuring different artists that we’ve been writing with and it’s basically going to be released on Sound Cloud first and then eventually on iTunes. We should have the first single or first couple of singles out in February and it’s more in the indie, electro, pop world, but it’s all song based. It’s not a score, not like an EP of a score obviously. These are songs that we wrote with artists that either have albums out or have the singles coming out shortly. So that’s what we’re really excited about. Just look out for both the soundtrack and our EP, which will be out shortly. If you go to our site, wearethegifted.com, and just check that, that will have information on everything.
Cool, well I’ve stolen thirty minutes of your day as is, and I appreciate the interesting nuggets of knowledge you’ve shared in that time. So with respects to that, I’ll let you guys get going back to the rest of your day! Thank you very much for your time! Best of luck with the score and your EP.
LC: Thanks so much.
JB: We appreciate it. We had fun and we look forward to talking to you soon!
M: Sounds good, guys. Thank you both.
Watch @SouthboundMovie in theaters 2/5 & on @iTunesMovies and On Demand 2/9.
So there we have it, ladies and gentlemen, a lovely little dip behind the ears of two maestros. Special thanks again to the two for taking the time to chat with me. As mentioned above, the film's soundtrack is availabie for purchase and the movie hits theaters this Friday and VOD Feb. 9th! If you're looking for more information on The Gifted, then head over to their website and poke around!
If you work in film or television and feel like shedding some light on what exactly your position entails, then please feel free to shoot me an email with the subject line "MTC - (Your Name) - (Your Position)." I'm not here to get scoops or dirt on anyone, simply here to educate and ask for advice to any of our filmmakers in the audience.
If you folks are interested in finding out what other positions on a film are like, then check out any of the links below:
- Mike McCutchen