Atli Orvarsson: On The Edge of 17 “Electric guitar just seemed to be the natural thing.” Interview by Ruth Bailey.


Until fairly recently the type of composition Icelandic native and sometime-US-citizen Atli Orvarsson’s name was synonymous for producing fit plainly into the genres of action and drama and a little of the super-natural. Historically speaking, he has done composition for films which underly great tales of oversea or land adventure; (Pirates of the Caribbean; The Eagle and Vantage) or he drafts music that shifts the gears to drive the high intensity adrenalin-pumping scenes used in crime and medical tv dramas (Chicago Fire and Chicago PD.)

But a return to his origins – living once again in Iceland, informed by his desire to show his two youngest children the type of childhood he experienced whilst growing up there, along with perhaps a new perspective to complete projects that are easier for his children to enjoy and relate to have led to a switching paths to some degree.

“When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to get out of Iceland. Now I’m grown up, I couldn’t wait to get back. I do know what happened, I have little kids and there is just something innately human when you have kids, you want them to have the same experiences, or somehow connection to your roots.” Says Orvarsson speaking from his studio in Iceland.

Thanks as well to the gentle nudge from friend, mentor and collaborator Hans Zimmer (Man of Steel) Orvarsson recently found himself standing at the precipice of this change. Nominated by Zimmer to work with the acclaimed producer Jim Brookes (The Simpsons) to interpret the world of a teenage girl – a character grappling with the injustices experienced while growing up in middle America.

Although Orvarsson freely admits that ‘coming of age’ films are somewhat out of his wheelhouse taking the advice from Zimmer that this ‘was his film to do’ he jumped on a plane from his current mainstay, home, in Iceland to lend his expert ear to the project. It was from his studio in his former home – LA that he developed the score of hotly anticipated indie feature: The Edge of 17.

The film itself is a remake of the 2000 film (both borrow their titles from the Stevie Nick’s song of the same name.) Opening in the US this weekend, (early January for Australia) it was the closing feature for this year’s Toronto International Film Festival where it received an audacious reception from cinefiles there. Starring a slightly more grown up Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as the central character, Nadine, as well, Woody Harrelson who plays her teacher, the supporting soundtrack for the film features an assortment of artists as diverse as a teenage girl’s new world record collection could assume to be. A$AP Ferg, Aimee Mann, Mike Snow and Phantogram all help to build the context for the confused ‘almost 17 year old’ who is coming to grips with her entrance into adulthood albeit via the rather awkward navigation of some of her closest relationships. The glaring omission musically from Orvarsson’s perspective was that there was no central piece that tied Nadine’s story together.

Where then to find inspiration for such a musical narrative to be created? Recollections from his own experiences listening to the glossy, synthesized new-romantics era that characterised his teenage years in Iceland were not the answer, however did help Orvarsson to arrive at a universal truth – teenage angst is relatable. In turn this helped determine his choice of instruments for Nadine’s overarching theme.

“I think one of the things that the filmmakers (Hans) and everyone who worked on The edge of 17 recognised about Nadine is that she’s got a lot of rebellion in her and it’s almost like a punk rocker attitude. Electric guitar just seemed to be the natural thing,” Orvarsson says contemplatively.

“There is a monologue and speech in the film that she gives where she describes herself. She says: ‘I’m an old soul, I like old people. I listen to old music’ and there was something about that whole monologue that I latched onto, and she’s telling me what her theme is, so I think that is kind of where I came to it from.”

His aim, to purposefully steer clear from the predictable direction comedy film score’s can sometimes head in – Orvarsson looked to instead capture the ‘scream’ of rebellion felt by teenagers.

“We wanted to try and break out of that a little bit, and our way to do that was to just go with Nadine’s rebellion and use guitars and be angry, be punk rockers for a few weeks. That, I mean, a part of it is cerebral and analytical but for the most part, like that’s who she feels like and let’s just go with that. That’s what you want the music to reflect.”

The immediate chemistry emerging between he and director Kelly Fremon Craig, was something akin to magic and helped with the fluidity of the film project. The short amount of time Orvarsson was allotted to composing (four weeks) was spent wisely.

“…because we had such a short amount of time, she would come to my studio one day and whatever I was going to write had to be done the day after she said somehow my ability to turn her feelings and thoughts and emotions into music overnight were some sort of crazy alchemy.”

Having the ability to reside in two places at once is by no means detracting from Orvarsson’s creativity.

“The crazy thing, is that my life is divided between the Fjord and LA and I go back and forth and it’s completely mad! But something about it for me is very stimulating and I’m getting more done and I’m more creative than i’ve been in a long time.”

And while Orvarsson reverts this month back to his traditional movie making mould for next year’s film project between he and longtime collaborator David Rosenthal, Jacob’s Ladder the remake of the Thriller which is into its score composition phase currently, he clearly remains in this moment revelling in the wonderment teenage rebelliousness allows.

“Some projects are just enchanted – just some things are meant to be and for me, this is one of those films, I don’t know why but I had the answer and I knew what it should be.”

The Edge of 17 is anticipated for release in Australia January 5th and the soundtrack is available via Spotify now.


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