Daniel Hart (Composer, A Ghost Story): “When I see something that is filmed, I think about music for it immediately” Interview by Ruth Bailey.

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To say musician and sometime film composer Daniel Hart embraces the serendipity life affords would be, an understatement. His current indie outfit Dark Rooms, is a creative collaboration undertaken in part with his partner Rachel whom he met while wandering back of stage at the Sasquatch Music Festival in Washington State, 2007. Rachel was offering ‘free ice cream’ courtesy of a promotional van run by none other than a character known as “Ice Cream Man” and from that fateful meeting – the pair shared delectable, popsicle treats to now, 2017 at their home base in Los Angeles where they live and work on the Dark Rooms band and its logistics, the journey no doubt feels akin to magic.

For Hart his intention in life was to be a successful ‘gun for hire’ to bands. Making his way as a working musician, a dream realised this far via many musical incantations including his role as a violinist/musician for notable acts including St Vincent, Broken Social Scene and those evangelical Texans, The Polyphonic Spree. Hart looks back on that particular experience fondly realising that performing with the Spree allowed him to master the art of wearing white robes while jumping up and down playing violin, admitting also if you were a Dallas musician at that time you were most likely to have been in the band.

The experience with The Polyphonic Spree is important to mention because in 2009 some might argue, serendipity struck a second time with the fortuitous introduction to filmmaker /director David Lowery (Hunt for the Wilderpeople; Pete’s Dragon) coming via one of Hart’s former Spree bandmates – Toby Halbrooks. Halbrooks shared Hart’s original compositions, at that time from within his band: The Physics of Meaning, with his best friend and writing partner, Lowery.

Upon listening, Lowery invited Hart to provide music for his debut feature, St Nick, and from this point the two have been long term collaborators, Hart penning compositions for every film that Lowery directs and in some ways this has set Hart’s life on a different course. The coupling has after all opened up the world of cinematic score as a career path for him and according to Hart collaboration with Lowery enables him to follow the director wherever he’s going and, he says, he keeps going in great directions.

“I’ve always felt like, when I see his films I immediately connect to them, I think it’s just really for us to find the music that really feels right for the stories he tells. Says Hart of the synergy inherent when working with Lowery.

“I can’t remember when we’ve had a real struggle – there are plenty of revisions that get made, there is always pieces that aren’t working but I feel like we’re always able to find the right music for his story. It just feels incredibly lucky – I don’t know how often that happens. It feels like not very often.“ He adds.

The Sydney Film Festival recently premiered acclaimed Lowery directed film: A Ghost Story. Opening nationally this week, it is a film which was made largely in secret, starring actress of the minute, Rooney Mara and the renowned Casey Affleck. The project presented an opportunity for the acting duo to reunite after their performances in another of Lowery’s films, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Rather than a criminal duo this time, for A Ghost Story Lowery’s script places the pair as long term partners – two souls trying to reconcile the decision to leave their remote and isolated home. For Affleck the struggle to go is harder than for Mara’s character who is yearning for a life a little more exciting.

Far from being a traditional horror tale, A Ghost Story, is cloaked in melancholy thanks to Casey Affleck’s character’s early departure in the film. He does however then assume a new role (somewhat comically) as the ghost in the story haunting his partner Mara inside their home, and for all of eternity it seems.

The concepts of time and its expanses are core themes explored throughout the film and yet what struck Cyclic when watching is the lack of dialogue and the reliance on the score to transmute emotion, which is handled magnificently. Hart attributes his success with the score to the lack of boundaries in place providing space enough to create exactly as he intended.

“We were very much left to our own devices, there was nobody telling us what to do – telling us to fit into any certain parameters really, with that, it kind of created freedom. I felt like I could make whatever creative choices I wanted to make when working on the film – so that feeling let me explore anything when it came to mind. And, usually when I work on one of David’s films when I’m watching it, musical ideas just sort of start popping into my head.“

Hart counts A Ghost Story to be their ‘5th or 6th’ rodeo together, and is mindful of the shorthand in communicating he and Lowery have cultivated to arrive at these shared film/audio visions.

“Because we’ve been doing it for as long as we have and because I think we share the same aesthetic for storytelling it flows very easily, so when I see something that is filmed, I think about music for it immediately, it’s not a difficult process for me, to that end.” He says.

Perhaps the two most intriguing facts about the A Ghost Story score that Cyclic discovered are that the starting point for developing it hinged on Hart’s own band Dark Rooms song: ‘I get overwhelmed’. This haunting, ethereal track leverages its beauty to highlight a pivotal scene for the film – using the song to build maximum emotional connection with the audience. The timing of the recording of the track and its coinciding with Lowery’s writing of the script providing the impetus for the director to nominate it as the centrepiece for the film.

“I didn’t realise that he wanted it to be, that it would be a more central thing than just a song in the background which can often be the case in film,” says Hart. So then when I realised that the song was going to play a larger part in the film, then I went back to working on the other parts of the score and I went back to that song as a starting point.”

In fact, Hart cleverly managed to interweave ‘I get overwhelmed’ in its elemental forms to feature in at least two other tracks comprising the soundtrack. How? Using Paulstretch a software program built to create atmospheric soundscapes of any sound, slowing the audio it’s fed down.

“I took these individual elements of the song the guitar track and the strings track and the vocal synthesizer track that starts the song out) and I ran them through Paulstretch and I made these much longer ethereal soundscapes and informed the score as a starting point and in fact the first piece of music that happens in the film is that song slowed way down and then the last thing that happens on the score and film is also the song slowed way down.”

Neat huh? And while the film has some other odd musical moments accompanying the vision, each choice was purposeful and driven by Hart’s vision.

“I’m really proud of it, I think it’s the best one that David and i have done. I feel like it got to the bottom of some questions about life and its meaning, that are really important to me, and I was grateful for the opportunity to explore them.”

Perhaps fatalistically another rather serendipitous moment for Hart appears to have arisen, this time with Lowery’s selection of the Dark Room’s song bringing notoriety to the band and its music, the opportunity to tour solidly in second half of 2017 is now cemented.

“It’s already brought us more attention than we’ve ever had. We’re going on tour in the fall. We’re playing the US in September and then we’re headed to Europe in October and November. And already it seems, that it’s gotten out about that song being in the film and it seems to be helping with making these concerts.”

A Ghost Story soundtrack is released via Milan Records.
A Ghost Story film is distributed in Australia via Palace Cinemas from Thursday 27 July.

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I find myself in a ‘looping state of mind’ more often than not.