Sundance: LIZZIE Composer Jeff Russo on scoring the film
15 Feb, 2018
LIZZIE (2018), an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition, which had its world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, is a psychological thriller based on the infamous 1892 axe murder of the Borden family in Fall River, Massachusetts. The film stars Chloë Sevigny [‘Love & Friendship’ (2016), ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ (1999), ‘Big Love’ (2006-2011)] as Lizzie Borden, the 32-year-old, unmarried woman and social outcast who stood accused of the brutal crime of the axe murder of her parents. The movie, directed by Craig William Macneill [‘The Boy’ (2015), ‘Channel Zero’ (2016), ‘Henley’ (2011)], explores Lizzie Borden’s life, focusing on the period leading up to the murders and their immediate aftermath revealing the strange layers of her fragile personality. When Bridget Sullivan, a young maid, played by Kristen Stewart [‘Snow White and the Huntsman’ (2012), ‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 2’ (2012), The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 1 (2011), ‘The Twilight Saga: New Moon’ (2009), ‘Personal Shopper’ (2016), ‘Cafe Society’ (2016) ] comes to work for the family, it sparks an intimacy between the two women as a strong and sympathetic kinship is formed.
Not only do we see multiple layers of the main character’s personality revealed, but with each scene the twisted story unfolds and develops with Sullivan and Borden involved in a deranged plot to kill off Lizzie’s father, who is overly controlling over his daughter and abuses his power over the young maid. Sevigny and Stewart have an undeniable chemistry that draws the audience into the mystery of the relationship between the two women in the film, which is Lizzie’s only escape from her claustrophobic life of misery under her father’s cold household dictatorship. The music in the movie, with its eerie build-ups and crescendos composed by Emmy-winning composer Jeff Russo, strikes a sharp cord as each scene between the characters is intensified by the powerful score.
Dig In Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Cindy Maram sat down with the talented film and television music composer following the Sundance LIZZIE premiere to learn about the approach he took to scoring the movie, how he became involved in the film project and what he likes about working on music for the film industry:
Dig In Magazine: How did you enjoy working with the Lizzie team and how was your experience at Sundance with premiering the film at the festival?
Jeff Russo: It was great. It was my first time at Sundance, so I’d never experienced anything quite like that. That was a thrill, just experiencing what being at Sundance was all about. The film I thought played really well. I hadn’t got to see it on the big screen, so it was hard to sort of tell how it was going to play, but I had thought that it would play well. Without having seen it in front of an audience you never really know how things are going to play. People laughed at certain places, which was great, which we never expected. There are moments of levity in the movie. There’s not a lot, because it’s a pretty heavy and dark movie, but there are moments that you realize that people feel okay to breathe, feel okay to laugh, which was quite interesting. The work on the movie was really great. Craig really gave me a pretty wide sandbox to play in, so that was really cool to be able to really utilize the look and utilize the sound to help with how I scored the film. I used a lot of big gaps of silence in between bursts of string noise in order to keep people off balance and yet still tried to tie a through line of the emotional content of the film, Lizzie’s connection with Bridgette and then the subsequent growing chasm between her and her father [as well as] her stepmother and how that all played out emotionally. It was a really interesting film to try to capture in terms of music.
DIM: I was listening for the music during the film and it was interesting how in certain scenes there would be some piercing music to go with the scenes, and I was wondering if you could tell me how you approached scoring the film?
Jeff: The main idea was to tie the whole thing together with an emotional through line and yet still try to keep the audience off balance, because it’s a really uncomfortable movie. The subject matter anyway is off-putting, and it’s sort of unbalanced. I want to keep people guessing and not knowing what to expect from the next scene. In that way the approach was how do I keep this emotional through line between Lizzie and Bridgette and the growing tension between Lizzie and her father and the animosity between Lizzie and her stepmother and the unease of her relationship with her sister. It was how to keep that all in place and yet still have an emotional core to the story, which is Lizzie’s growing sense of being an outlier in the world. That was really what I wanted to underscore, her feeling of being outside of it all, not being accepted even by the people she tried to love. That was sort of my interpretation of the story. I don’t know if that was the filmmaker’s intent, but as I was watching it that was what I wanted to sort of try to bring out.
DIM: How closely did you work with the director, Craig and the producer, Chloe?
Jeff: Well, I didn’t really work with Chloe at all, she was sort of a producer in the developing of the film and then in the process of making the film. In post-production I dealt mainly with Craig. Craig and I sat down and talked about what he wanted and what kind of music he wanted and where music should go, then I would just go and write and send him stuff, and he would give me notes as I was going like, “This is really good, take it in this direction” and, “This is really great, can we continue down this road?” Then there were other producers involved, Naomi and Liz, who were more on the creative front, who I would also review music with. It was a relatively painless process where I would send stuff to them and they would have their opinions and I would either make significant or small changes in order to accommodate. Then we were done, it took all of two months.
DIM: Can you tell me how you got involved in the film project?
Jeff: I had worked with Craig once before on a miniseries called Channel Zero, which was a six part miniseries on the Syfy channel. When we met doing that we just sort of hit it off and really understood one another and had sort of a common view on how music should be in a narrative. After we were done with that he said, “I think I might be doing this film called Lizzie. Would you be interested?” and I said, “Yes, absolutely. Let me read the script, and let’s talk about it”. It sort of built from there.
DIM: You’re a two time Grammy nominee for your previous rock band Tonic and Emmy award winning composer. How did you get involved in scoring music for TV and film?
Jeff: It’s interesting. I took a break from my band back in 2005 and wanted to figure out what I was going to do next. I have a close friend, her name is Wendy Melvoin, she has been working in scoring films and television for quite a while. She said, “Why don’t you come down to the studio and check out what we’re working on”, and I did. I ended up really taking a liking to the whole idea of writing music to support someone else’s story; a narrative or media, video game, anything like that. I stayed at their studio for a year working for them as an assistant engineering and editing and just doing all kinds of stuff here and there. Eventually they started having me write some additional music for them. I did that for about six or eight months and then just sort of left there and went out on my own to try to get my own gigs.
DIM: You’ve scored the Emmy and Golden Globe winning series Fargo, CBS’ Star Trek Discovery, HBO’s Golden Globes and Emmy nominated series The Night Of as well as shows for FX and Starz. How do you like working on scores for films in comparison to TV shows, and what would you say is the difference?
Jeff: I approach it basically the same. I approach a television series pretty much the same way I would approach a movie. I want to think about [it] thematically—what is going to help underscore the story. So, I try to write themes and character motifs early on that I can use and reuse as a series goes on, which you would do at the beginning of a movie and you would use them throughout the movie. In terms of a show like Fargo or The Night Of I was looking at it like we do 10 episode long movies, 10 hour movies or eight hour movies. In that way I look at it in the same way. The biggest difference is the scheduling. I don’t have as much time to write 10 episodes of television as I do a single 90 minute or two hour long movie. So, I sort of have to go about it in a different way, but from a creative standpoint it’s virtually the same. As series start to move on from one story line to another, new themes have to be brought in and new themes have to be written. There’s all kinds of creative obstacles when it comes to that like making changes in mid-season and having the score grow over time. That is a big difference between television and film, but other than that it’s virtually the same in terms of the creative structure.
DIM: Regarding the score is it developed before the scenes are shot or as you go along or after the final scenes?
Jeff: I think it all depends on the project, it all depends on how I’ve gone about doing it. With Fargo I tended to write a lot of thematic material before the show began shooting and just reading the scripts. Then I would adapt and apply and write more as the show went on. With Star Trek I did a little bit of that but mainly wrote a lot of the themes as I was going, because there were new character themes as the show was progressing. With a movie, with Lizzie for instance, I waited until I saw the first cut of the film to start writing music. So, it really all depends on a lot of things; scheduling and what I think the movie really needs in terms of thematic material. Am I inspired to write by just a script, or do I want to wait to see what it looks like to really get an idea as to the tone of what I want to write? There’s so many different ways to look at it.
DIM: How do you choose the types of projects that you work on?
Jeff: I happen to be in a really lucky situation where I’ve gotten to work on many really great projects. That is certainly something that I am very thankful for. These projects that I’ve been writing have been really good story telling devices and really great stories, really great characters and really great actors. So, how do I choose? I sort of read a script or I have a meeting and we talk about what the music is going to be. If we happen to connect on how to tell the story I think that’s how people choose projects. You review things that you enjoy, you talk about the things you enjoy. When I was talking with the Star Trek people about Star Trek when they were thinking of hiring me I was immediately drawn to Star Trek, because I was a huge Star Trek fan when I was a kid growing up. With a movie like Lizzie I was immediately drawn to it, because the filmmaker was somebody I was drawn to working with, I read the script, and the script was really engaging. There’s no one particular way to choose a project, there’s so many different factors, but it’s really about connecting with the filmmaker and connecting with the people who are making the movie or film.
DIM: Music in a film or TV show can influence the way the audience perceives a scene and their emotions. Why do you think music has such a powerful effect?
Jeff: Music is a very personal thing, and I think music has the ability to make a person feel many things. To feel off balance, feel tense, feel sadness, feel nostalgia, feel all kinds of things. You can manipulate an audience’s emotions. I think that the best scores do that without being obvious. When you start being obvious about it, start being really on the nose, it starts to get a little cheesy. Music on its own is one thing, a narrative on its own is another thing, then when you put the two together you have something greater than the sum of its parts. What that means is music can take a scene in any direction it wants to. You can make a scene that isn’t funny, funny, or you can make a scene that is sad even sadder, or you can make a really sad scene not quite as sad. I think the use of music is a really important tool to a filmmaker, and I think it’s really important to use it well. When either is over used or used in a way that feeds the audience I think that can sometimes be a little bit onerous.
DIM: What would you say is the most rewarding thing about writing music for the film industry?
Jeff: That’s a tough question. I love movies and I love good television, I love a good story. So, the greatest thing about it is I get to help tell these great stories. Working on The Night Of was thrilling, because it’s such a well told story that what I had to offer was just a little bit of help, and it made this great story all sort of come together. That’s a thrilling opportunity, a thrilling part of doing what I do, which is I get to help tell these stories, which is so much fun.
DIM: Congratulations on the score for the film Lizzie, I thought it was very powerful, and best of luck with the film.
Jeff: Thank you so much, I’m really glad to talk to you.