Movie history is dotted with great director-composer partnerships: Fellini and Nino Rota, Truffaut and Georges Delerue, Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. Most contemporary directors like to shop around, depending on the project, but for Alexander Payne, there’s only one composer: Rolfe Kent.
“I find in Rolfe what I most value in film music,” says Payne, “which is the constant presence of melody, unusual orchestrations and arrangements, the ability to express emotion without sentimentality, and a great deal of wit.”
“There’s something about my relationship with Alexander which to me feels like he’s my creative mentor,” says Kent, whose other films include “Nurse Betty” and “Legally Blonde.” “The tasks that are set are always new, difficult and challenging, and the places I end up going always feel like a major learning experience.”
Payne is a film-score buff who is partial to Italian composers. For “Election,” he pointed Kent in the direction of Ennio Morricone; for “About Schmidt,” Rota; and for his current comedy-drama “Sideways,” he suggested that Kent consider the jazzy style of Piero Umiliani (“Big Deal on Madonna Street”) as a model.
“The collaboration starts long before the picture is finished,” Kent says, “so the music is allowed to influence the way the film is edited.”
In the case of “Sideways,” the recording sessions — most often with a seven-piece jazz ensemble — were staggered throughout Kent’s writing process.
“There was at least a two-week gap between each session, so that we could listen to rough mixes, cut them into the film, see what we felt, and if we needed to revisit a piece of music and come back with a different energy,” he says.
Payne wanted to record in monaural, but Kent talked him out of that radical a notion. “We did make it sound vintage,” Kent concedes, by recording with old microphones and using an ancient mixing console (“an amazing 1960s contraption with no faders”).
Plus, unlike the tightly controlled, budget-conscious world of big orchestra scores, “this was one where, once you got a good take, you felt you’d made a good start. You’d do it again and loosen it up. The picture was not so important. It gave the musicians an opportunity to be less constrained.”
The Nebraska-born director met the U.K.-born composer on a TV project in 1991, and when Payne made “Citizen Ruth” in 1996 he remembered Kent and called him. “We have a lovely collaboration,” Payne says. “Together we’re able to crack the tone of my films, because the tone is the tricky part. I’m really old-fashioned in my filmmaking. I always liked those directors who worked with the same people over and over again.”