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Sundance: Sandy Hook Documentary ‘Newtown’ Unites 17 Composers for Emotional Score

Newtown,” which debuts this weekend at Sundance, has what may be the most ambitious score of any movie in the festival: 17 different composers contributed music, all because they were moved by the subject matter.

Newtown” deals with the aftermath of the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, where 20 first-graders and six staffers were killed in the second-deadliest mass shooting by a gunman in U.S. history.

Composer Fil Eisler (“Revenge,” “Empire”), Czech-born but now an American citizen with a 4-year-old daughter, remembers a conversation with producer Maria Cuomo Cole in which he expressed his outrage at yet another massacre. (“I’m scared of her growing up in this country,” he said.) Then Cole told him she was working on a film about Sandy Hook.

“The floor just fell out from under me,” Eisler recalls. “I didn’t ever want to see that film, much less score it.” But the more he thought about it, the more he felt he needed to contribute something to the public discourse.

“I had this crazy idea,” he says. “It’s a film about community. We’re always talking about the composer community. What if a bunch of us, regardless of what we believe politically, came together to help this other community? What if I became not so much a composer but a curator of the score?”

Eisler began calling fellow composers to contribute, or to take his theme and riff on it. “In the end, creatively, it was tough for everybody emotionally. Some people said, ‘I cannot watch this. I’ll give you music and you can use it.’”

At the same time, “Newtown” director Kim A. Snyder was thinking about what she calls “emotional mapping. I wanted the film to be emotional and experiential more than facts and figures,” and while she wanted to “create an emotional journey,” she didn’t want music to tip the balance into sentimentality.

Eisler persuaded her that a coalition of composers contributing music of various colors and moods might help. “We couldn’t write 17 requiems,” Eisler says. “What if we write music that speaks to the memory of childhood instead of heavily emotional music — because, to be honest, the film can’t stand that. The score has to be humble.”

Every composer donated time, fees, rights and royalties to the project, says George S. Clinton (the “Austin Powers” movies). “Rather than dwelling on the grief and the sorrow of the event, the music should be about hope, and be respectful of the ‘moving on’ that the families are doing,” he says.

Adds Deborah Lurie (“Safe Haven”): “We all knew that our music needed to use a great deal of restraint, as the film had so much emotion on its own. Also, the film comes across as not having any agenda except to tell the stories of the victims and their families, so the musical tone needed to remain pretty neutral and open for the viewers’ own emotional interpretation. I went with a rather ambient, hypnotic texture, as did many of the other composers.”

“We, as composers, manipulate emotions with music,” notes Christopher Drake (“Yoga Hosers”). “This doesn’t need our help. The real trick was finding how to support these stories, these tragedies, without emphasizing anything — to bear witness to the story.”

The other composers included Tyler Bates (“Guardians of the Galaxy”), Jeff Beal (“House of Cards”), Sean Callery (“24”), Miriam Cutler (“The Hunting Ground”), Jeff Danna (“The Good Dinosaur”), Rob Duncan (“Castle”), Christopher Lennertz (“Agent Carter”), Dino Meneghin (“Teen Wolf”), Mikael Sandgren (“Crescent Heights”), Gingger Shankar (“Water & Power”), Rob Simonsen (“Burnt”) and singer-songwriter Mark Renk.

At the Dec. 23 session (at Warner Bros., which also donated the use of its scoring stage), Eisler recorded a 30-piece string section in music that ranged from meditative to solemn to hopeful. Director Snyder was moved to tears more than once.

Late in the day, Snyder called Mark Barden — the father of a 7-year-old killed at Sandy Hook — and held the phone up so that he could listen as the musicians were playing. “There’s something that feels right about this collective of composers,” she says, “about not one person authoring this.”

Adds Blake Neely (“The Flash,” “Supergirl”), whose piece drew applause from the musicians: “I do so much commercial TV, superheroes and bad guys. It’s fun and escapism, we all need it. But sometimes you’ve just got to do something that’s meaningful. As artists we need that. This is something that is very much what we are thinking about. We’re three years past the tragedy, and maybe there’s some stirring of the zeitgeist again.”

Composer Coalition

Fil Eisler (below) recruited the following composers for the “Newtown” score:
George S. Clinton
Deborah Lurie
Christopher Drake
Tyler Bates
Jeff Beal
Sean Callery
Miriam Cutler
Jeff Danna
Rob Duncan
Christopher Lennertz
Dino Meneghin
Mikael Sandgren
Gingger Shankar
Rob Simonsen
Mark Renk
Blake Neely

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