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Composers Take Cues From Characters in ‘Fences,’ ‘Patriots Day,’ ‘Gold’

From “Fences” to “The Founder,” “Gold” to “Miss Sloane,” and “Live by Night to “Patriots Day,” many of this year’s scores took their cue from the strong characters that were central to each story.

For “Fences,” says composer Marcelo Zarvos, the starting point was August Wilson’s play, “this almost sacred material.” Director Denzel Washington even told him that Wilson’s words were the score, and that “we are employing every available technique, notably the music, to enhance those words and enrich them when needed.”

Surprisingly, given the 1950s Pittsburgh setting, Washington did not want “a bluesy or jazzy score. He really gravitated toward the piano,” says Zarvos, who plays some of the piano heard in the film. “It’s so direct, for scenes that are so delicate, and the music has to navigate these masterful performances. The piano tends to have a gentle but emotionally powerful way of enhancing the movie.”

There is only about 34 minutes of score in “Fences.” “It was about finding the right places where we could actually elevate the piece,” he says. “Denzel’s intention was always to honor the play, but the score also helps it to breathe and feel more like a movie.”

Zarvos adds a 40-piece string section at key moments in the score. “We felt that it added an ethereal quality,” he explains. “Denzel really loved very high strings playing over the dialogue scenes. They allowed for the dialogue to flow; it was always about coloring a different aspect of the story that was not apparent.”

In the case of “The Founder,” about McDonald’s franchising genius Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), “I really wanted to write something that would attract you to his character,” says composer Carter Burwell. “The key was to play his ambition with this almost patriotic, military zeal. By the end it is as though a military campaign was underway.”

There is also a touch of “sincere America,” Burwell says, via guitars and mandolins, reflecting Kroc’s Midwestern roots. “It’s pretty intimate,” Burwell says of the score as a whole: double string quartet, clarinets, guitar and percussion. He added spinet piano to suggest the 1950s period simply because so many homes in Middle America had one (and Kroc plays piano at one point in the film).

Director John Lee Hancock (with whom Burwell has worked on such other films as “The Blind Side” and “The Rookie”) liked the idea of musical Americana, but as Burwell points out, “something’s a little off” about it, and “there is an ugly side” to The American Dream coming true.

Ironically, given the subject matter, Burwell is a vegetarian, although he adds that “all of us have had some interaction with McDonald’s” at some point in our lives.

Stephen Gaghan’s “Gold” was a puzzle at first for composer Daniel Pemberton. “It’s not a conventional, formulaic, piece of cinema. Kenny Wells’ journey takes you so many different places,” he says.

“Gold” is the true story of a Nevada prospector who goes searching for riches in Indonesia, finds them and becomes, briefly, a power on Wall Street. “You’ve got mountains and skyscrapers and predators and hedge-fund managers,” Pemberton says. “I wanted to find a way to knit those together.”

His first thought was to musicalize the elusive treasure itself, making music with “shiny metallic objects. I started off with gongs and metal sheets. I even found a solid gold gong,” which, he discovered, “doesn’t make a very good noise.”

Then he found an innovative solution: the New York Stock Exchange bell. “It summed up everything the film is about: the sound of modern capitalism, the sound of riches, something gold and shiny.” He sampled the bell and “started playing around with it, putting beats underneath it, adding stuff to it.

“It had the right drive and energy for Kenny’s relentless pursuit, to keep going whatever the cost,” Pemberton says. “Slowed down, it was like the bell of doom. When you speed it up, it sounds like people mining. I twisted it, played it at different tempos and pitches, made those uncomfortable cross rhythms.” It became the centerpiece of the score, although rarely noticeable on its own.

For Max Richter, the composer of “Miss Sloane,” “the social and political dimensions of the project really chimed with me very strongly.” Jessica Chastain’s ruthless, win-at-any-cost Washington-lobbyist character demanded two different musical approaches.

“One is the adrenaline, or power, language of the film. It’s very much about information,” Richter explains. “Music was important to articulate the twists and turns, and the shift in tone and intensity. For that material, I used grid-based, sequenced music, very artificial in a way, an electronic language which I felt conveyed this sense of information.

“The other side of it is Miss Sloane’s inner journey, her emotionality and the choices and compromises she has to make on a human level. For that I worked with an orchestral palette: a large string band with some brass and piano and more electronics. Tying these two strands together was the challenge of the project.”

In terms of the electronic sounds, Richter says, “I was looking for colors which I could connect to the storytelling language. They have a glassy, shiny artificiality which I think somehow connects to this sort of media, data-saturated universe that the character inhabits. That was my guiding principle.”

Composer Harry Gregson-Williams reunited with writer-director-star Ben Affleck on “Live by Night” (after previously partnering on “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town”). Affleck plays a Boston gangster who moves to Florida during the Prohibition era.

The assignment, says the composer, was “to explore the outer regions of his character. He does display some quite noble characteristics. I decided to write a main theme that could vary, and have different inflections, as he meets the important people in his life. Which happen to be women.”

Boston, “where, musically, we are in low registers and minor keys, very dark, with low strings and low saxophones,” contrasted with the bright look of the South, which needed “a more hopeful sound” – yet Gregson-Williams was careful in evoking the cultural differences. “To be Ben’s composer, it’s a necessity to be subtle,” he says. “He doesn’t want the score to be manipulative or on-the-nose, ever.”

So the Cuban heritage of Graciella (Zoe Saldana) is hinted at within a delicate theme for piano, harp, guitar and wordless female voice. In addition, Gregson-Williams captured “the devout spirituality” of Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning). “Her very personal story takes twists and turns, just as her path to divinity does. It seemed to me that a pure solo voice above a very low piano with this Hammond church-type of organ in the background would somehow strengthen her character.”

Patriots Day” demanded an altogether different sound and approach. For their first feature not directed by David Fincher, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross tackled Peter Berg’s retelling of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing as seen through the eyes of the policemen (led by a character played by Donnie Wahlberg) who witnessed the tragedy and hunted down the perpetrators.

“Pete was concerned about how visceral and brutal the film is at times,” says Reznor, “and wanted to make sure that we didn’t tip the scales too far into making it a punishing moviegoing experience. He really reiterated that it’s a message of hope, of coming together as a community. And the terror of not knowing if it’s over.

“So we spent time thinking about the emotional side of things and the kind of bittersweet quality (you might feel) if you lived in that city and it was never going to be the same after that day, what the memories of that place might feel like. We focused in on a sweetness with a hint of melancholy and longing,” Reznor adds.

The music, Reznor explains, is a combination of electronics from their studio “and a bit of actually playing live, very acoustic and organic. We mic’d a lot of real pianos on this. The studio, to us, is an instrument. We used a combination of real instruments and old analog recording techniques that might give (the score) its own identity.”

Ross reports that the film contains 114 minutes of music. “You’re tracking five or six different storylines, all of which have a sound or melodic component attached to them,” he says. “At one point in the film all those intersect; that piece of music is 20 minutes straight. It was something that we hadn’t had to do before, and it was intense.”

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