Dan The Automator, aka Daniel Nakamura, knows a thing or two about setting a mood. The Bay Area-based producer has worked on projects such as Gorillaz’s debut album, Handsome Boy Modeling School (with Prince Paul) and multiple projects with rapper Kool Keith. Now, Nakamura has set his sights on film scoring, and will make his U.S. film scoring debut via his work on “Booksmart,” the buzzy teen comedy directed by Olivia Wilde, which hits theaters in wide release today. Variety caught up with the beatmaker recently for a chat from his San Francisco studio to talk scoring, new projects and more.
Considering all the work you’ve done over the years, is this your first full film score?
I’ve done score work for in China for films but this is my first major U.S. film. I did some side work on “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and I did some stuff surrounding [Jodie Foster’s 2016 thriller] “Money Monster” but this is the first straight ahead move where I score the whole thing.
What brought you to this project?
Olivia [Wilde] really brought me in. She’s more known as an actress, obviously, but on the production side, she met with me early, and she was trying to push along the music side of the movie. I was pretty excited about it from the start.
Did you know Olivia before?
I met her through my manager socially not too long before we started to get together to work on the film officially.
What was the writing process like for this score in particular?
Well with a film score, as opposed to making a record, you’re trying to bolster the emotional content of the scene, but also not getting in the way of the scene. Sometimes, it’s foreshadowing a feeling, sometimes it’s just exaggerating a mood. At the same time, you have to lay back and try not to interfere with the dialogue in the actual scene on screen.
Judging from the track titles you sent, it seems there are some animation sequences that you score in the film?
There’s a scene where the characters are experiencing being on drugs for the first time, so I had to score a scene to kind of capture the feeling [of what that’s like]. The thing about it is, when you make music, you get certain aspects of the senses; one thing you don’t usually get is a visual component to work off of. It’s exciting [to work with film clips] because when you’re sitting at home making music just to make music, it’s a different dynamic. But with film scoring you get this whole different thematic dynamic energy that you get to bring to a project.
Does hip-hop still inform your production?
Hip-hop, much like classical and rock, has always informed my production. In the beginning [of my career], there was a little more hip-hop and then when it became “alternative” music, it was hip-hop to rock, but at this point it’s a little bit of everything. I grew up playing the violin, so I have a remedial classical background too — I played for over 12 years, so it’s real, but it’s not professional or anything. If you take all that, it’s kind of how I see myself when I do a score. I take certain aspects of all those influences to get where I’m going.
You went to SXSW for the premiere of “Booksmart” — what was it like seeing an audience react to your score?
It was great. Obviously, I’d seen the movie at home before, because when you do a score you watch scenes over and over and over again [while you score them], but what’s great about seeing the movie in the theater is you feel the energy in the room. SXSW was a little bit weird to me in the sense that the people in the audience watching are almost too well informed — they are more up on everything, so it’s a slightly different environment [than an audience not at a film festival]. But at the same time, you feel the energy in the room and whether people like things or not, and we got a really good reaction. I think people really liked it, so that was cool.
I see you did the music for a Levi’s spot recently, is that an ongoing partnership between you and them since you’re both Bay Area based?
It’s not really a partnership. That was just a cool collab. I’ve done work with them before. It’s more on like a case by case basis with them. For me, what the deal with advertising stuff is, if I like what they’re doing….not so much specifically the product, but more how the creatives are working in it, I’ll do it.
What’s next for you? More film scoring or more producing for artist projects?
It’s a combination of both. Right now, I’m trying to work on a couple of records and trying to get those done. I’m doing a record right now for this guy Camilo Lara. He composed a lot of music in “Coco,” the Pixar movie. He’s kind of a famous Mexican artist. Then I’m working with Prince Paul, on another Handsome Boy Modeling School project. On the film side, I have three original songs written in to the storyline of “Always Be My Maybe” for Netflix, which drops later this month. It stars Keanu Reeves, Randall Park and Ali Wong. I also scored “Broken Bread” a new series hosted by [celebrity chef] Roy Choi.