When the late Michael Been of The Call was working on the soundtrack to the 1992 film “Light Sleeper,” his then-teenage son, Robert Levon Been, later of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, would hide when the film’s director, Paul Schrader, came to Been’s home to check on the music’s progress.
“Everything was recorded in our house, DIY style, on analog, in the living room,” recalls Been, speaking from Vienna, Austria. “I was a snob and obnoxious and would say, ‘This is shit, this is good.’ I’d play a guitar or bass part and say, ‘Try this, try that.’ Sometimes my dad would use it. I was caught out a few times by [Schrader] who asked my dad if he was not paying him enough to bring in real musicians. But it stuck in his head enough where he might give me a call someday.”
Almost 20 years later, Schrader returns to the themes explored on “Light Sleeper” in the Martin Scorsese-executive produced “The Card Counter,” opening this weekend in theaters. This time he legitimizes the younger Been’s involvement by enlisting him to bring some of what he brought to “Light Sleeper” to “The Card Counter.”
“The Card Counter” is Been’s first solo soundtrack (BRMC provided the soundtrack to Jeff Baena’s “Life After Beth” in 2013). A combination of fully realized songs, score cues and sound design, Been’s soundtrack propels the narrative of the film whose main character, portrayed by Oscar Isaac, is trying to emerge from the suffocation of his subconscious.
“There is a mirror element between ‘Light Sleeper’ and ‘The Card Counter,’” says Been, who was focused on reinvention for “The Card Counter” rather than retreading ground covered by his father in “Light Sleeper.” “[Schrader] wanted this connective quality, but he was also was wrestling with how much to go there. Same as I was. I kept thinking the only reason I got the call was because my dad is unavailable right now. I became hypersensitive to not wanting charity or anything like that, so I worked 10 times harder to earn my keep.”
Initially, Schrader tapped Been for the closing song — without giving him any context for the rest of the film. Been had a good understanding of Schrader’s technique of withholding from the audience so they are not led emotionally by the music until the very last moment. Furthermore, Been’s ideas for the ending scene piqued Schrader’s interest enough to ask him about his musical thoughts for other scenes in the film. This resulted in Been soundtracking the entire picture, throughout what he remembers as “hundreds of days.”
“I always thought movies are a piece of cake because the world is created for you and you just slip between its cracks,” says Been. “Artists who get into this have no idea how brutal and all-encompassing it is. You have to go all in and it takes up your life. The pace and momentum are as much, or more, than diving into an album. It helped to know, this is going to be either long or forever, one or the other.”
In sharp contrast to what Been does with BRMC, Schrader’s exact timing of not just moments in the film, but micro-movements of the characters tied to score or song or sound design, are Been’s worst nightmare. Schrader gave Been a lot of freedom in the sonic interpretation of the characters. Even so, Been wrote and rewrote pieces, coming up with multiple alternate versions, until they met Schrader’s objective.
“[Schrader] is the king of never giving a compliment or indication that he likes anything,” says Been. “He doesn’t talk, so everything ruminates until he expresses that he hates something. After a while, I learned to love the word ‘hate’ because it’s so much more definitive and helpful than if someone just thinks something’s maybe okay. It’s like recording albums or mixing. Everyone knows way more clearly what they hate than what they specifically want. Anytime he said he hated something, in particular, I was so relieved because that got me closer to the things he wanted.”
The songwriter in Been felt negligent in not finishing the vignettes he created for the film, so he completed them into full-fledged songs for “The Card Counter: Original Songs From the Motion Picture by Robert Levon Been.
“A lot of artists are stifled and stagnating and consumed with the idea of the end result,” says Been about the soundtrack album. “It devalues the process so our moment, our breadth, our mistakes, our way of getting there gets dismissed. I had so much work from all this time spent exploring, I felt like creating an album that would show people behind the curtain, show them the journey, not just the destination, would be cool.”