Film / Music / Sundance
"It felt like a musical breakthrough for me after feeling stagnant and uninspired for a spell."
Sometimes I Think About Dying
Sundance Opening Film
January 31, 2022
The New Current’s first interview with composers from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival features Dabney Morris, composer and arranger, whose credits include the Oscar short-listed documentary “Procession”. At Sundance 2023’s his work was seen in the opening night premiere film "Sometimes I Think About Dying".
Hi Dabney, thank you for talking with The New Current, how have you been keeping?
Thanks for taking the time! It’s been great. Sundance was a whirlwind and a blast, but I’m glad to be back at my studio with all my instruments. It’s hard taking a 10 day break from playing music.
Congratulations on having Sometimes I Think About Dying not only premiere at Sundance 2023 but was also the opening night film. Do you ever get nervous ahead of a new film being screened?
Thank you! I rarely go to final mixes on films, so yeah I do get a little nervous sitting down and finally seeing the finished product. You never know how a team is going to mix the score, so I’m often worried like “is it gonna be too quiet? Is it gonna be too loud?? Did they mix a particular instrument stem super low??” that sort of thing.
What’s that feeling like sitting in a cinema with an audience and watching them react to your score?
It can be nerve-wracking for sure, just because of not knowing how a final mix may have turned out, but also not knowing how people are going to react to a film as a whole. I think a score is more often than not really only as good as the filmmaking, and people are only going to connect to a score as much as they connect to the film itself. It’s hard to separate the two in my brain. So, watching a film and feeling a sense of “oh folks are connecting to the film” is really rewarding and cathartic, but if you get a sense of folks squirming in their seats or even catch someone walking out, it can be a bit of a bummer. Luckily on “Sometimes…” folks really seemed to resonate with the film, and the couple of Q&As I attended folks actually asked really thoughtful questions about score and score usage.
When do you normally come onboard a film project, is it important for a composer to be there at the very start and do you ever draw inspiration from the screenplay?
It varies. I’ve been brought on to projects well after picture lock, and I’ve been brought on to projects before a script is even finalized. But in general, I think it’s a little crazy that films/projects don’t have composers involved from the early phases. Those early conversations before there are even shot lists can help inform so much of the filmmaking for the better. This is my second film with Rachel Lambert, and she’s brought me on at the script phase for both projects. On “Sometimes…” we had so many great music conversations before they even started production that really helped solidify not only what direction the score ended up taking but also how score was ultimately used. I think if I’d been brought on after picture lock, and if they had already temped the whole film with temp-music, the score wouldn’t have felt as imbued into the filmmaking as it does.
What was it about this Sometimes I Think About Dying that connected with you and inspired you to create the score?
Aside from the fact that I will score absolutely anything Rachel asks me to be a part of, I think it was how weird the script was. There are all these surrealist moments when the main character, Fran, is having a fantasy about what it would be like to be dead. Not in a suicidal sort of way, but more in the sense that she’s just day dreaming about what it would be like to not have to engage in her life anymore. I immediately had all these musical ideas for how we could play those scenes somewhat ironically or even as sort of old-school dream sequences. And then coupling that with how much humanity the script had—all these moments of connection, or a longing for connection in everyday interactions—it just felt like a story I related to right away.
How important is the creative collaborative relationship between a composer and your director?
It’s just as important as any other department’s connection with the director; whether it be talent, photography, production design, editing, whatever. And the shame is it’s not always treated that way. Music is maybe the most esoteric aspect of filmmaking. Most people can look at a shot or a performance or a set design and sort of immediately tell if they’re buying it or not, and more importantly, if they’re connecting with it and if it makes sense for a story. Music is so different in that I can play a chord for a hundred different people and get a hundred different responses to describe that chord, all of which may be dramatically contradictory. I could have scored “Sometimes…” any number of ways and they all would have worked technically. But finding the thing that tells the story in just the right way that connects with the director’s vision is exceedingly difficult. As a composer, I’m hired to speak and interpret the language of music, and everyone “speaks” music with a different dialect. So having a bond of artistic trust with a director becomes invaluable, because they trust you to translate their vision into music. Score can make or break a project, and it’s always easy to tell when a filmmaker is treating score like a cabinet installation or something, like, “just put the music in exactly like I heard it when I temped in the score from such-and-such other film.”
If you could describe your score for Sometimes I Think About Dying in three words what would they be?
Modern Old-Hollywood Exotica
Have you always had a passion for composing?
Generally, yes. I think the first thing I ever wrote was on this wild Casio keyboard my dad had. I was maybe 7 or 8 and my parents were like “let’s get this kid some piano lessons.” But composing has taken a lot of forms for me throughout the years, and I even took a break from music at one point to pursue photography. I didn’t really start writing for film until maybe 2017.
How much has your approach to your work changed since you started out?
When I first started composing, I used a lot of keyboard instruments—synths, piano, etc—and a lot of sample libraries. Since then I’ve learned to play violin & viola, and along with cello I try to get “out of the box” (not use soft-synths, sample libraries etc) as much as possible. I think there’s something so exciting about playing an instrument and recording it yourself, rather than just hitting a key or a sampler. It feels like sculpting something from scratch, especially when you experiment with creating your own sounds. I think it’s an essential part of finding your own voice.
Is it helpful to be flexible when you’re composing and do you have any rituals that you stick to that help guide your creative process?
I think it’s impossible to succeed at film composing if you aren’t flexible. People are always going to have notes for you to change this or that, or ask you to maybe totally change a direction that you might be really attached to. Filmmaking is, by a mile, the most collaborative artform, and you have to be willing to make compromises.
So I meditate every morning as a sort of reset. Especially if I’m working on a particularly difficult project, it lets me approach every workday with a certain freshness and shed any antagonism I may be feeling about a decision I may not agree with, or a direction that might have been rejected.
Growing up, what was the first instrument you fell in love with?
Piano. I remember when I was 8 my parents bought a piano for the house, and the absolute wonder I felt sitting and learning what a triad was and that I could move triads to different places on the keyboard and it would totally and immediately change the emotion I was feeling. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life chasing the awe I felt in that moment.
Who are your biggest musical influences?
Bowie and Ravel. Totally opposite individuals personality-wise, but equally behemoth in their musical voices. They never ceased to write chord progressions that are at once surprising and inviting.
What does your music say about you?
Someone once told me that my music sounded “restless.” Which I took to mean that it never liked sitting in one place for too long. I hope that my music can inspire a sense of curiosity and exploration.
Of all the projects you have composed do you have one that you are really connected to?
There’s a piano piece I wrote, not specifically for the film, but during the script phase of Rachel’s previous film, “I Can Feel You Walking.” It felt like a musical breakthrough for me after feeling stagnant and uninspired for a spell. Ironically I had to learn to play it after I wrote it because some of the lines were a little outside of my wheelhouse. But now whenever I sit down to play it, it feels like home.
Do you have any advice or tips you would offer someone wanting to get into composing?
For anyone wanting to score pictures, I would say meet as many filmmakers as you can. It’s a pretty basic calculus—the more filmmakers you know the more opportunities you’ll have.
For composers in general though, I’m a huge believer in taking the time to learn an instrument you don’t know how to play. Forcing yourself to do something you don’t know how to do is almost like a cheat-code for inspiration.
Finally, what would you like audiences to take away from your music?
Hopefully a sense of connection with the unknown. I listen to a lot of comfort music and plenty of albums that feel like home, but the ones that truly inspire me and make me long to be alive are the ones that transport me somewhere I’ve never been. I hope my music can, at least in some small way, do that for others.