Film / Music / Sundance
"When I first started out after I scored my first film I didn’t know where the next job would come from, but I still tried to write every day."
TNC spoke with Sundance Institute Music & Sound Design Labs at Skywalker Sound alumni Heather McIntosh about her most recent work on Susanna Fogel’s Cat Person which premiered at Sundance.
Hi Heather, thank you for talking with The New Current, how have you been keeping?
Very well, thanks!
Congratulations on having Cat Person premiere at Sundance 2023, do you ever get nervous ahead of a new film being screened?
It’s always exciting before a premiere. Of course, one hopes that the audience connects with the film and all the elements come together and tell the story. A premiere is usually the first time I see the film fully colour corrected, fully locked with final sound and an audience. It’s always exciting.
What is that feeling like being able to be in a cinema with an audience and seeing them react to your music?
It’s thrilling. It’s a big part of being a composer. Is connecting the story to the audience.
You are a Sundance Institute Music & Sound Design Labs at Skywalker Sound alumni and a Sundance Institute Time Warner Foundation Fellow, how much has being part of these important organisations helped you on your creative journey?
They were super supportive. I applied like 6 times before I got in the Sundance Music and Sound Design Labs at Skywalker. I feel like that whole time I was improving my craft as a composer. By the time I got in the labs I was really ready to embrace critique and take bigger risks. It was also validating, that such esteemed organisations saw me as a worthy candidate for the program.
At what stage in a films production do you normally come onboard a film project, do you like to see the script beforehand?
It depends on the timeline and the project. I always love to dive in early. To have the time to develop a sound for the score and really explore what the film is can be a real joy. That said, scoring quickly, from the guts can lead to other wonderful / exciting results.
When working a new film how vital is the creative collaborative relationship between a composer and the directors?
It is a huge part of the process. It is also incredibly important to really dive into the filmmaker’s vision. What were they listening to when they wrote the script or start pre-production, what are other cinematic influences for the project or just as an artist. It is important to get inside the character of the film from as many different angles as possible.
If you could describe your score for Cat Person in three words what would they be?
Whistle-y, Experimental, gnarly.
Have you always had a passion for composing?
I always had a passion for music, I took cello, synthesiser and piano lessons since I was a little squirt, but I didn’t think that being a composer was a thing I could be. I didn’t see other folks that looked like me composing concert music or scoring for film. When I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, I saw the Kronos String Quartet perform and I had them sign my Shostakovich Eighth String Quartet score (because I loved their performance of it – it also first exposed me to the music of George Crumb – The Black Angeles string quartet was also on that recording.) and when I met briefly Dave Harrington after the show, “he said if you ever write music for string quartet let us know”. It was just a quick passing conversation, but it totally planted a seed in my high school brain.
Growing up what was the first instrument you fell in love with?
The cello for sure.
Who where your biggest musical influences are?
I love the music of Charles Mingus, Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, George Crumb, Charlie Haden, Shostakovich, The Cure.
Is it helpful to be flexible with your creative approach when you are composing for a film like Cat Person?
Oh definitely! I originally wrote this really dense and rich music – with bigger heavier orchestration and it wasn’t landing. Susanna, the director was like “make it less” and we just kept stripping the instrumentation down. The open of the film really came into its own by that letting go of those bigger sounds. We needed space for the audience to make their own decisions about the characters, to not be lead too intensely by the score right out of the gate. We could still go big as the film progressed, but big the whole time wouldn’t have worked.
Do you have any rituals that you stick to that help guide your creative process?
I try to start my writing with open experimentation. Kind of like free writing. Just to get the ideas going. I also love coffee.
What does you music say about you?
I want to always find new sounds, experiment and have there be some joy in there. Even in the heaviest, gnarliest sounding scores. There is a real thrill that I get from finding something new and working with amazing players, artists, technicians and friends.
How much did your experience playing in bands like Gnarls Barkley and Lil Wayne as well as artists like Norah Jones helped your approach to film composing?
Film composing is a collaboration in the same way that playing live with a band or recording for a new album. We are all working toward one goal. Telling a story, entertaining people.
Do you have any advice or tips you would offer someone wanting to get into composing?
Try and compose something every day. When I first started out after I scored my first film I didn’t know where the next job would come from, but I still tried to write every day. Even if it was just a little sketch or a fragment of an idea. What would my version of action music sound like? What would my sci fi score sound like? It helped me learn to write fast. It confirmed that I was a composer. Just by the act of making. I’ve used most of those sketches I wrote in early days for demos or later projects. It’s a great exercise.
Finally, what would you like audiences to take away from your music?
I hope that my music immerses the audience in the film. In the story.