BFI Flare 2016
Justine Barker: "Something I admire about Jake's film-making that was apparent in the script for Dawn is his ability to capture a moment in time, something that can touch your heart, something we can connect to, without the need for lots of action or trickery."

Composer | DAWN dir. Jake Graf | World Premiere

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This year BFI Flare film festival celebrates its 30th anniversary and the short film programme continues to showcase the very best of short-form LGBTQ films from across the world. TNC is proud to once again share award-winning filmmaker Jake Graf's new film DAWN which has its world premiere at the 2016 BFI Flare.

We chat with the award-winning composer Justine Barker who has worked with Jake previously on Chance.

An EP of an enhanced version of the score with three extended tracks from the film will be available for download from all the usual outlets, when the film comes out on 26th March. It's just £1.77 to buy and 50% of the profits will be donated to the LGBT charity Stonewall so please do get a copy!

Hey Justine, thanks for talking to TNC, how're things going?

It's going really well thanks,  as usual, I've been juggling several projects. I'm super excited for Dawn to be screening at BFI Flare; after all the hard work, this is the payoff!  I've also just finished scoring a new series of the Channel 5 drama, Suspects. It's the most exciting season yet and I got to really develop the music which I'm very pleased with– there are some big surprises in store and I reckon viewers will be on the edge of their seats. I'm currently co-writing a movie theme with the supremely talented Katherine Ellis, known for her hits with Freemasons and her incredible vocal on the title track of the movie Gravity,  so yes, it's been busy which is good

How does it feel to have Dawn make its World Premiere at this years BFI Flare?

It's fantastic news for all the cast and crew, who worked so hard to make this film. BFI Flare is such a prestigious event and I hope this festival screening will be the first of many.

This is the 30th Anniversary of BFI Flare, any nerves setting in ahead of the screening?

Screenings are always nerve-wracking but NFT1 is the perfect setting. Apart from the obvious advantages of the superb quality of the giant screen, I just love hearing the sound coming through those awesome cinema speakers! That really helps settle my nerves, besides, this score feels quite different for me so I'm excited for people to watch and listen and see how it's received

Tell me a little bit about Dawn, how did you get involved with the film?

I've known the director, Jake Graf, for a few years now and we'd been keen to collaborate. I scored his last short, Chance, which screened at BFI Flare in 2015, and we really got along and admired each other's work and vision. It was a rewarding and fruitful experience so we wanted to build on that.

What was it about Jake's script that you really connected to and made you say yes?

Something I admire about Jake's film-making that was apparent in the script for Dawn is his ability to capture a moment in time, something that can touch your heart, something we can connect to, without the need for lots of action or trickery. Dawn has a very honest simplicity to it and that really appealed. When I watch a musician perform, I'm not interested in what a complex drum set-up they have or the technical intricacies of their guitar playing – I want to be moved and I can only be moved by feeling the heart that the musician puts into their playing. Jake is very adept at telling stories that show us, the sometimes coincidental but, very real human connections we make with people in the world every day. Dawn is a film with heart and that's what inspired me as a composer. 

"I know the processes that work best for me so I can spend more time being creative and less time fixing problems. "

When did you start writing the score for the film?

October last year. Jake sent me some early cuts so I could get a feel for the characters and the style it had been shot in, but I didn't really begin writing 'till I had the locked cut.

What are the challenges you face when you creating music for a film?

Well, there are many, budget and time are the obvious ones but also music and our response to it is personal and often difficult to describe. So the first challenge is finding a  common language so the director and composer can talk about their vision and ideas. The more you work with someone, the easier that gets and you develop a kind of short-hand to understanding each other. You also have to be very aware of the job the music is doing within the film, it needs to support the emotion you want the viewer to feel but mustn't divert their attention – they should be focussing on the narrative, not the music. Coco Chanel believed when a couture client walks into a room, you don't want everyone to say “What a dress”, you want them to say “Oh you look fabulous”. The dress should make people notice the person, not the dress itself. I want my score to make people notice the film.

These days composers, such as myself, often write, perform, record, arrange and mix the score in its entirety. There is a certain reassurance in that as it can be difficult to hand over your beautiful creative baby to someone else to complete, but you have to get used to wearing a lot of different hats. It is immensely satisfying to see the process through from that first chat with the director to watch the finished film nice and loud at the cinema.

Are you able to let go once you've handed it over or do you keep thinking 'I should have done this differently?’

Certainly there have been times I wish I'd written something differently but in general, I avoid that by never letting something go until I'm sure I'm happy with it. If I have doubts about how something works or sounds, I know it will always drive me crazy, so I have to fix it. Saying that I've only been doing this for five years and in that time, I've developed my craft and learned a lot so sure, I might approach some early projects differently with the benefit of hindsight, but I believe my energy is better spent moving forwards!

Have you always had a passion for music?

Yes, growing up, there was always music on at home. My Dad was a guitarist in a band and an avid enthusiast of all kinds of music. He bought me loads of records, eagerly detailing who was involved and how the music came about. He taught me some basic chords on the guitar, got me strumming and I never looked back. I started writing songs as a child and still do regularly, whether for work or just to get something off my chest. I've always found it the easiest way to express myself and the process is like the most soothing form of meditation. I listen to music all the time and love getting along to gigs. The power that music has never failed to blow my mind. 

What was the first project you worked on?

I first scored a short film called The Green; a sweet comedy about two young boys battling some grumpy old men over a bowling green in their quest for somewhere to play football. I sent the film to Emmy award-winning composing team Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin (Heroes, Nurse Jackie) and they gave me notes on the score which I addressed before delivering the final music. I learned some fundamentals in that one exchange that I use to this day.

Looking back would there be anything you'd do differently?

Regrets, I have a few! I'm not a big believer in that way of thinking, I prefer to think about what I will do differently in the future. At one time, it felt like I almost fell from one thing to the next without a plan but when I do look back, I can see a very clear path and progression; it all begins to make sense so it's best not to over analyse.

How much has your style and approach changed over the years?

My approach has changed in that it's more streamlined now – I know the processes that work best for me so I can spend more time being creative and less time fixing problems. My style does vary greatly in terms of instrumentation and genre but I think my core sound always comes through – it permeates through everything without intention because it's simply the way I write. Over the years, I'd say my style has developed rather than changed, and long may it continue.

And finally, what do you hope people will take away from your music?

For Dawn, we made a conscious decision to use synths rather than the more typical piano or strings score that you might expect in a film of this personal nature. The instruments are warmer, more complex, richly layered, reflecting the characters in the film and the journey they are on. Also essentially, it is contemporary as this is a very current story based on experiences people are living today. The sound is different from other music I’ve written and Jake really drove me to push the envelope - it was challenging but very liberating to break out into unknown territory and I’m really pleased with the result. I hope audiences agree!

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