Film / Music / Sundance
"If I’m having a creative day I tend to not want to go out and have business meetings so that I can just focus on being creative."
Nainita Desai is a British composer and a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit. TNC spoke with Nainita about her most recent work on Laura McGann's The Deepest Breath.
Hi Nainita, thank you for talking with The New Current, how have you been keeping?
I’ve been doing pretty well thank you. It’s awards season so I’ve been pretty overwhelmed with all the film viewing – in a good way! I have just returned from Sundance. The first time I attended was Jan 2020 and we had a little global health disaster in between so I was extremely grateful and blessed to be back experiencing and soaking up the vibe of the festival with a new film.
When Empire Magazine named you as one of the Top 5 Composers to Watch did that add any additional pressure on you and what has it meant to you to get this type of recognition for your work?
It’s the leading film magazine that I read as a young film fan so I was pretty surprised and really chuffed to actually be in it, especially as the acknowledgment comes from leading UK film critic Mark Kermode and from the wider film industry, not just my niche film music world. I felt like I’d ticked off a bucket list item!
As an Emmy-Winning composer what would you say has been the secret to your evocative style?
I like deep diving in an immersive way into the world of the film and I try to tell the story in the most truthful way, diving into the underbelly of the characters and with it, creating a unique musical score that the film inhabits. I also love a good tune. Melodies are very important to me. When I watch a film, it’s the themes that I want to be humming when I leave the cinema and help connect me to the film long after it’s over.
How much did your time studying Sound for Film at NFTS help guide and prepare you for you move into composing?
Just working on a wide variety of projects and gaining experience in genres from animation to drama, working in teams on location as a boom operator in location sound and then audio post production helped me learn how to work as part of a team. The same goes for when I worked as a sound designer on big productions.
I learnt about the entire process of audio post – production which helped me move into music editing, engineering and eventually composing. I was immersed in understanding all the roles of the various departments. Film making is a team effort with many difference depts feeding into one another so it helped me understand the entire process – not just music.
Congratulations on having The Deepest Breath premiere at Sundance 2023, do you ever get nervous ahead of a new film being screened?
Thank you. I’m always nervous about the audience are going to respond to a film. I just hope that viewers connect with the film in the way we as a team intended.
What’s that feeling like sitting in a cinema with an audience and watching them react to your score?
It’s the best feeling in the world. It’s a big part of why I compose. I want to share my work with a wider audience.
I feel very nervous watching my work with an audience but I try to savour and relish every moment trying to feel what the audience are experiencing. It’s like watching the film for the first time even though I’ve probably seen it thousands of times before. If they laugh, cry or are on the edge of their seat at all the right moments then I know we’ve achieved our goal.
When do you normally come onboard a film project, is it important for a composer to be there at the very start of a production?
I don’t really get a say when I’m brought on but I do like to be on board early on. It allows me time to experiment and write ideas from an early stage without the pressures of the edit. It’s good to be untethered from the visuals even though things may change once the music is attached to the film later down the line.
What was it about The Deepest Breath that connected with you and inspired you to create the score?
What drew me to this film initially was the potential to explore what drives these free divers to push their bodies to the limits of what they are physically capable and therefore to understand who we are and also to tell this love story with sensitivity.
Given the gorgeous seascapes combined with the deeply interior nature of the free-diver’s journey and the enormous stakes of this film the score had to traverse a wide emotional spectrum.
The score weaves together the parallel stories of Alessia and Stephen, capturing the thrilling danger of the sport whilst also capturing their nascent relationship against a stunning underwater backdrop. In the film, we experience so much of the beauty and the brutality of life and love; I tried to capture the immersiveness of the beauty, the stillness, and the peril of the deep, particularly in the opening titles where you hear the power of the natural elements with the thundering drums and the intimacy of the human.
How important is the creative collaborative relationship between a composer and your director?
It’s absolutely crucial…I feel like I’m going on a creative journey with the film maker and really part of the film making team but I also want to work with film makers who give me some creative freedom. You develop a shorthand of communication and a successful collaboration is often down to trust which can be a rare thing.
So coming on board early so that you understand the narrative arc and the characters allowing the development of the music to flow with the edit and story is really useful to establish a great working collaboration.
If you could describe your score for The Deepest Breath in three words what would they be?
Emotional, Exhilarating, Tense.
Have you always had a passion for composing?
I’ve always composed music from a very young age before I even realised I wanted to be a composer or knew what it really was. As a kid I was always singing, improvising and noodling on the guitar or piano so it came very naturally to me.
I loved art, drama, writing – all forms of creative expression, but music was my natural home.
How much has your approach to your work changed since you started out?
I’m much more conceptual now and writing in a thematic way is more natural for me than when I first started. On a practical level, I have a huge tool kit of technology available to me and those limitless resources are wonderful but having too many options can actually be a hindrance. So I create parameters and a restricted sound palette or tool kit per project.
I’m also more organised and streamlined now. I used to be much slower at composing, exploring every recorded take, but now when working with musicians, I’m much quicker at filtering what is working and what isn’t.
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?
Flexibility is what it’s all about! I like taking myself out of my comfort zone, mixing things up and trying new ways of doing things.
In terms of rituals, I just have to be utter comfortable and relaxed when composing. I don’t really have trouble zoning in. If I’m having a creative day I tend to not want to go out and have business meetings so that I can just focus on being creative.
Growing up what was the first instrument you fell in love with?
The synthesizer. I was just interested in sound and the musical possibilities of the synthesizer are endless. I discovered Jean Michel Jarre’s music - the wide spectrum of sounds he created – it was emotive and otherworldly and his melodies were incredible.
My secondary school bought an ECM VCS3 synth – a real classic – and I borrowed it for 2 years! I used to dream of buying a collection of synths such as the Minimoog, Yamaha DX7, Roland D50 and saved up all my allowance to buy a Roland D70 – my first synth.
Who are your biggest musical influences?
I’ve had many influences but some formative ones include Peter Gabriel (The Last Temptation of Christ soundtrack), Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Goldsmiths, John Barry – I love his use of melody and iconic Bond scores, Thomas Newman, Michael Nyman and his scores for Peter Greenaway films. Gabriel Yared and Michel Legrand. Those were just some of my early influences.
What does your music say about you?
The symbiosis of all the crafts coming together to tell a story and transport the viewer through film is the most powerful of artistic mediums for me. So I like to think my music is truthful, complex, challenging, honest, emotive, has a beauty, warmth and heart at its core..
Of all the projects you have composed do you have one that you are really connected to?
It’s always my most current one! However, I wrote a BBC documentary musical City Of Dreams – A Musical a while back about teenagers wanting to study their way out of poverty in the slums of Mumbai. It was one of the hardest projects I’ve ever scored where I had to write songs in pop music genres that the children had to perform to camera. However they couldn’t read, or speak English let alone sing or dance so it’s one of the most personally challenging and rewarding projects I’ve ever worked on.
Do you have any advice or tips you would offer someone wanting to get into composing?
If you’re looking to get into being a media and film composer, watch a lot of film and TV and study the use of music and how it’s making you feel. Learn about the industry; find out about every role, in terms of craft, teams, executives etc. Going to film school was so invaluable for me because I got to learn what every member of the team does, including the gaffer, grip etc.
Develop strong communication and collaborative skills. You have to be part of a team. If I wanted to write music for myself like an artist does, I wouldn’t be a film and TV composer. You have to serve the director’s vision and the film’s needs, not your own creative ego. At the same time, it’s important to develop your own musical voice and then bend that to suit the film as well.
Be part of a community and network. Get to know other musicians, composers, filmmakers.
Keep yourself inspired. Write music all the time, even just for yourself. Set up your own keyboard, laptop and some software and just start writing. You never stop learning. I’m still learning myself. Every project is a new challenge. I like to push myself into new areas creatively and musically that I’ve never worked in before.
Establish good communication with the director. Learn to speak the language of film. I don’t expect filmmakers to talk to me in musical ways, because they’re not composers and musicians, so I need to understand their language. Speak in terms of emotions, moods and what you’re trying to convey.
Get to grips the technology and embrace it. It’s absolutely crucial to know how to work with computers and music software.
Finally, what would you like audiences to take away from your music?
I want to take listeners on an emotional journey that moves them, make them curious, surprises and excites them. If when I’m composing I feel excited about what I’m creating, and that then evokes similar emotions in the listener, then I have achieved my goal!