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Student Blog: An Interview With Wild Indian's Composer Gavin Brivik


In which we discuss temp music, changing paths, compromise, and more!

Student Blog: An Interview With Wild Indian's Composer Gavin Brivik

Tell me a little bit about your process - how do you start writing for a film?

I will say that the process is ever-changing, and it definitely varies per production. I would say like, the traditional way that still is in practice, is the film is completely shot and enters post production where they're editing it, and that's typically when the director and the editor and a lot of the creative team starts trying to find the musical voice or the sound of the score. And so sometimes, the composer is brought in at the end of the process. Nowadays, a lot of composers and directors have even started working from the script. There's even the famous story of Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan from Interstellar where they worked a year or even more in advance. And I think that's kind of a testament to the relationship a composer has with the director. So I would say normally my process is [that] I'll watch a cut of the film. Sometimes there's temp music, and that's short for temporary music. If anybody [is] not familiar with that, it's like when an editor and a director cut another person's score into an edit to see how that music works with the cut. Sometimes it's a process of the director trying to find what other composers' works fit into the movie, so I listen to that, and then I have a conversation with the director. [I ask] what they were thinking, what they like about the temp music, like, what's currently working? And if there's no temp music, what are they really trying to accomplish with the music in the film? And then I get started - sometimes we have conversations about instrumentation, not always the case, but some directors have very specific musical palettes in mind. Maybe they want a very electronic score. Maybe they really like orchestral music, maybe it's [just] guitars and drums. I will say, some of the films have worked on, it happens very early. I have done stuff where I've worked from the script. I've also done stuff where I came in, and there was a week to finish - so it can be kind of chaotic. There's a really good YouTube video that's only 10 minutes long if you want to understand the horrible side of temp music, which really is the bane of my existence. It's [called] "The Marvel Symphonic Universe", and it talks all about why temp music is kind of ruining a lot of modern film scoring. It gives really good examples and context that kind of shows how it's used, and then what kind of pressures it puts on a composer. It's a huge topic in the scoring community. But yeah, temp music can either be somewhat helpful, or really puts you in a box.

Did you get a cut of the movie or see scenes before beginning to work, or did you work from a paper description?

This one was working from the script. This one was actually my first time really doing that. I had a few friends who had participated in the Sundance fellowship program. So Lyle [Mitchell Corbine], the director of Wild Indian, was a participant in the screenwriting and directing part of that fellowship. And so I had seen some people on Facebook actually posting about him and posting about some of the other participants, [and] I ended up seeing that we had mutual friends on Facebook, and I ended up just reaching out. And this was like, two years before the film was made, [and] he sent me the script. And he was still so early, but he was interested and had seen another project I'd worked on. I read this script and was so inspired that I ended up just writing a bunch of tracks, and sent him the music inspired by the script. And that's kind of where we started it, which I had never done before. And I think it is actually super challenging, because you become the director in your head. There's not always directions - some directors have all that: where the camera is, stage direction, how the actors will be moving together and what angle, but Lyle's script was a lot more like a novel, so I was kind of visualizing it. And I think that can be challenging, because it is so much easier to see the cut and know what needs to be done, [rather than] trying to imagine how the director is going to make the film.

What happens when a director doesn't quite vibe with a piece?

There's definitely a feedback process, I think. So it's kind of a two part answer. I think, in general, if the director or producers or whoever is not completely in love with a track or doesn't think it's working, there's a lot of back and forth - and it could result in rewriting, and I do rewrites all the time. And it's just a part of the job. And ultimately, I really believe in the director and their vision, they're always right. Sometimes we might have not been on the same page, or maybe we were telling a little bit of a different story, or maybe highlighting a different part of the scene, and the director really wants to emphasize something else, so there's always that conversation. There's rewrites, there's a lot of notes. So maybe a director's like, "I wish it would get a little bigger during this line", like maybe they want to accentuate a line or emphasize some sort of shot. And I think that's always happening for every scene. And some directors are extremely nitpicky and very specific, [with] lots of micro-notes about very small detail changes, and others leave a lot for the composer to interpret and give a lot of space. And I'm sure that that's how they treat everybody on their team, like actors and editors. And for the process of Wild Indian, I did write a lot of this music from the script, and the director loved it, but a lot of it didn't end up working once we started editing it. We kind of changed the direction of the score because I think some of the actors' performances informed us, and there were changes to the film from the script, and I think some of the stuff just wasn't initially working. So we did a lot of rewrites in that process.

And what happens when one of the pieces you write and record doesn't exactly line up with shots or moments in the film?

It's definitely on both of us. A lot of the composer's skill set comes in the technicality of hitting cuts. There is a lot of the time where I'm challenged with just creating and hitting a lot of moments. But that being said, there are times where things are just not working. And I could tell the director and editor [that] if the shot was just extended a little bit, the music would flow way more naturally. I've worked with editors who are like, "Hey, I'm gonna re-edit this to your tracks". That's the best, honestly, when they do edit to the music, and I think all the best projects do that. That being said, a lot of composers do have the skill set and the technical writing abilities to really change on a dime and hit all the moments. And it kind of depends [on] if the edit is locked. There are projects where they're like, "Hey, this is completely locked, the edit's not changing, and there's no chance of it changing", because they might be start starting other processes, like the sound design and sound editing or coloring the film, so they can't change the edit, and then it really falls on your hands to hit everything. And that's always challenging, but you hope in those cases, there's some sort of leniency. Or if you're [in] a case where the editor edited the film to a temp track, and the temp track could have a very specific tempo. You can always copy that tempo - not saying you copy the temp track, that you can replicate the pacing of it, so that your music starts hitting all the same points.

Usually when the edit's locked in, it was edited to temp music, or if it's not edited to temp music, you edited a film with no musicality. But if a director is expecting the music to hit all these moments in a locked cut, [and it] wasn't edited to music, they have to accept that it might be slightly jarring. Sometimes when somebody is really immersed in the film, they don't always notice, but sometimes I'll watch stuff and be like, "Wow, that was kind of a jarring change". But I'm sure it wasn't the composer's fault. They were just kind of asked to do something really challenging.

Specifically when working on Wild Indian, where did you draw inspiration from?

I think the director and I had a lot of conversations about other films that inspired us, other composers, [and] what he was looking for in the score. A lot of the inspiration does come from watching the film and being inspired by the actors, being inspired by the performances and the cinematography and color of the shots. A lot of Wild Indian takes place in the woods, and I found the whistling sound of the wind going between the trees, and listening to the nature sounds, and then trying to see what blends together with the sounds in the film. So I think there's a mix, but I do think a lot of initial inspiration comes from the director. A lot of the time they'll give you a list of films that really inspired them, or other scores that they really think would work for this, and then maybe you watch those movies and study a little bit of how the score worked within that. It kind of changes, but I do think it's a blend between a conversation of the director and then just watching the cut.

What was your path to composing like? Was it a right-away dream, or was it something different?

I kind of stumbled into it - I actually started off as a classical and jazz guitarist, [and] I played in lots of rock bands and metal bands. I had this dream of being a touring guitarist. And thankfully, that did not [happen] - I'm very glad, that seems so silly to me now. When I was 19 or 20, I injured my wrist really bad from a repetitive stress injury. So I ended up having to take years off of playing guitar. And I was already in music school at this point, so I was trying to figure out what I could do in music school when I couldn't play my instrument. And [I thought], "Do I drop out of school? Or do I change my major?". But I had a roommate who was a composition major, and he knew I love to write music, I never thought about doing it in an academic sense. So he said, "You can audit the class for a semester". And then I audited it for that one semester, and then ended up switching my major. And then eventually, my wrist did heal. I felt like [composing] just felt way more fulfilling than it did performing everyday. I always felt performing had so much pressure, a lot of anxiety centered around interpretation, just the overall performing in front of audiences, while composing is a lot more personal and solitary, which just worked for my personality. I kind of always loved film scores, even as a child, and I used to have soundtrack CDs. I had the Jurassic Park soundtrack, and, you know, everybody has Star Wars and all the John Williams movie soundtracks, and I always loved them. I just never thought it was something I could do. But once I started studying music composition, I started thinking a lot more about it, and seeing if it was an actual career that was attainable. And then I started working with student filmmakers, and that all started there, honestly.

It is kind of like its own divine intervention, like you know, I get injured and then I find what I think is my true calling through that. I think my older dreams of being a touring guitarist seem so silly to me now. I actually work with tons of touring guitarists, and their life just seems so far from what I would want. I don't really even like traveling constantly - I do like traveling, but once, and then I want to be home for months. I couldn't imagine just being on the road forever. You know, obviously, these past two years really affected the touring and traveling musicians and performing, and a lot of the traveling and touring musicians even pre-COVID wanted some more stability, if you want to have a family or if you just want to settle down and have any sort of home life.

What is your favorite piece of information you learned while in school?

I had a really great music professor in my undergrad named Paul Rudy, and he traveled the world with a handheld sound recorder and all his music was made from found sound recordings. Everything's just found in nature, and I think a lot of his philosophy stuck with me. The way he approached music was so untraditional that I think it always challenged us to kind of question like, "What even is music? And how do we define it?".

What advice do you have for young artists?

As a new graduate, specifically for creative people, I think a lot of the stuff we don't learn about is managing your own mental health and stress levels, and finding that balance between work and life. We did have a professor who talked to us- because there are a lot of performing musicians who spend their entire life practicing their instrument in a practice room, and we had like a lecture about work-life balance, and how much you gain from stepping away from your craft. You learn a lot from just doing other things in life, and those activities bring inspiration to your art. So I think sometimes we get stuck in this trap that we have to be constantly hustling and constantly working every second, and anytime we're not, there's like this weird guilt. And I think that's [a] mental trap. Somehow we've ingrained in ourselves. I think the silliest one that probably everybody says (but it's so true), was just understanding how to run your own business and manage your money. If you really want to be your own boss, it's really tough to understand how to run a business when your entire degree was about creativity. Business stuff is boring, nobody's denying it, and accounting is the worst. I have an accountant who tells me that I make her job complete chaos, because I have no idea what I'm doing. I definitely wish I had just one or two classes on personal finance. A lot of new, modern creative programs force all the musicians to take those classes. It really does help to kind of have a lot of those skills, to make yourself more fluid with other types of people. As a film composer, a lot of the projects, you get one big sum of money. And you have to hire the musicians, you have to hire your own assistants, and you have to, essentially, do all this accounting and manage it so that you can also make a living, and also pay for the right people. That can be super overwhelming for people who just don't have those skills, especially when you're already trying to do all this creative work.

Gavin can be found on Instagram (@gavinbrivik) and all major music streaming platforms. Wild Indian is in select theaters and is available for purchase on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, YouTube, and more.

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