Dark Rooms’ Daniel Hart Talks Dipping His Toe Into Hollywood As A Film Score Composer.
Richardson High School has birthed some wildly successful folks in its day. The names range from famed gothic novelist Anne Rice to wacko televangelist, Robert Tilton.
At one point in the early ’90s, though, an especially cool crew roamed the halls, as filmmaker David Gordon Green and composer David Wingo attended classes alongside esteemed Dallas musician Daniel Hart.
Throughout his illustrious career, Hart’s had the pleasure of being one of the flower children in the Polyphonic Spree while also planting his flag as a fixture in Dallas’ music scene as both a solo artist and with his band Dark Rooms. Additionally, as a touring member for the Oklahoma-based outfit Other Lives, he’s even opened up for Radiohead.
But what’s paying the bills for Hart these days is his Hollywood work as a film composer. Hart’s worked on eight feature films thus far in his career, including the music for the upcoming documentary Eating Animals based on Jonathan Safran-Foer’s celebrated memoir on vegetarianism and the score for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints from Dallas’ own fast-rising director David Lowery.
We recently caught up with Hart to chat about the difference in creative composition when it comes to composing for film versus pop music, as well as how he got his start as a composer and the film scores that have inspired him.
To start off, I know that we did our first interview with you around 2013. I imagine that was close to around the time that you were working on the Ain’t Them Bodies Saints score.
The movie came out in 2013 in theaters. My work wrapped up around the end of 2012 and I was just starting my work for my next film after Ain’t Them Bodies Saints around that the time we did the interview.
What was the next movie?
It was a little Austin film called The Sideways Light and I believe it’s about to come in a couple of websites sometime soon. It’s got a cool Austin director and crew. It’s about a slightly haunted house in small town Texas and a woman who comes to take care of her sick mother who discovers the haunted house.
There’s something I love about those small Texas movies. There’s one I saw called Bad Turn Worse and it was all about small town Texas teens getting wrapped up with some nasty criminal types.
I’ll look it up. The only place I’ve lived in Texas is in Dallas, you know, the big city. But I grew up in a small town in Kansas and lived there until I was 10-years-old. So to that end, I feel I know a little bit what it means to live in a small town.
How did you first get involved with scoring? I know ATBS was your first movie, but how did you start? Did director David Lowery approach you or vice versa?
That was my first feature I scored. That was in 2012 when I worked on it and it came out in 2013. Previous to that, David and I worked on a few projects together. His first feature film was called Saint Nick and he made it on a shoestring budget back in 2009, I think. And at the time I had met him through his writing partner Toby Halbrooks. He’s one of the producers of ATBS and he co-wrote Lowery’s next movie, Pete’s Dragon. So Toby and I had been friends for a long time. He and I used to play in the Polyphonic Spree. He moved on to more film stuff and we stayed close over the years, so when he and David started working together, he shared my music with David.
When David heard it, he asked me to write a couple of songs for Saint Nick. So I sent him a couple of songs after having watched a little bit of it. They weren’t written for any particular scene or anything. They were just pieces that were inspired by how the movie made me feel and he really liked those two pieces and he used them in the film. So after that happened, he worked on a short film called Pioneer at the end of 2010. He was trying to make it to Sundance and he wanted to write the music and I felt that was my first real collaboration. While we worked on Saint Nick it was more of he wanted music and I gave it to him and that was it. This was more of a process we met and talked about the film and talked about what he wanted and there was a lot of back and forth. The film is only 15 minutes long and there’s less music than that in the short, but that experience was something we both really enjoyed we felt like we understood each other and spoke each other’s language. The music we wrote for that movie was influential for Saints since it was the same director and we also found some ideas and stylistic choices that worked well with David that were able to be carried over. It just happened that David and I had a friend in common. At the time he had no money so he asked me if I could score something for free and I said “sure!” and it went well. So when he actually got a budget and needed music for Saints he really pushed for me. He had a film score agent and he worked for William Morris, the biggest talent agency in the world. So when he was doing Saints it was filled with actors represented by the agency and they had other composers and they had were showing him some composers. David told me [that] he told the William Morris people “I have a composer, I think you would be interested in.” I think there was some pressure to use a William Morris composer, but he fought for my involvement. So then a few months before the movie came out, I actually started working with WM and they represent me now. So that’s how I got started.
So talking to the score, my first experience with your work was Dark Rooms and then I listened to the Saints score and I was amazed at how completely different it was but it worked so well. And honestly the score reminded me of a less-intense version Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood.
That’s one of my favorite scores, thank you. Whenever I begin work on a film, I start out by choosing three scores that already exist as a sort of triangle in which to base stylistic and thematic choices. I share this with the director and if it resonates with both of us then I use those as pin points. So Jonny Greenwood’s score for The Master is actually one of those pinpoints for Saints. It came out right when I started working on the score and it really changed the way that I thought about that score and composing in general.
While I know that this has been going on for a while. It seems that lately there’s a lot more musicians from bands becoming music score composers or at least contributing to a score. Super famous example was Tron: Legacy getting Daft Punk. Then there’s other bands like Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene and, obviously, Jonny Greenwood. In my opinion, they seem to be unique as hell. For example: your scores all match and mold to the movie and they all seem different from each other but, it still feels like you. But then there’s other more established composers like John Williams or Hans Zimmer. You hear their music and their style stays constant no matter what the movie is and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. So then, this sounds like a silly question, but I imagine there’s some differences between writing for a movie and writing for an album.
There are differences. For one thing, if I’m writing music for Dark Rooms, I am the director, producer, screenwriter, editor, producer and sound designer. All of the choices are up to me. I can do whatever I want. I can write a song with elephant calls as samples and a tuba as the bass line and people blowing on Coke bottles for the percussion. I could do anything I wanted. If I’m working on a film for most of the time, unless it’s with David or someone I’m developing a relationship with, I usually get brought in at the end of the process. Shooting’s done or at least almost done. Editing is underway and they’ve got a few months before they turn it into a festival deadline or a producer who will try to sell it to distributors. I’m being brought in at a point where most of the decisions have already been made. This is someone’s creative vision, the director and writer, which is usually the same person, and the producer, who might be creatively involved. My job to fulfill the vision of the director and whoever else is contributing. So there’s already some constraints. Can I use my elephant sounds? Probably not. Can I use the tuba? Who knows. For the majority of the films I’ve worked on, most of them wanted something that sounded like the ATBS so I need to write something that will best fit the film and best tell the story of the film, but in a lot of cases the director has specific ideas as to what they would want. So already there’s all of these situations where I have very little say over what gets done. Given that, it’s still fulfilling doing this kind of work. In its own way, it’s a puzzle. I have these different sets of parameters and I have to work within those parameters. That’s exciting in its own way.
I know that creative types love more limitations because you have to work within a small space and think outside the box. Like musicians only using three chords or not using a million guitar pedals. Some people find that better than having an unlimited amount of toys to play with.
I think some musicians have it a little easier like when John Williams does John Williams and he does it well and there’s no arguing against it. Coming from my perspective over the years, I’ve done so much music over the years and I’m into so many different types of music that interest me. The ability to do anything is crippling because in a way my work turns out not cohesive.
So have you found that your composing experience has influenced your solo records or Dark Rooms? If so, how?
To that end, we are working on the second Dark Rooms record now and I put very specific parameters in place to narrow my writing and focus.
No elephant beats?
Haha. No, just some guidelines to make everything more cohesive. I have Dark Rooms now and I have made a couple of solo albums and I have another band called Physics of Meaning and in all of those projects, the weakest links for my taste is that the albums are not cohesive. They all reach out in too many directions based on all of the interests that I want to explore during a year and a half and three-year process. So yeah, after working on a bunch of films I realized I could benefit from putting some parameters for the new Dark Rooms album. I think it’s going well. We have a collection of songs that are more cohesive than anything we’ve done and the production is really strict about what styles should be allowed. It’s kept some songs out of the running. I don’t know what to do with them.
Well maybe they could be showing up in a future score? Anyway, you mentioned that you are brought on late in the process. What’s usually your turnaround time, then?
I’ve done eight features. Last year, I did one that was due in four weeks. And then I did one that I started in December 2013 and I worked on it for a couple of months and the due date was before 2014 Sundance. So I wrote so much music during December 2013 and then started recording January 2014 and then they stopped. The filmmakers stopped because they got busy with other projects and then it picked back up in April and then stopped and picked up in December 2014. I finally turned it in, February of this year. So almost a year-and-a-half. So, it depends on people’s budgets and resources. There’s a film I did called, Return to Sender, where I started it and worked on it for a couple of months. They had to stop to do reshoots, but all of the actors were busy so they had to wait until they became available. Then, six months later, we finished it.
That’s the one with Rosamund Pike?
Yeah, and that was around the time that Gone Girl came out, so she had no time for reshoots.
And that’s one of the three movies you have up on Netflix, right?
It is. [Editor’s note: The others are ATBS and Comet.] And for Comet, the soundtrack came out November 27. And really, the only reason that it is, is because of the reception it got on Netflix. Because people saw it and kept asking for it.
I was going to save this question for a little later, but I was wondering if your scores were going to have digital or physical releases? Last time I checked only ATBS was available and that was just as a digital download through Amazon.
Very few film scores are being released physically.
So nowadays it seems that the only scores that get released are genre and horror soundtracks. There’s a couple of labels I follow and they seem to do well, always selling out. How is Comet being released?
As a digital download. It’s the same label, [Lakeshore Records], that released ATBS and I think they switched to just releasing things digitally. But I think also the films I’m doing are not on a large enough scale to make them think it would be worth it to release them digitally. ATBS did well but, no one thought it would at the time and labels releasing scores are not in the habit taking great risks. Just because score album sales versus pop albums are less.
Scores are a collector’s, limited-edition market nowadays. So reading over our last interview, you mentioned that Dark Rooms began from a very dark and emotional place of depression. So with your film work, do you connect with this music on an emotional level or is it more cerebral since you have to work within certain parameters?
I try to treat it the same. I try to invest myself in all of my work. Sometimes it’s easy to do that and if there’s stuff happening in the film, it doesn’t have to be the entire film even if there’s aspects that resonate with me, it’s easy to invest myself in writing music that moves me emotionally. There’s a piece — and this is in all of the press releases for Comet — it’s a solo piano piece called “Jill and Brian.” I wrote it for a couple, some friends of mine that got married when I was working on the soundtrack for Comet around 2013. I gave this piano piece to them as a wedding gift. I couldn’t make it to the wedding. And then my friend Brian passed away a month later because he had been diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer a year earlier. They got married knowing that he wasn’t going to be around that long.
I’m so sorry for your loss.
Yeah, thanks. I am too. I’m sorry I didn’t get to spend more time with him. I wrote that piece and I knew that he was dying. It ended up in the movie in a scene where Emily Rossum’s character, Kimberly, is talking about time and how she wishes life was more like a painting where time is not going forward but standing still. “If only you could stop time and have it be like a painting.” And yeah, at the time I wish that was true in this situation. I wish I could’ve stopped time. I wish I could’ve had the time and resources to make it up to the Northeast to see my friend before he passed away or have time stop so he didn’t pass away. So there’s stuff like that. I mean, that’s a pretty extreme example.
I was going to say, I’m not sure how you could do a movie if it was always like that!
Thankfully, I don’t have friends dying. Usually, there’s something in every film. There’s scenes that move me and make want to write music.
Well I’m glad it’s coming out as a download. It’s very unique and I loved the synthesizers sound.
Yeah, Comet was the third feature I did. The second one The Sideways Light and the director wanted something similar to ATBS and I did something like that. Similar style and instrumentation. For my part, I don’t think I did as good of a job, because I didn’t connect as much. Now Comet’s director, Sam [Esmail], went on to create Mr. Robot. This was his first movie and he was the writer too. I think he was like a kid in a candy store. He wanted everything. To that end, he had a lot of styles of music that he had as placeholder before I came along. And it ran the gamut. There were M83 songs, there was Jon Brion’s score for Punch Drunk Love, there was a synth pop band from the ’80s, then there were Edith Piaf songs from the 1930s and it was a chance for me to kind of go in a bunch of different directions. I had to cover a lot of ground. There wasn’t a lot of budget to license a lot of songs so I had to write a fake French song from the ’30s that sounded convincing for some scenes in a Paris hotel room. I had to write background music for an old NASA educational video. It plays at the beginning right before the meteor shower and they’re showing these vintage space exploration films at the screen in the cemetery. I had to write music for those scenes. I had to cover the score for a film that was based on an M83 song that Sam was obsessed over, then I had to cover Sharon Van Etten’s “Love More” in the style of Bon Iver. Sam had found this cover but couldn’t afford to license it. So I got to do so many different things. It was really hard but, it was fun going in some different directions.
It sounds like it. So did you have to try to rein the parameters?
Yeah, I did try to make it more cohesive. The scene where he had put in Jon Brion’s score for Punch Drunk Love and like many of his scores, it is kind of quirky chamber pop. It just didn’t fit with the rest of the score. So I had to take that in a completely different direction to make it fit. Still a lot of fun.
Do you ever see yourself doing only movie scores exclusively?
I don’t think I would. I love playing live. It feeds me in a way that nothing else does. I think if I was only doing film score and not shows, it would feel like something is missing. I’ve told myself if I could choose an ideal situation, I would do 50-50 of touring and scoring. Given the climate of pop music, scoring pays better than live music so to that end, I might not get to choose the 50-50 ratio.
Since you mentioned Punch Drunk Love, and that you had certain artists that you used as the framework for the movies you score, are there any composers that inspire you or if you want to throw it out there what are some of your favorite scores?
The score for the The Princess Bride by Mark Knopfler. One of my favorite scores of all time for one of my favorite movies of all time. But, even beyond as I’ve gone back to watch it, I’ve come to appreciate. I’ve listened to the score and I think “If I had been given this movie to score and I saw the movie without any music — with these scene of men fighting swords and rolling down hills and chasing each other in castles — would I have made all of the same choices?” Probably not. And they’re so brilliant. There’s a lot of synthesized strings and horns made to sound like old King Arthur movies. And when you do it with the synths and patches he chose and the movie takes place in the ’80s and it sounds like an ’80s fairy tale. And it’s got another level to it because of the instrumentation and sounds he chose. He probably didn’t think about it as much as I did. Absolutely love it.
Sounds like I need to re-listen to it!
So there’s that and then the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The score was done by his father, Stan Lee. It sounds like Copeland, American jazz string sections from 1930s Harlem. It’s a perfect counterbalance to the early hip-hop that’s played in the movie. When I was working on ATBS I listened to the In Bruges score by Carter Burwell. I love him. I love everything he’s done for the Coen Brothers but this one in particular did the right thing in terms of the action and shooting sequence. It was the right mixture of tension and underplayed pacing that I tried to emulate for ATBS. Also, Mika’s score for Under the Skin. Also Hans Zimmer’s score for Interstellar which is some of his most personal work in a long time.
And just to wrap it all up, what are some projects you have coming up such as the new Dark Rooms records?
We don’t have a timetable for that new record. We’ve got three songs and we’ve got mix dates and those should be done before the end of the year. Everything else is in process in various level of recording. I would love to work more in Dark Rooms, but I need to do stuff to pay the bills. That’s the life of a working musician. Film-wise, the next two movies are two documentaries. One is called Eating Animals. It’s based on the book by same name Jonathan Safran-Foer. The book is about his own investigation into vegetarianism, veganism, and factory farming, but the movie is based on the factory farming aspect. There’s some personal stories in there as well. The footage I’ve seen so far, is hard to watch, as you expect. They’re potentially looking to have it in by Cannes. This local photographer, Dylan Hollingsworth, is making a documentary about the first Muslim fraternity which is actually in UTD. They have been following the guys that started the fraternity. The kids all come from all over and the movie explores their different relationship to Islam and to each other. I’ve liked everything I’ve seen so far.