Musician David Wingo has composed thirty film scores over the course of a twenty-year career, as well as working in TV (Barry is one of his recent TV scores). He is a frequent collaborator of Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Midnight Special) and David Gordon Green (Joe, Manglehorn). He has now teamed up with first-time feature-film director Scott Z Burns for The Report, a political thriller based on real events, in the mold of All the President’s Men, Zodiac and Spotlight. Adam Driver plays Dan Jones, a man investigating the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Techniques which they employed after 9/11 in order to try and capture high-ranking members of Al-Qaeda (with the ultimate goal obviously being Bin Laden). Annette Bening plays Senator Dianne Feinstein, who Jones reports to. The film features also features an all-star cast, even in tiny roles, including Jon Hamm, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Matthew Rhys and Corey Stoll. The Report is on limited release in theatres from today (November 15th) and comes to Amazon Prime on November 29th.
What drew you to The Report initially?
It came my way – it wasn’t though anybody I knew, which is often the case – it came to me through my agent. I was pretty immediately intrigued, just from hearing what the subject matter was, who was behind it, Scott Z. Burns and the cast. I feel like there’s not a lot of these investigative thrillers really anymore. I’ve always not just loved the genre, but a lot of my favourite scores are from Zodiac, All the President’s Men – the David Shire is one of my favourites and Three Days of the Condor. But there’s not a lot of them and they’re not getting made as often as they used to, so yeah I was immediately very excited.
And what was the process of collaboration like with Scott Z. Burns. How did you two work together?
You know, I came on pretty late in the game. They already had a final picture lock, which was a nice luxury that I don’t usually have. So, I didn’t have a whole lot of time, I had 7-8 weeks but Scott and Greg O’Bryant the editor did such a great job. When I spotted the film with them for the first time, they did something which no one had ever done for me before in almost twenty years of doing this. They had made a document with every scene that they thought needed music, what they wanted the music to accomplish in that scene. If there was temp music in there, what was or was not working about that music and then they had come up with a blueprint of even what they thought thematically – like these scenes should all be tied together thematically. So it was so thorough, right from the get-go. They were being slightly apologetic like; “you can do your own thing, you don’t have to do this” but I thought it was great. Getting that much direction is, I guess maybe some composers would feel stifled if they had that from the very beginning, I’m not sure. But the blank canvas always is daunting for me (laughs), but they made the canvas not nearly as blank. It was like they drew up the blueprint of the house and I just needed to build the house. It was great. So that was the main thing, that cut through so many of the obstacles of working together for the first time. With David Green and Jeff Nichols, who I’ve worked with a lot, we’ve developed a way of talking about music and I started to recognise their aesthetic and understand what they mean when they say certain things. Music can be so difficult to talk about. That just eliminated so many of the initial obstacles, so I knew exactly what he (Scott Burns) was going for. So from there on out, they were already done editing, I was sending Scott things and he was always very quick to respond, he knew what he wanted all the time, which is exactly what you want.
I want to talk about the very start of the film, you launch straight in with a really dynamic, propulsive electronic sound. It creates a sense of tension and urgency right from the start. Were you conscious of trying to add drama to something that had the potential to be quite dry because it’s so dialogue and exposition-heavy and there’s so much information that has to come across in the film?
It’s interesting because once again, it’s like trying to decipher what words mean in this regard because Scott would talk about how he didn’t want to necessarily play up the dramatic elements. He thought that the performances and the writing, the subject matter in and of itself and the facts that are being presented had high drama. He wanted it, like you said to be propulsive and give an urgency. So rather than kind of comment on the content necessarily. For instance, at one point Dan Jones is telling Feinstein his findings of how many people went through the programme and they never got anything from them and it’s just like, overwhelming. At that point you want the music to play off… a melancholy kind of a thing. Letting the music not just constantly remark on what’s being said. But what it needed to be most of the time is what you just said, to give a propulsion so that you feel Dan’s urgency to get to the bottom of this, to get these things out. It’s kind of subjective to Dan’s experience, the music quite often really needed to reflect Dan.
So right from the beginning of the movie, it needed to establish that, to give it a sense of pulse-racing right from the get-go. It throws you in, it’s like the middle of the movie basically and I think they didn’t always have that. They told me that was kind of a later addition in the edit where they opened it up with that, they thought it really gave a sense of intrigue that maybe it was lacking before, I guess. So to open it right up with that (conversation between Dan Jones and his lawyer Cyrus Clifford played by Corey Stoll, which is filmed like an interrogation) happening. So because of that, they wanted the music to feel like it drops you right in there. So it initially needs to establish what the music is going to be doing. So you can try to forget that these are just people in rooms talking and exchanging information for the most part. But again, those movies I mentioned – Zodiac, All the President’s Men, Spotlight – really following that lineage. We’re not doing our job if you’re thinking in the middle of the movie “oh God, this is a lot of people talking, giving me information.” You want to feel like you’re being taken along and so the music is there to help that, for sure.
Using a score in a film is as much about which scenes have no score, as much as those that do. Again, with a film as exposition-heavy as this – when did you think it was important to have silence and how did you want to use that silence?
Yeah, Scott and Greg had really great instincts about that and so I think they thought a lot about it and probably tried a lot with temp music before I got in there, when they were editing. So by the time I got in there with them, when I spotted the film with them, like I mentioned, they had all those notes already done. But they were certainly open to me deciding that I wanted to use music for scenes where there wasn’t or vice-versa. And so I tried a couple of things out where I thought; “maybe this scene could use a little bit of this theme that we talked about where they had no music and they were always open to it.” But I think I was just following their lead, their instincts were really right-on, so it ended up being more in their department and I thought that they made all the right choices.
You’ve worked with Jeff Nichols at least 4 times and I presume you’ve developed a short-hand with him, so how is it different to working with a first-time feature-film director, Scott Z. Burns (I know he’s written many, but not directed)? How was the process different between someone you’ve worked with a lot and working with someone for the first time?
As far as it being Scott’s first feature, I’ve worked with first-time feature directors before and I think because Scott has been writing such big films for so long and he had been working on this for so long, this wasn’t a normal experience I’ve had of working with a first-time feature director. I would not say that people were overwhelmed by the moment, but they would not be so certain all the time, maybe a little bit of back-and-forth about some things. Which I certainly understand, when I first had a band and was touring, I was constantly questioning every little decision I made, it was a learning process. But he didn’t really have that, I think because he had such a certainty with this project and also because he’d been working on pretty big stuff for a while. So that was really great. I think it would have been more difficult establishing the short-hand if he was not so clear and focused on what he wanted scenes to convey.
Where it comes into play and where that short-hand is so nice is when it’s more of a feel thing, like if Jeff just wants the scene to feel a certain way. That’s when it starts being hard to talk about stuff because it’s such an abstract thing. I remember one experience where Jeff was like; “I feel like it needs to have a French horn, for real warmth.” So I tried a French horn line and he was; “yeah I like that but something about its not right, I need it a little more lush” so I was trying all these things. We finally got a French horn player and he just played one long A minor or A flat and Jeff was like; “that’s it!” That was all he wanted to hear. So when he said minimal, he really meant minimal, he really just wanted to hear the sound of a French horn. That was a big learning experience for me. Jeff is responsive to textures, so it wasn’t what I was thinking in terms of melody or arrangements. He really just wanted to hear a French horn. So stuff like that just takes learning.
But with Scott, because of what the movie is such a tight script and it’s a very linear story of true events and things that have happened. He researched SO much, so it wasn’t that kind of thing. He always had a very clear vision of how the story was playing out and how he wanted Dan’s – again, the score was often so subjective to Dan’s experience – he was always aware of where Dan should be in the moment. So you might want to fee like Dan’s idealism is deteriorating here, or Dan sees a glimmer of hope here, but still a little element of wariness. So because we’d established what all the themes were, that just makes it so much easier. There’s not a lot of guessing in the dark, we had that outlined from the beginning.
How did The Report differ from something like Brigsy Bear (a great film, by the way) where the music covers more of a range, I think there’s some acoustic guitars in that score, for example, compared to The Report which is slightly more clinical and electronic sounding?
DW: Yeah Brigsby was a much more one of those experiences where you’re just throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what works. It was similar time-line but I think I had a lot more late nights on it because we didn’t have such a focused idea of what the score was like we did on The Report. That’s how it usually is, The Report is not the norm, to have such a concrete idea of what it’s going to be and then that works out. Sometimes, there is a concrete idea of what it’s going to be, then you try it and it’s not working at all and you just have to wing it. So our idea from the get-go was always making sense. So, Brigsby Bear was figuring it out as we went and you’re right there’s some scenes that were really melodic and heart-felt and some scenes that where Dave McCary (the director) thought he wanted to play up the emotion of the scene but then we did it and then we thought; “actually let’s try and be a little more restrained here.”
I haven’t worked on a lot of true stories. Loving is a Jeff Nichols film which is based on a couple in Virginia that was forced to go and live in DC when inter-racial marriages were still outlawed and they had to go and live away from home for ten years. So, Loving and The Report and the only two I’ve done which are based on real events and Loving was similar as well. We knew what it was and we did it and it worked. So maybe it’s something to do with if the storytelling is based on facts and you know what those are, it makes it a lot easier to know how your characters should be feeling at each point, you make it subjective to the characters and there’s a linear story that you can’t touch. It just is what it is. Honestly, this is the first time I’ve ever thought about this but those are probably the two clearest visions of what the score should be and we just went ahead with it and it followed what we thought in our heads would work. So maybe that’s a part of it, having the story already set out for you where we’re all on the same page, a lot more easily than if you’re trying to figure out the characters’ emotions as you go, in something that you’ve made up.