Composer Robert Miller On "The King," Voicing a Thesis, & the Value of Empathy
Interview by Mike O'Donnell / Editor of the WNW Magazine
WNW Member Robert Miller is a prolific, award-winning composer of music for film, television and the concert hall, with a career spanning more than 20 years. His distinctive style has made its mark on well over 2,000 commercials, a growing body of 40 film scores, as well as numerous works for the stage. His latest score is for Eugene Jarecki's highly-acclaimed documentary The King, a musical road trip across America in Elvis Presley's 1963 Rolls Royce. The film parallels the icon's life and career arc with that of the United States.
I recently spoke to Robert about his latest project and his ongoing creative partnership with Jarecki. Over the course of our conversation, we discuss the particular challenges of composing for a film that's already packed with Elvis songs, and why when crafting the score, Robert tuned his ear to the thesis of director Jarecki rather than the sounds of The King himself. Robert also offers a trove of insights into his musical process as well as advice for up-and-coming composers."Empathy is a real advantage when you're scoring films because you need to connect with the stories that you see on screen so that you can find a sonic way in and somehow crystallize a score for the emotions that you're seeing and feeling."
This interview was recorded on June 22nd.
Mike: Congratulations on The King.
Robert: Thank you. I saw some really, really strong reviews in New York, where it opens tonight. Eugene's doing a Q&A at the end of one of the screenings. It's going to be fun.
Mike: That’s great. Had you been familiar with Eugene's work beforehand, or had you worked with him previously?
Robert: I’ve actually been his principal composer since 2005, when we first did Why We Fight together.
Mike: That’s a good, long run. How has that relationship developed over time? What drives both of you to keep collaborating?
Robert: You know, Eugene would say it his own way, and he's very articulate. He'd have a very intellectual way to put it. For me, I admire, first of all, his brain power. He is off-the-charts smart. He also is very inspired. When he gets involved in a film, it's always a big idea with a very, very ambitious agenda. His films all have big ideas, and they're executed beautifully. We seem to understand each other. When we first worked on Why We Fight, I was writing some initial sketches for it, and he decided to re-invent and re-edit things based on some of the work that I was giving him. And he explains it that I understand his phrases, and his intent, and how to be his "oversoul."
Every good documentarian has an agenda that they're trying to communicate in some way. I don't mean this in a derogatory way. They're trying to make a point. And there's a thesis statement involved. And Eugene always feels that I'm the voice of his thesis statement. I'm supporting his ultimate argument emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. And that I understand his phraseology, and can translate his sometimes very, very unique descriptions for what he's looking for musically. So it's just worked. It's at this point a solid, long-time collaboration.
Mike: That's awesome. What was it about The King specifically that most excited you? Was there even a question of whether you would join the project, given that he was behind it?
Robert: Not a question. I'd work with Eugene any time he calls. He told me what the premise was, which in essence is making a very big point about the condition of the country by using Elvis Presley's life as a prism. He’s drawing a very strong parallel between the arc of the life of Elvis and the life of the country. And I thought, "Wow. That's ambitious. That's huge. Who would dare to try to do something like that?" And I'm reading these reviews today, and a lot of critics are talking about the film in the way I'm talking about it with you right now."Who the hell would dare to do that?" Well, Eugene would. And he went about it in a very ambitious way. It's an atom bomb's worth of information. It just keeps coming at you. This film is a serious cup of cappuccino. It will totally stimulate you. It'll keep you up.
There's a lot of Elvis's music in there. And there were also a couple of composers from while Eugene was in Berlin that contributed a few pieces of music here and there. I've always been the principal composer, and I've never shared a credit on any of Eugene's films. So there are a few supporting roles for a few other people here. So the score is much more thin in this case than any of his other films. I've basically been the voice of all his films, with almost no source music. And suddenly, here comes a project with a lot of Elvis's music, a lot of blues, a lot of vintage stuff. But there are still those moments of repose, where the thesis statement is trying to shine. So I'm still that oversoul. It's just that there's less of it in this film than in years past on other films.
Mike: Can you go into that process a bit? What are some of the creative challenges of now having a few other voices to work alongside in delivering the best possible result so it feels cohesive. And are you then thinking, "Well, the work I'm doing should stand a little bit further away from Elvis's music?" Or do you instead lean more into blues, or gospel, or whatever the particular Elvis era may be?
Robert: Good question. So when Eugene and I were talking about this, he said, “Robert, you’ve got less room than in years past. Look at all this stuff." He showed me a rough cut, and it's one Elvis song after another, like the original of "Hound Dog," which was a serious blues version. And I went, "Well, Eugene, here's the thing. In interviews, Elvis was a philosophizer. He was a very thoughtful guy in a lot of ways. Everybody thinks of Elvis as the guy that ended up fat in Las Vegas, drunk and on drugs. But at his best, he was very thoughtful, articulate, and spiritually-minded. So the things that come from those interviews Eugene uses as kind of a ghost, like the ghost of Elvis. Suddenly we hear his voice, and most of the time, you also hear my score. And so I said, "Eugene, we have to really separate from anything that has to do with Elvis's music. It's got to be subtle, much more ambient than most of the music we've ever written for your films. It has to sit and be meditative because the movie is just moving so fast, and the music is so exciting and electric. And there's so much of it.”
So that is what the thinking was. The score is much more slow-moving, meditative, and ambient, but also emotional in places. There was a soul singer that's sitting in Elvis’s Rolls Royce. She's singing a gospel tune. And I harmonized it. And it's a poetic moment, but it goes into another realm of just supporting somebody who's a gospel singer who is singing her heart out in the car. And it's just a really cool thing to have experienced in this film. And then there was incidental music. Sometimes Eugene and I will do these recreations. Strauss wrote this piece which everybody knows as the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme, which is actually called "Also Sprach Zarathustra." Elvis used to use it in his Las Vegas shows, but we couldn't license what we needed from the recordings. So I recreated it with smaller forces but live. I also recreated an early rock and roll song for him. But most of it was this idea that the meditative, more floaty, spiritual, wandering sound is the sound of the score. And it's all around all the flashiness of Elvis's music and all the other participants, including the people playing and singing in the car. Eugene bought Elvis' Rolls Royce, and there are all these performances going on in the car.
Mike: I know a fair amount of Elvis’s music. And one thing that stands out is the variety of sounds he explored. I’ve listened to some of the gospel stuff, some of the early rock and roll stuff, some of the country. There seem to be so many different iterations of who Elvis was. Were you a big Elvis fan, and were you pretty familiar with the spectrum of his work?
Robert: Very familiar. But I'm not the kind of Elvis-obsessed fan that a lot of people are. I was more obsessed with the Beatles, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Motown. But I'm going to the premiere with a bunch of people tonight, a lot of whom are absolute fanatics for Elvis Presley. I was an appreciator of Elvis. He was a great singer. He had a unique career. He was the iconic American, white, gospel, blues, R&B singer. A lot of what gets addressed in the movie has to do with Elvis basically listening to black artists, gospel and soul artists, and popularizing what they couldn't necessarily popularize themselves. I'm very familiar with Elvis. It’s just I don't put Elvis on in the car when I'm driving.
Mike: Did you do a lot of research to better understand Elvis as a person beyond the music or was that secondary since the score was standing somewhat apart from his music?
Robert: I knew a lot about the life of Elvis Presley and so I didn't need to do research. What I needed to constantly remind myself of and talk to Eugene about was better understanding Eugene's points and Eugene's parallels. What is Eugene after here or why does he want to forecast something much darker than is actually on screen? Things like that. It was all about understanding how Eugene was using Elvis's life as a prism because I did understand Elvis's life very well. It was more just really probing Eugene and picking his brain and just making sure that I was on the same page with him. So that was the most important thing for me to do. To always be on track with what Eugene's thesis statement was and where he was traveling with it throughout the film.
Mike: Is it common for up-and-coming composers to get their chance on a bigger project, but instead of doing work that best serves the film, they instead go bigger and try to pull out all the stops to get noticed? Doing the opposite of your approach to The King, where it benefits the film for you to do less and keep space for other elements?
Robert: I think that it happens. People do want to advertise their artistic integrity, sometimes to the detriment of a project or to the expense of a project but once you become a mature artist, and I mean maturity in terms of artistic thinking, you are only really trying to do the right thing for the film or the commercial. And then, hopefully people recognize that. Sometimes it's also incredible music that you really are proud of because it's daring and different and sometimes it's very traditional and subtle but it's right for the film. Ultimately, you are there as a collaborator, helping a story come to life, not to advertise your musicality. You can do that making your own independent projects and having your own records and making your own concert work. You shouldn't be doing that under the auspices of production.
Mike: You've done films, commercials, planetarium shows. Can you talk a little bit about how this process of doing a documentary film differs from commercials, features, ad work, and all of the different mediums that you've worked in?
Robert: A lot of documentaries historically had this thematic disconnect. It's just scattershot. It's just a lot of music thrown against a film. But now documentaries are crafted. And Eugene and I from the very beginning have approached documentaries to feel like narrative features. So I wanted there to be thematic consistencies. So we have principal themes. And a theme for another character. And maybe another sub-theme for the inner workings of the machine of the country or whatever it may be. Eugene and I always work in that way. We want it crafted like a dramatic narrative score would be. But really a documentary is constantly being recut and rethought and reinvented because you've got all this footage and you've got all these interviews. And you're not working off the script. You are working off your thesis statement and your agenda so documentaries move a lot of places from beginning to end. And you have to stay with the director and constantly move with the process and guide it sometimes on the front and sometimes just take a backseat and respond. And really look to embed yourself naturally in something that's got a tremendous amount of on-screen information because it's all coming from either narration or from on-screen interviews.
This is obviously different from a dramatic feature which normally has a lot more space in it and a more poetic use of music when things are progressing emotionally. But I try to preserve a lot of those narrative qualities in the documentaries that I've done. Still, with all of the information and all the reediting, the final form doesn't always reveal itself until the very end.
Mike: I imagine that the agenda with documentaries is shifting constantly whereas the agenda of a narrative feature is much more predetermined before shooting starts.
Robert: That's right. You are bringing to life a script and everything about the story is already contained in the script. So you're trying to do justice to a great script and bring it to life. Eugene might say, “Hey Robert, I want to do this film about using Elvis's life as a prism for what I think is happening in this country.” Well, that's Eugene wanting to get across what he thinks is happening in this country. And then, it starts to happen and he starts to gather and he goes on the road and he gets the Rolls Royce and he gets all these interviews. And then, it's just all being experimented with. Let's put this here. Let's throw this there. Let's reinvent the intro. And it's constantly moving until the very end.
Mike: Focusing a little bit more on your specific process, I'm curious if you tend to always create specifically for the visuals and the story at hand. Or if you also have little spare parts in your library that don't have a home yet and then suddenly it clicks: this motif is perfect for the project that I’m currently working on. Is it a balance of creating for something but also having loosely formed ideas already on hand?
Robert: I have a lot of work that's in my library and it is stockpiled. But when I start a project, I'm responding to a new film and a new idea, and new emotions, and sometimes a new set of people like a new director. And that film has its own personal requirements and needs its own personal inspiration. And so, I would say almost never has stuff from my library just been repurposed. Once in a blue moon, something happens where an existing piece might be really great for a sub-theme or something that feels like it was going to be a song or some other kind of source music. But for the most part, any time I start something, it's that language for that film and that film alone. And then it finishes and I move onto my next film and I start again and it's all fresh inspiration. So I have idealistic views of “Wow, wouldn't it be great to use this particular piece somewhere someday?” But it generally doesn't happen. I'm building up quite a library here. But I like when I'm challenged just to move from project to project and start over. And okay, what am I going to write this time? So it tends to be all new music where I focus my heart and mind on that project and what that voice is going to be.
Mike: How did you get into composing in the first place? When did you feel you had the skillset, knowledge, and improvisational confidence to go into a major project and say, “I'm just going to react and see what inspiration strikes”?
Robert: Well I was a musician since I can remember. Since I was very small, I've had instruments in my hands. I was always a musician. I started to really write more seriously crafted beginning compositions when I was about 11 or 12. And by the time I was 16 or 17, I was writing some early chamber and symphonic works. And I was very interested in just writing symphonic concert music.
A turning point in my early 20s came when meeting my favorite composer, Aaron Copeland, who became my mentor for a good solid year when he was already 79 years old. While talking about composing music and concert music and all my symphonic goals, he said, "You know, if I were you and in your generation, I'd be really thinking about film and production.” And I kind of looked at him funny and he said, “Don't give me that hairy eyeball.” He himself scored some films and he loved it. He said that all of his colleagues in film were as talented or more talented than his concert composer friends. And he also said, “You like people and you have a lot of empathy for people.” Empathy is a real advantage when you're scoring films because you need to connect with the stories that you see on screen so that you can find a sonic way in, and somehow crystallize a score for the emotions that you're seeing and feeling. And I do feel that way now.
But it took me a few years before Copeland's advice started to seep in. I was then in my mid-twenties. I wrote for some silly little commercials and then one or two weird short films. And I got involved with a music house. I worked for JSM Music which was a very big deal at the time and started scoring commercials and got my first independent film or two and my first documentary for American Experience a year or two into that. And it started to snowball. I think that writing music at all is one skillset. But then scoring to pictures is really an instinct. Some good composers never develop an instinct for what to do on film, how to help a film's story come to life. Some of that is just intangible. I don't think any of us who score and do it pretty well can actually explain in a professorial way what we're really doing except for that we are empathizing. We are trying to stay out of the way of things that are already very obvious on screen but get in and support the deeper aspects of what's happening that viewers may not consciously be aware of. But nevertheless, enhance the experience of a film coming to life.
Or a commercial. I'll use humor as an example. When a commercial is humorous, you think “Oh, are you going to write funny music?” The answer is absolutely not. You're usually just finding something stylistically that counterpoints the humor so well that it's a platform for the humor to really come to life. And it's usually a legitimate style. It's not something that's goofy. Those things you learn by instinct. That's not something that you get taught in a film class somewhere. I'm still honing my craft. But after the 2,400 commercials and the 65 or so films and a couple of television series and my concert work, I can say that I definitely feel like I have some feeling for it because I seem to be able to stay afloat and write score after score. I should knock on some wood.
Mike: Do you mentor up-and-coming composers? Is that how young composers generally find their way? Or is it through schooling or networking or something else?
Robert: I think that personal mentorship, being in the composer's studio and watching the process, listening, discussing things, that's the real way to learn. I get asked three times a semester to talk about film music at NYU and I try to talk the way we're talking now and try to have fun with it but being able to give out specific talking points about process is very difficult because every film and every collaboration feels different. You learn by osmosis, more by doing it, making some mistakes, and being around experienced composers than you will in a classroom, in my opinion. Not denigrating anything that happens in Berkeley or NYU or USC, but I think that practical, street-level experience is the best way to learn.
Mike: What are you working on now?
Robert: Right now, I’m engaged in the early stages of several big films. A couple I can't talk about but I do a lot of ESPN 30 for 30 film. We got another one of those planetarium shows coming up this next year. Got a couple of new ESPN 30 for 30 feature films coming, a couple of Hollywood studio films that I'm gonna be involved in and I'm very excited about.
Mike: Exciting times. Do the positive reviews of a film like The King have positive effects on your work? And on the other hand, if a movie gets bad reviews, how does that influence your feelings of the experience as the composer?
Robert: I would say this. If I'm very proud of the score and I really enjoy the movie but it gets panned, even if people do not throw the score under the bus, not a lot happens except for that I enjoyed the relationship with that director and that film and we all have happy memories of making art together. The ones that really impact you are films that become popular and do get great reviews because that's the thing about this industry: when people talk about something, when it becomes a "hit" or just simply well-known, it impacts you. Even if you would personally not consider it your most potent score. It may be a score you're proud of because it was exactly right for the film or whatever but the truth is that hits create a tremendous amount of traction for everybody involved and if you have an artistic gem that gets panned and nobody cares about, the only people that end up caring are the people that made it. Maybe a few other people and their families. But it really is about the popularity of the film.
Just like commercials, when commercials become big deals you seem to get other work off of the popularity of a commercial but you may have done something great on a commercial that almost nobody sees. Well, you may have earned a nice creative fee for that but it's not about career building. Career building is so much about what happens in the public, in terms of popularity. Of course, you never go into anything thinking, “this is gonna be popular, this'll be really good.” You have to do what you’re passionate about, and popularity takes care of itself. The things you thought were gonna be popular sometimes never are, and the things that you thought would never make the grade and would never gain traction become big. You never know. You just have to keep doing your best work.