Saturday, 16 February 2013

Film Composer John W.D. Mullane on 'The Making Of Charlie Zone"

When you see our film, you'd never guess it was only the first feature film music score by composer John W.D. Mullane, also the front man of excellent rock band In Flight Safety. What an inspired job he did. Evocative, driving, stirring and touching. Everything you'd want a dramatic thriller score to be. 

Here are some of John's insights on putting together this essential piece of the CHARLIE ZONE puzzle. 

JWDM: I have to admit Charlie Zone was a mighty daunting project for me. I had previously scored a whole whack of short films, had written stuff for a few ad campaigns and some other bits and bobs but had never done a feature film. It turns out that thrillers have music basically through the entire film. I think my ignorance to the sheer size and time commitment made it possible to 'start' it. I think we had about 45 music cues by the end of it. I approached the score much like I approach other musical projects. I looked for a palette, motivations on why things would sound they way they would, and for some 'rules'. Then I worked within those rules. The rules were the instrumentation and style that became Charlie Zone. I probably sent 30-40 sound ideas or part ideas before we started locking in actual music cues. It's similar to how I would conceive the idea of a new In-Flight Safety record.

MM: What were some of your film and musical influences on Charlie Zone? 

It was definitely a hodge podge of influences that lead me to the palette of sounds and styles that would make up the score. There are some subtle references to Jon Brion (you can hear the Jon Brion- style piano on Lily's theme, it sort of dances between two keys oddly but hopefully beautifully). I also felt compelled by 90s thrillers such as Heat. The synth loops, drum machine percussion, and pulses. These sounds, to me, seemed very 90s and seemed to marry well with the picture. The main theme was influenced by Arvo Part's minimal style- a hyper minimal piano melody is something I hadn't tried before.

Last but not least, I couldn't leave out Asche and Spencer who did the score for Monster's Ball. That was huge for me as a teenager, and I tried to evoke its nightime feel.

MM: How did your background as a musician or as a film afficionado inform your process?  

JWDM: My wife and I watch a lot of film and television. I mean, a lot. We fill a lot of our down time watching whatever we can get our hands on. It ranges from Sleepaway Camp II to bingeing on shows like The Killing or Six Feet Under. I have been obsessed with films since I was very young, in particular I have been obsessed with cinematic music. I think my knowledge of anything from 1980 and up really helped me when I was generating ideas. For example, I don't have as vast knowledge of movies from the 60s. but I did watch just about every thriller that came out in the 90s. I think that's where Charlie Zone benefitted.

MM: What were some key musical themes or motifs, or instrumentation that you chose?

JWDM: It took a while to nail down the instrumentation for the score. We ended up using a ton of piano. Here I was thinking I was being hired for my ability to play atmospherics on guitar. I think I picked up the guitar twice. One when Avery is home and outside wandering, and another time I used a cello bow across the strings. That was it. The score is rife with violas, piano, and synthesized drones, and loops. We needed tension, but we needed tension that had some humanity. So sparse piano became thematic. The main Charlie Zone theme used 4 piano notes. But the opening theme to the film encompassed sub themes from other characters. So rather than write this one-off piece that opened the film, we introduced 3 character themes that we would touch on later.

CLICK to hear the compelling Charlie Zone- Main Theme 

MM: What were your favorite scenes or pieces of score? 

JWDM: My favourite scene is when Avery and Jan have their "dad and daughter" moment in the motel. I wrote a piece of music that I think help transition them from adversaries to two people who were now  looking out for one another. I was also really happy with the main theme of the film. It's 4 diads on piano that took me 18 hours to come up with. So simple, but I feel like there are exactly what the film wanted.

CLICK to watch the turning point scene.

.MM: John, thanks again for your work in this film. Yet another example of the Halifax film and music community rocking in collaboration. The whole team of CHARLIE ZONE thanks you for your valued contribution, and best wishes on the new In Flight album! (Side note: I heard some rough tracks while we were working on the movie, and I'd say it's gonna be their best yet.) 

CHARLIE ZONE opens on Mar 1! Get your tickets now at 

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