Composer Dustin O’Halloran On Creating The Score For ‘Lion’ With Hauschka

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TIFF 2016: Composer Dustin O’Halloran On Creating The Score For ‘Lion’ With Hauschka
Posted by Wilson Morales

October 13, 2016

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Making its world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival last month was first time director Garth Davis’ Lion, which starred Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Divian Ladwa, Priyanka Bose, and Pallavi Sharda.

Precocious five-year-old Saroo Khan is always up for an adventure. Eager to help his older brother Guddu with any odd job that will provide their family with much-needed money, Saroo follows Guddu everywhere he goes. One night the two boys are separated on a train platform in their native Madhya Pradesh, and Saroo winds up nearly a thousand miles away in Calcutta.

Homeless in a strange city where he doesn’t speak the language, Saroo gets by on his street smarts until he is taken in by a government orphanage. When an Australian couple adopts him, he is taken to live with them in Hobart, Tasmania. It’s not until Saroo leaves that island as a young Australian man that he begins to wonder what became of his first home and the family he so adored. Ingeniously using satellite images from Google Earth, he finds a lead to follow up on. But the search for Saroo’s past threatens to overwhelm his present, and he finds himself further adrift than he ever imagined possible.

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Composing the music for the film and collaborating for the first time were Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka (aka Volker Bertelmann). Earlier this year, O’Halloran’s scored the music to Drake Doremus’ sci-fi drama Equals starring Kristen Stewart & Nicholas Hoult. He’s also the composer to Amazon’s critically acclaimed series Transparent, for which he won a 2015 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Main Title Theme Music. Hauschka’s previous scoring credits include the Icelandic film Gluck and the horror thriller The Boy.

Blackfilm.com recently spoke with O’Halloran on his collaboration with Hauschka on this crowd pleaser.

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How did you come about collaborating on the music with Hauschka?

Dustin O’Halloran: Hauschka was doing a concert in Australia, and he first met Garth Davis when he was down there. Garth thought that he could be perfect for the film, and he actually asked if he could imagine doing the score with me. He didn’t realize that Volker and I have known each other for about 10 years, so it was kind of a coincidence. Volker and I have been great friends. It was a very serendipitous event, and we saw the first cut of the film and both of us loved it and were really excited about it because it’s just such a beautiful film and there’s so much heart in it and the fact that it’s a true story, all of these things that really are so rare to find. We kind of came in pretty quickly. They had almost a final cut when we started, so from the time that we found out about the film to when we started, was very quick. We just sort of jumped into it.

Most scores, or most music in a film, usually have one composer or they’ll have a film scorer as well as singers and so forth. With this, here you have two composers. How did the two of you come together in balancing it out?

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Dustin O’Halloran: I think there’s very few people I could do collaboration like this for a film score. Volker and I have known each other for a long time, we’ve toured, we were on the same label. Even though our music is different, I think that we’ve had a very similar approach to what we do. We’ve known each other and known about each other’s music for a long time and had a lot of appreciation, so when we got into the studio together, it actually felt really natural because we already have such a strong friendship and a strong respect, and I think that’s really the key when you’re collaborating. To sort of let go of your ego. We know that we’re working together, and it’s really for the best of the film. How can you make this film better? It was really a great collaboration. I really loved working with Volker. I think it was a very special situation, as well.

With the theme music to the film, did both of you work on that, or was it one of you?

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Dustin O’Halloran: The main title theme is both of us. We bounced a lot of things back and forth, and then we’d do a lot of different variations. It was something that we were searching for with Garth, because we really wanted to find something that could kind of tie all of these pieces together because the film really is two halves. I think when Garth first asked us, I think he was thinking of it that one half would be Volker and one half would be me. He really loved Volker’s inventiveness and how his music had this inventive quality and I think he pictured Saroo when he was young, this would be more of his sound, and as he got older more strings and more composed pieces that maybe it would be me for the second half. What happened is it ended up just getting mixed and we really worked on each other’s pieces, and the main theme really came through a lot of us working together and carving out this piece that would carry the beginning, middle, and end of the film.

Without revealing anything, that third act takes on a lot. You have to throw in an emotional score that pretty much is the grand slam. How did you work on that one? Because like I said before, without revealing it, it’s a whopper.

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Dustin O’Halloran: I think it’s interesting because the score itself is pretty minimalist as far as instrumentation goes, but it was incredibly difficult and a lot of work just to find these really specific emotional parameters, because it wasn’t so much about that it should be a big orchestra and that’s going to make you feel something. We’re actually really searching for something that felt really honest and very truthful and that would be honorable to the story. Garth really wanted to create something that people could connect with in a real way, and it wasn’t just a manipulation of emotions. Any time you have music, there is a sense of manipulation, but it just took us a while to figure out to get it into this very delicate balance of emotion. That was the hardest in part because you really have to give a lot of yourself as well, when you do that.

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When scoring a new film, how different is this from the previous music you’ve done on other projects?

Dustin O’Halloran: I think it’s not so far from things that I’ve done. I think that all films have an emotional quality to them, and perhaps that’s why people want to work with me. I think this one is the first time that I really worked with themes and thematic ideas. I think that was the bigger difference that really. Really coming up with the theme and doing variations of it and working that into the story. I think for me that was the first time to do that.

Although you’ve worked on other films in the past, this year you’ve had two particular films (this film and the Kristen Stewart indie Equals) that have received a lot of attention. What has that done for your career so far?

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Dustin O’Halloran: There’s a lot of good offers, and what I hope is just to be able to work on things that really inspire me, and to continue to be able to do that. I feel very lucky to be in that place, and I think it’s for Hauschka as well. We both make our own records, and we both tour, and we have a life that’s outside of filmmaking. I think it’s very important that we continue to invest in that and we continue to make music and explore on our own so that when we do a film, we’re bringing something fresh and also for me as well. Thanks, it’s been a really good couple of years and some really great projects, and I feel really lucky to have worked with some great people.

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What sort of music do you like? Is there a particular genre that you like to do, or does it matter? Is it more about looking at the film, getting a feel as to what sort of music you want to add to it?

Dustin O’Halloran: I don’t think, to me it’s not. I’m never going to do probably a jazz score. There’s composers that can be a jack of all trades composer, but for me I’m always seeking my own voice and my own connection to it. It depends on where also my interests are in Lion, and Equals it was an electronic score that I did with another German electronic artist named Apparat, and I really wanted to do an all electronic score. It was something I really wanted to do, and (Equals director) Drake (Doremus) came to me with the film. I was really into that. I’m trying to always follow my own interests because it’s things that I want to explore. I always want to have a connection to it and a voice to it, so it’s not about just doing any kind of music. It’s about me really bringing my world and bringing something into that world and me coming into that world, but I’m still retaining a sense of me as a composer and an artist.

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Congratulations on Amazon’s Transparent and its recent Emmy winning awards. It’s been getting a lot of recognition, and becoming the face of Amazon TV. That must be great for you, job security wise? When you know you’re the composer for a show that’s going to hopefully last some time and become the centerpiece for that streaming channel?

Dustin O’Halloran: Yeah, it’s great. It’s a great team of people to work with. The story keeps evolving in very interesting ways, and it’s been a real pleasure to work on. It’s incredible cast, great writing, great directing.

Do you have any other projects coming up?

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Dustin O’Halloran: Yeah. I just finished a French film called Iris. It’s a French director named Jalil Lespert. He did a film a few years ago about Yves Saint Laurent, and that’s coming out, and we recently started shooting Transparent again and then it looks like I’m going to be doing a film with John Curran directing about the story of Chappaquiddick. That’ll probably be in the beginning of next year. Then I’m working on some of my own music as well.

That’s great. When is the soundtrack for Lion coming out?

Dustin O’Halloran: Hopefully soon. The movie is coming out November 25th, and we’ve got everything mixed, so we’re hoping we can get it all out in time for the film. Probably around the film release time we’ll have it out.

LION hits theaters on November 25, 2016.


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