NYFF 2016 Exclusive: Composer Lesley Barber Talks Manchester By The Sea

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NYFF 2016 Exclusive: Composer Lesley Barber Talks Manchester By The Sea
Posted by Wilson Morales

October 3, 2016


Currently playing at the 54th New York Film Festival is writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea, starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol, and C.J. Wilson.

The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival followed by a showing at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.  Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions will release Manchester By The Sea in theaters on November 18th.

The film tells the story of the Chandler family, a working class family from the North Shore of Massachusetts.  After Lee’s (Casey Affleck) older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suddenly passes away, he is made the legal guardian of his nephew (Lucas Hedges).  Lee is forced to deal with a past that separated him from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the community where he was born and raised.

Composer the musical score to the film was Lesley Barber, who collaborated with Lonergan on his debut feature, “You Can Count On Me.” Her other film scores have been for “The Moth Diaries,” “Hysterical Blindness,” “Mansfield Park,” “A Price Above Rubies,” and “When Night Is Falling” and the animated TV series Little Bear.


Blackfilm.com recently spoke with Barber on her score for “Manchester” and working again with Lonergan.

You’ve worked with Kenneth before, so how was it reconnecting again to score this film?

Lesley Barber: We thoroughly enjoyed working together on the first film, on You Can Count on Me, then when the script was done for this film and he’d shot it, he sent me the script, and I read it, and started thinking music and sending him some ideas and we carried on from there.

What’s changed since your last collaboration?

Lesley Barber: Let me think. I don’t know if it’s him changing. Sometimes I think films have a life of their own, so our interactions on both films, I would say he gave me a lot of creative space and allowed me to connect with the script and work very intuitively and come up with ideas, and then we collaborated away, and I think we did that on both films.

Director Kenneth Lonergan and composer Lesley Barber

I think also he really waits, he lets me wait and he waits, for us both to feel really good about our ideas. It’s not where he’s rushed, let’s just get some music in there. It’s very particular, the way we work together.

I think it was similar, I would say, on this one, that Kenny, over the last three films, you can see how he does this wonderful combination of classical and score. And some pop music. I think going into it, I understood more what I was getting into. It was very freeing.

Now, you mentioned he gave you the script. Is it better for you to read a script, or to see the movie in order to best put in the music?

Lesley Barber: I think it’s a combination, especially with Kenny’s writing, which is so beautiful, that by reading it and just having some space while he was doing his edit or what have you, time to just really feel it, that it gives me more space, to come up with something that’s maybe a little out of left field, and actually develop the idea. For instance, I developed this idea of the a capella vocals. If someone just gives you a couple weeks to come up with a theme, or a week, and they’re already nearing the finish line, you might not take the time to record it and write it and arrange it and because I had more space, I can try different sorts of ideas. Different sorts of, more out of the box, more unusual choices, and see if they connect with Kenny.

It also gives him the ability, when he’s working on editing, to actually take the music and edit to the music, so there’s a lot of creative dialogue going on.

As a composer, as you read the script, and see the film as it shoots, do you go back and add more or less to the score?

Manchester by the Sea 1

Lesley Barber: Yes, of course. When they got a rough cut of the film, it really gave me essential information about pacing, about tempo, about the arrangement, so although I had some themes, and had done some improvisations, then I could add the right string color, the right orchestration, to the picture. It just fit seamlessly into the film, and into the environment of the film, and the ambience and tone of it, and the pacing of it, and also interacts beautifully with the classical … well, hopefully beautifully with the classical choices and other source music that Kenny really loves to use as well.

How much of your score didn’t make the cut?

Lesley Barber 4

Lesley Barber: With Kenny, I do tend to write a bit more than ends up in the film, because we like to listen to the finished versions of things, because it makes a huge difference. It’s even a way the strings could be mixed, or the way the vocal is mixed, or if you leave the brass in or out. There’s all kinds of things that we are very specific about, and we’re hoping that the soundtrack will be coming out with the release of the film, and there will be another fifteen minutes of music there that’s variations on the themes that I wrote for the film.

How was your experience with this film at TIFF?

LESLEY BARBER ( credit KATHERINE HOLLAND, 2015)Lesley Barber: It was fun. It got the applause. It was amazing to see it with the audience in Toronto, which was my home base, and to have so many friends and colleagues in the audience who absolutely adored the film. The film got such amazing response. That evening was quite overwhelmingly positive, and it was great to see the team as well, that I worked with. The producers were amazing to work with. Kenny was, again, wonderful to work with, so it was a really great TIFF this year.

There aren’t that many female composers that stand out a lot. You’ve been working over ten years. What is it that gets you to work? Do you have a certain style? Are you a jack of all trades? What is it that you like to do best? Do you go after the work, or do they come after you?

Lesley Barber: Well, the filmmakers I tend to work with are usually independent filmmakers, when you think of Wayne Wang or Mira Nair, or Boaz Yakim, Mary Harron, or Kenny. They have a lot of confidence in their filmmaking, and I feel like a filmmaker, a storyteller, and I really like to lose myself inside a film and come up with something slightly unusual. I think because I orchestrate, I have a certain orchestral style that changes with the projects and brings in things from outside. Outside forces, and they’re very hybrid scores. They mix in electronica, and unusual sounds, but I can also do full classical orchestration. Cinematic orchestration.



I’m not sure if that had something to do with it, but I feel like quite often I know what I’m asked to do, and that’s to come up with a voice that’s very specific to the film.

What’s next for you?

Lesley Barber: Well, right now I’m working on a doc, a beautiful feature film that Sarah Polley’s executive producing, called A Better Man. I just started that. Then I have a bunch of things that I’m in discussion with, or that are floating around me a little bit, and I’m hoping to connect with, like, make some choices there for the New Year. It’s an exciting time, and additionally they’re mastering the music for soundtrack release. I’m really thrilled with the last year and the year ahead.

The “Manchester By The Sea” original soundtrack album will be available on November 18th via Milan Records. 

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