TIFF is gearing up in Toronto, and on the eve of the festival’s opening, we had the opportunity to speak with Michael Brook, Canadian Golden Globe® and Grammy® nominated composer.
Among the notable films Brook has scored are The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, The Fighter, Into The Wild, Chavez, An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar winning documentary Undefeated, and the much-anticipated Brooklyn, which debuted earlier this year at Sundance. Michael Brook is also a renowned producer and recording artist whose work traverses ambient, world, Americana, electronic and orchestral territories. His career began as a guitar player, producer and collaborator, working with Brian Eno, David Sylvian, Nusrat Fateh, Ali Khan, The Pogues, and Jane Siberry on ground breaking labels such as 4AD and Real World Records.
Michael Brook is back in Toronto in support of two 2015 films being presented at TIFF: Brooklyn, which will be released in late 2015, has its Canadian premiere. Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley, stars Saoirse Ronan & Domhnall Gleeson. About Ray makes its world premiere at TIFF 2015. About Ray, directed by Gaby Dellal, stars Elle Fanning, Naomi Watts & Susan Sarandon.
Michael Brook: Well I was born and grew up there, and used to play in rock bands on Queen street. I don’t know if they have rock bands on Queen Street anymore. I left about thirty years ago but I still go back. However I’m not really up to speed about what’s going on in the city any more.
SO: TIFF is the talk of the Toronto (and will remain so for a few weeks time) so let me ask you about the festival itself: people know what film festivals do for the city that host them, but how do you feel they benefit the film community as a whole?
MB: Composers are a little outside the territory that most film festivals deal with, so the focus is usually not on the music at most festivals. My impression is that film festivals are a really great way for filmmakers to either reach a public, or their colleagues, or the media. That’s my impression. It’s a way for the film producers to market their film. It’s a way to bring public attention to their films, and it kind of creates a bit of buzz around it when it goes well.
SO: As a composer, are you inclined to become more excited when you hear a project you’ve been working on will be featured at an independent film festival?
MB: It is exciting. It’s a nice thing to hear. I think it impacts composers in a general way, that the film gets a little more attention and as a result more people will pay attention to the music.
In terms of physically attending festivals, it’s kind of… it’s not clear if it’s a smart business idea. I went to Sundance this year, because I had two films there as well, and I was kind of on the fence [about going]. Of course it’s pleasant to go-to meet colleagues and that kind of thing. And if you’re lucky catch a movie. But in terms of a business activity…
SO: As a career move?
MB: Yeah. Yeah you’re never sure.
SO: How about with TIFF?
MB: With TIFF I like going if I can, because it’s in my hometown. I think it is a really great festival. I’ve been about three, maybe four times, and as an institution I have a ton of respect for what [the people at] TIFF do.
SO: I think it’s important that you bring that up. A lot of these festivals have an award show feel to them as opposed to just showcasing the films as films. But you’re saying TIFF should be recognized as an exception to this.
MB: That’s certainly my impression, yeah. I think most of the people who run festivals do it for really good reasons. I think that they’re enthusiastic about film. I mean there are so many festivals. I think I just heard one about, a few months ago about Cape Breton, and I met some people associated with the festival in the Maritimes, and they just love film. Then there are the bigger ones, as you mentioned, where there’s absolutely a business part of it. But I still think the people who run it and work on it still love film. The organizers aren’t in it for the money.
SO: Well let’s continue to talk about TIFF, and more specifically this film Brooklyn that is premiering at the festival. What led you to work on this project initially? I had first heard the film mentioned because of Nick Hornby’s involvement in co-writing the screenplay.
MB: Yeah, he wrote the screenplay based on a book by [Irish author] Colm Toibin.
MB: I did not. And I’m a big fan, but unfortunately he was not able to come to Sundance because he had a book tour, so he couldn’t make it. Generally I don’t meet many of the people involved until the film is being edited.
SO: So it’s at the editing stage where you get to leave the studio and interact with the rest of the crew?
MB: Yeah, that’s when they start thinking about music. One aspect of composing for film that I enjoy a lot, when it works well, is that there is a strong collaborative aspect to it. On Brooklyn it was very strong with the director John Crowley.
SO: Had you worked with him before?
MC: No, no I hadn’t, but we had that chemistry. I think the collaborative process allows for a kind of magic to happen. One where things come out of it that none of the individuals would have come up with themselves. And I still find that an exciting aspect of the creative process.
SO: It reminds me of the album, I forget the name…I believe it was an Armenian instrumentalist you worked with?
MB: Ya that was Djivan Gasparyan. That was the thing I liked when I used to do a lot of albums for Real World Records; you would collaborate with people, often from cultures I knew very little of.
SO: Very interesting. [The album is Black Rock]. Now that we’ve covered the collaborative side, does your day-to-day routine or attitude change when you’re working on a film score as opposed to recording an album?
MB: No, not really. I suppose doing a film score is halfway between doing a solo album and producing an artist. The part of the music industry that I work in has kind of gone away, so I don’t really do albums any more, except for soundtrack albums. Because I can’t afford to make albums any more…
SO: What about concerts? Do you have any interest in performing some of your back catalogue here in Canada?
MB: I love doing concerts and touring. The conundrum is the lead-time to do a concert, or a tour, particularly. You need to set it up at least two or three months ahead of time and then in terms of rehearsing and getting musically in shape to play it, six weeks is kind of the minimum. Which doesn’t work with the schedule for the types of films I work on. I mean I might start something next week that I haven’t heard of today. If I had blocked out or committed to a tour months in advance…it just seems that the time scales of those two industries are incompatible.
SO: It sounds like you’ve gotten in to a rhythm, with how regularly you are scoring films and releasing projects.
MB: I mean, it’s what I do now. And I have no regrets. I am very, very lucky to be doing it and I love doing it. I’m lucky that people pay me to make music all day.
SO: Care to share any artists that you’re listening to at the moment? Anyone who is presently influencing a Michal Brook film score?
MB: Well, I’m definitely quite out of touch on that front.
SO: It doesn’t have to be current, just anything that you are inspired by.
MB: Well the other thing is that my wife is a studio violinist and she plays on almost all of my stuff and on a lot of other scores [she plays the solo violin in Brooklyn]. And we have friends of ours who are music fans who are always asking if we want to come over and listen to music. Now I don’t think we’re cynical, it’s just that we’ve just spent twelve or fourteen hours doing that. It is not that the enthusiasm has dampened, there’s just not a lot of time left to explore music, when you work on it all day. So in that sense, I sort of get to listen to music when I’m in the car, but I work from home, so that isn’t very often.
SO: So when you do get the time to listen?
MB: Well lately I’ve been revisiting The Beatles, because my son loves them. It’s all he wants to hear. Incredible stuff. I’m glad we have revisited it. It’s just so good.
SO: I’m sure it’s incredible to hear those later Beatles records, approaching it from the viewpoint of a composer.
MB: Ya it is real incredible stuff. Other than that [pause] I listen to pretty much everything Ennio Morricone has ever done, Bernard Herrmann also. He did most of Hitchcock’s films.
SO: Was Bernard Herrmann an early influence of yours?
MB: Well I listened to both of them before I began working on films. And I’m pretty sure some of that crept in. There’s a guy, I don’t know what he is called…Dntel? Do you know him?
MB: He does some cool kind of glitchy almost ambient stuff. But with ambient you associate it more ethereal sounds, but this is more glitchy, if you will. So I like his stuff. I don’t know anything about him but I thought that was pretty cool; those are all the people I can think of.
With very special thanks to Michael Brook. More at www.michaelbrookmusic.com
Interview by Jordan Chevalier. Jordan can be reached at email@example.com (yes, Hotmail). Follow Jordan on Twitter at @Jcheval and read his contributions for Step On Magazine at @StepOnMagTO; he also welcomes submissions of all shapes and sizes for publication on his poetry blog SYNAPSE.