Michael Brook is a Golden Globe and Grammy-nominated composer, producer and recording artist recognized for his unique style of composition that traverses ambient, world, Americana, electronic and orchestral territories. His work often contains unusual combinations of instruments, sounds and moods that create a powerful, unique and emotional impact.
Brook’s music career began as a recording artist, guitar player, producer and collaborator, working with artists such as Brian Eno, David Sylvian, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, The Pogues, on ground breaking labels such as 4AD and Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records. As his music began to be licensed in films such as Heat and Any Given Sunday, he developed an interest in composing for film and moved to Los Angeles from the UK in 1999. Among the more than 40 films that he has scored are The Perks of Being A Wallflower, The Fighter, Into the Wild, Chavez, An Inconvenient Truth. and the Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated.
In John Crowley‘s latest feature, Brooklyn, the music, like the film, has a fine balance between narrative and emotion; not quite restrained, but also short of manipulative. Sometimes an interview can really just be a conversation about the film. And like Crowley’s film, our session didn’t have an agenda – it was just honest. Enjoy the highlights of our time with Michael Brook.
The Film Stage: Brooklyn has played a lot of film festivals ahead of its theatrical release, and I saw a picture of you at one of its premiers. So how does the anticipation for a film change when it’s not just the initial release you’re looking forward to, but different openings on the festival circuit?
Michael Brook: Well I can only really talk about this film. While I did go to Sundance and Toronto, I don’t usually go to festivals. Usually when a film makes the rounds, it’s the producer who is looking for distribution for their film, or they’re just trying to get critics to pay attention and get the PR ball rolling. It’s usually all about the director, the actors, the film and way far back from all that is the composer. [Laughs] But I think for films of this sort, where it’s a small film that the distributors and producers come to feel has a lot of potential, then they just go to festival after festival, and I just don’t know how they do it. They travel around for up to a year and, essentially, their job is going to parties and talking about the film.
An interesting compliment I can give the film is actually something I read where Bret Easton Ellis praised Saoirse Ronan’s performance as unfussy, and direct with no vanity. And I think that doesn’t just capture what she did, but more of the film in general. So much of the film works effortlessly, so what motivated you to score Brooklyn in the way you did? It’s very understated, so was it the characters, the love story, or something else?
I think the main focus, initially, and ultimately, was for the role of music to support and enhance the inner emotions of the characters. There’s no actual action, hardly, so the score is underscoring the characters’ internal monologue sometimes. At first, to tell you the truth, I didn’t quite get what John Crowley was after. I thought he was maybe pushing it a bit too hard, but in retrospect, he was spot on. It really made a big difference and it’s something I don’t think I would have thought of by myself.
What specifically comes to mind?
Well, there’s a scene when Eilis goes back to Ireland, and they go to the beach for the first time. They start climbing up the dunes, and they get to see the empty beach. It’s a fairly big and ecstatic piece of music for four people who are just climbing a dune. When they get up there, it’s just the beach. Nothing really happens, but the music mandate was to bring out this ethereal, almost otherworldly and ecstatic sense of Eilis reconnecting to her homeland and the beginning of this emotional tug of war that she goes through. That was different for me, and so it was challenging and interesting.
There’s a similar scene where Eilis is on the boat to go to America, and like many of the film’s slow motion, or long takes, she’s caught in a “no turning back now” moment. There’s this mournful but hopeful dynamic to the music which really helped the scene. That happens a lot in the score.
A big part of my job was to find this delicate balance, because we didn’t want it to be cheesy, but we wanted it to be emotional. There’s a lot of fine adjustments where we evaluated where we going too far, or not far enough in certain instances.
The film has obvious Irish influences, so when you score a film which has ties to a culture or geographical region, what kind of research do you do? Do you look for musical signatures and motifs, or do you just give your impression of “this is what I think Irish music should sound like“?
Generally, I don’t do much research. Partly because I don’t want to explicitly copy anything particular. Same with that scene where the laborers come for Christmas dinner. There’s not really a lot happening, but it all gels together magically. The singer, Iarla Ó Lionáird and I actually did an album about 20 years ago for Real World Records, a company started by Peter Gabriel.
Iarla is a very serious and highly respected traditional sean-nos singer, which is a style of music that’s really old – some of it is pre-Christian, even in Ireland. It’s kind of a sung poetry, almost like epic poetry. It’s usually done with no music so it is unaccompanied voice, traditionally. When we were going to do that album, we decided to make it a little different than a traditional album.
So, prior to, he insisted I go to Ireland and drive around the country with him. Before we left, I thought that wasn’t necessary – we were just going to make a record. For one week we went to see all these musicians and it was an amazing experience. I got to see some of the most incredible musicians and the most incredible places and basically had a crash course in Irish music.
I’ve done a lot of cross-cultural collaborations and albums, and I have always tried to steer away from doing anything that comes across as mimicking a culture, because it’s always lame. [Laughs] You can acknowledge the influence, or sort of tip your hat to it, which we did a little bit with Brooklyn, but it’s always so cheesy when people try to do, let’s say, fake Indian music, or fake Irish music for that matter.
Makes sense, but some things you can’t get away from. I think what I was going for with that question was that Irish music can have fiddles, mandolins, and sometimes, harps. So sometimes a film and its score comes with certain preconceptions, right?
True, and I think the most liberating thing with Brooklyn was that there was no prerequisite for the score. My working process involves a lot of experimentation, and so I will try a wider range of things than I think will ultimately work. Then I narrow it down from that. But with the violin, played here by Julie Rogers, it ended up becoming almost a motif for Eilis as a character, and the mandolin seemed like a way to bring a little bit of the Irishness to the score, but not in an in-your-face sort of way.
When you have to tie your music to characters’ emotions, rather than scoring events in the film, the music isn’t expected to rise above the surface. The story is understated, and it reminded me of what I’ve heard composers say – the goal of the score is to stay out of the way.
You know, recently, I’ve been having a lot of discussions with people about that notion. What is the role of the composer? What is their function? I’m starting to feel that there’s a huge range as to what it can be. There is a saying I’m sure your familiar with, if you speak to so many composers, and I used to agree with more strongly, but it’s that the best music is the one you don’t notice. That’s “supposed” to be successful music.
But I don’t feel that way anymore. If you think about it, that is just one possibility. A really good score can be that way; you don’t remember it, you don’t notice it, but it really brought something to the film. But there’s also times where you can’t help but notice the score. I’m a huge fan of Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann, and that, [laughs] is not background music! It’s front and center, and that’s the magic of it. There’s an epicness to things they’ve done, so I think, in this film, scenes like the sand dune sequence were a little outside what I normally do. I do a lot of ambient, more guitar-oriented pieces, but, you’re right, music can stay out of the way, but at times I painted the emotions with pretty strong colors.
Well I think that’s what I really like. Sure, Herman, Morricone, and most notably John Williams, who kind of did what Richard Wagner did a long time ago, create strong themes and signposts for the story if it calls for it. But the score to Brooklyn underlines the emotions, yet it never tells you how to feel.
To find the voice of this music, and the balance between too much and too little, John Crowley and I had a process where we sort of gave each other the benefit of the doubt. What I mean by that is you don’t get each other right away, like any collaboration. And also I find that it’s very hard to predict what will work and what won’t work. So, for the sand dune scene, I did a restrained version of what John was talking about, slightly skeptically to be honest. But John was like, “no, we have to make this huge, ecstatic, and life changing as they go up the sand dunes”. So I went along with it and eventually he was right, I saw how right he was and how it affected the scene.
Then there was another scene where kind of the opposite happened. It’s when Eilis and Tony go swimming at Coney Island. That scene is cutting between different sequences of their day in the sun, albeit cloudy, her having a good time at work, and so on, then reading the letter home that is all good news, and then cutting between that and her sister dying. John wanted to go pretty tragic throughout that whole scene. And we tried it with an A, B, & C version and it just didn’t work until you see the priest in the store with the manager coming in to clearly give Eilis the news her sister has died.
That was something that was challenging, but also so rewarding because in the process, you don’t know what’s going to happen – you have to explore and go down a path, and sometimes it doesn’t work out. It forces you to take another approach, but when you do, it can be eye-opening.
Beyond the critical reception, which is pretty much through the roof, how is the reception that you’ve seen to both the music, the film and, the entire production?
Oh, it’s 100 times better than I ever would have imagined. Sometimes, you need a little bit of distance from these things to really see and grasp the totality of it. But, I’ve had amazing responses to the score. The film itself is getting like 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the reviews have been stellar, and a lot of the mentioned score, which is nice, [laughs] and it’s been amazing. I’ve never had a better response to a film.
But I’ve been talking to a lot of people about the film and trying to determine why the response is so strong. Now we all think it’s really good, but there seems to be something carrying this at the speed of light, and I’ve just been wondering why it’s getting such a universal response. All the elements are good, but is it the fact that there’s no irony, meaning that the filmmakers aren’t trying to hide their vulnerabilities, that people are refreshed by?
Off the top of my head, I think that the film is just, like they say about country music, three chords and the truth. Brooklyn doesn’t seem to want anything of the audience, or have an agenda other than being an honest story about people you really care about. And it’s easy to care about them – from the girls at the boarding house, to Tony, to Eilis – and want the best for them.
Something that’s getting response from a lot of people, me included, and everybody in the first world, is the idea of leaving your home – the immigrant side of the film. If they’re not here from another country, they, at least most people I know, don’t live in the same neighborhood as their parents anymore. I think we all do that to further realize ourselves as individuals, and it’s a price most of us willingly pay. But it takes its toll too. For me, this is the third country I’ve lived in, and it’s hard. There are rewards, but there are also costs. Maybe that’s part of what’s making this film resonate so well.
My mother moved from England to Canada around the same time as the story takes place. She went there in 1949, and in those days, when you went, travelling was a real endeavor. Also, phone calls were expensive, and letters took a long time. So I think the film is getting this universal draw because it makes us all feel like immigrants.
Sometimes it’s a parent’s job to impart the idea of independence on their children. You can come home again, but it’s OK if you don’t live here. What I took away from it all was not the loss, but the ambition behind looking for a new life.
I agree, and while the home sickness isn’t the dominant element in the film, it’s really something we can relate to. In order to gain something we want, we have to give up some things we’ll miss.
Thanks to Michael for his time. For more information, click over to his official website: michaelbrookmusic.com. Fox Searchlight is expanding Brooklyn‘s limited release now. Listen to the full score above.