The odds of finding a kindred spirit, by complete random chance, are surely astronomically low. When I moved to LA in 2005, the very first day I arrived, I bought some furniture and set to work assembling it. I didn’t realize that 1) it had gotten to be incredibly late at night, and 2) the walls of this apartment building were paper-thin. I hear footsteps. Then a rather aggressive knocking on my door.
I open to reveal this guy, near-shaven head, in a well-worn A-shirt and covered in tattoos; surely a fight was upon us. Before I can react he, shockingly politely, asks if I can simply keep the noise down, because he has a film crew sleeping on his living room floor. And thus was found a kindred spirit and, later, a collaboration that has spawned over a decade and come to completely redefine me as a composer.
I asked Paul what he thought about all this and got simply this:
"Austin is neither talented nor trustworthy, but his office is sort of near the Porto’s bakery, so sometimes I can make the sacrifice and deal with his mediocre composing. If he is buying."
Well anyway, the crew sleeping on Paul’s floor, it turns out, was making a ‘proof of concept’ short film to help sell Paul’s narrative feature script GRACE. He showed me the finished short and I was blown away. There was clear talent and, even more significantly, immense ambition here. He shared with me the script and over the next three years, he would send each new draft and we’d discuss it at length.
Finally, after years of this refining, Paul managed to strike a deal to get the film made. Normally I wouldn’t rely on videos in a written piece, but I don’t want to be redundant to this video, which I think summarizes it our work on GRACE:
Behind the Scenes of the music of GRACE
It’s worth highlighting that the process of working on GRACE deeply altered my DNA as a composer. Within the constraints of our budget, instead of turning to the orchestra or familiar electronics, I was forced to find ways to make buzzing horse flies, infant screams and on-set location recordings into music. This opened up an entirely new concept for what music can be. I was set free.
It’s likewise worth highlighting that Paul is utterly fearless as a director. He kept repeating “the only rule is that there are no rules.” If something works, we go with it. No matter how novel or strange it might seem. I remember one of the GRACE reviews calling the film “confidently directed” and thinking that that was the absolute perfect description. Rarely have I met someone more willing to own their choices. It’s something we should all aspire to more, and I learned that most from Paul.
Despite regarding myself as a reasonably imaginative person, without Paul’s outrageously tenacious drive pushing me, I doubt I would have gone there. And my composing today is built foundationally on the lessons learned then. I simply wouldn’t be who I am at this point without that experience.
GRACE ended up premiering at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival (and like a million other festivals).
Our next successful undertaking was, of all things, a radio drama! This was finished in 2010, shortly after GRACE, and released as a half hour podcast as part of the series Tales from Beyond the Pale (this was well before the current resurgence of radio-drama-via-podcasts we see today). It’s a deliciously unnerving story about a plastic surgeon who falls in love with his patient and a chance for darkly gothic Romantic score.
Our radio drama THE CONFORMATION, featuring the incredible Tina Guo
However I didn’t just score it. I actually ended up doing the entire sound mix, and a huge amount of the practical sound design as well (the sound work was also shared by another of our long-time collaborators, the amazing Jake Hamilton). I had to creatie an entire sonic world, from foot steps and room tones, to impulse responses of various invented spaces, balancing all the SFX and dialogue and then, of course, writing the score. Never had I had to tackle the entirety of a project’s sound before and, it turns out, Paul is no less of a tyrant in requiring one’s best in that domain.
It was exhausting and exhilarating, and as with GRACE, I emerged with a newfound understanding of my own job. Despite having scored over a dozen features, a couple games and well over a hundred short films by then, I managed to gain a profoundly new insight into that delicate dance between images, sound and music.
Our next feature, DARK SUMMER, was an unusual situation, as Paul didn’t write the script was a bit more of a ‘hired gun’ director. But that proved irrelevant in the way he took total command over the project and, as usual, violently shoved me out of my comfort zone.
A snippet from the score to DARK SUMMER, which I’ve never released as an album
While electronics have figured into my work from the beginning, aggressively synth-driven scores are not my norm. Emerging from this project, I felt a new comfort and confidence with this sort of vocabulary. It wasn’t perhaps so dramatic of a genetic shift as GRACE or CONFORMATION, but it did significantly embolden all my future work.
All through these (and still to this day), Paul and I would make sure our collaboration began at the script stage. Often he would have meetings pitching various projects to producers, and so I’d write original music to accompany his presentations. As is so often the case in Hollywood, a great many of these pitches didn’t ultimately yield anything, and thus my hard drive is littered with many unused, unheard pieces. Each one pushed me though, even if by degrees, the way GRACE had. Even on something so narrow in scope as a pitch piece, Paul is relentless is demanding my best work.
Blowing past numerous smaller works, now this brings us to today and what got me thinking about this history together: BULLET HEAD. I’ll just let this do the talking:
Behind the Scenes to the music of BULLET HEAD
It’s hard to overstate how incredible having a friend and collaborator like this is, who I know will so reliably push me beyond what I thought myself capable of. It’s exhausting and intimidating, and even stressful; I remember at the start of BULLET HEAD Paul said (because our schedule was so short) “You’re going to hate me this month.” And there were inevitably moments where that was true. But yet, the moment we’re done I realize how indebted I am to the process.
I’ll let Paul have the last word (which I share with a grimace, because of how generous his comments are):
"It’s hard for me to imagine working on a movie without Austin at this point. My collaboration with him is so intrinsic to the process of making a film to me that I’m not even sure what that would look like. There are some people who truly understand creative partnership — who really get how powerful a thing it is to work together, to force each other to find the truest course for an idea. That’s Austin. It doesn’t matter how big or small a project is, whether it’s a pitch or a radioplay or a feature film, he is always there to leap off the cliff with me. He understands the value of embracing limitation, of investing in it as soon as those limitations become clear, and using them to inform your decisions so that the result is always deliberate and appropriate for the piece. And he is not afraid to fail. Every project we have worked on we have encouraged each other to break the rules. Not for gratuitous reasons, not for novelty’s sake alone, but so we are free to rebuild our own rules without the handicap of old ideas that may never have been effective in the first place. This means there is triangulation. A process of getting it wrong before we can get it right.
With schedules as they are, we guard that luxury by beginning early. Earlier than any composer I know of. As soon as I finish a script I know I will do, I send it to my cinematographer Zoran Popovic, and Austin, and the work begins right then. In some cases, Austin will have read a dozen drafts before a project shoots a frame — and before the drafts, he’s inevitably heard a pitch and seen a look book or a mood reel (which he has likely scored). This last collaboration on BULLET HEAD was a great ride for us — an amazing stew of brutality and spirituality that is at once playful and full of hope and possibility that hits you in the gut and the heart and the soul in equal measure — and THAT has been our bar ever since we started this journey together. And the most exciting part of it is that Austin and I are just getting started."
BULLET HEAD is out now (as of Dec 8, 2017) in limited theatrical release, and can also be found on iTunes, VOD, etc.