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We Talked to Dean Wareham About Scoring Noah Baumbach's Movies

Ten years after "Squid and the Whale," Dean and Britta return with the synthy score for "Mistress America."

by Joseph Yanick
Aug 16 2015, 3:31pm

A decade after indie-pop duo Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips scored Noah Baumbach’s divorce dramedy The Squid and the Whale, the pair returns this week with the soundtrack for Baumbach’s new indie comedy Mistress America. The synth-heavy score -- the latest in a long history of collaborations between the Luna duo and Baumbach -- plays like a hybrid between Tangerine Dream and New Order and marks another dynamic release from film-focused LA label Milan Records (Birdman, Only God Forgives soundtracks).

The film and soundtrack, which also includes tunes from Suicide, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Paul McCartney, are both due out August 14. We caught up with Wareham, who also makes a brief appearance in the film, to talk about his lengthy transition from indie rock to film composition.

NOISEY: Is it too presumptuous to assume that your debut release, L’Avventura, was named after the Michelangelo Antonioni film?
DEAN WAREHAM: Well, I like that film. When we were trying to title that album, I had a poster of that film handing in my bedroom. So I looked at it every single day and maybe that is how it ended up being the title. But just making that record seemed like an adventure. But nobody went missing [laughs].

I take it you are a pretty big cinephile? Antonioni is not exactly a household name.
Yeah, I am not a massive expert but I know the people I like. I probably know more about 60s than I do about 90s cinema. Antonioni’s stuff is beautiful to look at and great with music often, too.

Did you come to film with that musical perspective, more drawn to filmmakers that weaved music into their works?
I think it was a separate thing because I started getting into film before I was really a musician, during college. At that point, I certainly wasn’t a professional musician—although I was starting a band—and I wasn’t thinking about cinema and music together.

Was your first work in film composition with Baumbach?
Well, [it’s] the first thing I did on my own. I scored a short film that my ex-wife had directed. It was a short film called Kalamazoo, starring Wallace Shawn and Adrienne Shelly. There wasn’t a lot of music in it but there were a couple of nice pieces. But, yes, the first real job was with Luna. Luna got hired to do some of the music for Mr. Jealousy, which was Noah’s second film, after Kicking and Screaming and before The Squid and the Whale. We didn’t do the entire score but we did do some of it. That was pretty quick. We did it live in the recording studio, just sort of sit there with the band kind of scoring things quickly to tape. By the time of Squid and the Whale, I would say the technology kind of was changing and we were able to start doing more things at home. Doing them piece by piece.

I can imagine, as there was almost a ten-year gap between the two films. How did the home process differ from working in the studio?
It took a long time to get that film made. I had read the script and kept talking about it and when the time came to do it, luckily, Britta was involved. Britta originally recommended buying GarageBand, so we started in GarageBand — at that point it was kind of a new technology. But then she realized that we should get Logic. To tell you the truth, Britta is a lot more patient with learning new software than I am. So when we score together, there are things that she writes and things that I write, but all the detailed work — all the hard work [laughs] — she does. Like stretching things for time or hurrying them up, editing, getting into the nitty-gritty.

How did you first meet Noah? Were you just kind of ‘guns-for-hire’ on Mr. Jealousy?
Yeah, I met him through the music supervisor on Mr. Jealousy, but we became friends after that.

What is his direction of the musical composition like? Is he very involved in the day-to-day, or does he let you have a lot of creative freedom?
Noah is not a musician, so he doesn’t give specific musical notes but he gives very specific notes. It’s not like, ‘Here’s your film score, stick it in the film,’ but I feel like he — especially with Mistress America — pays great attention to every single second, all kinds of tiny little things that no one else would have noticed.

Were there any cues that were particularly challenging for Mistress America?
The first scene in the film is like a two-minute-long montage and all kind of stuff is going on. It is about someone’s first week at college, so all this stuff happens, and he just wanted one piece of music that works throughout the scene. So that was quite a challenge, we worked really hard on that, especially because dialogue comes in and out.

Sort of finding the balance?
Yes, finding the balance. It was really a lot of work but I feel like — you know, Noah kept saying, ‘If you get this right like this, it will kind of unlock the whole film.’ And, I feel like it kind of did. Some of the temp music and some the cues that we didn’t do but are still in there [are] 80s synth pop. I mean, some of that stuff I like — bands like New Order, Simple Minds, and The Human League — and some of that stuff I don’t like. So Britta and I started studying those sounds and Britta figured out how to use a sequencer to get some of those pulsing sounds. For me, I am just playing bass and guitar so it was easier to sort of dial in those sounds.

Has working on scores forced you to move outside of your comfort zone?
Yes, but this isn’t too far out of my comfort zone. When we first starting working on the film, there were times when we were asked to look at certain jazz scores, and that would have been a real struggle. I am very aware, as a musician, that there are things that I can do and things that I can’t do. If you really wanted a jazz score, you’d have to go somewhere else. But, one of the first things you learn scoring films is that it is really not about you. I know some other musicians who have done scores and have been like, ‘We turned it in and they rejected it. Like, what the fuck!’ It’s because it’s not all about you and you are not the director. It’s about the scene every time. The film is more important than your music is.

Is part of the struggle, especially in many of these American indies, being heard without really having the music call attention to itself?
There’s a lot of bad movie music right now. How often do you have the experience of just feeling like they are beating you over the head with the music to tell you what to think? But, on the other hand, you are trying to guide people. You just don’t want to be heavy-handed about it. I think it’s the same in making music in general; you don’t want to be over the top. People often ask me, ‘Do you like scoring film?’ The truth is, not always. But its good to work and it’s a lot more fun if it’s a good film and if the director is good. I think it’s the same for actors. Even actors who have their pick over every single film they do, how many really good films do they get to make? Not a lot, I think.

Do you actively seek out other scoring gigs?
We don’t have an agent. I don’t know. We figure the work is going to come to us or it isn’t.

Would you like to move into different genres of film?
Comedy is difficult, I’ve learned. I would love to do horror or thrillers; I think those would be really fun. Or a Western, but people don’t make a lot of Westerns right now.

No, they are not ‘in’ right now, unfortunately, because some of the best music written for film has been for Westerns.
Yeah, absolutely.

You are in the middle of a European tour right now, do you perform the soundtrack work live?
Not this stuff. For Squid and the Whale we played a few things at Sundance, but I don’t really like doing that to tell you the truth. Nobody pays any attention, people are just there to schmooze. The show that we do live that is soundtrack-involved is this project that Britta and I were hired to do for the Warhol Museum, which is scoring 13 short silent films by Andy Warhol. The whole idea of that is a live performance with the films on a big screen above and behind us.