Gus Van Sant’s Sea of Trees

Sometimes the Big Break airdrops into your life like a helicopter kill squad.  In mid November 2014, I had never written a feature length film score; three months later, I’d scored 50 minutes of swirling symphonic textures for a film from director Gus Van Sant, the visionary behind Goodwill Hunting, Milk and many other films. Coming out today in select theaters and on Amazon, The Sea of Trees marks the exploration of a new medium for me.

Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, and Ken Watanabe star in this mystery drama about a man searching for meaning in Japan’s Suicide Forest, known locally as “Aokigahara” because of the many people who go there to end their lives.  Here’s the backstory on the score for this film.

Sea of Trees

The movie opens with McConaughey booking a one-way flight to Japan, then being driven to the edge of a vast forest. In a strangely detached state, he walks past eerie personal memorials and human remains – and almost ends his life.  But out of the trees emerges a man muttering in Japanese, with blood dripping from his wrists. McConaughey’s death mission gets interrupted as a he leaps to help the man, and the two go on a mystical journey through the sprawling wood.

With many beautiful, dialogue-free forest scenes, The Sea of Trees presented intriguing challenges to me as a composer.  This began with my tryout for the job itself, the scoring of the 7-minute climactic scene of McConaughey searching the forest for Watanabe. The assignment came from Gus, who had become interested in my music and wanted to see how I would respond to a huge, visually-driven scene. Gus was mum when I asked what temp music he’d been working with; he wanted me to start from scratch.

I responded not with the ambient pads that might have too literally matched the picture, but with kinetic symphonic music that mirrored the inner emotional energy of the main character.  There is a burning, quiet intensity to Matthew McConaughey, and the way he was seemingly pushed along by the forest itself suggested swirling, almost liquid textures. You can hear the energy of the strings subside as McConaughey approaches each clue in the forest – an old package, a piece of string, a coat – and then rekindle as he moves again. I sent in the demo.

A few days later, the phone rang.  Gus was all in – and I had to be in LA the next morning. And so it began.

The experience was captivating from the start because, like the narrative forms my music animates, film focuses on imaginative storytelling. Turns of dialogue, a slow tumble shot, even a subtle focus change can suggest a musical response. You have to think about what is perceptible, what is working in the background, what the expectation is – and how to play with it.

One of the most interesting things I learned about was the role of the editor.  Working with Gus Van Sant and legendary editor Pietro Scalia, I had a front row seat on the dynamic duo behind many stunning films.  Gus has a disarming quietness; he rarely speaks, and when does, everyone listens.  He has a powerful faith in his instincts.  Pietro has an expert way of sensing where Gus is going and gently pointing others in that direction.

One example concerned the Japanese setting.  How to set the scene without, well, becoming too kitschy?

I started exploring a soundworld of symphonic strings, percussion, and woodwinds, with a special focus on the shakuhachi.  I’d never written for this Japanese instrument, and my experience over the next few months a revelation.  While the shakuhachi has an earthy and haunting tone, it can’t really play chromatic notes (black notes on the piano) without a lot of effort (finger or lip bends).  So I made a kind of hybrid ‘super flute’ consisting of shakuhachi and alto flute. Being able to bend reality in the studio is one of the interesting things about film work that a composer misses in the world of live performance, as much as I love the classical space.

Working with such a legendary director on a film starring so many captivating actors was one of the most exciting and daunting experiences of my life. The composer is the absolute last piece of any film, and everyone is sitting in a den of offices in LA, eagerly waiting for your music. You have to deliver. New vocabulary, new techniques, and (yes) new software is required – as well as the important realization that the composer is serving the film.

In my primary world of the orchestra, the composer has such strong creative input – the musical equivalent of “final cut” on everything from the piece to its performance – so it’s nice to change your creative method sometimes. In not only film but in opera, one draws real power from working with others.  From editor Pietro Scalia to music editor Ryan Rubin, the team was incredibly inspirational.  I’m very grateful to Gus for his vision and for his faith in me. I am so grateful to be part of this beautiful film.