Local Composer Scores New Thriller For "Straw Dogs"
Larry Groupé is a film and television composer based in San Diego.
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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh.
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CAVANAUGH: Movie and TV music scores are often most successful if they are not noticed by the general public. That means the story and the music have fused to such an extent that one is virtually indistinguishable from the other. It makes the art of movie scoring challenging to a composer, but a bit of a rocky road to fame. By guest is film and television composer Larry Grupe, who lives here in San Diego. He's written the score for the new major motion picture, Straw Dogs, which is opening in theatres this weekend. Larry, thank you for joining us.
GRUPE: Thank you Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: You've worked with the director of Straw Dogs, Rod Lurie on a number of films. Does it make it easier to compose given the fact you have a history with this director?
GRUPE: It certainly helps. But the interesting thing is that I have to reinvent myself, and reearn my stripes every time with Rod. He expects a full engagement of all our artistic abilities for those that are in his creative team. So yes, I know him now and we're friends, and there's certain things I understand about him. But I still can be surprised even after nine projects or so. Where I feel he's heading in a certain direction, I say, oh, I know what he's going to want here, and I find on the it's exactly what he doesn't want. So it's still always a surprise. But the collaborative effort improves over time. If you get to do things more than once with the director, it does help get through all the things we have to go through on every film anyway. So it's a good thing.
CAVANAUGH: Walk us through the steps that you use to -- in composing a film. Do you see details while the film is being shot?
GRUPE: Well, when I get to work with something more than once, in Rod's case, he sent me the script six months before anything was even shot. So that's unusual for the composer, but it's again an advantage. I can sketch a theme here, a theme this, bounce it off of him, to get his initial ideas, and start to set what I call the tone of the movie as far as what the score'll be doing. And that's the hardest part of the scoring process is deciding what the tone will be, what the primary emotions of the score needs to do. It's like any writer staring at a blank page, coming up with those initial thoughts. Once you get a theme that everyone likes, including yourself, and other building blocks in the score, then the process starts to accelerate. And as the assembled cuts emerge, I can test the themes, and if they're all still working, I can move faster, as the film continues to be edited as well every day. So there's changes every day. But I get to see what they're doing.
CAVANAUGH: Do you feel it's important to spend time on the set while the film is being made?
GRUPE: I do. And I'll go to location unless it's incredibly far away for at least 2 or 3 days. It's not necessarily to meet the actors. It's just to look at what the location sets are like. In this case, it's a farm house that's a very important part of our story. So I went out to that location. They were done shooting with it, but I was able to walk around and just sit there for an hour and absorb it. That I find very valuable.
CAVANAUGH: Straw Dogs say thriller. Can you tell us a little bit about the plot?
GRUPE: Well, this -- there are many people that may know the original from 1971, it's a Sam peckin paw dustin Hoffman picture so it's an iconic piece. So we are in the world of remakes right now in Hollywood, and with the Cohen brothers' true grit being I feel a very successful remake, what that did was to honestly remake the original book. It wasn't necessarily a John Wayne film remake. And that's the same thing in our case. The producers had bought the right to the actual, original story, the taking of trencher's farm, and that's the adaptation we actually made. It wasn't specifically to remake the peckin paw movie. Comparisons are going to be made, and that's fine. If I could be blunt, I would say we actually made a much better picture that be the original. So we're very happy about it. But a thriller storyarc like this, I guess it's called a home invasion. So it comes down to our primary characters ultimately protecting themselves against the folk that Hibin the area. I don't want to spoil too much of it, and I'm not giving anything away by saying that. But it's the story ark of the picture. It starts innocently and then tensions building.
CAVANAUGH: That's the point I was going to make. In a thriller, music is used to create that kind of tension. But there are so many ways in the past that that's been done. I wonder, do you consciously want to avoid the things that you've heard before?
GRUPE: I think all film composers want to do that. They want to carve another way of making the score work, and not being too terribly trishtive. And one of the things -- it actually started with the reading of the script, and the theme we just heard, is in our case, the story fakes place in present day Mississippi, in a small town, so there's Spanish moss, and valuables, and a tiny rural southern setting. The very first thing that came to mind from the studio was let's have zydeco and Cajun, let's hear harmonicas, and cobros and that's fine. And it would have worked. And it would have been in my mind a conventional way to go. I felt if we had a bold theme in the beginning, we see opening idyllic shots of the back country, but a really strong melodic theme is played, not in those ethnic stylings, then the score's entire purpose is just about the heaviness of the story that's coming our way. And we allow all the zydeco or country or southern rock, whatever seems appropriate, that gets reg gaited to the diners, the car radios and so on. So we have that there. But the score to get to the point of your question is that I didn't want to do what the more conventional approach of this thriller would be. And I wanted to keep it very large and expansive. And it, worked out really well, and adasa lot more depth, I feel to the story and characters than a more conventional approach would have been.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with film and television composer Larry Grupe who lives here in San Diego. And we're talking specifically about his score to the new film opening this weekend, Straw Dogs. Let's talk about some specific parts of this score. There's a scene where a character dies at a football game. We're not giving away any of the plot, but tell us how you composed for that scene.
WING: Composers, film composers certainly look for some kernel of inspiration in every scene that's going to start them down the process of writing the music for that particular scene. And as you mention, this is a scene during a Friday night high school football game, and unfortunately an accidental death occurs behind the high school there. Meanwhile there's a full fury game going on inside the stadium. What I decided to do as far as the materials, I drew from the idea of a pep band, you know that's actually in -- that's in the game, they're not playing during this exact moment, but I thought this would be a great connective tissue to use, are the idea of the brass. So I used that in order to propel us through this action sequence that's happening, and one thing I can also say is at the very end, there is because a person runs out of breath and doesn't make it, another small orchestrational thing that I did is I used whistle tones from all the wood winds while this person is be shooshed and quieted. So it all becomes the same sort of sonic material. Sometimes I take my cues directly from what I'm seeing on the picture, like with the whistle tones. Or I decided that the foundational aspect of this short scene, the pep band or marching band idea trial turned out to be a really good idea because it puts us into the football game, but the cue is very specific to what's happening in our scene at the same time.
CAVANAUGH: Let's hear it. This is from Larry grew pay's score for the thriller, Straw Dogs, and as I said, it opens up in theatres this weekend.
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CAVANAUGH: That was from the score of Straw Dogs, by my guest, Larry Grupe. So yes, you heard the brass, then at the very end, you heard the wood winds. How do you actually go about composing, though? You don't have an orchestra sitting with you in your den or wherever you do this. How do you know it's going to sound like that P.
GRUPE: Nowadays in Hollywood film score, it's become expected that the the composer is going to make a very elaborate and detailed computer mock up of what the final recording will ultimately sound up. And as technology is constantly improving and moving forward, I stay very state of the art with my computer based system, where I can show here's what the brass will do, what the wood winds will do. They don't sound as rich and full as what we just heard, but they sound awfully close. And certainly, a director, or producer, when they hear the mock up knows exactly what the tempo will be, what the impacts are, and they'll say, or that'll work great, or change it here, make if slower, make it faster. Then I can make all my changes, and keep showing them this viea the computer version. And when we finally get the green light for the final recording, then all these things -- no one's surprised. They come to the recording session, it's exactly what they thought solid sound like, but it's now much more mag sieve cent and real. It's like an artist's sketch and suddenly it's a painting.
CAVANAUGH: There are some directors without naming names that you say are harder to work with as a composer. Some of whom have musical backgrounds item does that make it more difficult and.
GRUPE: It's taken me time to realize this, but really, the film composer is part of the film making team. And when a director speaks to me or wants to speak to me and says in real specific musical terms, maybe they had some trache, which makes them the more dangerous people to work with, and they'll try to say, do you think the bassoon should try to play this? And I'll just go, I don't know, we'll see. I just want to hear emotional terms. Rod always speaks just in primary emotions, and that's absolutely the best position to come from because then I can absorb what I feel that means and give him something back. If he says, write me something sad, and I come back the next day, and he goes no, that's sentimental. That's not sad. And I go, okay, then I begin to learn a flossary of their terms. But I have worked with producers or directors that want to speak to me in real musical terms buts they feel they have enough skill level to do so, but I actually find it a burden. And something that I have to work around. Even I don't know if it should be bassoons yet or not. I just want know that we need the music to be angry here. That's the best way to direct a composer.
CAVANAUGH: Now you spoke to us earlier about themes, themes for characters, sometimes for places. I think that as movie goers, we don't always notice that, you know, as separate from the film. But we do notice it as part and parcel for the film. For the male character, for example, that theme that you come up with gets repeated in different ways through the film. Right?
GRUPE: Exactly. It's what -- that's where film music really works magic, because you do have a series of themes like you say for characters or locations. And they do repeat throughout the score as the story thickens. However it's not just an exact repeat upon it's been reorchestrated, first it's with the strings, then maybe it's just with a small flute because something intimate is happening. Or the theme that was major is now minor. It works on a psychological level to the viewer. They're not necessarily connecting it immediately in their conscious mind, but it is working in their subconscious mind ands it helps become the glue of the film. It really helps montage subsequent, difficult editing passages, and your brain really does accept all this information. And at the end of films, these themes come together, and it becomes a very satisfying conclusion to hear these themes finally take their place. So it's an interesting and always satisfying part of theme writing.
CAVANAUGH: You actually have some of the themes that show up in the end credits. We have an excerpt from the end credits for Straw Dogs. Let's hear that now.
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CAVANAUGH: That's from the score of Straw Dogs, composed by my guest, Larry Grupe. It's a film that opens in regional theatres, in fact, across the country, this weekend. I could even tell from that just because we're listening for it now, that that's quite similar to what we were hearing in the beginning.
CAVANAUGH: So it's repeated again in a different way. How long does it take to compose a score for a feature film?
GRUPE: Well, there's no exact industry standard. But I have found that I usually get anywhere between 12 to 16 weeks for a two-hour feature film depending on how many minutes are really ultimately needed. Sometimes that can be compressed if they have a rush on their schedule, and you really have to get it together fast. But normally, I'd say 16-week system not an uncommon amount of time. So from the day you write your first team, 16 weeks later, then you hand in your final recording to the studio.
CAVANAUGH: What's your work lifelike? Is there a lot of work for composers in Hollywood? Are you busy all the time?
GRUPE: As an independent, we can't control our schedules the way we'd like it. I can easily be doing two projects at once, which is demanding, and then suddenly there's nothing happening for 3 or 4 months. It's a roller coaster situation that is the life of an independent. I think Thad be true for any independent, whether you're a composer or not. You do the best you can to plan your time, and get ready to work really hard when everything comes flying through the door.
CAVANAUGH: I have been speaking with Larry Grupe, film and television composer based in San Diego. New film he's scored is Straw Dogs, and it opens in area theatres this weekend. Wish you great good luck with it, Larry, thank you.
GRUPE: Thank you very much.