Inside the Federmusik: Reelworld 2017

Drag queens. Online dates. Funny nuns.

This was the company I kept in September, as I scored three short films that premiered last month at the 2017 Reelworld Film Festival in Toronto. Esmerelda’s Castle, Man Eater, and The Last Supper were three of the ten projects that were chosen to be developed through the ACTRA Young Emerging Actors Assembly (YEAA) Shorts filmmaking residency this year. The chosen residents — for these projects, Rachel Cairns, Risa Stone, and the duo of Patricia Ismaili and Clara Pasieka, respectively — primarily serve as writers and producers of their own films, which in turn function as a vehicle to showcase their talents as screen actors in leading roles. In today’s episode, we will go Inside the Federmusik of these three wildly different shorts, each calling upon me to channel a different facet of my collected musical experiences.

Esmerelda's Castle still

Just another day at the office for the characters in Esmerelda’s Castle.

Rachel Cairns’ Esmerelda’s Castle (co-written, directed, and produced with Sarah Hempinstall) is a comedy that takes us back to the 1970s, in which Lydia, an office secretary, goes on a cheeky smoke break and stumbles into a hidden cabaret. Up next on stage is a drag queen who goes by the name of Ruby Divine (portrayed fabulously by John Bourgeois), but looks suspiciously like someone she knows, leading her to question everything about her life, her work, and the world around her.

My involvement with this project began early on, during pre-production, as the film was going to feature a musical number, “Ruby’s Song” (which she co-wrote with guitarist Neil Whitford) as its centrepiece. Rachel first asked me to write an arrangement of this song that was more befitting a seedy jazz club. She also called upon my knowledge of musical theatre and, specifically, how movie musicals are produced, in order to appropriately recreate and adapt the process for her needs. We agreed that it would be best for our Ruby to ultimately lip-sync on set to a prerecorded performance, albeit at the expense of Rachel and Sarah having to make directorial decisions about the scene in advance — which is, incidentally, effectively the process of most major movie musicals. This meant that instead of adding this to my post-production scoring docket, I would have to get the first pass of the arrangement done in time for the talent to rehearse and record, and for the song to be edited and mixed in time for playback on set.

Even though the most challenging part of the production was essentially complete with time to spare, we still had to wait until the film was edited in September before spotting the film for its score needs. This might be unusual for me to say, but if you aren’t strictly paying attention during the film, you might not hear most of the music that I wrote at all. That is to say, most of the cues I composed for Esmerelda’s Castle were intended to be diegetic background music (or “source” cues) for various locales, rather than dramatic underscore. However, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the strains of an electronic keyboard that I’m sure the office secretaries have tuned out by now, something approaching ’70s Muzak over a mall shoeshine kiosk, and a couple of jazz-influenced tunes in the eponymous cabaret bracketing the headline performance. It’s all original, and its goal is to enhance the verisimilitude of the environments that Lydia inhabits.

David in Esmerelda's Castle 1

Enhancing the verisimilitude is kinda what I do.

The ending credits to Esmerelda’s Castle presents Ruby’s Song in an upbeat arrangement reminiscent of gypsy jazz, featuring Neil Whitford Djangoing it up on guitar, with me attempting to channel my best Stéphane Grappelli on violin.

Man Eater still

Hayley (Risa Stone) visits the home of her new beau in Man Eater.

Risa Stone’s Man Eater (co-produced with Nicole Segal, directed by Shawn Gerrard) focuses on the perils of relationships in the digital age. Hayley, a successful twentysomething, connects with a handsome guy named Spencer (portrayed by Shannon Kook) on a dating app. Spencer has everything: a Harvard MBA, a jet-setting lifestyle, and killer good looks. On their second dinner date, however, it becomes apparent that the mysterious suitor is not exactly all that he seems.

My concept for the Man Eater score was to ride the plot twists in this romantic drama, highlighting the changes in the narrative from Hayley’s perspective. The dramatic underscore only makes its first statement about halfway through the film, starting with a tender cue at the moment when Hayley begins to genuinely fall in love with Spencer. Then (without revealing any of the plot), the music remains locked to her narrative point of view, following her rapidly-changing personal circumstances as we hurtle headlong through the climax and resolution of the plot.

ME - Falling for Spencer

The sound of Hayley falling for Spencer. Click to listen.

I chose to take a more subtle, understated approach to underline the quiet character drama, rather than rely on any obvious thematic material. In fact, the most thematic cue in the score is the tender “Falling for Spencer” moment, a simple, furtive melody made up of two similar phrases. This theme, which we hear while we’re still in the romantic portion of the narrative — Hayley thinks she’s in a romance movie, and so should we — forms the basis of the devilishly twisted end credits cue (which I will admit to having had entirely too much fun writing).

The Last Supper still

Sister Celeste (Clara Pasieka) reflects on her situation in The Last Supper.

Patricia Ismaili and Clara Pasieka’s The Last Supper (directed by Christine Buijs) is an episode in the exploits of a pair of nuns, Sisters Roberta and Celeste, who have come to a parish in the heart of downtown Toronto to raise money for their fledgling convent in small-town Ontario. However, on the eve of their scheduled return to their hometown, one of the nuns suffers a crisis of conscience.

Overall, the challenge of this score was to keep the atmosphere light and comedic without venturing into cartoon territory. As this film adheres to the conventions of a dialogue-heavy comedy, music is reserved for moments of spectacle. Specifically, at the core of the score is a series of upbeat, playful orchestral cues to accompany the journey of Sister Roberta (affectionately known as Bird) on her scooter as she runs errands critical to the nuns’ fundraising efforts. If my previous experience is any indication, this kind of playful comedic writing is well within my wheelhouse to do with both alacrity and gusto.

TLS - Bird's Theme

An excerpt of Bird’s Theme. Click to listen.

Bird’s theme is appropriately flighty, making use of angular and stepwise motion to reflect her fun-loving, sunny disposition. Meanwhile, Sister Celeste’s more sombre demeanour is reflected with music that is more serious, but still quirky. We cap off the film with an end credits cue that ties the light, comedic elements together with the religious setting.

I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to work with these three teams. It was encouraging to see such emerging talent in this city, and I look forward to what they — and the rest of this year’s ACTRAA YEAA Shorts cohort — do in the future.

ESMERELDA’S CASTLE, MAN EATER, and THE LAST SUPPER premiered at the 2017 Reelworld Film Festival in Toronto.