An interview with film composer Nathan Halpern

Brooklyn-based film composer Nathan Halpern has written music for several films, and his work for the 2016 series Soundbreaking earned him an Emmy nomination. Halpern’s recent projects include the documentaries Hooligan Sparrow and The Witness and the drama The Rider, which premieres later this month. The Rival asked Halpern about his experiences and approaches as a composer and what he anticipates about the future of film.

What initially inspired and motivated you to become a film composer?

"I'd been writing songs, making records, and playing and touring in bands through my teens and twenties. All along I was quite passionate about film (accused by some of my friends of being something of a cinephile), clocking a lot of time at the great arthouse and rep houses here in NYC like Film Forum and Anthology Film Archives. But all during this time the thought of composing for film never crossed my mind—perhaps because I didn't have any conservatory training, which I assumed one would need for such a thing. After I'd stopped touring, some film editor friends asked me to contribute music to some of their projects, and the process of scoring-to-picture clicked with me immediately, and I was hooked."

When you begin a score, how complete or incomplete are the projects you receive, and what is your general process for determining which scenes should be scored and what emotions you want the music to convey?

"I've done this all different ways, but I generally score to a fine cut or locked picture, perhaps writing a few preliminary pieces earlier on in the process. Determining which scenes are to be scored—and what emotions are to be conveyed—is a fluid process and a conversation between myself and the director (and sometimes the editor). I'm often the one arguing for less music—my feeling is that music should only be present when it has something to add to the overall gestalt of the film, and anything redundant is annoying. As a filmgoer, my tastes also lean towards films that are not slathered in music.

The music should always be motivated in some way, to dial into—and then dial up—subtext that is authentically in the material of the film, but might not otherwise be felt if not for the music to bring it out.

There's also the broader sense of music helping to create and define the mood and atmosphere of the world of a film, and the type of experience the audience is meant to have."

How long do you typically spend developing a score from start to finish?

"Early conversations could sometimes begin months in advance, but overall I'd say a range of four to 12 weeks. In some cases a project will come up quickly and the whole thing will transpire in under four weeks."

What do you think are the most difficult and rewarding aspects of composing for film?

"The most difficult aspect of composing for film might be working with people who are particularly timid or insecure—whereas I find that people who are more confident in themselves artistically are more likely to be more adventurous, open and rewarding to collaborate with. The most rewarding aspects include: working with highly intelligent, gifted and talented collaborators—directors, editors, musicians, etc.; when the specific aesthetic or dramatic needs of a film inspire me to create something musically that I've never done before and might never have done were it not for coming into contact with the film."

What do you look forward to most about your future projects, and are there any new technologies or developments in the industry that are especially exciting to you?

"I look forward to any new project that will inspire me emotionally and artistically. I'm also always eager to work in new genres of film in which I've not previously worked, and to make new kinds of music—an opportunity that film music often presents. As to the question of new technologies and developments in the industry: on the one hand, I appreciate the platform that streaming services have given to films that were previously a bit less mainstream (like documentaries). But at that same time, I think it's important that the classic cinematic experience be honored and preserved—true cinema is very important to me and I hope we can keep it alive and moving forward."

Originally published on by Stephanie Gemmell on 4.10.2018.

CultureStephanie Gemmell