[Interview] Nathan Halpern for WATCHER
Courtesy IFC Midnight
In WATCHER, Julia (Maika Monroe) joins her husband (Karl Glusman) when he relocates to his family’s native Romania for a new job. Having recently abandoned her acting career, she finds herself frequently alone and unoccupied. One night, people-watching from her picture window, she spots a vague figure in an adjacent building, who seems to be looking back at her. Soon after, while alone at a local movie theater, Julia’s sense of being watched intensifies, and she becomes certain she’s being followed — could it be the same unknown neighbor? Meanwhile, a serial killer known as The Spider stalks the city.

Chloe Okuno’s WATCHER has stunned audiences at Sundance and the Beyond Fest sneak preview in Los Angeles. The film is a throwback to 70s thrillers and a re-imagining of those thrillers from the viewpoint of a female director. Whilst covering Sundance, Dolores Quintana spoke with composer Nathan Halpern to discuss how he crafted the score for this surprising and tension-filled film.

Halpern had three films at Sundance 2022: WATCHER, Emily The Criminal, and the documentary Martha Mitchell Effect. He has previously created the scores for Nanfu Wang’s In The Same Breath, Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow, Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre’s Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present.

From what I understand you had not one, not two, but three projects at Sundance this year.

Nathan Halpern: That’s correct.

Wow, that seems like a lot of work.

Nathan Halpern: It’s great. These are all films that these directors work so hard on for years and years to bring to life and make them happen. Of course, as you know, an independent film in production can be challenging enough for people in the field as it is, but they all made them happen and the films came out so beautifully. I’m so happy for the films and for these great directors that these films are getting this platform.

Let’s start with WATCHER. So how did you become involved with the project?

Nathan Halpern: I was sent the script by my agent, which I really enjoyed. But not only did I enjoy the script, but Chloe Okuno, the director, also had sent more materials that were laying out more of her aesthetic vision for what the film might look and feel like. What it meant to her, some of the subtexts and meanings and aesthetics of it. It was really stuff that I connected with and was really excited about.

She then rewrote the film to take place in Bucharest, Romania, which was the new shooting location for the film. This was very exciting. I could tell she was very excited about it. I could tell that this was going to open up even more dimensions to this piece, in terms of the story, in terms of the subtext, and also aesthetically. She was really going to be embracing these locations and she had spent time in Eastern Europe. I’ve spent some time in Eastern Europe and been in Moscow and places like that. These are such interesting places to be, particularly as an American, who is sort of new to these kinds of environments. They’re so evocative and interesting.

I knew right away that this was going to both not only bring out all kinds of interesting new dimensions in the story, and in the film, thematically, and cinematically, but also that there was the sense that this could do some interesting things for what the music might do. It might present us with some interesting opportunities to have this sense of place being subtly invoked, and evoked in the music. That definitely is, in part, as subtle as it is, what did happen in some way. So that was very exciting.

Is it normal procedure for you, obviously, not all of your work with directors or films is the same, is it normal that you get the script first?

Nathan Halpern: It really depends. But I would say, in a number of cases, and in a lot of the really great narratives that I’ve done recently, I would say, yeah, in most cases, I have read the script first.

Do you find that helpful?

Nathan Halpern: I would say I’m not sure how helpful it is, as far as it is related to my work, in early composition. I think as far as composing, I find it’s more helpful once I first start seeing some images. That’s the most helpful thing. Certainly, in the case of Watcher, they were doing pre-production in Romania, I saw some images from that, and then I was seeing the dailies, and that told me so much. That was so exciting because I was seeing some of these images from the dailies, and to me, I felt that they so clearly matched the sort of cinematic aesthetic look that Chloe had initially been talking about and envisioning. And here it was, it had come to life and that was so exciting to see that for real. But I think you can see with a script, certainly, it can tell you something and it can tell you that this is a very cool project. Especially in the context of the writer/director thing, which is most of the kind of work that I do. is with the kind of writer-director, tour.

Do you normally get to see dailies? While you’re working on a composition for the film?

Nathan Halpern: Sometimes, yes, sometimes, no, it sort of depends on the project. But I love seeing even a couple of still images. It is really meaningful to me. Just having some sense of the color palette, seeing what the performers are looking like in costume and character, any of that stuff, is really helpful to start really thinking. To start ruminating on stuff and imagining what the score might feel like. I think that I’m still probably not doing a huge amount of composition at that point. But, for me, that kind of early, ruminating time is still very valuable.

Courtesy IFC Midnight

It sounds like you have a very visual sense with your creativity vis a vis composing, and that you kind of have a period, because that’s something I know when I write reviews, usually there’s a time period between when I’ve seen the film, and when I’m just thinking about it. Is that kind of like a similar process for you?

Nathan Halpern: Yeah, absolutely. I think there are a couple of different things. I mean, one is, as you say, with the sense of the visual, and the sense of it is one of the few key pillars that I think about in creating a score. Another one is this kind of broader, overarching question of what is the vibe, what is the feel of this as a piece of cinema overall, beyond the specifics of the story, or the narrative, beyond the small details, just overall, as a cinematic experience. What does this mean to feel like for the audience? Because I think that the way in which score is used, how it sounds, and how it feels is such a key part of what a score can kind of bring to a film. It kind of sets up the audience for the kind of aesthetic experience that they’re going to have, and the kind of journey that they’re going to go on.

Then the other thing that I think about quite a lot, and was quite relevant to a film like WATCHER, it was probably the thing that Chloe and I spent the most time talking about. Point of view, the emotional, internal, and psychological point of view of our protagonist, and what is that? Where are we at with that, and the idea that that is going to really, motivate and inform what we’re doing with the music. The music is going to feel always not like a commentary from the outside, not the hand of the composer or the director, but like something that’s coming from within. It’s always going to be authentic to her journey, and where she’s at psychologically. Chloe was so eloquent on those points and then having that kind of sense, from her.

In composing, that could both be something that could unconsciously sort of motivate the creation of a piece of music and be sort of the real inspiration for it. Then more consciously, if we’re talking about refining and honing a piece of music and a cue, it’s that question of point of view, what’s most truthful, that we would come back to and sort of honing the development of that particular piece.

Is there a specific type of instrumentation or instrument that you work from normally or does it change depending on the project? Where did you start for WATCHER?

Nathan Halpern: It depends very much on the piece of music, I would say for sure. In the case of WATCHER, I did something which I don’t always do, which is, the first piece that I wrote was the opening cue in the film, the opening title sequence. That’s not something that I always do, often I will kind of jump around and maybe write something in the second or third act and go back and forth. Because for me, having a kind of interwoven thematic structure to the music over the course of the whole film is something that’s very important to me in any film. So that’s why I often feel that I can jump around, but for whatever reason, while they’re working on the edit, but still in a rough cut, I had the beginning of the film and this beautiful opening title sequence.

That was the first thing that I worked on, that was the first piece I composed. That embodied various elements that were going to come to play in the score. It was centered around a piano figure, and then with strings, and then with these sort of odder textures, including bowed metals, and some kind of odder sounds that did wind up playing out throughout the score. Some of the scores become quite string-based, and some of it becomes quite abstract. I use the waterphone and other sorts of odd sounds like that throughout the piece. That was kind of the starting point. Then that was a great, great place to start and that was definitely how the score evolved, and sort of grew out from there. Of course, aspects of that, not only in the sound of it but also melodically and harmonically, pieces of that finding their way throughout the rest of the score.

[Interview] Nathan Halpern for WATCHER
Courtesy IFC Midnight

I have noticed that sometimes with the classical composers, they will work on variations on a theme, within a score or symphonic piece. You’ll sometimes find a repeated motif or a particular piece of the music that’s part of the instrumentation repeated at certain points. Is that something that you do? Was it something that was part of this score?

Nathan Halpern: Yes, absolutely. Having a sort of thematic structure to the score is something that’s very important to me. I do that in every score and that can take all different forms depending on the film, and depending on the music. In the case of WATCHER, there are several kinds of themes and sub-themes and motifs that recur in different ways. Sometimes it’s something that quite obviously matches or is a variation on something that we’ve heard before in a way that I think would be fairly clear to the ear. But in other cases, it can be a bit subtler.

So, there are some instances in which a motif would appear as a hint of a melody and the context of some very, sort of de-familiarized warped electronics. Almost sort of very abstract kind of sounds, but within it are a few notes that are in that one piece. You might hear just a few notes of it. Then the next time we hear it, we hear a developed a little bit further, but it’s quite abstract. But then, by the end of the film, some of those things that we’ve earlier heard implied in this more abstract way, they are finally presented in a much more full way with piano and strings. They’re quite explicitly stated.

But I feel that you can deploy this kind of thematic idea with things that are even barely melodic. I mean, there are scores that I’ve done in which it could be some very stark sound but you employ it in a certain way and it starts to start to take on a certain thematic resonance and structure.

So, while you are watching the film the second time, make sure to pay close attention to the score. Most of the time, this kind of work registers with the person watching the film whether or not they are aware of it, but it is suggested you might want to give it more of your attention. In any case, taking note of the intricate details that film craftspeople put into their work that might not be as visible as the work of the actors is key to understanding more about cinema. It might be more analogous to the work of the director that is not always as visible to the eye (or ear) in all of its aspects but music is an integral part of any film experience.

WATCHER had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival (where you can check out our review and interview with Director Chloe Okuno).

WATCHER is now available in theaters, from IFC Films, and then will be available everywhere you rent movies starting on June 21, 2022. Shudder will take the first streaming window of WATCHER.

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