The Ark of Lilburn is one of Jordan Bennet’s recent scoring assignments, the music from the documentary is available now on digital platforms. The composer took time out to speak about his career thus far.
You started out as an audio engineer, what made you decide to move into becoming a composer and how did you get into writing music for film and what musical education did you receive?
Well, before I was an Audio Engineer, I had spent my teens and early 20s as a professional Bass Player in Nashville, TN. My first job out of high school was playing in my dad’s Southern Gospel band, and from there I played with country artist Royal Wade Kimes, as well as various independent artists, some of whom I still fill in for occasionally. Over the years, I gradually became known as a multi-instrumentalist, playing live and recording with Guitar, Bass, Synthesizers, Mandolin and Percussion.
I got into Audio Engineering when my wife and I moved to LA right after we got married (she is a very accomplished Stunt Performer/Coordinator, Intimacy Coordinator, and Filmmaker. You’ve definitely seen her work!). I wasn’t getting anywhere doing cattle call auditions in LA, and I was starting to feel like I only had one thing to offer. I had always wanted to score films (being especially inspired by the works of John Murphy, since he came from an unconventional background as well), but I didn’t have a traditional music education beyond Music Theory in High School. Guitar players who want to score films are a dime a dozen, and I didn’t have any kind of “in”. I had limited experience recording in Nashville, from growing up watching my dad work in his studio with A-List personnel to managing a Music Store in a Nashville Suburb where I picked up tips from friends, colleagues, and customers. Audio Engineering was something I thought I could get into that would give me an additional skill and hopefully get a foot in the door. I enrolled at SAE to learn how to work in a studio and focus on Post Production. While all of my classmates were falling over themselves to get on the Vintage NEVE and SSL consoles, I basically had free reign over the Post room doing ADR sessions, Sound Design and basic Scoring.
From there, I started doing Sound Design, Editing and Mixing for short films for whatever rate I could, and started casually pitching myself to do the score, or possibly holding my work hostage until I got to score it, however you want to put it 😉 I was basically stubborn enough to lock myself away for a solid month in the studio to learn how to properly work with an Orchestra. While I’ve had more education since then, that stubbornness is what I truly owe to whatever success I have had.
Is there a great deal of difference between scoring a film and working on a commercial, I suppose the commercial is theoretically more difficult because you have a limited amount of time to make a statement?
Honestly, the main difference between the 2 forms tends to be the timeline, so the biggest difference is that on a tighter schedule I tend to go to presets and templates I’ve developed over the years that allow me to get great sounding mixes and interesting orchestrations quite a bit faster.
I kind of look at each one in a similar way. With a longer form project, you do have more time to fully develop the artistic side, themes and colors and the like, but I tend to work fast in either environment, so my mindset stays pretty similar. I always remember what composer Trevor Morris once told me: “No Producer ever liked a late cue.”
Over the last decade plus of working as a media composer (and even longer as a professional musician), I’m fortunate enough to have developed a certain trust in what I do, and I try to apply that trust to writing music that I think sounds good. I also try not to get hung up on getting it perfect the first time, because I can always chip away at the marble after I get it on the stand, so to speak.
The Ark of Lilburn is one of your recent assignments, within the score I heard references to the music of the Italian western genre as in Morricone’s A Professional Gun in the opening cue on the soundtrack release, and little references to Once Upon a time in the West, in the cue Mounting Concerns, plus the use of a fuzzy sounding guitar in Daylights Wasting, the use of trumpet solos, echoing percussive elements, voices, guitar, and whistling etc standing out, in other cues such as A Fistful of Gravel, was this something that you wanted to do or was it requested by the producers of the film or did the movie have a temp track that included this style of music?
Ark was very interesting getting into it, because it was originally developed as an 8 episode series before it was edited into a tighter movie. When I started working on it, I started on Episode 1 (essentially what you see in the first 10-15min of the movie), which was temped very specifically. Nick (DeKay, the director) always told me that he had a very specific vision for Ep 1, and I would have more free reign over the next few episodes as long as it fit in with the style (which was set in stone before I ever joined up). The references you mention are 100% what it was temped to, and I tried to do something that fit those styles without completely copying it.
The title card cue that gets reused was most certainly, A Professional Gun, but I wanted to make it a bit more aggressive, using guitars as well as similar instrumentation. I also simply don’t think it’s possible to do something so stylized as this WITHOUT it sounding like Morricone, so the challenge was writing original music that sounded like I wrote it, and not that I was just trying to change the bare minimum to keep from getting sued. Although in all transparency, with the Mission: Impossible cue, I have no defense 😉 Nick wanted to use that cue, but the production couldn’t afford to license it, so I did exactly that to help make the scene funny!
I was also very influenced by Woody Jackson’s scores for Red Dead Redemption 1 and 2, which is of course very Morricone Influenced, but uses those tools in slightly different ways, and I love what he does with minimalism on it and took a lot of inspiration from that. Sometimes a big drum and a Timpani keeping rhythm sounds just as tense as tremolo picking a fuzzed out electric guitar!
The cues that sound the most like my natural scoring style would likely be “The Ark of Lilburn”, “March of Nickels and Dimes”, and “An Honest to Gosh Actual Plan”, which were cues that I had a more creative freedom over and was able to do my typical approach of organizing dissonance and beauty to sound most honestly like me. “The Ark of Lilburn” specifically, I wanted to sound like I would’ve belonged in the 1994 Oscar Race, whose scores I obsess over like some people do their favorite Baseball Lineups.
Is the whistler on the score a synth sample or a live performer?
Let’s just leave it at I was responsible for it 😉
No problem, the Italian western genre and its music seems to have influenced many contemporary composers, what composers or artistes would you say have had an influence upon you as in how you approach a scoring assignment?
It’s hard not to be influenced by big names like Williams, Zimmer, and of course Morricone as a composer. My first major influences though were composers who took more of an eclectic approach to their instrumentation since I did not come from a traditional classical background. John Murphy really spoke to me especially “SNATCH”. and “28 Days Later”, and honestly in the days of MySpace, he took the time to write back and forth with me and encourage me to keep scoring and even offered some very constructive criticism on my earliest Garage-band recordings using the musical QWERTY keyboard and built-in iMac mic and everything! I used to have those messages printed out and hanging on my workspace, but they were lost in a move, and I no longer have access to the originals. I’ll always regret not still having those. Although I’m sure he doesn’t remember our correspondence, I’ll never forget his encouragement, and will always consider him a true Mentor for it.
My absolute favorite composer is Thomas Newman. Listening to “American Beauty” got me thinking of eclectic scoring outside of the realm of guitar. I must say though I love how he uses Bass Guitar. I think it’s Bill Bernstein who usually plays bass on his scores and “A Series of Unfortunate Events” got me thinking about using those skills I’ve developed in conjunction with an orchestra. When I was getting my orchestral chops together, it was usually a Thomas Newman score I would learn from and apply, especially “Shawshank”, “Road to Perdition” and “Wall-E”.
I honestly couldn’t be a bigger John Carpenter fan too. Some people can’t get past the fact that his music tends to be quite simple, but not only is a schlocky 80s synthesizer score one of my love languages, but I challenge you to find someone else who is as in tune with the dynamics of a scene the way he is. He’s a master.
Also, being a 90’s kid, I cannot not mention James Horner. I wholeheartedly believe that the work he did on family films in the 80s and 90s shaped an entire musical generation and got us used to hearing and appreciating classical-style music, because we got to watch dinosaurs, mice, and men with jetpacks while we listened. In fact, way before I even started playing bass, the first soundtrack I ever bought was for Braveheart, which as far as I’m concerned is on par with any of the greats like Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars and The Mission.
A general question now, what is your opinion of the use of the temp track, does it help a composer, or do you think it can be distracting?
Everyone wants to be beautiful and unique from the depths of their own creativity on the first try, but temp tracks are a good tool for establishing communication with a filmmaker, so I personally believe it’s silly to argue against them. If you have enough trust in your creative vision, talent and musical filter, it shouldn’t be a hindrance. In fact, it should help you not need to throw as much pasta at the wall to get on the same page as your director.
Now, having said that, I never turn down an opportunity to write from a blank slate if that’s what my collaborators ask me to do.
The score for The Ark of Lilburn is available on digital platforms, it runs for over an hour which is a lot of music for a documentary, how much music did you write for the film and how many players including yourself did you have for the project?
I honestly don’t even know at this point, especially given that it was originally written as an episodic and quite a few cues got cut when their scenes did. When the movie was re-edited, I took the cues they used in the music edit and either gave them a proper edit, replaced them with something else that hadn’t been used yet, or in a case or 2, even wrote new cues to avoid repetition. I have a folder filled with unused cues somewhere on a hard drive, and I’ll go through them someday.
Sometime this year I’ll be releasing the Complete Score for Ark, which is twice as long and contains every cue written for the film (not including anything that was reused of course). I don’t remember what the running time on that is, but it’s long enough that I needed to get with DistroKid to have them up the allotted track count per album 🙂 But we didn’t turn it into a movie until I had already written 6 episodes, so a rough guess is that I wrote over 2 1/2 hours of music in total.
Are there any plans to release the score onto Compact Disc?
Not currently, but you never know. The production company owns the publishing rights to the score, so it’s really up to them, but I don’t think a CD release is a super high priority for anyone. If anything, I’d love to do a Vinyl release, since it seems that most score aficionados are more likely to buy a physical record for their collection, and I think that would be special. Maybe I can get the approval to do a limited release like that. I at least want one!
What is the first step for you when looking at a prospective project, for example how many times do you look at a film before deciding what style of music it might need and where music should be placed to serve the storyline best, and after this how many times do you consult with the producer or director?
It of course varies case by case, but I like t try and write a small suite that fits the vibe of any initial conversations I’ve had with the creative team as a jumping off point. In fact, “Paperweight” came directly from my first pitch to Nick, and I adapted it for the movie. I love to have spotting sessions with the director, but especially since what we do is digital and very rarely in person, I just make sure to send a ton of proofs for approval. If I have any initial ideas, themes, or textures, I’ll often place them in the timeline in almost random places to see if something interesting happens, and then I sculpt it from there. It often turns into a completely different cue, but if it at least has a feeling that I like, it may lead somewhere good. You just must be willing to admit that your first idea wasn’t good and move on. Having a family to take care of helps streamline the process!
How do you work out your musical ideas, by this I mean what instrument or what devices do you use?
It all depends on the project and what the sound needs to be. On Ark, it of course started with guitar or bass 90% of the time. But if I know something needs to sound grandiose and classic, I’ll usually pull up a full string section patch in one of my virtual instruments, usually Spitfire or Orchestral Tools and start coming up with chord shapes. If I get a progression I like, I’ll rip it apart and start to orchestrate it and flesh it out, and if I find I need an extra beat somewhere or need to take something away, I just do it and see what happens. So much of film scoring is not only artistic and creative, but just pulling out the tools that you know work and building the cue around it. If you need to write a progression that goes from E to D to A, that’s what you do. If you just need to do a Major Scale walkup to the octave, there’s no shame in doing it just because it isn’t the most creative choice you could make.
I do find though that when it comes to spotting, lately I’ve been starting with Drums, Percussion or Synth Sequences (if I’m working with Electronics). Those help me identify where certain things need to land, and if I need to mess with the time signature to make things happen. If I’m working on something more abstract, sometimes I’ll pull out synthesizers, delays and reverbs and just start playing without any proper guide or rules to see what happens.
My favorite thing that happens for that is to listen to a 1min reverb trail I’ve set up and see if anything in there interacts in a certain way that creates a melody I can develop.
Inspiration can come from anywhere though. There’s a cabin in Big Bear, CA my wife and I stayed at for her birthday one year that had a shower ventilation system that interacted with the cold pipes and the shower head to create a progression I was drawn to, so I ran out of the bathroom to record the “melody” on my phone before I forgot it, since I knew I’d never be in that Perfect Storm ever again to hear it a second time. There was also a door in my High School that played a perfect drone in the key of D 🙂
How much time were you given to score The Ark of Lilburn?
I started working on it in earnest in November of 2021, and delivered the final cues to the audio mixer in May of 2022. It was particularly challenging because not only were we moving and most of my gear was still in boxes, but I was also scoring another feature at the exact same time, which was a Synth Horror score. Between that, building my studio and being a working Stay-At-Home-Dad, my head was being pulled in about 70 different directions at that time. I do believe it helped both scores stay fresh though.
You have worked on a variety of genres and have scored several shorts is there a genre of film that you would like to work on?
I’m always looking for the next Horror or Drama to do. Those 2 genres fit my personality and creative brain very well, and I feel like I connect with them in a special way. I don’t often get asked to do a straight Action or Romantic Comedy, so I’m always looking for one of those too. I’d say the one genre I haven’t really had the opportunity to work on that I would love to do would be a Neo-Noir. I love dark stories and mysteries, and love that those allow you to blend so many diverse sounds and colors to create something singular.
What do you do musically away from film?
As I mentioned, I am a working Stay-At-Home-Dad, since my wife’s work is usually on set and mine is in our backyard, so having a toddler definitely keeps you busy.
I’m also a motorcycle enthusiast and am always itching to go on a ride whenever I can (or take my kid to dealerships to browse), but I’m currently between bikes now. I love going to see movies whenever I can. My wife and I used to go 2-4 times a month, but having a kid makes that challenging, so while her solo thing is riding horses, mine tends to be sneaking away to a movie by myself. I’m also an avid gamer, but I don’t have many games I can play when my kid is awake, so I don’t get to do it as often anymore, and when I do, I’m usually playing on the easiest setting so I can get through more of it 🙂 My wife and I love playing the Resident Evil games together though, as well as almost any other kind of Horror/Adventure/Puzzle/Story Based game we can get our hands on, such as Until Dawn, The Quarry, Detroit and The Evil Within.
Some of us don’t get to be in creative careers by not being a little geeky!
Themes were always the backbone of any film or TV score, but the theme as we know it seems to be fading out or maybe is currently not in vogue with filmmakers, do you think having a core theme to build the remainder of the score around is vital and also having little phrases and sounds for locations or characters is also important?
I’m going to be honest, I’m not as much of a “theme guy” as some other composers you’ve talked to. Given my initial influences and self-taught history, I was always more concerned with creating atmosphere and texture than leitmotifs, and I say that with a certain sense of demure.
I was always influenced by some of Thomas Newman’s scores, where he does use themes, but it’s more about making the work as a whole cohesive and using colors and textures to represent different parts. Now, having said that, In my recent works, I have been trying to be a bit more thematic, including Ark, where I tried to re-introduce themes for the Hardship itself, as well as the relationship between the Porters, and bring in aspects of the theme song “Hand on Your Gun” where I could, and it happened much easier than it had in the past, so I guess I’m growing up!
I would like to try writing a small ballet or symphony to further develop thematic comfort within myself, but I also know that I do what I do, and I believe I do it well. I myself am not likely a successor to John Williams, but I have friends who are, and they do it so, so, so well (specific shout outs to Stephen Bennett and Greg Nicollett).
Whats coming next for you?
Well, I have the other score I composed coming out soon called “Courtney Gets Possessed”, a Horror Comedy I scored using my collection of Analog Synthesizers, and I signed on to score another documentary sometime in the next coming months, which I’m not at liberty to discuss, but it will be very different from Ark, likely using more electronic elements and moody orchestra. Nick also has some other things in the works, and I hope I can work with him again on them, and a handful of other projects that I’m waiting to get in the festival circuit before I can share. I’m also the Music Director/Lead Composer for the Labyrinth Masquerade Ball in Los Angeles, which just entered its 25th year, so I’ll be starting work on that come March. Other than that, I’m just out here hustling for the next gig like everyone else!
I also want to give a shoutout to the musicians who played on the Theme Song for Ark. Larry Crowley (Vocals and Lead Guitar), Brent Stranathan (Drums and Percussion) and Jacob Garcia (Trumpet). They are all amazing musicians who I so honored said yes to working so far below their rates to make this song come alive. Nick wanted a classic sounding theme song like you would’ve found in a 60’s western, and after a few rocky starts I was able to write this one in a night. I hadn’t written a SONG in a long time, so I think it was just lightning in a bottle for me.
Larry has been like a second dad to me for most of my life, and he knocked it out of the park. I knew how great of a singer he is, and he STILL surprised me. I’ve learned so much from him over the years, and was humbled that he said yes to this.
Brent and I have been friends for over a decade, and we’ve played in a lot of different bands together with us playing about every instrument under the sun in some form or fashion. Not only is he my favourite drummer to ever play with, but he’s one of the most musically intimidating people I’ve ever known, and that’s what makes him such an asset, because if you miss something, he catches it. You always want someone you trust like that on your side, and I owe him quite a few favours at this point.
I didn’t meet Jacob until we moved to Atlanta in 2017, but he’s a stuntman who knows both Nick and my wife through that world, and one night at a party he randomly told me he played trumpet (in a full orchestra, no less!). He had come across my Facebook feed again when I was arranging the theme song, and it all just clicked. He knocked everything out in a couple of hours, and even did some improv on another cue somewhere in the movie!
My thanks to Jordan for his time and his excellent thoughts and answers.