We’ve got over four months to go, but it’s easy to imagine that “A Ghost Story” will prove to be the best American film of the year. Starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in a loose but essential sense, this patient, otherworldly fable about a ghost’s inability to do anything but watch time fold upon itself owes success in large part to a dynamic and deeply felt string score by Daniel Hart. "Ghost Story" marks Hart's fourth score collaboration with writer/director David Lowery, following the 2011 short film "Pioneer", 2013’s "Ain’t Them Bodies Saints", and last year's Disney epic "Pete's Dragon". The pair are close to a fifth with upcoming Robert Redford vehicle "Old Man and the Gun".
Hart began his professional career as a recording/touring musician for bands like The Polyphonic Spree, St.Vincent, and Broken Social Scene. He is continues to diversify with other film and television projects. These include a documentary adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” and a Showtime comedy called "SMILF" (“Like MILF with an S for Single Mother,” Hart clarified following some confusion). He's contributed music to the outrageously successful "S-Town" podcast and his band Dark Rooms has an album coming out early next month. The group's single from that album "I Get Overwhelmed," provides an emotional core to "Ghost Story" as an onscreen product of Affleck's musician character.
The composer took time to chat with me on the phone from his home/studio in Reseda, CA, which he noted as also being home to "The Karate Kid" and something called Gorilla Wrestling. Our conversation has been edited for length.
Now that you’ve made some progress in music I hope you can get your wrestling career off the ground.
It’s that and then learning the crane kick from "The Karate Kid."
So, what was your first exposure to A Ghost Story? Did David send you a script or did he tell you about an idea he had?
Yeah I did get the script, but the first thing that happened was I played him the song "I Get Overwhelmed" that ended up in the film. It’s from my band Dark Rooms. I had played him the song unrelated to the film. It was while we were working on "Pete’s Dragon" together and I had finished a mix of it right before I headed to LA to work on "Pete’s Dragon," and I generally tend to share all the music I’m working on with David, whether it’s something we’re collaborating on or not. I just showed him the song because I thought he would like it and a couple days later he asked me if he could put it into "A Ghost Story," and I said sure, but not really aware of the context.
Then I got the script and it became clear that the song was going to be more than something just playing in the background at a party. So that was my first exposure to this film. And then I read the script and then I visited the set while they were filming as well.
What was that like, to be on set? In general is that something you do?
I’ve only done it with David’s films. For the most part when I get hired for the score they’re already in the post production process, already done filming. And from other composers I’ve talked to that’s just generally how it goes. A lot of the time the composer doesn’t get hired until the end of the process. So I’ve visited the set for Saints and I’ve visited the set for "A Ghost Story." That might be the only two I’ve ever visited. "Ghost Story" was mostly filmed at a house in Irving, Texas and I visited the set a few times. I did a couple sit downs with Casey Affleck to talk about guitar and piano stuff. He’s not a musician by trade so I showed him a few things to do, and he was already kind of learning stuff on his own too. But I showed him a few things to do for any scene in the film where he would need to be displaying his abilities as a musician.
He sounds really good in that scene where he’s playing over the real estate agent.
I thought so too, and that was not something that I had showed him at all. That was something that he clearly worked out on his own and I was impressed.
Was that interesting, working with him?
Yeah. He’s a really sweet guy, and he asked me a lot of questions. The character he plays in the film is a touring musician and I’ve spent a lot of time as a touring musician. I think he wanted to know a bit about what that life entails. So we talked about that for quite awhile. And then when we were working on music stuff with instruments he seemed like, I don’t know, like a sponge. Like he wanted to absorb as much as possible.
Was it strange when you saw the film to hear your voice coming out of his mouth?
It was strange. I was there when he filmed that scene, and he did actually, you know- all he would have had to do in order to accomplish what was necessary was lip sync, but he actually did sing. Just because I think he thought it would be more realistic if he was actually singing along with the film. So I not only- I heard it when it was done and then I heard it in the film, which made it even stranger I think. Because I would always know it was my own voice, but I knew the alternate version as well.
On the whole would you say being involved from the beginning allows you to get a little deeper, with David’s films? Do you find that you get a benefit from being able to be a part of the creative process from the very start?
I do. Yeah. It’s definitely a luxury in this business. Not only from the post production side of the film where they often just don’t have the time or resources to get that stuff in place that early on, but also from the side of the composer. It’s not that often that I have all the extra time to be working on a project as long as it takes to go from filming to editing. So it feels like a special thing to me. When I’m able to visit sets, it definitely helps bring musical ideas into my head. Just to see what it looks like in person and sometimes seeing people in costume or seeing people filming scenes definitely helps get the ideas going.
Do you and David have a starting point conceptually, where you talk about what you want the score to be in a broad sense?
It’s been different from film to film...for Ghost Story we didn’t have a ton of discussion ahead of time. We weren’t rushed in any sense, but I feel like maybe because we’ve been doing it for awhile together now we don’t need to talk about it as much? That may not be, you know- maybe tomorrow that’ll completely change. It felt like we didn’t need to have a discussion as much.
The only thing- well, we talked about a few things. We talked about John Carpenter’s scores, for his films, especially his ones from the eighties. And then we talked about a Broken Social Scene song that starts with a drum machine, for the end scene. David liked it because the electronic drums felt very warm to him, sort of warm and comforting. So I knew that I was going to at least try making a piece that would start with electronic drums, and that’s what I ended up doing. And then in terms of the John Carpenter stuff, we started with that and I wrote music that felt very much inspired by John Carpenter scores like the one from Escape From New York. But it ended up feeling too heavy for the film. Too serious in a way. Like too veering towards a horror score. And that wasn’t what the film ended up being.
You incorporated elements of "I Get Overwhelmed" into the other pieces of the score, right?
I did. I did. That was my own jumping off point for the score, because I knew that David really liked the song and I knew that it was going to play a large role in the film. I felt like why not try and have that be a theme. Not just the song existing on a phone in the one place that it plays, but I tried to use it another way. So I did, I took some of the different, like the strings track and the guitar track and the synths track and slowed them way way down, and then threw them in a couple other places in the film in a very atmospheric soundscape kind of way.
Had you written music before getting a cut of the film or was it all written after seeing the complete product?
It was all written after I had seen at least some footage.
Did you begin with the first piece of music in the film, the piece before the title card?
Yeah, Little Notes.
Yes it was the first piece that I wrote. I think I went completely in chronological order in writing the music for the score. It’s not always the case but it was with this one.
There’s a lot of conspicuous silence in the film. Did David tell you beforehand where he didn’t want music?
We had it mapped out before I got started. We pretty much agreed that this is where music needs to go and this is where we don’t need it. The thing about A Ghost Story that’s so different for me from other film scores that I’ve done is that there are these long periods of time, but when there is music it’s also usually very long. I think that in most scores that I do, pieces of music average three minutes long. And then there’s silence but it doesn’t go as long. So this one feels stretched out on both sides. The lengths of silence are longer but so is the music as well. Whenever it comes in usually the pieces of music are like five, six, seven minutes long. And I actually liked that. I felt like I got more time to fully explore a theme and to flesh it out more as well.
What was it like to see the film for the first time when it was completely finished with your score applied?
It was weird. I’ve never worked on a film like A Ghost Story before and I was really enamored of it but I was pretty sure that most people would not like it. It just felt too intimate and too quiet to me. And, I don’t know, it felt like my own little secret to enjoy. And I was pleasantly surprised when a lot of people did like it.
It actually feels quite epic. I think there’s a strange paradox there. It is very intimate and quiet, but it has this huge, I mean the largest, possible scope.
Yeah it really reaches beyond, out into the universe. It made me think about the subject matter of the film a lot in the months after working on it, and think about what it means to be alive and what it means to die, and the relationship between those things and our place in the universe, in a more existential way then I usually think about those things. And I don’t know of another film that has had that effect on me, of the ones that I’ve worked on. I think especially in light of the current political landscape in our country, it feels like extra heavy to me somehow. Like there’s extra consequences for the decisions that I make.