Composer's perspective: Dustin O'Halloran

Dustin O'Halloran
By Dustin O'Halloran

Composer, pianist and one half of avant-pop duo Devics, Dustin O’Halloran is becoming increasingly well-known for his film scores. He tells us about his experiences working with the medium.

Some of my first experiences with music were with film and these left an impression on me of how strong a medium it could be. It was always in my mind to have the chance to work on film since I began writing music and soundtracks were a big influence, particularly French and Italian soundtracks from the 1960s when there was so much experimentation between classical and electronic sounds. I entered film music a bit serendipitously when I was asked by Sofia Coppola to write a few pieces for her film Marie Antoinette, and have since scored three other films. My last film, Like Crazy, unexpectedly won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

I have been lucky enough to work with directors that have trusted me and know what I do; I’m sure it won’t always be the case. But I think the interesting part of working on film music as opposed to writing for yourself is that it is truly a collaboration. When working on my own material it’s a blank canvas, but with film there is already so much planned out that it gives a very different starting point. It can bring out music I would never create for myself, which I really enjoy. I also love the way film music works structurally, in the sense that pieces evolve much like classical music and don’t repeat phrases like pop music, and that it deals with themes that can work over a large collection of pieces. Music has always been about colours and imagery for me, so it really makes sense to be inspired by what’s happening on film.

Every project and how I approach it has been quite different. When I wrote pieces for Marie Antoinette I was working on music before they had filmed anything. Sofia likes to cut to music, so I was working from a kind of inspiration book full of clippings and images to show the feel of the film. I ended up writing a lot of music on my piano at home, and then we re-recorded them in a studio in Paris on an original Pleyel pianoforte from the 1700s. I was pretty inspired by this beautiful instrument and ended up writing a piece in the studio that ended up in the film, Opus 36.  The first time I saw the music put to images was at the premiere.

Another film I worked on called An American Affair, directed by William Olsson, was a mix of both. I began writing music when he first sent me the script and before I had even seen any picture. I was just imagining in my head the scenes and in fact most of the ideas I began in this way ended up being a big part of the main themes and ideas. When I finally got the first edit I began to rework the pieces and fit it to picture as well as writing some music directly to these first edits.

The last film I worked on, Like Crazy, was also a mix of both writing to picture and just writing music without. I always like working this way because it feels closer to how I write for myself, which is one of the ways I can really get into a film and bring myself closer to it. This time I also tried some new ways of working, like just listening to dialogue as I was recording and not looking at the picture at all. I think some of the random ways music reacts to film can be really effective because this process doesn’t feel forced and can bring out things that you don’t plan.

Exclusive to Sound and Music: Robert Lippok’s remix of Dustin O’Halloran’s 'We Move Lightly'.

We Move Lightly (Robert Lippok - Pataphysical Remix) by soundandmusic

Dustin O'Halloran's new album of piano works, Vorleben, is out now on FatCat Records' imprint 130701. Watch a performance of Opus 28, filmed live in Berlin in March 2011.

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