Alternative rock band Guster is nearing the end of a short cross-country tour. It’s an acoustic-only venture with comedian Jeff Garlin opening each evening. With more than 20 years of experience touring together and six studio albums to their name, band members are trying to push themselves out of their comfort zone—no set lists, lots of crowd interaction and requests.
Singer Ryan Miller is challenging himself through other musical ventures, as well. The afternoon before Guster’s show in St. Louis, Miller chatted with Paste about the new movie he recently scored, Safety Not Guaranteed. The quirky time-travel comedy stars Aubrey Plaza of Parks & Recreation, Jake M. Johnson of New Girl and director/actor/producer/writer Mark Duplass and has already screened at Sundance and SXSW. Miller chatted excitedly about Guster, the transition from frontman to film composer and Safety Not Guaranteed, which will see a wide-release June 8.
Paste: I saw on the band’s Twitter that you scored the film Safety Not Guaranteed, and the trailer is now posted. How did you get involved in the movie?
Miller: When we started all having kids, we just started touring less. I just started freaking out. I was like, “What am I going to do?” The writing’s on the wall. You start having kinds and you’re like, “I can’t spend 10 months out of the year being on the road and making money.” I had written a screenplay with my buddy as a goof and it’s called Nobody and I was like, “If this ever gets made, I want to score it.” I didn’t even know what that meant. Of course, cut to he raised a couple million bucks and he was directing it, so I was sitting in front of ProTools, teaching myself ProTools, trying to figure out how to do it. The whole thing just came really naturally to me and I had this epiphanic moment I actually remembered. For the second time in my life, I was like, “I know what I want to do when I grow up!” I had this moment where I really enjoyed working with picture and feeling like you could put two different pieces of music underneath the same visual and it would completely change the meaning of it. I thought there was a lot of power in there. It also played to my skill set. I guess we’re sort of pop songwriters, but we’re also arrangers and I really like melodies and that all lends itself to the kinds of scores that I gravitate towards.
So after that happened, I really began in earnest trying to find avenues for me to grow this whole other part of my brain—this composing thing. The company I worked with on that film, they did commercials and I was like, “Can I start doing commercials?” So I started submitting for commercials and I got a couple weird things like a Target Christmas commercial a couple years ago and sort of got my chops that way. And all the while, I’ve been trying super hard to make inroads with music supervisors, directors, producers, writers, to just try to get some more opportunities to continue to score for film. Actually, one of the producers on the first film I did…had a friend, Colin [Trevorrow], who is the director for Safety, and introduced us and he was a Guster fan. The first time we met, I was like, “I don’t know if you’d ever be interested, but I’d love to score.” And he was like, “I was going to ask you if you would be interested!” So I kind of got on really early, before [Mark] Duplass, before Aubrey [Plaza]...before anyone was attached. So he came in saying, “Oh, I have a composer” and everybody was like, “Yeah, yeah, your buddy is going to compose,” so there was a little bit of that at the beginning of the process where people had to see that I was taking it very seriously and that I got the gig. But luckily for me, there’s a long history of dudes in bands turning into really well regarded composers. You know, Jon Brion, Mark Mothersbaugh, Carter Burwell…even Hans Zimmer was in the Buggles, you know what I mean? Andrew Bird, my friend Eric Johnson of the Fruit Bats. It’s not that weird anymore.
Paste: Not at all.
Miller: When I first started talking to studio execs and anyone that would even take a meeting with me in LA, everyone was like, “Okay, buddy,” and patting me on the head. But this movie definitely feels like it’s enough of a think that people are taking me a lot more seriously. I’m talking to tons of directors now. I have all these projects on the horizon; I’ve actually already done another film.
Paste: Oh yeah?
Miller: Yeah, I actually got involved really late. I was sort of the second composer on it. With my friend Eric from the Fruit Bats, we had done this movie that premiered at SXSW called Nature Calls that has Patton Oswalt and Johnny Knoxville. It didn’t get a lot of attraction. We sort of came on late and just gave a bunch of cues.
Yeah, but everyday, I’m still talking to directors. I’ve got a lot of balls in the air. It’s something I’m super interested in pursuing.
They’re actually going to release a soundtrack for Safety, too, which will be a lot of my score and a couple things from the movie, I think.
Paste: Have you watched the full feature yet? How would you describe the movie?
Miller: Oh yeah. I was at Sundance and I know every nuance of every performance because you know, it’s like 35 or 40 minutes of music and things would change and react. When things happen on screen, the music sort of reflects that, too.
I didn’t really have any idea how it was going to be received when I was working on it. I didn’t have any idea that we were going to win an award at Sundance. It’s at like, 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes right now, which is crazy. I mean, people are just over the moon about it. All the reviews, and not just cool movie blogs, but like, Hollywood Reporter and Variety all gave crazy crazy reviews. So I had no idea. I don’t think any of us had any idea that it was going to play as well as it did. There’s just something about it that is just really sweet and sincere. The best part of Sundance was going there and watching people react to it and get standing ovations and have it kind of be the talk of the festival in this way. It definitely felt like, “Oh, okay. I did a good job!” It’s just exciting to be part of something that people are so excited about.
Paste: What was your writing process like? Did you get the film and then watch and compose? Or do you compose blindly?
Miller: I had a rough cut that was really long with just the basic shape and Colin and I just worked super closely…It basically just became a game of tennis. We would do some volleying. We’d basically go scene by scene and at the end, there were 20, maybe 25 cues and then the scenes would sort of develop. Like when Duplass shows up on screen for the first time, he has this kind of superhero theme that I wrote and it comes back later. Aubrey and Mark have a love scene that kind of happens in a couple different versions, so you just sort of develop it that way. I was definitely improvising. I don’t have any education in this and I’m not even like a massive film score buff guy, anyway. My knowledge of this stuff doesn’t go super deep. There’s something about that, though, that I think I can bring some new energy to process because I don’t know the rules. That’s both sort of true thematically and also technically. I didn’t have these crazy chops, but I definitely got a lot better and I had a lot of support after a while. The producers, who did Little Miss Sunshine are very well respected and know their shit and they were very supportive after a while, after I had kind of gotten over the hump. Duplass was amazingly supportive and pitched me for all these jobs, so I felt like everybody had my back, which obviously makes the work that much better because you can really go in guns a blazing.
Paste: How different was this writing process from what you do with the band and when you guys are writing and recording together?
Miller: There are some similarities in the sense that I’m still thinking about melody and thinking about arrangements and thinking about that emotional component. There’s tons of differences, but a major difference is like, being in a band is really about my vision, or the band’s collective vision, and I don’t have to answer to anybody. But the whole gig, the entirety of being a composer, is all about the director. If the director doesn’t get what he wants, then you’re not doing your job. And I sort of give that speech to every director I meet.
It’s a weird dynamic to take from being in a band, especially as the lead singer where I have a microphone and everybody has to listen to every goddamn thing I have to say versus this, where you’re really just a craftsman in a lot of ways. But I find a lot of freedom within that sort of sandbox. I still feel like I can affect chance and really help them build in a lot of ways.
Also, I think just the colors, the palate that I get to paint with. In the band, it’s like, “Oh, we have a guitar player and we have a drummer” and the last piece of the Safety score is a big symphonic thing. I don’t think I would ever write that for the band. I don’t think it would make sense. But it’s this whole other way of being musical. I find it very liberating that I can just [write] whatever sounds I’m hearing in my head, whatever I can do. And I’m not limited by what we can play live or anything like that.
I guess the last piece is just writing under these very specific constraints. Writing on assignment that way, it’s a lot easier not to start with a blank canvas. With Guster, it’s like, “Let’s write a great song.”
Watch the trailer for Safety Not Guaranteed below.