Catching Up With Rich Hill Composer Nathan Halpern

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The job of a film critic is to, among other things, point to that which moves us in a film. On the one hand, the documentary Rich Hill (winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary) is made up of the kind of material that generally moves audiences—young kids who are victims of poverty and circumstance struggle in a small town filled with big problems. However, while compelling material is a great start, it is not enough to make a strong documentary. And with narratives like the ones directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo are presenting, it’s easy for a film like this to rely on a certain sentimentality.

The sound of the movie—which follows three young boys (Andrew, Harley, and Appachey) in the rural town of Rich Hill, Missouri—needed a particular nuance, and Nathan Halpern delivered. The Emmy-nominated composer created a deeply moving score (now available on Amazon and iTunes), with pieces like “Fourth of July,” “Night,” and “Halloween” working as a powerful backdrop to these unforgettable stories. Paste caught up with Halpern to talk Rich Hill, and the art of drawing out emotion with sound and silence.

Paste Magazine: It’s amazing to see all the different kinds of projects you’ve been involved with— ESPN’s Renee, and you worked on Marina Abramovi?’s The Artist Is Present. Can you talk a bit about what you did leading up to that? How did you get to this point in your career?
Nathan Halpern: I played in bands when I was a teenager, and we toured a lot in the States and in Europe. And I think I discovered my favorite directors around the same age that I was really getting into music—fourteen or fifteen. I followed Cronenberg, Polanski and the Coen Brothers with great interest. It never actually occurred to me to work in film. Then, in my twenties, I was writing music for a solo record, and I was doing solo performances in mental institutions—old standards and things like that. But playing for them was a very powerful experience.

Paste: I’m sure.
Halpern: Around that same time, I started scoring. There were a lot of elements from being in a band and the recording process—and being a songwriter—that wound up being very direct points of reference for scoring. All of the various tricks and techniques that I played around with as a teenager on my FourTrack ended up being relevant in some way.

As far as the translation to film, I think that emotional inspiration comes out of the film itself. So there are interesting parallels that I didn’t necessarily anticipate.

Paste: Rich Hill is such an amazing film and experience. Was there something specific that drew you to this project?
Halpern: It’s an incredibly beautiful film. We haven’t all necessarily had the same experiences as the boys, but a lot of what they’re going through and their emotions are universal. These are kids—they’re in their early teens. So we’re dealing with an innocence that they still have underneath all of this. We’re talking about hope—not the hope that the audience might have for them, but the hope they still have. And there’s loneliness. We can all remember being fourteen and wandering around alone somewhere, like some of the kids in the film, trying to make your own amusement. And it’s about love. So being able to express that in a musical context was just exciting.

Paste: Did you find that you and the directors shared a similar vision?
Halpern: The members of the filming team—Andrew, Tracy, Jim [Hession], and then later our sound designer Pete Horner—were very fantastic collaborators. To go back to the band stuff, it was like a very small band in the best sense. From a musical perspective, this film gave me the opportunity to dial into and draw out the universal and emotional aspects of this story that some people might initially miss on the surface.

One of the things we talked about early on was skipping entirely on any sort of Americana sounds. Regional, guitars, banjos—anything like that. Obviously a lot of great things are written in that fashion, and I love that kind of music, but the music is not about the more superficial aspects. When you write a score, it needs to be about what’s really going on, what’s really universal in the story. If there’s going to be anything superficial or redundant, then there’s really no point in having any music at all. It’s just annoying at that point. And as a fan of films, I don’t particularly like to see that sort of thing.

Paste: I read that you sought out and utilized what you called “a hymnal quality” with the score. Can you talk a little more about why you wanted to invoke the sacred here and what that experience was like?
Halpern: Although the sound pallets worked more in the abstract, I snuck in some strings and pianos and electronics. Before I wrote any of the music, I got together with everybody, including Pete, and we talked about what the overall sound structure would be, and how the music and sounds would interact with each other. Within that, there was a sense that a hymnal quality and the chords were important, because beneath everything [in the stories] there was a continued persistence. No matter what was happening—even in their worst moments—everybody was always trying! Nobody gave up. I wanted to try to express that, along with that familial bond that persists even in the most trying circumstances.

Paste: For me, silence is also an important sound in the film. There are those times when one of the children will say something so profound or so heartbreaking—like Harley on Halloween night sort of hinting at the fact that he was sexually abused. How do you decide when to pull back and not use any music or additional sound in a scene?
Halpern: The question of where there is music and where there is not music is one of the most important questions for any story. Rests—moments of silence—are just as much notes as anything else. Figuring that stuff out is very collaborative, so it’s something I worked on with everybody.

That particular moment that you’re talking about really required a lot of finesse. When he’s speaking, he’s heading towards a revelation. He’s not completely there, but I think anybody watching could tell there was something really big being discussed. You don’t want music there! A lot of people would put music there, but I think that would be the wrong decision. So the music comes in very gradually after, and then it really comes in during the next scene with his grandmother. She’s this amazing woman, and she’s talking, and ultimately what the music plays out is their relationship—her love for him and his love for her. And of course we’re still feeling the emotional wallop of what he’s talking about. That scene is very hard. I’ve seen the film many times, and it gets me every time. So, there’s really nothing to add to that. What else can you really say? It’s a very powerful, personal moment and it should really be left on its own.

Paste: It was a great scene. At that point—and others too—I felt I had become invested in their lives and so I knew the film was really moving me. What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming projects that we should know about?
Halpern: There are a number of upcoming projects, but I can’t speak about many of them. (laughs) I can tell you that I’m currently recording a solo album of songs—a mix of original songs and deconstructed versions of old standards. Also, The Royal Ballet in London just used a couple of original music pieces of mine in a new dance performance at the Royal Opera House this summer.

Paste: That’s fantastic. Thanks so much for this.
Halpern: Thank you.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.

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