David Lang isn’t used to the press extravaganza. He’s on day two of a three-day press extravaganza for Youth and is having a lot of fun. I sat down to talk to the composer about how working with Paolo Sorrentino challenged him on this movie, and to find out if he listens to his own scores.
Awards Daily: It’s a film about music.
David Lang: It’s about music. It’s a fantastic gift for our field. It’s a film about a composer and what music means to him and what it means to the world. In addition to all the other virtues of what happens in the movie, I think it’s so nice that someone decided to make a film about a composer.
AD: How did Youth happen?
DL: Paolo Sorrentino had already used my music in The Great Beauty. I didn’t know him then, he just licensed two pieces in that. Then when the film had its premiere in Toronto he got in touch with me and invited me. I was completely blown away, my music and everyone’s music was used so beautifully in that film, and it was really spectacular.
Afterwards, we had some coffee and he mentioned his next film would be about a composer and he asked if I’d be interested in doing the music.
I said yes before the words were even out of his mouth, but that’s pretty much it. He liked my music. It was clear we were going to enjoy working with each other, and he asked me to do the music.
AD: Where did you go for inspiration?
DL: What’s interesting is usually, the movie is done and given to the composer. You’re writing to the finished product, the pressure is on and it’s the last thing in.
In this project, the music was going to be seen on screen, and the music was going to be such an important part of the way the story gets told that I had to start working and finish the music before the script was finished.
I began with a lot of conversations with Paolo about the arc of the character and what happens to him emotionally, and I was given drafts of the script and what it could mean. My participation in it meant I couldn’t fall back on the things I usually fall back on. I really needed to just put myself in the emotional place the character was in. Which is how you have a piece of music you write when you are young which talks about how you feel about love, and how you feel about the future and how optimistic you think things will be about things coming up. How that piece of music is a marker for your life, so when you play it at the end of your life, it means very different things.
The only way for me to get there was to get there myself, was think what would I be like when I’m that old. Where have I been and what’s my relationship to optimism and love and how will I deal with frustration, disappointment and death.
There was nothing for me to lean on, so that’s all I had.
AD: I liked those scenes where the boy was playing and you finally get to the unveiling of the song.
DL: I wanted to deal with the music operatically. That you would make things that would be little motives, so by the time the song comes at the end of the movie you’re ready for it. I planted these little things through the score, so the candy wrappers that he plays with are like the rhythm of the violin at the beginning of the song. The boy scraping the violin. The cows and their tune is the harmony from the second half of the song. What I was really hoping would happen was you would get the sense that the music is the interior life of the character. That when you heard the song you would realize that you’d been around that interior story for the movie.
AD: What were the challenges in working this way?
DL: The challenge was the general one, there’s someone else who has to be completely happy. I’d make a demo of the song. Paolo would send it back with very specific comments about what worked and what didn’t. He’d send comments like, “I’m crying a little, and I need to cry a lot.”
So, that’s true will all film composing. You have to be a team player and help the director tell the story and do all the other things the director wants to do. In classical music, you don’t really have to do that, there are other things you have to satisfy, but you get to be the judge of when you’re done.
That was a very strange thing for me, the shifting of gears. I really had to put myself in Paolo’s service for this. It could not be finished until it satisfied what Paolo needed to satisfy.
AD: Have you seen the film and what was your thought when you finally saw the final cut for the first time?
DL: I just got goosebumps. It was so abstract to me when I made it, I made it in my studio, I made it at home. Then they did the script, the shooting. I finally saw it in Cannes on their screen which is 1000 feet high. I couldn’t believe what it was like to have those abstract musical things made physical. They were discussions I was having with myself emotionally, but to see them with the image, made them real to me. It was more emotional to see it on the big screen than just seeing it in the privacy of my home thinking about myself. It was a really powerful experience.
AD: Are you one of those composers who never listens to their own work?
DL: You know, it might just be my character failing, my own horrible vanity, but I listen to my work all the time. I feel like I’m trying to do something interesting to me. I want to listen to these things over and over. I’m not like, I’m going to listen to some great music, what’s some great music I can listen to? I feel like the point of doing anything is to try to get better at doing it so I constantly listen to my music and I’m very critical about it because I want to find ways to be more honest with myself, and get to the parts that I’m curious about.
Youth is out on December 4. Listen to Simple Song #3 taken from the film below: