We’ve heard Lesley Barber’s music before in You Can Count On Me directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Barber reunited with Lonergan for Manchester By The Sea. I recently caught up with Barber to talk about how working with Lonergan differed this time around, and how she approached scoring this project. We also talked about the surprisingly low number of female film composers — less than 2% — and what can be done to increase this figure.
Awards Daily: How exciting is it to jump into a new project, in this case, Manchester By The Sea?
Lesley Barber: It’s always exciting, and I’m thrilled when I can get in at the script level, and have time to develop a specific approach to the film. It’s something I really enjoy and I really love it.
AD: What did you and Kenneth talk about for Manchester by the Sea?
LB: We worked together on You Can Count on Me. He wanted to know if I was interested, and I read the script and was jumped on board. I started putting together some music and then sent him some music, and a few weeks later we met in New York. That’s when we started having deeper conversations seeing what was there and what wasn’t.
AD: What did he say about the music he was looking for or did he leave that to you?
LB: Our process is intuitive. It’s a conversation of the actual work. When I first read the script, I worked on a piano piece of mine. I also recorded the a capella music and he’d come back to me and we’d move things around in the editing suite.
AD: This is the second time you’ve worked together. How was this time different?
LB: We’ve both changed and it’s led to this great place where we are stronger. We’ve worked with other people and came back to work on Manchester.
With the first film, there were things hinted at in the process. I respect this about Kenny, is that he doesn’t give the quick nod to something because time is passing and we need to deliver. He really holds out for the right thing and it’s something we connect on. With the first film, we were both discovering that about each other, and in this instance we had a sure hand about each other.
Also the fact that we like reusing themes and shifting the color that a piece is performed and put it in another scene to see how it impacts the storytelling and the gathering force of using a theme more than once and how it refracts with the storytelling. That’s something both Kenny and I like. Kenny does it in a really interesting way.
AD: Can you talk about the music in the flashback?
LB: The whole idea of the flashbacks are interesting in the way Kenny builds the score. In the end, there’s a piece in there and there’s repetition within the piece and it just keeps going. There’s a looping quality to the music that keeps gaining and gathering strength throughout that scene and it doesn’t go away, there’s a relentlessness about it because that’s (what we see on screen) is never going to go away. It really works in that scene. I’m sure it was uncomfortable in some moments as music should be. I think that Kenny is comfortable with that, leaving music in that’s right for the storytelling and taking us to a new place, even if it’s an uncomfortable place.
AD: Talk about where you decide you’re going to put something here, and something there?
LB: Kenny sends the script, and I’ll read, start composing and record everything as if it’s a real possibility. He’s working on his process while he’s shooting and editing. I’ll send him music and there’s an abundance of music that I send. We see what’s connecting and what’s not. When he gets to a fine cut, and he sends those to me and the dialogue continues so I’ll react to the pacing of the edit, to the exterior, the weather and take in the visual energy of the piece.
At the very end when we know where the theme is landing and what works and what doesn’t. It was just six days where we layered in the strings from the orchestration. Those were recorded a week before Sundance. There was this real push right at the end to orchestrate what we really like, and build the whole string sound.
It starts off as a surface where there’s a lot going on, the performance I got out of them was a stillness, but underneath you could feel the movement about to happen. That’s what happened.
AD: Right down to the wire.
LB: Yes. Film scoring like this is the extreme sport of music.
AD: As we know, there’s such a small number of female composers in Hollywood. Music is blind so there’s no way to say, “That was written a female.” Why do you think we have so few female film composers?
LB: It’s funny. I’ve done meetings, and people don’t always know that I’m female. I think there’s an unconscious bias of what a composer looks like. It’s a diversity issue as much as it’s a female issue. The conversation is starting. The more visible we are, the more we’re seen in the situation doing a great job. Filmmakers and producers have to look for diversity.
In recent years, we’ve been seeing composers come from different experiences and not conventional narrative score and that brings fresh new energy. Women are part of that conversation and the more visibility we have the more we’ll make headway. I think we’re starting to. I think it’s the image of the composer and no one really noticed until now. What do you think?
AD: I didn’t even realize the figure was small. I think it’s about conversation and awareness and starting to help people be more aware.
LB: If an executive gets a shortlist of composers, some of us are on that list. If they get a list and there’s no diversity, they have to start asking what’s going on or we need a new list. That’s part of it.
Women in Film also needs to talk about directors, writers, editors, and they need to add the word composer to the kind of people they’re representing.
AD: It’s about the entire chain.
LB: I never thought about it until one of my daughters Googled film composers.
AD: It’ll be interesting to see how it grows.
Listen to an excerpt from the score to Manchester By The Sea: