The composer chats with Joey Moser about translating Dan Jones’s fight through music.
If you are unfamiliar with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s efforts to publish the findings in Daniel Jones’s Torture Report, Scott Z. Burns’s The Report is an excellent deep dive. Adam Driver plays Jones with such urgency and intelligence that you can’t help but get emotionally involved. While the subject material is compelling, David Wingo’s score amps up the tension and provides even more weight to this dark moment of American history.
Wingo’s score throbs with an intense pulse as Jones hunts for the truth, and it aids in the story never being dry or textbook. Since Jones and his team spend hours pouring over documents in a tiny office, the sounds reminded me of the clicking of computer keys and the buzz of a bright, looming monitor. It buzzes with severe curiosity.
When telling stories of American history, it’s important to include the smears and the darkness. We learn more about ourselves from when we make mistakes, and Wingo’s score manages to be thrilling, patriotic, and true. It’s one of the best scores of the year.
Awards Daily: You had to deliver the score of The Report in a very short amount of time because the first composer dropped out. What was that time crunch like for you?
David Wingo: It was. . .daunting, but since there was so little time, there wasn’t enough time to get freaked out by it. I’ve done scores in a shorter time before, but I knew about them ahead of them—but I didn’t get started because a cut wasn’t ready yet. I wasn’t able to get some ideas then. It was made so much more simple that when I went in to watch it for the first time, Scott Z. Burns and Greg O’Bryant had drawn up a thorough blueprint of what the score should be. Every scene had a description of what the score should be, what they wanted, what they wanted the scene to convey in terms of the narrative. It was kind of like building a house. They laid the foundation and the shape, and it was up to me to get creative. I didn’t feel like I had the prospect of an empty canvas with a tiny window to fill it in.
AD: At least it wasn’t like ‘There you go! Go off and do it!’
AD: When I was walking to work the other day, I was listening to the score, and I felt like the intensity made me walk a little faster.
AD: It has a real electronic and buzzy feel to it. It reminded me of the buzz of a computer monitor, and some of it reminded me of the striking of keys of a keyboard and that reminded me of all the work the team is doing in the basement. What kind of sounds did you want to convey throughout the entire score?
DW: In terms of kinds of sounds, there wasn’t one thing I wanted to do. It was more of the effect of giving it a real sense of urgency. Investigative thrillers like this and other movies usually have people talking in rooms. What we are doing is kind of a trick to give that thriller feel. A sleight of hand. The story is obviously really compelling. We need to make it feels like the audience isn’t just getting fed information, but we also have to make sure we aren’t sensationalizing it. That’s the tricky part. You can just go full on and overdramatize the acting and the way it’s shot. That’s a surefire way to make it not dry, but defeats the purpose. At the end of the day, it’s about facts not being relative, and Dan Jones’s only real goal is to get to the bottom of what happened. We didn’t want to score it in a way that would insult the audience, but also not distort the facts. The facts need to stand for themselves.
AD: That has to be a real balancing act. I could see how hard it would be to not go big.
DW: My job was to not provide commentary for what is going on, but there is a murkiness. Those faster pulses that you’re talking about were kind of like your heart pulsing—giving Dan’s mission an urgency and a speed. That’s a lot of the reason why I went electronic. A lot of it was to give that contemporary and modern feel, the way that only synths can provide.
AD: Your score really aids in the pursuit of the truth. Even though it is people arguing in rooms, the music really helps in driving the story. Those torture scenes are so hard to watch—they play like a horror movie. Did anything in particular inspire you for those scenes that are so hard to watch?
DW: Luckily, me and my psychological well-being didn’t have to watch it over and over, since it wasn’t score to picture. Scott didn’t want to overdramatize. We wanted it to be raw. It is a horror-y texture, and Scott talked about wanting a unique deteriorating sound to both represent Dan’s fading idealism but also for those torture scenes. He wanted a motif that we could go back to and put in the background when he’s relaying the information to [Dianne] Feinstein. Most of the flashbacks are through Dan’s subjectivity, and then it flashes back, so those scenes use the sounds over the torture scenes. It’s subconsciously reminding you of the protest nature that you saw in those scenes. You didn’t want to be brought back to those scenes, but those sounds bring you back to make sure it’s on your mind. I bought this piece of gear to make this particular sound that’s out of the box. It’s visceral and raw and unique enough that when you hear it, it reminds you. It matters. The Sherman Filterbank uglies up sounds in a really unique way. It does a specific thing—kind of like an analog distortion, mini modular synth almost. It deteriorates sounds in a unique way, and we looped a few of those. It felt right to me to make those sounds and wash them over to provide more texture. I didn’t have to keep watching them over and over.
AD: That’s good! When I sat down to watch the film, I wondered how those scenes would be portrayed in the film. I’m glad the music is there, because the sounds really inform the audience without actually seeing it.
DW: Oh yeah.
AD: Towards the beginning of the film, we see Dan’s trajectory through Washington D.C., and there is a trio of short pieces of music there as time pushes forward. It’s echoed in the final piece of music, “Dan Walks Away.” I love the piano in that.
DW: Scott gave me the note that it’s definitely a spirit victory. We were done with something there that I was really stoked about that had more of a fanfare there. He’s walking towards the Washington Monument at the beginning, and at the end he’s walking away from it. As it cuts to that, to the text in the credits, I lost sight of what was happening. I was thinking of Dan’s hero journey, so I scored that. It had a big fanfare to build and a big release when the credits started. While I was about to leave to mix, Scott told me that it wasn’t working.
DW: It’s not a happy ending, and that’s reflected in the text after the movie ends before the credits. People haven’t been held accountable. I did it to end on a minor note, when it cuts to the text. At first, my perspective was kind of lost. And then after that little bit of time away, I was like, ‘Of course we need to change it. I scored a happy ending!’ Dan got his job done, and that’s awesome. He is a picture of resiliency in not giving up face that he can make the system work. . .but the text tells you that nothing has been done to make sure this doesn’t happen again. We can’t end this with a fanfare.
AD: It can feel patriotic but also inform us that nothing has been changed. I think that’s what I loved about that final piece.
DW: Yeah, that’s why Scott wanted that marching snare and the brass to give it that stateliness. To end it on that minor note—to reflect that vibe—is the way to go. That reflects that his idealism has been muddied, but he’s not beat down by it. That’s why we wanted that sense of patriotism after everything we’ve seen.
AD: I love all of the scenes between Dan and Dianne, and it’s reflected so nicely in ‘Strong Pills.’ I’m glad we can hear that on the soundtrack. When they are presenting their information to everyone, and the music reflects this sense of hope—even though the audience might be very informed of the outcome. Did you want to instill that fighting spirit or that hope?
DW: ‘Their Side of the Story’ and ‘Strong Pills’ are two sides of the same coin. At the beginning, ‘Their Side of the Story’ goes in to meet with the CIA and gets stymied and thwarted every step of the way, and it cuts to him talking with Feinstein. ‘Strong Pills’ is when he is having the same experience with the government, just further down the road. It’s a dark movie, as you said, but we wanted to highlight Dan’s obsession. It’s kind of like what we were talking about earlier—not scoring the action but providing a mood. In this sense, it’s highlighting Dan’s character—the obsessive, caffeinated nature. We wanted to give it a neutrality, too. In those scenes, we were highlighting the dogged nature, and at the end of the day, he’s a staffer of Dianne Feinstein and going up against the CIA. You forget how intimidating that must’ve been. . .and he doesn’t stop! Almost to the point he’s taken to trial, and he just keeps going.
The Report is streaming now on Amazon.