M for Malaysia, documents the 2018 Malaysian general election, when the Malaysian people, led by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the 92-year-old former Prime Minister, overthrew one of the longest ruling governments in the world.
We spoke to composer Rendra Zawawi about creating the score, the documentary’s original song, Bermula Kita, and what it was like working on a project dedicated to his home country.
Read our full conversation below.
Awards Daily: Starting at the beginning, how did you come to be involved with M for Malaysia?
Rendra Zawawi: This is exactly a year ago, I was coming off some projects and I thought, “Finally some down time,” (Laughs). I get invited to this Facebook group chat and it leads to… “This is a friend of mine [Co-Director Ineza Roussille], she’s a filmmaker making a documentary, she’s based in Malaysia.” “She has this feature documentary about the controversial general election that happened last year.”
And I go, “Oh wow, a political documentary, this is kind of cool” and ask if she can send me a rough cut so I can take a look. I watch it and I go, “There’s a lot of footage in the Prime Minister’s home and a lot of scenes with privileged access.” There’s this woman narrating the whole film. I get back to her and I say, “Wow, you got some really privileged access to do this.” She says, “Yeah, that’s because the prime minister is my grandfather (Laughs).
I had no idea! I knew I was talking to the director, but I had no idea she was the one narrating the film, and that she was Mahathir Mohamad’s granddaughter. That made more sense. That’s kind of cool!
That also informed me that this whole project was personal, and also shedding the situation in a light of truth. Roussille, she’s portrayer her grandfather, but she’s portraying the good things he’s done, and also the bad thing he’s done in the past. That really informed me that this film isn’t propaganda. It’s portraying the truth, the truth about how the elections happened, and showed the people of Malaysia. So that really convinced me that I should do it.
AD: Were you nervous about getting into the world of politics and taking on a political documentary?
RZ: (Laughs) I was a little nervous because it was politically based and I’m not much of a political person. I fight for rights and I voice my opinions on some things, but when it comes to the nitty gritty of it all, I tend to stay away from it.
I was unfortunately not to be able to vote in the Malaysian elections, I was overseas at the time. I was watching the whole affair from afar and I felt left out. When [M For Malaysia] landed in my lap, I felt like this was my way to be involved in some way, and at least contribute musically. That was exciting for me to do.
Was I nervous? Yes and no. It was exciting for me to be able to create theme music for the prime minister of Malaysia.
AD: But now the prime minister knows who you are…(Laughs).
RZ: It’s funny because now that the film has been released… there have been trolls? Our editor [Sebastian Ng] posted a photo of all of us at the premiere in Malaysia on Twitter, so a troll was like, “Thanks for letting us know who you are, after we win the next election, we’re coming after you.” It was obviously a troll or fake account, but it’s interesting to now be on the opposition’s radar. I’m in the line of fire. (Laughs).
AD: As you were saying, there is an intimacy to this documentary, and talking heads, and voice-overs. How is scoring a documentary different from your other work on TV? How does your approach change?
RZ: A lot of it had to do with my conversations with the producers and directors [Roussille and her co-director Dian Lee] as well as the temp music provided by the editors. A lot of the scoring was about highlighting the mood or vibe; if they’re waiting for the election results, obviously you want the score to be tense. We were more focused on the feelings that the editors wanted to evoke. Sometimes in documentaries, depending on what you’re making, it might be hard to show the tension visually, and have that influence visually, because the dialogue is reality-based, so the delivery might not be how you expect. On a TV show, the delivery is acting, and these people are not acting. Some [of the audience] may loose the mood, that’s where the music comes in in a documentary like this, to help the audience say, “OK, this is what we should be feeling.”
AD: The score had a definite Malaysian vibe, and paid homage to the culture. Was that intentional? What instruments did you use?
RZ: [Producers] wanted the music to be modern and contemporary. That was the instructions, and at the same time have a touch of Malaysian ethnicity. What that meant musically was up to my interpretation. I love orchestral scores and I love electronic scores so I did a hybrid of those, and added some Malaysian instruments on top.
The Pungi Flute, the hand percussions called the Kompang, the Rebana, and the Kendang, a favorite ethnic instrument of Southeast Asians and Indonesians. The instruments were used in a very minimal, but modernistic way, fused with lush orchestral strings. The main thing that makes you feel the Malaysian ethnicity and influence when you listen is the melodic choices that I made. The melodic phrases were 30 to 40 percent based on phrases you hear in Asian music and musical phrases are more common over there. I came up with this idea, and spoke to Roussille and Lee, and said, “Hey, since this is a political project and all about the people, I was thinking we could string the whole [score] together and insert the Malaysian national anthem, The Negaraku, which translates to “my country.” So, I took certain melodic phrases from the national anthem and inserted them into the score as well. The function was to fuse together certain themes and strike a cord with the Malaysian audience.
AD: Tell me about working on the original song for M For Malaysia, Bermula Kita.
RZ: It was good! I was halfway into working on the score and the producers told me, “We got Yuna!” She’s Malaysian, but she’s based in L.A., and has made a really big name for herself in The States, and we got her to do the song, “Bermula Kita” Yuna’s based in L.A. with me so it’s easier to work together and I’ve known her for a few years, we’ve been friends before this, so I was working with a friend.
The conception of the song came after score, the idea was to write the theme song, and have the theme song relate to the score musically. I used fragments of the score melodically to build the foundation of the song. Bermula Kitawas in essence built for the score musically. The inspiration for the arrangement was the song, “Once” by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.
I met up with Yuna and we agreed on an arrangement, a pop melody with a lush orchestra background. We went to Malaysia to record with the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra at the Petronas Philharmonic Hall in Malaysia. We used the whole space and recorded the music video there. It was an unprecedented move. The hall is used to play classical music and for the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. This time, Petronas Philharmonic Hall was being used for a pop music video and we got the whole hall. It was a big milestone for me, and for a lot of the people working on this project. I got to play piano in the music video.
AD: Really? I need to watch it again.
RZ: You couldn’t miss me, I’m wearing a bright blue suit. (Laughs).
AD: M For Malaysia is having a big impact on audiences at home and abroad. [The film was chosen as Malaysia’s first-ever documentary submitted for Best International Film at the Academy Awards]. What does it mean for you on a personal level to be involved in this moment and in this project?
RZ: There were no awards in mind when we started. It meant a lot to me. I’m 34 and a lot of childhood growing up Mahathir Mohamad was the prime minister. When he stepped down I was already overseas, so with me growing up in Malaysia I relate to Malaysia more with Mohamad as prime minister. When he became prime minister for the second time and I got to write music for this film, it meant a lot to me having grown up during his first premiership back in Malaysia.
Being a part of something bigger than you and contributing its musical narrative, that was a very important and honorable position to be in. Being allowed to give music to these events and this amazing footage was an honor. I had only seen [the election] through the Internet and still shots, but now I have this privileged access to see people coming together. It’s so moving and touching. Being a Malaysian overseas, and being in this industry, it was an honor to be able to score this moment for my home.
My takeaway from the film was that I got to see this other side to the prime minister. For me, Mahathir Mohamadwas always this behemoth of a person. He was a person who drove Malaysia to the next level during his first premiership and now I get to see footage of him being playful with his wife and his grandkids. It’s like, “Oh wow, someone like that is just another ordinary man in his household.” Something like that was very humbling for me to see.
AD: You’ve worked with Mac Quayle, and have been a part of the music department for shows like The Politician, American Horror Story, and Pose among others. Can you tell me about that?
RZ: I work with Mac Quayle and contribute music to the shows that he is doing with Ryan Murphy, American Horror Story and American Crime Story: The Assignation of Gianni Versace, working as a part of Mac Quayle’s team as an assistant composer.
AD: What is it like contributing to these projects that have become such a big part of pop culture?
RZ: It’s really nice! I work under the main composer, Mac Quayle and working with him has been absolutely fantastic! He’s kind of like my mentor in a lot of ways, in music and in life as well. Working on the shows was great because I got to learn a lot about workflow and how the music for these shows all comes together. It’s a really stressful, fast turnaround, episode after episode. Every show is different with a different work structure so if you’re working on a few projects like that at the same time, it’s just crazy! For me personally, it’s rewarding as well because I love watching all these shows in my free time and I get to call it “research.” (Laughs). I’m researching and getting to listen to cool music.
AD: What are you working on now?
RZ: I contributed music to a video game coming out next year that I can’t talk about. There is a feature film that I’m in talks for, but I cant talk about that either. (Laughs).
AD: (Laughs). Such a tease…
RZ: Sorry! (Laughs).
What are some scores from the past few years that you loved?
RZ: Lorne Balfe’s Mission Impossible: Fall Out score was amazing. I’ve always been a big fan of his work. Alexandre Desplat on Isle of Dogs. Too many to name!
AD: You mentioned to me earlier that you’re fresh off the plane from a trip to Malaysia! When you go home, what’s in store for you? Are you a tourist in your own city? Seeing family and friends? What do you like to do?
RZ: In Malaysia food is entertainment. When I go back, the first thing I do, before I even see my family is get my plate of Nasi Lemak, which is Malaysian coconut rice. It’s the national dish of Malaysia with coconut rice, peanuts, anchovies, eggs, cucumber, and some Malaysian hot sauce.
If anyone were to ask me, “Do you miss the food more, or your family?” I would say, “Food, I’m sorry.” (Laughs)
Malaysia’s food, because of the multi-diverse nature, the Chinese, the Malays…we have so many different cultures that gave birth to different food cultures and they crossover. The amount of food that we have and the variety is just insane. It just attacks your taste buds. Malaysia equals food to me. (Laughs). Food is entertainment. Food is so accessible wherever you go in Malaysia. So yes, the answer is food. (Laughs).
AD: Well now I’m hungry and dying to go to Malaysia! This has been a joy. Thank you for your time!
RZ: Thank you!
M for Malaysia was released on September 12, 2019 in Malaysia. No word yet on U.S. distribution.