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Interview with Flatliners composer Nathan Barr

Film composers just starting out can get lost in the industry jungle; Nathan Barr (“True Blood”) hit the jackpot when he got a job with the legendary composer Hans Zimmer.

Working as an assistant to Zimmer, Barr got to see how great success could be up close and it gave him a goal to work for. Now Barr (twice-nominated for an Emmy) has the film “Flatliners” coming out, is scoring the fifth season of FX’s “The Americans” and has completed the first season of AMC’s “The Son,” starring Pierce Brosnan.

In addition, Barr has worked with the likes of Alan Ball and Eli Roth as well as having scored films such as “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “The Ledge,” “Grindhouse” “Hostel,” “Hostel 2,” “Cabin Fever” and “The Last Exorcism.” 

Luckily for Moviehole, Barr gave up some of his valuable composing time to talk about his inspirations, share Zimmer stories and how he sang “hot cross buns” while growing up in Japan.

Moviehole: How did you get started composing music?
Nathan Barr: My mom started me on violin in Japan at five years old. I was not a prodigy but my mom wanted me to experience music at an early age. I had the Suzuki method, a style of learning violin that is native to Japan. I don’t remember that much but I went to Suzuki camp, where you all sang “hot cross buns” and got lined up to do it. I came to the states about six or seven, when I was nine my mom and dad gave us the opportunity to choose a music instrument. My brother and I chose the cello, thinking that she would get tired of picking us after school with such a big instrument, but it backfired and she was overjoyed because she loved the cello!

On learning music, once you deal with a great teacher, any subject becomes fascinating. My rebellion against cello was playing the guitar. I played the cello in an orchestra in NYC and then played the guitar in rock bands. I didn’t do much composing. I went to college and I was an English and cello major, then I came out to L.A. to get into the movie business. I felt I needed a break from cello music. By sheer luck, I got a job as an assistant to Hans Zimmer in 1997. I was working at a production company running packages around at the time, and a friend who was an assistant there had seen an advert for a Hollywood prominent composer seeking an assistant. I sent my resume and it got narrowed down to three people, and Hans and I hit it off. That was the beginning.

It was one of those 180 eighty degree turns in life – one moment I was driving packages around and the next moment I was driving Hans around Malibu in an Aston Martin.

What helped with my interview, was before my move to L.A. a friend and I drove a school bus around Brazil – when I told Hans about the trip, he thought that was cool and that I was worth getting to know better. When a friend and I decided to do the trip everyone thought it was a waste of time, but it helped me land the job because Hans didn’t think it was a waste of time.

Moviehole: How long did you work with Hans? What a great experience.
NB: I was only with Hans for eight months and he was really generous in so many ways; in giving me a front row seat to the life of a super successful film composer, and he let me write music for myself in his studio. I asked him if it was appropriate for him to take me on meetings, and so I saw what life could be like at the top. Like to be a film-TV composer and make a real good living. On one hand I was making him coffee and picking up dry-cleaning and on the other hand I was being with Hans and Jeffery Katzenberg as they discussed film projects. One day I started doing composition while I was there in the studio and Hans walked into room and gave it a thumbs up. That gave me the confidence to go out on my own when I landed my first feature film in 1997. It was a little straight-to-video film starring Neve Campbell called “Too Smooth.”

I’ve never seen Hans since I left. I had an incredibly strong impulse, I’m not sure where it came from, to do this on my own. And Hans runs such a big operation and has helped so many composers, I was not sure at the time that I made the right choice. But the career I’ve made the last 20 years is really my own.

Moviehole: What can you tell us about “Flatliners” and how you did the music for this film? How did you first become involved with it? Did you have a look at the old film?
NB: I deliberately avoided watching it or listening to the original score as I know the filmmakers wanted to do something different

I was brought in after the first composer didn’t work out, which is not uncommon on bigger studio films. I had to write an hour of music within three and-a-half weeks without a team. That also makes me different, as I don’t use a team. Many composers rely on a team of composers for an original score. We will be recording a 40-piece string orchestra in about a week in Los Angeles for the film.

Moviehole: What is different between scoring TV music and movie music?
NB: Increasingly, storytelling on TV has become so incredible, that there are fewer and fewer differences; I like to think of myself as one of a group of composers blessed to go on this ride, able to go on a ride that TV has never seen. By association and creativity, we composers have raised the standard of TV music. People like Jeff Beal who does “House of Cards,” Matt Quayle who does “Mr. Robot” and a bunch of shows, and Sean Callery who does Homeland.” These are some of the guys who are upping the game around the quality of music on TV. There are some practical differences that will never change like writing hours and hours of TV, as compared to writing for movies for two hours, but there are exciting aspects to both.

Moviehole: What inspires you in writing music?
NB: At the end of the day it’s the material. As composers we all have to find something to connect to, whether it’s a character or a scene to hang our hat on. If we are lucky to work with filmmakers who are also inspiring, that’s when we get really lucky.

Moviehole: What’s your method for composing – do you write with the characters in mind first, or the overall film/TV show?
NB: Instead of starting with a computer, I start with an instrument; sitting down with the same 88 keys is stagnant for me. I buy an instrument I’ve never used to work on. It’s said that happy accidents lead to some of our best work. I prefer to not work with a computer. I think many composers use what are called samples which are prerecorded instruments you can play with on your computer.

Moviehole: Do you have any other idols or mentors to look up to?
NB: Lots of composers! I’m in awe of Dario Marianelli, he is a really top orchestral composer around right now who I love.

Moviehole: Please tell me about your eclectic music collection.
NB: If I look at my collection, I can look at certain projects that inspired me to pick up an instrument. I’m now building a film recording studio and the centerpiece is a Wurlizter organ from 1928 used in “The Sound of Music” and “Patton.” That comes from a show called “Hemlock Grove”; research led me to this enormous pipe organ. Everyone from Bernard Herrmann to Alex North used it in their careers. The studio will be all about performance, where my studio will be able to accommodate 60 players, be it an orchestra or solo cello or guitar. It will be a gorgeous, inspiring space.

Moviehole: What movies and TV projects do you have coming out?
NB: There’s a show called “Sneaky Pete,” with season 2 of that in the New Year. There’s the final season 6 of “The Americans” in the New Year, the third season of a show with Oprah Winfrey (producer) called “Greenleaf” coming in the New Year and a show called “The Son,” starring Pierce Brosnan in the New Year. There are two films in addition to “Flatliners” in September; the first one is called “The Parting Glass,” starring Anna Pacquin and Cynthia Nixon and a film starring Kate Bosworth and Tyler Hoechlan called “The Domestics.” I’m also working on the Broadway musical version of “True Blood.”

Moviehole: So not very busy then, ha ha. What are your hopes for the future?
NB: I guess I can say my new studio is going to be a very special place to make music and record music and a meeting point for musicians, I think there will be many collaborations for musicians beyond anything I can currently dream of. I look forward to reintroducing the Wurlizter to the world though my own ears. I really look forward to seeing that instrument seeing its way back into film music. It’s 1,500 pipes, and it occupies seven rooms of my building.

Moviehole: Do you think that you’ll be due soon for that Emmy?
NB: The whole awards aspect of the business is always icing on the cake. I just look for quality and let others worry about the awards; at the end of the day I’m making a great living writing music and that’s the real award.

“Flatliners” is now showing

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