Interview : Film composer Enis Rotthoff on crafting the emotional soundscapes of Love Sarah

German composer Enis Rotthoff has been active in the film and television industry for two decades, masterfully shifting from genre to genre thanks to his highly collaborative process and diverse approach to instrumentation.

Some of his most notable works include 2013’s Wetlands, 2015’s Look Who’s Back (adapted from the best-selling satirical novel) and Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, which starred Daniel Radcliffe and Samara Weaving. Even between the soundtracks to these three titles, there’s a distinct effort to capture the unique essence of the film rather than simply the artist’s own sound.

I spoke with Enis about his latest project, Love Sarah, which follows a young woman who wishes to fulfil her mother’s dream of opening her own bakery in Notting Hill, London.

Directed by Eliza Schroeder and written by Jake Brunger, Love Sarah strives to capture the complex array of emotions we feel in the wake of great loss – and Enis was just the right person for the job.

I’m fascinated by the diverse range of films you’ve worked on as a composer. I imagine that’s something you’d naturally aim for, to keep yourself challenged. I was familiar with your work through Wetlands and Guns Akimbo, and obviously those are quite different films to Love Sarah. What’s your typical approach when it comes to deciding what tone and instrumentation will fit a film best?

Enis: I would say I feel very much like a method actor, where I change my approach depending on the project I’m working on and the filmmakers that I’m working with. I try to understand the film from the inside, dive inside the world, understand the filmmaker’s visions and then create a concept for the film. Sometimes that’s mentally, sometimes by trying things out with the filmmakers, but always starting with a blank page, mentally. It’s refreshing and also a new challenge each time.

You mentioned Wetlands and Guns Akimbo. These are projects that gave me an opportunity to dive into completely different worlds. With Wetlands, we had a main character who is like a punk. We wanted to have that punk feeling, but obviously she is not a punk. So we went with the punk feeling, and that’s the beginning of the process. 

The starting point for the score was, how do we support the main character in the best way possible in order to help the audience understand her and be part of her journey? And therefore we created a palette that was built around electronic guitars and synthesisers that sound more from the 2000s or the 90s.

With Guns Akimbo, it was a very different approach. We have Miles, played by Daniel Radcliffe, who enters into a futuristic, dark world parallel to the one that we’re experiencing. And because he is part of a sort of game, we went with more of a gamification approach where I created a palette of 80s and 90s retro synthesiser sounds, mixed with feelings of arcade sounds or anything that would remind you of an 8-bit old-school video game. 

So by creating a new palette for every project and being inspired directly by the film and the filmmakers, I stay inspired. It’s a collaborative approach where I include the filmmakers directly in my process, and together we determine what could be best for the film and the story.

That degree of cohesion, whether the audience is consciously aware of it or not, really does add so much to the experience of watching a film. 

Enis: Thank you.

In terms of working directly with the filmmakers, is that an opportunity you frequently have with your projects? 

Enis: I try to include every filmmaker I work with, and sometimes it can also be the editor or the producers. But most of the time it’s a very close collaboration with the director, where you first create a bubble to understand the film and revisit its story. Most of the time, the film has already been written, shot and in the process of being edited. I mean, I might be included already in the script phase, but I really started discussing ideas in connection with the picture once the edit has begun. 

So what I often do to understand the filmmaker’s vision is to understand the film itself. It’s such an opportunity to listen to the filmmaker, how they see their movie, because there might be something they want to portray – but it’s still not there yet. And the music can help achieve that. I’m not talking about adding something to a scene that is not there, but being conscious that music is also a narrator. It can be helpful for the director to know about the possibilities of how to direct the audience emotionally through a movie and how to add to their understanding of the film.

It sounds like your approach is similar to varnishing a painting. It’s bringing out what’s already in there, but doesn’t necessarily appear in full until all elements of the filmmaking process are working in tandem.

Enis: Yeah, very much.

For Love Sarah, what was your specific approach when it came to creating the score? What were you looking to evoke and capture?

Enis: The first thing the director (Eliza Schroeder) shared with me was a little three minute teaser of the film with some beautiful, sharp shots of the film where I could see the tasty desserts that had been created by a master chef specially for the film, beautiful dance scenes, emotional scenes where characters are sad and mourning the loss of someone close to them. I could see the broad range of emotions the film is going to have, and I was immediately drawn to that because I saw a coherence in all these different themes. 

When I started discussing the film in more detail with Eliza, I tried to understand her motivations behind creating a film that has such a large palette of emotions. And for her, the key thing was to give a hopeful message, a sense of positivity and a life-affirming message. The film is equally fun as it is touching and sad. Over the course of the film it builds towards a clearer emotional state of the characters, and it was very inspiring.

The film starts off very emotionally, very low, with the loss of a loved one – who is Sarah. Her daughter has to create a way to handle the loss. On her journey, she enlists a friend of her mother and her grandmother to help open up a bakery, which had been Sarah’s dream before she passed. There is so much fun in the film, but in a touching and beautiful way in that when you jump back to sad scenes, the fun scenes almost balance it out. 

My challenge was to find the sound for the film that would be the unifying body of all these different elements, these emotional themes. Eliza actually gave me certain directions. She had liked the score I had written for a film many years earlier, where she thought that the way I was working with strings was very appealing to her. 

That was a helpful starting point, because we thought a string chamber ensemble could be the unifying body between all these themes. Going through the film, we made a list of emotional themes we would have to cover and how we could approach that. What we came up with was a concept where all of these different elements we experience are based on the loss of Sarah. So, what if we created a theme for Sarah that would unfold in all these different emotional states? 

The adventure of opening a bakery, the feeling of loss of a loved one, the adventure of finding new ideas around baking, friendship, and even a small love story. So all of this is based around Sarah herself. By having such a mental concept at the beginning, it was very helpful to be able to navigate through the complexity of the film. The story might look simple, but the different emotional states of the film are quite wide. On the way, we realised that we would need to colour the themes in different ways, and slowly added additional instruments to the instrumentation. 

But it was a gradual approach, and by taking Eliza with me on that journey, I felt that it was an even more satisfying experience because we were excited about our approach. And that felt really good.

I absolutely agree with your comments about how the loss of a loved one can evoke so many different, often conflicting emotions in retrospect – warmth, sadness, grief, anger, etc. To capture all of that in a score must have been challenging but absolutely very rewarding.

Enis: Absolutely. Thank you.

I understand you worked with the Budapest Art Orchestra on this score. What was the scale of that orchestra, and how often do you work with orchestras compared to individual musicians?

Enis: I have worked with many orchestras. In the past, I worked with orchestras in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. As an assistant, I was also on recording sessions in Warsaw and London. So my background with orchestral recordings dates back over two decades.

The special challenge on this film was that it’s a low budget film that has been realised with a budget where you can’t usually record with an orchestra. Luckily, the producers Rajita Shah and Tonio Kellner, together with the director Eliza Schroeder, were very supportive of the idea. They saw the opportunity that a small string ensemble would help the film have a more accessible, emotional story that adds to the general enjoyment of the film on an emotional, more personal level.

The challenge was that we had a lot of music, and we were thinking, how could we realise that? Luckily, I had really good experiences in Budapest, and know the recording room really well. To have a chamber string ensemble in a good room is a great starting point for a score, and the musicians are really fabulous there. I was confident with my past experiences that I wouldn’t be able to record such a large amount of music in such a short amount of time. It needed a lot of preparation by my team and the trust of the musicians. 

Everybody was very supportive, and it was a team effort to make this happen. Everyone was conscious about the limitations of the budget, and everybody was quite enthusiastic to make it happen. That gave me a tremendous energy to make it happen, as I felt very supported by the producers and the director in bringing something special to this film and add something to the magic.

Given how much you enjoy the collaborative process, are you finding the difficulty of working in-person due to the pandemic a particular challenge? Or is it surprisingly not much of a big deal in the way that you approach it?

Enis: Well, the interesting thing about Love Sarah is that I’m in Los Angeles right now. But at the time of working on the film, I was in Berlin, and the director was in London. Since we knew each other already, we decided to work remotely. There was an idea that Eliza would come over to Berlin, but our communication over Skype and watching films together online worked so well that she actually didn’t come to my studio in Berlin.

This was even before the pandemic, and it worked out really well. And since I’m often between Berlin and Los Angeles, it happens that I’m used to working with filmmakers remotely. The possibilities with Zoom and other services are amazing. You can actually watch a movie together. What it boils down to is clear communication between the people you are working with; being very transparent and in touch and having a sense of trust in each other. If that communication is good and the trust is established, it works very well.

Obviously, there is a beautiful thing when you sit together in a room and experience something together, but certain projects or circumstances demand that you are somewhere else. Sometimes I’m exchanging with filmmakers while they are still shooting, or when they’re still preparing to shoot. It’s beautiful to jump on a video session and discuss ideas or even listen to something together. So I find this is a fascinating time besides the challenges we’re having right now worldwide, to actually work on feeling connected in this time of isolation. So I try to see the positive side of these challenges.

They’re absolutely difficult times, but there’s always a silver lining. I’ve enjoyed finding out how different kinds of people have adapted their creative processes over the last year of the pandemic. What projects are you currently working on?

Enis: I’m working on a feature film that is a drama, and I will be using synthesisers and a drum machine and will add some quirky sounds to it. So this is quite a different direction from Love Sarah. This is what I love about my work; that you never know how your next project is going to sound. In my case, I don’t try to find my sound, but more the sound of the film. And this is something which excites me and keeps me open to new experiences.

Love Sarah is now available on all major streaming platforms.

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