One of the more unusual soundtracks from this year’s crop of Oscar contender films comes from a relative newcomer, Dan Romer, who co-composed the score for the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild with another relative newcomer, director Benh Zeitlin.
Set in a ramshackle Louisiana delta community nicknamed “The Bathtub,” the film focuses on 6-year old Hushpuppy (Quvenshané Wallis) and the stormy relationship with her dying father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Hushpuppy, Wink and a rag-tag group of locals refuse to evacuate their town after a devastating storm and the continually rising sea – caused by melting icecaps – makes living there a near impossibility.
The score is a fine combination of traditional orchestral pieces peppered with local flavor from instruments you would expect to hear in a film about life in the Louisiana bayou. It is an emotionally rich score, unexpected from anyone scoring their first major feature film. Although Romer is a seasoned musician, he had only scored three shorts before tackling Beasts of the Southern Wild. His first score for the short Death of the Tinman was also co-composed by Zeitlin. Romer previously mixed Zeitlin’s first writer/director/editor short Egg.
Originally co-composers Romer and Zeitlin envisioned the score as mostly local sounding Cajun dance music, but as the film progressed, their idea changed. “As we started to work on it together, it seemed like it was working better using orchestral material,” Romer explained. “Although the first thing we scored was the introduction of ‘The Bathtub,’ and we used a traditional Cajun band for it, that band never came back. We scored the entire thing with temp strings, horns, piano and celesta.” After they finished the entire score, they went back and added folk instruments like accordion, guitar, banjo and different percussion instruments, to get the local flavor.
One musical piece – used when Hushpuppy is told that everyone dies and she insists, “Not my Daddy” – was so emotional, they had to keep taking breaks while recording it.
The most difficult scene to score was one where some of the locals, including Wink, blow up the levee to help drain the floodwaters. It was also the turning point for them in terms of understanding the score and its relationship to story. “It was difficult for us, because we had not figured out that the score had to be from Hushpuppy’s perspective,” shares Romer. “We were scoring it like an action sequence, and that seemed appropriate, but Hushpuppy did not understand what was truly going on, so from her point of view, it was not an action scene. Once we figured that out, the scene made sense.”
That revelation influenced the whole picture, which originally was about all of the diverse characters that lived in “The Bathtub.” When they decided to focus on Hushpuppy, the picture jelled. Since most of the footage had been shot from four feet off of the ground, they had already instinctively known that it would be from her perspective, both literally and figuratively. The music led them back to the story.