Filed in: Composers, Featured, Film, Interviews, Music

Composer Series: Marius de Vries on Siân Heder’s CODA and the Legacy of Moulin Rouge!

November 9, 2021 09:00 | By
CODA

Emelia Jones in CODA

One of the most beautifully heartwarming and beloved films of the year, Siân Heder’s Sundance award-winning film CODA, has found quite a supportive audience for its absolutely groundbreaking and emotional look at a teenager who, as the title acronym describes, is the “Child of Deaf Adults.”

Music plays a large part in the film as the film’s lead, Ruby, played by relative newcomer Emilia Jones, works diligently to help her deaf family on their Gloucester fishing boat, though she also feels that she has higher aspirations. With the help of her music teacher, Eugenio Derbez’s “Mr. V,” Ruby starts to train her voice and join the school a capella choir, to a point where she feels that she may want to go to school in Boston for singing. Unfortunately, that would mean leaving her family behind.

It would only make sense that Heder would call upon Composer and Arranger Marius de Vries and his partner Nick Baxter to help with the vocal arrangements and getting Jones, her co-star, Sing Street’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, and the rest of the film’s young singers performance-ready to perform their new arrangements of classic tunes live for Heder’s cameras. After all, de Vries has a lot of experience doing that from having worked with filmmaker Baz Luhrmann on his earlier films, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, and Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winning La La Land, in which he performed similar duties to get those film’s stars performance-ready as singers. 

For CODA,  de Vries also co-wrote the absolutely gorgeous, original end credits song, “Beyond the Shore,” which is sung by the film’s star, and which you can hear below.

Below the Line got on Zoom with Mr. de Vries for the following interview.

Marius de Vries

Marius de Vries (courtesy of subject)

Below the Line: I spoke with Siân a few weeks back, and we touched upon your contributions to CODA. I’ve been a fan of your work going back to Moulin Rouge, still one of my favorite movie musicals, and I also just got into some of your work with Rufus Wainwright for the first time last year. CODA doesn’t seem like your typical project, as far as movies you’ve worked on, so maybe we can start by talking about how you learned about it and met with Siân the first time.

Marius de Vries: I think you’re right. It’s not a typical project to me, and that’s part of what attracted me to it, I think, because I’m always on the lookout for different approaches and different languages to play with. I was turned on to the project by [Producer] Patrick [Wachsberger], who originally had the property at Lionsgate, and then when he left Lionsgate to set up his own studio, he took CODA with him. I knew Patrick from La La Land, because we’d worked together on La La Land when he was heading up Lionsgate, so we had a good relationship based on that. He just invited me in for lunch one day and said he wanted to talk to me about a project. He explained in the early stages about the idea of CODA, and the fact that it was a remake of La Famille Belier, which is a film I knew. First of all, the fact that it was Patrick made me inclined to take a closer look at the project. Then, I liked the script, I liked what they did with the adaptation of the original, and how they found a new context for it, and the levels of richness that hadn’t been in the original iteration. A few weeks later, I was in New York, and Siân was in New York, and we got together for a few hours one evening and just started to talk in general terms about what it might mean to make music for a film where the story is so heavily serialized by the deafness of the characters. 

As with all interesting projects, it starts off with kind of high-level philosophical discussions and the thought about what music means in a silent universe, which is obviously a big part of the story. We were thinking about ultrasonics and infrasonics, and microtonality, and lots of clever things. But, that was a great bonding exercise. It didn’t really prepare us for the experience of seeing the early footage cut together for the first time and seeing these long scenes of emotional intensity and full of dialogue, but without words. What became immediately apparent is that those scenes, in spite of the lack of spoken language, are not silent. They’re really a rich detail of mouth noises, body percussion, supported movements, and that had a tonality all of its own, delicate, but definitely powerful. That really helped us to understand what the relationship of music and silence meant within the specific context of this movie. That was a really interesting journey, but that first conversation, even though it was very heady and esoteric, and theoretical, wasn’t really on point for what we actually needed to do in the end. It was a great exercise to get to know Siân, and I could tell straight away that she was approaching the project with a great deal of integrity and a commitment to authenticity on all fronts, music included, which is obviously important for the way that we shot the performance scenes. And so, I knew that it was going to be an exciting creative relationship from the get-go. I didn’t really think twice and said, “I’d love to work on this.”

BTL: I haven’t had the fortune of seeing the French film yet, but was the music and the chorus a big part of that originally, as well? 

de Vries: Somewhat. It’s quite difficult to explain what the differences are, but it was set within a farming community, rather than a fishing community, which seems like a small leap. They’re both subjects I cannot speak of with any expertise, but the fishing side of this film was a great education as well.

BTL: Did you know right away that one part of your job was gonna be to arrange the a capella vocal chorus and working with the kids?

de Vries: That’s very much my wheelhouse, and that’s where we started was figuring out how we were going to approach the choir and working out a way where we… Siân was very committed to the idea of recording as much of the vocal performance live on-camera as possible, which, when you’re working with a modest budget, can be quite a challenge. We knew we’d have to prepare very carefully for that. My partner, Nicholai Baxter, and I started off by thinking very carefully about how to manage the choir arrangements and build in an increasing competence in the ensemble performances as the film develops. And then, of course, we immediately had access to Emelia, and we had to go on a similar journey with her to build a journey for her that would encapsulate the shyness and the reticence and timidness of her initial performances, whilst demonstrating an innate musicality. As she grows as a person, and as her experiences happen to her in the movie, to trace simultaneous growth in her vocal ability and her confidence. Her relationship with Mr. V, her teacher, was obviously crucial in mapping that journey. To answer your question, we started paying a great deal of attention to what the performance of music might be in the film, and supportive music was very much a later consideration.

BTL: As you mentioned, it’s not the type of movie where, when there’s a big emotional scene, you would want to put music over it, because you obviously want to experience the sounds and emotions within the ASL. Was it hard to find the spots to put music, or was it really obvious once she edited it together where it needed music?

de Vries: Approaching it as a composer, I didn’t want to appear lazy, so I wrote through it. It became more and more sculpting what was there, and in some cases, eradicating it where it wasn’t necessary. We pretty quickly realized that the dramatic side of the movie would start, in musical terms, in almost complete silence, and then the score would sort of surreptitiously bleed into it as her journey into music develops. The more fully-fledged cues that you hear at the end of the film correspond with the slow process of her mastering her craft as a singer and confidence as a musical intelligence.

CODA

Eugenio Derbez in CODA

BTL: I haven’t had a chance to see the movie in a theater yet, so I haven’t been able to get the full sonic experience, but I did listen to the soundtrack earlier, and it’s interesting to hear these beautiful cues without the context of what is going on visually. Do you generally write on piano or do you work on your computer? I’m curious about your general process.

de Vries: I tend to start on the piano. Occasionally, I’ll pick up a guitar if I’m stuck, because my incompetence on the guitar often leads to [interesting results]. I write to begin with on the piano, and then, I’m heavily reliant on my computer systems and my synthesizers to build the initial language and then on the real musicians to flesh it out as the process is [developing].

BTL: I ask that, because there were some really nice acoustic guitar cues, and I was wondering if you’re able to play those yourself.

de Vries: Well, no, I had to hire people to do that, although my partner Nick is a very good acoustic guitar, so he would come in and play for me sometimes. Some of the cues that developed the fastest were the ones that he and I were able to get into a room, amidst all the madness of COVID and working remotely, but we were able to sneak some time in together, just me sitting at the piano and him sat with his guitar, and that’s always a way of fast-tracking your approach to musical language.

BTL: That leads nicely into my next question, which was how much of this was done during COVID. I think Siân said that a lot of post was done during the pandemic, so I guess all the music was done during that period as well?

de Vries: Actually, we just snuck in before the first lockdown with a lot of it. So whilst we had to mix the music and do some additional work during lockdown, we were able to…  I mean, I remember, literally, it was the day before we all had to go home and lock our doors, we were in the studio doing the last recording session. And then, we had to stop for a few weeks while the world was in confusion, and we were originally due to the music mix and the editing in Canada, and we had to relocate that not only to Los Angeles, but to a kind of separated remote Los Angeles, and then everything went on pause for a little while. Los Angeles was fairly quick to get up on its feet again in terms of post-production, so under strict scrutiny, and with lots of safety laws in place, we were able to get back in a couple of months later and actually dub the film. We caught it just on the cusp of global shutdown. We did have to get used to working remotely, and in fact, a lot of musical content, which came after we’d done the first parts of the music mix, such as the final song, was done almost completely remotely. Emelia’s vocals, and she was in a studio in England, Nick and I were monitoring that from separate stations in Los Angeles, Siân was on the East Coast at the time and Skyping in, so that was about as virtual as a session can get.

Marius de Vries

De Vries conducting (courtesy of subject)

BTL: I feel like musicians and composers have been the most ready to work remotely just from how they tend to get a lot done in their own studios. 

de Vries: We’ve been planning for this moment all of our lives.

BTL: Did you realize that some of the changes you’ve made you can keep doing forever? Although I’m sure you’d love to get back into a studio with an orchestra again.

de Vries: I did miss the personal contact, but we’ve certainly learned the workflow in terms of collaborating with editorial. We save a bunch of time just by simply not having to get in the car and drive across Los Angeles. If you do that a couple of times a day, that can split your day and half the amount of productive time you’ve got. In a way, in certain respects, it was a bonus in terms of productivity.

BTL: In my view, one thing that really sets you apart from many other composers is that you’re heavily involved with the musical arrangements and implementing songs, and you’ve also been involved with producing pop music. Sometimes, you’re composing the music for a project or you’re billed as “music director,” one of the many titles you’ve had. When you get involved with a project, how do you know which capacity in which you’ll be involved? How do you work that out?

de Vries: It depends on the specific demands of the individual movie, but for better or for worse, most of the projects that I get involved in have some performance content, even if it’s a couple of fantasy sequences, or the score is heavily based on adaptation of songs. I do tend to have to work on those two levels as a composer, but also as an arranger, and a performance coach. And I enjoy that. 

I think it harkens back to my first exposure in movies in the mid-90s when I was really involved almost exclusively in record production and songwriting. Myself and Nellee Hooper, who were working together a lot at the time, were doorstepped by Baz Luhrmann who was looking for someone to do Romeo + Juliet. Our point of entry into that was we worked in songs, and in fact doing choir arrangements. I think the first job I did on that was the choral arrangement of “When Doves Cry” and “Everybody’s Free” In a way, I started off my film career doing an arrangement for a children’s choir, so it wasn’t that unfamiliar territory when I started out on CODA doing the same thing.

BTL: I saw your name on Annette, the recent musical written by and with music from Sparks, and I was curious about your involvement with that, since they’re kind of a two-man show who do everything in their own studios. 

de Vries: I didn’t have to help them very much in terms of music production — they’re obviously very self-sufficient. They’ve made 30 albums or whatever. I’ve been a huge fan of theirs since I was 11-12 years old, and I had a poster of Kimono My House in my bedroom. To actually work on the same project as them was a thrill. I think where they needed the help was in figuring out how to make their music ready to be shot. That film, as well, was a film where Leos [Carax], the director — who I was also a huge fan of, and it was an intense pleasure to work with him — he really wasn’t interested in using any prerecords at all., He wanted everything to be caught live in the moment. Turning these studio-based demos of great accomplishment that Sparks had mapped out with formulas into putting them into a technical framework where it was possible to record them live and give the actors the freedom to control the pacing of the performance, I think that was where I was useful on that project. That involves spending a lot of time on sets and getting to see how Leos works, and working alongside Adam [Driver] and Marion [Cotillard], who are both extraordinary actors. So that was a wonderful project to be involved in.

Annette

A scene from Annette (Amazon Studios)

BTL: Going back to Moulin Rouge, were you involved with getting Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman ready to sing their parts, as well?

de Vries: Yes, very much so. Moulin Rouge is one of those wonderful movies where the director, Baz, was insistent on having an awful lot of lead time and rehearsal time in preparation. We were able to start work with Nicole and Ewan many, many months before the cameras rolled, so we had a great deal of time, not just to develop the material musically, but also to develop the material musically in tandem with the vocal development of the actors. I was very much given the responsibility of spearheading, so for a long time, I got to work very closely with Nicole and Ewan. I think that’s where I really got the taste for working with performers. Sometimes, taking them from a fairly basic level of singing ability and developing their facility and their confidence, more crucially, so that they would be able to give the best possible [performances].

BTL: I’m always impressed by the range of influence that Moulin Rouge has had on musicals, on Broadway, even with the recent Cinderella movie, which was very obviously inspired by Moulin Rouge. You’re still heavily involved with musicals — La La Land is a good example — but do you think about how so many musicals have built on what you and Baz did twenty years ago?

de Vries: I mean, Moulin Rouge is very, very loved. I know it was divisive, and some people didn’t have a taste for it and found it over-rich and over-complex and possibly over-fast in terms of its visual style. What becomes apparent as we have now 20 years between us is that the movie has really stuck around and stood the test of time, but also that it taught a generation that it wasn’t really aimed at. There were so many people who kind of grew up listening to that soundtrack — and by the way, the same is true of Romeo + Juliet — and who were exposed to it at a very young age and sort of internalized it. Complete credit to Baz’s vision, it’s really become a part of the fabric of culture in a way that few musicals from the last thirty years have managed to do.

BTL: Well, it’s been an absolute joy talking to you. As I said, I’ve been a fan of your work for a very long time, and CODA is also a wonderful movie. I have not met a single person who doesn’t outright love it.

de Vries: I’m very happy to see that, because there’s an awful lot of sweat and love and honesty that went into the making of this movie, right across the board, from the cast and the production design, from Siân’s deep commitment to immersing herself in the universe that she was portraying. She’s become fluent in ASL, just as much as Emelia has, and a lot of the onset communication is conducted in ASL. It was done with great respect to the community that they were portraying. Although it’s, as you said, a smaller movie than the ones I sometimes get involved in, and the music is perhaps a little bit more transparent and delicate than some projects I do. It was really, really valuable for the integrity and the honesty with which the story was told. For the score and for the performance songs, and to be able to cover those great songs in imaginative ways — and also to be able to write an original song for the movie, which kind of captured a future Ruby looking back on her life — all of those were really exciting processes. I’ve got nothing but fond memories and love for the film, and I’m glad that it’s been received so warmly.

CODA is available to watch via streaming on Apple TV+. All photos courtesy Apple, except where noted.

You can also read Below the Line’s earlier interviews with CODA Director Siân Heder, DP Paula Huidobro, and Editor Geraud Brisson