Marco Beltrami on crafting another western score for Tommy Lee Jones’ ‘The Homesman’

In a very open Oscar race for Best Original Score, Marco Beltrami's compositions for Tommy Lee Jones' western “The Homesman” may well find themselves in the final five. He has earned two previous nominations somewhat unexpectedly (“3:10 to Yuma” and “The Hurt Locker”) and his latest endeavor very much set the mood of Jones's progressive period piece.

I recently had the chance to speak to Beltrami about the film working with Jones, his collaborations with Buck Sanders and his approach to film composing more generally. Check out the back and forth below.

“The Homesman” is now playing in theaters.


HitFix: When did you come aboard the film?

Marco Beltrami: It was way before shooting, just after Tommy told me about the script when they were working on it. At the time, he had some other projects that were possibilities. Nothing was set. He said “come aboard” and I had read the book previously. I had put some ideas together when they had started shooting because they had some verse in the script that they needed Mary Bee [Hilary Swank's character] to sing. That became her theme.

What was it like to be involved at the shooting stage?

It's hard for me to write music and be inspired until I see the picture visually. I was inspired visually by this picture. The heavens and the earth and pretty much a horizon line in between and that starkness and austereness was very important in inspiring what I was going to do. Just reading the script, you don't know how it's going to look.

How did you approach crafting the theme?

I wanted something authentic to the time in American history. It was a very simple time [from a musical perspective]. I was trying to do something real that Mary Bee could have sung.

And collaborating with Tommy Lee Jones?

He's the best. He's full of originality and innovation and the spirit of collaboration. I've done three movies with him [along with “The Sunset Limited” and “The Three Burials of “Melquiades Estrada”], and they're probably the most inspiring films I've been on.

If you had to describe your approach to “The Homesman” at a macro-level, how would you do it?

I had to find the one thing that's going to inspire the microcosm of score. That turned out for me to be the wind and how it made the women go crazy. I guessed that would find a musical manifest.

Are there any special considerations on a western you felt you needed to consider?

I love westerns and this takes place in the West but I don't consider it to be a traditional western at all. It was more a tale of these people who were struggling in the mid-19th Century and had to make their way to journey back east.

Did the Christian theme affect your music at all?

There are a lot of biblical references in the way it was shot, a feeling of redemption and salvation. But there was nothing overtly Christian. It certainly enhanced another level of appreciation for the movie and gave it deeper meaning, but I didn't reference any religious themes musically other than just hymnal stuff that could have been in one of the song books in churches back then.

What did you find to be your biggest challenge on this movie?

Biggest challenge I think was knowing what was going to work because we were inventing a lot of things not knowing whether these instruments would pan out and be actually useful. You take a piano and string wires 175 feet up the hill.

Was there anything on this film you hadn't done before in your career?

The whole thing. It was all stuff I hadn't done before. Sort of innovative.

How did you get into film composing?

I've been interested in film composing since I began to take piano lessons when I was 6 years old. I was sort of more interested in the composing aspects than the technical aspects of performance. I moved to Hollywood from Long Island, New York. I studied more serious music, concert music at Yale School of Music and then I came out here. There's a program at USC that I did and I guess I met some people that were in the same boat as me and there's a little community of us. I started working and one thing led to another.

Do you find the job lonely?

It can be, yeah. I have my partner Buck [Sanders], the two of us work closely together. We're sort of really partners in this. But, yeah, it is a lonely profession. You spend a lot of time with your own thoughts and empty sheets of music that you hope will fill themselves up.

That's a unique relationship you have with Buck. What's that like?

He started out working with me as an assistant and had a great aesthetic sense and could comment on what I was doing in a constructive way. Now, he's sort of like my right hand. Everything from when we start on a movie and coming up with the palette of sounds and talking acoustical instruments to even doing co-scores. We've done scores together like “The Hurt Locker” [for which they shared an Oscar nomination] and “Max Payne.” The role changes depending on the project.

If there was anything you had to change about your job, what would it be?

Not on this project and this is one of the reasons I like working for Tommy Lee so much, but in general, I think the film business is dictated a lot by an anxiety or fear. They're investments and everyone wants a return on their investment. This leads a bit to a conservativeness and not wanting to change too much to experiment. The spirit of innovation and creativity sometimes gets lost and overlooked and I don't know how you change that because I understand where it's coming from but if I could, that would be the one thing that would be nice. A bit more experimentation and less reliance on what's been tried already.

When you look back on the experience that was “The Homesman,” what stands out?

I'll think of Tommy standing on the storage container with the winds blowing and hearing the piano so loud that you could hear it a mile away, a big smile on his face. And it's really what's it all about. This is why you do film music. You work with people and you learn.