Interview with H. Scott Salinas – Composer for A Private War

Supe Troop’s Laura Katz talked to composer H. Scott Salinas about film scoring and the soon-to-be released film A Private War (November 2nd, y’all!), on which they both worked.

Supe Troop (ST): Is there a particular score or individual composer’s work that inspired you to be a film composer?

H. Scott Salinas (SS): I know it’s not the most original answer, but Thomas Newman’s score to American Beauty really changed me as an artist. I was already embarking down the film music path. I had just graduated from Princeton in 1997 with a degree in music and was at Berklee College of Music and deep into their film-scoring program. So the path was decided, but what that score did for me was make me realize that what you can do in music, and specifically in music for film, is really only limited by your own imagination and courage. That score had such a strong personality and such a refined sense of taste, and it really served as a reminder that great subtlety and great craftsmanship could coexist in film music. If you listen to that score today, it more than holds up; it’s timeless. So, that score perhaps unconsciously became the benchmark for me of what a true masterpiece in film scoring could be.

ST: What’s an example of where you think another composer nailed a project or a particular scene?

SS: John Williams’s music from Catch Me If You Can‘s opening titles animation.  It’s one of my favorite pieces of music of all time on its own, but what it does for that film, how it sets the stage of a cat and mouse game with very high stakes, is absolutely brilliant. Not to mention, he got the entire orchestra to perform vocal percussion, which is always cool.

ST: What is your scoring process? Do you see a full piece or do you start with one instrument?

SS: If the score requires a true melody, which is a big “if,” then I start on piano and really make sure that the tune holds up there. I’m a guitar player first, but I find composing on guitar really only makes sense if it’s going to be for guitar or if it’s in a genre like jazz, pop, etc. If we aren’t sure if there is going to be a real strong melody in the film, then I’ll start with making sounds and textures – recordings of weird things down the hallway, etc. I’ll try and get the bed or texture of the score first and then figure out what to layer on top.

ST: What do you look for when you are spotting a film?

SS: Where is the turning point in the scene. When music enters and exits needs to closely follow when the story or mood changes versus when there is a cut in the picture or when the story starts getting boring and may need some help. We have to resist those tendencies to hit cuts and just ask: “When did something shift in this scene?” and, most of the time, that’s where to come in.

ST: Most directors and producers don’t have a technical background in music and therefore don’t speak the technical terms of musicality. How do you break down that barrier?

SS: I think it’s really important to create a safe environment. And by safe I mean, safe to hurt MY feelings. When it comes to music, many directors are often overly polite or scared to really say what they think and that can get you into a lot of trouble.  I’ve had director’s tell me a cue sounds like “Riverdance,” and, rather than get upset, I am very pleased, because that was a concrete reference that meant something and I knew how to adjust the music. Also, I like to develop a vocabulary based on tactile descriptions. So, I’ll call something that’s very staccato “sticky outie” or “pointy.” Or I might describe the bed of the music as the glue of the piece. I think when you can demystify music and present it in a nuts and bolts kind of way, it removes this idea that it’s all magic and allows directors to dig in more and participate.

ST: What work are you proudest of?

SS: I love all my babies. But the first feature I ever scored was such an unusual situation and such a privilege that it really stands out when I look back on my career. In 2002, I won the Turner Classic Movies Young Film Composers Competition, and I was commissioned by TCM to score a silent film from the 1920s called Laugh, Clown, Laugh. They gave me a pretty big orchestra to record the score, and it was some 80 minutes of wall-to-wall music. At 26 years old, facing the challenge of sustaining music for 80 minutes straight and then getting to record an orchestra at the very end–that was definitely a dream come true.

ST: We’re so excited about A Private War! Is there one cue or one scene from that project that you really enjoyed creating?

SS: I have to pick two. For starters, it was collaborating with Annie Lennox on the end credits song. The song actually starts as score at the end of the film and morphs into her haunting performance. I can’t say enough amazing things about her as a musician but also as a true, genuine person. I could never have foreseen that I would get that opportunity, and I’ll always cherish that.

ST: What music are you listening to now?

SS: Right now I’m deep into 50s and 60s hard bop and Wes Montgomery, but that’s all research for a new score so that’s more work than pleasure. I rarely listen to music for pleasure. If I want pleasure from music, I’ll pick up a guitar and play or sing songs with friends. If I’m listening to the radio on my commute, it’s talk radio every time. Shout out to Howard Stern. Baba Booey!

ST: What is your favorite soup?

SS: Soondubu – Korean tofu soup!

ST: Thanks, Scott! Your answers are very illuminating.

Click that A Private War tag below to see more about the film.