TIFF ’21 ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: NEIL HAVERTY
By CFC Staff September 01, 2021 09:00
Composer Neil Haverty has contributed his musical talents to the scores of a host of feature films, like Small Town Murder Songs, Sleeping Giant, Burns Point, Hazy Little Thing, and, most recently, to TIFF 2021 Official Selection, Wildhood, from writer-director and CFC alum Bretten Hannam. Neil completed CFC’s Slaight Music Residency in 2016 and continued his journey as a composer, whose work would go on to screen at film festival giants such as Cannes, TIFF, Karlovy Vary, and many more. Neil’s raw talent and passion for music have inspired him to extend his musical aptitude beyond film – he’s a founding member of the Toronto ensemble Bruce Peninsula and a solo artist, having released several critically acclaimed LPs and has toured across North America, as well as Senior Manager of the MVP Project / Prism Prize at the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, where he oversees multiple initiatives that aim to spotlight artistry in the Canadian music video industry.
CFC recently caught up with the talented composer to discuss his musical roots, his latest film drama Wildhood, and his future endeavors. Read more in the spotlight below.
LET’S GO TO THE VERY BEGINNING. DO YOU REMEMBER SOME OF YOUR EARLIEST INTERACTIONS WITH MUSIC?
I have a burned-in memory of a family car trip with Band on the Run on repeat when I was very young, but I got a lot more interested in music in grade nine when my dad brought home a very heavy, old wooden clunker of an electric guitar.
Music really took over my life during my high school co-op placement at Sonic Unyon in Hamilton. They had just moved into this new building and I helped set up the record store, worked distribution and record mail-outs, and generally just got exposed to what a smaller music scene felt like. Independent music felt human to me and presented a different world compared to how the media positioned music-making. Never was that interested in rock stars. Starting a band and throwing shows at the Transit Union Hall just felt like the thing to do then, and it made for a happy teenagehood.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A COMPOSER?
Calling myself that has been a pretty slow unravelling. I was diagnosed with (and recovered from) Leukemia in 2011 and stopped playing shows for a long while. In that time, I started to learn video editing, thinking it might open new opportunities for work. It did lead me to get into music videos (which eventually led to my day job at Prism Prize) but I also started to think of audio/visual projects as a fulfilling path forward for my music practice.
Visual storytelling opens up so many interesting artistic variables for music-making, and traditional record-making has sort of been in the rearview since those first few film projects I got involved in with Bruce Peninsula. I got really into the process of contributing songs to Small Town Murder Songs and Sleeping Giant but probably wouldn’t have called it composing then. I think probably it was Darren Fung and Tom Third and all the mentors at CFC that convinced me to adopt the term because they never treated me as a “band guy” and it became clear that the distinction was fairly arbitrary anyway.
CAN YOU SHARE A BIT ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE AT THE CFC IN THE SLAIGHT MUSIC RESIDENCY AND IF/HOW IT HELPED SHAPE YOU AS A MUSIC CREATOR?
My time at CFC bestowed a sense of professionalization of my practice. I’ve been lucky to have a few stretches like this in my life, where I was allowed to take music seriously and prioritize it, but that year at CFC was foundational because I allowed it to be priority number one. That felt lucky, and exactly what I wanted to be doing at the time. I made music every day, thought about it constantly, and my time in the Slaight [Family Music] lab helped widen my perspective on what a life in music can be.
It was intense at times, in the best way, and it made me realize I want to make music forever, at a time when I was somewhat unsure about that. I actually almost turned the residency down (other responsibilities! fear!) but in retrospect, that would have been such a huge mistake. The work pushed me, a new community embraced me, and I made many valuable, lasting friendships as a direct result of saying yes to the offer to attend.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR MOST VALUABLE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE SLAIGHT MUSIC RESIDENCY?
Like everything in the world, you come to realize that it’s people that move films forward. Films are this incredible feat of collaboration, with many moving parts, and we are meant to take that for granted when we’re watching them. But every movie ever made has had a crew wading through a million tiny decisions - meticulously, collectively - and at the end, there’s this beautiful thing that so many people have poured their hearts and minds into. When you realize that’s the magic part of it, it’s a quick jump to understanding that working in film is all about forging real relationships and adding your one small piece to a much larger puzzle.
I’m always very grateful when I’m trusted to join a team because it gives me a new opportunity to push myself and to help make something meaningful with other people. Every step of the process gives a different kind of dopamine hit. Even when it’s hard, it’s at least interesting.
CONGRATULATIONS ON WILDHOOD GETTING INTO TIFF! WE ARE THRILLED TO LEARN THERE ARE SO MANY CFC ALUMNI INVOLVED IN THE FILM (BRETTEN HANNAM, GHARRETT PATRICK PAON, SHAUN RYKISS, JOEL THOMAS HYNES, AND DAMON D’OLIVEIRA). HOW DID THIS COLLABORATION COME ABOUT AND WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH FELLOW CFCERS?
I wasn’t in the same year at CFC with any of these folks, but I think alums have this sense of being part of the same club. Pre-vetted, or something. I’ve felt that over and over again with lots of creative people since my residency, and generally find that I relate to other alumni easily.
I think I followed Joel’s IMDB to find this film originally because I had just worked on Body & Bones, which he also stars in. I kind of knew Wildhood producer Julie Baldassi from the music video world and reached out on a whim to see if I could get involved. Months later, she took a chance and introduced me to the rest of the team. Often emails like that don’t go anywhere, but I think it’s a good policy to always look around at what’s being made, try to identify who’s making the interesting stuff, and then shoot your shot.
GENERALLY, WHAT’S THE RELATIONSHIP LIKE BETWEEN A DIRECTOR AND A COMPOSER WHEN SCORING A FILM? HOW DOES A COMPOSER USUALLY WORK WITH A DIRECTOR?
Wildhood’s creation was entirely under pandemic lockdown restrictions, so many of us have never met in person. Our relationships were forged in little boxes on the screen. After creating with Brett and the team for many months, I feel so close to them now, which is a testament to them as people but I think also has to do with how streamlined internet communication has become. Toronto is just a click away from Bear River at any time, and we had many really long talks that always produced meaningful notes and discussions. This is mostly because Brett has a generous spirit and was so invested in telling the Wildhood story, but the levelling up of video calling and screen-sharing during the pandemic really helped the creative process overall.
The composer/director relationship can take so many different forms, and can sometimes feel like you’re speaking different languages. The environment that Brett cultivated for this collaboration was always honest, sensitive and full of gratitude, and that levels everything out. Even when we were searching for ways to describe things, we always worked together to find common ground and to hear each other out. I really recommend trying to find filmmakers who work like that and to straight-up pass on any opportunity that hints that the opposite may be true.
CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WILDHOOD AND THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE SCORE?
I can relate to many elements of this movie, but the subject matter is largely outside of my realm of experience. This led to lots of those long talks I mentioned because it was important to draw out as much meaning and inspiration from Brett’s experiences and perspective as possible. That process made it clear that this music needed to be natural, somewhat raw and as human as possible. Joy was a word we used often, and we were always working on the balance of that with the heavier feelings that are present in the film.
In the end I had 14 other musicians contribute to this score because it felt right to involve a community of musicians to tell the musical side of this story. I feel so lucky to have met so many talented musicians over the years, and everyone involved contributed so much and was unphased by the strange circumstance of an entirely remote recording. I’ve listed these contributors and links to their music below because they are all so talented and each is worth a closer look.
- Vocals: Adam Sturgeon (aka status/non-status), Ansley Simpson, Daniel Monkman (aka Zoon), Misha Bower, Savonna Spracklin
- Strings:Andrew Jin-kyo Chung, Melody McKiver, Michael Peter Olsen [CFC alum], Mika Posen
- Piano: Michelle Osis [CFC alum]
- Drums:Robin Buckley
- Mix/Sound Design: Alex Gamble, Chris Reineck [CFC alum], Leon Taheny
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPOSITION OR MUSIC STYLE?
One step at a time. My grandfather used to do these beautiful soapstone carvings and I imagine it’s a bit like that. It’s always a big unformed slab at first, that I slowly chip and chisel at until it starts to resemble something. I think grandpa always knew it was a bear or a bird before he started carving, but I rarely know exactly what the song will be when it’s done. For me, it’s the gulf between intention and end result that is really fascinating about music-making. This means I often have to say “no, no, trust me, it’s probably a bear!” about first drafts with directors I’m working with, but I find everyone is happy with the end result when we’re all involved in carving.
WHAT WOULD YOU CONSIDER THE MOST CHALLENGING ASPECT OF COMPOSING MUSIC, SPECIFICALLY FOR FILM?
Speed. Usually, a composer is brought in after a lot of money and time has already been spent. You have to work as fast and efficiently as possible. You have to get to the music that carries no disclaimers or asterisks, as fast as you can. You also have to be willing to cut a thread at any point, even if you’re enamoured with something you’ve made. I’ve come to realize that nothing is immovable, and the thing you cling hardest to is often the thing nobody else is feeling. There’s a point in creation where you step inside of it, and creative visibility gets foggy. Your collaborators are in traps like this of their own, but probably have a more objective view of the music, so communicating is the only recourse to sort through any uncertainty. This part can be challenging, but it also leads to really big wins when you push through and create something together that everybody likes.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR YOU? CAN YOU GIVE US A SNEAK PEEK INTO YOUR UPCOMING PROJECTS?
I am a bit of a musical tourist and feel like I have a new music scheme brewing every couple of days. There are lots of dead ends and U-turns with that sort of mindset I think, so for that reason, I don’t really talk about future plans. Collaborative projects with [fellow CFC alum] Chris Reineck and Misha Bower have persevered for some time now, so I imagine those are the most viable projects to surface next. I have a couple of friends who want to make their films in the next few years too, so I’ll mention that here just to put it out into the universe. Hopefully, those dreams come true and I can help with the music.