Interview with 'Manchester by the Sea' Composer Lesley Barber

By Margaret DeRosia ● December 02, 2016 21:00

Film composer and CFC Mentor for the Slaight Music Residency Lesley Barber writes music marked by intelligence and emotional depth. Barber has been busy making headlines after composing the original score for Manchester by the Sea and generating early buzz for an Oscar nomination.

Named Best Film of the Year by the National Board of Review, the film and her score will no doubt garner more accolades this awards season. In the film, Barber employs intricately harmonized vocal performances and subtle, atmospheric orchestral work to support incredible performances by Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler and young discovery Lucas Hedges.

Not only is Barber a 2016 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences initiate, but she was also invited to join its Executive Music Branch. And last week, she was the first female composer to be featured in  The Hollywood Reporter’s annual Oscar roundtable of film composers.

From orchestral to atmospheric, alternative to children’s music, Appalachian to electronic, Barber has an innate ability to bring the essential to light and avoid clichés. Her career in film composition focuses on auteur-driven projects, from her first feature, Patricia Rozema’s When Night Is Falling, to Lonergan’s earlier, Oscar-winning You Can Count On Me; from Jerry Rothwell’s award-winning documentary How to Change the World, to Mary Harron’s The Moth Diaries; from Mira Nair's Golden Globe-winning Hysterical Blindness, to the children’s classic Little Bear with Maurice Sendak.

Despite having another score due the day of our interview, Barber generously took time to discuss her work, career and inspiration.

Lesley Barber Headshot

You’ve received an impressive array of commissions and generated a broad body of work. How would you describe the unfolding of your career? Was its trajectory something you actively sought and shaped, or did different opportunities arise that then influenced you to experiment and move in new directions?

This is such an interesting question, and one that I really gave some thought to. I started writing for film when I was in my twenties and living in Toronto, where I was finishing up a post-graduate degree in composition. I was composing scores for theatre companies in the city, and beginning to realize I was intrigued and excited by the collaborative process, by storytelling.

During this time, filmmakers started asking me if I was interested in scoring their films. So this was the doorway. When that started to happen, I started to think about filmmakers I would really like to work with, so I pulled together collections of my music – what now we’d call “demo reels” – and sent them to certain international film directors whose work I loved and admired. I would ask my agent how to get in touch with them, but not spend too much time on it. That’s how I ended up getting my first scores, the bigger ones.

At the time, I didn’t have expectations after sending things out. I didn’t expect immediate results or really, any results. The start of my career was more about me sending my work out to people whose work intrigued me. In some cases, the opportunity to work with these people came years later. Maybe someone was writing their script and listening to my music, and would ask if I was interested in reading their script or looking at their film.

It’s impressive that you could send this material out without putting expectations on it, on what that effort might result in.

Yes, but I’ve always been a real cinephile. I was going to a lot of films, a lot of independent films, and film festivals, as well as meeting filmmakers. So I was really doing something that I already had a passion for and enjoyed. Once I started writing for film I knew I had found my niche. It’s how I wanted to write and was the work I wanted to do.

Congratulations on being an early favourite for an Academy Award Nomination for Original Score, for Manchester by the Sea! What drew you to work on this film, and what was your experience of collaborating with Lonergan?

Kenny and I collaborated on his first film, You Can Count on Me, in 2000. Over the years, we’ve worked on other projects and then he came back to me to reunite for this film.

We have an interesting and positive collaboration. With both films, the process started with the script. The experience usually starts with the script. He will send me a script, and I’ll start writing on an intuitive level. I’ll put together a suite of pieces, ideas, sounds and themes, which I send to Kenny to listen and respond to, maybe try against some scenes, picture. Then at some point I’ll have a look at the rough cut of his film or scenes and we start the dialogue. We also get together in the editing room and go through scenes to start building the score somewhat intuitively, by looking at what’s working, and not working, in scenes. He’s an amazing director to collaborate with, and we’ve built a strong artistic language.

Manchester by the Sea traffics in painful loss — the death of a brother, the end of marriage, estrangement from one's home and community. Yet it also explores how its main character must keep living in the wake of loss and adapt to new and daunting responsibilities, such as suddenly becoming the guardian of a teenage son. How do you see your composition navigating this story? How does it accentuate the film’s emotional pull?

This score operates on many different emotional planes. Some of the design is deliberate, but much of the process of creating it was intuitive. After reading the script, I had some clear ideas of things I wanted to try. Some of it was a more instrumental approach, so I put together pieces of music and recorded them in my studio before sending them to Kenny. I had the idea of using acappella voices, drawing on early seventeenth-century vocal music and Puritan hymnody hymns. So I developed some of these and sent them along. These were working extremely well with picture, so I developed them further.

I wrote a number of pieces while he was editing so that he could actually edit to the music, and we would go back and forth. In the final stages of the process we looked at specific areas that I could heighten by bringing in more orchestration and a bigger orchestral sound. So I wrote those additional pieces and recorded and produced them. As a result, there were a number of approaches involved in the process and ultimately, the score.

Kenneth Lonergan on music: "Counterpoint is usually the way I like to use it ... It always feels right to have the music help you step back a little and look at the whole environment, not just the characters' experience."

With both Manchester By The Sea and You Can Count On Me, on which we’ve collaborated, the music is not simply narrative. It’s not leading or conventional scoring that underscores and mirrors the action. We’re not thinking about leading the story or the emotions. Instead, the music ties together the various threads of the film and its emotional pull. It blends in and unifies with some of the classical pieces that Kenny always tends to use in his films. Hopefully it gathers momentum and meaning in the story, bringing voices into the film that we want to hear more of, but which aren’t in the dialogue.

You can definitely hear these elements and this approach in his earlier film, You Can Count on Me, too.

Yes. I tend to write music for Kenny’s films that are very much standalone pieces rather than conventional narrative score. They’re almost like found pieces in themselves, but they also work together as unifying themes. I loved what he said in an interview about how it works, here in the scenes where "Plymouth Chorale" plays (during Lee's drive to Manchester and Patrick walks to his father's funeral):

“It’s hard to talk about music because of what it does. It skips your brain and goes straight to your emotions. Lesley composed a lot of music and when we dropped that song in it had an almost angelic quality. A simple melody with complicated harmonies — it’s the aural equivalent of including the sky in a shot. You see a street and you tilt up to reveal this big sky over it. Music does that. It changes the perspective and adds colour.”

We’re proud to have you as a mentor in our Slaight Music Residency here at the CFC. What drew you to work in this program and what do you think of the talent you’ve worked with here?

I have always felt connected to the work of CFC and followed the work that comes out of it. Funnily enough, one of my very first scores was  Semi Chellas’ short film, What’s His Face, done while she was a resident in the Cineplex Entertainment Film Program Writers’ Lab. So that was my introduction to the work being done here.

Since I feel connected to the work of the CFC, I wanted to give back to it and lend my support. Also, I very much like working with developing up-and-coming talent, new work, inspired new visions of what’s possible. The talent is great, and Canadian work is really great. Each year the depth of talent and incredible fresh new voices of the projects in development at CFC have blown me away.

There’s an incredible collaborative energy in the place. CFC fosters a sense of broader community, both community inside the CFC and also outside of it. It’s incredible to be a part of it, and it’s great for the country. Working with the CFC has been a real highlight for me.

You were recently invited to join the Academy. What does this experience mean to you?

I was invited to join the Academy and then appointed to its Executive Music Branch. I’m humbled and honoured, both as a Canadian and as a woman, to have this recognition and opportunity. On a practical, real-life level, it’s been interesting to work, meet and talk with people there, including legendary composers I’ve admired the work of for many years, people like Hans Zimmer and Carter Burwell, and composers I’ve just met like Nicholas Britell and Justin Hurwitz, as well as other women film composers – it’s a great community. Really responsive, open and positive and I’m thrilled to be involved.

In recent interviews, you mentioned that you’re a fan of the new Solange album, and that you listened to Shaft for inspiration while working on Manchester by the Sea. Who else do you listen to — or in the case of movies, watch and listen to — for your own inspiration?

I listen to a wide range of music, which I know sounds sort of banal, but I really do! When I listen to a new album or new track, I’ll listen to it a thousand times. I do like Solange’s new album. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of beautifully produced R&B women’s music, like Lana Del Rey and FKA Twigs, Sza, Glass Animals, The Internet. I listen to a lot of hip-hop, vintage hip-hop and soundtracks. Soundtracks are fascinating to me, especially highly curated ones like Iñárritu’s Birdman or Tarantino’s score approach.

There’s been some unusual and interesting scores lately, ones with non-traditional voices: Johann Johannsson’s use of orchestral colour; Under the Skin, by Mica Levi, who just did Jackie; There Will Be Blood by Johnny Greenwood; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, going back further.

With films, I try to take in as many new films and indie films as I can. I often go back to Terrence Malick films and the way they use score. Score is allowed to be such a present and atmospheric character in those films. David Lynch as well, and Paul Thomas Anderson, Denis Villeneuve, Olivier Assayas, Ava DuVernay. Xavier Dolan amazes me and I can’t wait to see his next films.

I like to see how a specifically deliberate, designed score, especially one that comes from a fresh outside kind of approach, can unconventionally impact storytelling. That’s something I look for when I’m watching films.

This coming January, we’ll hear your work in the Alison Anders-directed remake of Beaches, starring Idina Menzel and Nia Long. What are you currently working on and excited about pursuing next?

Beaches was a lot of fun. There are some projects I can’t speak about quite yet, television projects and feature films. I’m really excited about the mix of media that my work will appear in for 2017.

The other project I’m working on right now is Attiya Khan and Laurence Jackman’s documentary, A Better Man, in which I use analog synthesizers and other 80’s era electronics. It’s executive produced by Sarah Polley and a really fascinating documentary – absolutely spellbinding and riveting. It’s going to be an exciting film to see when it’s released next year.

It’s especially gratifying that each score I’ve been working on has been so different, both in the way I’ve approached them and in the styles and instrumentation employed. Another one I’m working on is more coolly electronic, with this Icelandic chill in the strings.

We started out by discussing how you shaped your career. What piece of advice would you give emerging film composers for starting and shaping their own careers?

Pursue work that interests you and that you have a passion for. Open yourself up to films. Figure out which filmmakers and kinds of filmmaking inspire the storyteller in you. I would say that even if it seems untouchable or out of reach, gravitate to those who help you develop your voice, both your own filmmaking voice and composing voice. With film, it’s all about story, characters and storytelling.

Open yourself up to films. Figure out which filmmakers and kinds of filmmaking inspire the storyteller in you. 

Manchester by the Sea is in theatres across Canada and the United States now. And stay tuned for Beaches and A Better Man in 2017.