The Sound of Antiviral: An Interview with E.C. Woodley

In case you are unaware, David Cronenberg‘s son is a filmmaker and has a new film out this year called Antiviral. Along with it is a fantastic new score by E.C. Woodley, who has worked with Brandon Cronenberg before and has a particular connection that many may not know. Moving between rich atmospherics and pounding percussion, Woodley cradles a line of sound that is quite unique, even in today’s age where the divide between sound design and score has been complicated. Recently, I talked with Woodley about his process and he provided a wealth of information about his life, his work, and the particulars that tick.

Garrett Tiedemann: To get started, can you tell me a little about your history and what brought you to film music?

E.C. Woodley: I became interested in composing and arranging as a teenager. A few pieces of music in hand, I visited Louis Applebaum who had collaborated with Fernand Leger and John LaTouche (a lyricist whose work I was fond of) on a short film with the great modern American title “The Girl with the Prefabricated Heart.” Applebaum had been the first Canadian nominated for a music score Academy Award. He sent me to study with the composer Samuel Dolin in Toronto and later with David Noon in New York. So I had a ‘serious’ music background—in and around a period of living in London doing more of an apprenticeship with the film composer and rock and roll arranger Michael Kamen. I was Michael’s first assistant and learned quite a lot from him. Beyond that, being introduced to many forms of music early on turned out to be good preparation for scoring film. My dad, Ray Woodley, was a folk singer, Harold Sumberg, my great uncle, played violin in the Toronto Symphony and conducted the CBC Radio Orchestra, and as a kid I was often taken to work by my grandmother, a rehearsal pianist for the National Ballet. That was a form of babysitting, and only much later it occurred to me that I was following her practice, accompanying the drama, let’s say.

GT: You first worked with Brandon Cronenberg on Broken Tulips. How did you get connected with him and how did working on Antiviral come about?

ECW: Well, it’s a lovely connection ­because we’re cousins. I’ve also worked with my brother, another writer/director, Aaron Woodley. I find working with family to be especially fulfilling, first of all because I understand where they are coming from, in a very real sense. As a film composer this is the condition that one is always working towards—knowing the material, a synergy within the process. The deadlines often loom brutally near and so if I begin from a position of basic, resonant understanding I find I’m ahead of the game. The stakes also are immediately high because in this kind of circumstance what I do with the score registers on very personal level.

That said, working on Antiviral came about pretty much the same as any film gig. Often a director wants to work with you and the producers must be convinced of this idea. Certainly the director doesn’t always win these skirmishes. In this case, I wrote a test cue, a sort of audition. That’s something I normally don’t do, but I made an exception and managed to put something useful together on the fly.

GT: You have worked as sound designer and editor in addition to composer. How would you say this has impacted your approach to composing? Did it have a significant effect on scoring Antiviral?

ECW: For a while I was possessed of the notion that the most holistic way of creating the aural aspects of a film is to have one person working to some degree as composer, sound designer, and sound effects editor. Of course, the semi-industrial model of commercial feature film-making soon disabused me of that notion: it’s really not practical to take on that much work and do it well. But I suppose it’s a natural inclination for me. I don’t really make huge distinctions between types of audio phenomena or different styles of music. The first ‘music’ is heard in utero: the valve-and-thump beat of the heart, the main artery’s ambient pedal tone. I have an LP that was used to put babies to sleep. The tracks have been recorded at a few ‘locations’ in the womb and they sound not unlike a factory. I’ve always been interested in the soundscape and I’ve composed pieces that used only urban field recordings.

Occasionally in film I do find myself briefly taking on the role of ersatz sound designer or sound editor and I think once or twice on Antiviral the rerecording engineer in charge of sound effects and design went looking for the fader assigned to a particular imagined sound effect that turned out to be a track at the music end of the mixing board. I once used a Second World War air raid siren as an integral part of a score—in the 1920’s George Antheil used a siren in his Ballet Mécanique so it’s certainly not without precedent as a element in music—but usually I stick to using musical instruments even if, unusually, they ‘read’ as supporting the sound of a simple physical action on screen. The linking of the score to the physical experience of the characters is often important for me. At one point in the Antiviral score during a dream sequence, before a needle injection plays out, I set a flourish of strings that reads very much as an effect of a specific visual: a silk sleeve being pulled up the arm of the character played by Sara Gadon. Somehow it worked, but I’m not likely [to] resort to an actual sound effect. It treads too much on the sound editor’s work, which has it’s own precise tack.

GT: Following in that regard, how closely did you work with the sound team on the film? What was that process like for your development of the score?

ECW: On Antiviral there were a few scenes I composed with Dave Roses’s sound so that there was a good chance of integrating the effects and music. We discussed one department or the other covering certain scenes because it was clear from our discussions with Brandon that either one or [an]other approach was going to be taken. Most often there was either a fairly natural use of sound effects without music or music on its own. I think it was a very gracious and harmonious collaboration between everyone involved in the post-production. My guess is that there are portions of the score that could be taken for sound design. In the end it doesn’t much concern me what is called what—it’s all in the service of telling the story and whatever works best in a particular scene or overall approach one hopes will predominate. I think, too, that if the people working on the film share a sensibility and sensitiveness to the material at hand, you sometimes don’t need to even talk through everything and you can still be in sync.

GT: At what stage in the film’s process were you brought aboard and able to start working? Did that have any significant effect on your work?

ECW: I began by reading the script. This is usually a slightly quixotic act for a film composer because what you really respond to is a multitude of decisions made by many people—in other words the film rather than the singularity of the script. Later, I came in during the edit and went through the film with Brandon and the editor, Matt Hannam. That was hugely important because it began in earnest a conversation which helps me sort out what they are doing with the material and why. I asked a lot of questions about how they were constructing the narrative or positioning the protagonist, why are they making this decision and not that one? It’s quite a privilege to be in on that part of the making of the film because what they are doing together is very live, very in progress and I can really become educated about what kind of film they are making. I feel the main role of a film composer is not to make nice music necessarily but to add a layer of counterpoint to the many layers already there: script, photography choices, production design, and acting choices, among others, and so hanging around the editing room from time to time is a luxury that helps me to situate my work well in the context of what has been done already.

GT: What were some of the first sounds you found for the score? What helped guide you to the end result?

ECW: I suppose I like to think that the film as it comes to me in the fine cut always guides the choices of instrumentation. Antiviral rejected strings, for the most part, like a body rejects a transplant. Traditional configurations seemed wrong; instead, it wanted electronica and processed sounds. I followed the lead of one of the cues in Matt Hannam’s temp score—the music they edit with before I write anything. This cue wasn’t quite right for the film but it was simple solo piano and piano seemed to be the only melodic voice that the film could tolerate and so I extended the reach of that editing room instrument choice.

During the test screenings toward the end of the editing period I found myself responding negatively to the hermetically sealed synthesizer sound of some of the temp score. It was the sort of stuff that is quite common now. As a temp score it was very useful but with the beautifully physical performance of Caleb Landry Jones front and center in the story I felt that there could be more ‘air’ in the score, something more organic. That’s one of the great things about writing for film. A sound has to be invented if it doesn’t already exist in a form that can be used.

GT: Did Cronenberg know what he wanted the sound of the film to be or was that found throughout the process of making it?

ECW: Often the working period in film is very compressed and intense and it’s difficult to sort out afterwards who contributed what idea exactly. That’s one of the pleasures of working in film, the collectiveness of the results. What I do remember is that I had wanted to work with the synth programmer Michael White. Several years before we had done some tests for a score I was working on—running some old music of mine through his bank of analogue modular processors—but the results just weren’t right for that project. I found those tests, played them for Brandon, and he thought they had promise. In the end, Michael’s programming was a huge part of the score.

Brandon is very precise and insightful about what he wants. He understands what doesn’t work or when things can be better and he has great ideas about how to get to that point. He has played in bands and has a good ear. It was a pleasure that his input was so often on the mark and I think, despite the intensely collective, even grand or perhaps chaotically authorless medium that filmmaking can be, when an auteur in the European sense comes along, the influence on every aspect of the film is immense.

GT: The score walks a fine line between rich instrument organics and heavily processed mechanical sounds. Did you come to this throughout the recording process or was much of it processed in post? How did you find balance between the ways of sound so that the mechanical did not unhinge the organics and vice-versa?

ECW: Yes, I also think it’s very true that there is a fine balance. For a time, to push me toward more involved layering of color and frequency, I looked at the glazes of Patrick Nordstrom, a brilliant potter schooled in the French tradition who worked in Denmark around 1910 to 1930. I was attracted to the results of his control of pigment subjected to chance combustion, the environmental conditions. They seemed related, the kiln and the spaces of digital processing and editing. In both, layers can be fused, obscured or sound through each other. And in a strange way, Michael White’s modular processors (which look a bit like an old fashioned telephone operator’s switchboard—patch chords linking many small boxes) also behave unpredictably, exerting various pressures on a simple sine tone, for example.

The brilliance of digital editing is that you can balance plainsong that you recorded in a church with brass or percussion that has been closely recorded or with the synth modulations. I think of processing as an adjunct to composing. Finding the balance is not unlike orchestrating. For the Antiviral score, the wide acoustic spectrum the contemporary movie theatre offers is also important.

The great (and very pre-digital) film score that combines electronics and acoustics is Varese’s Déserts. He keeps the two elements relatively discrete: a relational, existential geography. Combining a grossly physical aspect and a more evanescent quality is sometimes a dialectics I play with and I think that comes through in Antiviral.

GT: Ambient soundscaping and percussion are your keys throughout this score and present a general unease without too heavily informing the audience on how to think. Was that something you set out to do or did it manifest from the process?

ECW: The unawareness of Syd March, Brandon’s protagonist, to his own motivations and psychological condition, and of course Brandon’s score direction, influenced that aspect of the music. In general, I’m very aware that score influences the performances of the actors. Poor acting gives away intention, it’s always one beat ahead of itself and the worse thing is for a score to impose something like that state on a performance.

GT: What is your general approach when working on a film?

ECW: On one level, I think of it as though I were making a suit. Tailoring the score to the shape of the film, to what the film needs uniquely. It depends to some degree on the budget but I often like to use fewer musicians rather than more, players who have knowledge of extended techniques. I try to set up the process so that there is an element of discovery and transformation rather than making by rote. Making art, in other words. Pushing the performance level to a high degree is satisfying to everyone. Normally in film there isn’t time to allow the musicians to rehearse, fine-tune an interpretation, or to play things of any difficulty, and so I’ve tried to develop a method that allows this to a certain degree.

GT: Is there something in particular you seek when deciding to take on a project?

ECW: No, mostly the conditions overall to do a good job.

GT: Once a film is done do you let it go or do you find yourself returning to see how your perspective on the work has shifted with time?

ECW: I usually let it go. Whatever you might have learned will inform what you do later, but over time one forgets the specifics. But it has happened that the television is turned on and I think, “Oh, that’s interesting,” before realizing I’m listening to one of my own scores. It was very enjoyable working on the Antiviral score release with (the engineer) Lou Solakofksi at Tattersall Sound in Toronto because it was an opportunity to return to the music and hear it in a new way.

GT:  Is there anything you are working on now or have planned in the future that you can talk about?

ECW: There are a few projects are being discussed but nothing certain at the moment.

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One Comment on “The Sound of Antiviral: An Interview with E.C. Woodley”

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