Earlier this summer, which yielded big hits such as “Monsters Inc.”, “Man Of Steel”, “World War Z”, “The Heat”, and “Despicable Me 2” and bombs such as “R.I.P.D.” and “The Lone Ranger, “The Purge”, a low budgeted and taut action-thriller starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey,was a surprising success and in its’ opening weekend of release was number one at the box office and ultimately making more than ten times its’ budget and alot more successful than many highly taughted summer tent pole films.
When I was given the opportunity to do this interview, I really didn’t know who Nathan Whitehead was until I started to do more and more research on him. With a great musical background and a list of the best in Hollywood which includes stalwart Academy Award winner Hans Zimmer and the ever busy, Steve Jablonsky, I really was impressed by Nathan and his attributes as a composer. A very talented composer, who no doubt will be up there with his friend and mentor Jablonsky in the near future, Nathan is a very talented composer that I’m really glad to have met.
A friendly and fun guy, who’s open about his work and very proud I must say about his workethic with the best in the business, Nathan sure has a bright future as one the rising stars in films the more his skills and talent become even more potent. In this interview, we’ll discuss the film and why he was inspired the way he wrote for this film as well as his mentors and other fun stuff. So enjoy, as I have exploring the musical mind of a future star.
Hello Nathan, how are you and thank you very much for granting me the time to conduct this interview with you today. It really is an honor to do so.
NW: I’m doing well! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat.
Please tell the readers about what made you become interested in music and what led you to become a composer.
NW: Music has always been very exciting to me as far back as I can remember. My parents weren’t musicians but they love music and it was always playing around the house, mostly rock and country from the 60s and 70s as well as a few actual film scores. We used to have an upright piano in our living room and I remember sitting underneath the piano bench as a kid and thinking how amazing it would be to actually write your own songs! Music and especially writing your own music has always felt magical or like a superpower. As a kid, I don’t think I would have talked about music and storytelling but I think that was so much of the initial appeal. The power music has to transport you somewhere is so exciting no matter how old you are. I think the natural storytelling power of music as well as a curiosity for experimenting with a lot of different sounds and genres sort of pointed me in the direction of composing. I think technology played a big role as well. I’ve always loved experimenting with electronics and gadgets and computers and the combination of music and technology is really exciting to me. Plus, modern film composing relies pretty heavily on technology, in most cases, and being really into the technology side of music has turned out to be extremely useful. Around eight or nine years old I started experimenting on the family piano. I never took lessons (and it shows unfortunately) but I loved picking out melodies and trying to learn songs by ear. In high school, I played guitar in a punk band and started putting together a basic project studio. I discovered that I really loved working in the studio, even in my simple, cobbled-together studio at that time. In college, I started recording local bands and also creating music and sound effects for some short films. Eventually it became apparent to me that writing music in my studio for film (or games or TV) combined all these things that I love, things that consumed my thoughts and imagination anyway, so I should at least explore doing that for a living! After college I moved from Tennessee to L.A. and started working for a sound design company by day and writing music for any project I could get my hands on at night and on weekends. Slowly I started doing programming and arrangements for other composers around town and that eventually led to scoring films on my own. I have been really fortunate to have some great mentors along the way, particularly Steve Jablonsky. He gave me some great opportunities and we still collaborate on projects today. I think there’s a huge part of film scoring that you have to learn on the job and it’s crucial to find those opportunities to learn.
Your most recent film was the film was the surprise hit thriller “The Purge” Starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey which was Directed by Writer James DeMonaco, who co-wrote the hit action thrillers “The Negotiator” and “Assault On Precinct 13”. Please tell the readers how you got involved with the film.
NW: I had worked with Steve Jablonsky on several projects, including some with Platinum Dunes, which was one of the production companies involved with The Purge. Through that relationship I was able to send some of my music over for them to check out. A week or so later I got a phone call! I went to watch the film on a Friday night and jumped right into working on sounds and ideas that weekend. It was a very quick turnaround, roughly 2.5 weeks to write around 70 minutes of music. I was excited to be on board but also terrified by the schedule. I tried not to think about that and just start experimenting with ideas right away.
Tell us about the approach you took in writing the score for the film?
NW: I think one fascinating component of The Purge is that while it’s a thriller / horror film, it also holds up a mirror and asks us to take a closer look at ourselves. What will do in the name of making our society better? What is our country’s relationship with violence? If terrible things happen outside of our comfortable, gated communities, do we care? I think these questions are uncomfortable and unsettling and I thought the score should reflect that unsettled feeling as well. There’s a real sense of dread as the night unfolds for the Sandins and I think the score needed to support that and also occasionally show the humanity of this family. One moment they’re a fairly normal, loving family and the next people are getting shot. Is this what America is about? Somehow wrapping up that unease and tension and introspection was what I felt the score needed to do. I love recording and manipulating sounds and textural, sound design elements ended up playing a large role in the score. Whenever I tried more classical horror orchestration it just didn’t seem to feel like the world that we were in. I kept gravitating toward a gritty, textural palette. It’s fascinating to me to think about the emotional component of sounds in addition to the notes that are playing and that informed a lot of the score. What does this drone or this rhythm evoke? The sort of dark, gritty, ambient world we ended up with felt right in this near-future setting and also seemed to have the uneasiness I was looking for.
All told, how much music did you record for the film?
NW: Right at 70 minutes I believe.
Will there be an album released of this score?
NW:Yes! It is available as a digital-only release on iTunes.
How did you put the album together?
NW: The album largely follows the flow of the film. It doesn’t include every single cue but it does include all the main story points and basically follows the film’s structure. It sort of spirals into mayhem just like the film does.
You’ve also worked as an arranger and music programmer for composers such as James Dooley, Steve Jablonsky and Oscar Winner Hans Zimmer. What is like to work with composers of their caliber?
NW: It’s inspiring and I think it’s the best education in scoring that you could ever get. I’m very grateful for these opportunities and I’m fortunate to have had some great mentors. It was a great way to get a handle on all the technical and logistical challenges of the job so you can just focus on the music. I think it’s difficult to really learn how all the moving parts work until you are in the trenches on a project. As I started to do more writing and arranging it has been amazing to listen to each other’s music and just talk about the story we’re trying to tell. Is the score working? What can be better? Being able to collaborate with these composers that I’ve respected and been a fan of for years is amazing and I’m very thankful for that. I’m a big believer in the mentor / apprentice model.
Do you feel that working as an arranger/programmer gives you an advantage in the development of your music in future projects?
NW: Absolutely. Arranging and programming have taught me so many skills that I use everyday. Some of them are musical things, I think learning music is a process that never ends and I love that about it, but also really practical things like making your programming sound as good as possible and helpful ways to deal with picture changes etc.- a lot of things that in the end allow me to focus more on the music and the story. I think working as an arranger or programmer helps you hone your craft and allows you to apply your instincts and ideas in a more efficient way.
You’ve also worked in the video game realm as well on such titles like “Gears Of War 3”, “Epic Mickey”, “Gears of War: Judgment”, “Bioshock 2” and “Monsters Vs. Aliens”. Is your working style any different than what you do for a film?
NW: Not really. Games and films aren’t structured in the same way but it still always comes down to the story that we are trying to tell and what role does the music play in that storytelling.
Is it a lot difficult to work on a video game as opposed to that of a regular full length movie?
NW: I don’t think one is more difficult than the other, but they are different. On a film I’m always writing to picture whereas in a game I might be writing to picture or I might be writing game play music that needs to be interactive. It’s a different process but I enjoy them both.
What was the hardest film you’ve had to score to date and why?
NW:Good question, in many ways I would say “The Purge” simply because I was anxious as to whether I could pull it off and because the schedule was so short. It was also one of the most satisfying films I’ve worked on. James and the whole team were very collaborative and it was a very creative atmosphere. It was challenging but also really fun to be a part of.
When you’re composing, do you feel that you have the advantage of knowing what you want to accomplish because of your knowledge and use of electronics and also having with the composers you’re worked with to date?
NW: Hmm, not really. I think the various skills I’ve acquired so far are really useful but in terms of knowing what I want to accomplish on a specific level I feel like that’s a process I have to go through on every project and it’s scary every time! Certain things get easier but I think the core process of writing a score and finding ideas that work, that doesn’t seem to get any easier no matter how much experience I get. In a way that is scary and in a way I love how it keeps things fresh and challenging. If I’m fortunate to have a good idea one day it doesn’t mean a good idea will come any more easily the next.
What do you think about films today in general?
NW: I love movies and that doesn’t really change with the fads and seasons in filmmaking very much. In general I can’t help but be excited about movies. Today, I feel like there are a lot of really interesting lower budget films being made. I suppose it makes sense that there can be more creative freedom with less money at stake. I’m probably a little more optimistic than some people when it comes to movies today. I think that storytelling in its various forms is such a rich part of our existence and that continues excite me whether I’m working on blockbusters or student films.
What is your favorite film score that you haven’t written?
NW: That is a tough question. It changes from day to day for me. It’s impossible to narrow it down to just one but I’ll say Carter Burwell’s score to Fargo.
What is your favorite film that you have scored to date?
NW: I don’t think I have a single favorite. One thing I love about my job is the variety in projects. I’ve been fortunate to work in a variety of genres so far and that is really fun for me. The Purge was a wonderful experience. I loved working with James DeMonaco and the whole team. It was such a creative and respectful environment and I think that let good ideas rise to the surface and made it a joy to work on. It was also really cool to contribute some music to Transformers 3. I played with Transformers toys as a kid and watched the cartoon. I’ve always loved that world and it was really fun to be part of that so many years later and on such an epic scale. Plus, I was a fan of Steve Jablonsky before we worked together and so it was really special to get to be part of his team on TF3.
Do you have a dream project you would love to do?
NW: I would love to work with Spike Jonze or the Coen brothers. On the other end of the spectrum I think it would be fun to score a large-scale sci-fi film like, Robopocalypse.
Please tell the readers about your future upcoming projects that you may have.
NW: There are a couple projects that I’m excited about but I can’t discuss just yet. One that I can mention is a dark comedy I scored earlier this year called, Friended to Death. It’s very different territory from the The Purge, but it was a lot of fun to score and I’m excited for it to come out.
Thanks so much Nathan for granting me the time for this interview! I really appreciate it and I’m looking forward to your work in the future.
NW: You’re welcome! It was my pleasure!
Very special thanks to Nathan for being so gracious with his time in conducting this interview with me and I hope to do so again in the future. A major shoutout to you! and to Chandler Poling of White Bear P.R. who always greatful for the opportunity to interview these guys. Thanks to you both and for the next time!
Please visit Nathan’s website http://nathanwhitehead.com/ for his latest and upcoming projects along with a full bio and here’s a sample:
“Nathan Whitehead is a composer for film, television, and video games. Nathan has collaborated with many of Hollywood’s top composers and has contributed music and arrangements to Desperate Housewives, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Gears of War: Judgment among others. Recently he completed scoring the feature films, Friended to Death and The Purge.”
The Purge Soundtrack is Available On Back Lot Music Downloads Exclusively on iTunes as Nathan mentioned.