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Interview: Composers Nick Baxter and Marius De Vries Discuss Bringing the Music to life in ‘CODA’

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As we near the fall awards season, with the fall festivals dominating the limelight, it’s worth remembering the films that started the year off. CODA was a notable film, making a name for itself at Sundance by winning the US Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film. And now, with the fall awards season underway, it could very well do well in the 2021 awards season (Read more about that here, as well as Joey’s review here).

With that in mind, Awards Radar had the opportunity to talk to the composing duo Nick Baxter and Marius De Vries about their work on the film. They have worked on various films throughout their careers, and so they discussed how they work together and the process of making the music for CODA. Altogether, this was an inspiring discussion. Enjoy the interview below.

Benjamin: How did you two get involved with CODA?

Marius: And closely following on that step was to quickly start working with Emilia, who plays the character Ruby, and see what we could do with her voice. At the start of this project, Emilia was not a proven singer, so we had to take her under our wing and get her in with some singing teachers to develop her vocal abilities. And that was a really interesting part of the process, because the journey that she went on as an actress, learning how to sing and learning how to sign, was something that mapped onto the performance she needed to give in the film. Ruby starts off rather timid and shy, unable to project her voice and lacking confidence, and that was a little bit like how Emilia was when we sat her down in a studio and started working through stuff. So I think she was able to use the experience of us encouraging her and sometimes bullying her into rapid improvement in her vocal abilities, and I think she was able to take that experience and apply it to her performance in the movie.

Benjamin: You guys mentioned you made CODA a collab, and you have worked together on various projects throughout your careers. How has the dynamic between you two changed from the first collaboration to CODA?

Nick: Working with Marius is such a thrill, and it’s so easy and you learn to appreciate being around good people and musical people and people that can make the process fun. We are making music and entertainment at the end of the day so you need to keep that in mind.

Marius, interjecting: You mean I don’t take it too seriously?

Nick, chuckling: we have to have fun, and I think we have developed a shorthand over the years. We know what each other’s strengths are, which is great. We can bounce stuff off of each other.

Marius: We’ve done a lot of different styles of movies together for sure, but also, I have sort of dragged Nick into the record production world a little bit too. We’ve done albums together with Chrissie Hynde and Rufus Wainwright during that period. We’ve covered a lot of territories and I think doing that and working often together in high-pressure situations has enabled us to rely on each other in ways we wouldn’t have previously. It’s almost like an Elite Navy Seal Unit, and we know that nobody is going to be left behind. So there’s a fundamental level of trust and we’ve seen so many different situations together. I’ve been thrilled seeing this relationship blossom and it was good to see it take its next form with our collaboration on CODA.

Benjamin: That’s inspiring to hear, its super cool hearing about that change and seeing the results in CODA. So speaking of the music in CODA, what was challenging about CODA from a production standpoint? How did its focus on both the Hearing and deaf experiences impact the songwriting for the film?

Marius: There were many logistical, practical, production and even budgetary challenges with the making of CODA, but you touch on an interesting point. And it’s one that Sian and I identified the very first time we sat down to have dinner and talk about this film. We knew this movie was always going to bring into focus the question which is always interesting in movie scoring but never really so nuanced as here. And it’s that relationship between silence, music and storytelling. And we knew we were going to have to deal with that, but we didn’t quite know-how. And it was only when we got to post-production when we saw the long ASL dialogue scenes cut together without music, that we realized they weren’t silent. There is so much detail from the rubbing of the clothes against the body, and the slapping of the hands and the smacking of the lips and the *rubs hands together*. There’s like an emotional percussive score that is born out of the foley, the production sound, that was captured on film. And that really made us question in the first half of the movie if we needed a score, as we got used to that world and learning to trust the percussion inherent to ASL. You could support the emotion of the scene just by allowing the really real production soundtrack to be the mix. And music became rather unwelcome in those early scenes. And it gave us the ability to bleed the narrative music into the film slowly, as Ruby gains confidence in her abilities as a singer and in herself as she transitions into adulthood. It centers the music with Ruby in her entire arc of the film, with her exploration of a first relationship and as she manages the dreadful tug of war with her responsibilities to her family and her desires to follow what she’s convinced her dream is. And so because we made the first half of the film so still and empty, we had a very powerful musical strategy in our back pocket to let the score blossom as the main character is. But it was a challenge to discover how to do that. And it’s always difficult to throw out the music you wrote for the film. I was fully on the side of that decision fairly quickly, but there was a lot of music that was abandoned because of that strategy. Nick: and I would say to add onto that, from my side of things, the biggest challenge with CODA was that it had to be raw, organic and authentic to this world. At the end of the day, it’s a lot easier to make a big sugary musical where everything is clean and bright and polished. And it’s much harder to make a musical that is gritty and feels embedded in that world, and that was something that Sian laid down as a directive from Day one. So that’s how we approached putting the music together, and it meant recording a lot of live stuff on set. And that led to spending a lot more time in post, mining all that material. But it was also the biggest opportunity with the film, and what made it so much fun to work on. It’s a lot of work, but so worth it at the end, and especially with a film like this.

Benjamin: How did you create the live choir performances for the film? How did you create this soundscape as music producers?

Nick: To get the sound right, you have to start thinking about it before you even shoot. You have to know what you’re doing in each scene, how you’re going to film it, and make sure you’re actors are prepared. You need to be collaborating with the sound team and have a good game plan going into production before you can do anything else. And on the same token, you need to be flexible and willing to adapt. Because if you miss that opportunity to get the sound on set, it’s very, very difficult to recreate it later. Whatever small sound bytes you can get go a long way to help the post-production process. And I think just having that game plan from day one and making sure the cast was able and willing, to do a live performance of the songs. Not every actor is able to give a vocal performance in movies. But Emilia put the work in to give this performance, as did the choir. And Sian was willing to put the work in on set to make it happen. That’s where the music starts for us because once you have those sounds you can work with it in post. And while there is still work to be done in post-production, it’s a lot easier when you have the sounds you need from the set available to you, so that’s the biggest step.

Benjamin: CODA has a folk sound to the score and to the choir performances; which can be very different from the music that Ruby listens to in the film. Since you compiled the music for the film first, were there any other ideas of what the score would sound like that were more aligned with Ruby’s musical preferences?

Nick: Marius could probably talk to this more than me, but I think having a little bit of the musical language established helped dictate the score. We had a lot of conceptual conversations early on about what the score would be, whether that would be electronic or ringing, or ambient sounds. But I think that our decision to start bringing over the acoustic sounds from the live performances was very helpful. In adding instruments rooted in folk, we were able to give continuity to the songs, tieing together Ruby’s desires to the choir through the score in a musical way. And once we went there, it became a natural progression from one point to the next, which was very helpful.

Marius: Yeah, it’s not so much that as we turned our attention to the score that it was influenced by the songs melodically or production-wise. But in terms of instrumentation, and when you think about the soundscape, the gentle, organic, acoustic guitar/stroke piano accompaniment was really born out of the enforced nakedness of the way they performed in the school choir, or in rehearsal in Ruby’s bedroom, or even at the school concert. That choice of having radically simple arrangement language bled into the score so that even as we allowed for more instruments, the tone was kept consistent throughout. And that led to the final song, which we saw as a definitive part of the story. It’s not just a coda; a postscript, but rather a fundamental part of the story. And we wanted that final song to be built out of the musical texture of the movie while having to round out the entire movie. Just as Both sides now asks the question of what happens to your view of life when you look at it from a different perspective, we were able to use Beyond the Shore to examine how Ruby would grow going forward.

Benjamin: Beyond the Shore really sits with you, and is reflective of that journey away from home towards the next step of life. It feels super personal, and I was wondering if you put any of your own journeys into that song through its lyrics and composition.

Marius: First of all we had to put ourselves into it on behalf of Ruby, to write it from her point of view. And it was amazingly helpful having Sian as a contributing lyricist, in having that extra directorial perspective on what the subject might be and how Ruby might be looking at things from the future. But in terms of the composition, for me, it was burying ourselves in the aesthetic of the movie, though Nick can speak more towards how we found our motivation for it.

Nick: Yeah, I would agree that it really helped to have Sian paint a picture for us to start, as it’s always helpful to have a clear direction. And she gave us very clear direction; she painted a clear image of what she was looking for from the song. So we were able to use that direction as a jumping-off point. And we tried to keep the feel and instrumentation of the song consistent with the rest of the language from the film. And at the end of the day, it kinda helped that we wrote the song during Covid, when everyone was isolated, as it gave us more time to think about the lyrics. But it also limited us from going overboard with the production and kept it tonally consistent with the rest of the film. It’s simple, rooted in an acoustic guitar playing an arpeggiated part and I think that works with the lyrics and helps the song.

Benjamin: That’s amazing. Thank you both so much for bringing the score of CODA to life, it’s one of my favourite films of the year.

Nick and Marius, in unison: Thank you so much, Benjamin, it has been nice talking to you.

Coda is now available to stream on Apple TV+.

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