The SXSW festival kicks off on Friday, March 13, with a slate of interesting docs. I figured this would be a good occasion to start a regular feature on Doc Soup where I highlight what the various behind-the-camera people “do” on a documentary. It ain’t always about the director, as we all know.

This week, I talk with SXSW film Pulling John music composer, Gary Meister — about his work on the film. Next week, come back to read my interview with one of the film’s two directors, Vassiliki Khonsari — but for now, I’ll begin by giving Khonsari props: Pulling John is a thrilling film about arm-wrestling. It’s got a slew of interesting characters, a well-told yarn, a climactic finish, and some of the best animation I’ve ever, ever seen in a doc. Plus; there’s some really good music. And I’m not just saying that because Meister is a friend of mine. Truth be told, I always wondered what the heck he really did when he said, “I’m working on a film.” Now I know.

Pulling John

Still from Pulling John by Vassiliki Khonsari and Sevan Matossian


How long have you been composing music for docs and how’d you get into it?
Gary Meister: I’ve been composing music for docs for about 10 years. I had a rock band called You and What Army that put out a record on an indie label, and when we broke up, I started working with filmmakers, doing scores for their films. The first film I scored was my wife’s short (The Silent Love of the Fish), and from there went on to do more films and TV projects. I scored a TV series about prison for Jonathan Stack’s Gabriel Films (he did the great doc The Farm: Angola U.S.A.), and another prison show for them. That led to work on other docs about topics such as AIDS (Moxie Firecracker’s Hidden Crisis), 9/11 (Witnessing), professional bowling (A League Of Ordinary Gentlemen), and now, professional arm wrestling.

Are you writing all the music and performing it and/or are you in charge of licensing the music from other outlets? In other words: What is it that a doc composer does?

Meister: When I’m working on a doc, my job is to support the director and producers by creating music that will help their story achieve maximum emotional impact. Music in a doc needs to support the characters’ development, the story arc, the pacing of the overall film… ultimately you are working with moments and scenes, and my job is to make those scenes feel right.

With Pulling John, we created over-the-top, heart-pounding music to bring out the drama and brutal intensity of the arm wrestling scenes. We balanced that with more introspective musical themes that were tailored to each of the three main characters. For John Brzenk’s theme, I used electric bass as the main component, as Bessie (the director, AKA Vassiliki Khonsari) wanted something for him that had a quiet, brooding, almost samurai-like intensity. For Travis Bagent, I used hip-hop beats combined with different elements for different scenes (Dr. Dre-esque string parts, atmospheric guitars, etc.) For Alexy Voevoda, the Russian arm wrestler, I used accordion, violins and Russian folk music tonalities.

A big part of my job is learning to speak the same “language” as the director, and working to get us both on the same page, musically-speaking. Generally a director will come to a project with an idea of what they would like the music to be. But music can be a tricky thing to talk about, and the way one person hears “the blues” isn’t necessarily the way another person hears it. So it’s always like a kind of dance, or circling around what winds up being the final product. I start with a scene and write notes about what the director and I have agreed upon as the direction. Then I go to my studio and create the music. Once I present my first demo of the music, I get notes and revise it and hone it until it is working for everybody, and it hits the right notes in the right places.

For Pulling John, I wrote and performed all of the music myself, though that is not the case for every project. There were a few source cues that they licensed from other performers, and that was handled by the producers.

How would you say that composing for a documentary is different from a feature film?

Meister: I actually don’t think it’s that different from working on a narrative film. It’s really about the scenes and the moments, and making them work, striving to unify the overall film, working with themes — making music that sounds great and that helps move the story along, that brings out the right emotions in the right places. With a narrative film, I think you have a license to be a little more grand, whereas with a doc, you are obviously working with verité material, so there’s probably a tendency to be a little more gritty or real about things. But at the end of the day, it’s about whatever piece of music works well with a given scene.
I loved Jeff Danna‘s score for Brett Morgen‘s series Nimrod Nation. It was very stylized and lyrical, and you noticed it more than many other documentary scores, but that juxtaposition worked well with that material. In another composer’s hands, doing something like that might have been a total failure. Danna was able to make a “narrative” style score work for that verit&eacute’ series. The producers could have opted for a more traditional, more “safe” score, but to me, it was one of the elements that helped make that series stand out.

What were the unique challenges to writing music for Pulling John?
Meister: With Pulling John, the challenges lay in creating music that was balls-to-the-wall heavy duty, that would throw you back into your seat when you heard it, but that didn’t sound clichéd, or corny; music that was fun, and had the right amount of drama and tension. For the main competition scenes, I had to create a sound that was the sonic equivalent of the arms of these monster athletes. I worked with the sounds of huge pounding drums, and kept layering on more and more things till you had a huge wall of sound that felt titanic: guitars, bass, piano, strings, horns, Giorgio Moroder pulsating moogs, orchestral chimes, percussion — I wanted it to sound like the army marching in. Phil Spector meets Wagner at Metallica’s house. It was hard to work with all of those elements, and to keep it from sounding like a big mess.

The other challenge was to balance these kinds of cues with the quieter, more nuanced music, and to make it all sound like a unified score. For some of the scenes, there wasn’t a clear sense of what kind of music was required, so there was some trial and error there till we got it right.

What’s your favorite bit of music you created for the film?
Meister: I like a little cue by the name of “Zloty 2,” which is a scene where our hero John Brzenk is pulling a guy named Taras. This is the most over-the-top of all the over-the-top cues for the film. Brezenk’s theme, played on bass, accompanied by big drums, loud Dick Dale guitars, blasting horns, gongs, etc. — sounds best when played back at 11!

“Zloty 2” from the Pulling John soundtrack, courtesy of Gary Meister.

If you’re going to be in Austin for SXSW, the movie’s world premiere is on Saturday, March 14. And for more information about Gary’s music, check out his website, Naturalistic.

Update: Tom also spoke with one of the directors of Pulling John about the process of creating the soundtrack for the film. Read his interview with Vassiliki Khonsari.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen