Last week, Tom interviewed Gary Meister, the composer behind the soundtrack for Pulling John, a film that opened at SXSW over the weekend. This week, he talks to one of the film’s directors, Vassiliki Khonsari, about the vision behind the soundtrack and the collaborative process.

What kind of music did you want for the film? In other words: What did you tell Gary you wanted?

Vassiliki KhonsariVassiliki Khonsari: I wanted the music to contribute to the story line. I did not want the music to just be there to push the images along. The music in Pulling John is there to heighten the existing narrative and mood, while avoiding expectations. Because it’s an arm-wrestling movie, people may immediately associate arm-wrestling as a bar-room activity, with oil-guzzling truck drivers as the participants, which lends itself to a very rock ‘n’ roll/hard rock music style. However, the personal journeys we were conveying and the reality of the characters in Pulling John, are very far from just hard rock, so using rock music would make the movie one-dimensional. Instead, I wanted to focus on playing with the audience’s perceptions of what they were seeing — arm-wrestling, set against music that would recall a more noble sound recognition. Whether it is a superman, epic sound for John Brzenks’ intro piece, or a more warrior-samurai sound for John when he is at the table competing in Japan, or even as basic as Alexey’s very Russian polka, we wanted the music to recall another story, to compliment the existing one.

I wanted to work with Gary to develop musical themes that would be sort of consistent for each character. So each time you saw one of the three main characters, you could recall the subtext that is being built for each of these people. John: epic and noble, sort of the superman/spaghetti western/samurai. Travis: young and urban. Alexey: Russian, nationalistic, reflective, a little bit moody.

It took a while for us to find the right sound. We had to work very closely with Gary to figure out what would work. Navid, the producer, Gary and I sat together for many long hours discussing characters, moods and sound possibilities. We thought it was essential for Gary to understand the characters and the story fully before he embarked on the third element of storytelling for Pulling John, after picture and sound. Gary was indeed very responsive and invested in pursuing the arrangements through this process.

What role does the music serve in the film?

Khonsari: The music is there to add another dimension to the sound and picture. The music allows you to break free from what you would normally see, like someone arm-wrestling, and allows you to feel that this is an epic moment in this person’s life — or very emotional, or very tense, or just plain very Russian. The music is there to complement and contribute to what you are seeing. A very important element of this is not to overuse the music: it is not there to be the glue, or the crutch for bad story development with disjointed scenes. I get disappointed when I watch documentaries or narrative features and realize that the only reason that I am finding what I am watching palatable or remotely engaging is because of the music… Then after about half an hour, I get exhausted by the movie and I realize that my senses are now tuning out because they have been overly stimulated by the repetitive overuse of music. I think this is what happens when you use music to hold a story together. So, in fear of this, we made several passes of the movie, after we had composed stuff, and made final decisions on where the music is necessary and is contributing.

What were the unique challenges to arranging the music for Pulling John?

Khonsari: One of the challenges we faced in arranging the music with Gary was in setting the right mood while also creating the right amount of energy. It was a temptation to set all of the arm-wrestling competitions against some really slow and moving music, which just felt beautiful… to see the contrast between this very carnal, physical activity juxtaposed against very refined and emotional music. It just added such a great subtext. But the slow music drained energy from the scene, so we had to be very conscious about pulling back and finding a balance. We couldn’t get lost in the mood, but had to stick close to the narrative we were building. We had to remember that each scene had to fit into the big picture of the movie and needed to bring the movie a certain amount of energy and tension.

Another challenge we faced was using music that didn’t distract from the dialogue, so Gary, Navid and I found ourselves continuously pulling instruments out, and simplifying the music, so it wouldn’t compete with the onscreen/diagetic audio.

And I would say another big challenge was in creating music that would work on a thematic level for each of the characters, but then also work in the competition scenes (using same basic elements) and then finally as a whole, to have the music all work together to gel, for the entire movie.

Read Tom’s interview with Gary Meister and hear one of the pieces from the film’s soundtrack in last week’s Doc Soup.

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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