I had the opportunity to speak with California-based composer Brandon Roberts. Roberts scored Unbroken: Path To Redemption, the sequel to the 2014 biopic Unbroken. We spoke about the challenges and rewards of scoring the film below.
Thank you for chatting with me Brandon, how are you today?
Tell me more about you and your background.
My name is Brandon Roberts, and I’m the composer for Unbroken: Path to Redemption, and I live in the Carmel/Monterrey area. Music was a pretty big part of that community, so I got started in music at a very young age as a jazz guitarist. At a certain point, that segued into jazz composition. I went into USC to follow music, and at a certain point, that segued into composition, and then at a certain point it segued from jazz to film composition. From that point on, it hasn’t deviated at all.
That’s awesome! I’d love to hear more about your process in creating the score for Unbroken: Path To Redemption. I know you worked with some World War II artifacts, and I’m interested in hearing about how that creative process started and evolved.
After talking to the director, I wanted to create some sort of musical identity for Louis Zamperini and his struggles with PTSD and alcoholism, which is a big part of this film. I was curious about the resonant quality of brass artillery shells, so I acquired some actual World War II shells on eBay. Then I experimented with throwing them, hitting them, sampling them, and then electronically manipulating them to create this whole sound palette for this darker aspect of the film. Louis Zamperini was tortured, he was held as a POW by a Japanese guard called the Bird, and so all the elements I came up with were used a lot during the flashbacks of him being tortured. It all kind of comes to a head when he hits rock bottom. Using the shells was a great way to explore a sound palette that was unique to the film and to that character.
I love that you incorporated that piece into the score, because I saw the first movie, and it was so powerful. His story was so—it was so inspiring, but I think that looking at those pieces of his life after he returned home, and his struggles, and how he brought the war back home with him, I think that’s an interesting way to explore it.
It’s always a challenge to try to explore internal conflict. When you have something physical going on onscreen, sometimes that—really speaking for myself—that’s easier to score than internal conflict, and so much of the movie is internal conflict. That’s why I spent so much time on that aspect of it, and there was a lot of discussion with the filmmakers to try and get that tone right.
I never really thought about it that way, but it is kind of that question of how to show the war that’s going on within yourself—the internal conflict, like you said. I know that you composed additional music for A Quiet Place. I haven’t seen it, and I know there is onscreen action, but it seems to fit into a similar place. There seems to be a suspenseful, internal struggle there as well. Is scoring internal struggle something you’ve had to do in your other projects?
On A Quiet Place, it was a lesson in silence more than anything else. It was actually a great—almost a masterclass in where not to use music. Ironically, to answer your question, sometimes not using music is just as effective to create tension and internal strife as using music. In the case of A Quiet Place, a lot of places that would have traditionally been scored were stripped bare, and it created its own sense of tension that worked especially well for that film. In other films, like in the case of Unbroken, there’s other moments of tension where they’re scored more traditionally.
I’m thinking about the differences between these movies and the different mindsets you have to be in while working on them. I’d imagine that scoring Unbroken: Path To Redemption was a pretty emotional process, getting into that headspace. Were you working on any other projects at the time you were working on Unbroken: Path To Redemption?
No, I tend to try and do one project at once and throw myself 100% into it. Coincidentally, that was right after I finished additional music for Marco Beltrami on A Quiet Place. So that was about a 180 degree turn. So, you do have to kind of flip a switch, I’ve found. You have to say, “okay, I am now in this world.” I haven’t really found any difficulty doing that, but that’s partially because I like to compartmentalize—I like to focus on only one project at a time. Some people are able to juggle multiple project simultaneously, but my brain just turns into scrambled eggs.
Oh yeah, mine too!
I think, to answer your question, you do actually get emotionally affected when you do that, by whatever project you’re on. I dare say it’s an obsession to do justice to whatever that project is musically. It’s kind of the go all-in approach. In the case of Unbroken: Path To Redemption, what Zamperini faced is so inspirational. Any daily struggle of trying to come up with musical ideas pales so much in comparison to what he endured that it was kind of a contained source of inspiration to push through. It was a humbling score to work on, if that makes sense.
Totally! That makes a lot of sense. I was wondering… even just listening to the book and reading about him, it puts a lot of things in perspective in terms of hardships and struggle. It’s like, if he can get through this, I can through this. It’s also emotionally taxing too, so I’d imagine creating the music and the atmosphere that surrounded his life would take a lot out of someone.
Yeah. It was, but it was the good kind of draining. It’s the kind where you go all the way inside and figure out—there was a meeting I had with Matt, Lisa, and Harold at one point, and they said that this movie can handle emotion. There are a lot of films that shy away from the music being too emotional, and in this case, I got the go-ahead from all three of them to really explore the emotional aspects of it. That’s such a great jumping off point, because it’s very inspiring to feel like… of course there are emotional bounds to the music, you don’t want to go too sappy, but it’s great that they weren’t trying to tap down the emotion. They actually wanted to encourage it. In my opinion, I agree with them; this movie can handle the emotion. The story is that epic and that inspiring.
It sounds like it, I’m really excited to see it. I didn’t realize there was a sequel coming out until recently, but I thought it made sense, because it’s a really incredible story.
How crazy is it that it takes two movies to tell a guy’s life story? That’s not very common!
Yeah! No kidding!
It’s a testament to this guy’s life. It’s mind boggling.
It really is, it’s unbelievable. So on a more general note, who are some other composers or musicians that you’re inspired by?
Well, from back in the day, I’m still a sucker for John Williams. His score on The Empire Strikes Back would be my desert island score. So I think on some level, most of my colleagues and I are always comparing ourselves to him. Not in a good way, but in a get depressed and hide in a corner way. But there’s guys now, and girls, doing stuff that’s so impressive. They’re mixing electronics in a way that is so tasteful and inspiring. The people I’ve taken a lot from are Bjork, first of all, but then also Mica Levi. She scored Under The Skin, and she also scored Jackie. I love her music. The way she approaches scenes is so unique. I’ve never seen anyone approach a dramatic scene that way, yet it works. I just started watching Dark, on Netflix, and Ned Frost, the guy who scored that is genius. And then… I’m lucky, I love my boss’s music. I work for Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders a lot, and I think they’re amazing.
I need to listen to more of their scores. I think the most recent movie I watched that where I found the score to be really interesting was Room. I watched it on Netflix the other day.
I haven’t seen it and I’ve been wanting to see it for over two years! How is it?
It’s really good! You know, I was a little worried because I… I don’t watch super-heavy stuff, but I thought it was really well done. The score did something for me where it wasn’t just there, it helped the story in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of wordless sections of the film and it needs the music to tell the story. That one was really cool. I’m going to check out these other scores as well, I’ve gotten into a big kick of listening to film scores. I feel like I’m always drowning in new releases and can’t keep up sometimes. There’s so much I want to listen to, and I don’t have the hours in the day that I wish I did.
Isn’t that true! Really early on, my dad was talking about books, and he said to read all good books first, because you’ll never get to all the books. We’re kind of in the golden age of content right now. There’s so much content that it’s almost overwhelming. I find sometimes that I don’t know where to start. Someone told me their rule was the rule of three: if three different people coincidentally tell them about a TV show, or a movie, or an album to check out, then they’re in. That’s their litmus test for when they’re actually going to dive into something. If I keep hearing about something from three different people in a month, then there’s gotta be something to this.
I like that rule a lot. That’s something I’m going to start using as well. Right now I’m telling everybody to watch Castle Rock. So maybe I’ll be your number three on that one.
You’re actually number two on it! I have to get one more and then I’m in. I have to finish Dark first! I’m addicted right now. My German is actually getting better because of it.
I’ve been wanting to watch that show as well! But to watch it, I have to actually sit down and not be doing ten other things at the same time, because I have to be reading the subtitles. Which is good, I’m trying to watch more TV like that! Or consume content in that way, where I’m actually focused on it.
Yeah, it seems like that’s the bane of our current existence, finding the time to focus on just one thing, and give it the attention it deserves. It’s hard to find that time.
It is! How do you find a balance between working on a film score and getting day-to-day work done? What helps you to be productive?
That’s a very good question. In short, I haven’t. I find it incredibly difficult, and it’s like you said, I have to put boundaries. For example, I have a one and a half year old son. I have to find time to have dinner, and put him down, and have story time; everything else stops and it’s family time. The good thing about project-based employment is that you do have these times where you have a couple of weeks between a project, or sometimes a month. Anything after a month, you start to worry that you’ll never find work again (laughs). But anything under a month is really nice. I try to balance moments; ones where I have a gig, and then to be completely fair—my wife is very understanding, and my friends always tell me they’ll see me when I come up for air. On a physical note too, I think it’s very important to stay healthy. I try to get some exercise and eat right, all that stuff. On some level, especially as we get older, it helps when we’re asking so much of our bodies to get through what can be very taxing emotionally and physically. It’s definitely a struggle, but it’s always worth it. As much as I may feel I lose in hours or fatigue, I think I gain in excitement about a project I’m on. I would say it evens out; if not, I end up ahead, and I’m very fortunate to have a wife that’s understanding.
It sounds like you have a good balance. Something I’ve noticed is that I can try and make a schedule, or stick to a routine, but there’s always going to be things that pop up during the day. I think that having a certain set of things you do on a daily basis while still remaining flexible is so key, especially as a creative.
I think you hit it on the head. It’s a schedule, with an asterisk. I have to be able to adapt when something unexpected comes up. Which it does, every day. Every day. It’s the issue of starting to fine-tune the art of reprioritization.
Yeah, which is absolutely an art. So what are you working on now? Do you have anything currently, or are you enjoying some time off?
There was zero down time! I didn’t get that week I thought I was going to get. Right after I finished Unbroken: Path To Redemption, Marco Beltrami and I co-scored this movie called Underwater, starring Kristen Stewart. It’s a really cool film that takes place on the ocean floor. The director, William Eubank, is this really young director, and he was a diver too. It was great to kind of explore sounds and how sound in this score will work on the sea floor, because that’s a whole different world of sound. That was great, and I just started a pilot for a show called Motherland. That’s another project where sound is huge, and how sound and music will interact. It’s kind of interesting jumping from these very interesting projects sound-wise.
That’s a fascinating mix of projects, because like you said, you’re going all over the map in terms of what sound can do and how its utilized. I think that the way you approach sounds and experiment with them is so interesting. I love the way that you take these elements of the movie, or the TV show, and really work them into the music in a tangible way.
It’s subconsciously immersive, if that makes sense. You as the listener sometimes don’t know what the source material was. Subconsciously, you create this continuity in the musical world. I think that one of the best things that’s happened in film composing was it being opened up around the time of the social network, where all of a sudden, it felt like film scores themselves got redefined. It’s a neat time, because filmmakers and producers are encouraging this type of exploration, and not just for novelty’s sake. They’re actually able to identify the unique elements being incorporated and what they bring to the film.
You said it really well. There’s a brand new world of possibilities that I wouldn’t have imagined, and it’s really cool to see how that keeps evolving and growing.
Thank you so much for talking with me Brandon, I really enjoyed chatting with you!
Unbroken: Path To Redemption is in theaters now. You can listen to the score on Spotify.