Director Drake Doremus & Composer Dustin O’Halloran on the Personal Experience of Artistic Collaboration

After emotionally ravaging our hearts in 2011 with his strained relationship drama Like Crazy, director Drake Doremus returns with another stirring tale of longing and love’s woes. And with his latest feature Breathe In, we see the talented writer and filmmaker amalgamate themes and emotions he’s explored with his past work, but this time with a heightened and more sensory level of cinematic exploration.

Starring Felicity Jones, the film centers on Sophie,  a British exchange student who arrives in a small town in upstate New York and slowly begins to shift the dynamic of the her host family, played by Guy Pearce, Amy Ryan, and Mackenzie Davis. As the musician turned piano teacher, Pearce plays Keith, a creatively frustrated man who finds himself drawn to the vibrant curiosity and quiet sensitivity of Sophie, amidst his seemingly pleasant family life. As the two grow closer and their relationship becomes not simply one of lust, but of genuine connection, Doremus’ film explores the opportunities we blindly miss in life, and the desperate feeling of yearning for an ineffable sense of contentment, and a tangible satisfaction in the present.

And as his work is wont to be, Breathe In is rife with  spacial moments in which Doremus allows the film’s score to take the foreground and push the narrative further—but not in such that it feels manipulative or aggressive, but rather embeds itself deeply into the emotion of the story, solidifying a tone that that seeps into every pore and frame. But therein lies the always fascinating work of composer Dustin O’Halloran, whose music unhinges your tear ducts and transports you into a moment with fluidity and grace. And after having worked together on Like Crazy and various other projects, the two collaborated once again for Breathe In, a film in which the importance of music pulls focus in a way neither had experienced before.

A few weeks ago, I mediated a conversation between Doremus and O’Halloran over Skype, in which they discussed everything from their tear-fueled beginnings to the importance of having a creative sense of community.

*For full enjoyment, we’d suggest listening to THIS while reading.*

On their first experience collaborating together:

Dustin O’Halloran: We first started working together on Like Crazy. I was living in Berlin at the time and I was visiting and you were editing your film. I remember seeing this clip of your film, and I’ll never forget that moment, because I sat there, watching this piece that you had put to my music, and I don’t know, it was just crushingly beautiful. I had a breakdown.

Drake Doremus: Yeah, you went to the bathroom and cried for about ten minutes and came back out, and I was like, okay, do we have a deal, are we going to make a movie or what?

DOH: Since then, what I love about what we’ve done together is that you’re always reaching for an honesty that speaks about people’s own lives. Something that I didn’t really expect, was that I would connect with it in a way that would mirror my own life and the feeling that I’ve had. So this gives space to allow me to get into it and to write music that comes from a personal place, rather than working on a film and feeling like you’re just supporting a story—which I think is a different element in working with you.

DD: Yeah, it’s so much different when you personalize it and you’re doing it for that reason, as opposed to working for an end goal, rather than just wallowing in the creative experience and just experiencing it personally. I think that’s been the mandate of these movies, to try to approach it from that perspective and to try and really bring everything from a personal standpoint.

DOH: I think after that first initial film—we did it pretty quickly too. The score I did in about a month, and just weeks later we were at Sundance.

DD: It’s crazy, yeah, especially when you consider we were working together nine hours apart. So my mornings were your nights and vice versa. You’d send us files and we’d lay them in and work with it and then we’d Skype and we’d talk about it and you’d do another version. We were always just kind of missing each other, but we would stay up and figure it out. It’s kind of exciting to work so fast because you don’t have time to over think things, you just have time to just get it right and just make it work. And the same thing with Breathe In, which was a really great way to work, we start out with existing pieces of material of yours and we lay it in and it’s temp, but sometimes it works so well that we end up cutting the scene around that temp and that just stays in and the rest of the pieces of written from scratch. So it’s like a hybrid of existing material and new material that’s composed for the film. I think it’s a really interesting way to work—we’re not temping with anybody else, so you’re a part of the cut of the film from day one.

DOH: I think that’s really important for the tonality as well. You already understand what it is you want from a certain composer or from me, and it allows me to understand. Musical language is a strange thing to speak because it’s so subjective, and I think everyone has their own ideas of sad, beautiful, happy, all of these different emotions. I always felt like I had a lot of room to be myself in your films, which has been great.


On their early influences and  relationship to cinematic music:

DOH: Probably my biggest influence early on was watching a lot of European films in the ‘80s—the Kieślowski Three Colors trio, Betty Blue, Truffaut, etc. All of these films had strong, emotional stories but also the music was always a really big part. Film scores in general have always been a big influence as well, I feel like those moments when they really come together, it’s one of the most powerful forms of art. I listen to so many different kinds of music, but lately, I find working on my own music, that I’m enjoying the silence of just not listening to music.

DD: I feel like I had more soundtracks to movies than I did movies when I was younger. To me, the music for a film was such a tangible thing. When you watch a film, you don’t necessarily pay attention to the score, you more so pay attention to what the score is doing in the context of the film, and then when you listen to a score outside of it, and it has a totally different circumstance to it. So for me, growing up, I can think of like, for instance the Michael Nyman score for Gattaca—which is so seminal and so beautiful and so haunting and so bold. And the different iterations it’s gone through through the course of other movies.

DOH: The thing that I love about your films is that you always give space for the music. It’s always something that’s accounted for, and that’s something that’s so rare. Usually it’s underscore or it’s an afterthought and they’ve edited everything, but you always give these big breaths for music and you always know it’s going to be there and you always know it’s going to play a part. You know that it will create an arc in the story and that allows so much more room to put something in that’s meaningful.

DD: That’s important to me. I’m a huge fan of letting the movie wash over you and having the experience.  I’m not a big fan of movies that are manipulative, in the sense that they force you to think or feel something as opposed to letting it happen organically. That’s so important musically, to try to find a way to do it in as subtle a way as possible. Then to find the fine line of anti-manipulation essentially, where it’s like, you feel it and if other people feel it, that’s great, but you feel it first and if you don’t, it’s not going to happen.

DD: Yeah, I can’t listen to any of your music and not start crying—for a lot of different reasons. But even from the beginning, if you can feel something from it, and you’re not forcing yourself to do it and you feel it over and over again after you listen to it, there’s something engrained in that, and it’s a sense almost. I feel like with your music, the first time I heard it I was just so emotional, I really, really felt like a connection to it and wanted to be a part of it, and have it be a part of what I do. It’s been a huge part of my last two movies and it’s so important.

On the personal evolution from Like Crazy to Breathe In:

DOH: Like Crazy was basically a story that I lived, which is why I connected with it so much. I married a girl from Italy and moved there for her and I stayed in Europe. So I know that story very well and these long distance and living in foreign places. I think that it effects you in a way you don’t expect.

DD:  Like Crazy was a really personal experience for me and a story that I’d gone through as well, in some respects. With Breathe In, that was just a marriage of wanting to work with Felicity again and wanting to incorporate your more musically. I feel like we really took it even further and wanted to build a ballet or an opera, in a sense that had different movements and variations and act structures. So for me, that was the inspiration for the film, to integrate Felicity again and it’s a similar context but just take it and push it even further.

DOH: Breathe In definitely felt like a different. This was taking all the experiences that we’ve had and taking it more from the outside and creating something. Where as Like Crazy was more of a cathartic experience for us, the sense of longing that’s in Breathe In is something that has a feeling of all the options you have in your life and all of the missed opportunities you have in your life and what you haven’t taken. I think that most people have some sort of feeling like that, and it was a different film too because it was about music. So there was a whole musical element before we started the filming and that we got into. So to be a part of the process so early was a much different experience than Like Crazy, where I was just coming in at the end. This was something where we talked about the music that the characters would play and the tonality that would live in the film, as well as the score.


On how they fuel themselves creatively when not making music or films: 

DOH: I know you love golf, Drake.

DD: I do like to get out on the course for a few hours and forget about everything and just feel frustrated with all the bad shots you hit. For me, it’s just experiencing different piece of art—music, live concerts, movies, art—just taking in as much as possible and dissecting it and why it works and why it doesn’t work, just taking in as much as possible when not working. I just love watching other people create.

DOH: Definitely. Berlin has been a great city because it’s such a visual arts city, and I’ve been able to see some amazing exhibitions and galleries. For me, that’s been a really big influence, because if you’re working on music twelve hours a day, it’s very hard to go back home and listen to music. So I’ve found the moments when I’ve been wanting to listen to other music is getting shorter, but seeing visual art, for me right now, has been really stimulating. There’s so much music in it and so many things I get to take from that in a different way. I found a really good community.

DD: I have a few filmmaker friends that are great and inspiring, but LA can be such an insular town, everyone’s doing their own thing, it’s not a community like Berlin or New York. I wish it was more that way, where I feel like you’re almost more in a bubble when you’re creating.

DOH: Berlin has been really good for me in that way. Basically my studio situation is there’s six different  studios and they’re all composers. In our room is another composer Johann Johannsson, who is amazing, and Hildur Guðnadóttir and also in Berlin there’s some friends of mine, like Nihls Frahm and Peter Broderick—all really great composers and musicians . That’s actually been really inspiring, because we have moments when we come over to each other and we see what we’re doing and I think there’s a lot of exchange there. Before I was alway working in a bubble and I was in my own world, so it’s nice to just get out of your head sometimes. I’ve really appreciated having other people are to just bounce off ideas and we learn things from each other.

DD: That’s amazing. That’s the exact opposite of how I’m working. I’m basically sitting in a room with my editor when we’re not on set, but that’s inspiring that’s a great way to work.

DOH: When there’s somebody you really trust that’s your peer and that you can show something to and know you’re going to get a good, really honest opinion from, it helps you grow—especially if you have that mutual respect for each other’s work.

DD: That growth is key. That’s amazing.


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