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Reflections on Visibility: An interview with Amanda Brown by Yantra de Vilder

Story Published Friday 5 March 2021
Amanda’s screen music credits include feature films Babyteeth, Kairos, Kings of Mykonos (with Nick West) Son of a Lion and Look Both Ways. She is also a Writer Director on the APRA Board.

Composer Yantra de Vilder and composer, songwriter and APRA Board Writer Director Amanda Brown sat down at the kitchen table over a cup of tea, in the company of her cat, and discussed all things related to the art of composing -­‐ from a woman’s perspective.

Yantra: What is the gender equity story from your point of view?

Amanda: We all know that the numbers are still pretty terrible, but conversely things are changing and opening up. There are more women nominated for awards. With the AACTAS, Bryony Marks won 2 last year for drama series and documentary. But significantly no women have won best feature score since Elizabeth Drake for Japanese Story, so in the 40-­‐year history of those awards only 2 women have ever taken home awards in that category. My math is terrible but that must be somewhere in the region of 4-­‐5% female composers being recognized for feature scores. Not great numbers.

I think there are a few factors at play. Features have traditionally been higher budget. There is a direct correlation between money and the employment of women, we know that from higher numbers of women working on lower budget documentaries and short films. My own thoughts are that historically, with women composers across the board, whether its screen music or classical, there has not been acknowledgement or inclusion in the canon or academy. If you asked anybody to name 5 classical composers they’d rattle off Bach, Beethoven, Mozart – guaranteed there wouldn’t be one woman. And it would be the same for screen composers – there isn’t a history of visibility ingrained in the collective consciousness.

Also, as far as budgets are concerned filmmaking is a risk adverse industry. Producers want to hire someone with a track record and it can be a vicious cycle. Unless producers are prepared to go out on a limb and take a risk and hire a woman, (and it’s so wrong that it’s even seen as a risk) women don’t get a foot in the door.

How to break that cycle?

A few years ago there were a lot of really strong women heading up funding departments in the film industry and we saw quotas and initiatives – Babyteeth was one of the films that came out of that, where you had to have a woman key creative – producer, director, writer – or even central character. They didn’t mandate composer, which was disappointing. But it was a great start and it made a huge difference because it meant that someone like Shannon Murphy could make her debut feature film. Shannon takes risks, she hires left field heads of department – and has eschewed established composers in many respects. A notable thing about her style of filmmaking is she doesn’t want score to underpin emotion or manipulate. She explores new ideas and that has been rewarded. Babyteeth has been critically well-­‐received internationally, it’s a real stand out in terms of a new young female voice.

Those sorts of initiatives have meant that the landscape is slowly changing. Personally, I am for quotas and proactive inclusion if it means that things can be changed a bit faster than they have been. Ideally we get to a point where we have a diverse industry that reflects our population.

Historically it’s clearly working as the quota system you have cited is indicative of things moving forward. We’ve just got to go with what’s happening and learn from strategies that are working.

There are academics like Deb Verhoeven doing statistical analysis and trying to work out the way forward in the film industry for women -­‐ not just composers but across the crafts and disciplines. That is going to be really useful towards understanding and evolving the ecosystem. You have to be proactive or things don’t change.

Our government funding bodies encourage projects that demonstrate diversity. In Hollywood with #OscarsSoWhite it became obvious something had to change. This year a British composer contacted me and asked to nominate me as a jury member for the Academy Awards, as a member of the music department. I don’t know if I've been accepted yet – there is a whole process to go through but clearly the optics were so bad they saw the need for reform. Historically you can only be on one of those committees if you’ve been nominated for an Oscar. I’d love to observe that process and see what’s involved. I knew it was a token appointment or gesture, but I don’t care that it’s token – at least things are moving.

At least you’ve got a seat at the table

That’s right, if that’s what it takes then that’s what it takes. Visibility is a huge factor – if women don’t see other women being employed it’s never going to occur to them as a viable career. We only have to look at the even worse situation with women in music production and engineering. Mentoring is another important factor. I’ve mentored 4 women now and I’m improving each time. The last composer I mentored was part of the Northern Rivers Screenworks Bootcamp program – Bryony Marks also mentored someone through that program the year before.

There is an art to mentoring. It’s like teaching – just because you can play doesn’t mean that you can teach. I think we need to be aware of that when we are setting up mentoring programs.

Exactly. I mentored the talented Belinda Gehlert and I felt like a fraud because she is so accomplished and such a great composer in her own right. She’s the leader of the Zephyr Quartet in South Australia. She writes incredible music of her own – concert hall music – and she wanted to learn about screen music, so I was able to teach her about the technical and aesthetic aspects of music for film, but as far as composing goes there really wasn’t much I could impart!

But there are also those other levels of how to work with a director.

Yes, I was able to help with that, she also had a project of her own, and I guided her with working on the sound mix and with the director. I have employed Belinda as a co-­‐composer on a documentary, and I’m waiting for an opportunity to employ Anna (the last woman I mentored) because she is very good at pop style writing. She is based in Muswellbrook and we worked over Skype during Covid.

Through a director friend we arranged a gig on a student animation where she was learning on the job, which is the best way rather than an academic exercise.

Your Process and The Relationship with Director?

Every project is different, it depends if you have worked with a director before. For example, the documentary Quilty: Painting The Shadows with Catherine Hunter is one of several films I’ve done with her.

I was working on The Secrets She Keeps at that time and I had to get a co-­‐composer on board to help with the Quilty workload. Damien Lane and I had about a month to deliver the music. The visual style showed paint palleted on thickly, and we wanted to reflect that roughness and rawness with the music. We didn’t want it to be a midi score. Even though it was a small budget we wanted to get into the studio with live musicians and create options and experiment with different sounds, microphones, and basically finish composing in the edit.

The musicians had charts and click tracks but within that there was room for improvising, it had to have spontaneity to reflect Ben’s style. You could only take this approach with a director you have a relationship of trust with because in essence Catherine didn’t hear any of the music until we had actually recorded it.

Last year I worked on movie Sunburnt Christmas for Stan. I hadn’t worked with the director Christiaan Van Vuuren before, and it had to happen fast – an entire feature film with 54 minutes of music in 2 weeks – again co composed with Damien Lane. Christian gave us a reference playlist of Australian 80s pop songs. We didn’t have an incredibly detailed spotting session as the director didn’t have time to talk to us! It was challenging, we had to be very efficient and autonomous.

Collaboration and Co-­‐composing?

I love to collaborate, and sometimes I need help because of time pressure. Not everybody is a good collaborator. A lot of respect and listening to the other person is required. Aesthetically you have to be on the same wavelength. You have to have fun working together. All competitiveness must be removed because you’re a team. It doesn’t matter who wrote what theme or cue – the audience will never know – and you also have to be able to give and take criticism. Not everybody can do that – Damien is a great collaborator in that way.

We started developing thematic ideas for Sunburnt Christmas because Christiaan had told us it was going to be a character driven project. We started with virtually no brief and a super rough cut that was going to change. Nothing was spotted, but we knew we had to get started because we had such a small amount of time, so we started experimenting with the instrumental palette and different ideas.

Using midi?

It was a mixture of midi and acoustic instruments because we knew it was going to be a contemporary band-­‐based score with a lot of guitar. We both play guitar, but the rest was midi and samples.

One of the cues I wrote was for a scene where the little girl character Daisy finds Santa in a shed on the family farm. The way it’s shot by DOP Dylan River is beautiful -­‐ gorgeous saturated colour and long tracking shots. But it was shot almost like a horror movie, very chiaroscuro contrast and light -­‐ no dialogue leading up to the discovery of the stranger in the shed, so I wrote it like a horror film with a bit of suspense and creepiness. When we sent it to the director he said “No! That’s totally not what the scene is about. It’s about magic and discovery. It’s not spooky at all -­‐ it’s the innocence of childhood!” But they used that theme in the edit for the bad guy character, and funnily enough it worked, a happy accident. What I’m trying to say about working with directors you don’t have a history with, is it’s a matter of giving them a variety of things, trying to narrow down and ascertain what they want for their film. Initially we had the 80s synth pop band brief, but we knew that to cover the film emotionally we were going to have to have some acoustic, warmer sounding instruments, like strings. The film is about relationships, so we tried acoustic guitar and that idea became the redemption theme of the bad Santa character.

Essentially you’re just trying to work out what people want while retaining unity to the score and being able to have your own creative input. It’s a fine balance.

You as a performer?

I’m a reluctant performer, but strangely I’ve always been invited to perform. Film music is great for me because my favourite part of being in a band was always recording and being in the studio. I don’t want to be on stage – I’m embarrassed! At the same time I recognise if you don’t put yourself and your music out there you can miss a lot.

I performed online with Jodi Phillis during Covid. I’ve been collaborating with Jodi and I love her and what she does, but I really didn’t want to do it! I felt like I should know about streaming concerts and be able to represent other musicians in my role on the APRA board. I found it a very disembodied experience – just a room with a camera. It’s nerve-­‐wracking because there’s this unseen, unquantifiable audience out there. You feel pressure, but you also don’t feel the support and encouragement from an audience in the room. But other musicians I know have absolutely thrived in that environment -­‐ in fact have made a better living from streamed concerts than they would normally. So, it really depends on the person.

Sounds like performing is not really for you.

Maybe I’m being a Grinch because sometimes I love live shows. We did the 16 Lovers Lane Go Betweens shows at festivals a couple of years ago in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. It was an idea suggested by Katie Noonan and I really enjoyed it – less for the performing and more for the collaborating with the other musicians and singers.

So, you love Collaboration?

Music is collaborative and so is film making. It’s the rare person that can do everything themselves. Someone like Prince who can play every instrument and write is a freaky genius. But he still needs his band on stage and his band still brought stuff that he couldn’t to the music. Interestingly he always had women in his bands, which was unusual in the 80s. It was really great.

I’m working on my own a lot these days and I like that in some respects, but I get my joy from bringing the musicians in or sitting in the room with someone else mixing. Just to have another perspective and opinion is really rewarding. We’re seeing a lot of collaboration in screen music now and some terrifically inventive music as a result.

Yantra de Vilder is composer and sound artist specialising in film, TV, dance and theatre. Her compositions have been broadcast on national television networks as well as internationally in London, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Burma.

What makes an award-­‐winning soundtrack?

I have to preface this with saying that awards at the end of the day are so subjective, with so many external factors influencing the outcome – look at the Oscars or the AACTAS. You get a really great auteur style film that everybody loves, and it will win every award, sweep the board across a whole range of categories.

In the case of Babyteeth that was a factor. It’s very rare that a great score wins an award if the film is no good. If the film is good, it’s a snowball effect where everybody’s contribution makes it better. But in an ideal world what makes a great score (not necessarily an award-­‐winning score) is when you see a film that is a satisfying, stimulating and rewarding artistic experience. If you took the music away it would be a lesser work of art. Film music is the heart and soul of a film.

Why Do you think Brazen Hussies did so well?

Like Babyteeth it is a very good film, and they are both very different. Brazen Hussies is a history of the women’s movement from 1965 to 75. When I came on board that job, I replaced another composer and there wasn’t much time to do it. I felt it was important to represent the era because there was so much archival footage. I tried to capture the energy and diversity of popular music at that time. I listened to a lot of bands like Cream, Steppenwolf, folky stuff like Donovan and Dylan.

Interesting that all the musicians you’ve mentioned are male…

Mmmmm yes……interesting….

A new thing I discovered on that project was different open tunings, learnt from Laura Marling. During Covid lockdown she posted guitar tutorials teaching people how to play her songs, and many of her songs (like Joni Mitchell) are in open tuning. Joni Mitchell’s songs are like that because she had polio as a child and couldn’t play bar chords.

I wanted Brazen Hussies to be a guitar score and open tuning worked well. I’m still using those Laura Marling tunings because they are a whole new world of harmony. Female influences came in, but the prog rock influence was there pretty strongly and that was predominantly a male landscape with bands like The Doors.

It takes you off on a whole new composition when that sound is the foundation musical bed.

Yes definitely. With Babyteeth nearly every cue is diegetic because the characters in the film are musicians, a mother and daughter who play violin and piano. The pieces they practice together had to be prewritten. There are other cues that take place in a warehouse party that are also diegetic, normally you would license something for a scene like that, but everything about the music for Babyteeth is unconventional. For example, with the warehouse scene dance music is usually a 4 on the floor beat but Shannon really resisted that. The cue is still contemporary but has almost no kick drum. It’s got a stuttery percussive bed that matches the tempo of the lighting.

The only traditional underscore is a six-­‐and-­‐a-­‐half-­‐minute cue at the end. It’s the one emotional piece of music -­‐ but couldn’t be sentimentalised. Shannon said “I just want the audience to sit back and let the music wash over them” so what I ended up doing was almost ambient. It wasn’t all minor chords and melancholy; it was quite ethereal.

Sometimes I step away from what’s happening on the screen for a while to get perspective. I try to capture the feeling of what we want the music to convey. And then I come back and fine tune it to picture.

Do you put your vocals in?

In another cue, but in this case, it was a string quartet, and we doubled that quartet, so it had a richer sound. I wanted a lot of it to sound quite distant because the scene takes place on the beach with a sweeping landscape.

We recorded with Daniel Denholm who produces a lot of classical recordings. I wanted the music to have an ambient warmth -­‐ like being in the womb, so we only used ribbon mics and put them quite far back. You’re not hearing bows on strings – it gave it quite a different quality. It was great to try that.

Placement of mics as a compositional tool?

The microphone placement did change the character and tone of that piece. It’s another illustration of how different every project is. To go from psychedelic rock to that in one year is quite diverse!

With The Secrets She Keeps series I’d never done thriller genre before. It was a huge challenge and learning curve. It was adapted from a best-­‐selling novel but the producers encouraged me to be quite arty. I’d been experimenting with layering up my vocals and processing them and the director Catherine Millar had this idea that a female (Greek) chorus could be commenting on the story unfolding. That was such a cool idea I just ran with it.

Who are your influences in screen composition?

I love the work of Mychael Danna, he’s a Canadian composer with an interesting hybrid of orchestral and non-­‐western instrumentation. His fusion of Indian and orchestral music in the trilogy Fire, Earth and Water is gorgeous. I admire Deepa Mehta as a director and music was such an integral part of those films, a big influence on me. Many auteurs have regular composers they collaborate with -­‐ Hitchcock and Herrmann, Carter Burwell and the Coen Brothers. I admire those relationships and think they produce amazing work.

Lynch also had that relationship with Badlamenti. What do you think is a beautiful film?

Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love made an impact on me because it was so visually and aesthetically beautiful, it is the most wonderful love story. Of course it’s tragic. It’s basically a string quartet playing the same theme variations over and over, but it is such an understated melody with so much elegance and feeling.

What about Songwriting for you?

I’m making a solo album of original songs, which is probably a crazy thing to do being a 55-­‐year-­‐old woman in this country. I had these songs sitting on the back burner for years and I anticipated being unemployed because of Covid last year. The film and TV industry being pretty well shut down, I felt it was time to throw caution to the wind and make an album. It’s an art for art’s sake project, which is liberating as you would know. You’re not having to please anybody else, checking in with a director or multiple producers. I applied for a few grants to help pay for the musicians and hiring a studio and gratefully received a small one from Create NSW. It’s 8 songs, featuring different guitarists I’ve collaborated with over the years.

How do you handle pressure?

I go to yoga, and the beach. Adam Goodes calls the sea Dr. Ocean –the great healer. A few weeks ago, I was physically in a bad way because I was doing ridiculous 12-­‐14 hour days – sitting at a computer, you need to get out of that space and insular mind set as well.

Friends? Social Life?

It’s been a strangely hermetic last year and it’s important to stay connected. It’s good to be able to discuss the difficulties and challenges of projects with friends and family and particularly other musicians – and that’s the nice thing about having a co-­‐composer. You can bitch and moan to each other! The camaraderie and support really help you get through.

And into the future? What’s your dream?

I had a dream semi realised at the beginning of 2020 when Jodi Phillis and I were commissioned to write an hour of contemporary orchestral music for FORM dance company for the Sydney Festival. It was a big ambitious show at Parramatta Park, and we had the Western Sydney Youth Orchestra, and dancers from the western suburbs and Bega. I’ve never had the budget to work with an orchestra, and even though it was an amateur youth orchestra it was such a valuable experience. Honestly, when Jodi and I heard our music at the performance both of us were literally crying with joy because we’d never heard our music like that. I’d love to have that on the next level for a really great film…that’s the next dream.

Thank you to the Australian Guild of Screen Composers for sharing this interview.