Kenneth Longergan’s powerful, low-key masterpiece Manchester By The Sea is finally out in UK Cinemas today. The film’s tone is a complex mixture of comedy and tragedy, assisted by a marvellous, unique soundtrack – so we spoke to the film’s composer, Lesley Barber.
Thought I’d just start off by saying what a wonderful job you did on the score – it complimented the film perfectly. It never feels overbearing or invasive in the way a lot of soundtracks do in films with very raw emotional material. Anyway, how’d you find working on the film?
It was a complete pleasure. I was really thrilled when Kenny called me about this project and when I read the script, I wanted to jump in right way – it’s beautiful material to write for.
The script is probably the best this year! It’s not your first time working with Kenneth either – you did You Can Count On Me together a while back, was it a different experience this time?
Well, when we were doing You Can Count On Me, that was Kenny’s first film, and it was one of my first features. It was really interesting working with him and realising that he was going to be as interested in the details as I was, and that there was room to keep going until we got everything right. That was something we learned over the collaborative process on You Can Count On Me, and I think with this one – we had both since worked on different projects and films and then when we came back together we could just be bolder, make bolder choices right from the get-go. We had a shorthand that really worked well for us. I really felt like I had a lot of room to try different ideas and play them for Kenny, because he gives the luxury of time when bringing the composer in with the script, and it gives time to create ideas that you might not otherwise have time or space to try.
That almost sounds quite relaxed. Especially if you have this shorthand already…
[Laughs] I mean, it’s never relaxed! When you send your music to a director, it’s very scary you know? Well, it can be. There was just this space there to try things that you might not otherwise try, like the acapella voices. If we only had four weeks we wouldn’t be able to try anything unconventional.
Guess I spoke too soon! Speaking of the acapella voices, I liked how pared back the soundtrack was in places – you’ve cited in the past that Philip Glass and Radiohead among your influences, did that also apply when you were working on this score in particular or was there anything else you wanted to bring in?
With this score going in, I knew that Kenny would have some classical music in the score, you know, he’s had that in all of his films, but we also went for music that felt contemporary, but would work with some of the harmonics of the classical pieces. And since my pieces are the only pieces that recur thematically and sort of gather strength and develop with the film, I wanted to make sure they were pieces that could blend and unify and counterpoint in the right ways. Instead of going into the score and thinking like “I’m just doing the score”, and other choices will be made with the source music, this was a way of taking on the darker texture of the film as a single score. So it was a slightly different approach, and I really enjoyed that.
Well, it definitely paid off.
I thought that with this consistency in the soundtrack it was really interesting when this is broken with the use of that one Duke Ellington song. I thought it was a really nice, surprising interjection. Was that Kenneth’s choice?
Yeah that was something Kenny added to the score. He has a really deep, broad knowledge of music – so there are those blues standards in there, and more contemporary pieces as well. There was just that really nice counterpoint in places, yeah, that was one of my favourite things too.
Speaking of favourites, do you have any favourites in your own body of work? Or do you just move onto the next thing?
I feel when I’m connected to a film, it’s more as as a storyteller and being part of that world; it’s a very immersive and wonderful way to write music and be part of a collaborative team. And then I get some space, and then find myself in another world. [Laughs] I just see it more as part of the whole film rather than just music choices when I made.
That’s a cool way of seeing it. You can really feel the events of the film playing out in the tracks. Not to sound too pretentious.
So, what’s next for you?
I’m working on a couple of films at the moment – one is this really beautiful documentary that I’m just finishing up this week, and then I’m working on a horror film with Boaz Yakin. Starting that in a couple of weeks, I’m really excited about doing something in the horror genre, it’s gonna be a ton of fun, Boaz is a filmmaker who I really enjoy working with.
Manchester By The Sea is out in UK Cinemas now, the soundtrack is available everywhere.