Interviews with Industry

Erik Friedlander, Composer of Thoroughbreds

Having worked in the music industry for over 25 years playing and writing for a variety of genres including avant-garde, jazz, and classical music, Erik Friedlander is unquestionably an established and accomplished musician and composer. 

Earlier this year, Lift-Off had the pleasure of talking to him to find out more about the process of scoring the unorthodox and highly memorable score for director Cory Finley's debut film, Thoroughbreds. 

Interview by Lauren Macaree


When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in the industry and how did you go about making it a reality?

I never really made that decision until kind of recently within the past four or five years. I’ve been wanting to focus more of my energies on doing film work because I love the process. I love the work. It’s something I want to keep doing.

I spent most of my life being a performer and a composer, being in bands, and touring with other peoples groups. In the last 5 years I’ve been focusing more of my energies on film composing and I love it. I really want to do much more of it.

How did I go about making it a reality? Well, things came my way because of licensing requests for my music. People wanted to use my pieces in their films and I became interested. I would tell people who wanted to use my music that I could write them a custom piece that would be written to suit the film, and that i could do the score. So I eventually found work.

I’ve done a bunch of films now. I’m just hoping it continues.

Is there a specific film or score that sparked your interest in the industry?

Well I’ve always loved soundtracks. Chinatown by Jerry Goldsmith, Alien also by Jerry Goldsmith, Birth by Alexander Desplat, John Williams is also great. I love the Catch Me If You Can score, and really love Indiana Jones. He’s just really, really good.

I’ve always been into Morricone and Mancini. There is a lot of great film music I love listening to. I’m a fan.

Did you always have an interest in music growing up?

Yes. I grew up with my father who was a photographer, he has a dark room where I grew up. He’d get up early and put on music and play it loud all day.

So yes, I grew up with music. I started singing and playing guitar at age 5, and then cello at age 8. I’ve alway been into music.

When I think about it, I grew up with my fathers photography and music being a big part of my life. So music and picture going together is natural for me, I have kind of a natural affinity to it, and for it.

I’m not surprised I’m doing film music.

You recently scored Cory Finley’s “Thoroughbreds”, which is just a brilliant score. How did you first become involved with the project?

There is a terrific music supervisor that put my name into the hat for that project. She thought the film would be right for me. Her name is Sue Jacobs. I eventually met with Cory, but, before I met him, I took the opportunity to record some demo work for the film.

I saw the film’s rough cut on the Friday, and on the Sunday I had my friend Satoshi Takeishi come in and help create the demo work. I just interpreted what I had seen in that one viewing, and wrote some queues, which I then sent to Cory and Sue.

By the time I got to the meeting, they had listened to them and were really pleased and excited about it. So, I got the job.

It was a little bit of luck, but also down to being proactive. It can be really effective.

Did you listen to any other scores for inspiration?

Yes. Sure. I do. I listen to tons of scores, like I said before, I’m a score fan.

The score is very unorthodox. You can hear that there’s a huge range of influences, from the percussion to the off-centre strings and cellos. I’m curious to know how Cory pitched the idea for the sort of music he was looking for?

Cory didn’t say too much. It was clear he wanted to be in control of the tone of the picture, and how it would be read by the audience.

He had a really great feeling for the kind of music that would work organically with the picture. He wanted it to be a  little bit otherworldly from inside this beautiful house, highlighting the anxiety and disturbing chemistry that occurs between the two leads, Amanda and Lily.

The choices that we made, we wanted them to be kind of ‘a little off’, a little dissociated from what you would imagine to be the score set around that beautiful house. Something a little different, that puts you back on your heels.

He was very clever at knowing his own mind. When something worked, he was completely with it. He created an atmosphere where I felt I could really go for something new and different, without feeling like I would lose him, or lose his trust in me. That was never the case. It was a lot of freedom for me. It was great.

As for the cello, I’m a cellist, so it is often a part of the score, although it doesn’t necessarily have to be. I usually find a way to work it in.

When the track “Thoroughbred” started to play in the opening sequence it really caught me off guard. The slow beat of the drum creates so much tension and uneasiness, I was completely fixated. What was your process of writing/creating ideas?

Yes. Thank you for the feedback on that, that’s really great, exactly what we wanted. There’s a frame drum, that’s what that is in there, but theres also percussion and piano, mostly prepared piano in that first scene. It creates that unease and uncomfortable ‘somethings not right here’ feeling. That was definitely a purposeful choice. We also wanted to still be subtle and not sort of bang you over the head with attention, just kind of just create this unease.

Another track that stood out for me was ‘Finding Mom’.

That’s really great to hear. Yeah, that’s kind of a fun set piece for the cinematographer as well as the music. It’s a scene where you get this tour of the house from the top floors all the way down to the basement. One of the other things about this film is the camera work. It is so beautifully done. So lush. The house is almost like its own character. It is so filmic and yeah just beautifully shot. I think one of the things that is a trap with a play is that it can sometimes end up looking not very film like, but this film is just beautiful to look at. The wide shots and closeups are just really great.

But yes, this piece was done with lots of percussion and changes of tempo. We track Lily as she makes her way down to find her mom in a very disorienting tanning booth. It is a great scene.

The score itself isn’t present in a large portion of the film overall, was this a conscious choice?

Yeah. Cory had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do with the music, and it wasn’t a lot. It was probably 25 minutes at the most.

There were scenes when you could see that music could be used, but he didn’t want want to push the audience into feeling a particular way too often. For instance, when the character Mark is home alone and Time is coming to get the gun from the barbecue, you could see that there might be music there to kind of expand the tension, but he wanted to keep it clean and not manipulative.

He was very careful with where he wanted music, and it ends up working in its favour because they are like little showpieces throughout. They gather momentum as the movie progresses. So by the time you hit the breakpoint in the scene where Mark is training outside and Lily is watching him kind of ominously from the balcony, you’ve really picked up momentum and can feel the film moving.

When coming aboard a project, how does the process generally work?

Well generally I get the film at its very last stages. Sometimes its very rushed, and they don’t have enough time or money left. They’re usually getting ready for festivals so the film has to be locked in and edited, then filled in with some kind of music to make it suitable for viewing at festivals, even though the final product may be completely different, in terms of music at least. But it’s a mad race to finish it.

What is the general working relationship and process between the composer and the director?

Well there you’ve hit upon the magic and the agony of this job. Thats what it is all about. It is very important that you, as a composer, learn to understand what the director means when he or she is saying ‘more tension’ or ‘more happy,’ ‘more indie sounding,’ ‘less hollywood’ and all of these things. All of these things mean something to me, but it is so important to figure out what it really mean to the director. Sometimes you think you know what these mean, or they mean something to you musically, but the director doesn’t always read it the same way.

You have to decide what the function of the music is in each scene. I’m always asking ‘So what is the music doing in this scene? What’s the job?’, and it all comes down to that.

This relationship is really crucial. It’s like a shotgun marriage. It’s tricky. I always feel theres a moment when I feel the trust of the team. All of a sudden you’ve earned their trust, and then you you really have the freedom of creating. That’s a great feeling. Sometimes it may take a while to get there, and other times it’s quick. But, thats the most important part of the whole job.

What have been the most challenging and most enjoyable projects you have worked on?

Thoroughbreds was a total blast to work on. Mainly because the team was so great. Between Cory, Susanna, Sue, and myself, we had a really well oiled machine that worked so well together. We all had ideas and met up twice a week sometimes to discuss the film, music, what was working etc. It was just an overall great working relationship, and really fun.

I enjoy almost every project that I do. Like I say, I do my own records, so theres a lot of joy in recording and producing my own music, but theres something about being part of a team that is really great. Especially with thoroughbreds, it was such a success. You know, hanging out at the screening in LA and New York, you got this feeling that something was bubbling up and really happening. Cory got a hold of two really great, fantastic actresses, who are upcoming superstars as actors, and they did such a great job with his very challenging and rich characters. So it was a real blast to be a part of the thoroughbreds team.

From your personal experience, does it take you any time to adjust to projects that are quite different from each other, or do you simply complete one film, figure out your next approach, and go on from there?

Part of the process is bringing your own sound, so you always have that, you know, your style. I’m always bringing my own sound to the project. But, you have to adapt it to the needs of the film. So that’s part of the skill. You just have to make your style somehow suit it. It can be a little tricky.

What do you think the biggest surprise about the role of a composer would be to an outsider?

I think there may be a few things that would be surprising, but the biggest would be that the composer is not in complete charge of the music. The director has a lot of power to change the music and make the approach what they want. So, you may hear a score that you don’t particularly like or doesn’t really match the style of the composer, but that may be the director’s doing.

If someone wants to pursue a career as a composer, how would you recommend they go about it?

That’s a difficult one. I would say you need to be composing. You need to be composing a lot. Get your music out there. It doesn’t necessarily have to be on a CD or anything like that, but just get it out there for people to hear. Put it online. Write music and get it able to be discovered.

Be practical. Deal with what you have and write for people you know. Write for players, not for instruments.

I got my first exposure into this business through licensing. Then people heard my CD’s and thought  of me for music.

Thank you so much for your time and congratulations on all of the success with Thoroughbreds. Good luck with all of your future projects.

Thank you for all of the questions. Take it easy.