Best known for his critically acclaimed score for the 2017 Sundance award-winning film, Gook, established composer Roger Suen has lent his expertise to numerous feature films, television series and documentaries.
His diverse music portfolio includes scoring additional music for Guillermo Del Toro’s four-time Oscar winning film The Shape of Water, 21st Century Fox’s science fiction thriller The Darkest Minds, starring Amandla Stenberg and Mandy Moore, Netflix’s five-time Emmy-nominated series Daredevil, starring Charlie Cox and Deborah Ann Woll, Marvel’s Emmy-nominated series The Defenders, starring Cox, Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter, and Warner Bros’ comedy The Nice Guys starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, to name a few.
Suen recently reunited with Gook director Justin Chon to score the modern Asian-American drama film Ms. Purple, premiering Jan. 26 at the Sundance Film Festival, produced by MACRO, the production company behind critically-acclaimed films such as Mudbound, Roman J. Israel, Esq., and Fences.
Lift-Off recently got the chance to speak to Roger about how he became involved with Ms. Purple, his writing process, and his notable advice for any aspiring composers.
Interview by Lauren Macaree
Lauren Macaree: Where did your interest in music and composition come from?
Roger Suen: I started playing piano when I was about eight or nine, it was the first instrument that I ever learnt. I also played in the school band and orchestra. I actually played the trombone during the school band and throughout university. Oddly enough, I then dropped out of music from UCLA for a bit, and I actually ended up getting a degree in mechanical engineering. (laughs.) But I decided, you know, it wasn’t really my thing, I wasn’t great at it, and I probably shouldn’t have been building bridges and things. (laughs.)
So then after my little detour, I came back to music. Then I started just interning at the studios around town, and through that I was slowly able to meet a lot of great people. As luck would have it, one thing then just led to another.
LM:Would you say there there is a particular film or score that inspired you to compose music?
RS: Oh yeah. In high school, around 2000, I kind of feel like a dork saying this, but John Williams’ scores. (laughs.) I actually came across Hans Zimmer’s music sort of late in the game. I saw Gladiator and I was just blown away. I remember transcribing all the big cues for my school orchestra.
RS: Yeah (laughs.) I was like a little kid who didn’t have any orchestral or compositional training but I just went for it. It didn’t turn out too bad for a teenager. But I think that was sort of my gateway drug, if you will.
LM: So how did you become involved with Ms. Purple?
RS: So I met the director, Justin Chon, on his last film called ‘Gook.’ We met through a mutual friend who was an editor, and I spoke to Justin briefly and he said ‘I have this great film,’ and you know, a lot of people say that, regardless of whether it is a great film or not (laughs.)I saw the rough cut and was instantly blown away. I was like half crying and half really excited (laughs.) I said ‘let’s do this.’
So that was our first project, and Ms. Purple is now our second. I’ve just been lucky to call Justin a friend, as well as a collaborator.
LM: What were your sources of inspiration when it came to the writing process?
RS: The intimacy of the script kind of made me think about the intimacy of a string quartet, you know. It’s an ensemble that’s been around for so long, and is still prevalent in so many aspects of our life, you know, weddings and what not.
I have a good friend, who is actually my rock climbing partner, and he has a quartet that i’ve just always been blown away by. The music that they do has just always been a real inspiration. From that music, and discussions with him, I thought maybe this would really fit the sound that we were looking for. And that’s kind of what we have now. The core of the score revolves around the string quartet.
LM: In terms of the writing process, where do you begin? Does this process change depending on the project?
RS: Yes definitely. Different projects demand different things, but, when at all possible, I am absolutely someone who likes to sit at the piano for a long time. Just with a pencil and paper.
I sometimes like to just go on a long hike to think before I write anything. The process can be a little slow but I think it definitely helps. Especially with a film like Ms. Purple. The good old fashioned harmony really gives it it’s emotional drive.
You can have other projects where it’s more about a textural thing, and a lot more sound design, but this is kind of a little bit more old fashioned. I spenta lot of time with Justin just working out the main theme.
LM: What would you say is the general working relationship between yourself, as the composer, and the director? Did Justin put forward any ideas regarding the score?
RS: There is a lot of back and forth. In fact, to begin with, Justin asked me a lot about temp music ideas for him and Reynolds, the editor, to cut with. I suggested a lot of stuff, and he put stuff forward, yeah. A lot of back and forth.
When it came time for me to actually create some ideas for the theme, it was the same thing really. I would just play the piano for him [Justin] and mock some stuff up. We probably came up with loads and loads of different themes before we finally settled on what we have now.
LM: Being established in the industry, do you think there are any misconceptions about the role of a composer?
RS: I think a lot of people romanticise the roles of any film industry creative. You know, we think of the great artists and composers and sort of view them as these tortured souls, but it is less about the expression of who we are, and more about the film. It is an art, but in terms of myself as an artist, I see myself as more of a craftsman.
LM: You’ve worked on such a wide variety of projects. Do you have a dream project or genre that you would like to write for?
RS: You know, i’ve contributed a lot of music to a number of large projects, more grand and epic things that allow you a much bigger and varied paintbrush if you will. I would love to do more projects of that kind but on my own.
I have a tendency to big orchestral music so whatever allows me the opportunity to play in that arena would be great.
I don’t think i’ve properly done a horror film (laughs,) so that would be a really fun thing to work with.
LM: Do you have any advice for any aspiring composers who are trying to break into the industry?
RS: First, just from being prepared, I think having training, even in just the basics of music and composition, is never a bad thing. The more of it you can get, the better.
I think that is often overlooked these days, especially with all of the technology. I Mean, you can just press a button and have a cue.
The other part is really just people. Whether that is meeting filmmakers to get the experience to work on a project, but also meeting other composers, older composers. That’s the route that I took. Working with a lot of really great composers and just learning as much as I possibly could from them.
Just get out there and meet people. We as composers have a tendency to be a little antisocial (laughs.) Myself especially. So yeah, force yourself to get out there you know.
Find out more about Ms. Purple: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7983890/.
Stay up to date with Roger Suen: http://elcapproductions.com/.