Broke a Couple of Rules: Movie Scores with Dan the Automator
For the man behind some of the most memorable hip-hop productions of the last few decades, a new challenge hits Daniel M. Nakamura in the form of coming up with the emotional soundtrack for the stellar new teen comedy film Booksmart.
Dan the Automator
24 May 2019
Naturally, when beginning an in-depth interview about the nuances of scoring a critically acclaimed feature film, with one of the most well-known producers of the last 20 years, the conversation opens with a frank exchange about Japanese toilets.
Having recently returned from a trip to Japan and Hawaii, Dan the Automator -- renowned for his work as one half of Deltron 3030 and Handsome Boy Modeling School -- has, quite rightly, been seduced by the Japanese approach to bathroom care. "It's funny as I don't go to Tokyo very often, but when you're there you realize how ordered and neat it is. And their toilets...", he states enthusiastically. "are almost an extension of that, you know what I mean. They are so detail-oriented. When I go to the bathroom now, I almost feel barbaric."
While this topic would undoubtedly make for a riveting piece, the producer, who has worked with everyone from Gorillaz to Primal Scream, is not on the line to talk about the finer points of what goes down in the land of the rising sun. Rather, Dan is promoting his work on one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year: Booksmart.
The directorial debut of actress and producer Olivia Wilde, Booksmart is a sharp, refreshing take on the well-worn high school teen movie. It depicts the relationship between Amy and Molly, two teenage best friends who have a sudden epiphany, realizing that they have spent their entire school lives absorbed in learning and, in the process, have not had time for any of your typical high-school shenanigans. What follows is their often inept but hugely relatable attempt to have one night of pure, crazy, unadulterated fun before graduation. What marks the film out as something special is its progressive depictions of teenage sexuality, gender and female friendship, things that have been sadly underrepresented in mainstream cinema -- it's also an absolute laugh riot.
While the film is a triumph, a special part of the film is the uber-cool soundtrack. Chock full of perfectly chosen songs from the likes of DJ Shadow, Perfume Genius, Santigold, and Handsome Boy Modeling School, the film also features a brilliant score from one of the members of the later, none other than Dan The Automator, aka Daniel M. Nakamura.
It turns out that Wilde was a long-standing fan of Dan's work under his various guises and approached him early on in the process of making the film, as he remembers. "I think they had finished principal shooting, but they hadn't really put together a cut yet. She was like, 'I'd really like to know if you'd be interested in scoring this movie' and told me a bit about it. It was her first movie so she asked if I'd go on the journey with her and I was like, 'Sounds good.'"
Booksmart is Dan's most high profile scoring role to date, fulfilling a longstanding desire to do more scoring for mainstream movies. "In America, the music business is weird right now, and I'm not really interested in the state of pop music in particular. You know writing by committee, and I had been talking to a few people about doing more scoring stuff. I'd done some, but they were like indie, Chinese, and some other stuff. I've done parts of movies for Edgar Wright and stuff, but this was a little more mainstream, and Olivia wanted me to be creative in a way that sounded appealing to me. The idea that we would be taking the journey together. It made sense."
In part, the film is such an artistic success because of Wilde's assured and focused vision. While, naturally, she had an idea of what she wanted from the score, the process of scoring the movie was very much a collaboration between director and musician. "She had a few ideas about the music for the movie, but it changed stylistically over time. She had temp music, and she was like a lot of it was terrible but a few bits she was attached to. The ones that she was attached to were the ones I would kind of like, stay in that lane, you know. With me, I've done a lot of different kinds of records so even people who say they like my work may be referring to a particular type of my work. Beyond that, there were a couple of mood iterations that she wasn't specific but said things like 'I want more minimalism' or 'I want such and such.'"
In essence, Booksmart is a typical coming of age story, albeit a very contemporary take on one. For inspiration, Dan went back to the classic teen movies that still resonate now like Clueless, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and, naturally, the timeless John Hughes movies of the '80s. For Dan, they all had one main thing in common. "The one thing that I noticed the most when I looked back at those movies. The part that always gets me the most is the really awkward part. That part where they go up to talk to that boy or girl and get shut down. I would think about the emotional pull that all these movies have. That bravado, that insecurity all rolled up into one, leaving a big flaming mess. Emotionally I can relate to that in the same way that I can when I watch any one of these movies."
As one would expect, scoring a movie is a very different proposition to making your own record with one of the key differences being is that you essentially have to satisfy other people's artistic vision, as Dan explains. "That's the frustrating part because you do what you think is right, but other people have an opinion about it but..." He adds with a little extra emphasis, "that being said, it also gives you a lot to work with. You get a lot of parameters in what you hear, and you say OK we try to go for this or that and I like that aspect of it. You do a song, and it's either right or it's wrong, and no one may know why it's right or wrong but if someone is in the scene, and they're crying, and someone says that it's not sad enough and they're not getting the undercurrent of depression then somehow you can look at it and go 'You're right.' The music doesn't help this or something like that and you might be right or you might be wrong, but you have the ability to have that discussion."
To maintain as harmonious a collaboration as possible, Dan was mindful to avoid one thing. "I will say this, though. I wasn't trying to go too out of left field so that it would be shocking. I mean, why is this here? I wanted to make sure that when vibes were decided on that, I didn't pull it so far away from there."
Ultimately, however, it's not for Dan to judge the success of the finished score, as he explains. "The thing is, you're not on such a fine razor as you are with a pop song. You can imagine someone saying to John Williams' about his Jaws' theme 'Well it's tense but it doesn't move me enough,' for example. Only history tells people that they are wrong. Imagine, John Carpenter's Halloween music where Williams' was, would that be any worse? Would he be wrong? Both of them really create tension. So classic score moments bear out over time. Pop music is more immediate."
So did he ever feel any pressure, working on such a high profile movie? "I don't feel pressure; I feel frustration, which may be the same thing. I'm frustrated when I can't get it, and I'm frustrated when other people can't get it. It's part of the thing. I don't think anything I make is perfect, but you do all this stuff, and then you have to find out in the court of public opinion whether it worked and if it didn't work does that mean it's not great, I don't know. It's hard to say what makes it right. You know what I mean? To me, all of the records that I felt good about, I still feel really good about. Some of them are hits, some of them aren't. Would I have made different decisions on any of them? I would have made different decisions on all of the records I've made!" He laughs. "That's the thing about a producer, movie score or whatever is knowing when to let go. There is no such thing as perfection. There's also so much more you can do. You could work on the same opus for your whole life, but that's another thing."
Booksmart has its fair share of hilarious set-pieces but at its core is the relationship between two best friends, Amy and Molly. Their relationship provides the emotional hook of the movie as Wilde explores how their respective personalities complement each other, with Amy being the more cautious on, while Molly is always forthright and outspoken. That is why one of the key and most emotionally arresting scenes comes when their pursuit of separate love interests culminates in a full-blooded, intense argument that threatens to end their friendship for good.
In terms of the score, it's a fascinating scene as the dialogue suddenly drops away to be replaced by Dan's heart-rending score. "That was Olivia's idea," he explains. "The science of the thing was that the score was supposed to represent their emotions. The score parts are supposed to represent the building of emotion and tension, and the idea is that the emotions are higher up in you, and then you hear the beat of your own pulse. In the broadest of terms, the thoughts in their head are overwhelming the words."
One of the other central scenes where the score emphasizes and heightens the mood and emotion comes when Amy finds her love interest, Ryan, kissing someone else. Being such a pivotal scene, it was imperative that the tone of the score was right. "That one took a couple of iterations because we were trying to find the voice for the sadness, and ultimately, Olivia had decided that she wanted it to be stark. You know like not so many notes but staged so that every time a note hit it was deemed to be more powerful because it wasn't amongst a bunch of notes, so that was the approach to that section. Not minimalism but minimalism in the sense that when something happens, it's going to carry weight."
While the majority of the score was written specifically for the film, Dan did trawl through the Automator archives a little. "I went to old files for two things when I was trying to find a groovy section -- because I have a lot of groovy things that haven't made it for me. In the end, we might have used one or two musical ideas, maybe the drums or the organ or something, but in the end, it was a lot of just going by feeling. The other thing I'm trying to do is be mindful of the soundtrack songs and the score to create a mood that can bed altogether."
Unsurprisingly, not everything that Dan wrote for the film ended up being used, which begs the question of whether he has any intention to use it in the future? "I'm definitely keeping it, and I'm going to rework and do something with it. Basically, my ideas follow two categories; they have potential, or they're absolute crap." He pauses, before adding with a chuckle. "And I can say it's crap because I am the king of my own domain!"
Which leads me nicely to checking up on the current status of two of his most famous projects, Handsome Boy Modeling School and Deltron 3030. "We started a new Handsome Boy thing late last year, and we are a little behind schedule, actually a lot behind schedule. [Prince] Paul was doing this Netflix show as well, and it took longer than he thought so we should be getting back to it soon. As far as Delton goes, we've been working. I've been working on the music, and Del's (Del the Funky Homosapien) about ready to go and we've been looking at possibly recording vocals in July. With Deltron, there's a lot of information. The next one we may make a bit more adventure rather than politics, but we don't know yet. We will see."
Like every project Dan has ever worked on, he's adamant that the lessons learned during the making of Booksmart will stand him in good stead for whatever follows, whether it be with Deltron, Handsome Boy Modeling School or on another score. "I think I bring everything into what follows. Like an Aztec temple; every time you take another step, you see something from a different vantage point. Booksmart has taken me up three more steps or whatever."