How Did Julia Holter Wind Up Scoring a Boxing Film?

How was a composer who makes music as celestial as Julia Holter's going to channel the energy of a boxing epic?

When news broke that Julia Holter, the Los Angeles musician who has made some of the most outstanding ethereal pop albums of this decade, was set to compose the soundtrack for the Miles Teller-featuring boxing biopic Bleed for This, it’s safe to say a few eyebrows were raised. When most people think of the soundtracks to boxing films, the first thing that comes to mind is typically a composition that would function in the backdrop of every clichéd motivational video ever, like the theme to Rocky. How was a composer who makes music as delicate as Julia Holter’s ever going to channel that energy?

Well, she doesn’t. Her contributions to the Bleed for This soundtrack are, in her own words, “understated", the exact treatment this film needed. Going against the grain of genre tropes must have been a challenging job for Holter on her first major film score, so met with PopMatters to discuss the emotions, compositional tactics, and inspiration behind her soundtrack.

How exactly did this opportunity come about?

Ben Younger [the director] reached out to me and said that he was looking for someone to score this film, so they sent the film to me, I watched it, and I submitted some musical ideas.

Do you know anything about why they decided to reach out to you specifically?

Apparently Ben heard one of my songs on NPR. I think that he preferred that I didn’t have a lot of experience scoring films -- I had done it before, but not a lot -- and I guess he wanted something that sounded different.

What was your reaction after watching the film? It’s a boxing film, so were you intrigued by the subject matter?

The self-destructive aspects of boxing are intriguing to me. I don’t have very much experience watching boxing films but this film itself was very well acted. It brings you into the world of the characters, which I really liked. All the details are nice. It feels like a very human film, which was good because I’m not generally into action films… they make me dizzy. But this type of film is very human. It’s a film that I think a lot of people can engage with.

Since this is your first time scoring a major film, how did you feel going into it?

I was really nervous that they wouldn’t like what I do because what I do tends to be what I want to do. I don’t think too much or strategize when I make my music, and I took the same approach with this. However, it ended up working perfectly, because the director was so open to what I wanted to do. He would tell me what he wanted in words but not musically, so it was my job to translate what he wanted into music. It was immediately apparent that he was on my side, so it wasn’t a battle or anything.

I think that thing I was most worried about came down to sound quality, but that wasn’t much of an issue. Anyway, it was scary throughout, but it was reassuring because this is something I want to keep doing.

I’d imagine that there’s a big difference between writing songs that reflect your own emotions and being commissioned to evoke a specific emotion from a scene. Do you think this had an effect on your composition style?

I don’t know if it’s affecting what I do with my music, but it shows that I like to do this too. I kind of figured that I’d enjoy it, but now that I’ve done it, I see how it’s doable and I’m excited to see what it’s like to do other films. But in terms of my own music, I’m not sure how it’s been affected. They are such different processes, but in both cases, I try not to think too much. But in one case I’m following the emotions of something else, which is actually fun. I like that.

When you were preparing for the film, did you look to any other scores as drawing points?

Well, yes… no. Sorry, that’s a weird answer. I thought that I should at first so initially I consulted other scores and was watching films, but I kind of couldn’t stand what I was watching. I realized that this wasn’t the score of other boxing films, which have been very iconic, thematic, and noticeable. I think my score needed to be understated and subtle. I think that’s kind of the job I was supposed to be doing. It’s not like people come out of this film and think “Oh my god! I remember every melody!” It’s not about that. It’s supposed to supplement the emotions of the film and be unnoticed.

So in the end, I started going with the vibe of the scene and stopped thinking about other scores. It was just about what this film means.I kind of work that way anyways. It’s kind of hard for me to think about previous examples of what I’m doing, it makes me freeze up and think too much about it, and I can’t really do a good job.

Loud City Song (2013) was heavily inspired by the movie Gigi. Did you notice any parallels between creating an album influenced by a piece of cinema and making the score for a film?

Maybe. It’s hard to say. That would make more sense if it were a different film because this one felt like I was following everything minute-by-minute in real time, like “what is the emotion here?” I came up with themes before, but I think that when I do an album that is based on another work, I feel very free. I feel free because I have a story that’s already there but then I’m the one deciding what to do with that story. In that sense, I’m still taking on this character.

I’m trying to think of how it’s similar, but I’m not sure it is for me. Except for the musical aspects, because in both cases I tend to sit at a keyboard and just write.

How important was it to you that the soundtrack functioned as a standalone piece outside of the film?

I actually don’t think of it as a standalone piece, I think of it as part of the film. I think it’s possible to listen to it in other moments in life, but I was basically feeling like I was doing this service to the film. I’m sure there’s a lot of theory written about film scoring that I’ve never read that would have a more articulate answer, but for me, film scores exist in a weird place. They kind of are their own things and they kind of aren’t, and some are better standalone pieces than others.

I feel like mine feels very much about the film… well, that’s not true. It doesn’t reference the film in the music itself, but it feels like I wrote it to suit the themes in real time.

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