Kill the House Lights: An Interview With Britt Daniel

I have been working on my first screenplay for six years now. The opening credits kick in with TV on the Radio’s “Satellite” ripping through the speakers as old ’70s-style yellow block letters naming the cast and crew reflect off the trunk of a speeding sedan through the woods at night. The climatic sex sequence (whose ultimate consequences are still yet to be determined, but understood to be “pretty heavy”) will be welcomed in by the Red House Painters’ “Song For a Blue Guitar”. I can’t tell you what the film is about. It is not that I am paranoid my ideas could be stolen or a fear I will contaminate any aspect of the storyline from outside influences. It has been a slow process because I have not written a single page. I do not have one scene completed or even one exchange of dialogue written on paper. The characters still do not have names and the location is still undetermined. But these six years have not been in vain because most of this movie — that currently only exists in my head — already has a handful of songs to be utilized throughout the course of the narrative. And to me, that is the most important part.

A couple years back Zach Braff made Garden State and consequently a million teenage girls fell in love with the Shins. When most indie music fans took a look at the rest of the soundtrack they saw music and bands that already owned gigabytes in their iPod’s. Suddenly music contained in movies and television shows was getting a lot more notice and as a result many bands below the radar found a place to. Very few people are putting together soundtracks as efficiently or creatively as Brian Reitzell these days.

Reitzell has acted as music supervisor for such films as Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Thumbsucker, and The Virgin Suicides. His personal tastes have brought the likes of My Bloody Valentine, New Order, and Elliott Smith to the big screen. It was Reitzell’s personal touch that makes the ending of Lost in Translation so poignant as Scarlett Johannson stands in crowded street in Japan as the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” wavers through the air. When he is not putting together the music for some of the most anticipated movies of the year, he is busy playing drums for French lounge band Air.

In overseeing his latest music project, Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS agent who wakes up one day to find an astute British author narrating the events of his life and manipulating his universe. Reitzell is the perfect person to handle the music for a creative story of this nature because he realized long ago that while most of us may not hear voices during our everyday activities, our days are filled with choice songs that reflect our moods. Any serious fan of music will admit their guilty pleasure of constant shuffling the songs that comprise the soundtrack of their lives.

While sitting down to compose the score and select the music for the film, Reitzell began listening to a lot of Spoon music as he identified the storyline with the Austin band’s unique energy. He took it a step further by calling Britt Daniel, lead singer and songwriter of Spoon, to help him with the process. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Daniel to discuss the movie, his relationship with Brian and why he is one of seven people in this entire world who understood Solaris.

Britt, I really appreciate you taking some time to speak with me today. To cut right to the chase, how did you get involved with this movie?

Well Brian Reitzell, who had worked the music for a handful of music for movies that I had seen like Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides, he got in touch with me a couple years ago as a [pause] “lets … talk” kind of thing more than a “let’s work together” kind of thing. We got together and discovered that we had a mutual obsession with the soundtrack to Solaris by Cliff Martinez which to me was a mind blowing experience because I was really obsessed with the soundtrack and nobody else kind of got why I loved the soundtrack so much. I tried to tell my bandmates how great it was. I tried giving it to my girlfriend and nobody got it. But when I met Brian he was like, “You’re into that soundtrack? I am into that soundtrack!” So we kind of bonded over that. We stayed in touch once this movie was being put together and got in touch with me about a year ago and said, “Why don’t we work on some of the instrumental music — some of the cues for it.” I said, “I would love to but I don’t really know how to do that but I would sure like to try.” I went down to Los Angeles and worked with him on it

It is funny you mentioned Solaris. It is great that you like the soundtrack but did you understand the movie? I literally walked out of that movie confused and four people walked up to me and asked if I understood anything that had occurred over the previous two hours.

Yeah, I guess I did understand it. I didn’t understand the ending at first but I don’t think that you are really supposed to understand the ending. To me, I guess, now I get it because I have seen the movie about four times but uh … It is a really slow movie and normally I am like most people and if there is a really slow movie it is hard for me to be involved sometimes but this one really hooked me in and I think a lot of it had to do with the music.

Did you see the movie before sitting down to write the music or were you watching scenes while composing the score? How did this entire process work?

Yeah … he sent me the script first and I thought it was a really good script and it was fun to read — not that I have read tons of scripts or anything. I did enjoy reading it. Once I went down to LA the first thing I did was sit down and watch the current edit of the movie. I had seen maybe a few minutes at his house before. When we started working on it, I sat down and watched the movie and we just kind of went through each scene that he said needed music and it was as simple as, “What is this scene conveying?’

And Brian was listening to and dubbing Spoon music when he was trying to come up with the score to this. It made me think of the movie Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson. Have you ever seen that?

Yup, great movie.

PT Anderson, as the story goes, came up with that entire script, with that whole movie based on a single line from an Aimee Mann song. The line was actually written into the movie: “Now that I met you / would you object to / never seeing me again?” I want to flip the question back to you, as a musician, and ask if you ever have a specific scene — be it in a movie or from your life — that you have in mind when writing a song?

Not really. For me it is just about the song conveying some sort of emotion, trying to feel something. You know when a song has a melody or some kind of element that affects you and that is what I am trying to go for. That is all I am really thinking about.

Did you have any input with the soundtrack at all?

No. It was just the scoring and writing the one new song [“The Book I Write”] and Brian picked which Spoon songs would be in it and all the other stuff.

It seems like you’re a big movie fan. What are a few of your favorite movies?

[Pause] Oh, gee whiz … Dr. Strangelove … or Big Lebowski … or ummm … Boogie Nights would be up there. Rushmore.

Is there a movie soundtrack in particular that stands out as one of your favorite?

Goodfellas comes to mind. That soundtrack has various artists but it still has this feel to it and it is totally exciting.

I noticed that Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich was thanked in the liner notes. Did he play some sort of role in this development of this soundtrack?

I think maybe he was going to be involved in a mix or introduced Brian to someone who did a mix. I am not sure — that was Brian’s thank you.

I was curious how the process differs when you know that the end result of your music is not going to be used for an album but for a movie.

Well, to be honest I had a sort of sketch of the song already. I went to Brian and played him a bunch of sketches and he said, “Why don’t we have a new Spoon song for the record so that everything is tied together so it is … a lot of you [laughs] in this movie?” and I was like, “Okay, cool.” So I played him a bunch of sort of — they weren’t songs but sort of just ideas for songs — and one of them already had the lyric “the book I write” and sort of a part of a melody. To be honest we were … I mean he liked that one a lot but we were worried that it was a little literal, you know. It might be a little goofy but it seemed to work best as a feel so I ended up working that one up. Because there was already some sort of foundation for the song I didn’t really feel like I was writing a commercial but instead I was just finishing a song.

It seems like critics tend to associate the word “minimal” when they discuss Spoon’s sound. Many of the Spoon songs in the movie are instrumental versions of the originals. How strange is it to hear one of your songs without your voice? Is it much more minimal?

Yeah, it is more minimal, I guess. I am sure it will affect you more than it will affect me. It is different but to me the weird thing is just seeing it tied to another medium and another piece of art. Because these songs like “The Way We Get By” or “My Mathematical Mind” — I have played them hundreds of times at shows and I have heard them on our records and I was involved in making them. Though I have this one sort of thing, well maybe two things — the way it is on the record and the way we do it live — but just to see it in this new format where it is complimenting another work is what was really weird for me.

You have said that you enjoyed the script when you read it. Was that crucial to you deciding to take a step like this or were you waiting for this kind of opportunity?

It is hard to say because this was the first opportunity I have had. If it had been like a slasher flick I probably would not have wanted to put Spoon songs to it.