Multiple Oscar-nominated and Sundance award winning filmmaker James Longley kindly contributed a number of music and audio tracks to our latest film SODO EXPRESS.
How do you go about making your music and audio compositions?
First, I should say that I don’t really consider myself a composer or even a musician of any description. I do like music a lot, and listen to many different kinds, all my life. But as far as making music goes, I’m just an experimental dabbler, and I have mostly done it out of necessity, because I didn’t have the budget to hire a composer for my films.
In this way I made the music and most of the sound design elements in my film GAZA STRIP, and the two nominated Iraq documentaries IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS and SARI’S MOTHER, along with the music for my UNICEF stuff, and other little projects.
Once you get into making music and sound design for a moving picture, the most fun you can have is when you also have control of the picture edit – which I did in the case of all of those films. This allows me to sketch out a scene at the same time that I am making up music and tone ideas for the scene.
How do you approach building the audio for your films?
I think the film in which I was most able to contribute to the audio is my 2006 documentary, IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS. On that film I made all the music and the various ambient beds, and I participated all through the mixing process, adding more layers in places I felt were too spare.
We did post production on that film in Seattle, and so the filmmaking culture is very open and very punk rock, where it’s completely fine – and probably expected – for the director to keep on bringing into the mix hard drives of new layers of sound for the movie.
In IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS, the sound is all about creating mood and tension, about vibrating along with the vibration of the picture, or playing counterpoint to the picture. Because I am also the cinematographer, when I am the composer as well, it really lets me be in charge of both the visual and audio worlds together. This puts a lot of pressure on you to work with the sound during the picture edit, and find the different ways in which the sound and music can work with the picture and enhance the meaning of the scenes.
I like to start building the idea of the scene in pictures, and then try creating the music part to go along with those images. I like to jump back and forth between sound and picture. I had a great collaboration with the excellent mixer on that film, Dave Howe.
The sound of the film is made in layers. Some of the layers come from my own field recordings in Iraq – religious music, a radio playing somewhere, other sampled sounds – and of course I also made a lot of music in Logic Pro on my laptop. Then all the layers were placed into the film where Dave Howe mixed them together into 5.1.
What have been your main challenges in getting your films off the ground?
The main challenge is that nobody wants to pay to make films like these, and I am quite poor. So money is the main challenge, as usual. If you want to go make a film in Gaza, or in Iraq, in Afghanistan – it’s hard to get a production company interested in this – because it’s so risky. People who are in business don’t like to take big risks – they like a sure thing. And my films are all risky. That’s the main challenge – just finding the money to make the films about subjects I think are important. Usually, the more money a funder has, the fewer risks they can take.
The secret that they haven’t discovered is that documentary filmmaking – I mean real documentary filmmaking – is not a business. It is more like a religious calling, the requires sacrifice and devotion. It’s not something you can necessarily make money from.
But in a capitalist society people are mainly interested in making money, and so the film industry has changed the meaning of documentaries to fit the needs of capital.
The culture has changed in the United States – like in the last 20 or 30 years – where now documentary filmmaking is considered an extension of the entertainment media industry. So a documentary should have a main character and a story – a narrative arc – in the same way that fiction filmmaking is expected to. Viewers have come to expect that documentary films are light entertainment.
So if you want to make a film about civilians in a war zone, or a film about a genocide that is happening, people in the film business will look at you like you’re crazy. They will say: “Cay you make it a bit more entertaining? Can you make it in English? Can you make it about Americans?” It’s like making films for illiterate children. It is assumed within the USA film industry that there is no mature audience for documentary filmmaking. So that’s a challenge.
On the other hand, my films have been very well received by critics, and won lots of awards – so by comparison to the struggles of many filmmakers, I think I’m doing okay.
And how have you changed through the filmmaking process?
I have become much more cynical about the business side of filmmaking. The process of making a film is still a joy to me – as long as I’m working with good people – but the money side of filmmaking is really terrible.
There are a lot of fake and shameless people in the film industry, and it’s hard to know who you can really trust. So the challenge is to throw away that cynicism when I’m making a film, focus on real things, and deal with the business problems later.
And in regards to our film SODO EXPRESS and some of the music of yours we are using.
Some of the tracks you mention were made for my IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS film in that way – as beds.
Reson Drone, Cloud Shadows, and the Wheatharvest Machine Sound are all in that category, and I think only Cloud Shadows actually got used in the final mix.
Cloud Shadows combines a few different layers that I thought sounded magnificent together – and I should mention that these tracks were made on a 2004 Macbook in Logic – concurrently to my editing IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS in Seattle. The main ambient layers are all done in Apple’s modeling synth. I didn’t have a MIDI keyboard, so I used a combination of the typewriter keyboard with a Wacom pen stylus.
I made things one piece at a time and then I would edit them by hand inside Logic, because all the beds are pretty simple. I would hold a note on the keyboard and then play with the modeling using the pen tool. Running it through some effects and a few layers of reverb – just playing around until I found nice sounds – and bam! you find something.
The helicopter-like sound in Cloud Shadows is just to be an audio reminder of the helicopters that appear earlier in the film … but it’s also a very satisfying kind of sound. Anyway, the point was to have audio complexity without note complexity. The challenge is like – how much can you do with only one note change? What can you do to enhance a film using only layered textural effects instead of a melody per se?
For the Wheat Harvest Machine sound – this is just an artificial, atmospheric machine sound that I made – there was a scene on this Kurdish farm in northern Iraq where they have this huge wheat harvest with this rented machine – which I filmed – but then we never used that scene in the film – and so consequently we never had a chance to use my music Wheat Harvest Machine sound effect. 🙂
It’s been great for us to meet and speak with someone such as James and we feel particularly proud to say we have worked with his music and his audio to create a certain meaning and atmosphere in our film SODO EXPRESS.
For more info on James check out a whole Q&A below presented by the Hong Kong Documentary initiative.
PURCHASE A JAMES LONGLEY PRINT AND SUPPORT INDEPENDENT DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKING
All of James Longley’s films have been made independently of major studios and broadcasters. This has allowed Longley to approach subjects not covered well in our media, such as the perspectives of civilians in Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and Pakistan.
James’s independent documentary films have been distributed and seen all over the world, and continue to expand awareness and understanding.
When you collect a James Longley print you become the owner of a beautiful piece of documentary art. At the same time, you support Longley’s continuing documentary film and photography work, and his local crew members and film participants.
Please visit https://www.saatchiart.com/account/artworks/1658424 to see the prints currently available and go check his instagram out here.
James Longley has been nominated for two Academy Awards and won three Jury Awards at Sundance – for Directing, Cinematography, and Editing – among many other heartwarming accolades.