It’s been an interesting season for Lion composers Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka. Receiving their first Oscar nominations for their work on Garth Davis’ directorial debut, the pair are the only composers who have kept pace with La La Land’s Justin Hurwitz, with nominations at four elite award shows—the Critics’ Choice Awards, the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, and the Oscars. Though O’Halloran and Hauschka are longtime friends, dating back to an initial encounter in Northern Italy, Lion marks their first cinematic collaboration, reflecting the composers’ shared interests in both classical and avant-garde compositions. Speaking with Deadline before departing for the BAFTAs—their latest award season destination—the composers explain their methods in cultivating texture and emotion within their music.
What was your first impression when discovering Lion?
Dustin O’Halloran: When we saw the first cut, it was pretty well formed. It went through a few different incarnations, but it was pretty close to the final cut. Even with the temp music that [director Garth Davis] had at the time, which was mostly Hauschka and I’s music, it was really, really strong. I think, both of us, when we saw it, we just knew it was going to be a really special picture.
You’ve been friends a lot time. How did you initially meet, and how did you come together to score this film?
Hauschka: I met Dustin the first time in the north of Italy. I was playing a show in a small town called Ferrara, and Dustin appeared around the sound check with our manager, Tim [Husom], who is now both of our manager. He was asking if I could tell him a little bit about the prepared piano, so I showed him a couple of things. He stayed for the concert, and I had the feeling at that time already that we would be longtime friends—after that, we were always in touch.
We followed each other’s careers, concerts, and then we were, as well, on the same label. We played in some concerts back to back; we even played one show in Berlin together with two pianos. So it developed. Then I was in Melbourne, performing in 2015, in November, and Garth Davis came to the show, and after the show, he asked me if I would be interested in working on Lion—he would love to have me focusing more on the first part of Lion—on the Indian part—and he has another composer in mind for the second half.
I said to him, “Yeah, that can be difficult if you don’t know the person. Who is it?”
He said, “It’s Dustin.” And I said, “Dustin O’Halloran? Man, Dustin is such a long friend of mine, and is someone I can work with on a movie that has a lot of challenges.” We were very happy and thrilled about this coincidence.
Is this idea of divvying up the score in sections workable, given the right conditions?
O’Halloran: It was the first time that I’ve done that, but I also feel that it can only really work if the two composers really know each other, and have a good respect, and are familiar with each other’s working process, which we are, because we’ve toured a lot together, and we spend a lot of time in each other’s studios. I’ve gone to visit him in Düsseldorf, and he’s been to Berlin a lot, where I have a studio.
You have to know that you can sit in a room with somebody, and feel comfortable, and get into it. We have such a respect for each other’s music that I don’t think we ever felt like it was a battle of ideas. We both wanted to do the best for the film, and Garth also had a very clear vision of what he wanted, so we were always trying to work together to find the best ideas, and the things that would resonate the most.
I think that it’s great when you have somebody that you trust because it’s a very lonely process, and it’s a lot of work. Having somebody find what’s good about your music, or see different things in your music, it can be a nice way to collaborate, and bring new life to your music.
What kind of mood were you going for with the Lion score, and what instrumentation did you settle on?
Hauschka: When we saw the movie the first time, we felt like it’s a very intense, emotional movie. We were very aware of the fact that it would be very difficult not to get, in a way, too emotional, or to overdo certain scenes. I think in the beginning, we just tried to work in a very restrained and subtle way, to find a way to give scenes nuances.
Garth was actually asking two pianists [to complete the score], so piano was definitely one part that he had already in the temp music. We felt like it maybe needed some stripped down, very quiet strings sections. We decided to work, as well, with a quartet, and a bigger chamber ensemble, very few electronics, and some prepared piano. In total, I think we used four pianos, so the sound of the pianos were very important for us. It was quite a challenge to find diverse sounds of that instrument.
The dramatic thrust of Lion hinges on a train, and in certain pieces, it seems as though you’re simulating the movement of a train through music. Was that an intended effect with this score?
Hauschka: Especially the piece that is called “Train,” which is actually the second piece in the score, I think, in a way, it doesn’t stand for the train. It much more stands for the emotional state of the boy, because he’s lost. There is some driving momentum in these arpeggios from the strings, but when I saw the train going over the bridge, and you see the lightening and the thunder in the back, I really felt like a violin has to play a very wild arpeggio. I was not really thinking about the train as a moving vehicle, to make a sound or a score for that.
At the same time, there is another train cue a little later, where the older Saroo is on the train, and I think that was something where I felt that the repetition and the repetitive patterns were moving in the same way as the train. I think that’s definitely something—that the whole music has a driven, journey kind of character—which I really like about it.
There is so much variation in the color and intensity of the piano playing throughout the film, and so much emotion produced through the individual touch of the pianist.
O’Halloran: The way a piece of music is played is just as important as the notes themselves. The one thing with Hauschka and I, in our music, the way we play it is such a big part of the sound, and I can’t play the way he plays, and he can’t play the way that I play. It’s so particular to our individual touch; it transmits a lot.
It was interesting to realize how, when he played a certain piece of music, it just brought it to life in a completely different way, and if I played it, I have a really soft touch, and it was great because we really needed both of those dynamics. It was a great asset for us both to be able to perform the music; I think you feel a little bit closer to the music when the composer is playing it.
How long did it take you to come to your main theme for the film?
O’Halloran: In the beginning, Garth was looking for a main theme that could follow through the film, that we could do different variations of, because it’s a pretty epic story, and it’s a tale of constant momentum. There’s searching, and longing, and there was something that he really wanted to be able to represent through the film, and not just have individual pieces of music. It needed to feel connected.
This main theme that we came up with, it’s minimalistic in some ways, and a simple piece of music, but it took us a long time to find the right balance of chords that were emotional, that could tell the story. It had to feel honest and not overly emotional—that’s a really delicate line. One chord can completely take it in a different way, so we worked hard to find just the right elements.
Once we unlocked that, Garth was really excited about it, and we were able to do different versions of it. There’s a prepared piano version, “River,” which is really different from the opening, which is on a Grand [Piano], and more open. So we had a lot to work with, once we unlocked that main theme.
To you, what does the prepared piano bring to the music?
Hauschka: The prepared piano has a lot of specialties; it can sound really like a drum, or extremely percussive. It can sound pretty detuned—even like a sitar sometimes. It can actually change from key to key because I’m preparing each key quite different. What is interesting about it is that you can actually play in one instrument all sorts of different sounds that, in a way, sound a little bit like a band, or like many instruments at the same time. I used it, for example, for the scene when the body snatchers are trying to get little Saroo. I used a lot of the percussive pieces to actually create this kind of panic. I think that felt pretty natural, to use the piano as a kind of drum, and using very muted notes, and repeat them pretty fast. On the other side, there’s also some foreign sounds in there that could actually be Indian, or could also be in another southern country. It has some attachment to that.
Does the prepared piano account for the percussive sounds heard through much of the score?
Hauschka: Yeah, but I also picked the strings a lot. I was also using EBows, for example—you use them for electric guitar, and they do a steady kind of note. I use those for creating drones inside of the piano. So it’s a mixture of getting a kind of density with all sorts of sounds, and at the same time, sometimes the metal, string sound is appearing in a pretty strange way. For texture, it’s very nice, as well.
What was the biggest challenge you faced on Lion?
O’Halloran: I think probably for us, it was really just to find the emotional space to capture the right performances. It’s very restrained, and there’s not a lot of elements—there’s not a big orchestra. It’s basically piano, prepared piano, a small ensemble of strings, and a few other textural, sort of ambient sounds that we created. To create the power and the emotional impact that we needed to happen in the film with a few elements means that the performances are vital, and the way it’s recorded is vital. There was so much recording and rerecording, and getting the right take, and that was the biggest challenge. It was a lot of trial and error we had to go through to find the right space—it’s such a curated score, and the film is very curated, itself.