For much of her career, composer Lolita Ritmanis dreamed of tackling an “epic” Latvian film, in tribute to her heritage as a Latvian-American. In 2019, she finally was able to do so with Blizzard of Souls, penning deeply affecting music, which landed her on the Oscars’ shortlist for Best Original Score.
Directed by Dzintars Dreibergs, the adaptation of Aleksandrs Grīns’ 1934 novel of the same name centers on Arturs (Oto Brantevics), a 16-year-old who enlists as a rifleman in the Imperial Russian Army, going on to witness the horrors of World War I. For the historical drama, Ritmanis wrote 75 minutes’ worth of music, which would be performed by a full symphony orchestra and the award-winning State Choir Latvija.
Strangely, while Blizzard of Souls is exceptional on the whole, its score alone is what has resonated widely stateside. While the feature was selected as Latvia’s entry for Best International Feature Film, its road to Oscar came to an end, when shortlists were unveiled on February 9.
Since then, though, Ritmanis has picked up speed as a contender. Just last night, the Emmy winner and founder of the Alliance for Women Film Composers picked up the Society of Composers & Lyricists’ award for Outstanding Original Score for an Independent Film.
In conversation with Deadline, the composer breaks down her approach to crafting her powerfully “internal” score. Additionally, she touches on her hopes for more inclusivity in Hollywood, with regard to the composers chosen for “big, cinematic films” like hers.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with Blizzard of Souls?
LOLITA RITMANIS: It’s a project that I became aware of about six years ago, when I got a call from the director, Dzintars Dreibergs. I’m Latvian, the film is from Latvia, and I had in a previous interview expressed my desire to score a film in Latvia. “I would love to do an epic film with beautiful cinematography”—and I just kind of left it at that.
I was happily pursuing my career in Los Angeles, and then I get this call. At first, I thought it was somebody pulling a prank, and it actually ended up materializing into this glorious event, something very powerful and important in my life.
DEADLINE: When Dzintars approached you, did he already have a specific concept in mind for the score?
RITMANIS: The interesting thing about Dzintars is that he really wanted to hear my creative vision for the score first, so he did not have a temp track. But one thing that was very clear from the beginning is, he did not want to have it be a score that glorified the violence, and glorified war in any way. It was very much from the point of view of our main character, Arturs, so it’s through his eyes. I would also say it’s maybe a little bit through the eyes of his mother, who’s killed early in the film, but it’s definitely shot through the perspective of our young character.
I flew to Latvia when we were ready to actually spot the film, and we had several meetings. I wanted to get to this comfort zone where he would feel comfortable really saying what he feels, and it was clear that he was not looking for an Americana approach to a war film. He didn’t want the trumpets in fifths. I mean, some of the wonderful scores that I love are [for] war films scored in this country, but he very much did not want to go that route.
He wanted to have something more internal. It doesn’t necessarily translate when the director says, “I want something more internal, so let’s hire a hundred musicians plus choir, and have a big score.” [Laughs] But it ended up being a lot of bodies playing a deeply internal kind of score. Sometimes, it’s wide and expansive to show the scope of what Arturs is feeling, but [it’s] definitely symphonic, with choral aspects.
DEADLINE: Tell us about a couple of major creative breakthroughs, or moments of discovery in putting the score together.
RITMANIS: Well, there was an interesting thing that happened towards the end of the film. It’s very much a coming-of-age picture, so when our main character is older, and he is training the younger boys to fight for their country, there’s a piece of music that I wrote. The director ended up wanting to bring that piece forward, earlier into the picture. So, I rewrote a piece that had already been approved and was ready to be recorded, because this particular piece of music really spoke to him.
There’s very little music in the huge battle scenes. They’re played almost [in] a documentary style, and then the music comes in more as a commentary after, when there’s a realization of the immediacy of life and death. That’s where music would come in, so I think there was a lot of creative spotting, picking out where music would be and where it would not be. That took a lot of care, and it was essential that I go to Latvia to spend this time with the director and editor, so then when I came back to Los Angeles, the back-and-forth of sharing music and getting notes was much…I don’t want to say easier, because there’s nothing easy about finding the right tone. But it was more of a good workflow after that because we had developed a vocabulary.
DEADLINE: What inspired you to incorporate choral parts into the score? And how did you arrive at the decision to record them with the State Choir Latvija?
RITMANIS: I very much wanted to use the choir, just because of [my] deep, deep love of choral music, and and also just the fact that Latvians, traditionally, there’s so many folk songs, and it’s very much part of the culture. Then, [there was] the fact that Latvia has some of the top, top choirs in the world. There’s not just one great choir; there’s probably 30 in the country that are award winning. The State Choir Latvija sight-read the music the first time, and it was just mind-blowing, how beautiful and perfect it was.
Then, I had the great advantage of [having] written a concert piece that was being performed in Toronto about a month before I flew to Latvia to record Blizzard of Souls. This choir was performing at the same festival and I heard them sing, and I actually completely rewrote the end prayer song after I heard them sing, because I realized that I could do something a little bit different. I was very inspired by hearing their performance.
DEADLINE: What kinds of arrangements did you write for them?
RITMANIS: Basically, the choir, except for the last piece, was part of the orchestra. So, there were times where they were featured as the orchestra played something, and then the women’s voices might just be a part of [that], with syllables—without text, per se, but just “oohs” and “aahs,” and other syllables, as if they were instruments, as part of the orchestra.
Again, the exception [was] the final prayer. The director at one point had talked about using an existing song from that time, and I said, “Well, why don’t I give it a shot and write something new, and take text from the book that the movie is based on?” I assured him that there would be no successful way to preview this piece for him before we actually recorded with the choir, so he trusted me to just bring it to the stage and have them sing it. That ended up being the big finale over the credits.
So, choral writing, as such, is not foreign to me. I’ve done quite a bit of choral writing, and I would say 95% of it was written out. There was only one section where there were some improvised syllables, when Arturs is having a little bit of a hallucination after a battle.
DEADLINE: What about this project did you find most challenging?
RITMANIS: The biggest challenge was a joy and a challenge—mainly a joy—that Dzintars, this was his first narrative feature film. He does a lot of other work in documentaries, so I wanted to make sure that he was comfortable asking for as many changes, and as much evolving kind of collaboration over time [as was necessary]. Music has such a big stamp on this film that he was worried at times, as I was, too. I wanted to make sure that it was the exact voice that he wanted for the film, and we took care to make sure that all of us were happy at the final result. Then, you just kind of have to let your baby fly and see what happens.
As an active composer in Los Angeles, I’ve been working since I was 18, and [this film] presented this huge landscape, with these incredibly beautiful cinematographic moments, and this poetic kind of approach. So, it was a real dream for me to be able to score this.
I would also say that as a woman composer, I’m an active advocate of having diverse voices be brought into the Hollywood vernacular. This opportunity does not come every day for women composers, and I felt very fortunate to have this opportunity. I just wanted to write my heart out, and write the best possible score that I could write. Every note was very well thought out and crafted, and these accolades that have come because of that were not the reason for doing it. So, emotionally and creatively, it’s all just been a very deeply satisfying experience, and one that I wish for many of my colleagues that sometimes are not given the opportunity to score something of this magnitude.
DEADLINE: How did you feel when you heard that you’d made the Oscars shortlist? Obviously, I should note that this year, you were the only female composer to make the cut.
RITMANIS: Of course, I was elated and cried tears of joy when I heard the news. It wasn’t, “Oh, this is tokenism of some sort, and my colleagues are happy that there’s a chance for them to recognize my work.” I do think some of it is because maybe there is some recognition of my work, and my advocacy, but I don’t think it’s enough to put me on the shortlist. I think people had to listen to the score and watch the film. So, I do feel strongly that if anyone would say, “Oh, well, she just is on there because she’s a woman,” that would be a very disappointing thing to hear from people.
So, I would just say, watch the film and listen to the music. My colleagues in this business, we really do root for one another, when there’s something that one of us does, and it stands out. I really don’t know that many people in the Academy, so it’s not like, “Oh yeah, they’re all going to vote for me.” So, I was just very moved that people had taken the time to watch this and listen, and that it had been recognized.
DEADLINE: As an activist in your field, are you satisfied with progress that’s been made in recent years, in terms of representation? What kinds of changes do you want to see?
RITMANIS: I think that there is movement being made. I think that it’s hard to get on the shortlist, if there are not women or people of color scoring the big films. This film is a big film from a small country. The fact [is], it’s not an intimate, little boutique drama.
Women have made incredible strides in independent film. There’s a lot more representation at places like Sundance and Tribeca. But as far as the big, cinematic films, it’s not as much. So, there’s still a long way to go. But I think having that landscape where any composer’s music can shine, we all hope for those moments.
I remember when I listened to Out of Africa, John Barry’s score, I thought, “Someday, I would like to score a film like that, where there’s these wide, expansive shots, and room for this deep expression.” This was that kind of dream for me, but there were no women scoring those big films then. So, I think that we have so many incredibly talented composers that just need to be given an opportunity to have a seat at the table.
It’s happening, and hats off to the Academy for pushing for more diversity and inclusion, but it’s really now about the directors and producers reaching out. I know there’s so many more women directors, but it’s like, “Okay, let’s take the next step, all the way through post-production and beyond.”
DEADLINE: Now that you’ve fulfilled one dream with Blizzard of Souls, is there another you’d like to cross off your bucket list?
RITMANIS: I would love to get the next beautiful feature or episodic television program of some sort, anything where there’s a good story. It doesn’t have to be Latvian—[it could be] an American blockbuster, or the next Homeland. [If there’s] good narrative, I’m there. I love the collaborative aspect of this business, and it’s nice to know that there’s always something new coming around the corner.