Rob Simonsen is an established film composer currently based in Los Angeles. Having produced music for 500 Days of Summer and All Good Things (alongside many other films) i caught up with him a few days ago just as his most recent project – Bennett Miller’s Moneyball – heads to the award shows. We decided, given the distance, to meet on a mutually convenient uncharted island – in the center of the Atlantic, accessible only by private jet and Skype.
Rob and I first met a few months ago on Instagram, a mobile photo-sharing community, and stayed in touch via that. What initially drew me to his music was the varied mixture of influences present in his sound- it wasn’t the cliched over-orchestral stuff the film world often appears to be saturated by, neither was it the inaccesible indie that never seems to make it into mainstream cinema – he seemed to juggle musical worlds, drawing on each of their strengths, to great effect – on occasions his work is elaborately orchestral yet at other times minimal, seemingly simple – with complex and immersive soundscapes.
I was curious, as an aspiring composer myself, to find out more – not just about the inner workings of the industry but also about what motivated Rob to embark on his journey and the origins of his relationship with music. What follows is a heavily abridged transcription of the conversation we had (with my bits cut off. in the linguistic, as opposed to rabbinical, sense).
“i play piano by ear- my grandma was a voice teacher and all the grandkids got music instruction and she was a big proponent of mine to continue and always made sure that i had keyboards and pianos to play and music education ( – which i mostly, roundly, rejected – i was a horrible student ! )
I just wanted to figure things out for myself and on my own .. i definitely was able to form my own emotional relationship to music; which i think is important .. so that’s kind of how it happened for me – i was just always playing and always noodling. Music was a retreat for me .. ”
Speaking about his time after high school (a period where Rob had first begun assisting friends with making films) –
“one of my friends directed a film and we spent a lot of time talking about the film and what it was gonna be and talking about the music and then – kind of on a whim – i had seen one of my good friends score a film for another friend of mine – i actually played piano on that score – and it just dawned on me – wow.. yeah.. music for movies! /// and when i was talking to my friend about his film (and this was Westender – this very ambitious medieval film, completely independent, low budget medieval epic which is a weird thing to try and pull off!).. but we did it and i said “I’ll score it- i’ll do the music” and he was like “yeaaah, and you’ll do the music!” and this was when it was gonna be a short … and over three years it ended up turning into a feature – i wrote about an hour and a half of orchestral music!
.. it was kind of perfect and i also liked the challenge – each film presented a new opportunity – a new sonic world! it could be electronic, or it could be orchestral, or it could be a guitar – a single guitar.. i feel like there’s so much to absorb and to learn and experiment with in the entire vernacular of all music that’s around .. and i feel like film is a really great opportunity for me to get my feet wet in a lot of different things; chinese instruments, icelandic folk, all these little musical quests that i get to go on and it’s great!”
A lot of Rob’s cinematic work has been done in collaboration with (and initially – under the mentorship of) composer Mychael Danna – here’s how that came about –
“the first film that i did opened at Seattle international film festival and i met Mychael Danna there – he was a guest speaker – and i absolutely loved what he had to say and he blew me away with his perspective and these clips from films with some of his score.. i was like – fuck, this guy is brilliant and approaches film in a way that i didn’t .. so i befriended him there and then about a year later we had both moved to LA at the same time and then we started working together –
i started out assisting him on “Being Julia” .. he called up and said “you wanna start work right now? he started to give me little musical assignments and if he was pleased with what i did he’d give me a little bit more at the next opportunity and he let me work my way up underneath him and years down the road we were sharing head credit – which was incredibly gracious of him and a really amazing thing for me to get the opportunity to write and collaborate on projects which were much much bigger than anything i would be able to get on my own”
Finally, here were Rob’s (reassuringly non-formulaic) thoughts on getting into the industry-
“the simple answer, that’s not really fun to hear, is that there’s no one route, there’s no one way – especially nowadays when mediums are changing so much, the film industry’s changing so much, peoples’ music tastes are changing so much and i think that they’e evolving..
i think that the most important thing is to have the music that you feel is you – that identifies you – and i think that being a film composer – your wheelhouse has to be fairly broad in order to keep working .. i’ve had a lot of opportunities come my way and i’ve said “yes” to a lot of them wherever i can, typically i take it on – i feel now my focus is on zeroing in on what my particular voice and style actually is – and i think that that’s a really important thing and i think that is naturally occurring for younger guys who are creating online presence and getting their music onto playlists that are blogged about and so forth..
Scoring student films can lead to some great things – there’s definitely composers around that formed relationships with guys that went on to be very important directors because they’d scored a student film .. and i think it’s important to know what that process is and get familiar with it- i had scored 3 features on my own before i’d ever started working with Mychael .. Score as many student films as you can- i truly believe that cream rises to the top … so .. if one was to score a short and it’s really great then those people that are involved in that film are gonna talk to their friends – if they’re film makers they typically have friends that are film makers – and word just gets around .. i can’t tell you how valuable that process has been to me – people just talk or that may just recommend me to a friend and that’s led to some really amazing opportunities ..
the other route is assisting people that are already doing this kind of work – it’s like a timeless relationship between apprentice and mentor and i don’t know that it exists as fully as it does in film – at least with me and Mychael – i owe him so much and so much of what i am today has been strengthened and carved out through his mentorship and i’m a thorough believer in that
so i think those are the 3 main ways- i think it’s probably important to work on all fronts – create your own sound, get your music out there, make your own connections with films”