In 2015 edition of Polish Film Festival. Los Angeles ‘Warsaw By Night’ will be screened, we had an interview with Alex Gruz, who is the music composer for this beautiful film.
Alex Gruz is a young Warsaw-born and UK-based composer with a strong focus on innovation, and emotion. His constant thirst for finding new sounds and capturing the beauty of the moment translates into deep, moving pieces that subtly enhance the emotion of a scene they are written for. As a conceptualist, Alex writes his music with strong attention to detail, making sure his pieces are coherent and well thought through. Although still in the early stages of his career, he has an uncanny ability to communicate with people and take feedback on the journey to constantly improving his work. In 2015 Alex has written his debut feature score for a psychological drama ‘Warsaw By Night’, a modern electronic score that bursts with emotions yet doesn’t overpower film’s intimate character. He is also the co-founder of PITCHBLACK, a series of revolutionary music concerts in complete darkness where audience may get fully lost in the music and themselves. He performs at the events along with carefully selected fresh music talents from the UK. He is currently working on various new music projects, as well as his debut solo EP. He is constantly on the lookout for new film scoring opportunities- his true passion, especially with directors who put emphasis on exploring and capturing the modern world through their work.
Bijan Tehrani: What motivated you to enter the field of film music composition?
Alex Gruz : The paths of film and music have been crossing in my life since I was about 3 years old. My parents are film directors, so I have been exposed to the art of making movies for as long as I can remember. In the beginning I used to be really into the action side of things, so I have seen stuff like “Pulp Fiction” or “Goodfellas” by the age of 9. I have always loved how Tarantino, Lynch or Scorsese use music to give their scenes this immense power and vibe. But I would watch pretty much anything, as my parents would take me along to the cinema every time they went. I have also been to a few film sets when I was younger. When I was 12 I visited the set of “The Pianist”, where my dad was an assistant director and that has had a pretty big impact on me- seeing how really big movies are made. I started being fascinated by music fairly early on as well. I was born in Warsaw, which as I was growing up in the early 90s was still a pretty depressing place after the fall of communism. Basically everyone was poor, so there were many things that you couldn’t get. My parents would sometimes go overseas for festivals or shoots and they’d always bring me a little present. I remember when I was about 3 years old my mum went abroad for some film festival and brought me a little toy piano. As soon as I touched the keys I knew I wanted to make music, there was something magical about sound that really captured my imagination. Also, my dad has got this ridiculous music collection that includes hundreds and hundreds of records in pretty much any genre you can possibly imagine, so I have started making good use of that from pretty early on too. That has helped me develop a fairly eclectic taste in music, which helps a lot when you’re scoring films. In my teen years I would play in rock bands and at that point I didn’t even consider making music for film. But a few years later, when I was studying modern music composition in Brighton, UK, my friend has asked me to score his student film. At that point something really clicked and I fell in love with combining sound and picture- I really believe music can make or break a film, but weirdly in my opinion the best film music is often almost invisible to an average cinema-goer. I am somehow drawn to this paradox and I also feel there hasn’t been an awful lot of innovation in film music recently. Apart from a massive rise in the “Hans Zimmer-ish” type of music, which I really like, there hasn’t been any major developments in sound for picture. Most people seem to follow an easy path. Much of it is still orchestra-based, which is great, but then there’s this entire side of modern music that I’m influenced by that virtually hasn’t been that explored at all, but I really believe it could bring a lot to the table in terms of vibe, especially to films set in modern times. I’m on the constant lookout for innovation and capturing the vibe of the times we live in that’s what motivates me to continue making film music and just music in general.
BT: In WARSAW BY NIGHT your music does not impose itself over the film or try to be too expressive, what I really liked about it is that it works like an additional character in the film and ads to our understanding of the film by helping the mood of the film. Was this intentionally done?
AG: Absolutely, from very early on we (me and the director) knew that we needed music that doesn’t overwhelm the viewer, something that subtly takes him or her through the meanders of the story. Having watched the film without music, it felt like many of the little details that were crucial to the understanding of the story got lost without a gentle musical emphasis. It really needed music that, as you said, worked like an additional character and brought the main heroines together. The thing is that they all have a lot in common, but it isn’t obvious without an additional layer of explanation and that often is the role of music in the film. I must say I am rarely a fan of music that “takes over” the scene with its expressiveness- music can be “visible”, emotional and crucial to the scene, but it should usually be balanced with what’s happening on the screen. There are films and scenes where expressiveness works very well though- I think the rules are meant to be broken, hence my frequent use of “often” and “usually” in this interview. I wish I could say that some things are set in stone when it comes to art, but they really aren’t. Most of my favorite works of art come from ideas or concepts I would have never thought work on paper. Coming back to “Warsaw By Night” – not many people know this, but I have also decided to write most of background music that plays in the club, house party, restaurant and strip club. There were only three or four cues that I haven’t composed myself. Sometimes I can be a bit of a creative control freak and I have felt that music in those diegetic bits is almost as important as nondiabetic score. A large chunk of the movie takes place in the club “Warsaw”- it’s where all the characters meet and many essential plot turns happen- so I just couldn’t let go and go for some stock production music in those bits, I felt responsible for the entire musical vibe of the film, but I also really felt challenged to create something with concept and some sort of integrity. I do a lot of electronic music on a daily basis, I also produce tracks with other artists, so it hasn’t felt too out of place to write these bits either.
BT: At what stage did you get involved in the project?
AG: I have been involved in the project from the start, which has helped me understand what the film was about and really get the feel for what the director wanted and what I wanted, so we could create something that worked for both of us. I believe that is pretty much unheard of in the film or music industries, most of the projects I work on are very time-conscious and sometimes because of that you haven’t got time to think stuff through. This can be beneficial, as many good projects I have done creatively are done under intense time pressure, so you just go with your intuition. But “Warsaw By Night” is quite a subtle and delicate film, main characters are women and the emotional depth of what they’re going through requires really tuning in to the story. It would have been extremely difficult to just join that film at the post-production stage, as I don’t think I could get many of the intricacies of the story. As this was my first major project, I am really glad I got lucky and had the chance to be part of the production of the film from the beginning to an end. It has helped me gain amazing perspective on the whole process and gave time to develop understanding of what works and what doesn’t in terms of film music. I have also attended the shoot a couple of times, enabling me to clock quite early on what the vibe of the finished piece was going to be like.
BT: To compose the music for WARSAW BY NIGHT, did you read the script or watched the final edit of the film?
AG: As I got involved early on, I have had an opportunity to read the script a few times. Music for the house party and Iga’s dance has been written before the shoot, so they played it during the set in order to help actors get more into the atmosphere of these scenes. However, I still don’t know whether this has in any way helped with actually scoring the final piece. When you’re reading a script you imagine many things completely differently to what they end up as. Even though I am still very young and early on in my career, I think even as a mature composer you can only have a limited knowledge of what the film will look like just by reading the script. Many bits and pieces get swapped around, cut out or altered during the shoot, as well as in postproduction, so you end up with something that often doesn’t really reflect what’s in your head after you first read the script. When I initially went through the script of “Warsaw By Night”, a lot of the emotional depth that happened in the final edit wasn’t there at all- it felt more like a romance/ comedy/drama, but ended up being more of a psychological drama. I think the changes are for good though, as I really disliked the ending of the original version – it was “cheesy” and detached from reality. I think at the moment the film really doesn’t end in a conventional way, the story is left in there unresolved in many ways and I absolutely love it, as that’s how stuff usually happens in life. You sort some things out, but there are emotions and events that remain in you that never end- you just learn how to deal with them as you get older. Obviously, this is part of life that as a young person I still have a lot to learn about, but I really felt that the ending was very real- you don’t see that a lot in cinema, so I really respect that. It was a bold editing decision.
BT: How closely you worked with NATALIA KORYNCKA-GRUZ director of the film to create your composition? Did she had any input in the process?
AG: We have worked very close together throughout the process even though she was in Warsaw the whole time and I spent pretty much the entire time in Brighton where I live. So a lot of communication has been happening through video chat or email, which was good, as it has enabled me to receive very clear feedback in writing- something you don’t get when you watch the film together in the same room with a director. Natalia had a very clear vision of what she wanted musically from the start- she wanted the music to be transcendental, cosmic. She wanted to take the viewer into another dimension, so she or he can really experience the ambiguity of emotions that the main characters go through. We did the standard music spotting session where we chose the scenes where music was necessary and established the emotion of each of those fragments. Saying that, once I got an initial brief from her, I got given a complete freedom in terms of form, genre and instrumentation. It was so refreshing to work with someone on that level and not have them limit your creative scope. I have worked on small student films where director was very close-minded, which in the end harmed his own product. My job as a film composer is to work as closely as possible with film directors and listen to what they have to say, so their vision for the film is realized, but I find that often the best creatives are the ones who relay that vision and then let the others do their job rather than breathe on your neck throughout the entire process.
BT: Did you have any re-write of the music?
AG: Yes, there were two or three cues where I had to do re-writes. Strip club music proved to be especially difficult, as I couldn’t quite find the right vibe for the place. I did it six or seven times and it’s still one bit of the film I’m not entirely happy with. It was very hard to balance out the dark energy of gentlemen’s club with an intense conversation Helena is having with the love of her life. Whatever I did, it didn’t seem to express the grotesque vibe of the scene, so in the end we had to get the first half of the tune from the music library. Still, that was a massive learning curve and it has taught me a lot about my strengths and weaknesses, which is essential if you want to keep on improving and not get stuck in one place musically. I also had to slightly alter one of Helena’s themes, as it was originally written with orchestral parts in, but as the score progressed we decided using orchestra so sparsely would have been detrimental to the integrity of the whole score.
BT: Are there any film music composers that may have influenced your work?
AG: Yes, most definitely. My absolute favorite is Mark Isham- his score for “Crash” is a masterpiece and I still listen to it all the time 11 years after the film was originally released. I really like Vangelis for what he’s done to innovate music scores with electronic sounds. I respect Hans Zimmer for his amazing feel and melody skills- everything he writes is so catchy, I love it so much. He’s also created his own sound that everyone seems to try to copy at the moment, which says it all- he’s done some really great stuff. In terms of “Warsaw By Night”, my big influence was the score for “Skyfall” by Thomas Newman- not in terms of sound but in terms of the cosmic vibe. I must say a lot of my influences come from outside of the film scoring world though. I am an avid fan of new music and listen to at least 20 new tracks a week. It keeps me inspired and keeps me up to date with what’s going on sound-wise. From electronic stuff I love James Blake and Mura Masa, they are really “out there” when it comes to making fresh sound. But I’m not ashamed to say I love a lot of stuff that’s in the charts too like Kendrick Lamar, MØ or The Weekend. I do think film composers sometimes overlook that side of the music scene, thinking pop music or electronic music haven’t got a place in the film world who is traditionally orchestra-dominated, but I believe the exact opposite.
BT: Has your earlier experience in the field of composing and playing music has helped you with composing your first film track?
AG: Yes, there is no way I would have been able to write anything at all if I didn’t have years and years of experience making music. When I write for movies I focus on the image and emotional impact of the scene, making the actual notes I’m playing secondary in a way. It’s a very intuitive process for me and without at least some level of instrument skills and composition experience I don’t think it can be done. My previous experience has really given me the musical backbone that I can rely on when I write. However, I still have loads and loads to learn- I practice guitar and piano as often as I can, and I’ve just started learning trumpet.
BT: After this first experience, are interested to continue your career as a music composer?
AG: Of course, it was a great experience and writing music for a feature film for the first time was one of the most exciting things I have ever done.
BT: Polish Film Festival Los Angeles is now a well-known event in US film industry, do you think it can help Polish cinema to get more exposure and possibly US distribution deals?
AG: I certainly hope so. The Polish cinema has come a long way. Paradoxically Polish film school was really well-known in the film world when Poland was still an oppressed communist country, with directors like Roman Polanski or Krzysztof Kieslowski making some of the best movies at the time. For some reason early democracy has destroyed Polish cinema’s reputation, but now, for the last 10 years or so, there seems to be a new wave of good Polish movies, which I’m very excited about. I think the Polish Film Festival Los Angeles is an amazing project that happens just in the right time and in the right place. I have looked through previous programmers, as well as the current schedule and it looks great, so I can’t wait to attend it! As for the US distribution deals, I don’t really know much about the business side of things of film distribution and I don’t know any numbers, so can’t really comment on it.