Finding A Space: Interview with Composer Nathan Whitehead

By Niy Birden

Composer Nathan Whitehead

What do you expect from the composer of Keanu, the hilarious animal-friendly film starring two of the most recent breakthrough comedians of the era, Key and Peele? Would you expect the same things from the composer of The Purge series, which recently made waves not only for its inhumane storyline, but currently rather the political messages in it- or even the person who also did work for Desperate Housewives?

Nathan Whitehead happily lives in a contradiction of music creation. While he mentions that he does have more of a comfortability for horror films, his intention to consistently learn and adapt to new genres is what has helped his sounds thrive in various forms of media, whether it be video games, major films or even reality television.

In the sequel to the blockbuster hit Beyond Skyline, Nathan has found a way to cleverly create a space of unique (and we do mean incredibly unique) soundscapes fit for action movies, without the assistance of big budgets, but rather with the help of an elk bugle, of all things. Tiny breakthroughs like this show the real tenacity of a musician, whether they are in control of the music or not. Looks like the guy who had an identity crisis in his pop punk band has truly made a lane for himself.

Q: How did you get interested in film music, and who inspired you?

N: I got interested in film music I think in just always being a big movie fan and I started experimenting with music at an early age. Just playing the family piano. And that led to guitar. So I played guitar for years and wrote songs, got interested in punk rock and played in a pop punk band, but all of this time I think, the idea of just creating my own music-writing music rather than learning covers off songs, was much more appealing to write stuff. And it probably set me back in a way because as soon as I learned three chords on a guitar, I started writing music instead. I would rather write material with those 3 chords than practice some new chords.

Vertical Entertainment

It was through the punk band that I got introduced to working in a recording studio. We recorded like a 6 song ep- I was fresh out of high school actually, and shortly after that it sort of clicked that if I wrote music for movies or tv shows, or anything like that I -would get to be in my studio all the time. I really loved the studio process and I really loved writing.

And another thing that always popped up when I was in the band was sort of this identity crisis, like what is this band gonna be and what are we feeling? For whatever reason I felt like I had to figure out what the band was, which I don’t think was really important,but you know.

Q: Did that cause a lot of problems for you and the band members, or do you think that it made you guys stronger in a sense and more connected?

N: I wouldn’t say it caused problems, sometimes it caused mild disagreements, mostly it just made our songs all over the place style-wise [laughs], but that was that- it clicked- writing music for film, I could write in tons of genres. Maybe whatever the film needs. That’s easier said than done. You never know what opportunity you’re gonna get. I’ve done a lot of horror music, Beyond Skyline is this big action score. I’ve done big-band music . And back in my assistant days I wrote on Desperate Housewives for 2 and a half years.

That kind of genre hopping and getting to write all kinds of music, that was really the pull that kind of pulled me towards writing for film.

Q: I saw that you spent time discovering a lot of music from your parent’s records at home. Who were your favorite artists, and do you think that it played a very big role in the type of music that you wanted to do in the future?

N: As a kid, my parents listened to a lot of Beatles, and John Denver, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Simon and Garfunkle, but amazing songs, and those are all standouts, my Mom is a big Beatles fans. As far as shaping what I wanted to do, I think looking back I always appreciated we always had music playing in the house…

Even though we weren’t a musical family in terms of other musicians in terms of playing , the love, I think it did form this kind of connection and memories. I have 3 siblings which meant we were a family of 6, so we were always in this van.

I remember wherever we drove, the Beatles would be playing, and I remember my mom had this compilation of songs, soundtracks actually. I think it did leave a powerful impression on me.

Q: Is there anyone or anything you didn’t appreciate as a child, but now you really love them now?

N: That’s a great question. I think one of the things that makes me most excited about my job is that there’s always opportunities to keep learning. Some of my friends in L.A., orchestrators and big band leaders- when I moved to Los Angeles, I kind of got exposed to that. It was never something I thought I’d be as excited about when it came along, but then this project came along where they needed me to write a 3 and a half minute opening for their film.

Q: I guess you made a lot of drastic musical changes then?

N: It doesn’t feel that way. The music I’m writing has changed drastically in the sense that when I was writing punk songs, that’s a pretty far departure from when I was working for Steve [Blonsky]and writing music for Desperate Housewives. But I think it feels like a natural extension, because even though you are moving around in different genres, I feel like I’m putting my take on whatever that genre is.

It’s been a long time, but it does feel like a natural progression. I don’t always pull this off, but I think from the good times, you’re writing from your gut.

Q: Do you ever find yourself doing the same type of research and experimentation with film like you’ve done with other mediums, or is it a completely different process for you?

N: Yeah, for me its pretty similar, as far as the creating sound. and having this exploration phase. There are a lot of things about games that are different. You need to write music generally that is interactive, that can be structured in a way to respond to whatever is going on in the game, whatever the response is. There’s a lot of differences with the game, but I think overall I like to have a good amount of time on each project where I am just exploring sounds in a free-form way and find sounds that suddenly leap out, which is more of the gut-trusting process.

Q: You have a really eclectic music background, what genre do you think is the most satisfying or is there a genre that you always go back to?

This goes back to my identity crisis [laughs] when I played in the band- whether I’m gonna write slow, emotional rock songs or super fast, 3-chord aggressive punk songs, and I liked doing both. To me, it’s no different than our listening tastes. Maybe there are songs you love, genres you love. But generally speaking, people usually have music for different times and different moods, I think at times where it’s so much fun writing so many different genres. All the Purge scores have been super fun. Tons of textures that you’re weaving into that. And then recording some live strings on top of that, and then desperate housewives. Um, I did a Lifetime movie..

Q: -You did a lifetime movie?

N: -I did, a few years ago [laughs]. It had a good similarity to Desperate Housewives, but it was this tongue-in cheek, sly, wicked playful. That’s what I love,getting to skip through these different genres, so there’s not really one that I want to do exclusively or even primarily.

I think horror music, action music kind of is a bit more comfy to me, but I love it-to get to work with the director, and maybe try something new. And have the opportunity to learn about new types of music that I haven’t really learned before.

Q: Can you describe your creative process in this film, and what makes it unique, compared to the first movie?

The creative process was..we touched on a little bit about this exploration time, I think there was a lot of room for exploration in this movie, and that was exciting. It’s a big world, a big canvas, so to speak. It’s a big story to try to tell with music. And I think the scope of it, having martial arts sequence,having aliens of all different size, including the 8 story tall alien that turned out looking great. It’s a big range of intensity and emotions in the story. That was really exciting. And the big thing I really wanted to focus on, was something to represent. I wanted them to feel otherworldly. We did record some orchestra, there’s also a lot of synths, one thing that I really liked was the sound of elk.

My wife’s family, they live in Montana and there are elk there. Having family in Montana, I learned what elk sounds like. They make the sounds called a bugle. It’s just this high pitched whistling sort of sound. Elk are almost as big as horses. These huge animals, almost like horse, moving through the forest silently, and then they make this high pitched sound that echoes through the canyons, and its just eerie. But it’s not menacing, exactly. So, I ended up getting some of those recordings and getting them into the scores. They sort of represent the alien siren sound. You remember the first movie, I think the tagline for the movie was “don’t look up”- So there’s this blue light, this alien force that essentially is a way of controlling and vacuuming humans off the planet. When you see it, you kind of freeze and are under its power.

So that was just a lot of fun finding that sound and processing it and it had an otherworldly quality to it, and it had kind of an emotional quality to it, but not full on evil.

And then I play it for Liam, the director and he dug it. And that’s kind of a signature part of the sound now.

Q: Matthew Margeson- did you ounce ideas with him, or did you find yourself trying to incorporate the original themes into the movie?

Matt is a good friend of mine, known him for years. On this movie, on the second one, its not quite stand alone but its not as tightly connected to the first movie as a lot of sequels are.

Liam and the producers were interested in trying some new stuff. Visually, story wise and for the score. So we didn’t draw on themes from the first one, we kind of treated it as a little of a blank slate, which was fun. I’ve never been in a situation where I’m doing the sequel but I didn’t do the first movie and I have to pick up where the movie left off. I think that would be kind of tricky. Kind of a clean start.

Q: How does a movie’s budget impact your work?

N: It is wonderful to have a lot of musicians play on your score, its great to have a solid splinter with endless samples at your disposal. But, I think that stuff is not required to write a great score.

It might change things if you say “I am going to write a sweeping orchestral scorn the level of Star Wars”-but “I don’t have a good orchestra, I don’t have all these things”-but if you set out-I’m doing a student film, or short film and I want to know how can I communicate this emotion, connect with people who are watching this movie through the score? I think if you work backwards through there, then you can write a great score no matter what. And maybe it means just you playing acoustic guitar in your apartment, or I don’t know, playing a kazoo, a solo kazoo-

Q:-I think you’d have to be pretty good at kazoo to pull that off.

N:-[laughs] yeah I don’t know if my chops are quite there yet. But I think if you keep those things in mind, it’s not required to tell a meaningful story that connects with people.

Q: In that case, were you surprised by anything that came about the process or being in the film in general?

N: I think every project has this cane of surprises in a way…There’s generally a lot of days its intimidating starting a project. For Beyond Skyline, I didn’t’ know how much music it was gonna be, but I knew there was going to be a lot. I wrote over 2 hours of score for this. And it kind of got whittled down here and there, but…the elk recordings were a pleasant surprise. For Beyond Skyline we have a melody that is kind of a father-son theme for Mark and Trent.

Q: What was the last soundtrack that you listened to?

N: The last soundtrack I listened to was something like The Gigantic Marble Movie, gosh I’m blanking.

Q:Who is your favorite composer?

N: Oh man, its impossible to name only one- Cliff Martinez, Danny Elfman, John Bryan

Q: Cd, vinyl or streaming?

N: Ideally, vinyl, realistically [laughs] streaming.

Q:What kind of softwares do you use, if any?

N: I write in Cubase, I write in Protools for picture, video playback and as recorder for stems and multitrack recorder -and a lot of plugins, like key synths.

Q: Who’s a composer or filmmaker who you’ve always wanted to work with?

N: I would love to work with Jill Soloway- she did this movie Afternoon Delight a few years ago. I would love to score a Miranda July movie. She did this movie, You Me and Everyone We Know. I would love to work with Andrew Niccol, big fan of Lord of War….and I’m blanking on an Ethan Hawke movie about drones.

Q: Who do you think is a better fighter? Keanu, Key or Peele?

N: I’m gonna say Keanu, because I mean its this little kitten, but Keanu kind of destroys every, you know…he’s really cute but he’s unconquerable. He navigates gangsters and drug dealers. I’m gonna go with Keanu.

Q: Advice to those trying to get into the industry.

N: Write music as often as you can, ideally I think every day, whether it is for a project or not. I would say try to be educated , try to get educated on filmmaking and not just music- to condition your brain to think about storytelling and to also just know how to have a conversation about film. Learn about the technical stuff in making a movie. Learn about filmmaking as much as you can.

I also say have space in your life- I don’t know, to take walks, I think if you write in the studio and then you go for a walk and let it marinate in your brain, and I think it can be kind of magical, getting that space in your life to let ideas grow a little bit.

Q: What things do you have coming up or just working on? Any future plans?

N: Yes, primarily a playstation game. I can’t really announce right now [laughs]. It’s gonna be coming out very soon, I believe this year. But it’s a huge project, it’s been two years of my life- two and a half hours of music, we are mixing now, so I’m really excited to share that with everyone. And then-that’s the big one- there are rumblings about a t.v. show based on the Purge series. And I think that would be really cool. I’d love to be a part of that.

nathan whitehead, composer, beyond skyline, keanu, thepurge
nathan whitehead, composer, beyond skyline, keanu, thepurge