The following is an interview with film composer Giona Ostinelli, who – at 29 – has already scored over 25 feature films, many in collaboration with horror filmmaker Mickey Keating. In this interview, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor Barbra Dillon chats with Ostinelli about his initial interest in music, his creative approach to selecting each new project, his long-time collaboration with Keating, the upcoming projects on which he is working, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor: You have earned critical acclaim as a composer for the scores of over 25 feature films. When did your interest in music begin, and what was your inspiration?
Giona Ostinelli: My interest in music began at an early age. I first started playing drums when I was 5 years old, and yes, as you can imagine, my neighbors were extremely happy about that. Then, when I was 9, to make my neighbors even happier, I started learning piano, as well. Drums were great, but I always felt like I was only covering just one side of music, that’s why I started playing piano as well; it felt more complete. At the same time, while I was discovering music, I started taking an interest in films, as well. I used to have a small, 8mm camera, and I remember playing around with it, trying to recreate the famous scenes from Indiana Jones or Star Wars. I also tried reenacting some Star Wars scenes using LEGOs, but it never came out right. That’s when I figured that film director wasn’t really my future; however, I was always a huge fan of such iconic film scores as The Goonies, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Romancing The Stone, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Air Force One, and The Three Musketeers, and I knew for sure that was exactly what I wanted to do – write music for films.
BD: Did you pursue traditional musical training, and, if so, in what capacity?
GO: Yes and no. As I mentioned, I started studying drums first and piano after. I went to a music school that focused on a combination of classical and contemporary music. That was a really great and nourishing environment for me to grow professionally. With drums I got to explore a wide variety of styles ranging from blues to fusion, rock to jazz. With piano I received a solid classical training. The day after graduating high school, I was already in Boston getting ready to start a new school year at the renowned Berklee College of Music, where I extensively studied music for film. After that I went on to complete the prestigious Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program at the University of Southern California, where I was a selected protege of legendary Academy Award nominated film composer Alan Silvestri.
BD: Your film resume has included scores that range from classically orchestral to contemporary pop/rock. What attracts you to each new project, and do you find a creative fulfillment from being able to work with a wide variety of musical styles?
GO: What attracts me the most in every new project is a challenge. I love it when a film presents an opportunity to experiment and try new exciting things; it always boosts my creativity. Recreating something that has already been done before doesn’t particularly appeal to me; I’m always trying my best to bring something unique and fresh into each project. I love pushing myself over the limits. For example, in Darling that just had a smashing run at the Fantastic Fest, I got an opportunity to experiment creating a score that was a combination of classical/noir/sound design elements. There’s barely any dialogue throughout the whole film, so the music had to play a major role by basically being another character in the film. I was able to achieve that particular presence by creating a unique, hallucinatory soundscape, which features a heavily distorted Ondes Martenot. This instrument was combined together with various layers of pianos; however, a regular piano just simply wouldn’t work for such a particular film, so I designed a specific type of reverb that created a reversed piano effect. On top of these hypnotic, intricate sonorities, I occasionally introduced a distant solo trumpet, which added a disturbing noir element that worked perfectly with the black-and-white images.
Another great example would be The Boat Builder, a drama starring Christopher Lloyd and Jane Kaczmarek, which we just finished mixing at George Lucas’ facility, Skywalker Ranch. Besides the two main characters, there’s another important, invisible element in the film that required its musical presence – the ocean. To achieve that, we recorded various rare ethnic winds to recreate the hypnotic sound of the waves. The overall score for The Boat Builder features an intimate chamber ensemble joined by jazzy guitars and piano. On the other hand, the score for Carter High, a drama starring Vivica Fox, Charles Dutton, Pooch Hall, and David Banner, is completely different. Following the true emotional story of the Carter High School football team, the score is heavily influenced by hip-hop culture. I wanted to have the music reflecting the environment that surrounded the young athletes. So, instead of following a path of a big traditional orchestral score, I opted for something different, which was hip-hop in combination with marching band and electric guitars. As you can see, I do love working with a variety of different genres and music styles. I think it comes from me playing and experimenting with different instruments in different styles while growing up.
BD: Can you take us through your artistic process of composing a film score? From where do you find your inspiration?
GO: The process usually starts with the initial conversation with a director. I always read the script; however, before reading it, I want to know the director’s prospective on the story and what kind of movie he wants to make. Then, I move on to reading the script and writing some initial ideas based on what we discussed; however, the real process doesn’t start until I have a rough cut to work with. The film itself, its pace, is a clue. At this point you’re dealing directly with material as opposed to just the idea of it.
Orchestration, choice of music sonorities and instruments, melodic development – all of those lie within the film. You simply have to be able to watch the film for the first time with no preconceived idea on how the score has to sound and let the film speak for itself. At this point I start writing to picture, and I usually tend to write chronologically. I like the idea of the score evolving and developing together with the film and its characters. As I progress with the scoring, I find new elements and sonorities along the way, so once I get to the end of the film, I usually revisit earlier scenes and give them a second look. I keep tweaking the score until the director and producers are 100% satisfied with the result. This is incredibly important to have the director involved as much as possible, since you want him to enter the final mix with a total confidence in the score. The actual process of scoring can take anywhere from 1.5 weeks to several months. It all comes down to how much time is available. After the writing process is completed, we then go to the studio and record the score. On top of recording an ensemble or orchestra the score requires, I often collaborate with extraordinary soloists who bring their own unique character into the music. This way I try to achieve a unique sound for each of my scores. Following the recording, I then turn the materials to my mix engineer who mixes all the musical elements together and prepares the score for the dub stage, where the whole film comes to life.
Regarding inspiration, I find it by watching the film and collaborating with the director. It might also come from trying out various music ideas that eventually might not work; however, they often help you out in finding a different approach that you would never even think of unless you hit the wall with the previous idea. The film can inspire you in various ways – the way the actors talk or look at each other, the lighting, settings, the way the camera moves, the pace of the editing . . . The score can’t feel disconnected from the film itself, so I think as a composer you have to draw inspiration directly from various elements on screen.
BD: You have been a longtime collaborator of Mickey Keating, with recent releases including Pod, Darling, and Ritual. Do you find that working with Keating repeatedly has benefited your shared creative process?
GO: Most definitely yes. Mickey and I first started working together in early 2012. Lionsgate’s Ritual was our first collaboration, and we were “discovering” each other. For Ritual Mickey gave me a very specific music direction, which I thought worked extremely well, so I took it and expanded it. With POD Mickey had a precise idea on the score, as well; however, since it was our second film together, I felt more confident in taking my musical explorations further from Mickey’s initial thoughts. By doing that, I came to an idea of bringing in a “classic” sci-fi vibe, which Mickey absolutely loved, so we were excited to develop it even further. The audience seemed to have enjoyed it very much as well, in fact, during POD’s run at the SXSW, it was actually compared to the “best of The X-Files.” What I absolutely love about working with Mickey is that we have this creative freedom of just being able to send ideas to each other, develop them, and then push them towards and over the limits. Mickey is able to create this rare collaborative environment; he encourages the whole team to be 100% creative. We’re like one big family, we all know each other. Darling is a perfect example of this unity. Being a film with almost no dialogue, all its creative elements (cinematography, editing, score, sound design, etc.) had to truly stand out on their own to make the whole experience dazzling and captivating for the audience. Mickey always has a clear and precise vision on where he wants his film to be, and he’s masterfully able to guide each one of us towards this goal.
BD: What can you tell us about your upcoming project with Keating, Carnage Park?
GO: Every time I start a new film with Mickey, I’m thinking that the last project was the toughest one musically, this one should be easier. Then, I watch the new film and I’m like, mmmmm nope, this time it’s even more challenging. With Mickey each project brings something new and completely different from the previous one. That’s also one of the factors why working with him is so much fun. Carnage Park is very, very different from the previous three films, but with that “Keating signature” that everybody loved so much at the Fantastic Fest and SXSW. This time the film is set in the desert, so the score has to reflect the emptiness and desolation of the landscape while keeping you on the edge at the same time and building the tension throughout. With Carnage Park I just spent a whole week with my various synthesizers building custom sounds that will be a part of the film’s soundscape. In fact, I do this quite often for various projects. I almost never re-use these sounds for other films, as I like creating a unique-sounding world for each project. For example, in Indigenous that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, I implemented a wide variety of sound elements ranging from various orchestral effects to custom synth sounds that I created specifically for the film in order to enhance the horror genre and create a unique experience for the audience. For Carnage Park I’ve already recorded various solo cello effects, which then I’m planning to modify substantially, distort, and layer together to achieve an original soundscape particular to this film.
BD: Are there any additional projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
GO: As I mentioned, I just finished scoring The Boat Builder with Christopher Lloyd and Jane Kaczmarek, which is just about to enter the festival circuit. It’s a powerful and emotional story, and Lloyd’s performance is brilliant. The other film is Carter High with Vivica Fox, Charles Dutton, Pooh Hall, and David Banner, which is set for its theatrical release in late fall. Recently, I also completed a romantic comedy, How Sarah Got Her Wings, with Derek Theler and Lindsey Gort and a family comedy, Christmas Trade, with William Baldwin and Denise Richards. On those two films I collaborated on a score with multi-award-winning composer and pianist Sonya Belousova, the star of widely popular Player:Piano music project (www.sonyabelousova.com). Both films will get released during the Christmas season. In summer I had a blast working on Nickelodeon’s The Massively Mixed-Up Middle School Mystery, and now I’m excited to be working on a CBBC TV pilot, Zombies Next Door. Whenever I have a chance to work on a show for kids, it’s always so much fun and challenging creatively as the music has to keep evolving and developing and can not get boring even for a second. And, of course, there’s Carnage Park. Also, I’m currently in talks regarding an interactive theater project, which will premiere in Moscow, Russia, later next year.
BD: Being that we focus on all things geek at Fanboy Comics, would you care to “geek out” with us about your favorite composers?
GO: I would most definitely love, too! First of all, I’m a huge fan of Michael Kamen, his scores for Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, Die Hard, and The Iron Giant are simply spectacular! So epic, memorable, and exciting! I find myself simply whistling those melodies sometimes, they are so good! I still remember going to the movie theater to watch Robin Hood with my family and being so scared of the opening. Also, Hanna by The Chemical Brothers – I find that score fascinating. The Chemical Brothers are simply great in electronica. Unfortunately, I find that nowadays, with a wide variety of electronic libraries available to you, a lot of synth scores sound the same since they all use the same prebuilt sounds. What I love about artists like The Chemical Brothers or Trent Reznor is that you can hear the passion and the hard work that goes into every single sound. Another score that I love was done by two of my favorite composers – Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell – and it’s Chicken Run. What an amazing and fun score it is! And, lastly, a very recent score that I fell in love with – The Little Prince by Hans Zimmer and Richard Harvey.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about your work?