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Sundance Interview with Dan Deacon, Composer for “All Light, Everywhere,” “Philly D.A.” and “Strawberry Mansion”

Written by: Hannah Tran | February 10th, 2021

Composer and electronic musician Dan Deacon. Cr. Frank Hamilton.

Acclaimed composer and electronic musician Dan Deacon continued his impressive streak as a film composer at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where he was responsible for creating the scores for three feature films: Strawberry Mansion, Philly D.A. and All Light, Everywhere. The lattermost of these was one of my favorite films of the festival. Made by Rat Film director Theo Anthony, that documentary focuses on the intersection between vision and technology and its use and manipulation by those in power. This last week, I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview Dan about the process of creating the brilliant score that envelopes All Light, Everywhere’s brilliant storytelling. Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity.

Hannah Tran: So, you live in Baltimore. I was wondering if you feel it has a big influence on your music or if there are any specific music scenes there that you’re interested in?

Dan Deacon: I think there’s no way that environment doesn’t have a massive impact on an artist or anyone, really. Where you live shapes so much about you. One of the best parts about living in Baltimore is that it affords a person time. I grew up on Long Island, I went to school at SUNY Purchase, and I lived in the city for a little bit. I never had money, and I never had the time to do anything. I moved to Baltimore in around 2004, and it was an immediate change. I was living in this giant warehouse, and my rent was, like, 180 dollars. Of course, it’s not like that anymore, but it worked back then, and it allowed me to fully immerse myself in my craft.

Another interesting thing about Baltimore is that it used to have 1.5 million people, and now there are about 600,000 people. So, it’s a major city, but it’s much smaller than its footprint. There’s an emptiness and a quietness to it, but there’s also that feeling of the hustle and bustle. Plus, living in a predominantly African-American city as a white person is insanely eye-opening. I grew up in mostly white suburbs, and moving to Baltimore showed me so much more about the world. Especially at this time, I feel very lucky to live here. I think all of that shapes the way I think about my art, but it also shapes the way I think about politics and who I am as an individual.

Film poster: “Rat Film”

HT: So, I know that with Theo Anthony’s Rat Film you were experimenting with the rats themselves to make a lot of the sounds. To get into the movie you worked on with him at this year’s Sundance, All Light, Everywhere, I was wondering how the subject influenced your approach and the equipment you used.

DD: Well, we  didn’t go as hard in the esoteric sense for this one. There are a couple of scenes where they’re wearing these headsets and looking at data. It’s essentially an eyeball tracking software, and, at first, we wanted to use that to generate everything. But when we started doing it, we realized it sounded exactly like Rat Film, so we put that process to the side for a while. And, both this and Rat Film were constantly evolving. Those projects are like a river. They’re constantly changing. We had to let the process grow and flow, and nothing could be too precious. Even if you consider something to be the best footage or the best part of the score, if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit.

HT: So, in what other ways do you feel that process evolved over the course of the project?

DD: Early on, the idea of the eclipse was framing almost everything. We were thinking about the concept of totality and of staring at the sun. Actually, I was on one of those time-wasting websites, and someone posted this super high-res footage of the sun from NASA. I sent it to Theo, and he was like, “Oh my god, you can download it. Oh my god, it’s in the public domain!”

But, we started by talking about texture and what we wanted to work with and who we wanted to work with. There were three improvisers who were at the top of that list: a pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, a cellist Owen Gardner, and an alto sax player named Andrew Bernstein. We did a pretty long session with them over the course of a day. We were interested in creating a library of improvisation and chopping that up and using it as our source material. Granular synth was a major part of our process, so we’d use little snippets of the recordings to make different textures for synths. From there, we’d consider the new sounds in the film and how the technology in it was evolving, and we’d introduce a new texture until we were happy with it.

HT: And, what is your working relationship like with Theo Anthony? Is he very hands on in terms of the music?

Theo Anthony, director of ALL LIGHT, EVERYWHERE, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

DD: This is our third collaboration, and I couldn’t be more pleased to work with him. It’s a very different process than working with most other filmmakers. We’re also just great friends. If we’re not texting about the film, we’re just texting stupid memes to each other or talking about what cryptocurrency we should lose money on. With him, I’ll send, like, a 20 minute experiment that I worked on with all the individual stems, and Theo would mix those stems how he wanted, keeping them all locked in time but fading them up and down differently. That would really help show me the density and vibe he was going for.

We did a lot of the process like that, and we got to the point where he was just sending me these Premiere files, and I would look at his automations to see what looks good and roughen and remix them from there. At certain points, it felt like he was functioning as an engineer. In fact, some of the cues are his mixes entirely. I think we had, like, 70 versions of every cue even though there are, like, 16 cues in the film. It was really fun to work that way. And, if you wanted to change the edit based on the influence of the music, we weren’t locked into a strict timecode or anything. We could judge the pacing of the edit, and it allowed for a level of malleability that made it all more cohesive.

HT: You’ve done a lot of scores for documentaries. Is there something about documentaries that specifically interests you, and is your approach any different than it is for your work on narratives?

DD: I try to take a pretty narrative approach with docs. A lot of documentary music can feel like an afterthought. Sometimes, it’s like it’s only there to glue two scenes together. I try to avoid projects that take that approach. What makes cinema “cinema” is the massive indulgence of the senses, if you will. I think that’s what draws me to it. I love writing for both, and a lot depends on the story. I think people come to me knowing I’m approaching things a little differently. I’m not a very good chameleon. I try to approach each project like a blank canvas. I don’t want to go into anything with the mindset that, because it’s a documentary, I have to follow certain rules. Everything is a collaboration, even if it’s a project with a director I’ve worked with before. Each project requires their own instrumentation and content creation.

The same goes for Strawberry Mansion. I was scoring those films simultaneously, and they’re such different projects that the idea of having a formula or system would have been impossible. It’s like forming a band; One new member can entirely change the sound of an existing ensemble. The amount of permutations that could come out of it is endless. But in the end, it’s all about storytelling. There’s documentary storytelling and narrative storytelling and musical storytelling. Some music is merely conveying detail, but there’s also music that exists just for making the air more beautiful.

Kentucker Audley appears in STRAWBERRY MANSION, by Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Tyler Davis.

HT: Last question, I know you are very well-known for your live performances, and I was wondering what it’s been like for you since the start of the pandemic? Do you feel creatively stifled at all?

DD: I would say no. I mean, I’ve been really lucky to have these projects. It’s hard to imagine how I would’ve done them if I was touring full-time. I miss touring. I put out a record last January, and that, of course, got cut short. But in a greater context, I’ve been wanting to make the transition into having more of a balance between being a film composer and being a studio artist. Before this year, I was a touring musician, a recording artist, and also a guy who sometimes wrote music for movies. But, I feel like this last year has really given me the space to dive into that area more and hone that aspect of my craft with a greater diversity of projects. You know, I wouldn’t have been able to do Philly D.A. if I’d been on tour this fall. So, I’m really just lucky to have this opportunity. I guess I don’t feel stifled, but, then again, I don’t know how my body will feel when I start singing and jumping up and down again. But it’s just been fun to write music every day for months and months, and for all of the work to have a home.

HT: Well, I think you’re already doing a great job at making that transition. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, and I wish you the best of luck with your next projects!

DD: No, thank you! Have a good day.

Composer and electronic musician Dan Deacon. Cr. Frank Hamilton.
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Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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