Behind the Scenes of Film Score Composition, Roman Molino Dunn talks Huracán
In the spirit of the 17th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, in music as in art we reach the essence of things through specifics — “Poetic statements gain certainty as they descend to particulars.”
As such, today’s interview is with an increcibly versatile, award-winning composer and music producer Roman Molino Dunn. Our interview centers primarily around his work for the recently released HBO thriller Huracán, which tells the story of an MMA fighter suffering from multiple personality disorder.
It is through this fairly specific lens (see: Vico) that we “descend to particulars” and simultaneously, like philosophy, ascend to universality. I give such a preface because whether you’re a musician, producer, or just find movies fascinating, I think there’s something that will resonate.
“In many ways, film scoring and music producing are the same things: I am helping someone achieve their vision through music.” — Roman Dunn
Roman Molino Dunn is an award-winning composer, Billboard-charting music producer (under the name Electropoint), and co-owner of Mirrortone Studios in NYC. Known for his blend of orchestral and electronic scores, he’s written and produced music for films, television shows, commercials, radio, and brands ranging from Snapple to Maserati or Tom Ford and many more. He’s also worked with a variety of Grammy-winning musicians and reality TV stars (on Love & Hip Hop, Dr. Miami, etc.). Our interview is below.
You have a very extensive resume composing, producing, and creating music. Could you speak, even broadly, to the interplay between these different genres as an artist and entrepreneur?
Thanks so much. It’s wonderful that so many people require music and with so many different needs, the genres and specifics are also varied. I have been very lucky that my work as a music producer has been embraced by the film directors I’ve scored for.
Artistically, I’m utilizing those cross-genre skill sets to best serve my clients and enhance their work. For example, when I am scoring a series and they would like both score and songs — or when I am working on commercials, perhaps they would like an orchestral EDM track.
On the pragmatic end of things, as an entrepreneur, producing for artists as well as scoring films and commercials keeps me busy. In many ways, film scoring and music producing are the same things: I am helping someone achieve their vision through music, it just happens that sometimes the person I am helping is a director or producer and sometimes they are a singer. Honestly, the main issue with working as both a record producer and a film composer is managing two separate social media accounts and choosing where I refer to myself using my given name vs. my producer pseudonym, Electropoint.
Would you say you have a distinctive sound that carries through across creative projects? How would you describe it?
I believe that I have a distinctive voice when I am creating music for myself and I am certain that it must be present to a degree when I am helping to realize others’ music. But in every project, I first determine how much of the musical voice is left up to me, since it is not my music, it is the director’s music that I am helping them discover. I truly believe that I am just the instrument through which other artists can achieve their musical vision. That said, people do often come to me based on previous work I have done.
When writing music for film, particularly for HBO’s upcoming Huracán, do you generally compose for a scene after it’s been filmed, before? What’s that process like?
There are certainly exceptions but it is most often that I compose after the rest of the film has been completed. With Huracán, we did a lot of initial music to camera tests and preliminary sketches without the picture, but that was just to zero in on a musical palette that the director wanted to pursue.
Once we had established the general musical aesthetic, I would receive versions of the film, do some spotting sessions — so, meet with the director and talk about what kind of music should go where and why — and then send drafts and notes back and forth. I am the least sensitive person about music and musical revisions, so I score a scene, send it to the director, get notes back, revise, and repeat until we are all happy.
With Huracán, the film was broken into 5 sections so I was working on large spans of the film at a time in this manner.
“I am the least sensitive person about music and musical revisions, so I score a scene, send it to the director, get notes back, revise, and repeat until we are all happy.”
In Huracàn, what were some musical techniques you used for portraying a character with multiple personalities?
The psychology-centric nature of the film was a true musical blessing. It is a composer’s dream to use music to fully represent both the internal and external subtext of a film. In that sense, I was quite lucky that Cassius wanted to explore the dichotomy of the character’s personalities through music. The two main techniques that I used to differentiate the facets of the character were hybrid orchestration and what instrumentalists would consider ‘extended techniques’.
The hybrid orchestration technique involves mixing organic instruments, such as orchestral instruments like violins and cellos, with synthetic instruments like synthesizers and drum machines.
Extended techniques, on the other hand, refers to playing an instrument in a less common fashion, such as bowing a cymbal or playing the piano on the inside.
Each one of these approaches signified a different part of the human condition, with organic instruments tending to represent the unadulterated humanity and the synthetic instruments signifying a more complex altered dimension of the character.
How did you bring together more traditional instrumentation, like an orchestra, with perhaps more experimental electronic sounds when making the score of Huracán?
Many scores utilize some combination of synthesized sounds and organic sounds but what made the treatment in Huracán unique was that while the combination needed to be subtle at times, the two elements also needed to be disparate enough to have symbolic significance.
There was one very specific music technology approach to this that helped to define the sound of the score: playing acoustic/organic instruments in traumatic or unusual ways, recording small samples, and then computer programming them into a synthesizer. The sampler or synth that I programmed for Huracán that I found most exciting was one made using sympathetic piano vibrations. A sympathetic piano vibration is made by silently depressing the keys on a piano, striking the keys around those silent keys, making the silent keys sympathetically vibrate. This sound has a prominent role in the film, even though when you hear it, you might not know how it is made.
What is something really captivating you learned while working on Huracán that you’d like to share?
There are always a lot of little musical discoveries and soul searching when scoring a drama but, more than that, I think I learned a lot about humanity and the impact that storytelling has.
I always learn a lot about film and how filmmakers express their world views through their medium but in this particular case, I was faced with some heavy topics that I had not previously explored. There are some very intense scene studies on trauma in this film and to score something you have to deeply understand it, so there were a lot of moments of intense introspection to find the proper music.
Are there any new techniques or approaches you’ve acquired from working on Huracán that you’ll carry with you into future projects?
I have always been very deeply involved in music coding; it is the next natural step in music composition. While I tend to do a fair bit of coding for most projects, I think that this score taught me just how important coding your own custom instruments is to developing the sonic voice of a film.
What are some of your more prominent artistic or musical influences?
There are composers, film and otherwise, that I adore, but for each film, it is a matter of what inspires the director, or for each song, what the singer aims to achieve.
Outside of a specific project, I grew up absolutely in love with two very competing influences, early music like Renaissance and Baroque counterpoint and emo rock music — largely because emo had a lot of counterpoint. But as I grew older and started making music for a living, I began to look to the great living composers in the two mediums I am most active in, making film music and making records.
In the film music world, I find composers who are very theoretically driven yet combine pop music genres and classical music such as Joe Trapanese, John Powell, Henry Jackman, Tyler Bates, very inspiring. Additionally, composers like Junkie XL who have been able to balance being an electronic producer and a film composer inspire me to continue straddling the line. I am also inspired by the older examples of this versatility, like how John Barry was a wonderful swooping string composer yet still such a great swing band composer.
Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring musicians and artists today?
My biggest suggestion is to study music theory. I think there is a big push to get into music without learning theory because it is a creative expression, so there’s an idea that one should write from the heart rather than from academic convention.
To a large degree, yes, that sentiment is a huge part of composition — but when the process is collaborative, it is not just about your own expression, it is about the artistic expressions of your collaborators. To help others articulate their musical ideas, you have to understand what they want and what tools you need to realize their vision.