Deep Down Soundtrack

by Joshua Penman

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Deep Down was composed entirely by Joshua Penman, a Los Angeles-based musician and composer.

We had originally intended not to score the film at all, actually, but to use only diagetic music from the scenes themselves, and potentially to pad this with additional music that we recorded of protagonist Beverly May and her talented young friend Nathan Hall. We were just into the first phase of the editing process when Joshua called; he was a friend of the family, having moved recently to LA. Joshua was looking for work, and we chatted briefly about the prospect of one day working together. He sent along some samples of what he had done, and we said we’d keep in touch. When we listened to the samples, however, we were simply blown away. Joshua had sent gypsy music, a soundtrack he had done for a film called "Caravan of Light." It was magical, transcendental, refined. It was then that we thought there might be a way we could work with Joshua on "Deep Down."

Our original idea was for Joshua to provide a sort of background layer track to the foregrounded diagetic music, which we still felt very attached to, having used mainly the same few diagetic pieces in our fundraising reels and trailers. Joshua sent us a mock-up of what this would sound like, layering in some cello and drone in the background of the fiddle tune, "Shady Grove," which played as Beverly and her community awaited a verdict from the town judge about whether or not permission would be granted to a coal mining company encroaching on the holler, to put a busy and dangerous coal road right down the middle of the valley. Joshua's cello added suspense and pacing, but there was something about the combination of the diagetic and the added that felt inauthentic and artificial. We scratched the idea and began to conceive of an entirely new, totally original score, talking and thinking about how we could keep the feeling of the music that we'd always had, but replace it with something that felt integrated, all of a piece with the story, and yet different, original, ours. Something that added depth and dimension, that stayed true to the feeling of Bev's fiddle tunes, that respected that music, and could carry the story.

Right about this time, we were completing a paper cut of the film. Typically, a composer will come in much later in the process. He or she will take the cut of the film and its temp tracks, use these as a guide, and compose to picture. In our case, we wanted to be working more closely with the music, integrating it into each scene as another critical element in the scene’s make-up, rather than an addition or tag on. So Joshua took this paper cut, which consisted of a rough transcript of each scene as we envisioned it as well as a short description of what we wanted the viewer to get out of each scene, how we wanted you to feel when it was over, and how that scene moved the story forward. Joshua then composed a score to this paper cut, rather than to a final cut of the film. He composed to words, ideas, descriptions of feelings and story, rather than to picture.

This was a complicated process, involving numerous conversations and text messages with Joshua about the feeling and goal of each scene. 3am, text from Joshua (who likes to work in the middle of the night): "Is Bev's scene with mom more about connection/relationship, or coal company endangering family?" And then our reply back: "Yeah, family. Cue should be happy/sad." Lots of conversations, some discussion and explaining, and hours and hours of Joshua's creative and technical energy later, and we had a temp score. Joshua scored the film using MIDI, essentially a digital mock-up of what would finally be recorded, live string music. We liked the sound of the MIDI--it has a strange, almost Asian tone, like a sitar or a Chinese banjo. It felt real, felt like it had a character all its own, and brought to our critical first cut tension, movement, and profundity.

We wanted music that felt Appalachian, but were very resistant to the use of banjo, which smacks too much of those stereotypes the film works so hard to bust, handed over to Americans in "Deliverance" and "Beverly Hillbillies." Joshua insisted on using banjo in spite of this, but he used it subtly, adding echo and reverb to it in post, bringing down its twang and rounding it out. The banjo sounds a lot like the human voice, which made editing to these tracks challenging, and encouraged Joshua even more to use it sparingly, so it plays in the film almost as call and response to the actual verbiage in the scenes. There were of course cues that didn't work, and Joshua often sent four or five versions, the epitome of a perfectionist, to get the cue just right.

Meanwhile, we were continuing to cut, and as the film became refined and shortened, so did the cues, their performance, their focus. By the time picture-lock arrived, the music was almost there, and Joshua found the very best string musicians in Los Angeles to record the full score, live in a studio in Burbank. He then sent the final recorded tracks to Indonesia to be mixed by a mix engineer who was working there. The drive returned just in time for the show's final sound mix. We dropped in the cues, manipulated the timing a bit to match the final picture, and locked the film.

We asked Joshua once, partway through the scoring process, which in total took about three months, how he had written a critical cue in the film, the open. He responded with the following email:

"I started by playing through Hearne's Oak on the piano so I sort of had a sense of its flow. And then I messed around with different melodies on the piano, that I didn't like, but got to feeling like the VII-I progression (F-G) was important to the vibe of the piece. And I started making riffs that alternated variously between VII and I and I hated them. So, then I started with an ultra-simple guitar riff, just G-D-G-D, and started improvising with the violin and cello patches, and at that point I came up with something that kind of resembles the melody. At the very least I knew I wanted that descending second half of the melody, and I had a feel for the rhythmic universe that the melody wanted to be in.

This was a point I think I went through a few different guitar riffs. I started playing with a riff in eighths, and I liked the idea of starting with the thumb and third finger playing on the downbeat, having the low and high octaves start the riff, it was a good feeling. Then I doubled its speed to sixteenths and really liked it. And I came up with this really trancey beautiful texture and I started writing some banjo lines over it, and it had this great almost Indian classical feel and it was totally wrong for the show. So I erased all that. And I felt like it wasn't ominous or "wild west enough" with the third (Bb) in the middle of the texture, so I decided to start playing with maybe making some guitar riff that was only root and fifth (G and D). And once I had done that, and had it next to the other original version of the riff, I realized that I could create a kind of descending middle voice in the riff, and made it into a four bar pattern. That's the opening guitar pattern you hear. Incidentally I kind of forget when I decided on the tempo. I know it was based somewhat on where I could get things to line up with the picture, but I forget how the decision was made.

Anyway, at that point, I knew I was in a good place. I kept wanting to use some reference to music later in the show, so I started playing with the banjo lick from the "graveyard scene" music - aka "Destroying Mountains." So the first eight notes or so of that part are the same as that other cue, just a lot faster. And then I wrote the lick based on that. I took the downbeat out every other measure and it gave it a lot more of a funky feel, which I liked. Then I add the string lines. I did that by playing the violin line and copying it two octaves down to the cello. I took a lot of takes to find the exact melody I wanted.

I had just block copied the guitar and banjo riffs and the guitar dropped out while the banjo kept going and I decided that I really liked that texture and that it would be a great moment for a move to VI (Eb), which I'm always a sucker for, and also really worked with the emotion of the scene. At this point I had the violin melody playing four licks in a row, and playing a high lick over the move to VI, and the piano coming in very dramatically on that hit. And I hated it, but I didn't know what was wrong. Eventually I realized that I needed only two violin melodies and then I could have a little piano breather, which would lead more gently and appropriately into the VI section. I kept the original cello line I had written to accompany the high violin melody, and rewrote another much lower violin melody using a lot of double stops. Incidentally, I'm still not through with this - there's a moment in the sixth bar of that section that still feels awkward to me.

Somewhere in there I decided to add some light synth sounds, to give it a breadth and contemporary-filmscoriness that I like... though I think the version I sent you might have come from a moment when all the synths got jumbled and it's playing the wrong sound. The sound I actually intend is slightly less subtle than what you hear... it's still not overt or un-subtle - it's just less subtle.

And since we've spoken I've added a few touches to the synth lines, I've added some more grace notes for that real Appalachia feel in the violin and cello, and I've changed the chord structure at the end because something about that move to VII (F) two bars before the end seemed unbelievably cheesy to me and now that I've taken it out (and taken the piano out at that moment) I'm liking it a lot more. I'm still messing with the string lines a little, and I need to rethink the violin part in the second half of the Eb section and of course I still need to address myself to the guitar-solo question...

That's a little window into the composition process.... Meanwhile, I have to get back to work!"

No screening of "Deep Down" goes without comment on the score. People note its beauty, its sadness, and most of all, its important role in the film. Viewers are moved by the film, inspired, struck, and it's very often the music that is responsible for this, setting the emotional tone of the film, guiding us through the story with subtlety and grace. Joshua Penman and his team, his talent and his vision, as well as his sensitivity, are at the very root of “Deep Down” and its impact.

Sally Rubin and Jen Gilomen, Co-Directors
Los Angeles, CA
January 8th, 2011


released November 17, 2010



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