Read my interview with Jonathan Wandag, the composer of They’re Watching.
Jonathan Wandag: At a young age, I realized women paid attention to musicians so I started rapping and singing in junior high school. That didn’t really work out for me. However, in the process of learning these skills, I fell in love with creating music. My first taste of writing music to visual cues came during my years at UCLA, where I composed / orchestrated music for the annual Samahang Pilipino Cultural Night held at Royce Hall. I also met Mark Lagrimas, the producer to “They’re Watching” during the process. I eventually joined a rock band call Invid, and graduated to film score after I took classes at Berklee College of Music. It was there that my film score chops started to develop. Early on, the biggest catalyst to my serious pursuit of film score came in the form of an Academy Award, when the film, I scored, “Dragonboy,” won Gold. From there, I was obsessed with it and never wanted to stop. It still doesn’t attract the opposite sex for me though.
Edwin Santos: In terms of composing, who inspires you and which scores do you love?
Jonathan Wandag: That’s tough to answer because there are so many folks that have inspired me and so many scores I love. However, in terms of this film horror genre… I really enjoyed the score to “Let Me In” and “The Ring”. Michael Giacchino (composer of “LOST,” “Star Trek,” “UP,” etc.) wrote really haunting melodies for”Let Me In,” and I wanted to do the same for this film. Hans Zimmer did the same for “The Ring,” but he also used so much awesome high pitched, tension, sound design. The trick was that he made his score beautiful and haunting, but at the same time, really tense with the sound design. Most horror composers only do the tense sound design but forget to add the beautiful and haunting element to it. I wanted to do all of the above for “They’re Watching.”
Edwin Santos: What is your favorite music genre and why?
Jonathan Wandag: I don’t have one, honestly. I like individual songs. If the melody, vibe, concept, lyrics, and / or production moves me, that’s all it takes. That can be me music from Beethoven, Chopin, Bjork, the Beatles, etc. Shoot, if Katy Perry comes out with something catchy and hard hitting, I’m not afraid to say “I’d enjoy the sh*t out of it.” People waste too much time trying to condemn genres even if they secretly like certain songs from that genre… What a waste of time and energy. Although beauty is in the eye of the beholder… I want to emphasize that ugly is in the eye of the beholder as well. If somebody doesn’t like a certain genre or song, that’s their fault for not finding the hidden beauties in it.
Jonathan Wandag: Sure. As with all the movies I work on… I watch each scene over and over and eventually just start singing to the scenes. I believe melody is king and I want people to remember motifs just like John Williams did with “Star Wars.” Eventually I take my melodies to my beautiful new Mac I have named, “Alita,” (Thanks Micah Ian Wright, for helping me acquire such wonderful computery). For the intro, I watched “Home Hunters International” and tortured myself by listening to all the adult contemporary music over and over. For the villagers in the movie, I wanted something really simple… but at the same time, super haunting and beautiful. So what’s the most effective way to pull that off?… mid to high piano notes and sordino strings in the highest register. For the main antagonist, I wanted the haunting beauty vibe as well… but I also wanted to represent something rustic and ancient. I eventually settled upon an instrument called, copperphone. In my ears, that’s as rustic and ancient as you could get. Don’t forget really low sub frequency rumbles for when something bad is about to happen. Finally, CHOIRS CHOIRS CHOIRS! BRASS BRASS BRASS! Oh and… some accordion, spoons, pitch forks, and guitars for some of the villager scenes. I literally hit spoons against pitch forks for some of the percussion.
Edwin Santos: So, what type of composer are you? Do you mostly rely on practical instruments like the accordion, spoons, pitch forks, and guitars? Or, do you prefer using a computer and ProTools to create?
Jonathan Wandag: I think all composers aren’t one or the other. I think they’re a varying mix of all of it. As for me, my weapon of choice is Logic Pro where I load all my favorite sample libraries and plug-ins. Eventually, I overdub the music with real instruments to give it more depth, realism, and clarity. But you ask what type of a composer am I? I’m an asshole. I yell at my computer so much. I need to be a better man.
Edwin Santos: What methods did you use to capture all genres when you composed “They’re Watching?”
Jonathan Wandag: YouTube is one of my most reliable teachers. I researched heavily into Eastern European music as well as adult contemporary, by watching videos on YouTube. Like I said, I literally hit spoons against pitch forks to create some percussion. My type of horror…haunting piano melodies, big choirs (like “The Exorcism”), aleatory runs with strings, brass, and winds… sub low rumbles for bad stuff, high sordino strings for tension, lots of trem strings. All of that can be Googled.
Edwin Santos: As a soundtrack composer, one must usually adapt to one’s ideas to the film, the director and the audience. How do you maintain a balance between artistic integrity and sticking to your creative convictions versus being professional in your job? How do you find a sense of freedom within these structures?
Jonathan Wandag: Stravinsky once said, “I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me… Will I then have to lose myself in this abyss of freedom?” I actually love direction and limitation and having to score to visual cues. There’s a lot of freedom in limitation. It allows more focus. It allows me to allocate more energy in the right places. It allows for more precise emotional value. When I work with directors and producers, I realize that I’m there toserve their vision… not the other way around. I’m not a diva. I want their ideas to come to fruition the way they wanted it to be. Of course I offer some suggestions and use a lot of my intuition to write stuff they might not have thought of… but for the most part, I’m open to their guidance. Fortunately, the writers / directors of “They’re Watching,” Jay Lender and Micah Wright, were the perfect blend of guidance and freedom. Some scenes… like the last big one, they let me run amok and boy did they pay for it… in a good way.
Edwin Santos: The late Jerry Goldsmith once said that as a composer, one “can’t be visual with the music.” How do you see the relationship between image and sound in a film? How directly are you working with the images in the writing process?
Jonathan Wandag: I think I know what he means. Composers don’t have to literally translate what’s going on in the visual cues. A classic example would be using slow, somber, and haunting music while we see all this crazy sh*t exploding everywhere. That’s definitely counterintuitive, but it evokes a feeling you would otherwise get, if you went for bombastic, big, and percussive sounds. My take on image and sound on film is that I look more for what’s not being shown on the visual cues that the directors / producers want to bring out.
Edwin Santos: What are your thoughts about the balance between visual FX and film music…and whether or not, it is a successful one? And, were there any concerns when composing the score for the film?
Jonathan Wandag: Again, I’m no diva so if the music is way behind the SFX, that’s fine. My only concern is that the music is loud enough to have emotional impact. The unsung heroes are the folks that mix and master the entire film at the end. If the team of sound folks is good… they could maximize emotional impact by balancing out all the FX and music.
Edwin Santos: For, or against the use of temp tracks?
Jonathan Wandag: For. Sometimes, they help me find tempos that the editor edits to. A good composer can make a director / producer forget all those temp tracks.
Edwin Santos: What are some of the opportunities and challenges you had being a Filipino American in the film industry?
Jonathan Wandag: I’m not taken seriously until they hear my work and see my credentials. Shoot, I get this from my own people as well. I don’t blame any of them though because you don’t ever see many FilAms as film score composers. That’s fine… I just have to hit a bit harder with my music.
Edwin Santos: What advice would you like to give to aspiring film composers?
Jonathan Wandag: I asked Michael Giacchino the same question… and the answer he said was, “Don’t do it.” Like anything in entertainment, don’t do it. Seriously, don’t do it. It’s as difficult as winning the lottery, but instead of paying for tickets, you’re paying with your health, life, and family. You’ll have to sacrifice time with your family, you’ll lose girlfriends, you’ll start getting heart problems and some months, your bank account will be embarrassing… Now if you don’t care and you REALLY ARE OBSESSED with doing this… Like, you dream about it, you wake up and go… “holy sh*t, I wanna compose RIGHT NOW!”, then you have a chance. And if that’s you… then compose one minute of music EVERY DAY. Regardless if you have a gig, just do it. Your chops will be waaay better within weeks. Also, save up for the high end sample libraries. Otherwise, your stuff won’t sound pro and you’ll lose out to another composer, who might not have better composing skills than you, but possess superior production quality. God I’m a Debbie Downer.
Edwin Santos: No, you’re not. Lastly, what’s next?
Jonathan Wandag: After “They’re Watching” comes out, I have a console game I’m working on, releasing in April, called “Song Of The Deep” by Insomniac Games and Game Stop. I’m doing both the music and SFX for the game. It’ll be out on XBOX, PS4 and PC. After that, I go to Iceland to swim between tectonic plates and explore volcanoes.
Edwin Santos: Thank you!
Jonathan Wandag: Thank you so much for having me! Let’s fight the good fight for our FilAms to get us up in Hollywood’s grill piece!
They’re Watching opens at select theaters and will be available on VOD / iTunes this Friday, March 25th. In California, the film will have its premiere at the AMC Burbank Town Center 8 (in Burbank) as well as openings at the new Laemmle Monica Film Center (in Santa Monica) and the 4-Star Theatre (in San Francisco). It is also opening theatrically in Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Houston, Lubbock, New York, Seattle, Tucson and Washington D.C.
For more information about the film, click here: http://www.theyrewatchingmovie.com/