Jon Brion on Scoring Magnolia

An Interview with Jon Brion by Tony Buchsbaum
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.73/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor Luc Van de Ven

Jon Brion’s career path has taken him to many corners of the music business: performer, record producer, session musician. He’s found success with all three at a relatively early age. He’s only in his mid-30s, yet he’s produced Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, and Rufus Wainwright, three artists whose respective sounds are vastly different. He’s got his fingers in so many pies, you might be tempted to call Jon Brion a young Quincy Jones, and you wouldn’t be wrong. If you watch movie credits, you’ve seen Jon’s name on screen recently in the credits of MAGNOLIA, Paul Thomas Anderson’s marvelous follow-up to BOOGIE NIGHTS. Recently, we talked about the young composer’s take on movie music and uncovered some fascinating opinions and passions.

Whose idea was it for you to score MAGNOLIA? Did Paul Thomas Anderson have to twist your arm, or was it something you approached him about?
We worked together on his first film, HARD EIGHT. As far back as that film, I told him I wasn’t especially interested in getting into the soundtrack business, but if he wanted to get into a full orchestra sound, that was interesting to me. You see, no one commissions you to write pieces for a symphony, so this is it. To me, it’s all about standing in front of the instrument and seeing if it works. When Paul decided to do a full orchestra soundtrack for this movie, he called me and I said yes.

You’re a music producer, a performer, and recording artist. Why add film music composer to your resume?
(Laughs) Why invite Hollywood to the Party? If it wasn’t for somebody like Paul, who’s a friend and a compatriot, I would not have started to do it, I like having a diverse life and career. It makes me happier. I think it’s healthier to play different roles in your life. I work as a session musician, and it’s great to play someone else’s music and make it sound as good as it can be. It’s fun to be an artist and make records and be in charge. And it’s fun to do film soundtracks, but the music is only meant to be one of the gears in this much larger device.

What did you feel when you first heard the MAGNOLIA score performed by an orchestra?
It was great. The first day, with a full orchestra setup, Paul and I came in, and we’re at Todd-AO, which is massive, and there’s the giant screen with the movie on it, and there’s the orchestra tuning up, and we’re standing there going, “Isn’t this funny? This is what we’re doing with our lives. We’re the director and the composer, and we’re here, doing this.” Then there was hearing the music when the musicians did a great take. That feeling of, “Yes, I can do this.” There was a funny moment, when I opted to stay in the control booth to hear the director’s comments, and the conductor got sick. So I went out to finish up this particular take, and I was being nonchalant about it. I was apologizing, saying “You’re stuck with the new kid.” We had 80 musicians there. It was so thrilling.

What’s your approach to film scoring? Did you and Paul spot the film?
At parties, Paul would put in a silent film and I’d play piano to it. So we talked about doing it that way. He sent me a script, and I decided not to read it. I thought we’d watch the movie and play it, then pick out things that came from the inspiration. Then Paul put in temp music. And all that was big orchestral stuff from all over the place. And I said, “Let’s just go for it.” He has an exceptional intuition, musically. And just a cursory glance at the pacing of the music in BOOGIE NIGHTS gives you a sense of his ideas and how good he is. Then I started writing some things, and he’d come to the writing room, and I’d improvise to the screen, with him sitting there. I’d find the right rhythm. I’d watch his physiology. His shoulders would scrunch up. He’d throw out impossible suggestions. Like any good director or record producer, you can see when it’s right and when it’s not right. When you hit on it, it’s right, and it’s very, very contagious. I wrote until he jumped up and down going yes yes yes!

There’s one particular scene in MAGNOLIA that has everyone talking. At one point near the end of the film, the six or seven main characters all break into song independently, as if the song had occurred to each one of them separately. It’s very much like the moment in WEST SIDE STORY when the Sharks, the Jets, Maria, Tony, and Anita all sing lines from the song “Tonight.” In MAGNOLIA, the song is Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up,” which appeared first in the film JERRY MAGUIRE. It’s an indelible bit, and when I mentioned it, Jon said it was one of the moments that really touched him deeply. And he began to talk about how important the songs are within the fabric of the film. In fact, Anderson wrote the script while listening to several unreleased Mann songs.
I love that this movie has so much of Aimee Mann in it. Like Simon & Garfunkel in THE GRADUATE. The fact that Paul developed characters and used lines from the songs as dialogue. It’s interwoven. It’s not there as a marketing ploy. It’s stuff he thinks is great and is in concert with things he’s writing about. I wish more people did this, but now it’s just crappy, gratuitous songs that have little to do with the movie. In MAGNOLIA, probably more than THE GRADUATE or GOOD WILL HUNTING, the music is more interwoven with the film.

In terms of film music, who are your influences?
I knew about John Williams, and I knew about his music from the late ’70s forward. But really I had no idea of his scope. Hearing the breadth of things he’s recorded since the late ’50s was totally inspiring. Scoring MAGNOLIA, I got a crash course in all the heavies. When I was working, whenever I got a food break, I picked a composer, and we’d listen. Alex North. Goldsmith. A 9-minute piece from a TWILIGHT ZONE episode. Incredible creative use of limited instrumentation. Above and beyond everybody is Bernard Herrmann. I can’t think of anyone who’s as totally enthralling as that.

Do you see yourself maybe crossing over entirely, the way Danny Elfman did, leaving Oingo Boingo for film scores?
I like the fact that I can play live, produce records, do studio work, do collaborative writing, and be a little more selective. If something comes along, and I believe the director has some vision and also that I’m going to be right emotionally for the thing, then absolutely. I’d like to get into songwriting specifically for movies. Then do a full orchestral version, to be used thematically.

Jon Brian’s score for MAGNOLIA is by turns playful and repetitive, grand and melodic and dark. There’s a short cue on the song-track CD. Thankfully Reprise Records is set to release a CD of the film’s score in mid-March.


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