Film, Fish, and Family: A Conversation with Composer Lou John B

by Anne Beaudreau

This past spring, my collaborators and I created a short film called Knowing Fish that celebrates the importance of fishing in Alaska’s coastal communities and the value of fishermen’s knowledge for science and management. The film also highlights the research our team has been doing to document ecological knowledge of recreational and subsistence fishers and use it in combination with scientific knowledge to better understand long-term change in coastal ecosystems.

There were many wonderful aspects of working on the project, but among the highlights for me was having the opportunity to collaborate with my brother Lou, an LA-based musician who composed the music for the film. I sat down with him recently to talk about his work in music and film and get his take on the experience of writing a score to a story about Alaskan fisheries.

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ANNE BEAUDREAU: Tell me about your experience in music and film.

LOU JOHN B: I’ve been playing music since I was around six. The first instrument that I really gravitated towards was classical guitar. I didn’t get into electric until middle school, where I more or less taught myself blues, rock, and jazz. Post high school, I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where I took a few film scoring classes and learned about composition. College was when I really started getting into film. I wanted to learn everything about it, and I made it my goal to see as many films as I could. I probably watched On the Waterfront and Cool Hand Luke the most during those years.

ANNE: What is your favorite film score?

LOU: It’s probably Taxi Driver. It was the first score that made me pay close attention to what the music was doing in the film. The composer, Bernard Herrmann, did something to Scorsese’s masterpiece that didn’t seem possible. He made a perfect film even better. Unfortunately, Herrmann died before the film was even released. It was his last score. There are only a few cues in Taxi Driver repeated throughout the film, but they are dark, beautifully low-voiced, and very memorable.

ANNE: In terms of professional music, how you would describe what you’ve done since college?

LOU: Almost a full year after I left college, I moved out to LA to play guitar in the band Shaimus. That lasted about two years. There’s so much I did in Shaimus that I never thought I’d get to do, like touring and making a record in a professional studio. After the band ended, I started writing music for commercials, which is my main gig these days.

ANNE: Have you done any other film scoring before Knowing Fish?

LOU: The first project I worked on was for a short film a friend of mine did, called Animal Fiction. About six months after he released that, he shot a promotional video for a charity in Los Angeles called The Giving Keys, which I scored. That one was interesting because it was set up like a video triptych, consisting of really beautiful shots of LA without dialogue.

ANNE: For Knowing Fish, what was your process for scoring?

LOU: I think I watched it four or five times before you and I talked on the phone. I chose not to think about music the first couple times I watched it because I wanted to know what the film was really about and what it was saying. I knew that the film had a specific purpose, so I made it my goal to pay close attention to that before considering what the music would sound like. Then I soaked up moods from scenery, characters, and colors and started formulating what I thought would be appropriate music for the picture. Visually, almost everything in the movie could have so easily been accompanied by acoustic instruments, so I figured, let’s not do that. I decided to go all electric.

ANNE: It seems like you made a choice to not use acoustic instruments, but to make them sound acoustic, to still give it that feel. In some of those moments, it feels like it could have been somebody strumming a guitar at a campfire…

LOU: …with a big amp in a cave…

ANNE: …yeah, but it still evokes that feeling of organic-ness.

LOU: Well, that’s what I thought was interesting about the film – the juxtaposition of old wisdom and new thought. Perhaps the reason I wanted to go full electric, and not do what was expected, was to bring out those ideas. Old wisdom and new thought aren’t in opposition. As a viewer, you’re happily surprised at the outcome of the film because perhaps you didn’t necessarily expect how hopeful and cooperative the message would be. In a way, that’s what I was thinking when I wrote the music. I knew I didn’t want to do what you’d expect with the music because the film didn’t really do what I expected. I liked the idea of using electric, but still creating that acoustical hominess. It’s like looking at something old through a new lens.

ANNE: The feeling you put on the music was more modern, and I suppose the message that I put on the film was more hopeful than you typically hear when you’re hearing about environmental issues. Musically speaking, were there any parts of the film that were especially easy to write to or especially inspiring?

LOU: The end took the least amount of time to write because of Daniel. What he says brings it down to a real, personal, but also universally relatable level. For that reason, I wanted a lone, washed out guitar leading into the tune at the end. He’s talking about being out there on the open ocean every day, and he says something to the effect of, “I’m not a religious man, but this is like my religion.” I liked the idea of the single guitar there. That’s the nice thing about guitar – you can make something sound important and big if you have the find the right tone and manipulate the sound enough.

ANNE: Can you tell me more about how you mixed the sound?

LOU: I had four tracks to mix: the music, the narration, the interviews, and the B roll sound. I pretty much treated the full sound mix like I do mixing music, making sure each element comes through enough to be heard or felt. It was just as important to choose when to ride up the volume of the score as it was to let the music sit on the bottom of the mix. I spent lots of time making little adjustments to make sure the more dramatic moments were dramatic and the more subdued moments were subdued, sonically.

ANNE: So, what does music do for a story?

LOU: It can completely change the way a story is emotionally or intellectually interpreted by the viewer. It can elevate any situation, driving you to tears or to laugh or to feel afraid. And there are maybe infinite ways to do this, musically. For this film, I tried to use music as a supplemental enhancement to the picture. Certain moments in a film can be just that much weightier if you support them with even the slightest of simple tones.

ANNE: Given that you’re not a scientist and you don’t think about fisheries that much, what did you learn from the film?

LOU: I think the main thing I learned was basically the main point of the film: science and culture can be married pretty easily, philosophically. I kind of feel stupid for realizing that now. As much as I admire science and look to science for the hope of the future, there still seems to be a disconnect in my brain between the world of science and the real daily grind. I don’t know why that is exactly.

ANNE: I don’t think that’s stupid at all. Even though science touches everything in our lives, there’s sometimes an idea perpetuated that science is out of reach unless you’re an expert. Speaking to what you’re staying about science meeting the real world, in ecology and in fisheries, science is about observing the natural world and that’s basically what fishermen do every day. Even though they don’t document that knowledge in the same way that scientists do, these two different processes of developing knowledge can come to the same place ultimately.

LOU: That’s right, and that actually reminds me of another thing I learned from the film. You have two different schools of thought – there’s an analytical side, and there’s a practical side. Both see that things are changing through different lenses, but there’s not necessarily a discrepancy between the two points of view.

ANNE: What connection do you have with fishing and the marine environment?

LOU: I grew up fishing. Dad took us fishing. When I was somewhere between 7 and 10 years old, we fished off Barrington Beach in Rhode Island, and I caught a bluefish. It’s still the biggest fish I’ve ever caught. I struggled with it for almost an hour and a half. My whole body was on fire. There was a point when a gathering started to form, and every time Dad started to help, there was this guy who said “Let ‘im do it, let ‘im do it!”

ANNE: Would you ever want to collaborate again on something?

LOU: Absolutely.

To learn more about Lou John B’s music and other creative projects, visit his website: http://loujohnb.com/

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