Daniel Hart: “I want a film to tell me what kind of music it needs”

Daniel Hart (b. 1976) is a prolific American film composer who began playing the violin at age three. In the early 2000s, he formed the band The Physics of Meaning. As a member of other bands, including Dark Rooms (since 2013), he released several records and studio albums, including his first solo record, “The Orientalist” (2011).

After film director David Lowery asked him to write the film score for his debut feaure, “St. Nick” (2009), they began collaborating and up until now, Mr. Hart scored all of Lowery’s films. In an undated interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Mr. Hart said that after working on Lowery’s short “Pioneer” (2011), ‘we started to develop a musical language that corresponded to David’s aesthetic as a filmmaker.’

In between, he also writes memorable film scores for other filmmakers, including “Comet” (2014), “Tumbledown” (2015), and “Return to Sender” (2015). Mr. Hart scores shorts, documentaries and TV shows as well.

Last October, both David Lowery and Daniel Hart were guests of honor at the latest Film Fest Ghent in Belgium. During a highly interesting masterclass, they talked about their working methods and approach as skilled and accomplished craftsmen.

Film composer Daniel Hart during his masterclass at the Film Fest Ghent, Belgium | Film Talk

At the Festival, Mr. Hart was also nominated for the World Soundtrack Award for Film Composer of the Year, and for Best Original Song for “Blome Swete Lilie Flour” from “The Green Knight” (2021).

During his visit to Belgium, I also had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Hart about his inspiring work as a film composer. Needless to say, I was all ears.

Mr. Hart, are you a film buff in the sense that you are also fascinated by film scores from the 1940s or 1950s?

I am. Recently I listened to the music from “A Place in the Sun” [1951] for the first time. Franz Waxman. I have never seen the film, but I heard the music and I love it. So now, I need to see the film. But a film buff… when I think of a film buff, I think of someone who knows more than I do about older films. Anything before the 1970s, I feel like I don’t know enough to consider myself a true film buff. But I love everything that I see and hear, and I try to listen to film music as much as possible—also the old stuff.

“A Place in the Sun” (1951, trailer)

Are there other film composers from that era that you also like? You mentioned Franz Waxman, but what about Max Steiner or Bernard Herrmann, for example?

Yes, of course, the masters. Three men are responsible for the structure of modern film music: Max Steiner, Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann. Bernard Herrman is also one of my favorite composers of all time, from “Citizen Kane” [1941] all the way to “Taxi Driver” [1976]. It’s all impeccable, it can’t be beaten.

What about outsiders like Anton Karras who scored “The Third Man”?

I love that score, I’ve seen the film several times. Like “The Adventures of Robin Hood” [1938, music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold], “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca” [1942, music by Max Steiner],… When I think of my favorite composers, they are all very identifiable. They have a particular style that spans across all of their work. But there are also some chameleons that I really like, and I feel a little bit like a chameleon myself because there are so many styles of music that I’m interested in, and there are so many styles of music that I spent time studying—or have been lucky enough to play them, or perform in some kind of group on live projects. So having all this exposure to music and being so interested in different kinds of music, I feel very lucky that I’ve been given so many opportunities in film to try new things, to explore and to express myself in so many different styles that I love.

“The Third Man” (1949, trailer)

What would you consider your best training ground?

I think it’s a combination of a few things. I grew up in a very musical household, I started playing the violin at a very young age, and I think it’s the violin, as opposed to the piano or even the cello, is ‘the concertmaster.’ When you think about how many violin concertos have been written over the centuries, it’s a very melodic instrument and the orchestra’s leader in some sense, right? So this kind of placement of the violin and its relationship to melody mean that it is key to being a good film composer. Ever since I started learning music or when I began to think in melodic terms and had the ability to have a relationship to strong melodies, I thought there’s that aspect of it. Also my love of theater, that’s the other side. My degree from university is for playwriting, not for music. So theater is my other passion. I think that my interest in character and dialogue and story art exposition—everything that goes into the other components of storytelling in film—were all things that I was passionate about and things that I studied. So when I am watching films, I’m looking for clues; I want a film to tell me what kind of music it needs, and I think this interest in the script and in character motivation helps me. It gives me an edge.

Looking at your scores, you wrote the score for “Pete’s Dragon” [2016] for a very large orchestra. What’s the difference between writing a score like that, compared to the music for a more intimate film like “The Old Man & the Gun” [2018]?

A score like “Pete’s Dragon” is more like a puzzle, but it’s also like if someone gave me an extra paintbrush and an extra palette of colors to choose from. While I love writing for ensembles of any size, I take great joy in the work that I did on a film like “The Old Man & the Gun”—jazz is something I spent quite a bit of time playing in live settings in my twenties, especially. It was the first music that I really felt a passionate connection to when I was sixteen or seventeen. So it’s very satisfying for me, and I wanted to write a jazz score for years before I wrote the score for “The Old Man & the Gun.” While that is so satisfying, if you give me a whole orchestra, many more layers of things can be said because there are so many more instruments involved. There’s more to choose from, there’s more to be communicated, and there’s also more pressure. You have to figure out what needs to be said by each instrument, how they go together, and how to use a large ensemble but still stay out of the way of the dialogue. Those are all challenges that maybe don’t have to be considered as much with a smaller ensemble. So I also love writing for orchestra; it’s so much fun because there are so many more colors and an extra paintbrush.

David Lowery directed the films you talk about now. What’s the secret of your chemistry? How do you collaborate?

It varies quite a bit from project to project. David is the main director that I work with and he’s the main person who has given me opportunities to explore all these different musical styles. He also doesn’t like repeating himself and he wants me to do different music for the next film than I did for the last film. It doesn’t only depend on what David wants, but also what the producers want and need. If you take a film like “Pete’s Dragon,” Disney expects to hear a demo that sounds as close to the orchestra as possible, and because technology is at the place it is now, this is possible to do. It takes a long time to use software making orchestra samples and make them sound very realistic, but that is the expectation. So for a score like for “Pete’s Dragon” there is software orchestra—not fully arranged because it has to go to an orchestrator before it gets recorded—but at least eighty percent in terms of the arrangements and of the orchestra, has to be heard beforehand to be approved. The days of Bernard Herrmann playing the piano for Alfred Hitchcock—and that was the only thing he heard before they recorded the entire score—those days are over. Except maybe for John Williams. Maybe he can still do that, but for the rest of us, those days are over [laughs]. So people know the technology is there to emulate what it would eventually sound like when it’s being recorded by other instruments. The expectation is that I would provide that ahead of time.

“A Ghost Story” [2017] was the next film you and David Lowery worked on after “Pete’s Dragon”? That’s another truly wonderful score. How did that come about?

We had no producers; A24 bought the film, but when we made it, it was only us making it. There was just David and I deciding what was approved and what was not approved. Just the two of us. In that case a lot of the score was self-recorded by me in my home studio and I played a lot of the instruments on the score. The demo that I sent to David could be the final product, or close to it. I keep this in mind when I’m recording myself. I want to make sure that everything is correct as if it could be the actual piece of music that ends up in the film. With “A Ghost Story,” eighty percent or so of the score were those demos that I made—the first version because we both felt that the music was right from the very beginning. In connection to the film, it was very easy for me to find the music that the film needed and then record it at home. It can go pretty quickly once I know what I want. So there’s quite a bit of difference between what I give to David—sometimes it’s a lot, sometimes it’s a little, sometimes it’s the final thing. In the case of “The Old Man & the Gun,” we both knew from the beginning that the score would be based around a piano trio—piano, base and drums, and they would all be recorded by professional jazz players, better jazz players than me at some point. So in making the demos for “The Old Man & the Gun,” I knew that everything I was writing—using software piano, software base and software drums—would all be eventually replaced. I didn’t take great care in making them sound as real as possible, just enough to give David the idea of what it would eventually sound like and then he’d use his imagination to get it right.

“A Ghost Story” (2017, trailer)

You just mentioned your music studio. I always think of film composers as isolated hermits who work all night long, with a pizza sliced under the door at five in the morning.

[Laughs.] Well, if there’s pizza, it’s because I went into the kitchen and prepared it for myself [laughs]. But otherwise, yes. Some composers have four teams of people working with them, but in the beginning, I do most of my work myself. If I have other people working with me, they’re working from their home studio and I’m working from mine. So yes, I’m always alone, working at home, locking myself into this room for hours at a time, and usually late at night until five in the morning sometimes, writing music, playing instruments. Violin, cello, guitar, base, percussion… So I have as many instruments as it’s safe to have that I wouldn’t trip over. I have them in a place where I can just grab them and start playing, or start recording.

Who is your most important collaborator? The editor maybe? Because you do most of your work during postproduction, I suppose?

Yes, but it feels to me like the director is usually my most important collaborator because he’s going to tell me what works and what doesn’t. Purely in terms of logistical needs and technical needs, the music editor is my savior [laughs], my closest working partner in terms of me sending off music to them, them cutting it to picture, and sending it to the director. But again, it all depends on the size of the film. Sometimes I’m just sending things to the director myself.

You don’t work with the picture editor?

Usually, I don’t work with the picture editor. In most of the projects that I’m working on, there’s a music editor. He’s there specifically to be the liaison between postproduction and me because the picture editor has too much to do for himself. But again, it varies. David is also a picture editor on most of his films, or he’s one of the picture editors. So we can send a lot of things back and forth just between the two of us, especially with “The Green Knight” [2021] when the process had been so long. When you work on a film for over a year, and the music editor only comes in at the very end of the process, I’m ready to record everything. So for most of the time, there was just David as the picture editor and the director, and me.

“The Green Knight” (2021, trailer)

How did you get this authentic look and feel for “The Green Knight”?

Well, my parents were both musicians and they were very interested in medieval music. They belonged to the Church of England, so you could say the research for “The Green Knight” was already done when I was in the womb [laughs]. I sang in my mother’s church choir as a child, learning all this medieval Christian music, the melodies, the rhythm, the cadence. So that’s one part of it. I also did more research than I have ever done for any other film; that’s the other part, I guess. Research of Middle English because I had to write quite a few lyrics—there are quite a few songs in the film—research into Middle English poetry and music, language and syntax. I also had a couple of instruments built for me, like a Swedish medieval instrument called the nyckelharpa. There’s one person—or at least one person in the United States—who makes these. I had called him up and asked him to make me one. So he made me a nyckelharpa. It’s a medieval string instrument and it’s played with a bow, so it has some relationship to a violin. But it’s held across the chest like a guitar would be held. And instead of putting your fingers on the strings, the fingers press on wooden keys on the instrument’s side. So it’s like a part violin and part piano. It’s quite beautiful, and it was one of the main instruments used for the score of “The Witch” [2015], Robert Eggers’ film. Composer Mark Korven used a nyckelharpa for a lot of that. When you hear it, it feels old, like a medieval instrument. So I had this built for me, and I learned how to play it; I had the advantage of playing the violin for so long, so it was relatively easy to learn. But I think it gave a very medieval feeling.

When you watch a film of yours, are you critical of your own work?

I’m always critical because there is always room for improvement, I think. And I’m always changing and learning things. If I wasn’t critical, I’d be worried that I hadn’t learned anything new since I made that music [laughs].

Daniel Hart said during our interview, ‘You have to figure out what needs to be said by each instrument, how they go together, and how to use a large ensemble but still stay out of the way of the dialogue’ | Film Talk

And once the score is out of your hands, can you let it go?

It’s easier to let some things go than others. We worked so long on “The Green Knight” and I had to rewrite the music a couple of times because the edit changed so much. So that’s still there, it’s still in my head—even now. Also “A Ghost Story” because I connect with that film so much; I’m very proud of what we made and I’m very proud of the music that I wrote for it. That’s like a gift; it’s still in my head, and I like it that it’s still there. And then you can have projects that you weren’t that closely connected to, or because it went by in a rush when there was a very short schedule. I think about those less often. I would actually have to listen to the music again to remember. Sometimes I hear music that I have written and it takes me a minute to recognize it; sometimes I don’t remember things that I made.

Is there still time for you to record an album or do a concert?

Yes. Maybe not the last four months or so when I was working on a film and a TV show at the same time—they were both very intense projects—so not all the time. But my band Dark Rooms put out some music at the beginning of the year. As for performing, I have been very reluctant to perform during the pandemic. You can see I still have a mask on right now. I’m taking more precautions than perhaps a lot of people are taking at this point in 2022, so I have not performed during the pandemic, except for small things here and there. But I miss it terribly and I feel like there’s a hole that needs some filling. That makes me think we do need to play some more concerts soon. Maybe at the beginning of next year. I hope to always make time for a live performance. That’s the thing I did first for so long before I was scoring films. It’s one of my greatest loves and it’s a part of me.

Film Fest Ghent,
October 19, 2023


ST. NICK (2009) DIR – SCR – ED David Lowery PROD James M. Johnston CAM Clay Liford MUS Daniel Hart CAST Savanna Sears, Tucker Sears, Monique Byars, Riley Cole, Harry Goaz, Barlow Jacobs, Andrew Sensening

AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS (2013) DIR – SCR David Lowery PROD Cassian Elwes, James M. Johnston, Amy Kaufman, Toby Halbrooks, Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen CAM Bradford Young ED Craig McKay, Jane Rizzo MUS Daniel Hart CAST Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine, Kennadie Smith, Jacklynn Smith, Nate Parker, Robert Longstreet, Charles Baker

COMET (2014) DIR – SCR Sam Esmail PROD Lee Clay, Chad Hamilton CAM Eric Koretz ED Franklin Peterson MUS Daniel Hart CAST Emmy Rossum, Justin Long, Eric Winter, Kayla Servi, Ben Scott, Lou Beatty Jr., Ben Pace, Nicole Lucas, Connie Jackson

TUMBLEDOWN (2015) DIR Sean Mewshaw PROD Margot Hand, Kristin Hahn, Aaron L. Gilbert SCR Desi van Til (story by Sean Mewshaw, Desi van Til) CAM Seamus Tierney ED Sandra Adair, Suzy Elmiger MUS Daniel Hart, Damien Jurado CAST Rebecca Hall, Jason Sudeikis, Blythe Danner, Dianna Agron, Joe Manganiello, Griffin Dunne, Richard Masur, Maggie Castle, Alex Quijano

RETURN TO SENDER (2015) DIR Fouad Mikati PROD Holly Wiersma SCR Joe Gossett, Patricia Beauchamp CAM Russell Carpenter MUS Daniel Hart CAST Rosamund Pike, Shiloh Fernandez, Nick Nolte, Camryn Manheim, Alexi Wasser, Rumer Willis, Ileana Douglas, Ryan Philippe

LOST IN THE SUN (2015) DIR – SCR Trey Nelson PROD Clay Floren, Aimee Shieh, Clay Pecorin CAM Robert Barocci ED Storm Choi [Michael Choi] MUS Daniel Hart CAST Josh Duhamel, Josh Wiggins, Lynn Collins, Emma Fuhrmann, Al Hayter, Larry Jack Dotson, Luis Olmeda, Michael Anthony Jackson

HALF THE PERFECT WORLD (2016) DIR – SCR Cynthia Fredette PROD Cynthia Fredette, Kaer Vanice, Gregory Levitin CAM Ivan Cortazar ED Louise Ford MUS Daniel Hart CAST Heather Lind, Ryan O’Nan, Cara Buono, Janel Moloney, Remy Auberjonois, Clare Foley, Toby Leonard Moore, Kate Jennings Grant

PETE’S DRAGON (2016) DIR David Lowery PROD Jim Whitaker SCR David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks (screenplay PETE’S DRAGON [1977] by Malcolm Marmorstein; story by Seton I. Miller, S.S. Field) CAM Bojan Bazelli ED Lisa Zeno Churgin MUS Daniel Hart CAST Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr.

A GHOST STORY (2017) DIR – SCR – ED David Lowery PROD Adam Donaghey, James M. Johnston, Toby Halbrooks CAM Andrew Droz Palermo MUS Daniel Hart CAST Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, McColm Cephas Jr., Kenneisha Thompson, Grover Coulson, Liz Franke, Barlow Jacobs, Richard Krause, David Lowery

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018) DIR David Lowery PROD Robert Redford, James M. Johnston, James D. Stern, Jeremy Steckler, Dawn Ostroff, Anthony Mastromauro, Toby Halbrooks, Bill Holderman SCR David Lowery (article by David Grann) CAM Joe Anderson ED Lisa Zeno Churgin MUS Daniel Hart CAST Casey Affleck, Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Elisabeth Moss, Tom Waits, Keith Carradine, John David Washington, Isiah Whitlock Jr.

LIGHT OF MY LIFE (2019) DIR – SCR Casey Affleck PROD Teddy Schwarzman, John Powers Middleton CAM Adam Arkapaw ED Christopher Tellefsen, Dody Dorn MUS Daniel Hart CAST Casey Affleck, Anna Pnioswky, Tom Bower, Elisabeth Moss, Hrothgar Mathews, Timothy Webber, Thelonius Serrell-Freed

THE LAST LETTER FROM YOUR LOVER (2021) DIR Augustine Frizzell PROD Pete Czernin, Jennifer Weiss, Simone Urdl, Graham Broadbent SCR Nick Payne, Esta Spalding (book “The Last Letter From Your Lover” [2011] by JoJo Moyes [Pauline Sara Jo Moyes]) CAM George Steel ED Melanie Oliver MUS Daniel Hart CAST Felicity Jones, Callum Taylor, Joe Alwyn, Nabhaan Rizwan, Shailene Woodley, Wendy Nottingham, Emma Appleton

THE GREEN KNIGHT (2021) DIR – SCR – ED David Lowery PROD Anjay Nagpal, James M. Johnston, Tim Headington, Toby Halbrooks CAM Andrew Droz Palermo MUS Daniel Hart CAST Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Joe Anderson, Noelle Brown, Sarita Choudhury, Anaïs Rizzo, Nita Mishra, Tara Mae, Atheena Frizzell

PETER PAN & WENDY (2023) DIR David Lowery PROD Joe Roth, Jeff Kirschenbaum, Jim Whitaker SCR David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks (adaptation of PETER PAN [1953, animated] by J.M. Barrie; story by Ted Sears, Erdman Penner, Bill Peet, Winston Hibler, Joe Rinaldi, Milt Banta, Ralph Wright, William Cottrell) CAM Bojan Bazelli ED Lisa Zeno Churgin MUS Daniel Hart CAST Alexander Molony, Ever Anderson, Jude Law, Yara Shahidi, Joshua Pickering, Jim Gaffigan, Noah Matthews Matofsky