Reza Safinia, a multi-instrumentalist composer raised on Barry White, Michael Jackson, and Quincy Jones Productions, has worked in the music industry producing and engineering records for artists from Kylie Minogue to Ms Dynamite. Recently, however, he has begun composing for film and has managed to incorporate his passion for textured, electronic music into the cinematic realm. This is apparent in his most recent film Snap, which premiered this year at SXSW and features a primarily dubstep-driven score. Safinia was kind enough to talk to us about his journey from record producer to film composer and how electronic music has shaped the art of film scoring.
What were some of your earliest musical influences?
When I was five years old my aunt gave me a cassette of Barry White and I used to play it every night on auto repeat on those [cassette players] where it would turn around when it got to the end of one side, and that’s how I would go to sleep every night [laughs]. So that’s my first experience with music.
Did having that musical influence in your head from such an early age spark your interest in producing records?
Absolutely. It’s funny cause … from that young age the production of [that music] always spoke to me. And then when Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out I was actually focusing on what he was doing with the hi-hat, and what he was doing with the bass line, and how [it all came] together. So it’s always been right at the forefront of my mind from a very young age.
How did you find yourself in the music industry?
I started off playing in bands and trying to get a record deal when I was in my late teens and early twenties, and then eventually when I decided to get really serious about it I started off as an intern in a recording studio. I moved to New York and I was working at Battery Studios and then I became an assistant and then an engineer and then eventually I started producing my own stuff and that was the chain, basically.
You started to expand your interests into different mediums. Which came first, creating music for commercials and trailers, or scoring for film?
It was kind of simultaneous, but I’d say the commercials took off quicker because, first of all, it’s easier to crack that game, and secondly it’s a much quicker turnaround. It can take you three hours to do a commercial versus two months to score a movie, so that just sort of picked up quicker, but I actually started them at the same time.
When you go about writing music for commercials or trailers are they sent to you fully edited or do you have input during the editing process?
I’m actually not involved in [the editing process] at all. And not only am I not involved, but commercials are so driven by the [ad] agencies that there’s not even a creative dialogue between the director or the composer or the editor. Everyone’s sort of doing their job separately and the whole thing’s commandeered by the agency.
Does that affect how emotionally involved you can get in the commercial or do you just approach it as a job where everything’s presented in front of you and you just add music?
That’s absolutely the case. That’s why film is really where my passion is because you can really get emotionally involved and have a creative stake in the project as a whole.
How much has engineering records influenced the way you approach composing for film?
Quite a lot, to be honest. I’m a bit of a tech nerd in a way. I play it down but deep down I guess I am, and I get excited about experimenting with sound and [thinking] of how many ways I can mess with the sound of that one note and turn [it] into music without even playing a melody. I’m always beginning there. And then once I bring melody into it the permutations are infinite. I’d definitely say sound tweaking and production are, to me, on par with my approach to melody and composing.
Your work is primarily dubstep driven. What initially drew you to this genre of music?
That’s a very interesting question because I’ve never really been quite sure when the genre became a genre. In England this whole revolution of music started with drum and bass and then it kind of turned into garage and then there was a grime scene, and then dubstep sort of came out of garage and drum and bass merging together and then going back apart. It’s [been] a very creative time in the last ten years in England of amazing producers just trying different ideas. Eventually I guess a wave of them was doing similar things and the ideas kind of stuck.
In some way I kind of feel like dubstep has become bigger in America than it [has] in England where it started … because the American media really embraced giving it a title. For me, I didn’t know I liked dubstep, I just knew that I liked 140 BPM beats and playing with really aggressive sawtooth [waves] and synths and … just going metal with those kinds of things [laughs]. That’s where my real interest has been and I’ve been doing things like that for a time before it even existed as a genre that was called dubstep. And not just me but plenty of people were doing things like this.
Recently a few mainstream film scores have tapped into this musical phenomenon. What do you think this genre of music has to offer film?
A huge amount, mostly from a production point of view. For example with Snap, initially the idea was to do a dubstep score. That was the short catchphrase for what we were gonna do. And as I started digging into the film I found that whilst dubstep was extremely evocative and powerful in some scenes it was also limiting in others. And so to entirely do the score with just tracks that you would hear in a club just felt tiring for 90 minutes, and also emotionally didn’t quite connect in the scenes where it really felt like we needed to do that. So I ended up doing a lot of piano music and a lot of industrial sound design. But the funny thing is that the production that I used in the dubstep carried through the other soundscapes I was creating. I think in that sense if you can use those sounds to be innovative and not be limited by them … then I think it’s a really powerful tool.
How difficult to balance between the emotional highs of lows of dubstep in relation to Snap?
I think dubstep has an emotion, but the range of emotions that it provokes is not the full spectrum of what I feel you need to score a movie. I shouldn’t say to score any movie, but perhaps some movies might work purely with the dubstep score. It really depends on the story and the character and what needs to be conveyed through the film. But what I found on Snap when I was working on it was that [the dubstep] was really pushing the emotion perfectly in some areas, but then in the more tender ones I had to strip the beats back.
With Snap being your fourth film, how do you feel you’ve grown as a composer? Were new challenges presented?
I definitely feel that with every film that I work on I get more confident. But at the same time it’s still a new world for me as a career. I’m in a very young stage as a film composer, so as much as I’m getting that confidence I’m still also kind of looking at an open road ahead of me, full of excitement, trying to learn all that I can.
With the first film [I was thinking] can I really do this? I better make sure I can pull this off. With this film I didn’t have that nervousness. Also, with this particular film … there wasn’t really much time to do it. I had three weeks to do it and it was a 70-minute score. That’s a lot of music to do in a short amount of time. So I just kind of had to say, “You know what, I know what I’m doing and I’m just gonna execute on this one.” [laughs].
Dubstep plays such an important role in the film. Being familiar with the genre, I’m sure that helped with your confidence.
It did. Also, with this film, I was very connected to the whole process because it’s the second film I’d done with the same director. Knowing that we’re already cool starting at the gate made it a really beautiful experience to share creative ideas together. There was a lot of [open] dialogue on this film with the director, which was really great because as a composer you spend a lot of time in isolation so it’s nice when you can get that feeling of collaborating with somebody.
One of the things that did make me feel confident was that I left the dubstep stuff right at the end and I was focused on doing the regular sort of “scorey” kind of stuff [at the beginning]. So I was more concerned about being able to get that done in time and deliver it with the emotional poignance that it needed to have, and I felt like if I can get through this then I can blaze through the dubstep tracks.
By incorporating dubstep into film, do you feel the urge to legitimize the genre and show that it can work in a cinematic context?
To some extent. Rock is a genre that is very accepted because it’s been around for so long, but it comes from the same limited structure. But then you have amazing rock musicians who are able to use elements of what they know from making rock music into making film scores. Trent Reznor is very effectively able to use the production and the techniques that he uses in making records and applying them to scoring film. So I think why should dubstep be any different, or any kind of electronic music, or any kind of music at all in fact?
What do you think it says about the artistic process now with established mediums coming together to create something novel? Why do you think this is happening now?
I’d say that it’s a combination of a few things. Back in the day you didn’t have the Internet and whatever you heard in popular music was whatever the radio was playing. And so if you were listening to Duran Duran there’s no way you could imagine that “Hungry Like the Wolf” would be a film score [laugh]. But now people are listening to a lot more abstract, instrumental, and experimental music in much larger capacity. A lot of people are aware of who Aphex Twin is. A lot of [big house] DJs … have a lot of influence. Everyone knows who Skrillex is. Vocals and pop songs do not account for the large part of the music that these people make. So people are now used to hearing experimental music. That kind of music lends itself better to film than the pop songs we grew up with in the 80s and 90s.
I think another reason is that we are getting older. I’m almost forty. I’m a consumer. And there are a lot of consumers like me [who] grew up in an era where we didn’t [listen] to Nat King Cole and string quartets. I grew up listening to Run DMC and Michael Jackson, so the fabric of sounds that have informed my palette are much more modern, and I’m the old guy [laughs]. I think you put these two things together and it makes it a lot more of a palatable idea to use contemporary music in film scores.
What do you think about technology’s impact on film scoring?
It’s great. I think if you don’t make technology your friend it will become your enemy. I think you should embrace it. Ultimately I try to be the master of the technology and not let the technology be the master of me.
Does scoring for film give musicians such as yourself a freedom that producing a record doesn’t afford?
Absolutely. For me it’s much more liberating to score film because I don’t enjoy being stuck in a format of, you know, the chorus has to happen here or this has to happen there. But mind you there are plenty of musical artist who make more abstract music. I mentioned Aphex Twin; his music doesn’t follow any standard in pop music. Or Radiohead. Thom Yorke. Everyone’s bending the rules. You don’t have to do film to do that, it just happens to be my choice and I very much enjoy looking at pictures and reading into the emotional drive in the scene and using that as an inspiration to make music.
On Snap you acted as an executive producer in addition to film composer. How intertwined were these two roles during the film’s production?
At the beginning I didn’t know that they would be intertwined, but they ended up being very intertwined. That was a learning curve for me that I really enjoyed because now I’d like to do it with every film if I can [laughs]. It’s really cool because it makes you much more creatively invested in the film as a whole. You have less conversations about, “What music can I do to make the director happy?” And you have more conversations about “Wow, let’s make the coolest film we can possibly make. Let’s put all our thoughts together and get involved.” It’s really fun.
You’ve worked with Youssef Delara and Victor Teran on Snap and previously on Filly Brown. Could you talk about how this working relationship came to be?
Victor Teran was a producer on Filly Brown, the previous film we all worked on tougher. Before Filly Brown I just met Youssef at a lounge in a film festival. I think we both came out of the same movie and we just ended up going for a drink at the same time at the same place, and we just got talking, and we realized that we really had a lot in common. Filly Brown was the next film that they had on their slate and we decided to work together. In the beginning we were sort of strangers who had a fondness for working with each other and by the end of the film we were like family. We felt like this is such a great working partnership, so I guess that’s how it organically evolved and became a more interconnected connection when we were working on Snap.
Did you develop similar relationships while working in the music industry, or is there something about working on film that’s more unique in that regard?
Yeah, because a film takes a lot longer to make. It’s almost like birthing a baby in a way; it takes nine months to birth a film if you’re lucky, whereas music is a bit more promiscuous [laughs]. You could write a song with someone today and write a different song with someone tomorrow. That’s not to say that you don’t develop great bonds with people in the music industry it’s just that you’re all working on many more things at the same time, all the time.
So where do you see yourself going from here? You’ve got your own independent record label and are currently exploring into the world of film. Do you see yourself juggling both or giving more attention to film? Are you just enjoying it?
I’m pretty much enjoying it. Everyone’s saying it’s the Wild West out there right now. Whatever you know to be the film or the music industry is constantly in flux and people are finding new ways of doing stuff. There’s also transmedia storytelling where you’ve got an intellectual property in film, and an iPad, and a mobile phone all at the same time and they’re all relating to each other to tell stories. It’s a new frontier every day. I’m just someone else in that mix figuring out what I find exciting and [seeing] where it goes.
Any new projects on the horizon?
I am working on another film at the moment as a composer and I do have a couple of projects that I’m prepping as a producer, so exciting things are around the corner for sure.
Thank you so much for talking with me today.
Thank you, thank you for taking the time it’s really awesome.
To read more about Reza Safinia and hear his work, you can visit his official site: Music and Texture.