We got the chance to chat with composer Timothy Stuart Jones about his most recent work on Duke Kahanamoku’s documentary Waterman. This well-regarded project documents the life of Duke Kahanamoku, a surfer, and world-record-setting Olympic swimmer, and was directed by Isaac Halasimais and narrated by Jason Mamoa. Timothy’s additional credits include NBC’s Chuck, Thor: Ragnarok, The Lego Movie 2, Holmes and Watson, Connected, and The Willoughbys. Read on to learn more about his experience putting music to the legendary life of Duke Kahanamoku.
What are some of the different roles you have held for the score or sound of a project, and how do they influence your success as a composer?
What a great question! My very first job in Hollywood was assistant to the ADR editor on a big feature. I got to see how they put together the dialog for a film. It was fascinating and not something I knew anything about. It made me more aware of the rhythm that dialog has in a film. I think a good score bobs and weaves around the dialog so that hopefully, they lock together smoothly in the final dub and do not fight each other.
Music will lose, haha. Around that same time, I also worked as an assistant props guy. That was not sound related, but I watched very carefully how the director interacted with actors and other crew. I knew it was important because I would need to be able to deal with them in the studio once I was scoring my own films. I also got a taste of the hours and the dedication it takes to be a part of a film being made.
I worked for other composers early in my career, I got to see the pace and different methods people use to score films and TV. It’s not just about the details of putting notes to picture. That is of course very important. It is also about watching how much they worked when they worked, when did they see their families, and how did they choose to deal with directors and producers, etc. All of that seeped in and informed how I wanted things to go when I was in the pilot’s seat. For instance, I have found that I like to leave room for some musical surprises. Things that I did not set out to do, but they present themselves while I am scoring the movie. Probably a long answer to your short question. Basically, I was able to see other people work and decide for myself where I want the structure to be in my own process.
Can you walk us a bit through the elements of the score on Waterman and how they supported the film’s narrative?
Sure! So, what you have to know about Duke Kahanamoku is that he was an absolute superstar. He was the fastest swimmer on the planet for quite a while. He was also a very quiet man who had lifelong experience with racism and being pushed aside because of the color of his skin. He kept all of that inside.
So, my approach to one aspect of the score was to use a very simple acoustic piano that I played in my studio and recorded live to picture. Often, I recorded it freely without any click track to give it less of a rigid feel. I like that it worked for Duke’s humility and his inner life. The piano felt simple and honest.
For another aspect of the score, I had an edict from Isaac Halasima, the director, to score the big action scenes as if Duke had finally gotten that starring role in a big Hollywood movie. Because he was Hawaiian, he never got the chance in life. I gave him an orchestral score with big Polynesian drums and an orchestra to support the unbelievable things Duke did in the water, both in the Olympics and in his life outside of competition.
What is the first step of your composing process? How do you get in the right mindset to score a project?
It tends to be different for each project. Sometimes I’ll start at the piano working on themes and writing them down on score paper. Occasionally, I even start at the script stage before I have seen any picture. Other times, it starts at the computer, and I watch sections of the film over and over to start working with the music to the film. This can be any instrument that seems to stick to the picture. I will start layering from there until it feels like it is finished and then I move on to the next one.
That said, what does seem to be universal, is that I start thinking about the film before I commit any notes to paper or to the computer. I find that working away from the film in my head, often while I am doing something else, gives me little clues I may or may not have come across by starting directly on the project. I think that distracting our brains with a somewhat mundane task can give the rest of our brain a chance to not be so literal and more creative. I have always been fascinated by the ideas that show up when we are not concentrating on them.
Creativity is a mysterious thing that I am usually trying not to squash at first. If you can leave judgment out of it and allow the idea a chance to prove itself (or not), you can come across some really original things. I have to credit John Cleese for illuminating something I have been doing for years, but maybe never stated quite so succinctly and concretely. He wrote a wonderful little book called ‘Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide’. You can read it in an hour or less. I found it very useful. He is certainly well qualified to speak on the subject of creativity after so many years of doing brilliantly creative things.
I know this industry can require a lot of hours, but it is surely a labor of love. What do you all find to be the most fulfilling or favorite thing about your job?
I think for me, it is that moment when you finish writing a score. It might be 3 pm or 3 am but it is usually just me in a dark room by myself. The reality of many of us creatives, haha!
In that moment, I can look back at everything I have created for a full film. Sometimes it is this sense of ‘where did this come from?’ I will barely remember doing some of it. I know it may sound weird but there is sometimes this sense that some of the music just showed up. I am certain sleep deprivation and sheer adrenaline have a lot to do with the time compressing in your head. Also though, it is the training and experience that kicked in to finish the job. I’m always grateful for that part. That feeling of listening back and hopefully feeling good about what you have created is extremely rewarding.
I also feel good when I am learning new things and pushing my craft forward every time. I hope I never stop learning. I mean that quite literally because there is so much to know for a job like this. You can never learn it all. I heard John Williams talk about how he is still learning and getting better. He is 89 years old. I think that’s incentive enough for me to try to do that as well.
Any big wins or recent projects you are excited about?
I have a film coming out called ‘Hide and Seek’. It is a cool thriller directed by Joel David Moore (Avatar). It is a re-imagining of the hit Korean film of the same name. It could not be more different from ‘Waterman’. It is dark and moody and was a lot of fun to do.
Have any of you gotten a chance to use a unique sound, odd instrument, or musical easter egg in one of your scores?
I once used a glass harmonica for a Vampire score I did. It is a very cool instrument made of these nested, rotating glass bowls that are played by wetting the fingers with water and then playing like you do a wine glass rim. That design was actually invented by Ben Franklin! I used a real Viola da Gamba on the same score. The origins of the instrument go back to the late 15th century. It is like a cello with little string frets and is played with a bow. Such a wonderful ancient sound.
I used some Hawaiian and Tahitian drums on Waterman that I bought on Kauai when I was there some years ago. It was a thrill to have a percussionist come in and record them for Duke.
What piece of advice do you have for composers looking to break into film/tv scoring?
At the risk of repeating myself, never stop learning. Soak in as much as you can about not just music, but film, technology, and people skills. Understanding computers and samples, and how to do very convincing mock-ups (and often finals) of your scores is key. Writing on paper is great and wonderful to keep the tradition alive, but almost no one records every score with an orchestra.
Even when you do record with an orchestra, the Director, Producers, and Studio will expect to hear superlative demos. If you cannot present your ideas in a highly professional and polished way, you will find it difficult to get work. Just my opinion of course, but I think the computer side is really important.
Lastly, you must really have a burning desire to do this job. It is not easy and requires sacrifices in your way of life. Obviously, I am all in and I believe it is one of the greatest jobs in the world. Try to find established composers to learn from. That will accelerate your learning curve and possibly expose you to some trickle-down work at some point. Set your sights and believe in yourself. Belief is one of our most powerful emotions and can carry you far.