Behind the Music: Interviewing composer Robert Miller

Photo of composer, Robert Miller: Photo Credit: Ben Fraternale
Photo of composer, Robert Miller: Photo Credit: Ben Fraternale /

Reflections of the Last Idealism from Robert W Miller on Vimeo.

Behind the Music takes a look at the work of a composer, as well as future projects and attempts to delve into the personal workings of its subject. For today, we have the pleasure of interviewing a renowned composer of over 20+ years in films, television, commercials and concerts. Our interview today is with composer, Robert Miller.

Depending on who you ask, there is something of a consensus that the music of a project, whether it’d be film, television, etc, is often the backbone of the entire work. Screenplays, producers, directors and such will help build the project from the bottom all the way until it’s finally finished, but more importantly, the music can help make or break the entire project. The work of the composer doesn’t simply involve waving their hands and beauty commences. There’s talk about what the score should sound like, how can it fit the project, getting it right, etc. If one hires the right composer for their project, it can honestly do wonders in helping strengthen the project. This is where Robert Miller comes in.

Leading a career as a composer for around 23 years, Robert Miller has established himself as one of the most reliable composers working in the film industry. Having worked on over 40 film socres, as well over 2,000 commercials and most recently on the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, Survive and Advance, Miller’s work can be heard from just about every entertainment source you can delve into. With a slew of new scores being showcased at places such as the Sundance Film Festival and even this year’s Oscars, Hidden Remote takes great pleasure in interviewing Robert Miller on the process behind his work, the details of his involvement with recent works and more!

Hidden Remote: A 25+ year career as a composer is quite the grand accomplishment, which begs the question to start this off: how did you first enter the world of composing?

Robert Miller: I had enormous interest in writing music since I was about 10 years old. I heard Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony and got so enchanted that I played it over and over again. I knew at that moment that I wanted to create music that I hoped would move people. I was already a musician, but from that moment forward I thought of myself as an aspiring composer.

Robert Miller Photograph
Photo of composer, Robert Miller: Photo Credit: Ben Fraternale /

HR: Having been surrounded by music all these years, it comes to reason that you would develop your own musical personality. How does your music set itself apart from other musical scores?

Miller: I always felt that highlighting idiosyncrasies was the pathway to having your own sound. Along the way to forming a sound, one emulates the mentors (like my mentor Aaron Copland) and heroes that you admire in music. I grew up in a very eclectic Bronx, NY atmosphere in addition. The sound of The Beatles, Motown, Hendrix, Cream, and my symphonic influences all swirled around in my head. I believe that the result is a very American sound, but with my propensity to fuse unusual colors from outside the traditional orchestra.

I wrote a “song cycle” some years back using 5 Walt Whitman poems that fuses the orchestra with Tibetan overtone singing, Chapman stick (played mostly by bass guitarists) drums and world percussion, as well as atmospheric synths. I feel that my film music reflects these kinds of fusions often, although I deeply love the traditional orchestra and have a body of work that you would most likely call neo-romantic American symphonic music. I might add that the way I voice chords in my orchestrations (which I always do entirely myself, believing in “orchestration as composition” like Bernard Herman did) is also a recognizable thing individualizes my sound.

HR: It’s got to feel great to know that your music had a large presence at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. With your music appearing in the Eugene Jarecki documentary about Elvis Presley, The King, one wonders: how did you first get involved with the project?

Miller: I’ve been working with Eugene since 2005. Our first movie together was “Why We Fight,” which won the grand prize at Sundance that year. I love working with Eugene. He and I have developed an intimate work bond. I understand his way of thinking, his film phrases, etc.

I first knew about this film a few years back, and thought that the idea was incredibly creative. Eugene is a big thinker, and this film is clearly a “big” idea. I’ll add that this is the first film we’ve done where a massive amount of source material is present (with good reason, since Elvis and related influences, as well as artists influenced by Elvis, are a big part of “The King.“)

HR: Being that the film is a documentary centering on one of the most beloved musicians in history, how did you go about for creating the score for The King?

Miller: The score for the movie needs to be in total counterpoint to the songs. The cues appear to create a more “still” and meditative ambience so that Eugene’s thesis statements can become clear after you feel pulled in by the energetic musical atmosphere created by Elvis and company! I sought to illuminate and create a platform for Elvis’ voice in many cases, as his honest reflections of his life serve as thoughtful warnings from the beyond. All in all, this is the most subtle use of score that we’ve ever had in a movie.

HR: Not only do you have your work in The King, but also in the interesting short documentary, Knife Skills. Did the subject matter about a restaurant being home to trainees from prison intrigue you or did you find the will to get involved through other means?

Miller: Knife Skills, which just received an Oscar nomination, is an absolutely incredible and inspiring film. Tom Lennon knew of my work from “Particle Fever” (Mark Levinson/ Walter Murch,) and called me to work on this last Spring. I can tell you that I was so engaged with his characters, all of whom were seeking redemption from a dark past. I learned so much from Tom and everyone on Knife Skills, and I believe everyone will walk away transformed after seeing it.

HR: Considering the odd, but incredibly interesting premise of Knife Skills, how did you decide to structure your score to fit the film?

Miller: I structured the score by deciding on a theme for the characters (Brandon, Marley, etc.) and a theme for the actual progress being made to open the restaurant, and then countered those ideas with fanciful orchestral departures that feel much more buoyant than the “tough as nails” people. They are learning traditional french cuisine and they come from a life of violence and drugs. There are a ton of stuff to feed off of with just that fact!

HR: Moving on from Sundance to HBO, your work will also be appearing in the Rebecca Cammisa documentary, Atomic Homefront, set to release early this year. How will Atomic Homefront differ from The King, in terms of your work, musically?

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Miller: Atomic Homefront is a more score-driven film, with no source music. This great and necessary documentary about the plight of the St Louis suburbs residents in dealing with radioactive toxicity that is literally killing them needed a musical voice of serious threat, empathy, and also hope. I want the film to inspire action to resolve the enormous problem. I hope I contributed positively to that goal.

HR: How did your involvement with Atomic Homefront begin?

Miller: Rebecca contacted me because her cinematographer had worked on another film with me and recommended me for the project. As is the case with many documentaries, I begin by experimenting with finding that voice I spoke of above with broad thematic sketches while the film is still trying to find its shape editorially.

HR: The work for you doesn’t stop there, as your music will also be appearing in the quirky sci-fi comedy, Future ’38. The film’s status as a comedy is quite the change of pace from the previously mentioned titles. Do you find composing the score for a fictional comedy a bit of a different beast as compared to documentaries?

Miller: I love working on narrative films! Jamie Greenberg’s Future 38 may be a little movie, but it’s a huge artistic accomplishment for him both as a writer and director. The musical score needed to feel legitimately period (1930’s,) but in a way where a 1930’s composer might imagine our present times. I loved hearing music from that era that looked ahead, like Copland’s World’s Fair score for example. I tried to embrace that kind of thinking, and also serve the comedy. Because I didn’t grow up in that time period, I find the challenge to write in an unfamiliar style quite compelling. I guess we will find out if viewers think I pulled it off!

HR: The tagline for Future ’38 is “A 1938 screwball comedy set in the far future year of 2018.” With that punchy tagline set in place, what sorts of sounds should we expect to hear once we sit down to watch the film?

Miller: I guess I kind of covered this with my last answer; it’s vintage sound all the way, including the use of things like the Stroh Violin, which is a quirky violin invented with a victrola-like horn attached to the body in order to project focused sound into a microphone. When it’s played, it immediately transports you back in time in terms of how it sounds. The part that is harder to talk about is my embracing the thinking that I’m a 1930’s composer imagining 2018! A tough thing to crystallize in words. One thing I can say is that even when we imagine the future, we tend to use the musical language we are familiar with. Music written for films in the 90’s that is set in the future still basically sounds like music from the 1990’s. I couldn’t use anything that is actually modern in Future 38 without ruining the desired effect.

HR: To finish this off, we’ll ask a couple of more personal questions to truly pry our way into the soul of Robert Miller (exaggerated, but you get the point). Over the years as you’ve developed your craft, do you have any particular scores of yours that you consider to be your favorites? Or do you feel it’s unfair to play favorites in this context?

Miller: A few things come to mind for me. One is very recent; I wrote five hours of score for a “30 for 30” film called The Best of Enemies (on the Lakers/ Celtics rivalry.) I used two themes to tell the story, one for the Lakers and one for the Celtics. I traveled through many styles and decades with just those two themes and finished the score in a month’s time. I was very proud of that! I also love the score to a planetarium show in New York with Neil Degrasse Tyson called “Dark Universe.” I love space and science, and got to use my love for large symphonic sound. Lastly, my work with Eugene on The House I Live In is a favorite. It’s an example of the kind of work I’ve done with him where the music does some heavy lifting

Next: Douglas Pipes interview: The music of The Babysitter

HR: To conclude, one final question from you to any up-and-coming composers: Do you have any advice for composers and/or people in the film and entertainment industry that are trying to come up in their respective careers? Words of encouragement or brutal honesty?

Miller: I can only advise this much: be the hardest worker on the block, be afraid of nothing because there is an awful lot of rejection that comes with being a film composer, and keep studying and improving as a musician always. Beethoven famously said that he was just beginning to master counterpoint on his deathbed. Imagine that!