Behind the Music returns to Hidden Remote with a bang, as The Farewell’s composer, Alex Weston, stops by to discuss the intricacies of the music in the Chinese-American dramedy.
Behind the Music is an ongoing series that seeks to interview and gain an introspective on both established and up-and-coming composers. These composers, who have worked for everything from television to film to commercials to video games, share their experiences, work ethic, and more. For this edition, Alex Weston, the composer for the acclaimed A24 comedy-drama The Farewell, stops by to give us a taste of his process for the film’s music.
A musical whiz even at an early age, Alex Weston honed his craft all the way back in grade school, eventually graduating from Carnegie Mellon University with a composing degree and going on to assist legendary composer, Philip Glass, while simultaneously working on his own music in the process. His hard work eventually led to Weston’s music receiving the concert treatment, including a performance at the John F. Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts.
Not just familiar with concerts, Alex Weston has also lent his musical trappings to the world of filmed media, contributing to the musical scores of projects such as The Affair, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, The Emperor of All Maladies, and more. His style of mixing classical-style music with modern elements has fit well with these projects and Weston only continues to fine-tune his musical craft for future working projects.
The Farewell stands not only as Weston’s most recent musical venture, but perhaps among his most widely known, given the film’s surprise success at the summer box office.
Three weeks ago, the Chinese-American family dramedy bested Avengers: Endgame for the highest per-theater gross average of the year and the film has continued to show strength and popularity in its gradual expansion into more theaters.
With The Farewell’s popularity growing each week since its debut at Sundance, Alex Weston’s music is set to receive a healthy boost and here to give us the lowdown on his musical process and the reaction to the film’s success is Weston himself. He has stopped by Hidden Remote to give us his two cents on the whole ordeal and we’re lucky to have him here answering questions for us!
Hidden Remote: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this for Hidden Remote! Before we start, I’d like to gush over the popularity that The Farewell has been experiencing in the United States. From Sundance darling to beating Avengers: Endgame for the highest per-theater average of the year, how have you reacted to the success of the movie?
Alex Weston: Thank you for having me! It’s been really incredible to see the reaction this movie is getting. When I signed on for this project I felt it had a lot of potential for exposure, but I really never expected this response.
HR: The Farewell’s early success is an indicator that small art films still have a place in the world of theater-going with all of the big dogs. Why do you feel that Lulu Wang’s international comedy-drama succeeded where other small films have unfortunately struggled?
Weston: First and foremost, I think it’s an incredibly compelling story and, even if the exact specifics here are exceptional, the core of story, with it’s focus on family and heritage and ultimately grief, is universally relatable. I also think Lulu brought on the perfect collaborators to bring to this story to life. I have so much respect for everyone who worked on this and they all did such great work!
HR: It must be quite the jolt of energy to be the main composer for one of the year’s most anticipated films coming out of Sundance. When you first started dabbling in music, was something like this a goal for you personally?
Weston: I’ve been writing music for almost as long as I’ve been playing an instrument and working on film scores is something that has always been a goal, if being a ‘film composer’ specifically hasn’t been my focus. I like working in lots of different mediums and with many different collaborators. That said it really has been amazing having a film I worked on reach an audience like this.
HR: How did you first get into creating music? An early passion or a late bloomer?
Weston: I started taking piano lessons when was maybe four or five and always really enjoyed it and took it pretty seriously, though definitely didn’t know that it’s what I would end up doing professionally. I started out playing classical music like most people do, but became very interested in playing jazz in high school. I’ve been writing music for pretty much as long as I’ve been playing piano and at some point realized this is what I wanted to study in college and really focus on for my career.
HR: Considering the film’s intimate subject matter, how did you find yourself working on the musical score for The Farewell?
Weston: Someone had suggested to the music supervisors (Sue Jacobs and Dylan Neely) that they check out some of my work. I then met with Lulu to chat and she gave me a few scenes to see what I would do with the project. After a few weeks of back and forth and looking at options, she decided to take me on for the project. Funnily enough none of the music I wrote that got me the job in the first place ended up in the movie. We actually ended up going in pretty different directions for those cues.
HR: The music for the film is the definition of atmospheric – almost like a melancholic family experience (quite fitting for the story). How did you draw on the inspiration for the sound of the film?
Weston: There are so many specific emotions and so very many lines being straddled at once in terms of tone and emotion that it was hard for us to really nail the feeling for the score. There was a lot of experimentation and a lot of different versions to get even get started. I think I wrote something like 25 different melodies for one of the cues until we found something that Lulu thought captured everything she wanted it to, given how specific and intimate it is to her experience.
Lulu and I had a lot of conversations about the direction and the inspiration for the score getting started but there were a few things she had in mind from the very beginning of the process. One of those things is that we wanted the movie to have a very distinctly “Classical” sounding score.
A lot of the temp music in the film was things like Vivaldi or Haydn. This choice lends a sort of formality to the proceedings, adding a weight and drama that plays against the action on the screen.
Everyone in the movie has to keep their emotions covered, with varying degrees of success, in order to keep the lie that is the basis of the film undiscovered. The heavy dramatic music against images of people trying not to give anything away reveals something about their internal struggle.
HR: A main component of the musical score is the use of vocals in several tracks. It’s slightly eerie, but mostly nuanced in its execution. It’s an interesting choice for a comedy-drama, so can I ask what you envisioned in your head as that idea came to you?
Weston: The use of voices was also Lulu’s idea and something she wanted before I was ever involved in the project and this is for a variety of reasons. To the end I was saying before about the internalized emotions, voice is inherently a dramatic sound and usually when you hear a choir in a film score it’s a much more intense context. Gladiators or battles or what-have-you. Here you don’t have that.
Instead, here you have moments like a family walking back to their hotel in silence after a contentious dinner. Walking slowly up the hallway, even though no one is speaking you hear our choir singing slowly and somberly accompanied by a melancholic cello line. You can see the emotion on their face but the sound of the room itself does not reflect that. Hopefully the score does.
Besides just being heavier and dramatic, the choir is used in our score to represent the community. It underscores moments about the family as a whole. In addition to the choir, we also use an incredibly high tenor soloist (Mykal Kilgore) in falsetto in many of the cues. He’s featured primarily in a motif we would use to focus on the lie itself and, contrary to the choir’s representation of community, more represents individuality and the personal experience.
It’s the first piece of music we hear, in a subtle discrete arrangement accompanying the decision to keep Nai Nai’s diagnosis a secret, and culminates at the end of the film in a cue called ‘Billi’ on the soundtrack, which is a developed into a more solid, dramatic, and resolute version.
HR: Something else I noticed in your work for the film is its slightly chaotic energy. By that, I mean the various attitudes the score boasts. ‘The Lie’, for instance, is a slow, melancholic piece of work that contrasts greatly with the sort-of frenetic energy of ‘Arrival’. What were some of your various influences as you worked on the score?
Weston: So the more traditional classical music sound that I had mentioned inspired a lot of the score manifests itself in some different ways. “Arrival” was a fun cue to write and a particularly unique challenge to find the right tone. The cue plays as Billi (Awkwafina’s character) decides to ignore her parents insistence she not come to China and has arrived, in secret, in a country she hasn’t been to since she was a child alone, overwhelmed, and overwhelmed.
The footage is just her cab ride from the airport to her grandmother’s apartment with no one aware she’s en route. The internal chaos here is reflected musically as she looks out of an unfamiliar skyline. The end of that cue is suddenly slower and more dramatic as she’s pulling up to the building which seems to grow and become more all-encompassing as she gets closer.
HR: What do you hope for the audience to come away with as they hear the music in the film? The story is obviously extremely important, but how do you feel they should connect the music to the film?
Weston: With only one or two exceptions, the score in this movie isn’t used under dialogue or as underscoring in that way. When there is score, it’s the primary audio focus and trying to bring something out of the characters that they can’t say themselves. When it comes to placing music in a film, it’s very important to me for their to be a good reason for there to be music here.
I want to know why all of sudden I’m hearing strings and ‘there’s 10 seconds of silence as we switch locations so let’s put a score in’ doesn’t work for me. I hope the audience feels that the music is giving them something personally and connecting them to the characters in a different way, and not just adding subtext to something already being said out loud.
HR: Lulu Wang has mentioned that despite the struggles that came with this decision, she ultimately refused to whitewash The Farewell in order to keep its multi-cultural heart at the core. With this information, how did you try to respect this decision in your score for the film? Was that even something you had in mind while scoring it?
Weston: I was actually unaware of that until I saw Lulu say it in an interview this week, but honestly it never came up. We never wanted this project to sound explicitly Chinese and if that was the intention, I would have been the wrong composer to do it. We used music more to emphasize emotions and internal struggles and not to set the scene.
HR: Was there a specific musical moment that stood out to you while working on the score? Like a track that specifically got you personally based on its placement in a particular scene?
Weston: Personally, the moment I’m most fond of is a cue called “The Family”. It straddles a very strange line emotionally. I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll be vague. The cue occurs after the family has undertaken a drastic action to continue keeping the lie undiscovered and is successful. The piece is a victory march, but the victory here is lying to grandma.
Musically, it’s sort of tongue in cheek but at the same time victorious so it’s sort of funny but at the same time sad because the mission itself was to lie to someone about their own mortality and it’s a whole big run-on-sentence of emotions and I don’t know how I feel about it but I think that’s why I like it so.
HR: The Farewell certainly has a long way to go in terms of its life at the box office, but drawing from your own experience, what do you feel is something that non-Asian audiences can learn from the film? This is a very specific story, but how do you think it can resonate with a wider audience?
Weston: I think it inherently can resonate with everyone. Everyone has a family. A culture they may or may not understand. And almost everyone has lost a grandparent or someone close to them.
HR: Speaking for audiences is one thing, but let’s turn towards yourself again. What do you feel is the most crucial lesson you learned with your involvement in The Farewell? Whether it be a newfound perspective on Chinese culture or something else profound to you.
Weston: When you talk to someone who recently lost someone, often one of the first things you’ll hear is how the last time they saw this person was at their birthday or Thanksgiving or a bar last month or whatever the case may be. This story is different because the family here is given the chance to know, whether that’s a blessing or a curse, that this is almost certainly the last time they see Nai Nai and the chance to know that is something I find myself thinking about a lot.
HR: Lulu Wang seems to be keeping busy with her involvement in another film project, this time a sci-fi feature if I’m not mistaken. If this comes to light, do you see yourself working with Wang once again or will you be focusing on other projects as of now?
Weston: Her new project is in fact a sci-fi movie. I actually saw that news was publicly announced as I was on my way to the NYC premiere for the film and laughed. “C’mon Lulu let’s get this one out first!” That said I would love to work with her again, but it’s entirely too soon to know if that’s going to happen as this project is just gearing up. Maybe she’ll want to work with someone else (Lulu – if you’re reading this that’s a terrible idea) We’ll see!
HR: Before we close things out, what’s something that you’d like to say to all of our readers as a word of advice? You’ve made some serious career moves with The Farewell and your consistent work in this field, so what’s something for the readers to take away that you feel is important?
Weston: This is the first project I’ve had that has been distributed on this scale so I’m hardly an expert, but I think it’s really important for musicians to work with as many different people as possible in as many different disciplines as possible. Do quick collaborations with choreographers, film makers, visual artists, playwrights. It doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking or a large scale project. Just do something together and put it on.
Artistically speaking, I feel these projects push your limits and force you to reconsider how you approach your own work. Career wise, it’s so helpful to widen your network of collaborators like this. I’ve rarely gotten a project handed to me by another musician or from cold calling something, but more often a collaborator introducing me to someone else they know.
Have you seen The Farewell yet? Do you plan to? What’s the biggest lie you’ve ever told a family member? Sound off below!
The Farewell is out in theaters now, expanding into more this weekend and the next.