'Be very patient' Life Itself composer Federico Jusid reveals his film and TV composing process
Federico Jusid is an award-winning composer for film and TV known for Best Foreign Language Academy Award-winner The Secret in their Eyes, Escobar and a string of other productions. Here he tells Mandy News about his music-making journey, advice for composers and details of working on his latest project, Life Itself, which stars Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde and Annette Bening.
Federico, how did you get involved with music and the film industry?
I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in a family of filmmakers. My mother is an actress – not working as much as she used to now – and my father is a film director. My sister is an art director and my aunt is a scenographer, as well.
I was born in a house where there was always music playing. My mum played the piano in the house and a lot of friends would come and play music or songs. So from early on I started banging the piano. At about six or seven years old my mum took me to a fantastic piano teacher, who realised I not only wanted to play but I wanted to “come up with my own melodies”. So he helped me with this interest and made it very playful and appealing.
So, very early on, I started writing little pieces. Apparently – my mum told me – I wanted to be more serious about it, even at only nine years old [laughs], so I started learning classical, going to the conservatory, and pursuing, a few years later, a composition teacher.
It was a very natural way for me to start into music. I always knew that I wanted to do this. Then, probably because I was born into that house and filmmaking was such a close thing to me, I slowly went that way. I think I was about 12 when I started helping my father’s composer; I’d be helping him at the studio, just making coffee or Xerox copies, and slowly helping him with little arrangements here and there and writing little pieces. That’s how I learned the practical part of it – the real world – while I was doing the academic route, through the conservatory.
Like everyone else, I started doing very, very low key – in Argentina, you can imagine – short films, then TV movies, and then at some point I got to do a feature film. After a few features, my Dad finally decided to give me a shot [laughs]. He hired me for a film with him.
That’s how it all began. For the last four years I keep going back and forth, spending 8 out of 12 months in LA, but I have my crew and studio in Madrid, as well. I do trips every 6-7 weeks.
So when did you leave Argentina to base yourself in Madrid?
Oh, I left Argentina early on, when I was 20-21. I did my Master’s degree in New York; an MA in Piano major and composition at Manhattan School of Music. Then I went to Boston. Then I lived in Brussels for 2-3 years. Before that I moved to Madrid – around 2002. Since then I’ve been developing my career as a film composer. And for the last 4-5 years, as I mentioned, I’ve been expanding my activities in LA, spending there most of the time.
Fast forward to your work on Life Itself – please tell us a little bit more about how you got involved with the production.
Through the music supervisor, Season Kent – actually, one of the first people I met in LA. We’ve known each other for four or five years but never had the chance to work together. I was wrapping a film last year and got a call from my agent, who was enquiring on behalf of Season. They were looking for a composer who could develop a Bob Dylan song and give a ‘Spanish flavour’ to the score.
She asked if I could write a very simple and sparse arrangement of Make You Feel My Love [the Bob Dylan’s song] and I sent her 4-5 pieces – a couple for a solo piano, a combo of strings, and a couple for a Spanish guitar. Then I just went back to what I was doing and kind of forgot about it. Like many instances in this career, you send some work and, more often than not, don’t get a response or, at least, an instant response. So I went on. But, eventually, they reached out and offered me a Skype with the director. They sent me the script, I read it, Skyped with the director and then, when I went back to LA, we met and I was working on the film.
It was an interesting challenge for me, because, if you see most of my body of work, my departure point is usually orchestral stuff. This one was quite the opposite – very simple, very direct, sophisticated but in a different way. I’m not using the usual things that I have in my scores.
From the original demos or “sketches” that you’ve sent to Season to meeting the director, how did the music progress to what it ended up on the film?
Even before Season reached out to us, before those arrangements, my agents sent a reel. Then, Season said “they’re using your music for the temp track” [laughs] and to my surprise – and this is something I want to share with young film composers – my agent decided to include a few very, very simple tunes I had composed for a film that I didn’t finish.
It was a film that had difficulties in production. It was very indie and at some point they had to stop. They couldn’t wrap the film, which was very sad because the film was good. However, I was happy with the songs, so these songs stayed with me and sometimes my agent includes them. Eventually, these songs, written for a film that never had the chance to get finished, ended up being one of the ‘hooks’ that got me on board Life Itself.
Of course, then I ended up writing especially for the film but it’s interesting how something associated with some kind of failure or frustration eventually brings you something else.
When you are actually composing, what programmes do you use? Or do you use instruments?
Well, I tend to start outside the workstation – just some paper, walking with my notebook and writing ideas down. Then I’ll sit at the piano and write tons of ideas before taking to my workstation and congregating those ideas with the picture to see how they work and start syncing and orchestrating.
I tend to have a very instrumental approach. Sometimes even for my demos I call musicians. In my head I hear a cello, so I want a real cello to pla. Sometimes I even do orchestral mock-ups, which I know is kind of crazy, but sometimes I hire very reduced sessions, an hour with a small combo, to get the sound of something.
Eventually, I translate these ideas – mostly into Logic – and have Pro Tools, with the film running, in a slate computer. This is something very smart that my assistant designed, because I don’t want to be just focusing on the cue I’m writing. I need to know where I’m coming from, where I’m going, where else I’m using the same motif, etc. I think it’s the side effect of having a classical background. You need something structural – to know when there’s going to be a reprise or when it has to be just forzo.
I record as soon as I can – I try to get out of the box as soon as possible.
What are you currently working on and what are you looking forward to at the moment?
Well, right now I’m working on something that’s going to sound very familiar to you – a show called Watership Down. As you know, they did a fantastic film in the 1970s. I understand it made British children frightened and cry because it was very dark. A bold film. For some reason, I like animations with a lot of…harshness, let’s say.
So Watership Down is being remade by companies in the UK and LA, directed by Noam Murro. It’s a wonderful, wonderful project that I guess any film composer would like to be on. It’s an animation, but it’s not exclusively for children and it has a lot of depth. The music is not working in a Mickey Mouse or cartoonish way. It’s going more for the emotional level of the characters in the story. It’s a very lyrical score – very intense. Regardless of the score – I don’t know how great that is [laughs] – the project is fabulous. And it’s coming out in December, on BBC and then on Netflix.
Amazing! What advice do you have for young composers wanting to become involved in film and TV?
Well, as I told you, I’m still learning. Not only about music but about the mysterious functioning of this world. But what I do know by now is that they have to be very patient – this is not a 100m sprint race, this is a marathon.
You have to be very constant and very faithful to the best music you can do. OK, social media is fine – Facebook is OK, Instagram is OK, I guess if you’re interested in my work, more people will know about it – but, underneath that, if you’re not really focused and doing the best music you can, that is just smoke.
Something I learned a little bit later – a little bit too late – is that it’s very good to work with other composers. Working in the studio of a colleague or someone that has more experience than you is great because you learn from that person. And, eventually, some work will get to you. I feel very proud, because I passed on work to very talented young composers that had worked for me. I feel glad that I gave them that first connection or put in a good word.
Life is a constant energy cycle. You should run with the ball and then pass it; not just keep the ball to yourself, always pass it, as it will come back.
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