ScoreKeeper Chats With John Debney About Scoring THE STONING OF SORAYA M.
Published at: July 28, 2009, 10:58 p.m. CST by scorekeeper
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here unveiling a revealing interview with John Debney who recently composed an extraordinarily compelling score for a small, yet provocative, film entitled THE STONING OF SORAYA M. (2009). The film is in limited release throughout North America with openings in new cities each week. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see the film; however, the music alone is so powerful and haunting that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to discuss it with John. As always, he was unfailingly congenial and his insight into this amazing score is not to be overlooked.
ScoreKeeper: Greetings John! I’d like to start off our conversation talking about the film itself. I haven’t seen THE STONING OF SORAYA M. yet so I don’t know much about it. Would you begin by summarizing the plot and then make your best pitch as why somebody should see it?
John Debney: In my opinion, it’s a very important subject matter. It’s about the unfortunate and brutal practice – which is still happening today – of the stoning of human beings. This film is a true story about a lady in 1980’s Iran who was falsely accused of adultery by her husband. The reason she is accused is basically the husband is a bad guy and wants to get rid of her. He wants to run off with this other woman. The laws were such that the charge of adultery brought with it – if you were found guilty – brought with it death by stoning. This is what happens in the film. It’s really a powerful story about this woman who is falsely accused and her aunt who is trying to save her.
People should see it because I think it’s an important subject. It is a difficult film to get through – very powerful and a bit graphic at spots – but I think it’s important because all of us in the civilized world wants to stop this practice. I think we’re hoping that will be the result if enough people go see this movie. It’s not only that we’re going to see a well crafted film, but it’s for the subject matter which is very important.
SK: The film just came out; however, you mentioned it’s based on a true story which occurred in the 1980s. Has this story been under wraps since then or has it simply taken a long time to get over here?
JD: That’s a great question. Actually, it was a best selling book and even the story behind the book is a story into itself. There’s a journal which has traveled from a small town in Iran and it tells the story by the aunt of the woman who is stoned. She basically has to smuggle the little cassette tape out of the country.
So there was a best selling book that came out in the 80s and it blew the lid off the practice of stoning. I think the author just recently passed away, but it was a very heroic effort to bring this book out back then. I think that in certain countries where this is still practiced people are wanting to keep the lid on it and don’t want to talk about it. Again, I think that’s why the film is so important that we all see it. We can stop the practice.
SK: Iran is a country that is constantly in the news. During the last several decades there is always something news-worthy going on in Iran. How does THE STONING OF SORAYA M. fit into the current political situation there? Does the recent Iranian presidential election overshadow the message of this film?
JD: You know what? I think it was an amazing stroke of luck that the film came out when it did. The film actually came out – at least out here in LA – a week or so after the Iranian election and really the events in Iran sort of punctuated and heightened what the film is about. I think it was a fortuitous accident the film came out when it did. It brought to light some of the issues that they are dealing with now and fighting for over there.
SK: Do you know if this film is going to play in Iran or in other countries where stoning is practiced.
JD: I don’t know. The strongest reaction I have seen to the film, believe it or not, has come from the Iranian community. They have been very glad this film has come out. You can imagine how much people want the truth to come out. I think there has been a lot of support in the Iranian community and the Arabic world at large. Although this is a tough film and tough subject matter, I think that many of them feel that this a good thing that it’s coming out.
SK: You have been very busy this year composing one huge orchestral score after another. I had never heard of this film or was even aware you were working on it until the CD was released by Varèse Sarabande. When did you actually work on this?
JD: I actually worked on it a while ago. If memory serves me right, I think I started to work on this early this year in January while I was concurrently doing other things like OLD DOGS (2009). This was just a tiny little movie – a labor of love – and the producer is a good friend of mine who also produced THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004). I try to do all of his movies because he’s a great guy and a good human being.
This was one of those situations where he calls me and says, “There’s no money and there’s no time but would you be willing to read the script?”
I did and I fell in love with the script and had the foresight to feel what this film was going to be. I think we had three weeks total to put the score together. They were under very tight deadlines. We got it done. It was a labor of love.
SK: Let’s talk about the musicians for a little bit. At the heart of this score are unbelievably talented solo musicians: woodwinds, voice, a cello, violin. It’s the solo instrument that really shines in this score. Can you mention some of the players you were able to work with? What instruments are there and how did you utilize them in the score?
JD: Absolutely! First and foremost I’d like to mention Sussan Deyhim. She’s quite the world-renowned artist. She has done many of our albums and she concretizes all over the world. She’s Iranian and when I was first thinking about voices and vocal talent for the film, she was probably number one on my list. I was lucky enough to get in touch with her and managed to get her on board. It was really stunning. We spent a day together and all of the performances that she gave me were just amazing! She goes from being angelic to almost guttural and low. She’s an amazing performer!
We also have a couple of newcomers to the group of musicians I normally work with: a violinist named Yervand Kalajin and another violinist who pretty much adlibbed much of what you hear on the soundtrack. Most of it were first takes.
He’s an amazing player who I’m lucky to have found.
Then we have Dennis Karmazyn, a world class cellist whom I work with a lot. He was just brilliant! All of his parts were written out. He took them home and studied them and made them his own. I told him I wanted it in a Persian style. He took everything I wrote and really gave it that feeling. I think it’s a great performance.
There’s also Lilo Fadidas who played all sorts of strings and did a lot of the drum work.
Finally, there was Andrew Jay Grove, whom I work with a lot. He did the classical flute. He’s a huge part of the score too because his flute playing on this movie is just stunning. It’s beautiful and very emotional. When you hear the flute, it’s usually accompanying a very tender moment of the film.
Those were the main instrumentalists and they were gifts from God. They just came in and did what they did and we had a lot of fun doing it.
SK: There are several pieces which are so stunningly beautiful it swells your heart listening to it. The finale, “The Stoning of Soraya M.” (track 16) and “The Meadow” (track 4) are two that come to mind. The flute playing on “The Meadow” is so gorgeous you have to catch your breath.
JD: When you see the film, you will notice that is probably one of the scenes that people mention to me the most. There’s a scene with the ill-fated woman, Soraya, and her daughters that’s utterly heartbreaking and beautiful. That’s the way Andrew performed it. He did a brilliant job.
SK: What strikes me the most about this score is that these textures are not necessarily new to cinematic music. A lot of people are using solo ethnic voices, oud, bazouki, and duduk so much that it’s borderline cliché. I don't sense that here. The pieces sound inspired and sincere. This does not sound like your typical ethnic film score.
JD: Well thank you for mentioning that. I really appreciate your kind words. I must tell you, that was the intention. I guess it started really with THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.
You are right. These types of scores are not as exotic as they were when we first started hearing them many years ago. I think it’s very important to make sure that whatever was written for these instruments is, first of all, correct and is in the right style. You can’t fake that and that’s something that we strove very hard to achieve. While some of these musicians were playing these notes I would constantly ask them “Does this sound Iranian to you? Is this stylistically correct?”
We had a nice collaboration in that regard.
You are right. I wanted to make sure that even with some of the percussion cues, I didn’t want to overdo it and have it sound like we had a loop going then just sticking things on top. The percussion in the score is sometimes rather simplistic as opposed to a big wall of it. The intention was to create a score that obviously fits this place and time. I’m always asking myself “Is this cheesy?” If it passes the cheese test, then it’s usually okay; however, I have a lot of help by referring to these musicians.
SK: Did you have to fine tune your ear a bit more in order to be more sensitive to your boundaries and limitations? We’re you consciously trying avoid these clichés?
JD: That was the intention. The intent was to try to make some of these instruments feel a little bit more than just the normal “snake-charmer” thing – to use a very crass saying – but, yeah that was the intention. To make it as elegantly as I could.
SK: When you were putting the score together, would you begin with the solo performances first and build an accompaniment around it or vice versa?
JD: Vice versa. That goes with THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST too. I will always write a piece and finish it just to get it all in the right form. Then what I do is perform either the vocal part or the solo cello myself. I use them as place holders because I know I’m going to replace them later. What I’ve done will be used as a guide. I also give them creative freedom. There are all those wonderful surprises. For instance, I put Sussan Deyhim’s voice in places in the film where I hadn’t first thought I wanted her. I’d show her and I’d ask, “What do you think?” She would reply, “I don’t know. Let me try it.” That’s why it can be a really fun way of doing a score. I have boundaries set but within those boundaries I have a lot of room to find something different. I love that.
SK: I think one of the most difficult scores to compose are the true folk music types of scores. One of the key ingredients to folk music is improvisation. How then, as a composer, can you control improvisation so that it is realistic yet controlled enough to serve the film. That’s a paradox that’s very difficult to balance.
JD: You are exactly right! And how do you put it into a form? That’s the trick. Sometimes I think it’s more successful than others, but again, that’s the one thing that I most try to achieve with this type of score…just to make it not sound like it’s written by a guy like me who was born and raised in the valley here in LA. If I can do that, then I think I have done my job as a film composer.
You’re right. It’s a tough one in some regards when you’re dealing with folk music like this.
SK: I love it when a composer can do a 180 degree turn and create something so incredibly different from themselves. Although this score is akin to your work in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, it is still a completely different facet of your creative self. It differs so much from the majority of your work.
You mentioned you had a close working relationship with producer Steve McEveety. Was it an automatic choice for him to go with you on this one?
JD: Well, kind of. He’s an extremely successful producer in his own right. Two years ago he started his own production company and is now trying to produce films that have a social conscience which I applaud him for trying to do.
He called me. Basically the conversation was, “Look, I’ve got no money and no time, but I would love for you to do this.” The director, Cyrus Nowrasteh, was very amenable. He was like, “Yeah, let’s get John to do this!” He was very collaborative and complimentary and so it was that kind of discussion. We just said, “Yeah, let’s do this.”
I said to Cyrus, “The only thing that I ask is that you give me enough creative freedom to really create something, because honestly, there’s not a lot of time and there’s not a lot of money.” I felt this strongly. “You know, I just think it will be that much better if you let me do what I do and ultimately if you give me that type of creative freedom, I know we will have something special.”
Well, that’s what he did. It’s rare isn’t it?
SK: It’s interesting how creative freedom is one of the pillars of successful film music. When I talk to composers who have written scores I sincerely admire, it invariably comes back to “Yeah, I had the creative freedom to do what I wanted to do.”
JD: I would say my best work is when I’m left to do what I do. That’s not to say that there are very valid reasons why director A or B wants to change something. That’s fine. But musically speaking, at least with me, I want something a little bit better.
SK: Well John, it’s been my pleasure talking with you. I can’t wait to see the film and will be keeping my eyes and ears open for it. Until next time, my best wishes for your continued success.
JD: Thank you so much! It was my pleasure.
If you would like to see a list of theaters and show times for THE STONING OF SORAYA M. please visit the official web site.
The soundtrack was released on CD by Varèse Sarabande on June 18th; however, due to the limited number of 1000 copies, the title has already sold out. Hopefully Varèse Sarabande will consider pressing more copies in the near future. This is truly one of the better scores I have heard so far this year.
The score is also available on iTunes
On behalf of Ain’t It Cool News, I would like to thank John Debney for his time. You can bet I’ll be knocking on his door when scoring gets underway for IRON MAN 2 (2010). I am most anxious to speak to him about that one.
I would also like to thank Costa Communications for their assistance in arranging this interview.