Artist Spotlight, Inspiration

‘Lion’ Composers O’Halloran and Hauschka on Scoring with Constraints


When musicians and composers Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann (aka Hauschka) were first given the cut of Garth Davis’ Lion (in US theaters today), they were faced with an immediate and unusual situation: the temp track was too good.

Traditionally, temp tracks are just-good-enough placeholders — an arrangement of existing music used to edit and create a mood for a film. That wasn’t the case with Lion. “It was the first time that I felt like a film felt so complete before I worked on it,” says O’Halloran. Composers are hired to give musical life to a film, but this one already seemed to be alive. “That was the most daunting task — to get a film that’s already so good with the temp and to see, ‘Can we make this better? Can we bring it all together?’”


The Birth of a Beautiful Partnership

Director Garth Davis obviously had no doubts, having sought out both men — who have worked separately on projects like Transparent, In Dubious Battle, and Equals — for the project. The temp track even included some of their previous work. The way Bertelmann recalls it, one night after a performance in Australia, Davis approached him with nothing but an image of a natural vista in India and asked if he would score his movie. He agreed, but Davis did have one caveat: he wanted Bertelmann to work with another composer on Lion. Fate, it seems, wasn’t just a theme in the movie. It turned out Bertelmann not only already knew and had toured with O’Halloran, but that he was also one of the few people he could imagine collaborating successfully with. Three weeks later, the two composers began work.

Despite the intimidating quality of the temp track, it did provide an effective guideline for what the mood of the film should be, and directed the composers to develop a score that would find what O’Halloran calls “the voice for the whole film” and what Bertelmann calls its “emotional states of mind.” Differences in terms aside, they both amount to a shared philosophy: movies (and their characters) have a spirit, and their job was to honor that, not impose themselves on it.

‘Emotion Without Melodrama’

That was especially needed for a movie like Lion. Based on Saroo Brierley’s autobiography A Long Way Home, it recounts how, as a young boy, the author became separated from his mother in India and ended up 930 miles away from home, unable to find his way back. He was eventually adopted by an Australian family, and two decades later began a search to find his home and birth mother using Google Earth. It’s a powerful story that needs appropriate handling, and O’Halloran and Bertelmann understood that. “It’s a very sensitive and touching topic,” says Bertelmann. “We really didn’t want to destroy this kind of mood. We wanted to support it gently.”

The main way they set out to do that was through a particular — even old fashioned — request from their director. “Garth really wanted to find a theme, a motif that we could bring back, because the story is about the passage of time,” says O’Halloran. “He didn’t want it to be a bunch of random pieces of music. He needed you to feel the arc of the story.” Themes are not unlike the beating heart of a movie that rhythmically gives it life. But the two composers had to make sure they didn’t give the movie too much heart. Put it this way: an inspiring and poignant true story like Lion can easily risk becoming schmaltzy if the music overplays its hand. That was something O’Halloran and Bertelmann wanted to avoid at all costs — especially because one of the virtues of the film itself is that it deftly avoids being over-sentimental. “It was about searching for the right theme with this really delicate balance of emotion without melodrama,” says O’Halloran.

Film composer and musician Dustin O'Halloran.
Film composer and musician Dustin O’Halloran

The Strength of Silence

As if they didn’t already have enough conceptual challenges to wrestle with, they also had to accomplish all of the above with limited musical real estate. That’s because Lion uses silence and minimal music very strategically. That was already locked in when the composers got the cut they were working with. “There was a very clear sensibility about the film and how much music should be in it,” says O’Halloran. “Most of the scenes that were playing silent were always silent.” Not that they minded keeping those silences in place; it suited their film-composing philosophies. “Music should be used when there’s no dialog,” O’Halloran continues. “That’s when you feel like you’re actually able to add something to the film.”

The outcome of the challenges that O’Halloran and Bertelmann overcame is evident to anyone who sees Lion and experiences its score. Over the course of three months, the two composers created, refined, tweaked, and collaborated until they had something they and Davis all loved. Most importantly, they had something that — to borrow Bertelmann’s words — gently supported the intimacy of Saroo’s story without ever overshadowing it. That’s especially notable in the film’s ending, which many composers could have fumbled, but which they instead reined in by refusing to go full orchestra and instead using chamber musicians to create a more human feel.

Musician and film composer Volker Bertelmann (also known as Hauschka)
Musician and film composer Volker Bertelmann, aka Hauschka

‘The Ennio Morricone Way’

Above all else, they had produced a beautiful theme, one that they tackled in what he calls “the Ennio Morricone way” — “Write one amazing theme, and then just do variations on it.” Those variations were both key and enjoyable, says Bertelmann, because they highlight the ability to create connections between scenes and give them greater emotional impact.

The success of the final result is due largely to the connection the two composers felt while collaborating. “What I liked about the process was just letting things happen,” says Bertelmann. “Give them to somebody else to just mess around with it and say, ‘Hey, go for it.’ I sent the melodies. Dustin was sending some stuff to me. I was chopping things up. I was using it in different ways.” O’Halloran echoes that: “You’re in your own head all the time. It’s just nice to feel like you have somebody else.”

It’s that open collaboration that helped lead them through a conceptually challenging — one that perhaps speaks to the sense of fate that brought them to it in the first place. After all, Lion is all about a man working tirelessly and in great detail to find something of great importance to him. In their own way, the composers had a similar journey, and the result is one of the year’s best scores.

Lion opens in select US theaters today. To find showtimes and to learn about the charity work associated with the film and how you can help, visit the film’s official website.

Top image: Still from Lion starring Dev Patel, courtesy of The Weinstein Company