Composer of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore – Interview with John Hunter

On this year's Oscar Nominees list we have two movies with soundtracks dominated mainly by their scores. We have The Artist, a throwback piece to the silent era and The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore a short animated feature directed by William Joyce under the aegis of the MoonBot Studios. This movie was inspired by the Katrina event, by Buster Keaton and by the love for books. It's music was composed by John Hunter. We had an opportunity to ask the composer how this 50-piece orchestra score was born.

How did you start working with director William Joyce? How did you get signed on for this silent short film project? 

Back in 1997, the co-director Brandon Oldenburg was working for a company called Reel FX. ReelFX was working with Bill to produce a short called, The Man In the Moon. They asked me to create the music for the short and we've been collaborators ever since. In the summer of 2010, Bill and Brandon joined forces to create their own animation studio, Moonbot. They called me and asked if I'd be interested in scoring their first Moonbot short... The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. My partners at Breed, Jon Slott and Brian Flores, cleared my schedule and we were off to the races.

What did you first think of in terms of the music when you watched the short for the first time? How did you decide on the instrumentation and the mood? 

After watching the animatic...which was just pencil sketches and storyboards cut together... My first question was: "How much dialogue are you guys going to have?" And they replied: "None." So, I said.."oh.. you're going to have subtitles?" They replied..."NO". A few seconds of silence passed, then Brandon spoke up and said... "It's just music man!" I was taken aback at first. That's a whole lot of pressure for a composer. And in the end, if the film lacked emotion, Guess who would get blamed for it?! The composer! So, I kept my thoughts to myself, and decided not to focus on the pressure... But rather focus on the absolutely wonderful opportunity to have my music take "center stage". Composers are always bitching about having their music buried under too much dialogue or sfx. I would not have this problem here.
Since Moonbot is located in Shreveport, LA, and Dallas,TX (where I live), is only about a 2 and a half hour drive from Shreveport... Bill, Brandon, and myself agreed that the best way to tailor this score to picture, would be to have me under the same roof... as the animation was being created. Bill and Brandon graciously cleared out the "Moonbot Theater", and I set up my rig and worked there over the next 2 months. They would shoot me a rough, I would score it. They would animate to the timings and tempo, and if it came back again, I would revise my music to their timings. Brandon and Bill always made themselves available to take a listen to a riff or short sequence. It was a true collaboration. It was a great way of working. Unconventional by todays standards. But very effective. 

Your colorful and brilliant music contains also the folk song "Pop Goes the Weasel" because directors William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg wanted to incorporate it. How did you decide to incorporate it the way you did? Was it difficult? Did that change your overall perspective of how you wanted the music to sound? 

Brandon and Bill wanted "Pop Goes The Weasel" to be Morris' identity. But they didn't want the score to be too "cutesy". The task became... How to make "Pop Goes The Weasel"... uncute. So, I sat down at the piano and started noodling... I would play the melody, and reharmonize the chords. I would invert the melody, I would take only a few notes of the melody, I would play the melody backwards. You name it... I tried it. As it turns out, "Pop Goes The Weasel" is a bad-ass melody that can hold a lot of emotional weight. 

What's was your favorite moment during the scoring session? Why?

I guess it was seeing Bill and Brandon's faces light up the moment we had our first full-length playback of the film with the score. I give them a ton of credit. A lot of film makers today don't really realize how much the right score can improve the overall emotional content of a film. The way I see it, a composer should be tasked with bringing something to the table. Bill and Brandon allowed me to bring it. They never questioned what I was doing and they consistently challenged me to think outside the box. We'd throw a ton of stuff at the wall, and only kept what stuck. They did this with themselves and everyone else that contributed to the film. 
I truly believe this is why they've been nominated for the Oscar. 


Special thanks to Alex May
February 18th, 2012

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