Composing The Cycles of Trauma – A Discussion with Gavin Brivik on Wild Indian (The FH Interview)

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A film bound to initiate conversation and potential controversy at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr’s Wild Indian is an emotionally devastating portrait of deeply rooted colonialist assimilation against Indigenous culture. It’s a harrowing watch, a film that’s equal parts bold and bleak in its sincere approach at tackling the hefty subject matter at the film’s core. Using a framing device that blends the past and the present in one, the alternating timeline adds a level of intricacy and depth to the narrative. To further get a grasp on the technical detail that enhances this very profound concept, we talked to Wild Indian composer Gavin Brivik on his work and collaboration on the film. The following is a transcript of that interview:

Gavin Brivik

photo courtesy of gavinbrivik.com

Gavin, What I love most about your recent film-score discography is the clear mix of variety in the projects you commit with. From short film documentaries to genre fare, I’m wondering how you choose the projects that are offered to you in your growing catalogue of feature productions?  

It’s funny. Cam was definitely by far my most out of my comfort zone score. But that being said, it was so exciting that I wanted to do more in that vein. My background was more in orchestral and ambient music, but Cam was purely synthetic. I was a little scared, but the irony is that I got Cam from a documentary. I worked on a Unicef short film, because I do a lot of work with NonProfits. An (*undisclosed) actress saw the film on Vimeo, and she reached out. I scored her short film, and her close friend who saw her film was the director of Cam. It was a very fortunate circumstance. As far as how I choose things, I usually watch the film first. I tend to feel like the score is coming to me or I’m really inspired and excited by it, so that’s definitely the first sign. Obviously I’m still early in my career, and I’m trying to take as many opportunities as I can. 

But, Wild Indian was probably the most inspiring film I’ve worked on in a while, since Cam. I just feel like it really resonated with me, in a sense that it’s all so new. It’s something that I’ve never done before. It’s a dramatic character piece, which is super exciting. It’s pretty obvious where the perception of the music is coming from, like we’re in Makwa’s head or inside Ted O’s head. The characters of the film resonated with my previous work but in a completely different genre and context. 

 

To add on to the previous question, I’m really curious about the commissioning process of how you boarded onto the production of Wild Indian. Did you already have a pre-existing relationship with Lyle, or was there a more complicated process below the surface? 

I heard some mutual friends with Lyle on facebook, like two years ago, sharing the news about how he got into the Sundance Writers and Directors lab. I saw him on my news feed, and I was like “wow this is an interesting project!”. It’s honestly really cool that he was in the lab. Simply, I just messaged him on facebook. I was lucky enough that he had seen Cam at the time. It’s funny since the original direction for Wild Indian was for it to be more electronic. We basically composed two scores for the film. I know I’m getting ahead of myself, but Lyle was really interested in my work on Cam. But funny enough, we went with a more orchestral and ambient approach for Wild Indian

Our first year of talking was virtually over facebook actually. I read the script and wrote him 10 tracks inspired by his writing. And that’s how I got the job. He had already had a composer in mind, but due to some scheduling conflicts, I got lucky. It’s one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. His writing is so fantastic, and I was so inspired that I wrote a bunch of tracks for it, and that’s how I got the job. It was the first time I wrote tracks just with the script in the mind. I know that some composers do this, like Hans Zimmer, and I was always thinking about doing this even though I’m a more visual person. It’s a little intimidating, but it really worked. I will say that a lot of the music I wrote initially based on the script didn’t stay in the film, but I think it laid down a foundation and gave me confidence to do the job eventually. 

 

A major theme throughout the film is the merging of trauma from the past to the present. I was wondering if you can discuss and elaborate on how the score communicated this crucial thematic crux?

Thematically speaking, we did have musical themes for the character. If you think about the film in three acts in a way, where there’s the opening and the inciting incident, we jump into the future, and we kind of get an idea of how the character’s have unfolded. The third act is the summarisation of the two characters Makwa and Ted-O. There is a resolution to these entire events. 

Throughout the film, there are three sections of the film and there are three sections of the score. The themes in the first and third section are tied together. It’s kinda like the first section is about the children’s lives and the third section is everything after the confrontation. I returned to the themes and made them kind of like an echo of the past. For the middle section of the film, it’s a little bit of a different score. It’s a little more electronic and a little more cold. Lyle and I really wanted to highlight Mawkwa’s sociopathic dissociation with his emotions from the past, so the score is a lot less emotional. There’s a lot less strings used, and it’s the most synthetic part of the score. We used the word symphony all the time. It’s a symphony in three movements. We have the introduction of the themes, the unraveling of the events, and we skip to another movement further in time. 

 

There’s a few moments within the film where the soundtrack mixes perfectly with onset diegetic sound. Especially during the 1980’s scenes, I noticed a few times where the film’s soundtrack synched up perfectly with sounds of ringing school bells, and the calming beat of a running stream. Was this an intentional artistic choice, and if so, can you elaborate on your creative decision and process with this clever mixture of diegetic and nondiegetic sound?

I studied composition in my undergrad, and the person I studied with was called Paul Rudy. His entire style of music was found-sound. He literally travels the world with a hand held recorder, and records nature sounds like doors and bells. He makes music out of it, and used to make students learn about it. Even for his classes we needed to buy handheld recorders to make the same type of music. That was my foundation. When I work in film, I can’t help it but notice all the foley sounds. All these sound effects it’s like I can’t separate them from the music. I do actually put a lot of thought into that.

 

At the end of the film, in the final minutes of the end credits, there is a brief audio clipping of an Indigenous ceremony where the members are singing, as if they were in a drum circle. I was wondering if you had any correlation with this brief clipping and if you recorded this part of the score yourself?

That’s Lyle’s cousin’s band! I had no part in the recording, but the band is called Pipeline! The track that is used at the end of the film is entitled CUZZINS. 

 

Finally, for Sundance audience members who are planning on viewing Wild Indian at the festival, what’s something you want them to take away from both the film and the score you composed — either if it’s a technical comment or one that correlates with the deeper meanings of the film’s contemporary narrative. 

I would love and be honoured for the audience to notice the film’s musical symphonic form. In a dream scenario, I hope that people catch the idea of the evolution of these characters, their beginnings, and how the music comes together in the end with the journey. I used a lot of melodies, so I also hope the music is also memorable, in a sense that the score is inseparable from the film. I hope that my music is so deeply linked in the story, so that when people listen to the soundtrack on Spotify, they are visualising the film. 

Gavin Brivik

photo courtesy of gavinbrivik.com

Wild Indian premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival as part of the US Dramatic Competition category. The film will screen again virtually on February 1st. Wild Indian is also currently seeking International Distribution.

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David Cuevas

David Cuevas is a writer, reporter, and the official festivals editor (US/Canada) for FilmHounds Magazine. In his spare time, you can find him watching a bunch of movies while contemplating on his own existence.

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