Talking with Chad Cannon, Composer of ‘American Factory’

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Recently I had the opportunity to interview Chad Cannon, who composed the score for the Netflix original film American Factory.Composer Chad Cannon has traveled the world drawing inspiration from cultures, history, and human stories to create moving scores for documentaries, animation and live performances. His debut soundtrack for the documentary Paper Lanterns received an IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Awards) nomination for Best Original Score for a Documentary, and was lauded as “haunting, mystical” by The Japan Times; while his soundtrack for Cairo Declaration, co- composed with Xiaogang Ye, received China’s highest film prize, the Golden Rooster Award for Best Music. Chad most recently scored Netflix’s documentary, American Factory, which won the Best Director Award for a Documentary at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and is the first film released by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground. His other recent works include a symphonic Americana score for PBS’ documentary CyberWork and the American Dream, as well as scoring Chris Meledandri and Illumination Studios’ animated short, The Dog Days of Winter.

How did you get started with composing for films and documentaries?

I studied music and Japanese at Harvard, and then I did my Masters at Julliard, also in composition. All along I kind of knew I’ve always liked film, I thought it would be really cool to have a career that intersected film and music. So when I graduated from Julliard I moved to L.A. and I started working with this orchestrator named Conrad Pope, he worked for many years with John Williams, and the first project he hired me on was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, so I got kind of dumped right in the middle of a huge film score project. As an orchestrator it’s a little less pressure then a composer obviously, because the orchestrator’s job is really to help the composer prepare all the conducting scores in time for the recording sessions, so you’re the one putting the notes on the page eventually. From there, I kind of transitioned into writing more for film, and I had an opportunity to score a couple of feature documentaries with my brother who directed feature films for CrossFit. My brother just had me write some custom music for those films. Then I had this opportunity to write for a film called Paper Lanterns, which was a Hiroshima documentary about the 12 Americans who had died in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. So that was my first feature documentary that was more serious and I had an opportunity to write a more rich, orchestral for that film. It was also a crossover score where I included some traditional Japanese performers in addition to this American orchestral sound that I was creating. That led to me being accepted into the Sundance Composer Labs which happens every summer at Skywalker Ranch, and that lab is how I got connected to the American Factory film.

How did you get involved with American Factory

The Sundance Labs people knew I’d done quite a bit of work in Asia and they thought “Oh, since this is a film that is very much connecting Asia with the U.S., maybe he would be a good match” and so they referred me to Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar who were the directors of American Factory.

How did you approach scoring the documentary?

Anytime I get a new film, the first thing I like to do is experiment with new materials or new instruments, to sort of develop a sound world that I can draw from as I start getting clips of the film. So I tried two things at first that didn’t actually end up working out very well for the film. One was, because of the glass factory I thought “What if we used glass instruments?” and had glass be the heart of the score. I gathered all the glass I could find and recorded myself playing rhythms on them. I had wine glasses, and tried a bunch of tones. Julia and Steve heard it, and were like “Oh, this is cool but it’s too ‘twinkly.’” That’s because glass creates a lot of high overtones, which creates a “twinkly” sound. And because there’s quite a few ominous, or dark themes in the film, as well as a huge amount of factory noise, from a sound design perspective this film was very difficult because the sound designer Lawrence Stevenson had to navigate, how to record the audio in the factory and it’s hard to hear, just from the amount of noise. So anyway, the glass approach didn’t really work.

Next I tried to include traditional Chinese elements, especially from Fujian Province, which is where the Fuyao headquarters is within China. I’ve been there before and Steve and Julia also considered that, but then they said “We’re Americans, we’re from Ohio, we don’t want to make this feel like it’s exoticizing the Chinese component of this movie. Make it more universal in the approach.” Ultimately we ended up focusing on a low woodwind sound. There’s a lot of bassoons, bass clarinets, some lower flutes like alto flutes. The reason we went in that direction is because Julia had heard a Mozart piece called the “Gran Partita” and this piece is for woodwinds with two horns and a double bass. It’s a really unique instrumentation and ultimately I think she was right in leaning in that direction, because the woodwinds’ timbre goes well against all the metallic glass timbre that you hear in the film. The factory noises are complemented by this woodwind sound, as opposed to competing with it. There’s something about that combination that ended up working nicely, and I ended up writing a lot of music for these slow woodwinds.

Were you inspired by the factory machines, because in several of the manufacturing scenes it feels like the music is mimicking the frenetic action of the glass factory

For sure, there’s one specific moment near the end of the film, there’s a sequence where Wong is sitting next to this panel of blinking lights in the dark. He’s sitting there and there’s a voiceover where he says “I think the most important thing is mutual understanding.” He expresses this admiration for American workers who can manage having multiple jobs at once. That sequence with the blinking lights was the trigger for the music in that scene, where if you listen there’s a lot of minimalist patterns. A lot of the American minimalists will come to a pattern and they’ll repeat it for a really long time to create this meditative state and, that’s a very common technique now in film music. The pattern that I have in that scene is drawing inspiration from the blinking lights on the panel. And it gets you into Wong’s mind about how things are kind of dark at that moment.

The music when we enter the factory for the first time is also rooted, grounded in a repeating bass note. The cue is actually called “The Resurrection,” and for me the pillars of the factory, and the weight of this machinery, all of that is finding its way into the score in these heavy bass figures that I’ve been writing.

It feels like there are different themes, or different musical sentiments for the American and Chinese sides of the story, is that so or am I imagining that?

There are no themes that are specifically Chinese or American. Thematically there’s four or five melodic ideas that spin out, and sometimes it’s the same theme but in a dark variation, sometimes lighter. Pretty much all of the musical material is tied back to that first theme called “The Forge.” There’s a parallel fifth motif that becomes the bed of pretty much everything else that happens after that. There are also themes for the Chairman and Wong. Wong’s theme is what comes back at the very end when we see this sequence between American workers and Chinese workers leaving the factory, and it’s like this fanfare for the workers. The point of this theme is that it’s where I’m trying to convey the dualism of two countries coming together. At the end, there’s a long sequence with the Chairman where all of the themes you’ve heard throughout the film start to come back very quietly, underneath the dialogue, revisiting the places we’ve been along the way. So there are musical themes that are attached to specific characters.

How did you decide which parts of the documentary need music, because I’ve noticed chunks that have no music at all, and it feels like a very abrupt transition between music and no music.

The way the film is edited is by chapters. They’ll create a scene, or a series of scenes which together comprise a chapter. The filmmakers are also the writers, since documentaries are really written in the editing room. They don’t have a script, they go out and film stuff, and then gather all the footage and figure out what story they captured. They could’ve told many different stories with the footage they had. They had to go through 1,200 hours of footage shot over 3 years, so it’s really an incredible feat, what they did to cut it down to the film you see now. Musically, the way this pans out in documentaries is that, first of all, as opposed to feature films, and I personally feel that feature fiction films tend to get over-scored, I’m a fan of leaving space for people to just appreciate the environment that they’re in. The whole world is full of sound and interesting environmental ambience, and there’s music everywhere if you open up your ears.

And I feel like in film it’s really beautiful when people know not to put music, because then you can be more immersed in the reality of whatever environment you’re in, even more so in a documentary. The challenges of a documentary film composer is that you can’t be too dramatic, you can’t hit things too hard on the nose without it starting to editorialize it. They’re telling true stories and representing real people, and you have to respect that. The choices about where not to do music were largely where Julia and Steve had told me beforehand, “Oh we don’t need music for this scene.” If there was music the whole time it would start to get in the way of what people are saying and seeing.

There was one scene where I pushed for there to be no music, which was this scene where there’s no video just the recording, where the Fuyao employee had recorded this audio of the anti-union guy persuading them to vote against the union. Originally that scene had some very ominous music in it and I ultimately told them this is already such a shock, that you don’t need any score there because it’s already such a change from what we’ve been doing. And it’s already so ominous that the picture’s gone.

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It was a great honor to be able to talk with Chad Cannon about his work on American Factory, and I hope you enjoyed reading about it. Let me know your thoughts about American Factory (and the soundtrack) in the comments below and have a great day!

American Factory is currently available for streaming on Netflix.