The Overcoming Power of Music: Talking with Paul Mills About His Work on ‘Overcomer’

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Last month, I had the honor of interviewing film composer Paul Mills, a composer who has worked on a number of films, including War Room (2015), Still Breathing (1997), and Sweet Sweet Summertime (2017), just to name a few examples. This interview had to do with one of Paul’s most recent works, his score for Overcomer (2019), a film directed by the Kendrick brothers, Alex and Stephen Kendrick, the same minds behind War Room four years earlier.

The plot of Overcomer follows several characters, including John Harrison (Alex Kendrick), who is a basketball coach at a high school. Due to the closure of businesses in the city and the departure of several families, he agrees to be the running coach for Hannah Scott (Aryn Wright-Thompson) who is an asthmatic. Hannah’s sporting journey will be accompanied by a self-discovery that will answer a question that has been a concern for her for a long time.

I hope you enjoy this short interview with Paul Mills, composer of Overcomer.

How did you get started with composing for films?

It was a long journey, I always loved music growing up. My dad had some films that had music he loved. He had some Henry Mancini scores, Jerry Goldsmith, Ennio Morricone; I became fascinated with what the music in a film could do. And then through school I was involved in music; I went to the University of Houston to get a degree in composition, and while I was there I started working at a recording studio. I started learning more about how to arrange strings for pop music, and how to work with artists and record companies. And there was a guy there who worked with documentaries and short films who ended up going to Los Angeles with a script he’d written, and ultimately arranged for me to score the project. That experience is what hooked me [into film composing], even though it was 12 years between that score and my next composing project.

How did you become connected with Overcomer, and what did you think of the film’s story?

After War Room, I’d been throwing hints around [about working with the Kendrick brothers again]. Finally, I was in a Publix grocery store, and I got a call and it was Stephen Kendrick on the phone. He said “We want you to do the movie, and here’s what it’s about.” And it was like a twenty minute space where he told me the whole story arc of the movie. By the time he described a critical scene at the end of the film to me, I was jumping up and down I was so excited to score it, it was such an awesome sounding scene. That’s how it happened, [the Kendrick brothers] were happy with War Room so they wanted me for Overcomer.

Was it easier working on Overcomer because you’d worked with the Kendrick brothers before for War Room?

It was. We already had a shorthand, and we had this program where I can upload scenes from the movie-in-progress with my music embedded into it. And with a set of earbuds [the Kendrick brothers] can watch the scene with music on their iPhones, and comment on it in real time. It was really easy then, because we didn’t have to try to figure each other out. For example, I know that the brothers love films with “hummable” themes, they want the audience to be humming those themes as they leave the theater, and as a composer I love that! My job was made easier because I already knew that.

On a related note, how is that story reflected in the film’s score? Is it?

Well, the way the music came about, you see there’s a long race scene at the end. And I sat down with the director’s to watch a rough cut of the movie (that’s called the spotting session). Long story short, once we got to the end of that, we thought “this scene is so critical, maybe we should start here.” I spent a couple of weeks trying to put things together and then I realized “I CAN’T do this scene yet, because I don’t know what the other thematic material is going to be.” I already knew in my head that I wanted to have an “Overcomer” theme, because the movie is basically about finding your identity in Christ, and overcoming the obstacles along the way. So…once I realized I needed thematic material, I went back to the beginning of the story and wrote the Overcomer theme. After that, I jumped to Hannah’s theme, and went on from there.

I haven’t seen many film score tracks that are 11 minutes long, what was it like putting such a lengthy track together?

It was actually way easier [to write] once I had my thematic material, because a lot of stuff happens during that scene. Having the thematic material definitely made it easier, because this is Hannah’s big race. And there are big areas in the track, and slow areas, and the slow areas happen when there’s a lot of dialogue. That is a scene where people are actually yelling at the screen in theaters. And there was just nowhere that the music could break because it was one long race. The music had to go all the way through it. I was really happy with the way it came out, with the ebbs and flows and the climax at the end. It really works with the scene, and it stays out of the way of the dialogue when it needs to.

What do you want audiences to take away with them when they hear this music?

When people see this movie I want them to realize that they can find their identity and their meaning in something more important than a number of things that we normally attach meaning to, whether it’s a career, or worrying about our finances, or having family problems. This movie talks about finding your identity in Christ, and I think the Kendrick brothers have done a really great job showing people that there are answers that you can find. So I want people to be uplifted by the music, so that they’re lighter walking out of the theater than when they came in.

I’d like to say thanks to Paul Mills for taking some time out of his day to speak with me about his work on Overcomer.