For more than 25 years, Vancouver has been a hotbed of activity for the film and television industry, from The X-Files in the early ’90s to the recent Deadpool franchise, with no shortage of homegrown projects. In 2017, the industry spent a record-setting $2.6 billion dollars in British Columbia. All of this has entrenched a stable infrastructure of talent that repeatedly brings filmmakers back to the Canadian West Coast.

But what happens once the film stops rolling? A lot of post-production is then taken back to L.A. or Toronto, including scoring and soundtrack work. That hasn’t stopped a new generation of composers from cashing in on Vancouver’s cachet as a film hub. And they’re getting it the old-fashioned way: through networking, hustling, and hard work.

Eli Bennett

Eli Bennett

Eli Bennett was born into the job: his father, Daryl, is a winner of multiple LEO Awards (the B.C. screen industry honours) – although Bennett junior bested his father at last year’s ceremony, picking up his first LEO for the orchestral score for Believe: The True Story of Real Bearded Santas. Eli got his start in his dad’s home studio, learning how to write cues before moving to Toronto to study jazz at Humber College.

Even more than the hands-on experience, however, the 29-year-old Eli credits his father with the best advice: don’t just look to Vancouver for work, but get in touch with students at all the major film schools in North America and develop working relationships on their short films.

“A lot of people just focus on their own cities,” he says. “I thought reaching out to the North American market was a no-brainer, but it’s not necessarily a thing in Vancouver. You should cast a continental net beyond your immediate city.” Directors like to work with collaborators they know, and several of those former film students have continued to employ Bennett as they get commercial and feature work.

Sometimes, however, directors do take a chance on an unknown – though not the Hollywood directors that regularly parade through Vancouver. David Ramos, a Mexican-Canadian dual citizen, met Oscar-winning Canadian documentary filmmaker John Zaritsky (Just Another Missing Kid, 1982) at a party, which led to work on his 2012 film Do You Really Want to Know?  Likewise, a chance encounter with producer (and former SOCAN Board member) Ben Mink (k.d. lang, Barenaked Ladies) at a shop where Ramos was teaching led to them working together on film scores. Ramos has been a full-time film composer for six years, with a major U.S. feature about to be announced, as well as a documentary set in 18 different African countries.

 

David Ramos

David Ramos

Ramos was once an active live musician, mostly in Mexico, and also in a Vancouver prog-rock band, but now scoring takes up all his time. Eli Bennett tours frequently with Five Alarm Funk, popular favourites on the summer festival circuit, who’ve been touring America lately. “When I’ve been touring a lot, I haven’t been able to take on feature film projects that require five weeks at a time,” he says. “With commercial projects, it might take a week-and-a-half, and then I head back on the road.”

Another Vancouver film composer with an active live profile is Matt Rogers, half of award-winning blues duo The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer, who have four albums to their name, and have toured throughout North America and Europe. “The band takes up more of my time, but when composition projects come through, they require 150% of my time and energy to get them done,” he says. “I have to switch gears and ignore everything else to meet deadlines.”

Rogers studied jazz at Capilano College in Vancouver, where he started scoring student films. He soon got a job as an assistant to composer Ari Wise, who did a lot of TV work – including, like Daryl Bennett, scores for the TV spinoff of the Police Academy movies, shot in Vancouver in 1997. “Even if I wasn’t the one composing, I got to see how film composition works,” he recalls. “Ten years ago Wise quit film composing to become a film-composition agent. That was another break for me: I didn’t just have a composer ally, but I had an agent… that was a huge step for me.” He now has five LEO awards, and has scored numerous TV movies (Who Killed JonBenét?) and independent features.

Now that Rogers has two young children, film work is more appealing than the physical rigours of touring, which he’d sometimes like to dial back. So, if and when he ever comes off the road, his Plan B is already up and running.

Matt Rogers

Matt Rogers

One of his old Capilano classmates, Red Borrowman – who composes under the name Red Heartbreaker – is also thriving, with 60 films under her belt, and steady work stretching into next year. Discussing her beginnings composing for film, she says, “it’s a very male-centric industry, and there aren’t a lot of female composers anywhere. But there’s so much mentorship for people who are new, so much shop to talk, and commiseration during tough periods: people are unbelievably available. The film community in Vancouver, especially the [film] composer community, is so supportive and collaborative. I’m constantly blown away by how generous and loving my colleagues are.”

Borrowman has a lot to bring to the table: as a classically trained composer and arranger, she writes orchestral and choral pieces when there’s a budget for it. “I think of everything in three dimensions when I write,” she says. “One of the wonderful things about jazz or classical theory informing what you do, is that you’re always thinking in three dimensions. It’s not just about the hook or the sample, it’s: ‘How does this move? Is this a many-layered moment or a small-layered moment?’ The one instrument I always want to play is the orchestra. I can’t think of anything more malleable.

“‘Orchestra’ doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does,” she says. “If you think of orchestral scoring as combining different timbres together and having themes, and variations, and leitmotif, and keys, and tones connected to character development, I still think of that as orchestral. If you’re talking about character development and emotion, and the right instrument is an 808, it’s still orchestral composing, because you’re writing linear music that moves forward with the story. It’s not just symphonies and violins. I would be okay with retiring the cello, though. I feel it’s been used so much in the way that amateur chefs use truffle oil: it just tastes like gasoline after a while.”

Borrowman has worked on projects with Rogers, and says the camaraderie of Vancouver’s community of cinematic composers should be a major selling point for the local film industry. “When you hire one Vancouver composer, you’re getting the benefit of their entire community,” she says. “Why wouldn’t you want that?”


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Jordan Benjamin is angry, and he wants you to hear that in his music. The artist, known as grandson, isn’t afraid to describe his sound – which blends electronic production with more aggressive rock and hip-hop elements – as “angry, urgent and, for me, very cathartic.”

Its urgency, which can be heard all over his latest EP, a modern tragedy, vol. 1, is a result of the politically divisive landscape in which we currently live these days. It’s reactionary and in-your-face, but grandson isn’t trying to push listeners away; in fact, he wants to do the opposite.

“In a society where we’re being force-fed ignorance and apathy, stuffed with cultural Big Macs with no nutritional value, having even one voice enter the conversation can change a kid’s life,” he says. “It can make them okay with who they are, encourage them to think differently than their neighbour, or family member, or pastor, or teacher – empower them to want to participate in the shaping of their world… That’s pretty cool to me. That’s rock ‘n’ roll.”

So far, his music has won over a lot of fans, most notably Linkin Park member and solo artist Mike Shinoda. “I still can’t believe I get to say that,” says grandson, after calling Shinoda his good friend and mentor. What started as an Instagram follow (“I thought it was a fake account”) quickly turned into an invitation to the studio, where grandson says he begged to be on one of Shinoda’s songs. The result is not only a guest spot on Shinoda’s song “Running From My Shadow,” but also much public praise from the music veteran who said grandson has a lot of potential.

At the root of it all, whether it’s in his music, or his newly-formed relationships with other artists, grandson has one goal in mind: continue connecting with people and, as he says passionately, “empower the grandkids in their communities.”


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Alexandra Stréliski has HBO to thank for the kind of advertising campaign any musician would kill for. At the time of our interview, the U.S.-based channel had just broadcast the final episode of Sharp Objects, Jean-Marc Vallée’s most recent mini-series, in which some recent Stréliski compositions are featured. In the season finale, viewers can catch a glimpse of the cover of Inscape, Alexandra’s yet-to-be released album, on the iPod screen of Camille Preaker, the character played by Amy Adams. “What’s worse,” she says, “is that, except for the scenes I scored, I have yet to watch the series myself! I’m waiting for a break so I can view the whole series in one sitting. I did this for Big Little Lies, which I watched after everyone else had.”

As you might surmise, Vallée, the mini-series’ director, is an early fan of Alexandra Stréliski, having used tracks from Pianoscope (2010), her first, self-released album, in the major Hollywood motion pictures  Dallas Buyers Club and Demolition. Nothing unusual there, for this film music specialist, who spent many years working in advertising. Although she’d found fulfillment in that profession for a long time, she eventually hit the wall of professional burnout, and was forced to ask herself what she really wanted out of life. Her introspective album title, Inscape, describes her descent into her inner landscape. And the fact that this album contains a piece called “Burnout Fugue” is no accident either… “In a fugue, you find multiple melodic voices, and this is exactly what happens with a burnout, when you find yourself confronted with all kinds of sentences that play inside your head, non-stop,” says Stréliski, adding that she wrote that piece in a distressed state.

In spite of the inner storm on which she was feeding, the resulting music – underpinned by solo piano – has an enveloping, soothing effect. For lack of a better word, that music style is called “neoclassical,” a term that appeared some hundred years ago, and that’s now been dusted off to apply to an instrumental music genre appreciated by lovers of all music genres. The musicians associated with that genre today are almost exclusively pianists such as Jean-Michel Blais and Chilly Gonzales in Canada, and Olafur Arnalds in Iceland, a handsome coterie inside which Alexandra finds herself most comfortable. “This label doesn’t bother me in the least – I’d even say I’m claiming it for myself!” she says emphatically. “When I met Jean-Michel Blais, it was as if I had come face to face with my cosmic twin. We all have – and I certainly include Gonzales in this group – common points: we all studied music and rejected the strict side of academe.”

That explains why this music is more emotional than intellectual. It attempts to arouse emotion in audiences, rather than seducing elitist listeners with an avant-garde approach. The reasons why this accessible, evocative, and graphic music is such an inspiration for a filmmaker are no mystery. Stréliski is the first one to say that there’s nothing groundbreaking in her melodic approach, and she’s delighted to be reaching such a wide audience. “I think that the use of the piano has a lot to do with it,” she says. “It’s a magical instrument that touches people to the core.”

With the release of Inscape, Stréliski is poised to step into the light by performing a show she describes as “intimate, poetic and immersive.” And while she’s busy creating her own universe, she fully intends to keep creating musical pieces to fit other people’s images. “Eventually, I’d like to create a project with live singers, but my goal is to keep working in film above all else,” she says. “I love people who have a very strong visual signature, people like Michel Gondry, or Wes Anderson. But I would also just love working with Denis Villeneuve!” Something tells us her phone will be ringing for some time to come.


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