Award-Winning Filmmaker Wes Hurley on How to Score a Movie

The Seattle, Washington-based filmmaker Wes Hurley first began with a short. And that did so well, he knew he had to go ahead and turn that short into a full-length film. The result? Hurley’s acclaimed new movie, Potato Dreams Of America.

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The plot of the movie is based on his real life. Hurley, who is gay, was born and raised in Russia, a country that is not tolerant of who he is. In order to escape the country, Hurley’s mother becomes a mail-order bride and gets them out of the crumbling U.S.S.R. and into America.

From there, a whole new life begins for Hurley and his mother. And the man who brought them over to the United States—well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out what happens next.

But for our purposes here, we wanted to ask Hurley about scoring the movie. How does music work in a film? How did he go about getting the sounds and songs for the movie that brought certain scenes to life?

American Songwriter: When starting the movie, how did you begin to think about the soundscape that would help bring it to life? 

Wes Hurley: I knew that since the film has two very different halves—stylistically—the music in the Russian section would also have to contrast tonally with the music in American section. I went to two brilliant composers that I’ve already worked with before. Joshua Kohl (of the Degenerate Art Ensemble) has scored my Virtual Reality short. Catherine Joy is a wonderful LA-based composer who’s done all of the music for my “Capitol Hill” series and does film scoring for a living. 

Both are classically trained and very versatile. But Joshua’s world is more experimental theater while Catherine has a lot of experience scoring all kinds of Hollywood films. The Russian score is meant to feel more theatrical, and unconventional. But for the American score, I wanted us to harken back to late ’80s, early ’90s Hollywood scores. I asked a third composer, Chris Jeffries, to write the intro to the film because I knew I wanted him to perform it himself on the piano as part of the fantasy sequence in the opening scene. His original motif is very gently referenced throughout the film in Catherine and Joshua’s scores.  

But ultimately, I’m a big fan of variety and genre shifts in music in films. So on top of the original score, I wanted to integrate a lot of found music. Especially, ’90s indie rock from Seattle bands. There are also little original pieces that were created for the film to sound like found pieces. I was thrilled when Joshua brought Okanomode on board to write a short piece for a “faux” Hollywood-style song during the scene when Potato and Lena discover American films. And later I got to live out my music producer fantasy by bringing Dmitry Kasantsev and Sarah Rudinoff together to create an original disco anthem.

AS: How did you go about finding the right songs for the soundtrack and music for the score? 

WH: I went to my friends and folks I already worked with before. Aaron Taylor was one of the musicians who recorded original songs for my last feature “Fallen Jewel.” This was years ago and at the time he gave me a bunch of his music—from different bands he was in. I really fell in love with a lot of it, and when “Potato Dreams of America” started to come together in the editing room, I began pulling Aaron’s pieces. 

Most of them are from his band, Mama’s Iguana. The songs are very well produced and have a kind of edge to them that felt very Seattle grunge era ’90s to me. Gretta Harley is another friend and collaborator and her rendition of Star Spangled Banner brought so much to a key scene in the film.  Dmitry Kasantsev, a fellow Russian immigrant who is a great filmmaker and musician, contributed some ’80s sounding techno-pop. Also, with karaoke being a major plot element, I asked Gretta and another great musician/filmmaker, Sue Corcoran, to make karaoke versions of their songs.

AS: Were there already existing movie scores you looked to for inspiration? 

WH: For the U.S. section of the film, Georges Delerue was a major reference, because the first American film I really fell in love with was Curly Sue and he wrote a really beautiful score for it. For Russia, I was primarily inspired by Paul Schrader’s Mishima and Phillip Glass’ score. But I do love to mix it up. 

There were moments inspired by jazzy ’80s-’90s scores, moments inspired by ambient horror music, and for one of the key scenes in the film I wanted Catherine to look at baroque giallo soundtracks with wordless vocals.

AS: Was there an arduous process of clearing the music or of recruiting musicians? 

WH: It wasn’t because I didn’t go out to any people I didn’t know. Everyone was very generous with us while making this film, including musical artists.

AS: What tips would you have for people looking to score their own movies these days? 

WH: I think young filmmakers need to be well-rounded and mix with artists from other disciplines, including musicians. This way you’re going to meet both regular musicians who might be happy to contribute their music and aspiring film composers who may want to collaborate and original scores.  

AS: Is there one song or music choice you particularly love in the film? 

WH: Rizo’s “Freedom Song” actually inspired one of the most important moments in the film. I saw Rizo perform it years ago. And it was just phenomenal. I wrote the whole transition from Russia to U.S. as a centerpiece for the song and asked Rizo to perform it in the film. Fortunately, she said yes.  It’s one of my favorite moments in the film.   

AS: When did you know you were done with the musical aspects of the film’s production? 

WH: I was lucky both Joshua and Catherine understood what I was going for so it was a fairly quick and painless process—at least for me. They’re both such pros in narrative scoring, I felt honored and grateful to be able to go on this ride with them and see them at work. I just hope I wasn’t too much of a pain for Joshua and Catherine to work with, because I have very specific thoughts but I lack musical vocabulary so I’d send them a short clip of something and say, “I like this instrument, whatever it is, can we use that?”
AS: As a filmmaker, what do you love most about music?

WH: It really ties everything together and creates mood like nothing else. When I think about my favorite filmmakers and most memorable movie moments—the music is like 40-60% of making them special. Whether it’s Danny Elfman’s collaborations with Tim Burton. Or Angelo Badalamenti’s extraordinary scores for David Lynch. Would Sergio Leone be half as successful without Ennio Morricone? Would Tarantino’s films be nearly as fun without his knack for finding coolest and most obscure vintage tracks? 

Photo by Bronwen Houck, courtesy Wes Hurley

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