A Q&A with Composer & Producer known for NAACP Image Award-nominated film "Gets Good Light:" Elizabeth Phillipson-Weiner

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  1. How did you get into film-scoring, and what makes you passionate about it?

    I fell sort of randomly into film scoring. I have been a trombone player since I was 10 and I was on a path to be an orchestral trombonist – that’s what I majored in at college. I’d never even considered writing my own music until a friend in college was entering a 48-hour film festival and asked if I could do the music for his short. I didn’t know if I could but I gave it a try and I’ve been hooked ever since. What I love about film scoring is telling a story through music and working collaboratively with a team to create art. I don’t think there’s anything better than working together in service of a good story. Growing up movies helped me understand myself and the world around me. If I could help do that for others, that would be a dream come true.

  2. In your scores, you usually combine unique synth elements with organic instruments. Please take us through your scoring process, how do you begin and where do you find your inspiration? Do you often use trombone and ukulele (your main instruments) as a starting point?

    My process always starts with a deep dive into the story arcs and characters of a film with the director. I like to compose themes for characters or important plot elements and transform those themes throughout the film to reflect the changes those characters undergo. There’s always a reason behind the sound palette I choose that is derived from the story. For instance, while working on a documentary that took place in Alabama, I used typical folk instruments of the region like banjo and mandolin for the overall soundscape and altered it slightly to reflect each subject followed, like including electric guitar for a more rebellious character or glass water jars and airy synths for a spiritual character who calls herself a fairy. I like to play around a lot creating my own sounds and samples as well. I frequently use my own vocals on my scores and am always finding unique ways to use the instruments available to me. In a recent horror film I used bowed trombone, playing my bell with a violin bow to create eerie metallic swells to evoke the sounds of a silver mine bell that served as the catalyst for the plot of the film. The process of finding the soundscape of a score is so fun and creative – I love to experiment and be inspired by the film.

  3. Your recent work includes a feature film directed by Stacey Maltin for Besties Make Movies. Is this the first time you’re working with Stacey? How did you approach this score, what are your tips for a successful collaboration with a filmmaker?

    Stacey’s feature film Triple Threat is our first collaboration but we’ve since worked on a short of hers as well. She’s wonderful to work with! This score was unique because Triple Threat is a musical with original songs. We wanted to incorporate the melodies from the songs into the score and create new thematic material in the score as well. I ended up creating several themes that reflected the narrative arcs of the characters – a romance theme and a friendship theme that transformed throughout the film. Sound palette-wise, I incorporated elements from the original songs like acoustic and electric guitar and piano that evoked a Broadway vibe and combined them with ethereal synths and ukulele plucks. The movie spans a long time period and Stacey and I were focused on creating slightly different sound palettes for each time jump so the audience would feel the passage of time. Successful collaborations come from trust and communication. It’s your job to guide your filmmaker through the process of scoring, discuss your ideas openly and bring something new to the film. If you can explain your approach, be open to feedback and implore your filmmaker to get really specific, you’ll have a great collaboration. And never forget, you’re a storyteller. I’m also super excited that Triple Threat is premiering at Cinequest VR & Film Festival this month! It’s definitely great to have a beautiful new original movie musical in a time where we’re all missing theatre so much.

  4. Your scores have premiered in films at the Tribeca Film Festival, Hollyshorts, Raindance, and more. You’ve worked on numerous projects in a wide array of mediums, including theatre, ad music, folk music, film, PSAs, and even congressional campaigns. What were some of your favorite projects so far, and is there a specific genre/medium you would like to focus on in the future?

    I actually have really enjoyed every project I’ve gotten to work on recently and I feel so lucky for that. The standouts for me are always projects where I love my collaborators and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing people, including Stacey. Gets Good Light has been a stand-out project because the story is incredibly important and I got to work with one of my friends, Alejandra Parody. There are a couple films I worked on this summer that aren’t released yet that I had incredible experiences working on including a horror film by Ben Sottak and the aforementioned documentary, directed by Gabriella Canal and Anna Andersen, where I got to use my folk background. I scored 2 fantastic documentaries this past month that cover a food pantry serving its Queens community through Covid (dir. Mary Conlon) and a Colorado town reckoning with its fraught racial past (dir. Sara Herrin), respectively. In terms of medium, film is definitely my favorite but I don’t discriminate. Any time I get to tell a story through music, I’m happy. Genre-wise it’s also hard to say – I just want to work on stories that resonate with me and promote empathy and nuanced understanding.

  5. How did you get involved with the innovative non-profit Emily’s Entourage and what was it like to have your song performed by legendary singers like Laura Osnes (Grease, Cinderella, Bandstand), Gideon Glick (Spring Awakening, Significant Other), Christy Altomare (Mamma Mia, Anastasia) and Sarah Levy (Schitt’s Creek)?

    Emily Kramer-Golinkoff of Emily’s Entourage and I grew up in the same town and she has been hugely inspiring to me as a fellow chronic disease warrior. I’ve struggled with Crohn’s Disease since I was 13 and dealing with chronic illness is not something I ever could talk openly with friends about. Emily was always someone I could look up to as she battled Cystic Fibrosis and ran a foundation to race for a cure to this terrible fatal illness. In 2018 I wrote a song about struggling with chronic illness and immediately felt like I had to share it with Emily. Emily’s Entourage decided to create a music video fundraiser around the song that I actually produced. I cold contacted stars to ask them to donate their time to the project and we ended up with such an amazing group who were so generous and as moved as I was by Emily and her cause. It’s really important to me that I use my work and voice as a composer to enact positive change.

  6. Congratulations on getting nominated for the NAACP Image Award for your score for Gets Good Light, directed by Alejandra Parody. The film, starring Cedric Leiba Jr., Edmond Cofie, Jessica Pimentel (Orange Is the New Black), and Catherine Curtin (Stranger Things), centers around a luxury condo that becomes a brief refuge for a family targeted by I.C.E. Can you share a bit about how you created this unique score?

    Thank you! It’s a huge honor to be nominated – this film means so much to me as I produced it and composed the score. I had the unique advantage as producer of being attached to the film from its inception, which gave me a ton of time to talk with Alejandra about story, themes and character. I wanted the score to reflect the world being built – one that appears opulent and inviting from far away but is insidious underneath. The score essentially reflects the emotional state of our two main characters – Manny and Andrell, who constantly live with the anxiety of inhabiting spaces that could turn on them at any moment. For Manny, an undocumented immigrant – New York City is not a beautiful city full of opportunity, it’s a place where he’s never really safe, where he could lose everything at any time. I decided I wanted to represent the sound of a siren in the score in a beautiful way that simultaneously played on this constant state of anxiety. This is represented in the score by a cello playing long portamento slides.  These cello motions contrasted with a synth bed of rising textures really ramps up the tension. Another approach I took for Gets Good Light was in scoring the relationship between I.C.E and Manny. Alejandra and I had discussed how in the film, the relationship is predatory, completely lacking in empathy. I wanted this scene, in particular, to feel implicitly like Manny was being hunted – like there was a shark in the water circling closer and closer. I created a soundscape for this moment using textural synths and risers along with extended flute techniques, the sound is an over-articulation and it comes off very airy, very human – and completely unsettling. It was great working on this score and having so much freedom to explore these characters and create their world, sonically. This story is so important and I feel truly honored by the way people have responded to it.

    This interview was conducted by Nami Melumad.

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