Anyone who has been driving around town at night with their friends when that “perfect” song comes on the stereo…the own which causes everyone in the car to go wild (it’s a universally shared experience) has a deep understanding of the ability of music to take any experience into the stratosphere. This is the same concept filmmakers apply to the score of their film, regardless of the genre. They may not want head banging of chair dancing but said filmmakers definitely want to use music’s power over the human psyche and body to deepen the impact of what they are exhibiting on the screen. Michael Helms, director & screenwriter of the film “Madness” did not originally want a score for his film about a military officer returning home and dealing with the psychological aftermath and trauma of what he’d seen and done. He felt that the solemnity that a lack of music communicates would be more disturbing to the audience than anything a composer could muster; that is…until he heard examples of composer Sai Sriram Maddury’s work.
“Madness” is about feeling out of place and the isolation and personal disruption to one’s psyche even when surroundings do not support this sense. In the story, a Military officer returns home while a radical militant group’s merciless killings continues to haunt him and his memory. On leave from a deployment Cliff (the main character), visits home to experience normal life with his pregnant wife Liz. During this time, his battle experiences monopolize his thoughts. Unable to integrate into “normal” life, Cliff discusses this with Liz and returns back to the army front.
Helms wanted to communicate Cliff’s inability to find a comfortable place in his life and his mind. He explained to Sai that the score for the film should be as minimal as possible in order to not disturb this isolated environment. While the two did not share a vocational language, the discussions were in no way cumbersome. Maddury describes, “Michael was very good in describing what he wanted. It’s always something of a challenge to understand what a director wants but I did not have that problem with Michael as he is very good in articulating want he needs from the film and story point of view. Music is a part of the storytelling process. When a filmmaker like Michael speaks to me in terms that discuss emotion and the mood that he wants to create, we become collaborators. For example, when he needed the score to underplay a particular scene in which a character reveals his past, Michael explained the reasons why the score needed to underplay and why that particular scene was so important for the film. This way I knew the exact point and reason why Michael wanted the score to underplay and this made it easy for me to find a way to create music that presents his vision. As a composer I prefer directors to explain what exactly they need in terms of story rather than in musical terms. If a director tends to use more musical language, I might take it in a traditional musical terminology but it might be not exactly what the director was referring to. This doesn’t happen when we discuss in terms of characters, story, importance of the scenes and use of words like underplay, overplay, busy, not too busy, intense, light etc.”
In line with the early vision of Helm’s, Sai matched his composition to the film with very simple drones to create ambiguity and uncomfortability. You can’t keep a true creative personality from receiving and interpreting emotion; after multiple viewings of the film, the composer began to recognize a glaring omission in his work. Maddury wanted to justify the story of the character and his past because this concept is the core of the film. When memories of past events and individuals disturb Cliff, his past becomes as important as the character itself. Sai presented the idea of using Arabic chants and a rhythmic motif that represented these past. experiences. Michael conceded that he loved that idea and felt that it amplified the overall intensity of the film. The use of voice rather than instrumentation was a calculated decision by the composer. The idea to use Arabic chants rather than an instrument like Duduk or Persian Dulcimer was in order to prevent the score from sounding too ethnic. The film focuses on the main character’s state of mind and thoughts rather than scenes that display the war in the Middle East, this caused Sai to feel that the use of ethnic scales and instruments were not justified. Maddury’s reasoning for using chants is directly applicable to the storyline. It was his contention that the character might have heard these chants coming from the terror groups in the army front and these continue to haunt Cliff. In a style that he has become recognized for, Sai blended Western instrumentation with these chants for a score that it is not completely immersed in one singular culture.
Maddury is full embracing of the technological advancements that are afforded to a composer these days. While he is well versed in the last software and MIDI, sometimes old school is what works best. He wanted a rhythmic motif representative of a heartbeat. After exhausting countless samples (and blends of these), he began experimenting with a more analog approach. He reveals, “After trying numerous samples, I did not get the right tone I was looking for. I tried experimenting and recording the sounds of a wooden desk, empty wooden shelfs, etc. After trying almost every wooden furniture I could get my hands on, I ended up using the sound of the rear side of the upright piano. It has a great hollowness and created the perfect “heartbeat” like tone I wanted. It’s such a fine instrument, it seems somewhat wrong to use it in this manner but there are no rules when it comes to making the appropriate music for a film. When I played it for Michael, he immediately wanted me to use it in the score and that’s how it ended up as a main motif for the haunting memories of the character.”
Just as a filmmaker has a process that produces an emotional creation, so does Sai. Preceding a viewing of the film but following discussions with the director, he writes thematic suites. These suites represent the ideas and emotional interpretations based on the script. Once these have been played for the director and he has provided feedback, they are then tailored to the film during the spotting session. This is when the structure of the score, where more and less emphasis is needed, cues, etc. happens. Following this, Maddury actually starts writing to the picture. The process is multi layered and Sai openly states that a director who understands exactly what he wants and is confident about it makes them a composer’s best friend.
“Madness” was officially selected and screened at the Full Bloom Film Festival 2016 Queen City Cinephiles.