Composer Sage Lewis has scored two films at SXSW 2016 that both revolve around our obsession with technology: Operator (2016), a dark comedy starring Martin Starr, and The Surrogate, a virtual reality film set in the future. A Sundance Film Composer Fellow, Sage has composed for films featured at top festivals like Cannes and Telluride as well as for campaigns from Google, Facebook and Maiyet — experiences that render him supremely qualified to explore how our love affair with technology can be expressed in sound.
Lewis talked to ScreenPrism about writing music to capture our relationship with technology and how technology can dominate our relationships.
ScreenPrism: Can you tell me about Operator and how you approached it musically?
Sage Lewis: The film is a dark comedy, a relationship movie — or an anti-relationship movie — because it's about a couple that's falling out of love because of the technology that starts to invasively get in the middle of their relationship, through a programmer who's developing automatic voice responses (kind of like Siri but more advanced). His first prototype, the first pilot, is a huge disaster for their client because it's got a sassy voice, a really rude voice. His wife works for a hotel, and she's a very empathetic person, but she's also part of the Neo-Futurists which is this comedy group in Chicago. And so he decides to model the voice after her; he realizes that she would be the perfect personality. He’s obsessed with data, so he starts collecting all this data on her and putting together this virtual version.
The film has a lot of music in it. It's about 60 minutes worth of music, which in some ways kind of a traditional score. You don't know see a lot of films today, indie films especially, that have this much music, which is kind of what's cool about it. But the style of music is not traditional at all. It's a very contemporary score in that way, so it was a unique opportunity. The music plays a really big part in telling the story — a lot of the subtext that's happening, the emotions of the characters — and it's a very emotional film. Plus there are a lot of concepts in the film about our relationship with technology right now. And so there's a whole electronic element to the score, which evokes this idea of technology.
SP: The music makes me think of technology, but it still has a human component and there's a musicality to it. How did you find that balance?
SL: There's a string quartet, and there's an acoustic guitar, and there's a piano, and there's a real drum set. So there's this whole side to it which is coming from instruments that are performed by humans and that have been around for hundreds of years, and those bring out a lot of emotion. You can’t express with electronic music what you can with the string quartet because it has a way of really grabbing your heart and taking your heart to a very happy place of love and very scared places and [places of] anxiety.
It has the ability to do that in ways that computer music can't do. [In Operator] it's really the contrast of these two different styles and sounds. Sometimes they're fighting each other, but sometimes they are very harmoniously working together. So that was really fun to play with.
SP: You mentioned that the technology is tearing this couple apart, even though the promise of technology is to connect us. Is that something that you played with in the music, trying to show how it was creating conflict, disconnect or isolation?
SL: Yeah, because the main character is played by Martin Starr; his name is Joe. He falls in love with his own algorithm, basically, which is modeled after his wife and it's because he loves his wife, but now he almost loves his algorithm even more. But it's really not about the technology — it’s about his obsession with the technology and about our obsession with technology.
It's very psychological because it still all exists [only] in our heads. I mean, the technology doesn't matter. In the film, it's not like there's robots or anything. You don't see it. You just see their phones and some interfaces that he’s created, some really beautiful ones — and he's really artistic with his technology, too. He's obsessed with data, and he captures it about his health and his sex life and everything. He's constantly measuring all his human systems. And so he's trying to make it very organic.
And although the electronic music, we recorded it, I designed it with software synthesizers, but then I took it to this electronic musician that’s a friend of mine, and he's a modular synthesist, which means he has this whole setup with these different circuits that he plugs together, and we created all the electronic sounds from scratch. And it's all analog, so it's actually a very organic type of electronic music.
SP: That's probably not a distinction that many people know about.
SL: Some people who like to geek out on music are really into that kind of stuff, but most people might not know what a modular synthesizer is.
SP: You've also composed for Google, Facebook, and some of these tech companies.
SL: Right. I also write music for technology companies, too, like Facebook. Like Google Cloud, Google Cardboard, stuff like that. And then a Facebook campaign which was four videos that were called Tech Prep, which was trying to get more young people of color and women to get involved in computer engineering because it's one of the fields [most dominated] by white men. So they had a whole campaign to try to bring more different types of people into the field because a lot of people don't think it's accessible for them when they're choosing their career paths. And then I also wrote music for another film which in SXSW right now, which is a virtual reality film called The Surrogate. So that's another major tech piece.
SP: What was your approach for that one?
SL: In a lot of ways the premise for the narrative was very similar [to Operator] in the sense that it was about a married couple around 30 years old. The Surrogate is set more into the future, maybe 20 or 30 years. But it's also very psychological because the premise is that in this time in the future it becomes common for people to get a Surrogate to come in to replace one of the people in the marriage as a way of saving the marriage. So rather than getting a divorce, they try to make it work by having someone come for awhile and be the other person, to sort of fix the marriage, and then at some point they might [get] back together.
So it's really strange situation, and this couple is doing it and they're really worried about it, and it seems like they don't really think it's going to work, but other people are doing it and so they're willing to try anything. And so the wife goes and lives in the walls. They build tunnels in the walls and they're convex mirrors, and you're her — you're her character in the film. Her replacement, her surrogate, is coming and meeting her husband for the first time, and they're working out the ground rules, and [the surrogate is] trying as hard as she can to be like his wife, and she's not doing a good enough job for him, and it's really uncomfortable. But the way the score works is: the score is the emotions of the wife that's in the walls. And so in some sense I almost think of it as a thriller, psychologically, not that there's anything that's happening in the real space that suggests it's a thriller because it's just sort of people having these uncomfortable conversations. But you're inside of her and you're more immersed than you are in a normal film, because you really are her — you walk around, you can look around, you can do whatever you want to do, and you're trapped in the walls. And so you go through, and you can look into the different rooms and watch what's happening. And they move from room to room, and it's all three dimensional. It's all spherical, immersive.
It's a story that was designed in some ways to figure out formally how to make a film be interactive inside of virtual reality because from a design point of view it's challenging. People are trying to figure out how to make interactive films, and that's I think one of the main reasons it's nominated right now for the Interactive Innovation Award at SXSW is because it's a created a really cool design to make this narrative work. There's no playbook—people don't know how to do VR yet.
SP: Is this one of your first times composing for VR?
SL: Yeah, I've done some video games which have some similarities. But this is different cause this is a real film. [In VR, unlike in video games] you can't impact the world around you. You can't say different things. It's not like a “choose your own adventure” where you can have different options.
SP: So the music doesn't change if you go into a different room?
SL: Well, it does a little bit, but you don't impact the film. You can just explore the film in a way that you can't normally. You can move around the film and see it in your own way. But you can't tell them something and you can't push anything or touch anything. So it’s its own thing. For me, as a composer, it's challenging to figure out how to do it. Also, when you're scoring a film, you can watch it and sit down with the director and score the picture and then see exactly if it's working or not on the computer, and then you can make the music perfect the way you want it.
But when you're doing a VR, it has all this other technology. It has to go into a game engine called Unity, which has a lot of programming and brings all these pieces together, and that gets exported into the Oculus. There's all these steps. You can't just demo it. So you have to kind of guess, and it's kind of like writing music for theater, actually, to go back in time to come full circle. Because it's the same thing when you're writing music for theater. You write some music, but you don't get the actors and everything in front of you on stage. You can bring it to a rehearsal and test it out, but then the timings aren't always going to be exactly the same, and the perspective, the viewers, aren't exactly the same because in theater you might be up in the balcony, or you might be down [in the orchestra]. If it's a experimental piece, [there might be] a different configuration of the audience.
So one of the most recognizable and familiar guides as a composer for writing music for VR at least for me has been writing for theater because there are some interesting parallels. And then there are also some interesting parallels for film scoring. So you have to have more different experience with different types of media in your toolkit to figure out how to approach this new medium.
SP: It sounds like you have to give up control, the same way that a theater director has to give up a little more control than the film director. Do you like giving up that control in some way?
SL: Well, in some ways it’s an interesting artistic challenge. In other ways it's frustrating because it's nice to have the control. That's one of the great things about filmmaking is you get so much control, which is what makes films such great experiences because the director and the composer and all the people get to create the experience exactly the same for everyone, and you get to heighten that experience exactly how you want it. But with not having control, it's a different set of rules and challenges. It's nice to have variety and not to be doing the same thing over and over, and have new things to think about.
SP: How are people going to be able to see The Surrogate?
SL: Well, that's the other thing is for virtual reality right now, it hasn't hit the market even. It's a technology which is still being developed and hasn't really made to the public yet, except for places like SXSW or Sundance or other VR conferences. And even here [at SXSW] you can't get like 500 people in the theater to see it at once — there's only two headsets going at one time. So there's going to be a line. It's about 12 to 15 minutes, and you have to wait in line, so it's not an accessible medium — except Oculus is going to be hitting the market this year, and I think it already has a lot of pre-orders, and they're going to have some sort of Netflix or app store or some type of site where you start downloading content. Right now there's not a whole lot of content out there yet. So this will hopefully be one of the early frontrunners that when people actually start getting Oculus and others—it will work for Vibe and other types of virtual reality headsets that are being developed by different companies right now. And so we all have to see how it all happens because no one knows quite yet how accessible it's going to be.
It's hard to break through with new technology because people aren't used to it. I don't think a lot of people [even have the Google Cardboard yet]. I'm sure there are hundreds of thousands of people that do have it, but the critical mass doesn't have it yet and doesn’t, I don't think, really understand how to use it. So it's going to take some time. There a lot of barriers to break through. And then I think once you see your friends doing it then you'll start doing it, too, and that's how it's going to start to work. There's a threshold that it has to break through before it becomes a part of our daily live. A lot of people are saying virtual reality will change our lives in lots of ways, like entertainment, education, and training, all types of uses for it.
SP: Given the composing you've done for Google and Facebook, when writing for Operator did you feel in any way that you were satirizing your own work?
SL: Oh, that’s a good question. That's a good way of putting it that I hadn’t thought of before. What I just kept thinking is, "Oh, this is an interesting theme that's happening right now in the work that I'm doing." So it was all really in the same year where I did all those projects. But I was also just so busy and working so hard that I didn't have much time to reflect on it. It's more afterwards, like right now is when I can start to reflect more on it. But it was interesting seeing themes [reoccurring in my work]. Sometimes telling one director about another project I'm working on and sort of connecting the dots on it and saying, Oh, I've been writing music, which actually hasn't been released yet, for a Google video for their Google Cardboard and how they were using that with these cultural heritage purposes for Crow Native American, Indian reservation. But that was just an example of how Google Cardboard can change the world in ways we never thought because there were these young Crow Indian kids who are in school, and they were going back into pow-wows and being immersed in their own traditions in different ways through this technology. So [I worked on that] at the same time I was working on the virtual reality.
SP: And did writing Operator force you to reflect on that composition work for Google?
SL: Yeah, and also to reflect on my own life, too. More so than The Surrogate which is more abstracted, science fiction, Operator is very realistic about our lives and how technology is mediating a lot of our communications. And our relationships are built on our communications, so all our text messaging and social media, the way we’re communicating with each other and less so in physical space, it’s just permeating from all sides my personal life and then also the work that I’m doing as a composer. But I think technology’s fascinating, so it’s a really interesting theme to be working with artistically.
SP: It does seem to be a theme that pops up in a lot of work for you.
SL: And probably a lot of work for everyone, or for a lot of people. I’ve had maybe a more unusual surge recently with these projects, but it’s changing the world so fast, and we’re on this ride—we don’t know where it’s taking us, and it’s kind of exciting but kind of scary at the same time. It creates a lot of drama. Telling these stories through film, through marketing campaigns and through new media like virtual reality, it’s important for us to be reflecting on this. Operator, when you’re watching it, can make you feel uncomfortable because it’s confrontational in a lot of ways to us as humans right now.
SP: Do you have an underlying philosophy for how you want your composition to impact the audience?
SL: Yeah, but I really want it to be guiding the experience in the way that the director wants to. I sit down for a long time with the directors and talk to them a lot before I get started. They’re my guide in terms of understanding the film and the characters, and I spend a lot of time making sure I understand. Because I can’t sit down and start writing music for something I don’t understand well. The directors have, like, PhD’s in their own films. They know so much. They tell me so many things I haven’t thought about. I’m also lucky to work with really cool directors because they know what they want, and they help me create the story that they’re trying to tell, but they also give me a lot of space to be myself and bring in my own voice and be an artist. So those are great collaborations because they also push me to places I never would get to by myself.