Featured Creator: Austin Wintory
The Incredible Journey of Journey's Composer
A lot of composers knew from a young age they might end up writing film and television scores, and some were in love with movie music from the beginning. But how many hired a teacher just to teach them about the business aspect of film scoring when they were in high school? Austin Wintory was that kind of kid, who fell—and fell hard—for film music when he first heard Jerry Goldsmith at age 10, and proceeded to bore his way to Hollywood with an unparalleled enthusiasm and hunger, becoming the first composer ever to be nominated for a Grammy for a video game score.
It paid off. This past year his score for the PlayStation 3 game Journey became the highest-charting videogame score ever on Billboard, and earned him a Grammy nomination—the first for a game score in Grammy history. At 28 years old, Wintory has already scored more than 40 feature films, six video games, and plenty of concert music to boot. His first game score, flOw, earned him a BAFTA nomination (making him the youngest composer with that honor), and the game and its music are currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. His score for Captain Abu Raed, the first production in Jordanian history, was shortlisted for the Academy Awards in 2009.
Enamored (and formed) by old musical traditions, Wintory is also a composer for the internet generation. He uses social media to spread his music and interact with fans, and has even created annotated videos of his music with insightful commentary. When people began uploading the Journey soundtrack to their YouTube channels, he not only didn’t shut them down, but went on every upload and thanked them in the comments for sharing his music. His comments in turn received “likes” in the thousands; someone noticed and wrote an article about it, which wound up on home page of Reddit. Everyone rallied around Wintory, feeling a sense of kinship with him and ownership of the music’s promulgation, and began evangelizing people to buy the album (Wintory is convinced it’s what triggered the Billboard charting). “I don’t write music because I want to write music,” he says. “I write music because I want to connect with people.”
As another way of connecting, Wintory donates a portion of proceeds from his music sales to Education Through Music – Los Angeles—an organization committed to bringing music into disadvantaged schools—where he also serves on the board of directors.
Tim Greiving: What was your music education prior to college?
Austin Wintory: From age 0 to age 10, music was not a part of my life in the slightest. I didn’t listen to any bands, classical music, anything really at all. I didn’t have a musical household. And then a very weird thing happened, where my father discovered in his mother’s basement his childhood BB gun. It was this thing from the early ’50s that would never be legal now—like a real rifle. And, of course, ten-year-old me was like, “I have to have this.” So, for reasons I don’t know—and it seems so bizarre in hindsight—my dad said, “If you learn to play Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’ on the piano, you can have this.” That was the incentive.
AW: For weapons, yeah. I think the only thing that could possibly have given him the idea was that I was really into movies, and I did have the LP to Star Wars, but I could never have told you the name John Williams. But it was enough that he said, “You should learn to play this piece.” So we went and found a piano teacher, this guy named Derry O’Leary, a big Irish working pianist who played bars and restaurants and weddings and had his own jazz trio. This guy looked like Santa—big white beard, big huge guy—but he wore Hawaiian shirts and straw hats and sandals that were beaten up and old. Derry shows up, and I was like, “I need to learn ‘Fur Elise’ right now. I don’t care about scales or finger exercises or anything—we’ve got to start with this.” But I really took to it and loved it, and within three or four lessons I learned it well enough that I got my BB gun. So Derry was like, “What kind of music should we look at next?” I said, “Other than this little taste of Beethoven, I don’t know anything else about music.” He said, “Let me bring you my favorite music.” He started showing up with albums every week for me to listen to, and initially they were all Jerry Goldsmith soundtracks—and I’ll never forget, the first three he brought were Patton, Papillion, and A Patch of Blue.
TG: Basically he just brought the ‘P’ section from his Goldsmith file…
AW: Seemingly. Musically they have nothing to do with each other. All great scores though. I just couldn’t believe that one guy had written all these, and they were so imaginative. I couldn’t believe music like this existed at all. It was just instantly, “I need to do that.” I couldn’t even read music—I’d learned ‘Fur Elise’ by rote. I just knew I wanted to be a composer. My piano skills have always suffered, because immediately it was all about composing. By the time I got to high school I had been composing a lot of stuff on piano, and I marched straight into the orchestra at the very beginning of my freshman year—I had started to buy soundtracks, getting jobs and putting my allowance all towards soundtrack albums—and I said, “I notice on every one of my albums I love”—of Jerry’s, John Williams, John Barry, James Horner, all the people I was obsessed with—”they all say ‘Composed and conducted by,’ and I need that second part. I don’t know anything about it, it’s eluding me, and I want to do that.” So the orchestra director, to his credit, basically opened up the doors…and I ended up putting music of mine in front of the student orchestra and conducting it almost every day, all four years of high school. They performed it in their concerts four or five times a year. I got a ton of practical experience, like thousands of hours, in front of real musicians. They were high school kids, so it’s not the London Symphony, but they were pretty good. I was able to learn a lot about balance and orchestration and things from the podium, not with keyboards and computers, in a very real way. And you learn a lot making such inexperienced musicians sound semi-decent.
TG: So did you teach yourself notation and orchestration and all that kind of stuff?
AW: I was essentially self-taught. Eventually I took the school’s music theory class and stuff like that, but I had already been writing for the orchestra for a while by that time, so it was mainly solidifying what I was doing. I eventually did pick up a second teacher—I continued with my piano teacher until college, but mainly I would just get him to give me composition assignments. He would come back and make up a fake movie and say, “Okay, you need a love theme and a this theme…”
TG: So you would write that stuff out and orchestrate it and everything?
AW: Initially it was just piano. And it’s funny—because somewhere in there I also became obsessed with videogames and thought it would be great to pursue a career in game design, so I started studying computer programming. It took me a while to realize there was software for my music pursuits—so I was initially writing everything by hand, and how I learned was through the stumbling. I put something in front of a cellist and they said, “This note’s out of our range.” I’d be like, “What does that mean?” and they’d pluck the low C string and say, “This is the lowest note we can play.” I’d be like, “I never even thought about that.” Or, I’ll never forget the first time I wrote for the full orchestra and I had never heard of transposition, so as soon as I give the first downbeat, random members of the orchestra (seemingly) were playing something other than what I intended. You never forget a lesson like when you have a 50-piece group staring at you. Once I got the software I realized all that was automated, but I had learned it, very blessedly, in a really tactile way first. So then I added lessons with another guy named RJ Miller. I studied mainly the business side of it with him—we did get into some orchestration and composition stuff, but it was mainly things like, “How do I put together recording sessions and budgets?” I really wanted to know all the hands-on stuff.
TG: The business side of film scoring?
TG: While you were still in high school?
AW: Yeah. Because I was reading Film Score Monthly and I would always buy the Varese or Intrada deluxe edition soundtracks, and I would read Jon Burlingame’s or Jeff Bond’s liner notes cover to cover. This was all I wanted to do, so I would ask him things—because he had lived in LA as well, and had done chart arrangement for artists and written film scores and recorded with orchestras—I was like, “The time will come when someone’s going to hire me to put together a session, and I would love to know how to do that before I’m suddenly on the clock.” So we would go through, like, “this is how much your trumpet’s paying hourly, and you have to factor in copyists, and here’s this and that…” It wasn’t so much about composition as it was that other stuff, because I’m kind of a nerd for every aspect of it, even on the legal and contract side. To me everything is part of the creative process, so there’s no part I want to keep at arm’s length. I always orchestrate my own stuff, I always program my own stuff, because I’m basically just a big nerd.
TG: It’s just amazing to me that you were so gung-ho towards a career in film music as young as you were, to the extent you were even studying the business side. That seems much more aware and prescient than most people who go into scoring films.
AW: I just kept digging, and the more I found the more I liked, the more I wanted to dig. To me it wasn’t trying to look ahead or be strategic, it was literally just powered by love, and plowing ahead without knowing any better. To me it was not like this lightning bolt to want to study the business—it’s like it crept in in bits and pieces.
After high school Wintory studied composition at NYU, where he scored several student films and audited courses in the film scoring school. After two years he transferred to USC’s composition school, and in his senior year simultaneously went through the film scoring certificate program.
TG: What would you say was your first “big break”?
AW: I had two simultaneous and really lucky things happen while I was at USC. The first was in my first year there (my junior year of college), I went to a choir concert one night on campus. I was sitting in the last row, and there was this like GI Joe looking dude next to me—he seemed slightly out of place for a classical choral concert. So, me being the kind of dude I am, turned to him and was like, “Hey, how are you? What’s your name?” (I do that on airplanes and stuff—it’s probably really annoying.) This guy, not surprisingly, was dating one of the girls in the choir, and we got to talking—turns out he was an ROTC student, and was in the game design program. At that point I had done maybe 40 student films, but never a videogame of any kind—though it was a passion, and I had been an intensive gamer. I was like, “Holy crap, that’s awesome! Here’s my card—if you ever need a composer, I would love to have a chance to do some game work.” A couple days later he calls me up and says, “I went to your website and there’s some cool stuff. I have a game I’m working on and it would be fun to work together.” So I wrote his game, a simple little thing called Predator/Prey or something like that…basically Pac-Man that he had militarized. A simple, student game, but I totally loved working on it.
A month later, out of nowhere, I get an email from one of his classmates—Jenova Chen—that’s like, “Hey, I’m looking for a composer. I asked Steve for recommendations and he said he liked working with you. I’m working on my master’s thesis. Would you be interested in getting together to talk about it?” I was like, “Hell, yes.” I went expecting him to want some big, bombastic, epic adventure thing—and he showed me the game he was working on and it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It struck me as a fundamentally new concept for games. There’s a famous concept called Flow theory by a guy named Csíkszentmihályi that he was trying to explore through game design. He felt like games right now are always about aggression and energy and excitement and testosterone, and he’s like, “But literature isn’t all about one thing, film isn’t all about one thing. I’d like to make games that are about more.” This was his master’s thesis, and he called it flOw. It was just a little Flash game where you clicked around and moved a little worm creature. I did the music and sound design—and it was electronic music, which I had never done before, and it was deeply interactive music, which I had never done before. It made me bleed out the ears because I had never conceived of music in this way at all. We put this little Flash game on his website and the thing went crazy viral—in like a week there were half a million people playing it.
TG: So when did that turn into a PlayStation 3 game?
AW: Okay, so now I’m in the spring of my junior year. Sony calls Jenova out of the blue and said, “The PlayStation 3 is going to be coming out later this year. We’re on the lookout for companies to hire to make launch titles.” They wanted to be a haven for more artistically adventurous games that had lower overhead, and they offered him a three-game deal, which had no precedent in the gaming industry. He said yes, and immediately called me and said, “How’d you like to make a PlayStation 3 game?” We started working on flOw remade as a PS3 game—a much larger scale version of it, but aesthetically identical (of course using the power of the PS3 instead of Flash). So my senior year, in which I was doing both the graduate film scoring program and finishing my undergrad composition degree and doing my recital and all that, I was also parallel scoring this PlayStation 3 title. The game came out during the spring semester of my last year at USC, and it was a huge hit for Sony and ended up getting nominated for a lot of the “Downloadable Game of the Year” awards and winning a bunch of them. I ended up getting a BAFTA nomination. It definitely was a career-launching experience, and it all traced back to me just randomly talking to this guy at a concert, and then the domino chain that followed.
TG: What was the other lucky thing you mentioned?
AW: That was the crazy part—a whole other story just like that happened at the same exact time. While I was still at USC I got a cold-call email from a guy [Amin Matalqa] at AFI getting his master’s in directing, looking for a composer for his master’s thesis short film (called Morning Latte, a comedy about Satan running a coffee shop). His email specifically mentioned Jerry Goldsmith, and there was just so much passion for film scoring. I got super stoked and called him up, and we ended up talking on the phone for hours. Immediately I discovered this guy was a kindred spirit like I’d never met before. We were like brothers immediately. I got the job to score his short, and while I’m scoring it he vanishes off to Jordan to make a feature film (he’s Jordanian-American, but had lived in the US since he was 13). He was the first AFI student to have a feature shot before he graduated. He’d basically gone home, founded a production company in Jordan, gotten few bankers and folks that his family knew to put up a few million dollars to make this film, and found an experienced producer in the US—and this was crazy, because Jordan had never produced a film before, ever. Things have shot there, but Jordan had no film industry and had never produced a film of its own, so he was actually making national history. The film is all in Arabic, with a local cast, financed locally, everything about it was local…except he wanted a Hollywood score because he is such that kind of guy. He couldn’t promise me anything because there were forces involved outside his control. The producer actually reached out to Gabriel Yared and sent him the script. Amin knows everything about every composer ever, and Yared is one of his all-time favorites. Yared watched a rough cut of the film and called Amin and said, “I know this is a low-budget, foreign film, so I’ll do it for a dollar. I would love to do this movie.” Amin calls me and says, “I have a problem. This Oscar-winning composer, one of my favorites of all time, has just offered to do it for a dollar. But in you I have found my Spielberg/Williams or Hitchcock/Herrmann pair. I want to work with you forever. What am I supposed to do?” I was like, “You’re supposed to hire Gabriel Yared. What’s wrong with you? I’m not going anywhere, man. I’ll be waiting for you on the next one, but you’d be stupid to pass this up.”
Ultimately Yared couldn’t score the film because of a scheduling conflict. Wintory hopped on board and wrote a poignant, orchestral score in just three weeks, recording with the Hollywood Orchestra at Warner Bros. The film, Captain Abu Raed, was accepted at Sundance where it won the Sundance Audience Award, and went on to win festival awards around the world. Both the film and Wintory’s score were shortlisted for Academy Award consideration.
AW: It was crazy. Here I was, six months out of school, and this was the first real project on my résumé—it was the first one where people ended up discovering my music on their own, because of the movie getting so far out into the world. I just had this crazy, dumb luck of being in the crosshairs of two events that happened almost exactly at the same time. In fact, I was writing the music to Captain Abu Raed when the BAFTA nomination [for flOw] showed up, and I didn’t go to London to attend the awards because I had two weeks until I’d be conducting Abu Raed.
TG: A good problem to have.
AW: Oh yeah, it was insane.
AW: Exactly. It was crazy that two things not only launched my career in two parallel ways, but in hindsight, with two really meaningful projects. [Captain Abu Raed] was a really powerful, beautiful film in which I felt tremendously emotionally invested, and flOw was so different than any kind of game—to this day people don’t know what the hell to make of flOw…including me. It’s on display at the Museum of Modern Art right now in Manhattan. And last year, at this time, they unveiled the first ever exhibit at the Smithsonian in D.C. called the Art of Games, in which flOw was also on display, and to kick off that opening they did a concert with a full orchestra—in the Smithsonian—at which they played an orchestral adaptation I had made of my music for. It’s weird music, very ambient electronic music—totally unlike my background of trying to write melodies and stuff in the model of Jerry Goldsmith. But in hindsight, the fact that something like that was what put me on notice to folks ended up being this blessing, because I felt like I was able to carve out a space for myself, and I didn’t have to fight to get there by doing like 15 generic shooters in a row or something like that. It was all luck—every aspect of it. I work really hard and all that, but I never want to make any allusion that “I fought my way here, by god!” with any sense of entitlement…I just feel crazy lucky, because I feel like it happened by the thinnest margin of circumstance.
TG: What was it like working with Frank John Hughes on Leave and The Grief Tourist?
AW: Frank John Hughes is one of the most thoughtful and talented people I’ve ever worked with. His talents as both a writer and an actor were practically blinding on Leave, especially when fused with the amazing director Bob Celestino. Leave was one of the most special (and intense) collaborations I’ve ever had. Frank and I got to work together very closely on the The Grief Tourist, and again it was pure joy. But it’s funny, because that film is easily the darkest I’ve ever worked on, touching on primal subjects like child abuse and sexual identity. But it was amazing to be a part of.
TG: You’ve done several Office-related projects—like the new game Leisure Suit Larry with Melora Hardin, A Little Help with Jenna Fischer, and working with Ed Helms for his bluegrass band. Were these connected at all?
AW: I actually met Melora at the premiere for Leave, because she and Frank John Hughes are old friends and she decided to come that night. We discovered a mutual love of big band music and made a mental note to find a chance to work together. That chance eventually came in the form of Leisure Suit Larry. A Little Help was actually totally unrelated, coming via a long history I have with its wonderful producers Joe Gressis and Dena Hysell.
TG: What’s the strangest score you’ve come up with so far?
AW: Easily It’s A Disaster, which was in theaters just a few weeks ago. I first connected with the director [Todd Berger] and producers [Jeff Grace and Kevin Brennan] after they thought they probably already had a finished film, but were not 100 percent sure. So the idea was to score the film as an exploration, to see if the movie even needed it. Very quickly my experiments got very weird, including things like using pure, eerily distant source music with no actual known source, to totally diagetic ticking clocks and almost foley-esque sound. And at the end we all watched the film and agreed it didn’t need anything. So my credit is “Music Consultant,” and there is no score in the finished film.
TG: Journey was obviously a milestone project for you. How did that one come about?
AW: It’s the same guy who made flOw. He signed a three-game deal, and Journey is the third of those games. His company [thatgamecompany] did another one in the middle—Flower—that I didn’t work on, and that came out four years ago. Jenova called me and said, “I want to make a game that’s a visual metaphor to all the core ingredients to the hero’s journey of Joseph Campbell.” I had read Hero with a Thousand Faces and loved it. He had two basic objectives in mind. One was the pursuit of the hero’s journey, and to create basically a metaphor for the human life, and create a game that explored those archetypes in a really meaningful way. The other goal was to create a multiplayer experience. He said, “I want to make it in a way that no one’s ever done before,” built around creating an emotional experience between two people that’s actually really meaningful. Jenova wants to make the world a better place through game design. In Journey it’s 100 percent anonymous, and you can’t hassle other players—he wanted to make a game that appealed to your better angels in every way he could.
TG: What kind of music did he want?
AW: The first thing he said was, “We need some kind of theme to carry you through this whole experience. Can you spend a week or two and think of a theme?” It’s the only time this has ever happened to me where, by the time I had walked to my car from that meeting, I had it. I left myself a voicemail singing it all out. Then I called a cellist and a flute player friend and said, “Can you guys meet me at the studio in an hour? I need to record this right away.” They came over and I recorded them, and then did a little bit of basic mocking up simple orchestral stuff. But it was a very lonesome, simple theme for cello. I sent it back to him that same day, and he and the guys at Sony were all like, “This seems right—let’s go with it.” That ended up being the first track on the album, “Nascence.” We later recorded the orchestra live, but that exact cello recording and flute are still what’s there, four years later. The game ended up taking three years to make—I did like 16 features in parallel during that time, so much so that it felt like the closest I would probably ever feel to being pregnant, because I thought, “I’ve forgotten what it’s like to not have this in my life.” This was literally three years of working on it, every day, and loving it the whole time, and feeling madly in love with the game. I felt these guys were making something I had dreamt about my whole life.
TG: Talk about what happened when it was finally released.
AW: When it came out the reviews started to show up, and almost all were 10 out of 10, and saying, “This is going to be the defining game of this generation.” And every single review took a ton of time to talk about the music. I was just wide-eyed staring at this thing unfolding. Then opening week of the game being on the market it broke, and therefore set, new records for fastest sales of any PlayStation game Sony had ever released (download or otherwise). It was flying off the charts. A few weeks later the soundtrack album came out, and it was on Billboard higher than any videogame score ever had been. It was just one thing after another. Suddenly I was getting letters from people—you get a lot that are like, “Hey, I just wanted to say that the music was beautiful, and congratulations,” and I get emotional when I get something like that, but those are like “basic” letters—I started to get emails that were profoundly more emotional. And they weren’t one or two, but tons, hundreds, from people that would say things like, “My sister was in a car accident, and this game and that music ended up being the thing I needed to help me through this dark moment,” and some people saying, “I’ve been suicidal and I’m bipolar, and this ended up being an experience that gave me a clarity that no medication, no therapy ever had before.” All this was way beyond what we had even fantasized about as the high mark of what he’d hoped to achieve with this game. Just like how I said before that I felt so lucky to be able to work on flOw or Captain Abu Raed, where I got to do something that felt like I wasn’t just doing a job and writing music because they need music, but I actually get to do something very expressive that feels very me—this game was that to a degree I’d never even thought of before. And then to have the response come back like this… I was like, “I need to just assume, for my own safety and any prospect of happiness for the rest of my life, that this is never happening again”—that this is crazy, dumb luck. It’s a totally surreal and inexplicable feeling.
Wintory’s newest videogame scores are: Leisure Suit Larry, a remake of one of his favorite childhood games, which he gave an infectious big band score; and Monaco, which he composed completely with silent movie -era solo piano. His latest film score is for Abu Raed director Amin Matalqa’s comedy, Strangely in Love.