In this interview Jim Paterson speaks to the award-winning composer Shie Rozow, with a focus on his score for the documentary film "The Last of the Winthrops". Shie Rozow is based in Los Angeles. He has something in the region of 200 credits on IMDB, and is known as a media composer and also as a music editor. The documentary film "The Last of the Winthrops" was given a limited release in October 2022, and then released on streaming channels in November 2022. It tells the story of Viviane Winthrop (the movie's co-writer and co-director) and her astonishing search into her ancestry which included taking a critical DNA test. There are some major surprises on the way, and the film tells her story as it reveals unexpected details about her identity and brings about a new sense of self. The film score by Shie Rozow has also been released and is available on all major streaming and download services.
Interview held via Zoom on 7th December 2022, organised by the PR company Lumos PR.
JP: I'm very pleased to meet you, and thanks very much for agreeing to speak to me.
SR: Thanks for having me.
JP: We're mainly here to talk about your score to "The Last of the Winthrops" but just to set the scene, can you give us an overview of your career so far.
SR: After leaving school I came to LA in '97. I started off mainly in Television working on low budget shows for History Channel, Discovery, TLC, Biography - things like that. Did a few hundred of those over a couple of years, until I'd had enough.
JP: A few hundred!
SR: I did about 600 hours of TV over 2 years. And I got kind of burned out, so I quit, went freelance, bounced around for a while until I had an opportunity to be an assistant music editor on "Training Day" which was my first big Hollywood movie. And then that led to other music editing opportunities.
JP: Can you explain to me and maybe others who might be reading this interview, what exactly does a Music Editor do?
SR: A music editor can do so many different things. It could be everything from creating a temp score, which means finding existing music from other films or anywhere really, and cutting it against picture while the picture's being put together so it feels more like a real movie, because without music it would be dull.
JP: Yes, bland.
SR: To cutting any songs and making sure that they fit correctly. Trying all different kinds of songs, to working with composers to include a whole host of things from technically helping them sometimes, figuring out a tempo map so certain moments are all hit within a good tempo. It will work at this tempo, that tempo or that tempo, and then they go "OK, now I know what to do" and they decide what to use and how to write. All the way to helping them with conforms, meaning as picture changes, the scenes change, the scene length changes and things need to be shortened or lengthened. So sometimes it is literally cutting the audio that's already been recorded and making it fit. Some composers do that before they record. They might have written something to an early version, and there's been a few changes before it's time to record, so they might say "hey, I want to update everything before we record" and then I'll figure out and say "well, if bar 22 cuts 3 and a half beats and bar 47 needs added a beat and a half, and good luck!". And then you're there at the recording sessions, to make sure everything that needs to be recorded is recorded. You're essentially like a project manager. It's your job to make sure that nothing gets missed, that everything gets done as needed. And then you're the person who coordinates with the mixers. You get the mixes and make sure you have the stems that you need. If at any point the director had said "Hey, make sure that the kazoo is on its own track, because I'm not sure if I'm going to want to use it" you're the one who makes sure that the mixer knows that the kazoo needs to be on its own track.
JP: It sounds like a very flexible role.
SR: Yeh, and then you're on the dub stage which is the final mix, and you're offering your opinions on whether the music should be louder, softer, sneak in more, or be more agressive, whatever. And sometimes changes come up, either the picture has changed, or now the director is seeing everything in context with sound, or if it's a visual effects heavy movie, suddenly with the visual effects you know that "Suddenly the music isn't quite working for me any more. What else can we do?" Or sometimes it's like "Ooh, I never realised this before, but this moment really fights with that sounds that's happening on the screen. Is there any way we can make some sort of adjustment so that they don't fight each other?" Things like that.
JP: It must give you very broad overview of the whole end-to-end process of thinking about music.
SR: It does. I think it makes me a better composer, and I think being a composer makes me be a better music editor.
JP: I must say you've got a really impressive list of film credits.
SR: Thank you, I've been very fortunate so far.
JP: I'm sure that must stand you in good stead. So, did you see the role of film editor as a kind of stepping stone to media composer, or just another string to your bow?
SR: It happened. I never came out here to pursue music editing. Honestly until I went to film music school (I did the film scoring programme at Berklee College of Music) I didn't even know that there was such a thing as Music Editor. Music Editing 101 was a required class. And I thought "Oh, this is kind of interesting" and they were still teaching us how to cut mag on a moviola. I learned analogue and Pro Tools at the same time. And I thought this is kind of fun, and I took Music Editing 102 and I think (I can't remember if there was a 3rd class available or not) but if there was I took that as well. And that was it, and I thought this would be helpful as a composer. I never pursued editing, it just happened you know early in your career, and somebody says "Would you like to go bag groceries at a supermarket or would you like to be an assistant music editor on a big film" so music editing was a lot closer to what I want to do.
JP: You've got to grab the opportunity, haven't you.
SR: Exactly, and at least I'm in that world, and that's kind of how the music editing happened, and it's easy when you have some success in something, and people keep calling you and they're willing to pay you and sometimes pay you very nicely it's very easy to say "yes thank you". And I never stopped composing but it just happened and life happens, and you have a wife and kids and a mortgage and you have bills to pay. I can't really afford to live on short films and hope any more, so you keep doing it while trying to find composing opportunities at the same time that you can somehow balance.
JP: So you mentioned shorts there, and I get the impression that a lot of your composing experience was documentary type projects perhaps, so how did you come to score "The Last of the Winthrops"? How did that come about?
SR: I got an email from the Producer Adam Singer who got my name from a mutual friend, the producer Katherine LeBlond who I worked with on another documentary of all things, Amy Berg's "Janis: Little Girl Blue". It was a music documentary on Janis Joplin. She'd known me for years, she knows that I also composed, she knew they were looking for a composer so she suggested me. It's a business of relationships, it's all about building and maintaining relationships. People recommend and filmmakers have filmmaker friends, they hear when their friends are looking for somebody. I think in the last... I don't know... 15 years or so, or maybe longer, I think every single job I have ever gotten was because somebody either personally knows me or through a friend of a friend kind of situation. Somebody was looking and a friend said "Oh!...".
JP: I can imagine, it's all about networking isn't it?
SR: It's been 100% that. So yeh, that's how it happened, I just got a call because a friend called a friend of mine.
JP: So how did the initial discussions go? What were the key elements of the brief?
SR: Well, he told me about the film. He said they're early in the cut, and they're trying to very quickly - they were hoping to finish it I think in like in 2.5 or 3 months, to try and get it into (if I remember correctly) it was the Toronto Film Festival back then. Could I start right away and they're kind of in a rush. And I said "Can I see it?" and he said "I'll send you a work-in-progress, but you have to understand it's very rough". I said "OK, well let me see it, and see if I like it, if I get it, if it speaks to me because if it doesn't speak to me then I'm not going to be able to do a particularly good job. So I always want to see is this something that I get." Do you know what I mean? And I was hooked within the first 5 minutes, I called him back and said "I'm 5 minutes in and I can tell you yes, I'd love to do it." And the next thing is we are having a conversation with Viviane who is both the director and the subject of the film, and we hit it off. She liked me, she liked other music of mine that she found. So we talked about how to approach the music for the film and what she wanted. And one thing she said is she doesn't want it to sound like a typical documentary. She wants it to sound more cinematic. To me it is such a gift, as often in documentaries the music can be very interesting, but often more subdued, or more background.
JP: By cinematic do you mean emotional music?
SR: Yes, she wanted it to be emotional and thematic, and she wanted it to have moments that are really big and orchestral and sweeping. There are a lot of really beautiful drone shots and other things that are just breathtakingly beautiful shots, and she wasn't afraid to have these moments where you just see this breathtaking shot and the voiceover stops and it's just images and music for 10/15 seconds and to just have a moment, and experience which is you know, it's kind of like "Out of Africa" or something you know, or "Dances with Wolves" - not taking it quite as far, not quite on the same level, but the idea of having these moments is something more of a narrative film style than a typical documentary style.
JP: So telling the story with real engagement.
SR: I mean even the idea of coming up with themes, which in documentaries can have themes or things that can connect the score, but in films it's very common to have character themes, so you know the xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx has his theme. You know what I mean? In documentaries it's usually more about the subject or a mood, and that mood will recur but it's less... It's not done in the same way that typically a narrative film will be done. It's a lot more thematic and here we have a Winthrop theme, we have the family's last mother theme. She discovers she has this whole other side to her family that she never knew about. They have a theme. There's her biological father who's gone, and by the time she knows about him he's already passed away. There's even a subtle motif for him. So throughout the film, the music actually hints at things without you knowing it as the audience. When you talk about for example her biological father for the first time this little theme comes up, this little motif, just a 4-note motif, and then it comes back later when you talk about him more directly. There's things like that, that connect the story a lot more like a typical narrative film than a typical documentary.
JP: So you mentioned that Viviane was both the subject and the director of the film. Did that increase the pressure at all, the fact that this is about her. It's very personal thing, isn't it?
SR: Yeh. You always want to be sensitive, especially with a documentary where you're talking about real people, whether you're working with these people or not, but you do want to be very cognizant. That you're not talking to some person who's talking about somebody else that they learned about. This is her life, and the emotion that we're talking about - the things that she goes through in the documentary - those are all emotions, and pains and joys and surprises and the drama. This all happened to her, not to some other person she's talking about. So when you talk about it, you want to make sure that you...
JP: Trying to capture her feelings I guess.
SR: But you want to be very gentle and careful and respectful, maybe more so than you would be with a third party, you know what I mean. Because we're not talking about that other person and you're talking about their feelings, - we're talking about YOUR feelings, and touching on things that matter to you personally, and it's extremely personal to her obviously.
JP: I was reading the brief from the PR group, and the thing that jumped out at me was a kind of bullet point that said you had to rewrite the score in four weeks. Now you mentioned a period of time to get it ready for the Toronto Film Festival. So what was it that you got so far that you decided to throw that away and rewrite it.
SR: What happened was she decided the film wouldn't be ready in time for Toronto, it need more work and she decided to throw away that deadline, and she's like "We'll keep working on the movie until it's ready and we'll stayed in touch." It literally more of less went away for months. I had more or less nothing to do waiting and like 2/3 months later I get a call and she goes "OK, so we've booked SkyWalker Ranch for mixing in four weeks and I'm going to send you a new cut of the film." I said "OK great, I'll update everything and get it recorded" and off we go. That's going to be a lot to do in just 4 weeks but fine, no problem. And then I get the cut, and it's a completely different movie. I mean stylistically. She hired this executive Producer that came in and helped. He really reworked the story, so now there are things in the story that never existed in the previous cut, there were things that were removed or changed. Things that became more of an emphasis that were secondary before, were suddenly now front and centre and vice-versa, to the extent that it wasn't about updating things to fit the picture again. It literally meant re-writing and re-working the music.
So there were some cues where it was just making it fit again. I had when I initially wrote it, there was a cue when her uncle was talking about going through World War II and what the family went through. Originally it was a seven and a half minute scene and it went down by about 2 minutes. Well, when you cut down a cue by 2 minutes, it's not just I'll trim a few seconds here and trim a few seconds there. You have to recreate the cue and figure out how is this now going to work in so much less time. It's not something you can do editorially you know. It's a complete rewrite. The shape and pacing, imagine taking something from 7 minutes to 5 minutes, the pacing's completely different and so suddenly I have to change the tempos and then re-adjust everything and so it literally required re-writing almost every single cue in the movie. There are a few that I was able to just conform, but most of it was just re-writing, or places where this theme no longer makes sense here because we no longer talk about that thing that you used to mention - things like that. And now we're talking about this here and now I need to weave in that theme that never existed before
JP: You talked there about historical events, such as the War there. How did you approach the historical aspects of this?
SR: She traced her family back to I think it's the 1400s or something. And you know one of her great ancestors is John Winthrop who came to America in the 1600s and he helped found Massachusetts the Colony, was one of the first governors of it, so these were the people who helped to create the United States before there was a United States. So the history goes back a long time. And one of the things we talked about was her wanting a very cinematic score, she wanted it to be a very modern sounding score, but we did want to somehow have a sense of history. So I thought about instrumentation. Maybe I can bring in some old instruments of the periods.
JP: So this is the Viola da Gamba and Recorder.
SR: So that's when I thought about the Viola da Gamba and the Baroque Cello. I know somebody that plays both, and actually the very first thing I wrote, I wrote it not to picture but I came up with what we called the Winthrop Theme, which is mostly piano-driven and very modern sounding compositionally. But I incorporated the Viola da Gamba within the textures and sounds within the piece. I did a version with Viola Da Gamba, I did a version with Baroque Cello. She absolutely loved the Viola da Gamba, so that's what we used. So in key moments when we're talking about older history, the heritage going back, I really used that colour within the composition. The writing doesn't sound Baroque at all. The writing is very modern, I used the instrument as a colour to taste.
JP: Yes, a sort-of subtle layer
SR: Yeh, and I did the same, I brought in a couple of recorders in a couple of places.
JP: I saw a mention of a Cedar Wood Flute. How did that come about?
SR: Well, the family moved to Sedona, Arizona and she wanted some sort of colour for that and to somehow acknowledge that. And there's a lot of history involving Native Americans in that area, and so I thought maybe the Native American Cedar Wood Flute would give a bit of that colour. Then again, I wasn't trying to write something that sounded Native American, I was trying to write something that sounds like a modern film score, but I thought instead of playing it on the strings or on a regular flute, let's bring in that Cedar Flute. And it gives you that colour and that taste.
JP: Yes, you certainly notice it on the score. It does come through as a different character.
SR: So that's how those things came about. I'm finding ways to hint at it, without being too blatantly obvious. You feel it more than you notice it.
JP: So was it Viviane's grandmother that had written something that you incorporated? And why did she write it? Was it a song?
SR: Her grandmother was a pianist, as was her mother. And she at some point while doing this deep diving into her family history, she found these reel-to-reel tapes and there was this recording of her grandmother playing this original piano piece that she had written. I think it was like a gift for somebody's Wedding, or something like that if I remember correctly, I'm not sure. And she just sent it to me "Hey, check out this theme that I found. Isn't this amazing. My grandmother wrote this piece. It's an original piece that she wrote as a gift for somebody. Isn't it cool?". And that's all it was, check it out, it's just cool, she's just sharing stuff. And the recording was terrible, it was bad quality from you know 50 years ago. And I thought, well wouldn't it be nice if I could transcribe it and record it and give her a nice rendition of it. I have a friend called Robert Thies who played all the pianos on this. He is an incredible studio musician, for studio and concert renditions he was just phenomenal. I asked him if he would do me the favour of transcribing it, because I was busy writing. And he did, and so we made the sheet music, and he recorded it at home, and I sent it to her.
And she was so touched, and amazed. She was like "On my god, that is such a gift. It's amazing what came out of this movie, and now I have this thing." And she was in tears, and I thought "Oh, well maybe I can interpolate this and somehow incorporate it as a theme." And I thought it did need a family theme for when we're talking about her mother and her mother's side of things, and growing up. We're not talking about the Winthrop heritage, but just the personal family unit. That needed a theme and so I basically took that melody, that piece, and I completely reworked it. But I took the general shape, but I reharmonised it. The piece was in 4/4, I changed it to 6/8, it got significantly changed, but the core of it is from that original piece and it became a thing in the movie, that connects to her childhood with her mother.
JP: It's really neat that you could do that.
SR: I think it's kind of cool. I mean I know it made it feel so much more personal for her, and it was very touching for her to have that because now, some version some iteration or evolution of what was her granmother's original piece now lives on. Not in a lost tape, it lives on in this film for ever and ever for audiences to see and hear. So it became the inspiration for one of the themes.
JP: Thanks very much for sharing that, and I just want to touch upon some of your other projects, Shie. I heard there's a book in the pipeline. It's "A Filmmaker's Guide to using Music in Visual Media". So who's it targeted at?
SR: Primarily filmmakers aspiring and new filmmakers, you know film students, picture editors, producers, anybody who wants to be part of telling a story in visual media. Because using music obviously is such a huge part of telling the story, and it's not something that they spend a lot of time on in Film Schools. They spend a lot of time on cameras, and shots, and everything visual. They don't spend as much time on sound or music. And I've worked with a lot of first time directors or younger directors. I love working with new directors because there's fresh eyes and there's this enthusiasm that's different from somebody who's doing their 30th movie you know, which is wonderful working with people who really know what they're doing. But there's something exciting about these people who are kind of figuring it out as they go along because it's their first or second time. But I realise a lot of them struggle with music. And a lot of them tell me flat out. "I don't know how to speak music. I don't know what to do with the music." They tell you flat out that they're intimidated by it. And so I thought, perhaps there's an opportunity to write a book abou film scoring but focus it on these people to give them "Here's what music can do for you, and how you can use music to tell your story your way." I'm sure it will benefit other composers as well, anybody who's interested in film music but the primary target is filmmakers.
JP: It's a great idea because I've heard that comment so many times from composers and others, that the directors don't have the vocabulary or they think they don't have the vocabulary to speak to composers.
SR: Well, one of the things that I talk in the book is that you don't need a musical vocabulary. It's our job as musicians, as composers or even when you're the music editor, it's our job to translate what you're saying into music. It's not your job to tell us how to do that. So talk to us about drama, about emotions, about story, about colours. I once worked with a director and everything was colours to him. He listened to something and he said things like "This feels more like blue plastic, and I need it to be like metallic chrome." OK, great. Now it was my job to figure out what that means musically. I try to encouraged filmmakers not to speak music, but speak like that. Speak to us like you would to an actor, and it's our job to get the musical performance out of it. That's what the book's essentially about. And then it also gives them an overview of the process, who's who, what's the music editor, what's the music supervisor, the basics of licensing. A little bit of how to work with your music team, how to find a composer, you know things like that. And the book's actually practically done. A friend of mine suggested that I add what we're calling these sort of case studies, where I've reached out to various people, some of my own friends, some other people's films and experiences, to get a real inside look of what it was like to work on a particular project, going from short films all the way to bigger films. I'm trying to find someone who's working on a TV Series for that. And then those are turning into short chapters, to give an inside view of actual real projects and how they went.
JP: It sounds like there's a real need for a book like that.
SR: So as soon as I'm done with those, the book's off to final copy edit and proof-reading. So it will come out sometime next year.
JP: I'll look out for it. Any other upcoming projects you want to mention? Or that you can mention?
SR: Well there's a few that I can't mention yet. I'm working on a Disney project, I'm working on a big video game, an animated series for Netflix, and another big animated feature film, none of which I can currently mention names. All stuff that will come out from mid to late next year. The one film I do have coming out next month is "Shotgun Wedding" where I worked again as music editor, I was a sort of music consultant, score producer type, not really the music editor but helping Pinar out with her side of things for "Shotgun Wedding" which is a new Jennifer Lopez rom-com. It's going to come out next month on Amazon Prime. So lots of things in the works.
JP: Well before we get cut off, I just want to say it's been great to talking to you. Thanks very much, it's been a really great discussion about your career and in particular this score for "The Last of the Winthrops". So thanks again for your time and sharing all those experiences, and I wish you all the best for all of those future projects which you mentioned.
SR: Thank you. Thanks for having me, I really appreciate it.
JP: It was my pleasure.
Shie Rozow's official website is at shierozow.com and the movie's website is at thelastofthewinthrops.com. The filmscore is available on all major audio streaming sites - chose from the sites listed here: Streaming options for Shie Rozow's score to "The Last of the Winthrops".