Interview: Composer Kathryn Bostic Discusses ‘The Green Book: Guide to Freedom’ and ‘Clemency’

Kathryn Bostic has been composing scores for film and television for nearly twenty years. Most of her work has been in documentary films, including “Promised Land” and “Little White Lie.” She also works in narrative features where her credits include “Beyond the Ring” and “Dear White People.”

This year, she has three major projects. “Clemency” is a narrative film that stars Alfre Woodard and will be released later in 2019. “The Green Book: Guide to Freedom” is a TV documentary released on the Smithsonian Channel earlier this month. The third is the documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” which also premiered at Sundance.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Kathryn about her work on these projects, her thoughts about the industry, and what music composition means to her.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: I’m so excited to talk to you. You’ve got a big year this year. You worked on “Clemency,” and “The Green Book: Guide to Freedom.” I think I said the whole title correctly. And then “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.”

Kathryn Bostic: Yes.

KP: Where should we start? I guess let’s start with “The Green Book,” since that just hit the Smithsonian Channel. How did you get involved with that?

KB: I’ve worked with the director, Yoruba Richen, on several of her films and she asked me to come on board as the composer for this film.

KP: And what did you know about “The Green Book” before you signed onto it?

KB: It’s a very big component of African American life in this country. It was put together for over thirty years as a means for blacks to travel with some degree of safety throughout the country at a time when Jim Crow and segregation were at their highest. So I’ve always known about it and appreciate that this conversation that’s going now is now providing a way for an awareness of The Green Book and what its impact was historically.

KP: And awareness has really been lacking. I had never heard of it until this last year, and I was just stunned that I had never heard of it before. 

KB: So much of our history has been sanitized to a particular trajectory and a particular way of wanting to tell the narrative of this country. The beauty of this country is that it’s a mosaic of so many different cultures and races and we have to be able to be transparent about every aspect of that, from the most atrocious to the most redeeming. You know? We have to be able to want to tell these stories because that’s how we’ve arrived at where we are now.

KP: When you sat down with Yoruba [Richen] to work on this, and to decide the direction for the score, what were some of those conversations you had?

KB: We talked a lot about wanting to have the music at times reflect the region of what we were talking about. For instance, some of the steel guitar and some of the more Southern flavored aspects of that time. She wanted to have music that referenced the character of the region, and then sometimes she wanted to have music that was going to reference the social aspect of what was going on. Whether it was the parties and social gatherings in Idylwood. So it was a wide range from the jazz to the more simplistic kind of single guitar threads that she wanted to have for that regional texture. And also, just general underscoring that wouldn’t necessarily have specificity, but would help to move the film with a certain kind of energy.

KP: It really does feel like you strike such a good balance, tonally. When things are a little more upbeat, you get that sense, and when it starts to go into more serious topics, the score moves really well from one tone to another. How do you work through that as you’re writing it?

KB: The footage is very informative. It really gives me an idea of the emotional intent of what i need to express musically, and I think that’s what a good score does. If you’re able to have this connection of what’s resonating emotionally and then translate that musically, I think that’s very important.

KP: Was there some aspect of the film that particularly resonated with you?

KB: I was very keen on the way the film reflects not just the obvious struggle and social and racial injustice, but also shows how the African American community galvanized through business sensibilities and that there were these successful businesses that thrived and helped to provide safe haven for the African American community. Not just while traveling, but also as a way of uplifting the community. For instance, Idylwood became this haven for blacks socially and economically. There was just a lot of majesty in that way of telling our story. The success aspect, politically and on a business level. And also the amount of African American women who were a part of that success is something that really struck me and really resonated with me. Because, again, we’re not told that aspect of our narrative and it’s not something that is highlighted the way it should be.

KP: We know all the statistics, out of Hollywood at least, about the lack of inclusion. For you, as a woman who composes for film and television, that’s something that we don’t see enough of. What has your experience been, working in the industry?

KB: There’s an absolute imbalance in who gets hired. There definitely needs to be more of an equal playing field, both gender and racial, in terms of who’s hired. However I don’t dismiss those things, but I also just focus on the work itself. That, for me, is the most important aspect of what I do. Not only do I have passion about my work as a composer, I love storytelling through music and I love the collaborative process. So in that way, I’m able to, by example, begin to be part of effective change.

And also, through the work, you do the best that you do and you get more possibilities and more opportunities. I don’t feel like I have to try any harder because I already have very high standards for myself. So I really think the moment you start surrendering your sense of self or your personal power to a construct of not feeling included – I’m not saying this doesn’t absolutely rear it’s ugly head – but I don’t focus on that, I focus on being the best that I can be. I focus on my autonomy, and I focus on my authenticity and I think that’s what enabled me to have the kind of career that I have. That’s the place I try to work from and write music from and live from.

KP: How did you first get into film composition? When did that start for you?

KB: I’ve always written music. At a very early age, I was always at the piano. My mother was a pianist and a composer herself. She used to teach piano in our house, so I was always around a lot of music and my brother would come home with a lot of different types of music to listen to. So I always was fascinated by how music made me feel. That, in turn, made me want to create my own storytelling in music. I remember some of the first songs I wrote as a little girl and some of the first pieces that I would write and then my mom would make me play them for the neighbors. She would say, “Oh, play your piano for the neighbors!”

So I would always have my own take on creativity that way, and that began to then lead to writing for theater. Not necessarily musicals, but just underscoring regional theater and also on Broadway. I worked with August Wilson, which was phenomenal. That collaboration, he didn’t say much. He just gave me a few elements of his intention. What he was looking for on a very basic, visceral level. And he really wanted me to capture that. That was very helpful in informing me what’s important in composing. What is the essence of what it is you’re trying to say.

So then from there, I went to film scoring and started working on some documentaries and also got the Sundance fellowship for the narrative feature scoring. That’s really when I knew this was something I wanted to do.

KP: I know a lot of your work has been in documentaries. What is it about documentary filmmaking that draws you in? Why do you like to work in that medium?

KB: I like all mediums. The documentary community is one that I’ve been invited to be part of because I also appreciate that there’s so much real life story and issues that need to be conveyed publicly. So, to write for documentaries, you’re talking about these issues that are quite, not only engaging, but informative. I also like writing for narrative features and comedy. I don’t like one over the other. I just feel that for the most part, that’s where most of my work comes from, but that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy writing in other genres, because I do.


KP: And you have a big narrative film coming out later this year, which is “Clemency.” That premiered at Sundance. Can you talk a little about how you got involved with this film?

KB: I had been speaking with the lead producer, Bronwyn Cornelius. She gave me the script, which upon reading it really just struck me. It’s such a powerful story that’s not often told from that viewpoint of the warden of this prison and what she – Alfre Woodard plays the warden – and it’s about what she goes through with this day to day mandate of dealing with death row inmates and solitary confinement and things of that nature and that impact on her.

So I just thought the script was really powerful and compelling and I really believed in it and began to investigate how I could help get it off the ground and help secure some financing for it as well as wanting to be part of it as a composer. And Bronwyn introduced me to the director, Chinonye [Chukwu] and we began a very in depth conversation about the music and the importance of silence and the importance of the score to reflect this very stark and inhumane world of the prison. It took us a while to get to the textures of the score, but once we got there, it was very, very powerful and it worked really well.

KP: What was the process like for you? 

KB: I have to say, this film was challenging because when it was in edit mode and finalized, there was no music at all. There was no sonic point of reference of what the score would be like. And it was a lot of trial and error because it’s got such a respect for the tone of silence. That deadening and deafening tonality of prison. Now you’re hearing the actual sound of the prisoners’ voices and their day to day regimen and what that environment is like. So it was very important that whatever the score was going to be wouldn’t detract or distract from that. From the coldness of that.

There was a lot of trying different textures, different instruments, and being mindful of where to place the music without it obstructing the emotional unavailability of this process. It was very, very challenging in terms of finding the sound. Where you put the music in, where you do not have the music. In that regard, it was a very specific and yet trial-by-error collaboration. But we got there and I’m very happy with the score and I got to put in one of my songs. I wrote a song called “Slow Train,” and one of the source cues while the character Bernadine is in the bar. I’m also a singer/songwriter and that was something that was lovely to also include.

KP: When a film is finished and you get to sit and watch it and there’s no changing anything, are you able to enjoy it? Or do you notice things you wish you had done differently?

KB: Yeah, that’s a good question because there’s always a part of me that’s listening and yes, analyzing, “Oh, I should have done this” and “Why is that there?” and “Oh, that’s the way that sounds!” There’s something about, even if you have a lot of time between finishing the film and seeing it, whether it’s at a festival or a theater, even with the amount of time that’s gone by, for me I’m still looking at it with this sort of cold eye, what I might change. But for the most part, I do enjoy it. I enjoy watching with other people and seeing and hearing their reaction and it’s very refreshing.

KP: Seems like it must be a pretty gratifying experience.

KB: Yeah, it is.

KP: What is something you’ve learned through these projects that you feel has helped you grow as a composer?

KB: I think all of these projects, it’s about collaboration. For instance, with the Toni Morrison documentary, “The Pieces I Am,” it was collaborating with a director and editor who embraced a lot of what I came to the table with as an artist and composer. Each project is different and with that particular project, that collaboration was very open in terms of what I would present in our initial pass. I would give them cues and music and it would resonate with them and that would be part of the storytelling.

Some films you have to do many, many versions before you get to that sweet spot. So it’s really about collaboration. And with the Toni Morrison documentary, they also asked me to create the end title song, “High Above the Water.” So that was a nice way of also putting in a vocal element that I like to do from time to time. If it’s needed and if it’s requested.

But I’d say the most important thing in all of these three films is just always being aware of the collaborative process, and knowing each project is different, and being open and available to that process.

We would like to thank Kathyrn Bostic for taking time to talk about her work.

“The Green Book: Guide to Freedom” is now available on The Smithsonian Channel and Vudu.