Interview: Composer Dustin O’Halloran Talks About Finding the Emotional Tone in ‘The Hate U Give’

The hate U Give Algee Smith Amanda Stenberg

Dustin O’Halloran didn’t necessarily set out to become a composer of film score. But his particular style of music made him a perfect fit when directors like Sofia Coppola and Garth Davis came calling. Now, just a few short years into this chance career, O’Halloran is an Oscar nominatee for “Lion” and an Emmy winner for “Transparent.”

This year, he turned his attention to several new projects, including the UK limited series, “Save Me,” and two films, “Puzzle,” and “The Hate U Give.”

I recently had the chance to talk with Dustin about this latest film. We discussed his creative process, what he looks for in a new job, and what he loved about working with director George Tillman Jr. on “The Hate U Give.” Please enjoy our conversation.

Dustin OHalloranKaren Peterson/Awards Circuit: How are you today?

Dustin O’Halloran: I’m good. I’m just packing up my studio. (laughs)

KP: Oh, where are you headed?

DO: I’m going to Iceland for five months.

KP: For five months! Wow!

DO: Yeah.

KP: In the winter. That sounds fun.

DO: Yeah, yeah. So I’m just packing everything up. I’m leaving on Friday.

KP: Wow. Well that’s exciting. Thank you for taking a few minutes out to talk to me. First I wanted to say how much I enjoyed “The Hate U Give.” It’s a great film.

DO: Yeah, it’s been getting some really, really great response, which is nice.

KP: How did you first get involved?

DO: I was contacted by the production. I guess they had a bit of my music temped in the score. And I think that George [Tillman, Jr.] really wanted to work with somebody new. I think his idea was that the film has a very delicate balance and there’s a lot of emotionality, and I think he wanted to get away from any big Hollywood sound and try to find a way to accomplish that in a different way. And I think that my music resonated with him. He had seen “Lion,” so I went and had a meeting with him and we just got on really well and I really liked the film. I really liked what it stood for and how he was trying to tell the story. And so it was pretty serendipitous and pretty natural. We just really liked each other and gave it a go.

KP: It’s so great when things come together in just the right ways at just the right time. We’ll come back to “The Hate U Give” in just a second, but I want to back up and talk about your journey to get to this point. You got an Oscar nomination for “Lion.” That was very exciting. You’ve worked on a lot of things, “Marie Antoinette,” you’ve done some TV. How did you get into this business?

DO: I think my whole journey through film has always been pretty serendipitous in the sense that I never was pushing for it and it’s always just sort of things that are coming and things that I get excited about doing. I was living in Italy at the time, working on my own music. I had made a solo piano record. And that was the record that Sofia [Coppola] heard and she asked me to write a couple pieces of music for “Marie Antoinette.” So that was the first time I ever worked in film. And it was nice because I just did a couple pieces. It wasn’t doing a whole score. Sort of like just dipping my toe into it.

And then slowly I started working on more films, and I did a small film called “Like Crazy” with Drake Doremus and then we ended up winning the Grand Jury prize at Sundance and that…you know, it was just these things that kind of kept rolling and films that I liked that were resonating that kept coming. It’s been a a journey and I’ve always continued to do my own music. I have my own project that I do, my solo music.

And then I have another project called “The Winged Victory for the Sullen,” which actually, some of that music is used in “Lion” as well. And so it’s…Yeah, I guess I just follow where the energy is and what interests me and film has just kind of kept being challenging and interesting. So it’s been pretty busy the last few years. (laughs)

KP: Which is a good thing!

DO: Yes!

KP: When you’re looking for a new project, is there any specific thing you’re looking for? Or is it just kind of that you know it when you see it?

DO: I like when there’s something new. I don’t like repeating the same things, and I don’t like repeating the same kind of films. But, I always look for heart and I always look for filmmakers who I feel are trying to tell a story in a really honest way and that they… I don’t know. I just always try to look for something that feels very real in a way. Real emotions, things that you can dig into personally. Because I always just throw so much of myself into a film. I don’t have the emotional filter to be detached. (laughs) For better or for worse, this is sort of how I am. So I really have to kind of be all in it and get into it in some way… And then, if I get along with the director and I feel like it’s gonna be a good relationship. I also just like the idea of collaborating. When you’re getting called to try and experiment with new stuff. “The Hate U Give” is a perfect example of that. I’ve done a lot of piano string scores and “The Hate U Give” is mostly electronic in a lot of ways. It’s very atonal. There’s a lot of extended techniques with the strings. It’s a very different kind of score than anything I’ve done, so that was exciting for me to try to get to explore that.

KP: It is a pretty unique score that, I think, stands out in a lot of ways. When you first read the script or started watching some of the scenes, what were some of the things that really stood out to you? That you felt you connected with?

DO: The visceral part of the film. Obviously, I guess, we got some spoilers. We know it’s about a boy getting shot. And that scene it’s just so…it’s so…there is such a strong intensity to the scene, and Amandla [Stenberg], her acting is so good, and really pulls you in. That was one scene that I went, “Wow, this is so powerful.”

There are a lot of really powerful, intense scenes, and I think that’s what I was drawn to because it was the chance to kind of explore a more visceral side of music. I know that I’ve got the internal part. That’s something that comes very naturally to me, but to get into this kind of energy of anything can happen and this element of danger and intensity, to me, was really interesting. I think that’s what was drawing me to it.

I also thought it was so meaningful, as well. It wasn’t just like, not just a thriller. There’s so much meaning behind it. And I think that is maybe the point. I hope to work on films that are meaningful, and that will go beyond the idea of just being entertaining. That they’ll resonate with people. And I think that’s a power of cinema that can still be used.

KP: Your role as a composer is to bring out those emotional moments in a film. So I’m sure your ability to emotionally connect is essential.

DO: Yeah, I can’t really get into a film if I can’t find a way to connect with it. I’ve said no to a lot of films because of that. If I can’t connect with it, I don’t think I would do service to the film and other people would do a better job. So, for me, I try to keep that as a rule for myself.

KP: It’s a good rule to live by.

DO: Yeah.

KP: Was there a particular scene that you felt that the score flowed really easily and you knew exactly what you wanted to do?

DO: The end scene. There’s one at the end that’s a poignant moment in the film. It was one of the few pieces of music that I did early on that it stayed and never changed. I think that was… You know, certain things just resonate with you and you kind of get into it. Yeah, that has stayed the same. The end. It’s sort of the moment where you’re seeing the full effects of the film and it’s a very poignant moment. I don’t want to ruin it for anybody, but it’s… You have to see it.

KP: Definitely. Were there any scenes where you felt a little stuck? Like you weren’t sure where to go?

DO: There’s a big, dramatic ending and there’s these riot scenes and these confrontations between the crowds and the police officers. Those were ones that we took a long time to carve out and try to find the right… We needed a lot of intensity, but also we needed to understand what we’re showing. It’s not just protesters against cops. George is really particular about making sure that we were giving voice to the crowd, and giving voice to the people that were protesting. Protesters. Giving their voice the right tonality. That it wasn’t aggressive, and you know things do get out of hand. These really delicate lines that you’re navigating as a filmmaker and with music as well. Where you put the emphasis and making sure to show the struggle in the right way. And I think with this film, it was great because George was so sensitive to that and aware of that. And we worked a lot… That was probably the most challenging, because it’s about fifteen minutes of this long crowd scene that gets out of hand, and how to navigate all of that. It was pretty tricky.

KP: What was your working relationship with George? How often did you talk? How did you work together?

DO: I did the first part of the film in Berlin, in my studio here. And then I came back to Los Angeles to my studio there and worked. We did a lot of face to face. In the beginning I worked by myself and got into the film and came back to LA and delivered a bunch of music so he could see how I saw the film. And then every ten days we would get together and watch it together. He’s a bit old school in that way. He didn’t want to get on Skype, he didn’t want to get on Face Time. What I really loved about working with him is he came up to my studio quite often. I was great because he came up, and in my studio I’m very comfortable, and it was great. We just spent a lot of real time talking about things and my mom made some peach cobbler that everybody loves, so maybe that helped! (laughs)

KP: That always brings people together.

DO: (laughs) You know, some mom love. But it was great. It was nice that he was different in that way because most filmmakers are pretty comfortable just communicating through phone or through Skype even if you’re in the same city. I like that there was a lot of face time, a lot of spending time in person. I think I was a little bit nervous about it because I’m usually alone in my studio and I didn’t know if that would slow the process down or make it more complicated. But in the end it was great. I really appreciated it because he was also really enthusiastic. He loved the music and when he loved something he was so animated, and that gives you a lot of energy. It was nice.

KP: This film deals a lot with racial issues, with class issues, a lot of things. What is something you hope people will take away from “The Hate U Give?”

DO: I think what I loved about this film is that it really shows the film from so many perspectives, but it’s through the eyes of Starr. It’s all going through her journey. And I think that it shows a lot of facets of what the struggle is. And i thought it did it in a way that’s not off-putting to anybody. It’s more about understanding. And I think that, ultimately, that’s probably why the book resonated so well is that so much of conflict and so much of where our country is at in the moment is the lack of understanding, and the partisan element that’s happening now. So I feel films like this are actually… can be enlightening for a lot of people. Because I think that it’s just about understanding peoples’ perspectives and why there is so much tension in an area that is sensitive. And I think the film doesn’t exclude anybody. I think that’s important and that’s why I think that this film will be an important film. It’s because it wants everybody to watch it. It’s not exclusive for anybody. And I think that’s what I like about it.

KP: I agree. Thank you so much for that. Congratulations on the film, and thank you for taking some time to talk about it.

DO: My pleasure.

We would like to thank Dustin O’Halloran for taking time out to speak with us.

“The Hate U Give” is distributed by 20th Century Fox. It is currently in limited release and opens nationwide this Friday, October 19.

Be sure to visit our Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “The Hate U Give” ranks among the contenders!

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Written by Karen M. Peterson

Karen Peterson is a writer from Southern California. When she is not at the ballpark cheering on her LA Angels, she can usually be found in a movie theater or in front of the television. Karen is obsessed with awards shows, and loves everything from the smallest indie film to the biggest of big budget spectacles. She is also unapologetically in love with Tom Cruise.


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