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Interview: Kathryn Bostic Discusses the Music of ‘Clemency’ and ‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am’

Kathryn Bostic

Kathryn Bostic is a talented composer and singer whose work can be heard in documentary and feature films from “Dear White People” to “The Green Book: Guide to Freedom.”

She’s won awards for her compositions on “Middle of Nowhere” and this year’s “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.” Her work in 2019 also includes the film “Clemency,” an introspective and reflective story about a prison warden (Alfre Woodard) who contemplates her life and career after something goes wrong during an execution.

I had the opportunity to speak with Kathryn Bostic about her work on both “Clemency” and “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” both of which are eligible for Original Score and Original Song.

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Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: When did you first get involved with “Clemency?”

Kathryn Bostic: It’s been in the works for many years, but I got involved when I met the lead producer. We connected right away and they were still looking for funding for the film. And I just had been in contact with someone who had just reached out to me, making an inquiry about any films that I might be working on that they could look at for investment potential. And I loved the script. Bronwyn Cornelius, the lead producer, had given me the script and I just was so struck by it. It really resonated on so many levels. So I would say that’s when I started. They were still solidifying the cast. Alfre was already attached and I read the script and met the director and they got the financing and the rest is history.

KP: It’s such a powerful story. Was there anything one thing in particular that really struck you when you first read it?

KB: The inner journey of Bernadine’s character. The warden. And the trauma she was experiencing in this death row right of passage that she has to oversee and be in charge of. We don’t really ever talk about the impact of death row on all the people involved, you know? So I was struck by that. I was also struck by the topic of incarceration — whether it’s justified or not justified. Incarceration and death row sentencing, the topic is something that needs to be addressed in terms of the significance of how do you judge a human being to take his life. Whether it’s warranted or not, how do you make that judgment? That resonated with me.

KP: It is such an introspective story. The score throughout the film is very spare. Can you talk about how you decided on that? When to use it and when not to?

KB: It was definitely a process. Initially when it was edited there was no music. There was no temp music. There was no point of reference because the director really wanted that starkness. The starkness of that prison environment, the starkness of Bernadine’s ability to compartmentalize her emotional caverns of being in charge and at the same time falling apart. So it was a very delicate scoring process.

Initially, we tried many different approaches. We worked with the pacing. We worked with sound. We came up with this real industrial tone that has pulse to it, that reflects many elements. The passage of time, the passage of inner time within one’s sense of life. The heartbeat. So I wanted to create tones that had pulse to them. And I also wanted to create vocal textures that could be about the inner voice that Bernadine was experiencing. Sort of a calling to make a choice. To make choices.

So that ability, once we got those tones, it’s important for a film like this to let it breathe, to let the viewer sit inside of that starkness and that silence, and it’s challenging. We’re in a day and age where you can’t go in a restaurant without hearing a back beat. This really requires being present. I think that was the most important quality to engage in so we could really deal with the sensory aspect of the experience for Bernadine and for Anthony, the prisoner.

KP: The score really stands out in a good way when it does come in, because it takes you into the story in a different way. But in the end — without getting into spoilers — it really reaches this crescendo. Can you talk about that decision?

KB: That’s sort of the groundswell of all these different components of Bernadine’s world revealing themselves. So that’s why that crescendo is appropriate. That’s me giving an answer without giving too much information about the end. But yeah, that’s why it makes sense. Because there’s sort of this moment of reckoning. This groundswell with all these different aspects of emotion and instinct sort of having this reveal. Not sort of. Absolutely having this reveal.

I also wanted to just say that I had a lot of fun also creating a song too. I got to put on my songwriter hat.

KP: I was wondering about that song.

KB: Yeah, that song, “Slow Train,” where Bernadine is in the bar, trying to make peace with where she’s at in her life and with her marriage that’s dissolving. So that was a lot of fun to be able to put that hat on as a singer and a songwriter.

KP: Could you talk a little bit more about that, and how you both decided that was something you should do instead of picking a song that already existed?

KB: Yeah. Obviously there’s other source cues and things in there, but when I first met with Chinonye [Chukwu], she told me that she and Alfre had discussed blues songs or blues being kind of an element in the storytelling of this film. So I decided to create this song in that genre that reflects that moment where Bernadine and her husband, you know, it’s a rocky road. So the song “Slow Train,” it talks about that. It talks about where we’re at in our relationship.

KP: It’s a beautiful song.

KB: Thank you.

KP: And you sang it too?

KB: Yeah. Yes, I did. Music, for me, is an ongoing sonic buffet of delicious possibilities. So many types of genres and I love singing, I love playing piano. I love it all. I love orchestral work, I love the jazz, I love everything. It just has to touch me. And I like sharing from that place. If I’m moved, then I want to share from that place. And music is so moving, so that’s why I like so many different aspects of it.

KP: Do you have a preferred or favorite instrument?

KB: Piano is what I grew up playing forever. So I would say piano and voice is where I start. But I love all instruments. All the string instruments, in particular. But piano is my go-to.

KP: When you sit down to score, whether it’s a narrative or a documentary, do you start with the sound for that main person, or do you look more at the scope of the project?

KB: It’s a little bit of both. For me, I like creating themes for characters. It’s a good place to start. But also I like to be very organic because it’s conversational. When you’re watching footage, even if you’re beholden to temp music, you’re watching footage and you’re seeing the conversation with all these different elements, so you get to enhance that with a musical sensibility. I like to be very organic about what that means. For instance, with the “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” documentary, I had been given some insight that they liked upright bass, so that was a good place to start. But fundamentally, it’s conversation. If I look at it like that, then I don’t overthink things, which I think is really important when you’re creating. It’s really important for me to be very instinctual. Being in the moment, being present and then revisiting and revising from that point.

KP: Sometimes we can get in our own way if we try to edit as we go. I do that with writing too.

KB: Yeah, exactly. It’s typical. It can happen, absolutely.

2 Web 1997 Toni Morrison cTimothy Greenfield Sanders

KP: So how did you get involved with the “Toni Morrison” documentary? And what was it that really excited you?

KB: Well, I mean, Toni Morrison! (laughs) It’s like, the director — who’s also one of the producers — Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, and the editor, Johanna Giebelhaus, reached out to me, asking if I wanted to participate as a composer and I was like “Yeah! Of course I do!” This is a rare instance where I was given free rein to do pretty much whatever I wanted. Because once they got the initial cues, they really loved what I was doing. And it’s very rare that you have that level of trust or that level of hands off involvement.

I began to create menus of different jazz quartets and solo piano, vocal textures, string textures. We just went back and forth and sculpted accordingly, around the scenes. But yeah, that was extraordinary. And I’m pleased. It just won the Critics Choice Award as the best Biographical Documentary and the score’s been nominated for the Hollywood Music Media Awards. So I’m very excited about that project as well. And I also got to sing! (Laughs)

KP: You could be up for a few more nominations before this season is out!

KB: You know, the thing, people always ask me “How do you, how do you, how do you?” And I think you just have to show up and do what you love. Whether or not it’s recognized is secondary. Because you can feel things when you’re hearing music. So if you’re just doing it for the pure sake of really enjoying what you’re doing, I know the process can be arduous at times, but for me I love music. I love it. It’s my sanctuary. So I just think you have to show up and invest in what you love to do.

KP: What is it about scoring films and helping tell stories that you really love?

KB: I like collaborating and I love storytelling. So to be able to enhance a story with a sonic narrative, whether it’s music, sound design, whatever it is, songs, I just think that’s a fabulous ingredient because of the emotional triggering… For instance, on “Clemency,” we went back and forth about placing music. I had more music. We went back and forth and we talked about compromise, and hearing other people’s opinions, that’s exciting to me. To be able to work with a team of people who are really bringing their A game. That’s exciting.

KP: Is there anything you have wanted to do with your music that you haven’t gotten to do yet?

KB: I’m doing so many wonderful things that are film related and then independent of that. I’m also working on a record of my songs. I’m working on concert pieces. I just had a premiere of a piece with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra that I was commissioned to do called “Tovaangar: Coronation and Chaos,” my tribute piece to the planet and the reverence I have for her and recognizing she’s a living being, but then we come in with our chaos and don’t always recognize that. So I really wanted to create a piece about that, and that just premiered October 6 in Bangor.

For me, it’s kind of like going to your favorite restaurant. Some people are specific. “I want to be a film composer” and they’re that exclusively. Me? I’m a composer. I’m an artist and I like finding outlets that are going to enable to me to create in that way.

KP: Where can people find more of your work? Are you on social media? Do you have a website?

KB: I do. If people go to they can find my social media. I’m a little lame about posting stuff. (laughs) I’d rather be writing music. But, people can find my information there.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Kathryn Bostic for speaking with us.

“Clemency” is distributed by Neon and will be in theaters December 27.

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” is distributed by Magnolia Pictures and is now available digitally.

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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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