Matt Morton didn’t set out to be a musician. But music found him anyway. Morton went to college to study law, but wound up forming a rock band that lasted nine years and took him all over the country and gave him the opportunity to meet a lot of new people.
Eventually, he left the band and followed opportunities to compose for film and television. One of his most recent projects was last year’s documentary, “Apollo 11.” The film, directed by Todd Douglas Miller, uses archival footage and music to tell the story of the first moon landing.
The documentary from Neon and CNN Films was a hit with critics groups and earned a BAFTA nomination. It is now in contention for Primetime Emmy awards. We recently spoke with Morton about his work on the film and how he created a score worthy of one of history’s greatest achievements.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: We’ll get more specifically into “Apollo 11” in a minute, but what do you love about film scoring?
Matt Morton: Music in film has an incredible license in power that’s not afforded to the rest of the filmmakers. I mean, our bullshit detector goes off way early with any kind of fake CGI, or when you can see a character either not acting well or telling you a lie or if something is off visually. We’re so quick to be alerted to it. But with music, you know, it’s unnatural. And its role is to manipulate your emotions and we let it. You could take the same scene and put 500 different types of music underneath it and you would feel different every time. That’s definitely a huge thing that I’m interested in.
It’s such a powerful part of the storytelling that most people don’t realize it’s there. They don’t think about it. We’ve just grown up watching TV and movies. You get farther before you start to realize that you’re being manipulated. That sounds like such a dark way to think of it, but it just has the power to say things and make you feel things that would be so much harder to do visually through dialogue or, you know, screen writing, or any of the other devices that filmmakers use to tell story.
KP: How did you use that idea to craft the score for “Apollo 11?”
MM: We watch the documentaries about the space program and we know which missions were successful and which ones weren’t. And so the suspense is sort of taken out of it. The films about space, you know, it’s escape, it’s travel, it kind of takes for granted that they make it out. And so maybe what they’re trying to communicate is ‘Yay, America, we beat the Russians!’ or ‘Look at the beauty of this rocket taking off in super slow motion and look at look at us humans.’
Whereas I was like, first off, so many amazing composers have had a swing on it in the last 50 years. Am I going to carve out a unique voice for it? So there’s that side. And then the other side of the challenge is how do you put this into music? Probably one of the most significant evolutionary steps, not just of human time but of life on Earth. I wanted you to feel what they were feeling in the moment. We jokingly said we wanted it to be ‘Dunkirk’ in space. We don’t want you to feel safe.
There were people in the firing room the day that Apollo 11 took off who said that they could literally smell fear, because everyone just didn’t want to be the reason why they either didn’t get to launch or something happened and they died or something like that. You know, this is a six and a half million pound rocket; basically a modified missile. It’s 36 stories tall and every bit of it is built by the lowest bidder. You know, in a game that’s terrifying.
I mean, it’s like right up there with the first time that a fish walked on land. I mean, the first time that life evolved to the point where it had the technological prowess to be able to go to leave Earth or go to a different heavenly body, land on it, come back, not die. It’s just astounding.
So part of it was just that imposter syndrome or that I’m not worthy. Like, how am I gonna make this work? So I kind of took the angle that I was trying to put my self in that situation and that’s where the the ominous music throughout the film comes from. It’s just trying to make people realize how dangerous it was, how on the edge of our technological capabilities it was. And also just what a big deal it was. I mean, I really don’t think people understand who are my age or younger.
KP: What were some of your impressions as you got to see the archival footage for the film?
MM: And as a composer, we often don’t get in on the project until the last couple of months or so. But on this one, and really with anything that Todd [Douglas Miller] and I do, I like to think that the quality of our work comes from just working slow, letting the ideas kind of cook. It’s almost like a good chili or a good stew that just, you know, all of the ingredients have time to kind of mix and become, you know, greater than the sum of the parts.
One of the cool things is that we got to do a couple of test screenings. When we got some of the early footage and we’d put together maybe the first 20 minutes of the film, we would take down to the National Air and Space Museum in DC. They have a really nice IMAX theater. Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong’s sons, Rick and Mark, came to the screening because we kept wanting to make sure that the launch sounded like it felt.
And one of the things I was taught as I learned more and more about Armstrong — we always get the kind of stoic, ‘just the facts, ma’am,’ you know? Kind of like what came across in “First Man,” very serious. But I was reading this stuff and studying, learning more about Neil and so when I was talking to Rick and Mark I was like, ‘Your dad was funny.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, he was really like a little goof, man.’ And it comes across in all of this audio that we got. I mean, we got like 1000 hours of audio from the mission. Not just onboard stuff. All the stations and Mission Control and all the people in the back room, the support staff for the mission. You hear their banter back and forth. I think that’s one of the coolest and most fun things about the film is just to get to know all of the guys as real people and see that. See how much fun they had, even in the midst of like, so much stress and so much workload and all that kind of stuff.
KP: What were some of your favorite moments in getting to work on “Apollo 11?”
MM: I was very inspired by the collection at the National Air Museum. A lot of people don’t know, but Michael Collins was actually the first director of that museum. So it was kind of cool to be there with him. It was so weird when our cars like dropped us off in front because we had to go early in the morning before the doors to the museum opened so that we could do the test screenings without the public around. And so we get dropped off and we’re waiting for the other cars to drop other people off. And I’m standing there looking at Michael Collins and behind him is like a 30 foot picture of the three Apollo astronauts laid on the side of the building. I’m like, this is just surreal. It’s like a walking Wikipedia page.
KP: What would you say in your graduation speech?
MM: You have to aim for something. But then what they don’t tell you is, so many people have this idea of who they want to be or where they want to go. They want to be famous or they want to be rich or whatever. And that’s just a terrible look at it. You need to look at what you’d like to do. Who you are should be a verb and not a noun.
You also need to stay open to adjustments given new data. I went to college for pre-law because my dad’s an attorney. Now it did not take long to realize that’s not what was gonna be my best or most enjoyable path. So then I start a rock band and start to realize, wow, there’s a power in this and it really makes me happy and it makes other people happy and I can actually maybe make a living at this.
So then you get a little more brave. Each different level of that is different and you’re like, Okay, dude, you got to constantly reevaluate, do I like it? Do I not? A lot of people, if they’re brave enough to roll the dice on something risky like this, being an artist or musician, I almost discourage people, unless they really, really have to. Or they really mean it. Because it’s not the easiest.
But even within that, there’s so many different ways you can go, and you just have to keep listening to yourself. Am I happy? You know, am I enjoying this? And what am I working towards? And will I be happy if that dream comes true? And if it’s done, if you won’t be happy, you need to change course.
But I think there’s there’s power in doing, in trying, and most people don’t even get that far. Most people are like, ‘Oh, I love playing guitar, but I don’t know anyone who’s ever made money at being an artist,’ or ‘I’m just too scared or I’ve already got two kids.’ And it’s, you know, I don’t have any business gambling with their life or, you know, whatever it is, but then the people that are brave enough to try it, they might realize they don’t like it and then just be scared and run away. But that trying might give you more information. I never could have predicted what I’m doing but I couldn’t be happier. Because it’s all based on just trying to trying to figure out who I am.