Think Out Loud

Portland-based composer reflects on scoring ‘The Holdovers’ and other films

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Nov. 7, 2023 6:17 p.m. Updated: Nov. 13, 2023 10:44 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Nov. 7

Mark Orton, seen in this provided photo, composed the score for the new movie, "The Holdovers."

Mark Orton, seen in this provided photo, composed the score for the new movie, "The Holdovers."

courtesy of Mark Orton


The Hollywood Theatre will host a screening of the new movie, “The Holdovers,” on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with a live ensemble performance from the Portland-based composer of the film. We hear more from composer Mark Orton about the score and his work creating music for other films.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller:  This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with a composer and multi instrumentalist, Mark Orton. The Portlander has contributed music to more than 60 feature films, many more than that actually. His latest is “The Holdovers” by Alexander Payne, who previously directed “Sideways,” “The Descendants” and “Nebraska.” The soundtrack was recorded in Portland and features a whole bunch of Portland-based musicians. Mark Orton is going to be performing some of the songs from the score with an ensemble before a screening of the movie at the Hollywood Theater this Saturday. And he joins us now along with a ton of instruments. It’s great to have you here.

Mark Orton:  Thanks for having me in.

Miller:  What was your starting point for this movie? At what point were you brought in?

Orton:  On the early side as composing gigs go. I’d had a working relationship with him because I scored his future film, “Nebraska” previously. So he had me in mind for this one early on and he actually came up, he loves Portland. This is Alexander Payne. He actually came up for something like a week and we spent time, not even with picture yet. So he was still working on the edit of the film. There was a script and I’d read it. But we spent a week basically listening to music of the early ‘70s. It was really important that what I did either reflected the time period or at least didn’t betray it.

Miller:  So I should say, the movie takes place in the winter holidays around Christmas 1970 at a fancy private boys boarding school in New England. And it focuses on a handful of kids and two adults, basically, who are forced to stay at the school when it’s closed. And everybody else is having fun with their families and they’re the holdovers. They’re the ones who are stuck. So you and Alexander Payne, you would just listen to records from the ‘70s or late ‘60s for days?

OrtonYes and actual records. So we were listening to things like Carol King. We were listening to Cat Stevens. We were talking about what of that early ‘70s music, which of course is a wide range from that time period, resonated for him with the film and what didn’t. And I started working early, on a suite of songs much like I would maybe write a suite of classical pieces or an overture or something for a film if I was working early on and off of a script. But in this case, there were songs, essentially songs without words, instrumental songs.

Miller:  Was it a luxury to be able to work on a movie before it was locked in?

OrtonYeah, it is a luxury. And it allows for a lot more experimentation, honestly. I think there’s a lot of post-production schedules, when a composer would be brought in, that are really, really tight. You have a month, you have six weeks and that can be for a full orchestral, you know, hours worth of music.

Miller:  And that might be the so-called picture lock, where the visuals aren’t going to change. And they just say, “we need 58 seconds of music here with an emotional hit, 20 seconds in.” I mean, how specific are those jobs?

OrtonThey’re very specific. I like your optimism about the idea that there’s an actual picture lock. These days the way technology has evolved, it’s always shifting. We talk about the idea of film composing being like trying to dress a running man. It has a little bit of that feel because there is, especially actually more in the documentary world I would say, when you’re not necessarily on a script. It’s a different kind of way of working through.

Miller:  Let’s listen to the music that accompanies a pretty pivotal scene when, without giving too much away, the characters are arriving at a better understanding of who they all are and they’re driving in a car. Let’s have a listen.

[instrumental music plays]

Miller:  It’s just a lovely waltz. How does a song like this come to you? And how much do you know about what’s required in the scene?

OrtonWell, I think in this case, it had another dimension for me which was just a happy accident with this film. It’s shot in and around mostly Western Massachusetts. And it’s a part of the world where I’ve lived three separate times and really considered moving, talking to real estate agents, before settling on Portland years ago. It’s a part of the world that I really love and I have driven these same roads. I lived three miles from one of the schools they were shooting at. So it had a kind of deep rooted nostalgia for me.

So it was easy to access that side of what the que needed to reflect. Because as you said, it is a moment of some degree of resolution after a lot of maybe animosity. They’re adversarial up until near this point. So, yeah, I know it wanted that. I knew it wanted to have some emotion baked into it, some melancholy, but also be kind of forward thinking with some positivity. This kind of mixed balance I always have to use with Alexander’s films.

Miller:  So you write a song like this and then what do you send him? I mean, would you send him just a theme like a whistled something or something on a piano? On a voice memo, or do you wait until you have something that really shows off, in a closer way, what you think it’s going to be?

OrtonI think I’d say…well, more generally speaking, I would send off kind of mock ups of things. If it was an orchestral score, I might be using sampled instruments, midi digital violins and whatever. In a thing like this, it’s one of the benefits of me being my own engineer and also a multi instrumentalist. So I’m playing most of what you’re hearing there. And so I’m able to represent it without digital instruments, without Alexander then having to take a kind of leap of sonic faith, from hearing digital versions of things. So I’m presenting him [with] a pretty decent approximation of what he’s going to hear. That’s also important for him.

The downside of that is if I’m needing to do that with instruments I don’t play, it’s gonna be dangerous if I’m spending a bunch of my budget, bringing in live players to demo pieces that might not work.

Miller:  And there are times when a filmmaker, in this case Alexander Payne, or somebody else will say, “It’s nice but it’s, it’s not what I want.”

OrtonSure. And that happens, that’s a given. And that’s part of the job is to kind of realize their vision, not just yours. You’re not making a solo record when you’re doing this. So you have to be open. One of the first things I always tell the director is that I had a happy childhood. And they should feel free to tell me exactly what they think about the music and don’t pull punches. Because I’d rather know and I’d rather it inform the process.

Miller:  This is a kind of Christmas movie, I shouldn’t even say, “kind of.” It is a Christmas movie and there’s a whole variety of Christmas movies. How did that affect the way you wanted to create this music?

OrtonWe certainly discussed it. There are a large number of songs in the film as well as the original score. So yeah, we discussed, what is the more classic approach to a Christmas film? What instrumentation might reflect it? One of the things we talked about was this idea of a “Sugar Plum Fairy” kind of “Nutcracker Suite” with the pristine celestial bell piano. And if they’re sleigh bells, they’re also pristine. But then turning those on their head.

Miller:  So you brought a bunch of instruments. Can you give us a sense for what you mean?

OrtonYeah. So with sleigh bells, for instance, this is a more pristine standard one. [bells ringing] So rather we basically devolved them over time. I was very thankful for Revival Drum Shop here that has a huge collection of odd percussion. And so here’s a sort of less pristine [sound]: [muddled bells ringing]

Miller:  So when you say “less pristine,” you mean more jangly and less sort of bright and less pure?

OrtonLess pure, less standard holiday. A little bit darker.  And then by the end, we’re getting into something like, [fewer bells sounding] sort of sad Salvation Army solo bell. So I did evolve it that way because it is definitely a darker comedy. Likewise with something like the Celesta. I do use Celesta on the score.

Miller:  What is a Celesta?

OrtonIt’s a bell piano. If you think of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies,” it’s the main kind of chiming instrument there. It’s a beautiful pristine sound. I love Celesta and I use it all the time on my scores. But for this one, I chose this four octave toy piano to play some of the themes. For instance, there’s a piece on there called “5/4 for Constantine” and that one actually is played on this toy piano. I can show you.

Miller:  Let’s have a listen.

[toy piano sound plays]

OrtonSo it does have a chiming kind of bell sound which I do associate still with holidays. But there’s something wrong with it too just like there is with this Christmas story.

Miller:  Let’s listen to the recorded version, the full version of one of the songs you just mentioned, “5/4 for Constantine.” What should we listen for? What else should we listen for?

OrtonThere are block bells and other metallic percussion in there, a great string quartet of some local players, along with somebody from the East Coast that I bring in, who’s a ringer. And then there’s a concert base, a water phone tucked in.


Miller:  Water phone?

OrtonYeah, I can show you one last little show and tell here.

Miller:  OK. So this is the thing that looks a little bit like an NBA championship trophy. There are these angled brass rods that are all coming up around a circle. And then in the center there is a cylinder and there’s water inside it?

OrtonThere is water which can give a kind of Doppler effect after.

Miller:  And you have a bow you’re holding?

OrtonYou can bow it or you can use it as more standard percussion. The bowed sound: [ethereal vibrating sound]

Miller:  Oh, wow. And that sort of shimmery sound at the end is when you were actually moving the whole thing - holding it and moving it, as if you’re gonna try to spill a cup of coffee or something. And it makes the sound itself spill around?

OrtonIt does. It just changes the pitch or the resonance of the bottom plate of this thing, which is quite thin metal. You can also use it with friction mallets, superball mallets that you rub on it and make all kinds of ghostly sounds. Things like this: [ghostly sound plays]

So obviously, this does get used in sort of more fantastical films, more like sci fi kind of stuff or spookier things.

Miller:  And a lot of instruments you’ve just demonstrated are somewhere in the mix here. Let’s have a listen.

[song plays]

Miller:  One of the bigger surprises for me in terms of instrumentation is just a solo flute at the start of one of the songs. Let’s have a listen first. It’s a song called “The Glove.” And then we can talk about just how you think about instrumentation.

[flute instrumental plays]

Miller:  Why flutes?

OrtonI use the flute throughout and they’re not standard flutes. It’s alto or bass flute.

Miller:  You’re meaning a lower, richer sound?

OrtonAnd there’s just a great person in town who I’ve used on a lot of different scores who’s a band leader and a composer in his own, right named John Savage. Folks in the jazz scene know him here and he plays alto flute. We have a relationship but in terms of the film, I’m using it kind of to express the loneliness of the character. I’m often using it really just solo a cappella like that with no accompaniment. So it’s kind of to express the loneliness even though there’s a lot of comedy in this film. There’s drama, there are lots of different elements, but there’s a kind of loneliness at the heart of a bunch of the characters. And so that’s how it’s used throughout the film. Solo flute, for me, just brings [that] to mind.

Miller:  So how did you become a film composer?

OrtonWell, I’ve always been a composer. My dad was a conductor and composer himself. I started writing music when I was a kid basically. And I had a career first, with a fine art center band called Tin Hat Trio, later, Tin Hat. That group was getting licensed. Our music was getting license into film, as well as a lot of NPR stuff, “This American Life,” and “All Things Considered.”

Miller:  You put out albums and then music supervisors said, “Ah this song would be good for this scene. Let’s call them up, give them some money and put it in our thing’?

OrtonYes, that’s how I kind of came in sideways. I didn’t, you know, go to LA and start pouring coffee for John Williams or whatever, working my way through one of the composer’s houses there. The stuff was getting licensed. I also had chops as an engineer. It’s a very tech heavy career. And I also am a composer that went to conservatories and can write for orchestra and all that stuff too. So I just happened to have the requisite skill set. I also had burned out quite a bit on touring with my group. And so I started just getting these film opportunities. I could flesh out the licensed material. I could engineer my own stuff, work on smaller budgets when I needed to, keep it in house that way, and that’s how I got into it.

Miller:  I want to play another song from a different movie. It’s actually one that we talked about five years ago. The movie is called “The Reluctant Radical.” And we talked with a documentary filmmaker Lindsey Grayzel who made it and her subject, the environmental activist, Ken Ward. Before we hear one of the songs from it, a song called “What Price,” I’m just curious if working on documentaries is very different from working on fiction films or if it’s more or less the same?

OrtonNo, I think it is different. I think there’s a tendency with documentary films to go closer to wall to wall music. And I wish that weren’t the case. And it’s not the case for all documentarians. But there’s a lot more music to write and I feel like music ends up often…not in this film where there’s a fantastic subject with the one we’re talking about, “The Reluctant Radical.” But in many films the director is having to make the best out of whatever interviews they happen to get. The information in them might be critical, the subject might be a terrible public speaker and there are times when music has to act more as the band aid. It has to guide the audience more or it has to guide the narrative more.

I’m often getting comments like, “I don’t want this to feel like the History Channel, but we need this information there. Can you help us move it along?” It’s that kind of stuff and not that that wouldn’t come up again. A narrative director might come to me and say “We need more energy through the scene. It’s kind of lagging.” There’s more of that I’d say in the dark world, more underscoring of typically a voice-over, to where you’re staying out of the way more. [There’s] less thematic writing, generally speaking. I definitely come from the thematic side of composing. So that was a challenge for me. I had to, early on, learn to divorce myself from music for the music’s sake and understand its function within the film and not just the function of its melody.

Miller:  There’s a lot you got into. Let’s listen to this and then we’ll take up this question of what the music is for. This is from the movie, “The Reluctant Radical.”

[instrumental music plays]

Miller:  So, music can do a lot of different things in a movie. And sometimes, in dramatic cases, it’s almost like a character. It’s very present. The audience is probably very aware of it and sometimes that really works. Other times it can also really work and the viewers may not even be consciously aware of the music at all. And that’s good because the filmmaker, I think, doesn’t. But from the perspective of the composer, is it a hit to the ego if you put all this work in and the proof that it’s working is that your work is almost invisible? How do you deal with that?

OrtonYeah, it gets back to what I was saying earlier about this idea that it’s not your solo record. This isn’t like your chance to shine. You’re really trying to realize the director’s vision for the film and you’re trying to help in any way you can. If you have some kind of agenda of your own for it, you’re gonna run, most of the time, into big trouble. Of course, if you’re scoring something like “Star Wars” or some sword and sandals thing, there’s gonna be a bunch of battle scenes and things where you get to actually step out and do more forward writing.

But for something like the cue you played, I remember the directive was that it’s a really serious subject about climate change and about one person’s sacrifice around it and what they were willing to do. And the directive was really just about keeping gravity there, the importance of even these small things that they’re doing and the kind of day to day grassroots side of it. But the music ties it to this bigger mission that they’re on. So that’s kind of what I was looking for there.

And to your question, it’s not why I’m in it. I do get my chances. And working with somebody like Payne, you can hear it in the music that you’ve been playing. I do get to step out and do more lyrical writing. But yeah, that’s not the point with something like “The Reluctant Radical.”

Miller:  What do you pay attention to when you watch movies these days, movies that you didn’t score? What are you listening for? And what kind of a critical ear are you putting towards them?

OrtonI try really hard not to. I still want to experience movies, not from a technical [point of view]. So, you really have to have made some bad mistakes or something beautiful for it to jump out at me.

Miller:  So, in that sense, that sounds like what I would say as a non musician, as a non composer. So it’s interesting that that’s more or less your experience. In an average movie, you’re not hyper aware of the music?

OrtonI’d say that’s true. I’d say that I have my composers I’m drawn to and I’m going, listening for the music more. But I’d say generally speaking, I try to appreciate the movie for what it is. And I agree that actually, often, when it disappears and is serving its role that way and not taking you out of the picture or waking you up to the fact that this is a craft - this is a creation here. That’s really when it’s working.

Miller:  Mark Orton, thanks very much for coming.

OrtonThanks for having me.

Miller:  We’re gonna go out with one more song from the new movie. The movie is “The Holdovers.” This song is called “Into the Unknown.” And again, you can see composer Mark Orton along with an ensemble made up of Portland area musicians who are part of the soundtrack. They’ll be performing some of the songs from the movie before a screening at the Hollywood Theater in Portland this coming Saturday. We’ll be right back.

[music playing]

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