This week Film Daze staff writer Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller had the pleasure of speaking with Roman Molino Dunn, whose credits as a composer and producer have garnered him success on the Billboard chart and popularity in the film world. They discussed his work on Cassius Corrigan’s new film Huracán (debuting on HBO and HBO Max on the 11th of September) and started with a conversation about life in lockdown and overcoming COVID-19.
Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller: I’m curious, as an artist did you write anything about experiencing the virus?
Roman Molino Dunn: The only thing that was keeping me sane was writing music, and right when it happened we had an influx of work. In addition to scoring films, I’m a producer for artists, and they were scared that they couldn’t perform, that they wouldn’t be touring, and they wanted to put out a lot of music quickly. I was doing a lot of remote work, writing instrumentals. And then on the production end, I got filmmakers who had stuff they were pushing through post-production because they were afraid of being forgotten or not having output.
I wonder if you’ll look back and feel like what you wrote then is a reaction, in a sense, to the context.
Totally. I did one short, a silent film (Love Can’t Be Locked Down) that was one of the last films to be shot before they closed down New York City. It was shot in Times Square and it was about people finding love wearing masks when you can’t see somebody’s face. It had an Asian-American spin because our leadership threw around terminology that was incriminating. That film was about these people being yelled at and hated. That music was reactive. But like all music I do, it’s generally somebody else’s concept, I’m just helping them achieve it.
When it comes to Huracán, I’m curious about what you said in regards to fulfilling the director’s vision. Could you tell me about your general approach to this film?
The approach was the same in some regards as it is for every film, which was to first understand what the director wanted. That can be the hardest thing sometimes; they know what they don’t want usually. A lot of times it’s about identifying the music language they’re willing to explore. In the case of Huracán, I was lucky that I got access to the script as Cassius Corrigan was working on it. He did some screen tests based on the visual language that he was going to explore, and I scored something to that. It was something of an audition piece; I prefer an audition where I can make four or five different things. The coolest part was that he didn’t put temporary music to any of the cues, he trusted me to come up with something unique. He treated it as art and not a commodity.
Did the way you crafted the music change after you saw the footage?
Absolutely. I don’t have the perspective that the director has; they’ve been living with this for so long, and I’m trying to interpret it, so once I see the footage it’s a lot clearer. I didn’t understand the characters fully until I saw the representations, the organic developments, and circumstances that happened during filming. There was also a process of elimination: I go bold with things, so I’m looking for people to dislike what I do so I can elicit a genuine response as to what somebody does and doesn’t like. I’m not afraid of criticism and feedback, because that’s what lets me discover something for them. Halfway through the film, I knew what Cassius disliked, and did the opposite.
You’ve spoken about the idea of counterpointing musically to complement characters’ contrasts in the narrative. I’d love to hear more about that, and any influences or developments in that process.
With the interplay, it was handed to me in a way, because the heart of the story is about a gentleman dealing with Dissociative Identity Disorder. So it’s easy to play on the fact that this one person we’re seeing onscreen is in fact, two people. The musical gems come from having two sides of a person but also conjoining them. The way I did that was having the humanity and then the inhumanity of the character: the humanity is organic instruments, violins, pianos, all of that, while the inhumanity is the synthetic stuff like synthesizers, noise, and field recordings that I programmed into keyboards. There’s also a middle ground; in the climax of the film there’s a bell-like sound, and that’s me playing piano in a very traumatic way and programming it into a synthesizer. The whole concept was the conjoining of synthetic and organic elements that define this character. I had to go back and forth between this metaphor and what the film needs to keep us engaged. For example, when you see the fight scenes, I’m choreographing that fight, making sure the music moves with it. It’s a back and forth between two jobs of the music.
There are a lot of boxing films out there, and a lot of psychological break films as well, were you looking to any of them?
In many ways, this is unlike any other score I’ve done because there weren’t references given. There are a lot of great fighting films out there, but at its heart, this isn’t a fighting film. I don’t want to give away too much, but the fighting symbolizes more than the MMA on TV. I didn’t look to something like Million Dollar Baby or Creed, it was about the psychology.
I was struck by the opening tracking shot, and as I was listening for the music, I noticed how silent it was until the gradual introduction of the music. Could you tell me about the process of that?
That scene was the absolute hardest to do. I did it about ten times. At one point, I thought it should have no music at all because I wasn’t hitting the mark. In the end, I realized we were supposed to have a sense of instability. It’s the only time you are in the character’s head. The textures, which are developed as microcosms of the larger sounds — such as close-mic cellos and violins scratching — eventually clarify as he sees his dream and makes contact with someone who can help him. It’s about how you mirror what’s happening on the screen, as one long crescendo, not just in volume but in texture.
What types of films do you generally like to work on?
It’s pretty simple, the first part is that they want music (laughs). But I think at least half of the film experience is auditory, and when the director is focused on that part, I get excited. I love things you might not think I’d love; Huracán is a psychological thriller, but I love romantic comedies. I also love action movies, I’m working on one right now shot in Bangkok. Anything that relies on the art of music to heighten the narrative is what I’m interested in.
What’s next for you?
I just finished a feature called Snakehead, directed by Evan Jackson Leong. We’re wrapping up, so keep an eye on that. I’m also doing some lighter things, like an upcoming cooking show. I’m also a Billboard-charting producer and work with a lot of drag reality stars. I have a new song coming about with an activist named Peppermint, plus a YouTube kids show which I just signed onto. Even during lockdown, it’s great to see that people are making films — in some ways I think it’s more important now because people are understanding the value of art when life is uncertain.