Elliot Wheeler on The Get Down, the collaborative process & why music is crucial for film and television

One of the first things I notice about any great movie or TV show, is the soundtrack. The way music can not only really connect an audience to the underlying message, but truly amplify the storyline, is the real beauty of the craft. Composer and music producer Elliot Wheeler, is the man behind the phenomenal soundtrack in the series The Get Down. In the wake of the success of the series, I sat down and had a chat with Elliot about the collaborative process and the importance of music within both film and television.

You’re currently in LA but usually based in NY after having moved from Sydney, what was that moment like right before you made that big move over to the States?

It’s a really interesting question, there wasn’t one particular moment. There was maybe a catalyst within our team and there was some debate about some people maybe venturing outside of Sydney for a bit. I guess that was maybe a catalyst for what eventually made the decision happen. You don’t sort of make those calls like that. It’s obviously something that’s been rolling around in the back of the head for a little while. But the moment where you actually talk to someone and go, ‘No it’s actually happening’, it’s a wonderful feeling.

Obviously Sydney will always be home to me and I still love being there and I spend a lot of time there, but there’s a point where you just get to a stage where you want to try new things and have new challenges and see new places and walk down new streets. That’s both a professional thing and a personal thing too.

When did you first realise that you had this amazing passion for music?

Well… I’ve been playing piano since I was four or five years old and I can’t remember a time where music hasn’t had a big part of my life. I do remember a moment when I was sort of 18 or 19 and in a very 18 or 19 way, I sort of swore that I would ever do music again and I would dedicate myself to academic studies, I was studying philosophy at the time. I remember I was at a train station somewhere, sort of pacing up and down thinking, I’m going to regret this if I don’t give music one more try. I haven’t looked back since.

There are so many creative people I’ve spoken to that have that moment of almost pulling away but coming back at the very last moment. It’s like this teenage angst crossroads almost? 

Absolutely! And I think there’s so much pressure put on young adults as they are leaving school to make all these decisions of what you’re going to be and what course you’re going to go into. I think it’s very much a genuinely angsty time. You do feel like the decisions you’re making, are going to change the rest of your life. In some ways they will but in some ways they won’t. I think it’s so true to how malleable everything is, how much change you get to have in your life. I know I’m not alone in this as well, a lot of my friends have a similar sort of wrestle with this decision.

I’ll get to your other projects in a moment but is there something really inspiring you right now to do your work?

I think whilst we were working on The Get Down, because it was such an intense project, it’s been really nice to take a little break and recharge and replenish the batteries and start taking in different influences. The extremely exciting thing about working on that show, like we have for the past two years, is that you get to work with incredible collaborators. From choreographers to all of the amazing musical contributors like Grandmaster FlashSia, Christina Aguilera and Rahiem from The Furious Five, that has been a constant source of life. This very life affirming creativity.

Seeing how such different personalities and musical flavours have worked in other people’s lives and being able to take some of that and seep that into your work, that’s where the real inspiration comes. Also from and being able to work with people that are as committed to a project as you are. It’s like any family really, the more anyone puts in, the better the unit works. It’s been an incredible situation for me to be in.

It just seems like this amazing collaborative process. How did you merge so many different influences together to create this soundtrack across the series?

So much of it has to do with Baz (Luhrmann) and his creative process, in that he is an incredible gift for a composer that he places music so firmly in the heart of so many of his ideas. One of the mantras that he had for the show was that if we took the musical element out of the story line, the whole plot should fall apart. Having that plot sort of interwoven, at the very beginning of the process, we were able to work with the music supervisors, the writers, the choreographers the editors and all the different collaborators.

We were all very much involved in building the story and building the feel of the characters and what was going to happen plot wise. This is a very very unique situation. It was a very special process.

I remember watching The Great Gatsby when that first came out, and just being so blown away by the way that music was used in that movie. I’d never really personally experienced a kind of situation like that where the music was its own character.  

Yeah absolutely, and Gatsby was a very special project, it was really the first thing that Baz and I worked on together. It was very special. It was being able to work with Brian Ferry doing your jazz orchestra and being able to juxtapose that with all of the hip-hop that Baz and Jay-Z were pulling into the show. It’s such a unique gift that Baz has to be able to pull those musical flavours together.

How did you first get involved with The Get Down? 

Baz and I had worked on a few projects together. Obviously, The Great Gatsby, and then he and I worked on a live version of Strictly Ballroom for about 18 months or two years. We developed a lot of hours in the studio together, and we developed a wonderful short hand for musical ideas and storytelling. There’s a trust that builds up there over a certain amount of time. Baz is so incredibly musical and people don’t actually recognise how involved in the process he actually is.

He sits with me and we jam ideas together… I think because it was such an immense canvas that he was trying to pull together with pulling in various ideas with hip-hop and nu-wave and the Puerto Rican influence, he wanted a fellow traveller who understood his process and understood the way he approached his story telling. Part of my job, apart from creating the score, was to help create a canvas so all of these other wonderful contributors could come in and have a structure for their particular voice.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frW-AScN7fE

When you were initially researching the project what did that actually look like? Did it just feel like this massive wall of task when you were trying to really churn through such a wonderful immersive time period?

Oh absolutely, there is so much musical information there to be absorbed and like any project you have a level of understanding of what you’re getting into but when you start delving, you start realising how much more there is to uncover. But I think what was a particular gift on this project is that we were able to work with the actual founders from those periods and sound of that style and period… The thing that was amazing was being able to go to someone like Grandmaster Flash and asking him, ‘What would you play in 1977?’ To be able to be in the room with those people, and get Flash to show us what he would have done, and then to be able to collaborate with us and remix orchestral scores, that was the real gift.

There was stuff that you can’t read or watch online, or even hear because obviously the hip hop recordings weren’t made until ’79, and all there really was were only bootleg tapes. We’re really getting into the oral history here.

I guess finally, why do you think music is so important within film and television?

People don’t often appreciate what a craft writing for film and writing for picture is. Regardless of what type of movie it is, whether this is long form or commercial or documentary. It’s a genuine craft, it’s very different then writing a pop song. What you’re constantly doing as a film composer is looking for a part of a story that needs to be told that isn’t being told by anything else that’s happening on screen. So if the character is shouting and screaming obviously the music doesn’t need to do that job. There’s already a lot of energy on screen.

Often, your role as a composer is to try and amplify that sense of excitement. Sometimes it’s about getting out of the way and finding out what else is happening story wise that you can lead the audience towards a particular emotional response, that can’t be done by any other tools that the director has at their disposal. That’s the real challenge. It can take a long time to learn how to do that and not take the most obvious response.  

I think when you’ve hopefully done your job correctly, the audience won’t actually be aware that there’s music playing. My goal is to often make the music work so seamlessly with the pictures that the audience isn’t even aware that you’ve been quietly guiding them on a particular journey, it just feels so much a part of the immersive experience. It just becomes part of the story… If you’ve done it well enough, people can’t imagine what the story would have been like without the music.   

The Get Down is now screening on Netflix. 

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