YOU BELONG TO ME—Interview With Composer John Turner
Back in late June 2007 at Frameline31, one of my favorite films was Sam Zalutsky's first feature You Belong To Me, a suspenseful Polanski-style thriller with dark Hitchcockian overtones. As Pam Grady wrote for the Frameline program, this tale of gay obsession morphed into something quite unexpected as the protagonist Jeffrey (Daniel Sauli)—smitten with a one-night stand—stalks the fellow to his apartment building and rents a vacant unit in the building in hopes of getting closer to him. That's creepy enough in itself; but, it soon becomes apparent that "the rot eating at his hardwood floors is symbolic of an evil infecting the entire address." With classic indirection, the film starts off with one story and skillfully warps into another.
At Variety, Dennis Harvey noted that this "nifty little suspenser bordering on horror" put "a gay spin on creepy-apartment-building-entrapment scenarios a la Polanski's The Tenant and Rosemary's Baby, sans supernatural elements." Harvey praised how this "small-scale urban gothic" avoided "excess genre deja vu via crisp execution, quirky character writing and a credible sense of real-world peril."
Dispatching from the film's screening at Outfest to Los Angeles CityBeat, Paul Birchall found You Belong To Me "engaging for dealing with gay themes in a secondary way", including a gay character without making the film specifically gay. All reviews credited Zalutsky's admirable directorial reserve, especially in his handling of Patti D'Arbanville's performance as the apartment building's offbeat landlady. "Perfs are solid," Harvey wrote in his Variety review, "with vet D'Arbanville nicely underplaying a figure who could have easily become a camp monstress from the Baby Jane era." At FilmCritic.com, Don Willmott commented: "What's appealing about You Belong to Me is that it never goes over the top. D'Arbanville could go crazy with her role but she pulls it way back, making her all the more threatening." At Movies Online, Robert Bell concurred: "Patti D'Arbanville keeps her off-kilter character in check, giving some believability to unexpected outcomes." And Jay Blodgett at Life With Movies and Maxxxxx commended both Sauli and D'Arbanville for not allowing their performances "to go into grand guignol" and keeping them "creepily and subtly real."
You Belong To Me went on to travel the LGBT festival circuit. The North American rights were picked up by Wolfe Video for DVD distribution and will soon be available in the UK, France, Germany, and Australia.
What really made the movie work for me, however—along with Zalutsky's writing and direction, and Sauli and D'Arbanville's restrained performances—was composer John Turner's tense score, which held me in a Hermannesque grip. Though Turner graciously consented to an interview shortly after Frameline, I never got around to transcribing our conversation. Recently, however, he forwarded me the film's soundtrack on CD and I was reminded all over again of how commendable his contribution was to the project so—albeit belatedly—here's the transcript of our talk.
John Turner has composed for performance, theater, and numerous films, including Sam Zalutsky's Superstore (which screened on PBS Reel New York and in the Barcelona Film Festival) and the award-winning short Passengers (Special Jury Prize, Deauville Film Festival, France; 2002 Sundance Film Festival). He has been a featured composer on Radio France Internationale (RFI) and at the Dimitri Dinev Cultural Center in Sofia, Bulgaria. In 2004 John won the Chorus & Orchestra Composition Award from the American Composer's Forum/Jerome Foundation. The recipient of fellowships and grants from Boston University, New York University, and The Art Bridge Foundation, John is a member of ASCAP, the American Composers Forum and the American Music Center.
John's film and theater scores include You Belong To Me (2007), the 2002 independent feature Alma Mater (2002 Hamptons Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, Audience Award), and the short film Slo-Mo (2002 Sundance, Telluride, HBO). John has played keyboard on Broadway for the hit show Jekyll & Hyde and composed and performed new music for the play Berlin, produced by Kerry Barden at the Tribeca Playhouse, New York City in 2001. John's work for television includes projects for The History Channel, Discovery Kids, and NBC. Samples of his score for You Belong To Me can be found at his MySpace page. The CD is available at either CDbaby or Screen Archives. Community Musician, who replicated the CDs, is in the process of setting up the digital distribution for eventual download on Itunes and other sites.
Michael Guillén: John, thank you for taking the time today and, again, congratulations on the world premiere of You Belong to Me at San Francisco's Frameline31.
John Turner: Thanks.
Guillén: How do you feel about your world premiere screening?
Turner: It was great. I can't imagine a world premiere could have been any better. The Castro Theatre is such an amazing theater and that was my first time there. The audience reacted the way they were supposed to. [Laughs.] They laughed when they were supposed to laugh and they jumped when they were supposed to jump so it was good.
Guillén: Dennis Harvey followed through with a favorable review in Variety.
Turner: Yeah, I read that. It was really great.
Guillén: You're my first composer to talk to, John, so please pardon me if I sound too simplistic; but, that was exactly the main reason I wanted to talk to you. I'm always trying to gain a sense of how films are put together from various angles and I have to say that the score for You Belong To Me was one of the key components that made the film successful.
Turner: I like to think so too. [Laughs.] That particular genre depends on music quite a bit.
Guillén: This was your second time to work with Sam Zalutsky, is that correct?
Turner: Right. I worked on his third short film Superstore (2004).
Guillén: How does this work between the two of you? Has he already shot his film before you score it?
Turner: That's pretty much how it worked. I read the script a while back and then it's just a process of him shooting, his sending me snippets here and there, and my starting to work on ideas. It's a lot of back and forth. I would come up with an idea and he would say yay or nay and then I would go from there. So there's a lot of collaboration with the director and the producers too.
Guillén: Did Sam have an initiating idea that got you going? Or did he just toss you initial footage and let you run with it?
Turner: Usually filmmakers I've worked with will have laid some kind of temp track from another movie, music that they like or that they think will work, which is kind of a starting point. What Sam used, for example, was the music from Rosemary's Baby, which is an interesting score in the same genre.
Guillén: Did you use computers at all for your score of You Belong to Me?
Turner: I did, yeah. Sam wanted the score to be ethereal and ambient, but with classic thriller/horror elements too. I programmed a lot of the score electronically but also recorded the strings with the string quartet Ethel.
Guillén: I think you mentioned they're out of New York City?
Guillén: Are you re-situated to Los Angeles now?
Turner: I … am. [Turner says this hesitantly and then laughs.]
Guillén: I ask because—when I was reviewing your website—all the references were to being in New York.
Turner: Yeah, I've only been here a couple of months now. I'm fresh to the West Coast.
Guillén: Have you relocated to Los Angeles in the hopes of doing more film scoring?
Turner: Yeah. I went to New York for a composers seminar at NYU. That's what took me to New York initially. I started doing a few films. I did a few shorts and I liked the process. I did quite a few out in New York but it seems the work is here in Los Angeles. I thought I'd come out here and give it a shot. Film scoring isn't the only thing I want to do; but, I do want to score more films.
Guillén: Your website reveals that you have your finger in a lot of pies, which is pretty impressive actually. I know you're from Arkansas and I meant to ask you from whereabouts?
Turner: [Laughs.] I hesitate to give my home town. People automatically find it amusing. I'm from Arkadelphia.
Guillén: [Laughs.] That's funny! Arkadelphia, Arkansas, eh?
Turner: It's about an hour outside of Little Rock and it's where I grew up.
Guillén: Why I ask is I actually went to school in Batesville, Arkansas for about a year. It was just a strange time in my life. I don't know exactly how I ended up there; but, I did. But I have fond memories of Arkansas actually.
Turner: There are some really nice things about Arkansas. What school is in Batesville?
Guillén: Arkansas College, if I remember correctly. It was a small Methodist or Presbyterian school of about 200 students. Hailing from Idaho, I was completely exotic.
Turner: [Laughs.] It was a great place to grow up. Looking back, I think I was quite sheltered; but, we all have to grow up somewhere.
Guillén: And better sheltered than not. So coming from Arkadelphia, Arkansas, you then went to New York and trained under some great mentors.
Turner: My primary teachers were in Arkansas and then I did some work at NYU. They had a couple of master classes with John Corigliano and Richard Danielpour. NYU was a good experience and I learned a lot there.
Guillén: Are there any particular influences on your current work, especially for the films?
Turner: Film is funny in terms of composition because you're a little more limited in terms of you're listening to what a director or a producer is telling you; but, for You Belong To Me I definitely drew inspiration from Bernard Herrmann, with a little bit of Stravinsky in there too. When I'm composing just for the sake of composing, it's a different animal if that makes sense?
Guillén: Absolutely! I was hoping to hear more of your music but had a bit of trouble downloading the MP3s from your site. I was able to watch the video clips and, thus, heard pieces you scored for Passengers, which I equally enjoyed.
Turner: Passengers was a fun little piece to do.
Guillén: Do you have recordings? Can a person go and purchase the essential John Turner?
Turner: [Laughs.] I'm not quite at that stage yet. I don't have any recordings; but, I'm hoping that this project with Ethel will lead to a first recording with Ethel doing some of this music from You Belong To Me. They're interested in doing a suite of the pieces live.
Guillén: Did you contact Ethel for this project? Did you solicit their collaboration? How did that work out?
Turner: I did. Actually Ralph Farris, their viola player, collaborated on my very first short film, which was actually by the same guy who did Passengers. It was his short film for Columbia and I scored it. Ralph organized the string players for me. Ten years later he was part of this very popular quartet Ethel. I just called him up and Sam sent them the script. They really liked it and were into it. It was cool that it worked out because they did a really amazing job with the string parts.
Guillén: I'd like to put a little bug in your ear if I may. I think you should contact Stephen Salmons of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and encourage him to invite you and Ethel to attend the festival to score a silent film. I think your work would be perfect. The strings really leant a classic feel to your music.
Turner: In terms of just composition, I struggled with that when I first went to New York. My interests, my aesthetics, were not avant garde enough. I do appreciate avant garde elements but my aesthetic tends to be more classic. I guess that's where that comes from.
Guillén: Reviewing your website, you seem to be interested in musical traditions from the Mideast, is that correct?
Turner: For the last five years a lot of my creativity has branched out into a lot of poetry with music and the Mideastern influence came about when I set some music to the poet Agha Shahid Ali. Are you familiar with him?
Guillén: I'm not.
Turner: He's known for bringing the ghazal form into English. They were originally written in Urdu and Persian. He's a Pakistani-American and he brought the form into the English language. I set one of his poems to music and did a lot of background study on that world. I do definitely have an interest in—whatever you want to call it—world or ethnic musical ideas and influences.
Guillén: Do you have a spiritual influence on your music?
Turner: Do I personally?
Guillén: Yes. Is there a sacred component you wish to incorporate into your compositions?
Turner: It's funny that you ask that because, yeah, definitely, I think my inspiration is to go back to school and study composition based on the idea that music has the ability to transport us and enlighten us when the right elements come together.
Guillén: I noticed you likewise had Tibetan symbols on your website.
Turner: [Laughs.] Do you know what those are?
Guillén: They're thangka symbols, are they not?
Turner: What's that?
Guillén: They are Tibetan, right?
Turner: Yes, they are Tibetan Bhuddist symbols. It's not a very good one though. It looks like it was cut out of a book.
Guillén: Have you seen a documentary called Sound of the Soul?
Guillén: I think you might be interested in it. It's by Stephen Olsson, a Bay Area documentarian who is also one of the key players behind Link Television. He made a documentary on the sacred music festival in Fez. It's fascinating because it has musicians coming from all over the world to share their inflections of sacred music.
Turner: Wow. Yeah, I would definitely be interested in that.
Guillén: Well, I really don't have any other questions at the moment; but, I did want to congratulate you once again on your contribution to You Belong To Me. As I said, your music was what pulled me into the film. I was having a little trouble with the film—I'll be honest with you—I thought the acting was great, I thought the story was interesting, but the murky cinematography was distracting. I was almost about to get up to leave but your music kept me in place.
Turner: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.