Chris Hajian, an established composer for documentary and narrative films, and a long-standing member of the Megatrax family, has scored two great documentaries slated for release this spring. We chatted with him about the films, his process as a composer, and the work he’s done for Megatrax and how it all affects him.
Megatrax: Congratulations on your scores for “Unraveled” and “First Position”! Tell us how you wound up working on these two films.
Chris Hajian: As is very commonplace in my business, personal connections account for most of the work that I get. In the case of “Unraveled,” it was a director I’d worked with previously on a film called “Nursery University,” which was chronicling the life of five Manhattan parents trying to get their kids into preschool. Marc Simon, who co-directed this film and directed Nursery University, and I had a wonderful working relationship, so he just called me.
Bess Kargman, who directed “First Position,” ironically enough had heard my score to Unraveled, was looking for a composer at the time and was connected through Marc as well, so it’s completely six degrees of separation—or three degrees in this case!
It’s really really nice to get a job strictly based on someone hearing your work and going “I like what he does! I like where he comes from.”
MX: About how long does it take you to score a film?
CH: Well, these two are both on opposite ends. Because of the way the post-production process went on Unraveled (with different festivals they’d submitted to), I was working with different stages—like the fine cut, the cut that was more refined, and the final cut—was spread over the course of six or seven weeks total, but that’s rare. Most documentary scores, and most film scores, are between a period of three to five weeks.
In the case of First Position, right when I got on board the film had made the Toronto Film Festival, and they had no score, so I had two and a half weeks to create the entire score. That was a bit demanding! But that’s one of the tenets of scoring a picture is that you have to be able to work quickly, efficiently, and also be inspired. I always say, “You don’t come to the studio waiting to get inspired.” If you have a day where you don’t feel like you’re nailing the theme, you move onto another theme because you’ve got to be productive every day to some level. Otherwise you will not make the deadlines.
MX: Tell us a little bit about your process for scoring a film. What’s your approach?
CH: Great question! It’s a little different on documentaries than it is on narrative films or TV. I believe a composer should work with a delicate brush all-in-all. That doesn’t mean that there are not times when you create big moments or big drama, but I believe inherently it’s important for a composer to understand that you’re part of this film—not the star of the film. The music is there to enhance, complement and bring out subtext in beautiful, nuanced ways.
With that said, documentary filmmaking is a whole other level of that. You’re trying so consciously not to tell the audience how to feel. It’s super important in a documentary that you get organically very connected to the characters and the story.
The process on any film for me is really finding the tone of what works musically. I spend most of my time defining the tone. Once it feels right… I always feel like a good score becomes so ingrained in the story that you don’t notice it… you don’t question “why does that music sound that way?” That’s really the key, is having to define singly what is the tone, whether it’s piano-based, or orchestral based, or modern, or something out of the box—it’s really just getting the right tone for the narrative.
MX: How are you influenced by the films you score?
CH: It’s really interesting, because you live with these films. There was another film I’ve done since then, called “Kinderblock 66,” and it’s a Holocaust-oriented film, so you can imagine… When I live with these stories, even though it’s just three-to-five weeks, I’m immersed in these people’s lives, so it really affects me… which in many ways is great, because it challenges me as a composer.
It’s a bit like Stockholm Syndrome, where you’re taken captive and you develop a kind of attachment to the people… not that I’m equating scoring films to being held captive! But you develop this very close relationship to these characters, so in the case of Unraveled it was really hard, because the guy is a deceptive crook, a corrupt lawyer who did these horrific crimes—brazen crimes—posing as other people, swindling money, ruining his family’s legacy. That was hard. What I identified with him on, though, is that this guy is a father, and I’m a father. “Can I imagine what would happen if I did that to my name, and what my daughter would have to live through?”
In First Position, it’s exactly the opposite kind of film, in that it’s a life-affirming, feel-good film, where you’re rooting for these amazing stories of these kids and their families who are pursuing ballet, and it all leads into this competition called the Youth America Grand Prix. In that case, it’s really about getting inside of the struggles and the insecurity that every one of them is faced with, and it’s funny… I got back to the parental thing because I’m watching these parents, and I’m thinking, “What’s the common thread in all these kids in First Position?” Whether it’s the boy from Colombia, the girl from Israel, the kid from the MidWest, the Asian-English family with the sister and the brother… every one of these parents did everything they could possibly do to help these kids pursued this dream.
MX: How would you say the work you do for Megatrax differs from scoring a film?
CH: Megatrax being a really high-end library, they’re very current in what they see as trends in production style. It’s really a scope. It’s really about super focusing what the music is going to be. Ron (Mendelsohn) and I always say “if I can’t hear a voice-over over it quickly, it’s not focused enough.”
So I would say it’s about how you see the usage, and also staying very current in the production styles.
MX: Is there anything you’ve done for Megatrax that really stands out for you?
CH: My God, there’s a lot. I’m so proud of that stuff. The whole “Hip & Quirky” series is a series that Ron and I developed together, and I think I’ve done five of them now. It’s so much fun to do, and we’ve done so well with it—the usage on that has been amazing. Every time we do those discs, they’re a huge success, and the boundaries are endless with that thing! I remember Ron called me once, and I was just finishing up, I had one more to write, and he said, “I got a couple requests”– this was when “Borat” came out—“to do some wacked-out stuff like you’d hear in Borat.”
And I said, “I’m on it.”
And I created this cue, he loved it, it’s on there and it just makes me laugh so much because it’s so wacky. I had the ability to do funky comedy on there. The scope is so big! It’s just great. It’s like an open can of zaniness, and I just love that series.
MX: What’s coming up next for you?
CH: I just finished a film called “Men of the Cloth,” which is a documentary that follows four master Italian tailors, and it goes through their craft and what they do and how they make these suits from scratch, and it deals a lot with the immigrant story and what their lives are like coming to America. It’s beautiful, and it’s a little sad, because this is an artisan craft that is somewhat dying.
MX: Is there anything you’d like to add in conclusion?
CH: I want talk about how writing for Megatrax has been essential and beneficial to me as a composer. It’s made me better and better as far as my writing, my producing, my mixing… it’s been an essential part of my income in between film projects, because films are great, but they don’t always pay a lot, and they don’t always come that often, so a composer needs to generate income to keep investing in ourselves and investing in our equipment. A library like Megatrax is essential for us to live a productive life.
And the opportunities! Whether it’s “Hip & Quirky” or “Cool Commercials” or the drama stuff I’ve done with Ron. Just the opportunity to dig into different styles and to get more adept at different styles has really helped me in my films and in my ability to navigate different genres of film.
Unraveled opened Friday, April 13 in New York and LA, and has been simultaneously available On Demand. Ultimately it will be available on Showtime and CNBC.
First Position was released in 50-60 cities nationwide on May 4, followed by an international release.
This article originally appeared in the Megatrax newsletter.
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