Story and photo by Callie Broaddus
As excited festival-goers filter through the halls and into the ballroom for a morning screening and Q&A with The Kindergarten Teacher’s star actress, Maggie Gyllenhall, I am sitting in a dimly-lit conference room at a long table with stacking chairs. Across from me sit Ray Costa, Middleburg Film Festival music producer, and Kris Bowers, the composer and pianist for the festival’s closing film and soon-to-be 2018 Middleburg Film Festival Audience Award Winner, Green Book.
Bowers, 29, is as formidable on paper as he is engaging in person. The Julliard-trained, Emmy-winning musician has tickled the ivories at the White House, performed with artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Kanye West and been crowned winner of the famed Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition. His ear-to-ear smile lights up the dim room as we dive into the making of the film.
Callie: Shirley has been described as “Probably the most gifted pianist in existence, so good that comparisons are absurd,” and with “virtuosity worthy of gods.” What kind of pressure did that put on you?
Kris: A lot of pressure. I definitely was like—before the pre-recordings—practicing every day for like eight hours a day just to try to get all that stuff together. But the pressure was to make sure that we did him justice. Because I feel like you have somebody that is not very well known, and we don’t know that much about his music outside of the recordings…it was incredibly important that we show just how talented this person was.
C: Did you feel like you had to channel Don Shirley while writing the score, or could you channel yourself?
K: I felt the freedom to channel myself a little bit, because Peter Farrelly wanted the score to sound very different from the Don Shirley stuff….So we made sure that it was orchestral and not the same instrumentation, and making it have more of a classical or just general film sound as opposed to this jazz sound that Don Shirley himself had, to separate them as well. But the biggest thing I tried to do to create some continuity was pulling from these Negro spirituals or pulling from early American folk music for melodies, not specifically from those pieces, but learning how those melodies were constructed, and then try to construct melodies that were similar. And then orchestrate in the way that I would orchestrate it. That for me connected the two things so that there was some sort of sound that sounded familiar through all of it.
C: When Peter Farrelly came to you and basically offered you the job, what was your reaction?
K: Surprised in the very beginning, to be honest. My first meeting, usually, with a director or producers, is to impress them; to tell them all about myself so that they feel comfortable hiring me. And our first meeting was basically them asking what I thought about the movie and when I could start, essentially. And yeah, it was pretty surreal, especially given that this is the first studio film and all that for me, and it just made everything very surreal and very exciting, for sure.
C: Was it nerve-racking at all, with this being your first studio film?
K: I’ve never really felt pressure. Even when I went to Julliard, everybody was freaking out about their course load and how difficult it was. It never felt difficult for me; it just kind of felt normal. And, one, that’s because high school was very intense. My household was very intense when it came to working on something or practicing. My parents instilled a very strong work ethic in me, so that the normal for me was a ten for everybody else. So this, it feels exciting because I’ve wanted it for so long, since I was like eight or nine years old. But as far as feeling pressure, I don’t really feel any of that.
C: You started playing piano when you were four. Did your parents make you play, or was it your own inclination?
K: Before I was born, they decided I was going to play piano. I actually wanted to be a cartoonist up until I got to high school. I went to an arts high school, and my plan was to go to school for music, because I didn’t have a good enough portfolio for visual art, and to switch to visual art after my first year. And after my first year, I decided that I really fell in love with music. But my parents, even when I decided I wanted to pursue visual art, they were like, “You should still keep the piano, though.” Or if I wanted to play sports, they were like, “As long as you still practice piano. You should keep that as something you do, you can do whatever else you want to do.” So they kind of like had a great balance of pushing me to stick with it, but also allowing me to fall in love with it myself, so I didn’t feel like it was something I had to do for them, essentially.
C: To what extent do you think the racial and political climate today motivate you and the rest of the team in making this film?
K: A lot. I think one, unfortunately, this is a story that is still very relevant. But I think the biggest thing about this film for me, and I think the actors as well, was the way that these people have these conversations; it’s very honest. And each side gives patience to the other to learn and understand what they’re dealing with. And so you have these people that feel very much like, “You don’t understand what I’m dealing with.” And they feel much on very opposite sides. And because of the honest conversations that they’re having, the way that they’re having them, and the way that—at the end of the day—there’s a respect there. I think that’s the biggest thing. They come to the point of understanding, and I think that’s the biggest thing with any of these conversations in the real world.
We all have implicit biases and all these things that we assume when we see people, when we interact with people. If we just approach them with a certain level of respect, and try to understand—even if we feel incredibly different, even if we feel like they don’t understand us very much—the more that we have conversations from that place, I think the better we will get and the further along we will get. So I think that this film, for me, did that in a really great way. That was one of the things that made me feel happy and proud about being a part of it. My grandfather hasn’t seen it yet, but my grandfather is from Florida in the south, and moved to LA during kind of the great migration, and whenever he would travel back to Florida to visit his family, he and my grandmother would not stop in the south. They would drive at like 60-70 miles per hour and switch midway on the highway just because they were too fearful of stopping in that area. So I think there are still a lot of people who have experienced this and still are very close to what it was like down there, so yeah, I think there are a lot of people that are being affected by it.
C: Did you learn anything about this era that surprised you?
K: I didn’t know about the Green Book itself. I didn’t know about it. My grandfather, even though he had that experience, he said that it was something that he had heard of, but he never actually got his hands on or used. So that was just fascinating that this thing was made, and I think it’s incredible that it was made, so it was able to help people travel safely. And Don Shirley’s music; I hadn’t heard about him, either. And I thought that was really incredible given that going to school to be a jazz pianist, and to never hear about this pianist that obviously stood out from any other musician at that time. So having to learn his music and practice his music and get into his head a little bit musically was a treat.
C: What parallels do you see between your life and career and Don Shirley’s?
K: I think about my experience as a film composer, to be honest. A lot of my conversations with my agent are about trying to make sure that people don’t keep me in this box. Because I think that looking the way I do…I get calls to score something with a hip hop sound, even though none of my scores have ever had that sound. I think people make assumptions, and that’s exactly what he was experiencing and having to go through, and that he overcame and had to push through. So I see parallels with my life. Obviously he had it a lot tougher, but it’s still a struggle as an African American artist to break outside of what people think you should be. I think that was another amazing thing about it—just how much the producers and director trusted me. Which, again, being very new in this space, I didn’t expect. But the first time I played all the cues, I think there was maybe one cue they asked me to redo. Everything else, the were like, “Alright yeah that’s great. Maybe make this little adjustment, but that sounds great.” It was also a surprise because that first thing is uninfluenced by their notes and things like that, so that was just purely what I thought it should sound like. So for them to be like, “Yeah, I totally agree, that sounds great,” was pretty awesome….It’s validating, and I know I’m probably pretty lucky. I don’t think any of this will ever happen again. So I’m soaking it in right now.
C: What kind of updating did you have to do? The film’s production notes say you listened to Dr. Shirley’s music and updated it to feel familiar to a 2018 audience. Is that accurate, or did you try to stay as close to the actual notes as possible?
K: The notes themselves, I tried to stay as true as possible. The only adjustments that I really made were things to make it work better in the film, so shortening a song from like six minutes to two minutes, or something like that. Or changing the arrangement because the original arrangement didn’t have a cellist, but we wanted it to have a cellist for the film. But the biggest thing was just the actual sound of it. I think that what makes music from that era sometimes hard to feel is because of the sound quality, the recording quality of the time, it feels a little bit more distant. And when you have something that’s so heady and so intricate, it’s hard to get into it if you can’t feel it, I think. So for me, a lot of it was just like beefing up the bass sound and making these sounds feel like you’re listening to it like it’s 2018, and these people are playing for you right here. So I think that’s the biggest thing, making the sound of it sound current, so you can really hear what these people are doing and how intricate it is, and how involved it is.
C: What made you decide to come to this festival?
K: Ray kind of convinced me and talked me into it, and talked about just this festival and what it meant, and just the vibe of it here. The fact that this festival is, like, a filmmaker’s festival—this festival is for people that are film enthusiasts. I think there are a lot of festivals that are turning into scenes and parties and stuff like that, and this feels incredibly familial. I keep saying to people that there was a dance party last night that felt like I was at a wedding, or a family reunion. And you find people that sit next to you are much more open to just start random conversations, and it feels so much more familial than anything I’ve experienced.
As we pack up and prepare to watch the film, Costa, who is also Bowers’ publicist, speaks up. “By the way, Gold Derby has Green Book as number two for Best Picture right now.” He continues scrolling on his phone, “for Best Actor, number one: Viggo Mortensen.” Bowers leans over Costa’s shoulder and begins to mutter, “best original score?” but bursts into a belly laugh before Costa can offer a reply.
This article first appeared in the November 2018 issue of Middleburg Life.