Composer Anton Sanko’s dreamy, minimalist compositions are steeped in emotional complexity, the perfect musical complement to gripping family dramas such as Rabbit Hole and HBO’s Big Love. Indeed, it was these credits, not Sanko’s work on horror films like Strangeland, which drew the attention of Ole Bornedal, director of the paranormal thriller The Possession. The film is about a family traumatized by a Dibbuk, a demon from Jewish folklore, but Sanko says Bornedal saw the film as an allegory about a family in the wake of divorce. “Ole wanted this to be a film about a family, and I think the fact that I had done ‘Rabbit Hole’ was more important to him than the fact that I had done several horror pictures in the past,” he notes.
Like many of today’s hot composers, Sanko got into film scoring by way of the pop music world. Sanko spent years working with Suzanne Vega as a guitar player, keyboard player, band leader, cowriter and producer. Through his work with the folk-pop singer he met director Jonathan Demme, and began a friendship that would ultimately lead Sanko into the career he enjoys today.
1. Tell me how you landed your first film scoring job.
I was with Suzanne Vega at the time that everybody was making music videos. And one of the directors who directed our videos was Jonathan Demme. This was before he was the huge director that he became, and he and I became very friendly. At a certain point I was very fed up with being on the road and Jonathan invited me to the premiere of The Silence of the Lambs. Afterwards he said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Oh, I really want to get into film scoring.” He said, “Great, I’m doing a documentary, do you want to do it?” And that was my first gig.
2. Going from the pop world to the film world is quite a leap. How did you make the transition?
That first job I did for Jonathan took me a year! I got $500 for that and I did not know what I was doing! Jonathan knew that, and it was fine.
I had one or two friends who were kind of doing this type of work – neither of whom are still doing it, by the way – who gave me a few guidelines in the beginning. They helped me figure out the nuts and bolts because I didn’t really understand the technology or the technique that was involved when I got started. A lot of people these days have gone to school for scoring and know a helluva lot more than I ever did. It took me years to figure out all that kind of stuff.
At the same time I would go back and listen to all of the composers I loved, especially John Barry, Ennio Morricone – all the guys who were huge influences on me, just to try to figure out how they did it and take that to heart, as well.
3. What do you love about film composing?
I love the fact that I can explore different types of instruments and different techniques of writing – that’s what I love about music in general, the incredible depth. You can just study one small thing forever, and it’s just endlessly fascinating for me.
For example, right now I’m writing music for The June Carter Cash Story. Obviously it could not be further from The Possession in any way, this is the story about the Carter Family and June Cash, we’re talking about traditional folk-type instrumentation, acoustic guitars, autoharps, banjos, that kind of writing. And I love that! I love working in that vernacular just as much as I love working on a big horror film or working on electronic sports. This diversity is just endlessly fascinating to me, I love studying all of this stuff. It’s endlessly fascinating to me how you make an interesting sound inspire you emotionally, or give you an emotional response.
4. And what do you find challenging?
There are challenges in my job just like in anyone else’s. The timelines can be brief and a bit difficult to deal with. But I don’t know, I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’m not really afraid of that anymore. I feel like the longer I do this, the stronger my writing muscle gets, and the faster I can write stuff that I think is still a very, very excellent quality. So that’s not really as much of a challenge as it was before.
I think sometimes it’s difficult when you have to deal with a lot of different personalities with the same amount of influence on a project. But you know, whatever! I’m so happy to be doing what I do, I don’t care.
5. Why did you choose BMI?
When I was with Suzanne I was originally signed to [another performing rights organization (PRO)]. I didn’t even know about BMI at the time. But when I got into film scoring I just found that [my former PRO] wasn’t as big a part of the scene, for lack of a better word. I met Doreen Ringer Ross and she was such a huge advocate and a huge fan, just a gigantic supporter of me, film scoring and composers in general. That’s why I went with BMI and never looked back. It was one of the best decisions of my career.
6. The Possession has one of the creepiest film scores I’ve ever heard. Was that your goal when approaching this project?
Of course it’s a scary movie, and of course I want to generate suspense, but my primary goal is to provide the audience with a touchstone in the form of thematic material. I love writing themes – all of my favorite composers are great theme writers. For me, having those touchstones helps the movie stay with you. That was primarily my goal, to write music that tells the story of this horrible thing this young girl goes through, yes, but also the story of her family. Telling the story of her family was just as important as being horrific.
7. Any special tricks you can share?
My secret weapons are more in the form of harmonic information and melodic information, less in terms of actual secret instruments. Although I do a lot of that on other scores, but that was not the case here too much. I did a lot of studying of Jewish music and instrumentation in preparation for writing this, and I found that the altered modes in Hebrew music allowed for a lot of flexibility in writing that I incorporated into the score. Whether everybody notices or gets that, I don’t know.
8. What advice would you give newcomers?
I can only advise from my perspective of what works for me. And what works for me is knowing my instrument, and then being fluent on my instrument and equally fluent on my instrument and the computer, which is what we all write on these days. You have to really know your technology, you have to know how to make it sound good, and you have to be fast at it. You have to be constantly researching the next thing that’s coming out. That’s very important. I think if you’re a doctor, you’re always reading your periodicals to find out the latest developments in your field. I think it’s very important to know the same thing in our field.
Also, obviously it can be a grueling business for a lot of people. There’s a lot of rejection. So you’ve just got to keep putting one foot in front of the other, which is what I’ve been doing all of these years. Eventually if you’re in love with this business and you’re in love with this job, you’ll get somewhere.
9. What would you do if you weren’t a composer?
I’d be an architect or a furniture designer. My dad’s an architect and I grew up fascinated by architecture, buildings and city planning, things that he was interested in. On the furniture side, my father as an architect collected furniture made by different famous architects, so I have a minor obsession about that.
10. What’s your favorite live music venue?
I’ve got say Disney Hall is one of the best places I’ve ever been, if not the best place to hear live music. Any seat in that place sounds like you’re sitting right in the middle of the orchestra. I’m not sure I enjoy any other place as much because of the acoustics of the place and the sight lines. You sit anywhere and you can see everything and it sounds fantastic.