Year By The Sea is a stirring, award-winning independent film about self-discovery and friendship featuring three women of the baby-boomer generation – not an easy foothold for a younger male to write, direct and score. But BMI composer Alexander Janko did just that, winning 16 festival awards in the process and bringing out eager audiences in the Northeast for the film’s debut during the last weekend in August. Based on the New York Times and international best-selling memoir by Joan Anderson, Year By The Sea chronicles the author’s decision to retreat to Cape Cod to rediscover herself instead of following her husband when he relocates to Kansas. With the help of Joan Erikson, author and wife of famed psychologist Erik Erikson, who coined the term “identity crisis,” as well as her literary agent and several Cape Cod locals, Anderson learns to redefine her life and accept and embrace its balance and imbalance without the guilt that initially riddled her choice.
We caught up with Janko before the film opens at Lincoln Plaza and Landmark Sunshine in New York on September 8, and at Laemmle Royal, Town Center and Playhouse 7 in Los Angeles on September 15, to talk about the journey that led him to tell such an affirming story in such an impactful way. Here’s what he had to say:
Tell us a bit about the story of Year By The Sea. What about Joan Anderson’s book inspired you to get involved in the project?
When Joan’s memoir magically appeared on my kitchen counter, I was at a crossroads: our first child’s stillbirth had collided with my first sleeper hit. Nobody could have predicted either, and everyone thought I was nuts when I pulled the ripcord on Hollywood. But the bloom had fallen from my proverbial rose. I couldn’t walk into the studio. I couldn’t sit down at the piano. All I could do was read and, strangely, write. Words, not music. One door had shut while another floodgate opened. And Joan’s first sentence—the decision to separate seemed to happen overnight—sounded a clarion. If she could find the courage to embrace change at 50, certainly I could muster the strength to seek my raison d’être.
You wrote the music for My Big Fat Greek Wedding and noted you felt a bit pigeon-holed as a composer after that. What do you hope you will convey as a composer with Year by the Sea?
It’s never too late to reclaim your life! That’s the tagline of our movie, but it evolved from my frustration as an artist struggling to find his voice. For years, I was beholden to the studio system: emulating temp scores, orchestrating soundalikes, churring out notes like widgets—soul-sucking work. Music wasn’t sacred anymore. It was business. And like any business, I found myself jockeying for gigs and jonesing for success. I yearned to find meaning as a musician again. To feel the ebb and flow of the resonance inside me. This score is a total 180. No hiding behind orchestral fireworks. A very simple tone poem to the sea. Sometimes less is more. And if nothing else, proof (I hope) that I’m not just “that lucky Greek guy.”
You’ve said that your first love is music, but you wrote and directed Year By The Sea in addition to scoring it. After such rewarding reviews, would you repeat this “triple threat” performance?
The great irony is I never set out to direct Year By The Sea. I was seeking a story I wanted to score. And the only way I could possibly interest an actor was to develop a script. And since I didn’t have the money to hire a writer, I figured composing was storytelling with music, so all I needed to do was to try telling a story with words. My point, I suppose, is I didn’t know any better. In hindsight, it was nuts. But there were benefits, too. Having the composer in the room with the writer in the room with the director from the beginning is a much more organic process. But it’s also a bit schizophrenic. So the question really is: am I crazy enough to three-peat?
You’ve named your mentors as BMI composers Alan Silvestri and David Newman. What advice did they give you that helped you while making Year By The Sea?
The first thing Alan said to me when I met him fresh from college was “if you want a pot to fall on your head, you need to walk beneath tall buildings.” At the time, I heard the obvious: LA is where the film business lives. That’s the text. 25 years later, I finally understand the subtext: to achieve something special, one must take risks. And making a movie is very risky business—dodging myriad pots dropping like firebombs. Dave taught me how to orchestrate, live. Then he brokered my first scoring gig. He never held me back, and always encouraged me to be true to myself. There were days on set when I was under siege and the only way I survived was thanks to Dave’s tutelage on the scoring stage.
If you could do it all over again, knowing what you know now about writing, directing, scoring and getting a film distributed, what if anything would you do differently?
Curate your audience from day one and do everything within your power to budget for more time. Money isn’t the arbiter of quality. Quite the opposite, actually. Orson Welles said it best: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” The whole joy of creating something from nothing is having the time to incubate an idea. Time to rewrite. Time to prep. Time to try a variety of direction on set. Time to rescore. And time to develop a comprehensive distribution strategy. But not so much time that you start to overthink, overwrite, overdirect, overscore…though the jury’s still out on whether it’s possible to over-distribute!