Craig Richey Discusses Score for Powerful Canadian/Ukrainian Drama, “They Who Surround Us”

Posted in News on April 10, 2024

BMI film composer Craig Richey boasts a body of work that solidifies him as a name to watch. With over 48 titles to his credit, Richey is a Sundance Fellow, an alumnus of the Composers Lab and an Advisor in the Sundance Film Music and Sound Design Lab at Skywalker Sound. His work has appeared at prestigious film festivals like Sundance, the Toronto International Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, SXSW, Tribeca, Sedona International Film Festival, Outfest and many others. He’s also been a contributor to BMI’s Composer Roundtable Panels at festivals like Sundance and SXSW. His credits include What We Find On The Road, Being Frank, Lovely & Amazing and Friends With Money, among many other feature films, as well as documentaries such as RJ Cutler’s The World According To Dick Cheney and Academy Award nominee Andrea Nevins’ The Cowboy & The Queen. Richey’s television credits include the Apple TV + series ‘Dear…’ (Seasons 1 and 2 are currently streaming on Apple TV+) and This Machine / CNN Documentary series Eleanor & Franklin.

One of Richey’s more recent projects, however, was a 2021 film that is dear to his heart. In collaboration with his husband, writer, director and lead actor, Troy Rupstash, Richey scored the music for They Who Surround Us, a gripping Canadian/Ukrainian drama that is Rupstash’s directorial debut. An evocative portrayal of grief, the film centers around the protagonist’s sudden and tragic loss of a spouse, a traumatic experience that hearkens back to the character’s childhood in Ukraine.

Since the film’s original release, the story of They Who Surround Us has taken on even greater relevance given the ongoing war in Ukraine. BMI caught up with Craig Richey just as the film was becoming available to stream on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and Google Play, to discuss his work on this remarkable film. Here’s what he had to say.

Your most recent project, They Who Surround Us, is finally available to be streamed here in the US. This project was obviously very meaningful to you, in that the film was written, directed by and stars your husband, Troy Rupstash. Please describe the experience of working on this labor of love.

It was a remarkable experience on so many levels. First, I have scored movies that Troy was in. I have marveled at his talent and brilliance as an actor. And he’s seen me working in my studio. But finally, we got to make a film together! After being together for 35 years, to have a new creative venture together and first-time collaboration like this was a profound experience for us both. It was so rewarding, so enriching, and we had so much fun!

This was the first film I’ve worked on where I was in on it from its very inception - when it was just an idea that Troy was developing. Before he wrote the script, he entered the Duplass Brothers Hometown Heroes competition. The kick-off in that competition is just the presentation of an idea for a film, and its mission is to encourage filmmakers to go back to their hometowns to make a film about underrepresented communities. Troy was one of ten finalists, and to get to that point so much momentum and interest had been created that Troy was able to source the funding to make the film.

Troy’s maternal grandmother fled Ukraine in the 1930s after witnessing her parents being shot by Russian soldiers. A brother she left behind became a Ukrainian soldier that the family thought had died in Siberia. Troy grew up with a photo of him, one that always haunted him and that he felt connected to. On a trip to Ukraine doing family research, Troy learned his great uncle Stefan had survived, returned from Siberia, married, and had a child. He later died in the woods fighting for the Ukrainian resistance army UPA. But Troy was able to meet Stefan’s daughter - a first cousin to his mother that no one knew existed! Troy wanted to write a film somehow inspired by his Ukrainian heritage and his grandmother’s and great uncle’s experience. Sadly, this story is all too relevant as we see what is happening in Ukraine all over again, understanding that generations to come will be affected by this as was Troy’s family.

On Troy’s research trips to Vegreville, Alberta Canada (the small Ukrainian settlement where he grew up) he would call me and tell me about an idea for a scene - for example, a farmer hearing a haunting voice singing and luring him into the woods - and basically said “OK go! Write me something.” So, I would record an idea and send him an MP3. We did this daily for some time. The result was a series of themes and pieces of music that Troy would listen to as he wrote and that became the basis for the score. I loved the idea of pre-conceiving the music for They Who Surround Us to have its own life, directly inspired by Troy’s story, earning its place in the film without being “scored” to picture. For whatever reason, and it’s hard to explain it any other way, not doing it that way felt like it would be “dishonest.” Troy’s film and its inspiration is so raw, simple, and pure. The music needed to participate in that. Luckily, it succeeded. Once we started dropping pieces of music into the film, they tended to just “work” and it was a question of where they would go, and which ones would belong to whom thematically. There were a few scenes that needed a certain kind of build in tension that required a more traditional approach, but those were the exceptions.

Beyond music, I understand you worked with Troy on other aspects of the project.

I also helped Troy with story editing once the script was done which was so much fun and was like working on a beautiful puzzle. We had to figure out how and where to flip back and forth between 1987 Alberta and 1943 Ukraine with a series of flashbacks that gradually reveal how the main character (played by Troy) tragically lost his wife and the memories that profound loss triggered of his own childhood trauma as he fled Ukraine.

Due to the pandemic, we ended up doing quite a bit of the film editing ourselves which was another hallelujah moment for me - I fell in love with film editing. These processes got me so intimate with the story and its inspiration - I was steeped in it. I came at it from all sides.

Finally, being a first-time filmmaker, Troy (and I right alongside him) had to learn so much about producing. My experience on dub stages for many films prepared me to oversee our sound design and final mix. So, the two of us were called to gather all the experience and abilities we had, or needed to develop, to be able to finish the film in a way we were ultimately so proud of. And what a blessing to have the privilege to do together, from start to finish, something we’d only done separately over so many years. So, yes, as you suggested, it was indeed a “labor of love” and although it is in every way Troy’s creation, his beautiful film, it is very much “our baby.” We are thrilled to finally have it released here in the US and in the UK by The Film Arcade.

As a film composer, what do you consider the most valuable aspect to a fruitful collaboration?

Trust. Respect. Kind Honesty. Exploration. And fun! Anyone creating something out of nothing who cares deeply about the integrity of their work, has a lot of vulnerabilities, uncertainties and often a fear of failure. From my experience, almost everyone on the film feels this way - especially the writer/director. I’ve met very few people who have not struggled with ‘imposter syndrome’. So, when a composer gets into the sandbox with the director, it’s really helpful to have compassion for each other and to know most of us have this in common. It’s good to converse about that. A sort of “oh whew, you, too!?” The director is usually further along, having shot the film and showing up with a rough cut….but often, this is the stage where the director and producers are in the final stages and may be terrified that their film is not what they’d hoped it would be. So, we are all under pressure. Trust is everything. To make great art, you have to be willing to fail, to venture into new territory. A good director knows this and encourages the composer to do this, just as they hopefully did with the actors, the art department and director of photography. One director I have worked with a lot could tell I was procrastinating on scoring a long six minute “denouement,” feeling so much pressure to support the scene where all the plot points align, and we get to the finish. Finally, she said, “Craig, please go home and just write me a s**ty cue. Can you do that?” I laughed and said yes, I thought I could do that. And it empowered me to take the pressure off myself, try to have fun - to just write something! And that cue I wrote ended up being approved for that scene. She gave me permission to fail. So, exploration is all part of that - there needs to be safety to explore together - to try different approaches, be bold, be daring, take risks. And it has to be fun. We are in make-believe land, making up stories. Playing in the sandbox. And everyone wants to be hanging out with someone with whom they can have a good time or else what’s the point, right? I love thinking of myself as part of the filmmaking team - a storyteller as much or more than a “composer” and when I bring this attitude into my collaborations, I can see how helpful it is. It helps me not to be too precious about a certain idea, or a certain cue. It encourages me to try multiple versions of cues before getting any feedback. That fosters a sense for both of us (director and me) that there is abundance, many ways to look at scenes. The director instantly feels more comfortable both knowing and expressing when something doesn’t work for them. There is no fear of “hurting my feelings.” When I mentored in the Sundance Film Music and Sound Design Lab this was the crux of what I tried to do in helping nurture composer / director relationships. And my passion for this also led to the creation of a Film Music Intensive at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood.

How would you describe your creative process?

For me I also have to cultivate trust and faith in myself. Being willing to experiment - to be in non-judgment and respect the mystery of the creative process. Not to try to control it at the outset. All that against the inevitable backdrop of “who did I trick to get this gig? I have no idea what I’m doing!” But I have come to trust my routine, how I typically get started on a score - after the habitual handful of days I procrastinate of course!  I watch the film, possibly several times. Then I put it away and let it soak in. Then, away from picture, I just write everything that comes into my head - usually for a week or so. I don’t judge it. I’ve had so many themes or cues that I love once finished that started with a strong impulse to reject. So, I have learned not to do that. I tell that voice to shut up or turn down its volume. Whatever pops up, I go with it and record it. For me, this is the only process I have found that invites the purest gems of inspiration - always “accidents” that often emerge when least expected. I also use this sketching process to explore instrumentation choices. I end up with a little library of ideas. Often ten to twenty of them. I usually give the sketches to the editor to play with, to the director, and sometimes producers. Everyone can listen without having to give “notes” - no pressure to “approve” or “reject.” It’s always a great conversation starter and there is always something for me to learn from the responses. Nine times out of ten it is a vote of confidence that somewhere in there I have the material I need. Next, I start throwing those ideas into the film and see what the film likes or what it “spits out.” I look for and cherish the wonderful accidents as the music interacts with the picture. I love inviting “chance” into my creative process. Once I am sold that I have found my “pallet” of thematic ideas and instrumentation, I know I am ready to go. With the pallet in place, the scoring process is less about composing scene by scene but is more about arranging the items already stacked up in my toolbox. I don’t have to start from scratch and reinvent the wheel at each new cue.

The other important thing for me is that I do not work chronologically necessarily. In terms of the film and unfolding story, often I like to go way into the film to pivotal or crucial moments (end of Act II for example) to see what works, knowing that if I have nailed that down, backwards engineering from there is much easier. I can gradually plant those ideas and develop the arc that leads to important climaxes in story or character. Within a cue, I rarely work in a totally linear fashion. I might well know what needs to happen halfway through. Which of my elements do I want to hear and when? So, I often have a skeletal structure full of holes that I gradually fill in - like adding clay little by little until the whole cue has the desired shape. It’s much more like sculpting than writing music. I’ve gained much confidence over the years in the “craft” part of the process - but the initial inspiration is always the great mysterious unknown and therefore can bring up apprehension. So I have a system that I know will work if I trust it, put up the sail and catch the wind, regardless of how I “feel” about the first step.

You’ve worked on a wide variety of film projects. Do you find your approach to documentary films differs from scoring narrative films? How so?

First, I can say what is identical about both for me. In both cases what I am trying to do with the music is find the “truth.” So, in that way, a narrative feature or a documentary are the same in that they both have an unfolding story, usually focusing on certain characters and experiencing their evolution through the course of the film, and there is some truth they are aiming to reveal. Every film has its “heart.” That’s where I live. The music may need to function differently in terms of its purpose in a scene or segment. But that said, I have been very lucky to work on special docs with wonderful filmmakers like RJ Cutler, Miranda Bailey, Andrea Nevins and Seth Gordon, who were never interested in “backdrop” music that just spins its wheels and “keeps things moving.” Those directors encouraged me to score the film as if it were a narrative feature, and that was a wonderful gift. Also, their films are intensely character driven, so I have approached them in terms of my creative process exactly the same as any narrative feature, establishing and developing recurring themes, following and supporting the emotional evolution of character and story.

What advice would you share with aspiring film composers looking to emulate your success?

I’ll share what the great film composer George S. Clinton said to me: “if anyone asks you to score their film, say yes, and do your very best job, whether you get paid or not.” So, to young composers I am always advising that they need to find new filmmakers, student films, anything to log the hours developing some skill, practicing the craft and gaining experience. Seeking assistantships and apprenticeships with established composers is a very valuable way into the business. That was not how I did it so I can’t advise how to go about that with any detail. I also strongly advise them to watch tons of movies. Understand film and storytelling structure. Read screenplays. Listen to film soundtracks. Try to discern what makes a piece of music feel more “filmic.” When watching films, feast on the score! Try to understand how and why the music is doing what it is doing. And try to notice how “minimal” it might be. Film music does not need to be complex and clever. It needs to accomplish a specific emotional task as one layer of the storytelling. Young composers tend to write music that is too aerobic and “busy,” that tries to impress too much with its complexity, composition “chops.” And you can feel that aim has nothing to do with fulfilling the director’s vision or the purpose of music in film. It’s not a vehicle for the composer. And most often it is just not necessary. So, with the composers I have mentored, I have always advised them to simplify and to understand “harmonic rhythm” - slow it way down. That’s one of the most important lessons I learned.

I strongly advise newer composers to truly respect their director! It’s a collaboration. You are supposed to mold and bend and evolve. I sometimes find minimally experienced composers can view the director as an antagonist, someone who represents resistance and who doesn’t “know” about music. I think that is arrogant. First, the director is not supposed to know all about music. That’s your job. And the director (often also the writer) has been living with this project a long time - most often for years. Your fresh perspective is needed, and so important, but you have to remember that the director has already long been in the process of fulfilling a vision and bringing the script to life. You are joining that process. I remember in my early days that notes would stress me out. What I know now is that I was afraid I couldn’t address the notes properly. That I would fail. So, I was desperate for my first efforts to be immediately approved with minimal changes requested. That is partly why I love creating multiple versions of cues. I practice giving myself notes. I’ve tried one approach, now let me try something completely different. That process gives me direct knowledge that I can be flexible - that I can enjoy that process. And so, I am no longer made anxious by a request to either tweak a cue or completely do it over differently. I think it’s fun. I strongly advise new film composers to adopt that. If you can’t find a way to make that process fun, then you’ll be in a lot of stress and might be in the wrong business. Then there’s the ego - which of course is just another layer of insecurity. Yes, I want my work to be appreciated, but it is not the director’s job to make me feel loved and approved of. I don’t want them to “worry” that their response to a cue would hurt my feelings. That’s no fun. I don’t want to be high maintenance! I want to be flexible, agreeable, curious. Directors very often are comfortable speaking with the DP, the actors, the art department, but are very challenged knowing how to talk to a composer. We have to help them with that. We have to talk story, emotion, character, theme - the director’s language - as much as we can. Directors love that conversation, as they should. We are the ones who have to learn the art of translating what we learn into musical terms, results.

What role has BMI played in your career?

BMI has been amazing over the years providing various opportunities and a sense of community. Composing is a lonely business. So, the annual Awards Dinner, the conducting workshop, the roundtables at Sundance, SXSW, social gatherings at the Sundance Film Festival and BMI’s involvement in the Sundance Composers Lab all added up to fostering a sense of being part of a larger community. I’ll never forget the first time I met former VP of Creative Relations Doreen Ringer-Ross. It was at a screening of the first film I scored after moving to LA: Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing at the LA Film Festival. I was introduced to her by the music supervisor who said, “Craig, this is Doreen from BMI and she made sure there was a copy of your soundtrack in every gift bag at the after-party.” My response: “Can I hug you?!”  And we’ve been great friends ever since. I worked with music supervisor Tracy McKnight, the current BMI VP, Creative, Film, TV & Visual Media, on a film years ago and so I can boast yet another person I consider a long-time friend and colleague as a special connection at BMI. I never imagined that I would have these kinds of relationships in a big “industry” organization like BMI. The sense of personal attention I get from BMI is deeply, deeply appreciated - and it’s because of the people.

They Who Surround Us is available on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play. The official soundtrack to They Who Surround Us is available on Apple Music, Amazon, Spotify and other streaming services.




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