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From Rock Bands to Film Scoring, Composer and Cellist Emily Rice’s Career Comes into Focus

The Miss Juneteenth musical scribe reflects on her unique path to success

Posted in News on July 8, 2020 by
Photo: © Merissa Fernandez

British-born composer and cellist Emily Rice fell in love with music at a young age, but — like many artists — she struggled to visualize a career path that fully incorporated her passion for music. She performed with orchestras and ensembles and studied music at the University of York, where she explored combining music and images, but it wasn’t until she started playing electric cello with rock bands that her career vision started to come into focus. By writing her own cello parts with the bands — and building upon her knowledge of how an orchestra worked — she realized that composition allowed her to explore her love of music and visual storytelling. Film scoring was the perfect fit.

Rice fully immersed herself in studying musical composition, first taking classes on the weekend while working full-time, leading to her acceptance into the University of Southern California’s famed Scoring for Motion Picture and Television program. Recognized as an emerging talent, Rice was the first composer to be awarded the prestigious BAFTA Los Angeles Scholarship.

Along with assisting renowned film composers including Brian Tyler (Transformers: Prime, Crazy Rich Asians, Iron Man 3), James Newton Howard (Pretty Woman, Space Jam, The Hunger Games) and Laura Karpman (Underground, Step, Paris Can Wait), Rice was selected to participate in the Sundance Institute Film Music and Sound Design Lab, where she met director Jennifer Maytorena Taylor and writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples, leading Rice to score their films For the Love of Rutland and Miss Juneteenth, respectively.

Rice discusses how the creative process differs between projects and directors — including an exciting collaboration across language barriers — shares advice for young composers, and explains how her musical community eased the transition from the U.K. to L.A.

Tell us a little about your background in music. How did you first start playing and composing music, and when did you know you wanted it to be your career?

I started playing the cello when I was about 7 years old, and I guess that’s when my musical life began. I was too young to understand that playing was an expressive outlet, but that’s exactly what it was, and I carried on playing in orchestras and other various ensembles. I eventually started playing the electric cello in a few bands, gigging in all those sticky-floored venues in London!

I always knew that I wanted music to somehow be what I did for “work,” but it took forever to figure out what or how. It wasn’t until around 2011-2012 that I started connecting the dots between playing the cello in bands — where I was writing my own cello parts — and my interest in combining music and images, which I’d first started exploring during my undergrad degree. Once I cottoned on that music could be part of visual storytelling, it all seemed so obvious. So, I started writing and studying composition in my spare time, and fell in love with it.

Your primary instrument is the cello and you played in both orchestras and rock bands when you started out. Tell us a bit about how that evolved.

Playing in the orchestras and rock bands was my way of getting into music when I was very young — youth orchestras and whatnot. As I got older, I began experiencing performance anxiety and knew that I’d probably never enjoy performing professionally, at least not as a soloist, and the thought of auditions also terrified me! I do think that my early experience playing in orchestras allowed me to absorb a basic understanding of how the orchestra worked from the inside out, which obviously became important once I started writing for it. The cello has also stuck with me. I love writing for it and I’ll sit down with it as a last resort if I’m really struggling for an idea; there’s a way that I connect to it that’s just different to everything else.

What led you to work on the indie film Miss Juneteenth and what about the film interested you most?

I was recommended and introduced to writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples and producer Neil Creque Williams through Courtney Rodriguez [Sundance Institute’s Film Music Program Manager], who I’d met at the Sundance Composer Lab. I remember watching the rough cut of the film in early October and was completely blown away. I loved the pace and tone; the story allowed for a lot of space and was very conversational and intimate, which really drew me in. I felt the depth and importance of the story, and I believed the story.

The film never had any temp music (apart from the songs/source music), and it was working so well without it that I initially spent a lot of time wondering what I could bring to the table. The performances on screen were also amazing, and I’m a fan of the straight-ahead drama as a genre, so I was all-in across the board!

Miss Juneteenth explores a lot of complex relationships, including the relationship between a mother and a daughter. What parts of yourself did you tap into to inspire your creative process for this particular film?

I think for me, the character that stood out the most was Turquoise, and I felt invited into her inner world from the very first scene. She is at the center of all the relationships in the story too, and so this put her at the center of the film as a whole. Channing and I had conversations specifically about this; that at its core the film was about Turquoise, and not solely about Turquoise’s relationship to her daughter. Although I’m not a parent myself, I was able to connect to Turquoise in terms of her inwardness, her stillness, and her ideas around hope and striving for something. I recognized that inner thoughtfulness.

Although this film is a Black story about the Black community and the Black experience, there is an interpretation of Turquoise’s inner world on an every-human level. All the themes of the film — love, hope, joy, beauty and community — are universal, told from a vital point of view (a Black female writer/director) that we don’t get to see enough of. The score became very minimal for the most part, and reflective.

How did you collaborate with the film’s director to ensure you were aligned in the creative vision you both had for the music? Does this process differ with different directors?

This was my first project with Channing, so our collaboration and way of working together was constantly evolving throughout the course of the film. “World” and “place” are very important to her, so we had a lot of conversations about the sound of Fort Worth as a town and how we might contrast that to the sound of Turquoise’s inner world. We experimented with a lot of different guitar sounds so I could get in tune with the location of the story, and I also played a lot of improvised, unfussy cello to fit in with Channing’s vision for the film to be a little raw and unpolished.

The process is different with each director and each project. Everyone has a preferred way of working and part of my job is to be as flexible as I can whilst maintaining the integrity of the score alongside the director’s vision. It’s not usually easy, but it’s never boring!

Tell us a bit about scoring Netflix’s Sol Levante. How did that come about and is your process for approaching any project the same or different?

I was asked if I would be interested in scoring Sol Levante by one of the Netflix team members I’d previously worked with on The I-Land, a show I scored last year. I was excited about it as I hadn’t scored an anime project before, and their hope was that we could make the film cinematic. I would say that there are parts of my process that remain the same, and others that are flexible depending on the project. For example, my priority is the storytelling, so that’s always my starting point and every decision I make from there aims to serve the story.

My way of communicating on Sol Levante was certainly new; the main creative team are based in Japan and don’t speak English, so all of our communication was done through a translator and we worked hard to ensure that we picked up on as much nuance as possible. We had several calls where I would run off my list of questions or comments, wait for the translator to translate, listen to the Japanese that came back and then listen to the translator relay the response back to me in English. I enjoyed the ride!

You were selected to participate in The Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL) mentorship program a few years ago. You are also an alumna of the prestigious Sundance Institute Film Music & Sound Design Lab. How have these programs impacted your career?

I moved to L.A. from the U.K. in late 2014, and one of the most important things when you move to a new place is to figure out if and how you fit in and to find your community. With the SCL mentorship program (and BAFTA L.A., who I’ve also been involved with), I felt like I was being invited in.

The Sundance Composer Lab has probably impacted me in a more inward way, in that it created an environment where I felt I was given permission to be an artist for the first time. It definitely gave me a new kind of confidence and grounding of sorts, and I came out of it feeling creatively refreshed and inspired. They say that Disneyland is “the happiest place on Earth,” but I reckon the [Sundance] Skywalker Ranch could put up a good challenge! Through the lab I was introduced to Jennifer Maytorena Taylor, the director of For the Love of Rutland, which I scored at the end of last year, and of course Channing Godfrey Peoples, the writer and director of Miss Juneteenth.

Miss Juneteenth led me to my first Sundance Film Festival, and I got signed by my agent somewhere between the lab and the festival. The industry is a lot about momentum and you can see the domino effect. For me, my career so far has mostly been about putting one foot in front of the other and seeing what happens, whilst keeping it as fun as possible! Things like the SCL mentorship program and the Sundance Composer Lab act as little signposts along the way to show you that you’re going in the right direction.

What advice would you give to other young composers who hope to build a career in the entertainment industry? What have you learned from your own experience and from the many composers you’ve worked with like Brian Tyler, James Newton Howard and Laura Karpman?

I still consider myself new to the industry, but I think it’s important to remember that music-making is fun. Perseverance always comes to mind too, and that boils down to patience and developing a thick skin (and figuring out how the hell to survive financially at the start).

Patience is easier if you’re enjoying the ride. One thing I’ve learned from my own experience is that it’s really important to fail and make mistakes. I think we learn more from our mistakes and failures than from our successes, and we become more open and empathetic as humans as a result of them, which is important for writing music. There’s fun in failing too, if you look closely enough. Through working with other composers, I’ve seen that everyone has processes that are uniquely theirs. I’ve been lucky to witness a lot of different approaches and been able to take or leave things that I’ve felt will or won’t work for me.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on putting out soundtracks for Miss Juneteenth and For the Love of Rutland. I have a new show I was due to be working on towards the end of the year, but needless to say the pandemic has put many spanners in the works so watch this space!

How did you start working with BMI?

I first became aware of BMI during my time studying at USC. I then met Doreen Ringer-Ross at the Sundance Composer Lab and had a chance to have one of those deep-dive conversations with her — no small talk, just cutting straight to the good stuff, which I love. BMI went to great lengths to make me feel supported during my first Sundance Film Festival experience and beyond, and I’m excited to be experiencing many “career firsts” with them!