Steven Price interview: ‘Over the Moon’ composer
Steven Price jumped at the opportunity to score “Over the Moon,” the animated feature film directorial debut of animation legend Glen Keane. “It was an invite to have a chat, which we did, and they sent me the script and they sent me some of the visuals, which were a lot of his hand-drawn visuals,” Price reveals during Gold Derby’s Meet the BTL Experts: Film Composers panel (watch above). “When we did talk … you desperately wanted to be involved.”
The film follows a teenage girl named Fei Fei (voiced by Cathy Ang), who as a child learned of Chang’e (voiced by Phillipa Soo), the Moon goddess in Chinese mythology, from her mother. After her mother dies and her father gets engaged several years later, her dad reveals he no longer believes in Chang’e, inspiring Fei Fei to build a rocket to fly to the moon to prove that Chang’e is real.
Unlike most conversations with directors, Price and Keane did not discuss what kind of sound he was looking for. In fact, Price doesn’t believe Keane asked for “any sort of music” at any point during their chat. Instead, Keane, who won the Best Animated Short Oscar with Kobe Bryant for “Dear Basketball” (2018), broke down his animation process for the characters.
“[Keane] would start to go into great detail about every element of the way [Fei Fei’s] face would move, the way an eyebrow would curve, the way the character’s hair was designed — the process he’d gone through to create that,” Price recalls. “And it kind of strangely gave me the backstory of the character and the entire motivations, which musically seemed to be a great way of getting into things. You suddenly got a real sense of this character, and when he described Fei Fei’s hair as spiky and it’s a reflection of her energy because she’s so full of ideas and drive, that kind of drove you straight to the keyboard to write a tune that lived up to what he’d drawn.”
One of Price’s goals was to avoid crafting a Westernized style of Chinese music often found in Hollywood films. He and the producers discussed early on about incorporating Chinese instruments to “make the film feel like it really was Chinese through every element of it, but without doing it in a clichéd kind of way.” The Oscar winner recorded soloists playing the erhu and guzheng before he had even written anything and then manipulated the sounds in his studio.
“It was just sort of notes and single lines and textures. And then I would take those into my little studio and started playing with them and stretching them and manipulating them. It was kind of like putting a background on a painting before you start putting your details and figures in there, and that was a real help to me,” he describes. “It felt like it guided me in a way without feeling like I’m trying to write a cliché that I was so ill-prepared for. Hopefully it felt like China was present in every note without me sort of doing a clichéd version.”
The other element was that “Over the Moon” is also a musical featuring eight original songs. And the tunes run the genre gamut from Broadway to pop to hip-hop. But Price is no stranger to composing scores to complement songs — he did “Baby Driver” (2017). “In ‘Baby Driver,’ there were so many songs. In this, there were, I think, eight pre-written songs before I had gotten involved, and they had all been placed in their positions in the film. But they’re really sort of disparate-sounding songs. … I was really aware that the score really needed to hold the hand through that and make that all feel part of this story, and that became a fun challenge,” he says. “We recorded the orchestrations for the songs as part of the main sessions and tried to bring a unity to it that way. I was weaving fragments of song ideas where appropriate into the score, little motifs here and there and callbacks in different places where it felt it helped the story. And hopefully it felt like this whole thing was a seamless journey that continuously opens up as Fei Fei’s experience opens up.”