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John Psathas interview

The Kiwi composer has the soundtrack bug after his success with "pavlova western" Good for Nothing.

No small part of the success of the new Kiwi “pavlova western” Good for Nothing is its soundtrack, performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. It’s a soundtrack that captures magnificently (and Magnificent Seven-ly) the spirit of the western, written with a feel for the genre and its traditions – from Elmer Bernstein to Ennio Morricone – rather than parodying them.

Step forward, John Psathas. Psathas is a New Zealand composer whose music is performed around the world – and was heard throughout almost the entire world in the case of that for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Good for Nothing director Mike Wallis describes it as “an absolute coup” getting Psathas after the film’s original composer recommended him when he had to leave the project “because he had a dream offer”.

On paper, a self-financed New Zealand western by a first-time director might not have seemed a “dream offer” for a composer of Psathas’s standing, but Psathas got to see the film.

“That is how I was introduced to it,” he says. “I had been approached about something like four films by this stage in the past that I had turned down. The reason is I feel I need to really connect with the film in order to do a good job with the music, and when I watched this film firstly I laughed a lot, at the funny bits, and I also just felt straight away there was a really big heart to the film. It spoke in a way that was very powerful. As I watched the film, I had a very strong emotional response and I knew that if I got involved in writing the music I would bring out in the music that emotional response. Which is the response of the audience, of course. So, essentially, as I watched it I felt the film and believed I could musically contribute to the really powerful feeling I’d had.”

It wasn’t that Good for Nothing was a western per se. “I never imagined I would write music for a western. You just never know what you’re going to connect with. People say they are huge fans of western films. I’m a sort of moderate fan. There are some I really like but I’m not a western fetishist. It’s not my thing.”

Parody, or at least pastiche, was an early possibility for the soundtrack. “Mike and I, one of the first things we discussed was the humour in the film and the potential to capitalise on that humour by referencing the old westerns, the Ennio Morricone soundtracks in the Sergio Leone films. We actually played around with that for a while but it was just too obvious and it was too busy referencing other things and not being the film. So we moved on from that quite quickly.”

One of the few things Wallis imposed on the soundtrack was it had to be entirely acoustic. “It’s interesting the impact that has on the overall effect,” says Psathas. “The biggest consideration in terms of the score was that it felt like it belonged to the world of the film. That was something we kept coming back to over and over again, and it affected choices very much.”

Contemporary, non-western soundtracks were actually more of a reference point for Psathas than westerns, although he thinks he must have “internalised a whole bunch of things”, including Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven. “There’s a way of putting strings with low percussion that seems to evoke guys on horses with purpose.”

As notable as the score throughout Good for Nothing are the moments when it drops out and the film trusts to natural environmental sounds – be it the wind, horses breathing or men spitting.

Wallis says we have Psathas as much as him to thank for that.

“I had a really amazing moment,” says Psathas. “We had been through the whole experience of composing, recording and editing [the music] and we were just putting it into the film and seeing it sit there with everything else. And at one point I just said to all the people sitting at the mixing console – there were about five people there – ‘I don’t think we need this music at this point.’ This was music we had had the NZSO record and we had put all this effort into and at that point I said, ‘I think all the environmental sounds are beautiful here. We don’t need music. There’s been music just up to this moment and there’s music coming up again. Let’s cut it.’ And they all turned to me, all the heads in the room, and I said to them, ‘Is that the first time a composer has ever suggested you cut music?’ And they said, ‘Absolutely it’s the first time.’ For me, I felt really good about that. It just confirmed the film was paramount for me, not the score.”

The score itself is nonetheless now available in its own right, via iTunes. Wallis was listening to it the other day in Wellington when he went to buy some takeout. “I was just so thrilled standing there on Courtenay Place listening to this incredible score and going, ‘Wow, it’s part of our film.’ It was a real buzz.”

For Psathas, the thrill was experiencing the score on the big screen. “It was just incredible. I’ve got to tell you, I’m in love with this medium. I always have been. Even though it’s my first feature film, I’ve been preparing for it my whole life. I’ve explored the whole thing about scoring for film. I’ve read about it. I’ve analysed many film scores. Never knowing if I’d do it myself. And so when the time came there was a lot already in place for me.”

Psathas enjoyed it so much he’s keen to do it again, and is already looking at three other films he’s been approached about, two Kiwi and one international.

“One of them is just the most incredible … I was sitting opposite the director when I was in New York recently just doing the face-to-face thing and seeing if it was going to work and I just sat opposite this guy going, ‘What am I doing here?’ Because when you eventually find out who it is, if the project goes ahead, it’s just phenomenal that I would be there. Because this person has the choice of anybody.

“It seems like there’s a future in this for me and I feel really good about that. The good thing is I can be fussy. I don’t have to take every project that comes my way, by any means. That’s why this was my first feature film and not my fifth. Because with the other ones I was offered I thought, ‘I could probably do these but they just don’t resonate with me strongly enough.’”

GOOD FOR NOTHING, opens May 3.