Nicole Russin-McFarland exposes her fragility, soul, charisma, and personal ambitions with Esther in Wonderland. Juggling film directing and film score composing, her secret to success is giving film music a mainstream appeal. With the introduction of her first animated feature film this year, The Homework’s Revenge: Esther in Wonderland, we chatted about Nicole’s pop culture influences to the positive changes she wants to make creating diversity opportunities in the film score industry.
What does film score music mean to you?
I turn on film score and classical music from the past and suddenly, it feels like I am in another era. Good riddance to all that is wrong with the world in the year 2020. I am back when people actually cared about their art, and the art of marketing that art into the mainstream. I might be in the 1800’s, or the 1920’s. Maybe the golden age of Hollywood. But never am I alive now. With grand music of the past, I am a character in the film I am writing that is my life. You can be assured, only I write my own life’s screenplay.
What makes a film score good?
I can listen to a work and see the entire film. I wrote a lyric on this song I reworked in a part two, “Dark Fantasy (Hollywood Queen Version.” Something I recently did that is like, what if we took vintage music and tried it with a trap influence because the original was my old 16 year old self at school with friends as we pretended pop stars hired us in cooking class. My lyrics at the end are, “In my dark fantasy, my music speaks for me. Your eyes closed, hearing, see within my dreams.” I always hope someday people will quite literally see within my dreams without me saying a word, communicating through this beautiful medium that is music. If people may do so with my film music, all the better.
Should audiences decide for themselves how to feel hearing the music?
I present the music. You make what you will of it. People listening to my film music hear all kinds of things. Some of it is what I had in mind. Some things said to me about it, I never imagined that thinking possible. Film music is most effective when people see what they want to believe in it. My most recent album, Esther in Wonderland, so far has been the best at bringing that out to those who listen to it. The only people so far who have not responded well to it are a stuffy few corporate end of Hollywood workers. They are stuck in their ways with what animation music is supposed to sound like. Everyone else like my social media friends, people finding my film score album on streaming for the first time who never knew who I was, film directors, actors, the average person out there…all of those people are the majority and really like it. I don’t care about impressing a few mean people if the majority of the world loves what I am doing. I am grateful to everyone who loves it enough to stream it!
Can you take us through the development of your Esther in Wonderland film score?
The album is based on music I heard in my dreams when my brain rewrote Peer Gynt. Really! The dream visuals were not as clear to me when I woke up. I remembered the music. This was a few years back. The full film title is The Homework’s Revenge: Esther in Wonderland. My film score album is the portion of the movie when the character goes into Alice’s wonderland.
For people who don’t get it, I describe it as Studio Ghibli light. Imagine now, a lower budget Hayao Miyazaki movie with a low budget film score. The heart is there. Maybe not the millions of dollars poured into either. I grew up being gifted Studio Ghibli movies and other Japanese animation. You hear the Japanese film music for animation influences, like it or not, it seems I cannot turn them off in my mind, with how I created my Esther in Wonderland film music.
Western people are so used to only getting their animation world music from Pixar movies and the many animated movies imitating that style. Pixar does a beautiful job at its film music. The Pixar method happens to be only one style of film music made for animation. I am heavily inspired by old Walt Disney and Studio Ghibli work, where the film music is glued to the story as an important invisible character. I am not saying I am more talented than some big names because, you need to be humble. I am different. Difference is beautiful. Yes, I intend on covering animated and live action films as a filmmaker and film score composer but if anyone is going to bring back old Walt Disney vibes and introduce Hayao Miyazaki’s touch to Western films, it is me. Starting with my film music for animation.
In the final wonderland portion scene of my film I am working on, my character pays tribute to Spirited Away. We see the train, and it morphs into her crossing the red bridge, but rather than into the bathhouse in Japan, I go from the big city of Chicago-York, a blend of the two places I love, into Hollywood. The characters are doing like Spirited Away, telling me to be careful on the bridge because someone could find out I am a human. But as I explain in the film, “I want the world to know I am human.” If you pair up my original score, which starts out with an original theme and turns into this almost centuries old redo of Peer Gynt … I am referring to track 10 on the album, “I Love You, Lewis Carroll” … if you run that on a muted YouTube trailer for Spirited Away, my music sounds nothing like it but has the spirit of a Japanese work and almost fits it. I hope this explains it to people well and what I believe it.
My incident on the famous red bridge inspired by Spirited Away reflects my journey and how I am so talkative despite being somewhat shy with the media and people on my social media friends. The “right thing to do” according to film score gatekeepers and, really, people in general in the film industry, is you as a female have to sit down with press like “What’s in your bag?” and never talk about your weaknesses or human qualities. Happiness? Humor? Seriously? You are supposed to be a product sold to the masses. Contrary to that, if you examine gentlemen I love who are the top of their professions in filmmaking and Mr. Zimmer in film music, those people excel because they are human. When I decide on the bridge to let everyone know I am human and enter into the Hollywood within Alice in Wonderland against the wishes of the Queen of Hearts, it is a metaphor for me defying what people at the lower end of the pyramid do. How I am exceling and will have a huge Hollywood career in the future because I am human. Generally, the people who act like products get a bit of success but never the lasting success of the men I admire. If people haven’t seen Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the reference I make is how the girl in that movie has to eat fruit and cross the bridge carefully so nobody notices there is a human in a land of mystical Shinto creatures called kami.
What instrument do you play?
I am best at flute. Flute is my music language mentally. Any time I write, I write in sort of a one track idea and have to go back and add the secondary and third parts of the music. Flute isn’t really a cool instrument like the electric guitar. Someday, I want to learn how to shred music on an electric guitar better than anyone and have been a bit sluggish on that goal. Maybe picking up a guitar for the first time could be a step, haha. I don’t know, I need a place to practice and make lots of noise. Right now, I don’t live in an ideal situation. The people all around the block are almost bound to complain about noise ordinances, shutting me down.
Beyond that, I know piano and the clarinet. I am amazing at the piano when I play my own material. Not to brag, but listen to this track I have that is simply flying fingers called “The Duchess of Nightmares,” off my O Girl of a Dream film music. That song is like a tongue twister on the piano! If I were to play someone else’s music, I would have an attitude of “whatever, it isn’t mine,” and be less into it. Clarinet…it’s not fun like flute for me. Reeds splitting everywhere into splinters. Flute doesn’t have reeds. I don’t know. Why do we have to define ourselves for anything in life? Why must I know why I like the flute? I like it. Good enough.
How is your film score music unique?
As I said, film music in Western cinema for the past two decades, outside of what a few influential composers do, is largely gentle chords drawn out when someone is crying on camera. Pounding sounds without a melody when things move faster on screen. If you will, often an absence of any real melody within the film score at all. A really big deal film score I was shocked did well within the past few years covers maybe three notes tops. It’s mostly all random noise.
Everyone I played the score on Spotify off my phone to when I explain to businessmen and others about life is like, “That did well?” Or, “That sounds like the trash truck picking up my recyclables. I can record that and have a famous film score?” I explain, “The film score community propped this up in an ultimate Emperor’s New Clothes method. They told the high brow media to cover it. The high brow media told people to like it. It seems to do OK online. Not like Hans Zimmer’s work, which connects with people with his amazing persona, but the mean people in the film score world all think this is good and reward the person with endless compliments.”
It’s almost as if nobody cares that the film music relates to people anymore. People throw massive shade at my love for Studio Ghibli, but it’s like, be realistic. How many people out there feel touched and inspired by the My Neighbor Totoro film score? How many people are inspired by this new score you’re promoting that sounds like, as one businessman put it, the trash truck jamming used Diet Coke cans in the back?
I am consistently fighting to bring music back into it connecting with people. With the way things are right now, it seems we have Hans Zimmer doing that, and nobody else to take over for when he is gone. I hope that I, along with others, can do that for future generations. I might need to band together with people who are also being shut out of the film industry by gatekeepers because of what they look like and act like, but I will do it.
You are a busy person. Why did you agree to this interview?
Exclusivity doesn’t sell. Neiman Marcus is burned to the ground as we speak with bankruptcy troubles. We could all view them as marketing gone wrong. Neiman Marcus used to only be kind to customers who looked, acted, and sounded the same way. If you weren’t that, they gave you bad service. Asian and black people with money used to tell me how they wouldn’t shop there because they were followed by security guards or mistreated as white women who all had the same look, who often didn’t buy anything but looked the part, were the ones being treated well. Some white people in the music scene I have met were mistreated if they did not meet the criteria of what a customer looks like. Only a small percentage of the population had the exclusive look they wanted from people wearing the merchandise. You can imagine, if you only want to sell to a limited number of people, let’s go with 5 percent of people, you narrow down the amount money you can make. You alienate everyone else. Will you really convince people to buy from Neiman Marcus? The story did not, and now, it is failing miserably suffering a fate brought onto itself. COVID-19 didn’t murder off Neiman Marcus. It ended itself over the years. COVID-19 only took the last breath from the store.
All right, from mainstream financial news business to the business of show business, relaying this back to film score folks. The film score community has a sizeable share of people who, like Neiman Marcus, think only men and women who look, dress, compose similarly, and act off the film score composer script and rarely market their music are the way to go. They will have people limiting media interviews because the outlets are not high brow. Composers will hardly do any press. Newer composers will avoid social media that makes them look like human beings because it is “unprofessional” or “distracting.” And we expect film music to connect with people? To sell? Have lots of streams? Inspire others? Inspire future generations? Grow a fanbase? You cannot develop an interest in the film score profession or your composers if exclusivity is your motto.
If you are a new name in the film music world and don’t look and act like that, often composing similar music, the agents who only represent film score composers won’t sign you. People in other ends of the business around film music won’t work with you. This goes for myself, the rockers I meet wanting to transition into the profession from mainstream careers, women who don’t have the husband and kids “homemaker when I am not composing!” angle, why don’t we argue, anyone with a personality who actually wants to promote what they do? We all get shut out over the exclusivity issue. Only people who follow the rulebook are “real” composers.
Particularly, this blatant racism, bigotry, and xenophobia exists. The people, past and present, I happen to draw inspiration from are black, men with foreign accents, LGBTQ, Asian. I love everyone from Hayao Miyazaki and how he works with music in his animation, to Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo with their influence on pop culture when I was a teenager, to Cole Porter with how he took music mainstream, to today’s big name film music and pop culture music men who are often from Germany and Sweden. I am not supposed to find inspiration in these men’s career achievements because they don’t fit the unspoken rulebook of “one must be a white, heterosexual (or closeted, never discovered to be LGBTQ) man from these parts of the world.” Pharrell Williams’ groundbreaking expression of defying gender through fashion, something I myself want part of with how I am mixing women’s and men’s clothing? Forget it. Eminem and his poetic autobiographical art in hip hop, the good and the bad? Anything I draw inspiration from is banned in the unspoken rulebook of industry hypocrisy from this time period. I am sorry my influences are not high brow enough for you. What are you gonna do about it? Throw me in Monopoly jail beside the thimble and the metal battleship? Haters will hate, as all the while they are hating, I will be succeeding in my career right to the top because I value humanity over the ridiculous high brow expectations nobody really lives up to.
A very hypocritical world, indeed. People who all proclaim they love equality and difference, when you catch them in action day to day at the workplace? They roll their eyes, pop their eyes out, grow silent, turn rude, tell you the worst garbage ever, and are really awful if you mention your influence grows from anyone who isn’t the image of who a great musician is. Cole Porter is long dead, people in the industry talk about how “horrible!” it was he couldn’t be out as himself, and yet, people working at the entries of the film industry still want to throw him in the closet and burn you at the stake for drawing inspiration from anyone who isn’t a white, native English speaker, straight male musician.
I know your immediate question were this an in person interview would be, “What do you plan on doing about it to change things?”
To instill change in the world, someday I want to set up something introducing talent to the world who don’t fit the stereotypes of what film score composers should be. Maybe a program, or a talent agency. Unsure. If anyone wonders why we see the same people all the time in the film music world, if ever you have looked at it and never seen a face or attitude like yours, it is because these people don’t get signed to talent agencies or marketed by people who typically do music marketing. To get hired by big studios, one must have the right representation. A talent management company is a great start, but you need a talent agent at the right agency. Right now, if you are a man or woman who doesn’t fit the mold, all you can do is do like I am. Promote yourself and your work until people know who you are and bypass the gatekeepers into the studios hiring you and/or the most powerful agents in town taking you to the studios and then, the studios hiring you. That needs to change. I am going to be amongst the people who change it. Maybe we’ll have our unspoken rulebook at my talent agency for film score composers like, “Sorry, you want to be our client? You aren’t enough of an outcast to the old school train of thought film music community. We only take the boldest personalities.” Haha.
Diversity is important to us, it seems, but only if you look the part of “acceptable” diversity. I’m going to end all of that! People say life puts challenges in front of us for a reason. All things happen with some purpose. I believe my purpose is creating chances for people because of seeing what I deal with. When I arrive at the top of the A-list, I assure you, I am going to flip negativity on its head and make this film music industry equal for the first time for everyone!
Know more about Nicole Russin-McFarland,