For most, being stranded on an obscure, uninhabited island is almost unfathomable; however, singer-songwriter and guitarist Andy Hull and lead guitarist Robert McDowell of Atlanta-based indie rock band Manchester Orchestra managed to capture perfectly the essence of the film Swiss Army Man, in which a marooned castaway, Hank (Paul Dano), is suicidal until a magical talking and farting corpse, which Hank later dubs Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), is brought ashore by ocean waves.
In January 2015, Hull received an email from film directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, with whom Manchester Orchestra had worked to create their “Simple Math” music video. After reading the script for Swiss Army Man, Hull and McDowell composed “A Better Way” and sent it to the two directing Daniels, thereby kicking-off a 13-month scoring project. The directors were delighted with how the two musicians had interpreted the script, and the song was later chosen to be played during the film’s closing credits.
Comprised of eerie and peaceful songs, such as “Cave Ballad,” as well as songs that are hopeful and elevating of the human spirit, like “Montage,” Swiss Army Man’s soundtrack showcases the creativity and flexibility that is inherent in Hull and McDowell’s musical prowess. The directors encouraged the two artists to use limited musical resources. The soundtrack largely depended on manipulating Hull’s voice in order to reflect Hank’s isolation. With exception of the last few songs, a capella and orchestral sounds are predominant in the soundtrack.
In a phone interview with The Emory Wheel, Hull and McDowell elaborated on their first experience scoring a film and the evolution of their own collaborative relationship during the process. Swiss Army Man opened nationwide July 1.
Michelle Lou, The Emory Wheel: The film has been described as eccentric, unique and strange; people either love it or hate it. What was your first reaction after reading the script for Swiss Army Man?
Andy Hull: I was blown away. I thought that nobody else could pull it off other than [Kwan and Scheinert]. They’re so creative visually with storytelling. It was a long time ago, but it was exciting.
EW: This was your first time scoring a film. How would you describe the experience and creative process behind creating the soundtrack? What was the collaboration between you two like?
Robert McDowell: With it being our first time [creating a soundtrack], the collaboration changed over the course of the entire process, because we were growing together and figuring out a new way to make music beyond the normal structure of a sound. I think having the Daniels, the directors, there as well — it became a great team of four people trying to reach this end prize of an emotional score of a crazy, fun, emotional, sad movie.
EW: In what ways are composing a film score and music album similar and different?
AH: I think it’s similar because you know you’re making a large body of work. When we mixed the soundtrack, we wanted to give it the feel of an album, where everything’s connected.
RM: It’s definitely different, because you’re creating art to complement a visual rather than [only for] a listener putting on headphones.
EW: You previously teamed up with the director duo of Kwan and Scheinert in the creation of Manchester Orchestra’s “Simple Math” music video. How was working with them on the two projects different?
AH: [Making Swiss Army Man’s soundtrack] was on a much larger scale, and there were hundreds of people that were working on Swiss Army Man at various points. But [the Daniels were] similar in their passion, their attention to detail and their quest to make the best thing they can. They’re just hard working guys, and they’re brilliantly creative, so it was similar in that way.
EW: Paul Dano, who plays Hank, and Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Manny, are featured singing on the soundtrack. What was it like working with the two actors?
AH: We spent about five days in the studio with those guys recording a bunch of the [soundtrack]. They were really, really great [and] talented and were eager to hear our “directing” of it. It was something that could have taken a long time, [but it didn’t], and they did a really great job.
EW: What was it like to depend mostly on your vocals to make the music for the film?
AH: Well, there are some real instruments in the last three or four songs of the soundtrack, [representing] the idea that once other people show up in the movie outside of these two guys, that then the real world seeps in, and then you can hear real instruments. We had to do a lot of layering and combinations of different things with my voice and experimenting with [highs and lows]. There were really awkward things to sing solo to that without music would have been really embarrassing. It was like going out on a limb, for sure, and we loved the challenge of it.
EW: Were you inspired by other artists in creating this unique sound?
RM: No. Not saying that we didn’t need it; we just didn’t know what we were creating … We were experimenting and finding whatever the final result was.
EW: How do you think music adds another layer of complexity to a film?
RM: I think it can take a scene that, without music, [would] be sad, funny or tense, and it really drives home the point that the directors and the writers are trying to make, so we had to work hand-in-hand [with the directors] to make sure we were pushing the correct emotion that the script was trying to get.
EW: You grew up in Georgia. How has Atlanta influenced your music?
AH: Georgia is home for most of [the Manchester Orchestra members]. We grew up here, and that’s incredibly influential as a songwriter … We love playing at home around our fans here, and everyone’s always been super kind to us, and it’s always fun to play festivals, too … [Georgia is] really cool.
EW: What advice do you have for students hoping to pursue careers in the music industry?
RM: Get out! [laughing] No, it’s a lot of hard work: your passion and talent has to be matched with hard work and grind. If you want it, be ready to put a lot of hours and a lot of grind into it.
AH: Absolutely, it’s equal parts work and hanging in there as it is writing cool songs.