Magic, Parenting, and Pencils with ‘The Odd Life of Timothy Green’ Composer Geoff Zanelli

By  · Published on August 14th, 2012

It’s in the title ‐ The Odd Life of Timothy Green is, well, odd. But it is those oddities and the unexpected twists and turns that make this story memorable. Timothy (CJ Adams) is not your average child so bringing this character and his world to life required composer Geoff Zanelli to think outside of the box. Organic materials like dirt, wood, and leaves (of course) play a big part in not just Timothy, but all the character’s lives (and their futures) so it is no surprise that Zanelli took a more stripped down and inventive approach when creating the music for this film.

Zanelli’s score is both magical and jaunty, much like Timothy himself, and creates a unique texture that helps make some of the more “out there” moments of the film still feel grounded in real emotion. I spoke with Zanelli about how he approached creating this score, what inspired him throughout the process, and what went in to creating music that sounded both familiar and new.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green explores the idea of family, what it means to means to be a parent, and the lessons you learn along the way in such a different and interesting way ‐ what drew you to this project?

It was actually one of the early conversations I had with the director, Peter Hedges, and he said to me, “This is a movie about what children can teach you if you let them” and I thought, “I’ve gotta work with this guy!” I don’t know if you know, but at the time I had a year-and-a-half-old daughter so I was sort of new to the whole parenting thing, but very much enamored with it, like I really liked being a dad, so this movie was something that kind of, it always feels like the stars kind of align and this was like, here’s a movie about your life right now! It was such a good time in my life to go do this.

Was this a project that was brought to you or did you seek it out?

I sought it out once I heard about it. Here’s really the way it went down ‐ I finished working on the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie [Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides], which was for Disney as well, and their Head of Music, Mitchell Lieb, had a conversation with Hans Zimmer, who was the main composer of Pirates, and Hans said to him, “Geoff has always been my number two guy on these all Pirates movies and you know him from that, but there’s more to him. So listen to some of his music and maybe there’s something you guys can connect on down the line.” So Mitchell listened and then he sent me the script to Odd Life, which I hadn’t heard of until I had the script in my hand, but as soon as I got to the end I said, “Mitch ‐ let me write you some music.” So I did and he passed that on to director Peter Hedges and that’s how we started first meeting together.

This is definitely a different film from the Pirates of the Caribbean series ‐ does your approach to scoring differ with each film?

Very much. Very much so. In fact, people tell me that when I write the score for any project that it become so specific to that show that it’s sort of looked at as one of my strengths. And by that I mean, I did the miniseries The Pacific, which was a World War II show, and I think if you take the score from that and put it into another World War II movie it’s not going to work. It’s a very, very… well, specific to the Pacific. [Laughs]

And I really don’t know if you could take the score from Timothy Green and put it into another movie about parenting ‐ I sort of doubt it. I think it’s very much focused and driven by the characters in the movie and the look of the film and the dialogue ‐ the score’s very, very much defined by what the movie actually is.

What was your approach to scoring this film? Did you work off of footage or start with the script?

I actually only started with the script and before I’d even met the director or saw a single frame of it, I started writing music just to that. In fact the main title, the very first music you hear, is one of the earliest pieces I wrote and it’s virtually unchanged in the picture. That [“You’re Gonna Find It Hard To Believe”] was actually what got Peter Hedges to go, “Hang on ‐ this actually works for my movie, it’s just so right and it sets the tone.” And then once he and I started working together then I had the whole picture, I had watched the whole thing, and I got to dive in, really deeply obviously, and do the kind of specific scoring work.

But one of the things Peter did, which I think is sort of rare, more and more rare these days, is he played me his cut of the film without any music in it. So, without getting too technical, usually filmmakers will cut to what they call a temp score where maybe they cut in music from another movie just so the editor can get a sense of how the scene is working with music. Now they did that, but they didn’t let me hear it. And a lot of times directors will fall in love with their temp score and you kind of get handcuffed and in this case the film benefited greatly from not having that obstacle.

Do you prefer to not hear the temp track since it could potentially influence you or does hearing it help give you a jumping off point for what the director is wanting when it comes to the feel of the music?

Well this is a rare time when I got to see it without music and I would say I’m sort of a convert to that approach now. I’ve definitely worked on other projects where they do show me the temp, but in this case, the originality of the score and where I feel like I landed as an artist and as a composer is such a good place that I’m sort of converted to the idea that there is a big, big advantage in not knowing, not getting sort of trapped by temp score. But sometimes you answer questions though that way [with temp] where at least you know the piano is an interesting instrument here or something like that so that can be helpful, but I think if I get to choose on my next movie I’d watch it without a temp.

When it came to Timothy Green, it is such an emotionally driven film, and the music certainly helps add to that feeling, which made the moments when no music was used really stand out ‐ how would you decide which moments should not feature music? Or was that a decision left more to the director?

No ‐ it was something we worked on together actually. When we decided we were really going to do this movie together I sat down with the picture editor, who was Andy Mondshein, and with Peter Hedges and the three of us went through the whole film. And actually even as we got deeper through the process we would go back and sort of re-spot the film or, you know, re-think where we should have music. It evolved though, over time, so there are actually a few spots earlier in the film that used to have music that we took out so it’s something that kind of evolved organically. We would try music in places where we felt that maybe it could help and then we’d decide if it worked. And we’d also find sometimes it helps an individual scene, but then when you watch forty minutes of the movie in a row, well there’s too much music and we’re overwhelming the picture. So we kept re-visiting how much music we needed.

Usually when I’m trying to make something feel very real, that’s when I start to question whether or not you need music at all because if you have a big performance and you want the starkness of the emotion or the performances, music can actually get in the way. So I think you can probably see that approach in nearly any film that I’ve done.

What was also interesting about your score for Timothy Green is most scores work to underscore the entire film, but the score here really seemed to emulate Timothy specifically from foreshadowing his arrival, to Timothy himself, to his impact on those he met ‐ what led to the decision to score for a certain character a bit more than the overall story?

Well ‐ I just felt like he was the center of everything. That it was not only about Jim (Joel Edgerton) and Cindy (Jennifer Garner), but it was about Jim and Cindy’s relationship with Timothy or what is Timothy teaching Jim and Cindy ‐ Jim and Cindy being Timothy’s parents. It’s also about what did Timothy’s relationship with Joni (Odeya Rush) teach her? What did Timothy’s relationship with Joni teach Jim and Cindy? So once you take the broad view of the picture, it’s very Timothy centric. So in the sense if it’s a wheel and Timothy’s in the middle, all of my thematic materials are the spokes that lead out of the other characters or the other events or the other thematic elements.

Looking back, what was your favorite song on this score?

I love the way the bike ride sequence turned out. That to me, that was a really key moment, kind of a defining moment for the score in progress. What ended up happening was we were even considering using a song there ‐ either finding a great song writer to write something or finding a song that already existed and at a certain point I thought, you know we have a theme for Joni, and we’re using this all throughout the movie. And then we have this key scene where you really build the relationship between Joni and Timothy, so maybe there’s a way of either turning it into a song, Joni’s Theme, or just using it in a way that feels really genuine to them as characters and doesn’t trivialize that they’re falling in love, even though they’re ten years old. I wanted to make sure we’re not playing down to any of that because it’s such a potent feeling, your first love.

So I started writing a cue there using the theme and what ended up happening is Peter watched the sequence with my version of the cue and he said, “Now the scene doesn’t live up to the music.” So he went a shot a couple extra bits they could add into the sequence to kind of build it around the music, which I think is something that really shows when you watch the sequence, but it’s kind of a good example of a filmmaker being inspired by me the way that I’m normally inspired by his work.

The story is also very organic from how Timothy comes into Jim and Cindy’s lives to what his “secret” is to how they help save the town and the factory ‐ were there new instruments you explored making this score knowing that element? Did you invent different sounds or ways to make music to go along with this idea?

I did actually! I’m glad you asked that ‐ for one thing I kind of made it a rule that we were going to be as acoustic as possible, it’s actually sort of a rare thing these days, but we recorded every note and I got to kind of dig into more folksy instrumentation than I normally would if I’m doing a Pirates movie or something. [Laughs] There are dulcimers, ukuleles, there’s mandolins, there’s guitars, there’s a dulcitone piano — we were kind of all over the map with the colors I could use. I also made sure we had a small, very small, string section ‐ it’s only eight players most of the time so you could hear the individual musicians. It was the easiest call I ever made, I called Disney, “I don’t want sixty, I want eight players!” So they love me. [Laughs] But it was not a budgetary decision; it was because I got really enamored with the idea that you hear the musician and not just the note. So I wanted a small enough section that you could hear the individuals, when there were guitar parts a lot of times I played them myself and I would make sure you could really hear my fingernail going against the string or really hear the cellist when he takes a breath in between notes and that really became embodied into the score to make it feel organic.

And because the movie is set in Stanleyville, which is home to a huge pencil factory, I started taking pencils and hitting them together or hitting the back of a guitar, scratching against paper, we started really digging into ways of getting the sonic world of the characters into the music. So you’ll hear that ‐ the opening sequence is a pretty good example of where you’ll hear the pencils as a part of the percussion ensemble. We were being pretty inventive ‐ when I started getting excited about the sound of my actual finger or a musician’s fingers on the instruments I started using a finger on the dulcimer, which not how you are supposed to play it, but all bets were off at that point. We are at a time in film music right now where there is a lot of homogenization going on that’s why I’m glad to get to do a score like this because it’s more likely to be emulated than to have been created by emulating something else.

You’ve worked on a variety of different films from suspense (Disturbia) to horror (Beneath the Darkness) to comedy (You May Not Kiss the Bride) and now, fantasy/magic ‐ is there a genre you prefer or do you enjoy exploring different genres?

I do love getting to kind of spread out. I also did the Americana thing with Into the West andThe Pacific so I love that I have almost multiple careers going at the same time ‐ that’s been the luck of my career. But I’d have to say, where I landed with Timothy Green, which actually isn’t really represented in anything I’ve done prior, felt so comfortable and so right for me right now that it was really an exciting place to be. And I also feel like it would be a big shock if I didn’t do another thriller because I’ve got so many of them in my past ‐ and I get that stuff. I almost always think it’s better for whatever’s next not to be like the thing I just did because it keeps me fresh.

The soundtrack for The Odd Life of Timothy Green is now available and the film is set to pop up in theaters this Wednesday, August 15th. Grab a garden shovel and dig in!