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The music of chance and fate
Composer Jon Ong talks tethering sounds to images, and weaving motifs and patterns into his own song and dance.
The Accidental Getaway Driver, a Sundance competition title, directed by Sing J. Lee, and scored by Jon Ong. (Photo courtesy of the Sundance Film festival.)
I am posting in the coming days a series of Sundance-connected interviews with artists, actors and filmmakers.
Born in Singapore, Jon Ong is a composer and instrumentalist musician with a range of experience in film, documentaries, and television.
During a recent interview, we talked about his spare, haunting and highly impressionistic work on the US competition title, The Accidental Getaway Driver, written and directed by Sing J. Lee.
The film won the best director prize. Based on an actual incident, the film tells the story of Long Ma (masterfully played by veteran Vietnamese-French actor Hiep Tran Nghia), a black market rideshare driver who is abducted by three escaped convicts and drawn into their escape plot to Mexico.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What do you look for in deciding whether to work with a specific director, or a particular project?
Jon Ong: I think looking at people's interests, people's directing styles and also finding out more about them. Sing J. Lee, the filmmaker, for instance, to ground all my c0mments, was someone who is like me in many ways. He is of Chinese descent, but born in the UK. I'm originally from Singapore, and I've lived in LA for 11 years. There are a lot of commonalities, recognizing that there are many cultures that affect our lives and our worldviews. I think that allowed us to approach the work with a view that we agreed on.
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Did you know the writer and director, Sing J. Lee?
Jon Ong: I didn’t know him. I was recommended to this project by the music supervisor, Jen Nash. And I was told that my name had been brought up a couple times. I had a call with Sing of just kind of feeling each other out. That went really well. I created a couple of demos from that, and they responded really well to those.
In fact, I think I did two pieces, and they made it into the film pretty much as it was, maybe with a few embellishments and tweaks.
What was the creative and artistic dynamic like between the two of you? At what point of the process did you start to really create the score?
Jon Ong: This project was interesting in that regard. I’m aware of what normally would happen. In this case, I only had six weeks or so before the Sundance deadline to start and finish everything.
Unfortunately, we couldn't do the usual medium forum process of going back and forth. The picture I got was locked. There was no more editing on that front, which is good and bad. The good news is that it's not going to change timing-wise for the music and everything. And so I didn't have to chase that. But I did have to approach the film a little differently than I would normally. I sat down with Sing, and the music supervisor Jen, and figured out how to tackle it.
I think the best approach was to do it thematically and not chronologically, as you traditionally might, depending on the project, like going through reel one, or reel two. I decided that the best way was choosing scenes that were connected, and presenting those to Sing, getting feedback and so on.
So I went away and quickly wrote, I think, two or themes. I presented those standalone pieces to Sing, and he said those are working. He was curious to see it in the picture, and that seemed to be the way to go in order to make our deadline.
The composer Jon Ong (photo courtesy of Brian Wertheim)
Film derives its power from this interplay of image and sound. In your work, do you look to tether the sound to the image or movement, contrast and play off it?
Jon Ong: Very good question. I respond a lot to the image. I respond a lot to cuts and timings, and to all these things that I see, as well as notes from the director. For example, in choosing the instruments for this film, it was kind of a blank slate. Sing described his idea of the film and of the sound as being earthy, raw, gritty.
Immediately my mind went to instruments, like the guitar, the mandolin, which was a surprising choice for everyone. It’s not just the instruments themselves, but it's the way that I played them. I don’t really play them traditionally. For instance, there's no strumming of chords on the guitar. Sing talked about singular notes that ring out. There is a power in that.
Taking those audio ideas and putting that to picture and responding to the story, I think it worked really well because the men in the film are like modern day outlaws in this wilderness. They've broken out of jail, and they've kidnapped this old man, and they're all kind of their own island, in their own way. The film develops, and there is more to it. I think those instruments served to nod at all those different things very well. And I think that's what Sing also liked about those choices.
How did you conceive the early movements of the score, specifically with the introduction of the driver, Long Ma, and the three convicts who commanded his car?
Jon Ong: I think with the early parts of the film, there was supposed to be more than just tension, but a lot of questioning. Musically we want to follow the film as it gives away more information as things develop. I think the tricky line to tread at the start, or at least the first two acts or so was portraying the emotional states of the characters without saying that any of them is evil, or any of them is, you know, are the villain.
I think in choosing some of the sounds that I did, I leaned a little more towards being neutral, maybe with a bit of an edge, I suppose. Obviously, when we first hear Long Ma’s theme, which is a three-note motif on the nylon guitar, or muted, you know, manipulated version of his theme as well. You know, I processed my guitar quite a bit, so that it sounds acoustic, but also kind of with the feeling of, “What’s that?”
All of these things I do on my end subvert a little bit of what you might think just to ask questions. We want to keep people asking questions. We don't want to feel like we know what these people are up to just yet.
This is a movie about exile in a lot of ways, about the repercussions of cultural dislocation, the emigre, the outsider. Were there ways you wanted to express that with the score?
Jon Ong: I think we can look at this on a couple of different levels. I think we made a very conscious choice actually in the music to not lean towards, you know, tropes, or being stereotypically Asian. In a sense, we know what it's like to feel some of those feelings, both Sing and myself. It’s more of an emotional state that's kind of universal.
We didn’t need the music to necessarily be Asian music. We are aware of the characters being Asian, and they're in Little Saigon, in California. I think that allowed us to make the choice and the decision that we are going to lean into the emotional state of the character and go back to those instrument choices, those singular notes. Everything really spoke to that. And I think we really just wanted to convey the sadness, but also that beauty that Long Ma has in his life, about his family. We wanted to play into those emotions. I think the main commentary here is that we didn't feel like it needed to be specifically Asian music during those moments.
Perhaps not specifically Asian, but there is clearly this sense of crossing borders, of traversing East and West.
Jon Ong: With the music, it would relate to that kind of timeless themes that link all the characters. Your question reminds me of this theme I wrote called, “The Broken Men,” that links all the inter-generational guys: We have young Eddie (Phi Vu), we have Tay (Dustin Nguyen), who is middle-aged, Aden (Dali Benssalah),
and we have Long Ma, and we get to see their relationships develop.
This is the theme that I wrote. It starts kind of slow, and then grows from two or three notes into six or seven by the end. That becomes very pivotal at the end. I think that that was a theme that really transcended all of those things. It brought them together as characters and as people, which I think was important for Sing.
A lot of the middle of the film is about waiting and dead time, a kind of stasis, with them holed up in the hotel room. What did that mean for your work?
Jon Ong: I think that part was an interesting tone to convey. I think there's definitely an element of some of the edges coming off a little bit. This is the moment when we hear the “Broken Men” theme for the first time. In that whole section, we see a lot of very important things develop, and it was tricky in treading this line. We wanted to introduce some warmth to this, but it's not like a romance or anything.
It's not like lush strings and stuff, but it was more of a question of how can we in our world of sounds convey the warmth, and scale it back to our world? I think the answer was in the fact that the guitar and the mandolin have so much breadth and depth. There are all kinds of cool things I could do there, like process it and reverse it, and that allows it to go places where you normally would not go with it. That conveys that sound or a sense of a violin, but it’s not a violin. Interesting parts like that really helped with those moments in the middle of the film.
Long Ma is a tragic figure, estranged from his family and haunted by his war experiences. Was the music in any way designed to capture his turmoil and fragility?
Jon Ong: I think music was definitely key to those scenes. I believe we have three scenes where he gets transported back to his past. It was absolutely crucial in conveying his emotion, his sadness, and his regret.
I think there were many musical choices that we explored, but the ones that we landed on were very connected to the mandolin and guitar that I had already explored. I also brought in a new instrument to also bring in some extra emotional content. It was a piano but a piano that had been bowed. So again, just, you know, ordinary instruments that have been done slightly differently, which I think kind of represent our characters. I think that really brought out some of the emotional content and that piano instrument really occupied a lot of those sequences.
You hear in the background is kind of like that textural richness that goes underneath. We really wanted people to feel for Long Ma.
What shaped the last movement of the score, the emotional and moral connection of these two very different men, Long Ma and Dustin Nguyen’s character Tay?
Jon Ong: There are many nods to this, I think, along the way. Tay has a theme himself. It's very subtle, but we do hear it peppered in throughout leading up to the end.
I think what I wanted to show was the richness of their relationship. There are a lot of musical moments in the last couple of scenes. We hear the guitar and the mandolin kind of duet against each other almost. We hear not one string instrument such as when we start the film. We hear two or more. In my mind, I wanted that to represent their relationship blossoming.
After the fight scene in the film, I modified Long Ma’s theme, and added an extra note. If you pay attention to it, you notice there's some development there, and the theme is becoming richer than when we first heard it. I wanted those to parallel what was going on on the screen.
Do you compose directly at the piano, or write out ideas? How does that typically work?
Jon Ong: The honest answer is that it depends. If it’s a film that I know is going to use the guitar, then I'm usually just straight on the guitar, or the mandolin.
For the most part, I am on the keyboard. I do my sketches that way. It helps me lay out the beats of the scene. I might grab something else and then record it over that. It’s typically just a mix of whatever the film needs basically.
I was curious with any of your projects, what role if any improvisation plays?
Jon Ong: I tend to sit there with the scene. So I'll have it laid out in my sequencer program. And I'm usually just there improvising. So I have the dialogue on and everything and I'm just responding, beat by beat or note by note, to what's going on. A lot of the times those raw improvisational passes are the ones that stay, or have ideas that are good ones. If you try too hard, or you keep coming back to it, some of the magic gets lost. Improvisation is a huge part of scoring for me.
You are ostensibly American now, having lived in Los Angeles for years. Do you listen to a lot of jazz, blues or rock and roll?
Jon Ong: Definitely. I think I listen to all kinds of stuff, just really all over the place. I did go to school at Berklee College of Music. A huge part of my education was playing guitar for all kinds of people. A huge part of my education was playing guitar. I got to play with Ben E. King at my graduation. I got to play “Stand By Me,” with the guy who wrote it. I played everything from R&B and gospel to country and rock. All of those factor into my musical choices. In a sense, it empowers you to be bold, and not be afraid to try things. You have the language.
Poets have a facility for language, and artists have an eye. Did you just always have an ear for music, sound and composition?
Jon Ong: I feel like I have a really strong ear for things. I'm really good at transcribing things. I have this really good memory for a lot of these musical things. I hear something, and I think that is really cool, and I want to try and play it, and figure out what is going on. Then I want to write something that inspired it, or maybe inspire me to write something completely different.
What is your greatest thrill in the act of creating your art and music?
Jon Ong: I think this question could go many different ways. I think just to be specific to film scoring, there is a thrill of doing stuff under a deadline. Maybe it's because I have been doing this for a while but there is an excitement of putting together themes for a film writing, writing stuff to picture, that suddenly feels like it all clicks.
The music is a huge part of that. Film scoring is more than just the music. It’s all the other parts of the project as well.
On the slide. Guitarist and composer Jon Ong.