This year’s Sundance Film Festival offered a wide variety of different stories from around the world, with a particular emphasis on the experiences and talents of indigenous people. One standout was Wild Indian, the directing debut of Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. The film is a dark and brooding take on generational trauma and the severing of integral ancestral roots.
Wild Indian follows two Native American boys growing up on a disenfranchised reservation. One of the boys, named Makwa (Phoenix Wilson), is the son of abusive parents and the inheritor of generations of trauma and violence brought on by white colonization. Things boil over when Makwa commits a horrible crime and guilts his cousin Teddo (Julian Gopal) into helping him cover it up. The film then picks up years later with the two as adults. Makwa (a career-best performance from Michael Greyeyes) has abandoned the reservation and left most of his heritage behind, going instead by the name of Michael. He lives a standard middle class life with a wife and child, whereas a heavily tattooed Teddo (a stunning performance from Chaske Spencer), is shown getting out of a recent stint in prison.
The film explores how a single traumatic event changes people in different ways, combined with deeper cultural themes and wrestling with feelings of self-loathing. It’s an angry film, of that there is no doubt, and an important one. Composer Gavin Brivik – known for his work on Netflix’s Living Undocumented, the Oscar-nominated My Nephew Emmet, and the 2018 psychological horror hit Cam – brings a haunting and powerful score to Wild Indian that perfectly encapsulates the dour and pained mood of the piece, while also searching for just a bit of light.
We sat down with the musician and composer to talk about the film and its Sundance premiere, his experiences scoring a film in the midst of lockdowns due to the ongoing pandemic, and how helping bring these kinds of stories to life is its own form of activism.
How did you first become involved with the film?
Gavin Brivik: I met the director, Lyle, two years ago through Facebook, weirdly. We had mutual friends and I was seeing people post about him. I reached out and he actually sent me the script, so I read it and just wrote a bunch of suites of music based on the writing. Two years later he’s editing the film and using that same music as a temp score, like placeholder music. Some of it must have resonated with him.
On that same note, what resonated with you the most on this film?
Gavin Brivik: When I read the script, it was a character piece about generational trauma. I’ve never done any kind of character-based pieces like this, and I’ve never done anything that’s more of a drama and a thriller. When I was reading it, I was able to empathize, especially with Teddo’s character. My family are Holocaust survivors and I think there’s a lot of people from all different cultures who are able to relate to generational trauma, and the way that it carries over to modern day. That resonated with me on a thematic level. Also, I’ve never really seen characters like these on-screen. When I read the script, I was able to understand the emotions and it felt very natural.
Did you go in with particular pieces of music in mind for the characters, like a recurring theme for Teddo and another for Makwa?
Gavin Brivik: We didn’t initially, the music changed quite a lot. Those themes came about from actually seeing the performances. But I didn’t even know if we would have a thematic score, we actually had a more ambient, darker score. That was like the first pass. I think the problem with that was that it was too one tone, it was just too dark the whole way through. We needed to find this emotional thread and compassion for the boys, at least in the first act, so that we can try to empathize and put ourselves in one of their shoes. The themes came later, once we took a step back and realized that the film may need that type of score.
How do you choose what kind of instruments go into making it? What makes you choose strings versus a synth or horns versus a guitar?
Gavin Brivik: Yeah, that’s a hard one. That’s the true question. I think that comes about from a great conversation with the director. Sometimes, directors do already have that in mind. I’ll say the majority of them have some sort of idea, or at least they have references. They might be like, “Hey, I was really inspired by the score to this movie, and it feels like the right tone.” That kind of informs me like, “Oh, they’re really liking a lot of synth music.” Or sometimes some directors might just have a hatred for an instrument. I have one director who just can’t stand piano. That’s a thing you learn from making friends and collaborating.
In a case where a director gives me a lot of freedom and says, “Hey, you can choose”, I always try to blend the two. I’m always trying to blend organic and synthetic instruments together. I think that’s the most interesting and that’s kind of common today as well. But it’s hard to tell why. It’s sometimes just an instinctual thing. Maybe it’s also somewhat visually inspired? Something about Wild Indian was interesting, there were scenes where we had a lot of synth drones and they felt very cold and unique in that way. But then there are scenes where the camera is moving in and out of the woods and there’s string swells mixed with the nature sounds – that just felt like an instinctual sound of something human and organic, like very raw and natural.
Did you use any native instruments in the process?
Gavin Brivik: No, actually. Specifically, we did not do that, especially since I’m not native. I didn’t want to culturally appropriate the music and I think it would have been very inauthentic for me to do that. Lyle actually did not want that. I think if he did want that, he would have hired a different composer. He purposely wanted to steer clear of that in the score and have the score be its own thing. But he did use two tracks from his cousin’s band. There’s a scene where Teddo’s in the car with his nephew and Lyle’s cousin’s track is there, and then there’s one in the credits. But as far as instrumentation, we were very firmly against going anywhere near that. It’s funny, when you ask that, the first that comes to mind is Native Instruments, they’re like in the top three biggest music software companies for composers (laughs). I’m a big Native Instruments user.
Throughout the making of Wild Indian, were you involved in the process of which scenes receive a score and which scenes remain without music of any kind?
Gavin Brivik: Usually that is very early in the process, they call that a spotting session. It’s you, the producers, a team, and you sit and watch the film, then pick and choose and talk about why. Obviously with COVID, we did everything virtually. Lyle was pretty open to me doing that, there were scenes where he had music but I didn’t have music, there were scenes that I had music where he didn’t imagine music, and there were some scenes where we had music, but at the last minute we cut it out. That’s kind of the luxury of an indie film, we get to experiment with that. For bigger budget things, sometimes the composer doesn’t always get to choose that. There’s the music editor or the directors have already put in very specific timings and the composer is given those exact timings. I haven’t worked on anything like that, my projects have been very collaborative in that way. That’s more of a studio film process, but on a lot of indies, directors are usually pretty open to suggestions or maybe doing something they didn’t imagine.
What was it like to score the film during a pandemic?
Gavin Brivik: There are pros and cons. Obviously, it was nice to stay creative and employed during a really tough time. I think the hardest part was that we recorded a string orchestra in Bulgaria. We did a remote orchestra session. That’s pretty common in some film scoring, but it was still very tough to do everything this year remotely. I’m working with my mixer, all the musicians, and all of my team remotely. So it was difficult, but thankfully our technology is able to allow us to keep things moving like this, I mean could you imagine if this happened like 20 years ago? It was tough, but I feel very lucky. Staying creative was really healthy for me mentally and was important in that way. I read that article that said Sundance had its highest turnout this year being all virtual. And more people saw the films this year than ever before. I try to see the silver lining in everything.
Were you able to attend at all?
Gavin Brivik: I only did everything virtually. If there was a drive-in screening of Wild Indian, I would have been curious. I know that drive-ins are kind of infamous for having horrible sound, plus with all the car lights and everything, the picture looks terrible. I’ve seen some drive-ins and it’s usually like you want to see a movie you’ve seen before. I saw a lot of drive-in premieres from Sundance, but I just attended virtually. I liked it, man. I mean, I was just on my couch, watching on my TV with my own headphones. Obviously, I miss the audience and I love movie theaters. Once this is over, I will instantly attend. I know some people will just become completely streaming-based, and to each their own, but I love being with a great audience.
This film and a lot of your other work deal with heavy sociopolitical themes. You’ve worked on stories of immigrants, people of color, and indigenous people. Some of that obviously goes to very dark places and you mentioned that you thought the score was too dark for this originally. How do you craft a kind of score that’s not just serious in tone but also has very important real life issues that it’s addressing? How do you approach that without the music being so much that it becomes overly dramatic, or too little to the point that it doesn’t give it the proper gravitas?
Gavin Brivik: I have to trust the director sometimes. There were times in Cam where I thought the music was too much. Danny, the director, was like, “Just trust me, it’s going to work.” And he was right. I just needed some space. With Wild Indian, our first pass was so dark, but I liked it. Then we took a break. I rewatched it a few months later, and I’m not finding the emotional empathy for Makwa that I wanted and that we want the audience to have. We need the audience to not just hate the characters. It’s very easy to dislike Makwa for some of the decisions he makes and how he puts Teddo in an uncomfortable position.
As far as working on sociopolitical stuff, that’s my favorite, mostly because it makes me feel like I have more purpose to my work. I think I write better when I feel like I’m contributing to the stuff I care about. Almost like its own form of activism. Yeah, we could all do more obviously, but I do think that films have been really effective in educating people or opening their eyes to something that they weren’t aware of, especially when it’s done very subtly, not in your face and forcefully. I always veer on the side of subtlety with my music, just on an instinctual level. When I do go bigger, it’s usually from the advice of the director. I think my biggest note is “you can go bigger.” That’s the most reoccurring note I get and I’m fine with that. Doing less can be scary for a director, but it’s also a very modern aesthetic of scoring to be a little subtle and I’ve always been tapped into that. That’s a tough question because it’s a good question, and it’s something that definitely varies by project and by direction.
When I did Living Undocumented, of course that’s a documentary, so there’s a little bit of a different technique. A lot of the time in documentaries, especially that one, the music’s very ambient and almost like white noise in a way. They use it to fill in the gaps or help scenes that are maybe not hitting hard enough emotionally. I think every composer will struggle to find that balance for their whole career. There are absolutely phenomenal composers who’ve written some of the best scores, but then I watch a movie and the score is so heavy-handed. Maybe the director was really asking for that. Or maybe it’s the opposite and the composer always does that and the directors dial them back. You never know. A lot of that question is with the director and the producers, or the editors.
What are some of your favorite scores and what helped influence the sound of Wild Indian?
Gavin Brivik: Lyle was very generous and careful not to point me in any direction that would make me too influenced by one score. I love John Brion, who did Punch-Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Punch-Drunk Love is probably one of my all-time favorite scores, I’m obsessed with that movie. I love Oneohtrix Point Never, who did Good Time and Uncut Gems. I love Jonny Greenwood, he does a lot of Paul Thomas Anderson stuff. For Wild Indian, we also were really inspired by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s work. The score to The Revenant was a really cool one, there were ideas in some of the shots of that film that reminded me of scenes in Wild Indian, like the opening going through the trees. I love space in music. A lot of the composers I listen to are really open to doing crazy loud scores, but then also having a lot of silence. I think it’s knowing when to do either, you know?
Are there any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
Gavin Brivik: I have my first album that I wrote away from film coming out. I really want to write more for myself, like very conceptual story-based albums. This album is called Realms and Forms. Cam has a vinyl release that we just did as well. To be honest, there’s not a lot of film stuff I’m doing. I do some commercial scoring and small short films, but it’s tough now because we’re a year into the pandemic and not a ton of stuff has been filmed. It’s almost like it’s caught up because a lot of the stuff of last year was filmed pre-pandemic. I’m hoping that more will come from Wild Indian and more will come obviously once the pandemic ends. Hopefully, things will start to open up and we’re back to theaters. The streaming companies that made billions of dollars have all this extra money from all these people signing up, and they need more content. So I do assume there will be a boom in our industry.