Features Interviews

Fantasia ’20: An Interview with ‘The Oak Room’ Composer Steph Copeland

(Editor’s Note: This is the first-ever Fantasia International Film Festival-related coverage from Vehlinggo. It comes to you courtesy of new contributor Rachel Reeves, whose work you’ve read in Nightmare on Film Street, Rue Morgue, and Film Cred.)

A celebration and meditation on the power of storytelling, The Oak Room is a beautifully dark film that explores the idea that it’s not what happens in a film, but how it happens. Directed by Canadian filmmaker Cody Calahan (Antisocial, Let Her Out) and starring familiar faces like RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad) and Peter Outerbridge (Lucky Number Slevin), the film is a stunning adaptation of the play written by Peter Genoway. Simple in set-up, but rich in execution, the wealth of talent involved in The Oak Room viscerally oozes out of every thoughtful frame.

Taking place over one freezing cold and snowy night, we become introduced to four men, in two different bars, and their seemingly disparate stories. As the hours tick by and the beer continues to flow, seemingly innocuous time-passing conversations quickly develop into something much more. Embracing the small cast and restricted locations, Calahan and crew carefully cultivate an atmosphere of sustained tension, visual beauty, and palpable emotional temperature that resonates on both physical and psychological levels.

Along with beautiful cinematography from Jeff Maher (Creep Nation), one of The Oak Room’s true strengths lies in the potent and aura-inducing score from Canadian composer Steph Copeland. A true partner to the film in every way, Copeland’s score heightens the natural setting to tremendous effect while simultaneously anchoring the film’s emotional resonance. Through her expertly crafted and layered use of strings, piano, vocals, and restrained electronic elements, Copeland allows the audience to track and truly connect with the men and their stories.

A talented and prolific creator, the Toronto-based composer started her career as a classically trained vocalist and electro-pop producer and performer. After years of touring and releasing albums as a singer-songwriter, Copeland added film scoring to her impressive resume and has since racked up numerous credits, including Antisocial, The Dwelling, and the upcoming Vicious Fun. Scoring everything from horror and sci-fi to romantic comedies, TV shows and commercials, Copeland’s versatility of both style and sound has made her a true talent to watch.

In celebration of The Oak Room’s recent premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival, I caught up with Copeland and we spoke about all things The Oak Room, her transition into film scoring, and how her similar, but different creative worlds continuously benefit from one another.

the oak room
A captivating still from ‘The Oak Room.’

Rachel Reeves for Vehlinggo: The Oak Room just celebrated its premiere at Fantasia! Congrats! Tell us a little bit about how you first got involved with the project and what attracted you to it. 

Steph Copeland: Thank you! I’ve worked with Black Fawn Films and Cody Calahan (the director of The Oak Room) a lot. This will be maybe our seventh or eighth film together with that company. So, when they decided to put music to The Oak Room I immediately jumped on board. And I was really happy to see it was a bit of a different style. It was a lot more of a crime drama or thriller rather than just in-your-face horror. And because of that, we took a bit of a different approach to the score. We dialed it back a lot actually. It was really a lot more thoughtful and we took some time to really figure out, “What is the music really saying? It needed to have its own voice and really drive the story forward, because it’s such a mysterious plot. We really wanted to say a lot with it when it was used.

Your score is such a beautiful complement to the film in the way it works with the layers, textures, and carefully executed storytelling. Because of that, I wanted to ask about the use of space that’s present within the score and the film. How cognizant are you of utilizing space in your composing process? Is that something you work out with the director?

It’s definitely something I worked out with Cody for this project. Actually, Cody had a lot of input as to where all the space would be right from the beginning. So, by the time it was time to spot the film, he had really thought fully about where the music was going to begin. Maybe we made a few adjustments as we went, but it was really laid out and very deliberate on his end.

As far as using space in general in a score, it really depends on the film. In a more conversational film like this, it’s so important where things cue up and begin. But I also just finished up a film that’s 88 minutes of music in a 93-minute film. Even if sometimes it’s just a presence or something ticking away underneath, it’s there. Just kind of depends on the project.

You’ve worked with Calahan multiple times over the years on films like Antisocial, Let Her Out, and the upcoming Vicious Fun. Do you find that there’s a benefit to having an already established working relationship? 

Yeah, definitely. Over the years we’ve developed a short hand and have a lot we can go back to and say, “What we’re going to do here is really similar to what we did in that.” We have a lot of reference material that we share and we can get to the point a lot quicker. It’s really nice and they’ve become my friends over the years. There’s a lot of trust. It’s a pretty special relationship I think, because I’m not sure how many people really have a tight group of filmmaking friends. I do feel so lucky, because we can have so much fun just doing it. I mean, it’s still a huge job and there’s still notes, changes, and a lot of work, but it is really enjoyable when you know someone’s tastes and what they’re looking for.

“We tried to use the strings in a way that really pushed the story forward. “

There’s a lot of beautiful string work in The Oak Room score. They are haunting, beautiful, emotional, and also terrifying at moments. Talk a bit about the strings and your approach to utilizing them throughout the score. 

The way we approached the strings was that they were the voice of the film. They were the melodic emotion doing a lot of the work. Everything else underneath was really just the palette — the room and the space for which the strings (when they finally come in) get to do the talking. They are really saying what is driving each character, especially for Ari Millen’s character, Michael, who ends up doing this very violent act within the film. It was the largest stringed movement in the film and it’s quite ornate and meticulous. We tried to use the strings in a way that really pushed the story forward. But, a lot of the time when maybe there weren’t a lot of strings there, it would be because it was coming. So we had to lay the foundation. And then we’d put top line strings in.

I had a live violin player come in and he did some beautiful, magical work. His name is Eugene Draw and he’s a Russian-Canadian violinist who also goes by the name Dr. Draw. He watched the film and he really got into the characters. And I let him really go free on the beds that we had created. After we had developed those, he developed his own sound and some of the melody lines within that framework. And then we soaked in it. We listened back and tried a few edits. And we discovered this melody line for this really masculine story. A lot of that emotion came from Eugene. He had a lot of input as to where that melody line came from.

Steph Copeland The Oak Room
Composer Steph Copeland. Photo from her website.

It sounds like instead of method acting it was sort of like, method performance.

It really was! It was really improvisational. Basically he just had to follow some of the foundation notes and he just kind of riffed on the violin. I really enjoyed working with him in that way because he’s such a fantastic improvisational player. He just emotes so much as he plays.

I really love the track “Love Didn’t Care For Me” and the weight it holds in the film. It’s a more traditional song with lyrics and your lovely vocals. Was it always part of the plan to have you write a song like this for the film?

It was always part of the plan and Cody knew that he wanted a track like this at the end that really said something. And — there wasn’t a female in the whole movie. There just wasn’t. So, in the beginning there’s a female singing in the background during the opening bar fight. And then at the end, capping it with this female voice really worked, because there was such a noticeable absence of femininity throughout the film. Even in the rest of the score there was an attempt to make it feel masculine and tell a masculine story. So, that was a nice way to really say something about the lack of female voice within the movie, but also have it relate to the movie just by being present. I don’t want to necessarily say why, because I’d like people to take away what they will from that, but there was an intention there.

As well as being a composer, you’re an accomplished solo artist and performer as well. How did you transition into film scoring and do you find your background in songwriting influences the way you compose? Or vice versa?

The transition into filmmaking came on the very first feature that Cody Calahan directed, which was Antisocial. That was my first film score and it was an electronic score. I am a singer-songwriter, but I also dabble in electronic producing. So, knowing about the electronic world and then working on this electronic score for Antisocial was really a nice transition. And in terms of influence, I think it’s a little bit of both. As a singer-songwriter, I kind of see scores a little bit more structured just like I would a song. It’s like a tool that I can use to help organize my thoughts. I don’t think it necessarily translates into what is being heard, but that’s how I see the cue or the score. And I definitely find that the tools I’ve gained and learned from scoring now find their way into the pop and electronic music I create as well. Definitely.

I’m fascinated by the fact that you balance both worlds. Do you ever get conflicted about how to express a developing musical idea? Or do the worlds tend to bleed into one another?

Sometimes when I’m just kind of fooling around with a score piece and I come up with something poppy or something I’d like to build a song around, I put it in a folder and save it for a rainy day. Then I’ll get back to work on the task at hand. And then the other way around as well. I always have a little bit of my brain in the other realm at all times, just because I always like to save little nuggets of good stuff. I’m never totally just focused on one thing. Oh, and iPhone voice memos. I constantly make tons of those even just walking around the house. And those could end up being for a score or for songwriting.

“I enjoy the experimentation.”

You’ve scored a lot of horror films, including Antisocial, I’ll Take Your Dead and The Heretics. What do you enjoy most about scoring genre films?

I enjoy the experimentation. Maybe it’s just the directors and the producers that I’ve had a chance to work with, but I feel that there’s a lot of freedom to explore new sounds and do something a little different. With genre, oftentimes the film that we’re working on hasn’t really been made before. Maybe it sort of has some roots in other places, and maybe it sort of has a classical score, but there’s a lot of room to really play. I love that.

You’ve also scored a lot for television — commercials, TV shows, movies, you name it. Is there a difference in your approach for the two mediums? Do you ever feel limited by traditional rules of the format?

Scoring for television is a bit newer for me. I’ve just started doing it in the past two years or so. I found that I had to do a lot more research. I had to watch and find out, “How are they getting into the commercials? What are we really doing here?” I find that it’s a lot more transitional from scene to scene and a lot more poppy. Lighter… Some of the work I’ve done has been more TV-romantic drama and it’s a lot lighter than the horror. Even aesthetically it’s totally different.

But I think structurally, it’s not too different. Musically, you still need to get characters from A to B. You still have to transition through to the next scene. That stuff isn’t too different, but who you might be working for could be very different. You could be working for a post-production supervisor, not necessarily the director or the producer. It’s usually someone who really understands what the client wants; what the broadcaster wants. It feels a bit more like, “Well. This is it. It’s been decided on. Execute.” And that’s OK. Maybe not as experimental, but in the long run it doesn’t feel too different other than a few technical elements.

“I had some time to myself that was really needed… little respite that was weirdly in the middle of a pandemic.”

As a working musician and composer, how has the current COVID-19 situation affected you? Do you see it affecting how films are scored in the coming future?

For me, thankfully, I had a project right when the pandemic started. March 13 everything shut down and the latest film project that I worked on started March 17. So, I self-isolated anyway because I was working. Because of that, it probably wasn’t as drastic a change for me initially as it was for most. However, after the work stopped because production was shut down, a lot of the projects I had lined up became put on hold. So what I ended up doing was finishing some solo works that I had put on the backburner while scoring. I had some time to myself that was really needed and a little respite that was weirdly in the middle of a pandemic.

I also know some friends who were like, “Well, we can’t tour anymore so, I guess we’ll go into the studio and work on the next EP, or the next album.” I think a lot of folks in the music industry went into the studio, or have worked on solo stuff because you can’t really jump in with the band.

It’s actually funny because we recorded the song we talked about earlier — “Love Didn’t Care For Me” remotely — but it wasn’t during the pandemic. It was because we had no time. So a friend of mine, Chris Wong, played the guitar, bass, and wrote the guitar line. He would just send the stems on over and we’d put vocals to them and come up with lyrics all on the phone. I also was expecting that I might have to hire a cellist for the next project that I’m working on and have to hire them remotely as well. And I hear from a lot of people that they hire remote musicians who have a small recording set-up and can just fly in stems for the score. I think it’s probably more common than people think already, and with the pandemic it’s going to become a little bit more standard — unless you need a 72-piece orchestra. (laughs)

(Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

You can learn more about The Oak Room and all the other great films on offer at the Fantasia Film Festival by checking out the festival’s site.

Reeves is a vinyl junkie with an obsession for soundtracks and horror films. By day, she can be found at The Record Exchange in Boise, Idaho. By night, she’s writing for the aforementioned publications and more. You can find her on Twitter, too.

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