While “The Tender Bar” didn’t resonate with everyone, it currently holds a 52% approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, I really loved the film, or at least the first half of it. “The Tender Bar” is further proof that Ben Affleck needs an Oscar sooner or later but I digress. One of the strengths of “The Tender Bar” is its score, composed by Dara Taylor (“Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar”), which combines some melancholic notes with some happier tracks that’ll warm your heart. I spoke with Dara about her score for George Clooney’s latest directorial feature, and what the process of scoring “The Tender Bar” was like.
Did you score-to-scene for this film [“The Tender Bar”]? And were there any specific scenes that were particularly difficult?
Yeah. I think that the score is often used in places of self-discovery or introducing new characters and new ideals. I think probably one of the more difficult scores seen in the film is when J.R. (Tye Sheridan) talks to his uncle, Charlie (Ben Affleck) in the hospital room and decides to go see his father (Max Martini).
And then later on when he talked to the little girl, his father’s girlfriend, and his father, I think those moments where he is sort of unsure of what his next steps are and how to kind of toe that line. With having kind of a clear sense of view in the music or point of view in the music but still kind of speak to that uncertainty.
And how did this project kind of come across? You were offered George Clooney’s last movie!
It was a strange set of circumstances. I’d actually scored an episode “Trial by Media” on Netflix, which was executive produced by Smokehouse Productions.
And that production showed me to George Clooney and his producing partner, Grant Heslov. So that’s how they heard of me and then they talked to my agency, who they worked with in the past, and yeah, it was quite the call to receive.
What is your composing process like? You mentioned scoring-to-scene, so how many times do you watch a scene, and do you have to watch a scene then sit on it for a while, or do you kind of play around with ideas?
Yeah, I watched it [“The Tender Bar”] a few times. If there isn’t anything in there I probably watch it once with the temp, just to get an idea of what it is and where it might be heading.
And then I turn the temp off, so it’s not in my mind anymore. Then I watched it a bunch of times dry and try and just kind of listen to the characters and their hesitations, or just how they’re portraying the characters in the scene.
At least in the case of this film, I tried to sort of match their intensity if that makes any sense. I never want to forecast anything. I just want to sit and react with the audience. And so I just listen to speed of their speech patterns, [and decipher] whether they’re feeling confident or not confident, whether they’re feeling hopeful or not hopeful, and just kind of go with my gut there.
The first thing you usually do is try to find the instrumentation that I think will work for the scene, the character, [and] the film.
I probably should’ve started with this question, but what is your musical background? Did you always compose stuff or were you in bands?
While growing up, I spent [time] in choirs and choruses and musicals and all that stuff.
I played the clarinet through high school; I was not very good. But I mostly studied as a vocalist. As an undergrad, I studied as a vocalist but I kind of knew that performance wasn’t where I wanted it to be. So I was trying to find another outlet and that’s kind of where I really discovered composition and wanted to, um, kind of pursue that as a career path.
Do you have any specific inspirations for composing?
I love [Stephen] Sondheim, and “Into The Woods” is one of my favorite shows ever, I’ve loved the way that he was able to create rhythm in nonrhythmic instruments.
A lot of the ways he would set the lyrics had this kind of rhythm to it. The way he was able to kind of ebb and flow tension and agitation through even just vocals alone and then the rest of the instrumentation bolstering that. I really liked the idea of creating rhythms on non-percussive instruments.
So even in this score, some other scores I’ll think rhythmically more with bass and guitars and those sorts of things and let the percussion — if there is percussion — add to that. But, percussion is not the first place I go for rhythm.
I see a lot of instruments behind you, do you play all those?
Yeah, they’re mine. I play them to varying degrees of success. Some instruments are just kind of fun to play around on and [some are] just for gathering ideas.
What’s your favorite instrument of them, if you had to pick one? Maybe you’re best at, or that you play the most.
I probably play piano more than I play a lot of those things, but I’ll do a lot of writing on my acoustic guitar. But that’s not usually what ends up in the final film. I’ll usually have someone re-record that for me, but I think I do a lot of writing on the guitar.
If it’s not something I write on piano, which is probably where I go first, or the bass actually. There are times when I will, depending on the genre of music, start with the bassline and then work my way up.
Did you watch the “The Beatles: Get Back” documentary that Disney did?
Yeah, I did. It was great.
One of the cool things was that Paul McCartney comes up with “Get Back” from the bass. He starts with the base and kind of finds a melody, which is just to me, it sounds funny. I know you can find a key through the bass, but you’re not usually driving a song around that. What is it about the bass that can lead you to start a song?
I think in addition to just finding the chord progressions, the leaps that the bass can do and you know, [in a] shorter span. It sometimes feels more natural than doing it on the piano. Since my choir years, especially in treble voice choirs, I had a lower woman’s voice, so I always think a lot of Alto, two lines into-the-jar sometimes basslines. So I just got used to that. I think that thinking in that manner and kind of thinking from the bass.
Is the bass an instrument that you feel very well-versed in?
I mean, it’s okay. But yeah, I feel comfortable playing around with it.
How many feature films have you composed.
Feature studio films?
I’d have to count. A lot of them were in the last few years.
I did notice you had done the score for “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” which is more of a comedic film. Is there a difference in composing these films? Of course in the music itself, but even just composing the score for something like that versus the more somber, dramatic, “The Tender Bar.”
I mean, there are differences, I think in [both] approaches and what feelings that the characters are feeling that you want to comment on and what things you don’t. Sometimes in comedy, you want to lean into the jokes. Sometimes you want to play completely straight and other times ignore the joke.
So I think in comedy is you’re really trying to accompany, but not get in the way of the joke. And I think it’s a similar thing in drama too, where you don’t necessarily want to be the feeling, you just want to comment on it. I think there’s a lot more nuanced with the pauses and spaces and those sorts of things in comedy whereas in drama, you can kind of stay on an idea a little bit longer and let it wash over you.
This is putting on the spot, but you had mentioned like with comedies, sometimes you acknowledge the joke or other times you don’t want to get in the way of the joke. Can you think of any examples of the score getting in the way of a joke? I know this is kind of hard to explain verbally.
There are instances even in “Barb and Star,” which I co-scored with Christopher Lennertz, sometimes you’re playing along, you know? “Barb and Star” is an action-comedy, and the action takes you by surprise. You’re like, “Where are we?” and there are moments where you’re scoring along with the action and then something ridiculous happens on the screen.
So, you have a choice, [either] keep it going and comment on the ridiculousness, or sometimes it’s more effective to just stop everything. And then I think the absence of music helps accentuate the sharp cut or whatever weird thing is happening. So it really just paying attention to that comedic beat.
And I’m sure you probably get sick of the jokes then, right? If you’ve had to listen to it so many times.
No, I mean, I think it’s fun to see like what jokes you still laugh at, even at the end where you know what’s coming, but it’s just funny every time.
Are you able to then watch the film once you put the score to the picture? For example, now that “The Tender Bar” is on Prime Video and “Barb and Star” is on Hulu, can you go back and watch those, or is the book closed once you’re finished with your work?
No, I usually go back and watch it, [though] usually not alone. I’ll sit down with my boyfriend or my Gammy or someone that we’ll watch it then. It’s kind of like a “show and tell”-sort of a thing. It is also just kind of a fun way to culminate the end of a project and see all of your hard work come to fruition and watch the final project that people you love.
It’s not every career path that you can actually share with people. It’s better if you don’t share if you’re a brain surgeon, you know? It’s nice to be able to kind of share that.
Is there any advice you would give to maybe an aspiring musician? Or someone finding their musical style or voice?
I say, just write and keep writing and keep writing and see what continues to feel. I think your voice is, as corny as it sounds, inside of you. It’s just [a matter of] then finding the right audience for that voice. Because you know, every project is different.
Every director and studio is different. [There may be something] that may work really well for one project [but] might be too big or too small for another project. So this is, and I’m about to negate what I’m saying, [about] finding your niche and then finding ways to expand it or break it.
I think once you’ve kind of found your voice, finding ways to do something completely different and see what carries over because as film and TV composers, we’re dropped into a lot of different situations and adaptability is pretty important.
Are you a big film and/or TV person outside of scoring?
I love heist films. I love buddy-comedies, too. Anything where people learn and grow together. I like to laugh. I like things that have a kind of hope and enjoyment. I’ve also had a lot of fun working on horror, too. But as far as watching things, I am just looking to kind of relax and unwind.
It’s weird because I work all day and I stare at a screen, and then I take a break, and then I just stare at a different screen. But you kind of have to love it otherwise, why do it?
Are there any specific kinds of films or a specific director that you’d love to work with someday?
Honestly, I think that James Gunn seems like someone that would be fun to work for. I just kind of like his sensibilities. But I’ve also enjoyed Chloe Zhao’s stuff as well. I liked “Eternals,” I know it had mixed reviews, but I just wish there was more time. I liked that it focused more on the inner turmoil of the heroes and all of their relationships.
Maybe you’ll work on the second season of “Peacemaker” for James Gunn. Are you watching that by the way?
I am and it’s just fun. He [Gunn] adds an undeniable charm to things that I really appreciate.
Do you have any future projects that you know you’re working on that you can say anything about?
I’m working on a few things I can’t talk about quite yet, but one thing I can talk about is a Netflix film I worked on, “The Noel Diary.” It was directed by Charles Shyer, who’s infamously great. And it stars Justin Hartley and was a really beautiful film. I can’t wait for people to see and hear it!
This interview was edited for clarity.
Thank you to White Bear PR for setting up this wonderful interview with Dara. “The Tender Bar” is streaming now on Prime Video.