Film and television composer John Swihart spoke with Solzy at the Movies during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival about working on Dinner in America.
How thrilled are you to be back at Sundance with Dinner in America?
John Swihart: I’m pretty psyched. This movie was a lot of fun. It’s always fun to find out your film made it onto the list to get premiered here so we’re really excited about it.
How did you get interested in composing for film and television?
John Swihart: It’s kind of a long story but I had a friend who was doing advertising stuff. I bumped into him after not seeing him for many years and I ended up starting to get into some of that. This was in Boston. Some of the interns at this post production facility that I was working out of were making short films. They were Emerson students in Boston. I got to score some of their short films. Instantly, it was just really fun to write music for a narrative film. It was just obviously something I was really attracted to at that point and kind of knew I had to do it. I moved out to LA and just did everything I could until I got lucky with Napoleon Dynamite. I’ve kind of been busy ever since.
Last year marked the 15th anniversary of Napoleon Dynamite. When did you begin to get an idea that the film had a cult following?
John Swihart: When I got on that film—first of all, I had to do that in about three weeks and we did it really fast. We were all surprised that actually—it was supposed to be in Slamdance and then it ended up being in Sundance. It got picked up and bought pretty much while the festival was still going. It just kind of blew up when MTV got on board. As far as a cult following, I don’t know. I laughed the first time I read the script when he throws the little toy figure out the window with a fishing line on it at the back of the bus—one of the very first scenes in the movie—it just made me chuckle. It was really fun working on that movie just because we’re laughing the whole time.
Similarly, this year marks the 15th anniversary of How I Met Your Mother. What did you enjoy about working on the series?
John Swihart: That series was a lot of fun and probably the best thing about it were the two creators, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas. They’re just great people. They were in a band in college and they still play music. They’re very musical people and they wrote a lot of the songs for the Robin Sparkles character. It was really fun working with them on producing some of the songs. They were fun to work with creating music. They just gave good direction and we had fun working on it together. They were just great people and great cast.
How do decide which projects to select?
John Swihart: I think projects select me more than I select them. (Laughs) First of all, every project is a challenge. There’s a few projects that I’ve turned away but most of the time it’s fun to get involved in this process. Unless I’m overbooked, I’m going to want to work in general and work on whatever I’m trying to help these people achieve what they’re trying to achieve with their project.
What’s your process when it comes to composing? Do you need to see the dailies or make a set visit?
John Swihart: Sometimes it’s different all the time. With Dinner in America, I talked to the director before they shot and we had a lot of conversations. I didn’t end up creating any music for the shoot, which can happen with some films. Sometimes you get hired, like a Napoleon after the whole thing is done. Sometimes, you replace somebody and then you have three weeks to do it. It’s different every time.
Dinner in America was interesting because the writer-director has been in bands and wrote a bunch of songs for the movie. It’s sort of a punk rock love story. The lead character is the singer for a band who wears a mask because he likes to be anonymous and doesn’t want the attention. There’s this band and the writer-director wrote all the songs for that. Because that was a thrash punk rock band, we were talking about a percussive score for this film. He had mentioned that he was interested in doing something that was just drums. Not really like Birdman because that’s more of like a jazzy type of thing—that’s an avant garde thing. This would be more aggressive because our lead character, this punk rock dude, is kind of a criminal a little bit.
We decided to go with an electronic drum thing just to separate it because I thought if I started just doing live drum stuff for a score for this film, it would be too easily confused with the punk rock, thrash stuff, especially if it’s all going to be kind of bombastic and sort of aggressive sounding. We had a lot of fun doing an electronic drums score for this—lots of aggressive distorted drums. It definitely sets it apart from the punk rock music in this film and then we took our time. I think I had my first conversation with the director almost two years ago. He took a he took a long time cutting it so we took our time with the whole thing. I think we’re all really happy with it.
What advice do you usually give to first-timers attending the festival—either with or without a project?
John Swihart: Just have fun. Be yourself. I don’t know if I really can give great advice other than I would recommend skiing if you come here because the skiing is so good. Deer Valley or Park City and nobody’s up there skiing. If you like to ski, definitely ski while you’re here because there’s more stuff going on at night then there is during the day a lot of times so you can enjoy a mountain during the day and hang out and party at night.