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Grant Fonda is a revered film composer. Learn about his creative process and his new film 'Pray' here.

Strike a chord with ‘Pray’ composer Grant Fonda

Grant Fonda is here to strike an emotional chord. The composer has been tugging at heartstrings since he graduated from USC’s Screen Scoring program, where he was mentored by Emmy-winning composer Bruce Broughton. He has gone on to score acclaimed films like The Dating Project (dir. Jonathan Cipiti, 2018) and the award winning Down the Fence (Netflix, dir. MJ Isakson, 2017).

In addition to his film career, Fonda is a composing fellow for Film Independent & ASCAP’s Project Involve, a distinguished presenter at NYU’s Music and the Moving Image Conference (2012), and an alumnus of the prestigious ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop with Richard Bellis. He also worked with the late, great, composer James Horner on Titanic Live! and Pas de Deux and Oscar-nominee John Debney on a live show for Disneyland’s California Adventure.

Fonda’s latest project is Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton. The documentary film has already won multiple awards, and it gave Fonda the opportunity to stretch his artistry further. Film Daily was fortunate enough to talk with Grant Fonda about his career, his influences, and his creative process.

Here’s what he had to say:

Tell us about your journey into music. What did you do before becoming a composer?

I started working for Starbucks full-time right after I finished my undergraduate degree in music. I think every music major has worked in coffee at some point, haha! I loved the dynamic of working in a field that was customer-service focused, but I knew that I was really missing music, so I started looking for jobs that would allow me to be more creative. 

I was offered a job as a part-time director of music at a church out of state where I primarily worked on building the choir and orchestra and crafting arrangements for them on a weekly basis… while still juggling hours at Starbucks. 

I finally came to terms with the realization that I needed to be creative full-time, so I went back to school (twice, The University of Missouri & USC) and ended up in the incredible network of working composers that’s born from USC. I haven’t looked back since! 

Was there any particular film or TV score that drew you to composing? 

I had a pipe dream of working as an animator for Disney for as long as I can remember, but when I saw The Rescuers Down Under, I realized that it was the marriage of music and animation together that made the classics we all love come to life in an entirely new way. Bruce Broughton’s score for the film ignited the passion for scoring that’s alive in me today. Serendipitously, I got to study with Bruce at USC many years later! 

Walk us through your creative process.

As cliche as it might sound, it’s a little different on every project because of scope and turnaround, but, I do always start by having a series of long conversations with the director. 

If it’s a first-time collaboration, we usually spend most of the first conversation just getting to know one another and their passions for everything in life besides the story, because that’s so integral to their storytelling process. We’ll then spend a lot of time talking about the film in whatever stage it’s in so that I can get a sense of where we’re heading and what I need to bring to the table. 

If we’re in pre-production (which is rare) I’ll start working on musical sketches of themes or textures that can help us later in the road when we start scoring to picture, but if we’re already in post-production (most commonly), we’ll talk about how the temp is working and then spot where the score will go. From there, I’ll take anywhere from a week to a month, depending on how much time we have, to just think without writing a single note. 

Without fail, the film and creative conversations with the director will lead the way to where I need to go. In many ways, writing is the easiest part of the process because there’s so much groundwork that’s laid in advance. Collaboration makes creativity freeing and rewarding! 

Who are your musical influences?

I can honestly say that I’m listening to everything under the sun because I know that at some point, it will influence what I’m working on. I’ll actually rarely listen to an artist with a similar sound to a score that I’m working on so that I’m getting fresh ideas from unusual places. 

That said, I’m always consistently refreshed and inspired by the work of J.S. Bach, Ólafur Arnalds, Duke Ellington, Sara Bareilles, and Thomas Newman.

Name five soundtracks you think every person needs to hear in their lifetime.

In no particular order, Homeward Bound (Broughton), Anatomy of a Murder (Ellington), Saving Mr. Banks (Newman), Phantom Thread (Jonny Greenwood), and  Schindler’s List (John Williams). 

Do you have any experience with mentors? If so, do you think they are beneficial for up and coming composers?

I still talk with my mentors regularly! They’re incredibly valuable, but not in the way that you might expect. More often than not, I’ll call mine with questions about life and business but not music. 

I’d say that if you don’t have a healthy relationship with a mentor (even if it’s informal), you won’t grow into your full potential as a composer, and you’re also missing out on one of the best experiences of being a human. 

What was the first project you worked on, and what did you learn from the experience? 

The first “real” gig that I worked on was a short called Tick Tock, directed by Emma Needell and Jake Sally. All three of us have gone on to have really successful careers in their own rights, but at the time, we were united as fledgling artists who had a passion for telling a great story.

In addition to learning about the ever-underestimated power of networking, I’ll never forget learning that an amazing story can be told when you love and trust your collaborators, no matter how limited the resources are or unexpected reach. 

How did you get involved with Pray: The Patrick Peyton Story?

Producer Megan Harrington and Director Jonathan Cipiti asked me to come on board to recreate the team that we had on The Dating Project, our first endeavor together. 

What was your experience working on the uplifting documentary?

In two words: emotional and wonderful. There were a lot of narrative points that resonated on a deep personal level at the time, and the creative collaboration was marked with support, freedom and pushing one another to bring the story to life in the best way possible every step of the way. 

How does composing a documentary differ from composing a fictional film?

I actually approach these the same way in execution, which is a little unusual. At its heart, a documentary is trying to reach an audience in the same way a fictional film does, but by somewhat different means. Musically, documentaries tend to have a higher music-to-picture ratio, so managing the pacing can be a little trickier.

Fictional narratives tend to give more opportunities for a dance between picture and music because there’s usually less dialogue, but I have worked on docs that provide this with reenactments. 

What challenges did you face while composing Pray: The Patrick Peyton Story?

Finding the palette for this film was actually the hardest part of the scoring process for me. Jon (Cipiti) and I had long conversations before I started writing, and one of the most daunting things that we both felt was the immensity of the scope. The film covers the entirety of Peyton’s life, with many changes in geography, culture, and decade. 

I felt that the score needed to incorporate three main pieces to help tie everything together: a sense of timelessness because of Peyton’s legacy, a strong sense of liturgical and classical tradition because of his life spent as a priest, and unmistakable Irish roots because he was “always Irish.” Finding the intersection of all of that was a challenge. 

What was your inspiration behind the score for Pray: The Patrick Peyton Story?

I lost my grandfather the same year that I scored Pray and I had also just become a father. The legacy of family and faith that my Grandfather left and the new reality of my own expanding family paralleled much of Patrick Peyton’s life. In many ways, I feel that this score was written for my grandfather, Raymond. It was very emotional for me. 

Why do you think music is such a key part of the filmmaking process?

Music can really transform a film for better or worse! I’ve had directors tell me that the score can really be the emotional core of a film that ties a lot of different elements together, and I’ve seen this to be especially true in documentaries or films that cover a lot of narrative ground in 90 minutes or less. 

Music has a unique ability to say something that words can’t, so it’s vital for a composer to make sure that we’re amplifying the right message. 

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I know that I’ll be building up collaborative relationships old and new alike, and hopefully with stories that continue to refresh and inspire people. And, I wouldn’t be mad about scoring Disney’s next soaring family adventure or writing tunes for a new romantic comedy from the mind of Jonah Feingold or Nancy Meyers.

What’s next on the docket for you?

I’m wrapping up a documentary about population decline called Birthgap and jumping into Matt Green’s next film, a western called Reckoning. I’m also really excited about the upcoming releases of The House That Rob Built (Jonathan Cipiti/Megan Harrington) and Dating and New York (Jonah Feingold). 

What has been your biggest success and failure to date? 

Success? Having a career as a thriving composer! Failure? The moments that I’ve failed to remember that people are the most important part of that career. 

Do you prefer to compose for a certain type of film over others?

I honestly love working in a lot of different genres, but I do have a soft spot for romantic comedies and animation.

How has COVID affected your current projects?

The biggest impact that I’ve seen on current projects is that it’s made recording the score more challenging. Thanks to some brilliant minds like my contractors, Gina Zimmitti and Whitney Martin, and my engineer, Scott Frankfurt, the process has become a lot easier over time as we figure out how to record efficiently and safely in this new season of post production. 

Do you think the film industry will be able to bounce back after COVID dies out? 

ABSOLUTELY. The industry is made up of innovators and storytellers who thrive on figuring out how to create something amazing out of nothing, so, in many ways, a pandemic seems like a small hurdle for what we deal with on a daily basis. I think that the stories and creative endeavors that come out of this will be fresh and exciting. 

Who are some up and coming composers we should keep an eye on?

Well, Grant Fonda, for one, haha. There’s actually a lot of great writers with fresh perspectives right now, but there are two who I really respect as musicians and individuals. Aidan (Rowe) Davis is a frequent collaborator of mine and has an ear for melody and elegant simplicity like no one I’ve ever met. 

She’s already made Billboard for her work on Queen Esther, and she is as sweet as the desserts she makes in her spare time. While I don’t know him personally, I also think that Dan Romer is going to walk away with an Oscar for Score one day. 

He’s got an energy in his writing that’s fresh and never boring, and I think his work is always interesting. 

What advice do you have for up and coming composers trying to break into the industry? 

As a mentor once told me, “Work hard, be nice, and get lucky.” It’s never enough to be one or even two of those. Also, in the words of Mufasa: “Remember who you are.” Don’t lose sight of your core identity for the price of fame or fortune, or you’ll always come up short. 

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