So Adam, talk us through the process of scoring the soundtrack for Half A Million Steps…
I suppose the very first step was just a case of familiarising myself with the people and the imagery, trying various sounds and melodies to see what worked or (as was often the case) what didn't work!
Dom was great from the start and as he had spent a lot of time with everyone involved, he was able to describe certain characteristics of the interviewees, or draw my attention to specific moments that were important. Every single frame throughout Half A Million Steps is beautifully and meticulously shot and the whole thing as a visual piece has a really identifiable aesthetic, so I really wanted to mirror that in the audio.
Obviously the real centrepiece in the film is the people, so a lot of the time I did my best to blend in and just be a part of whatever was happening on screen. Despite the commonalities of the general theme, everyone's stories, backgrounds and personalities couldn't be more varied and unique, so I tried to be very mindful of that and not just gloss over everything with a general, standardised score. I made about forty preliminary demos and ideas, aiming to compose themes that would really reflect their characters. I was also really hyper conscious (actually completely terrified) of accidentally sensationalising, 'cheapening' or generally not doing justice to these people. It's very easy to fall into traps and think things like 'oh, they're saying something sad now, time to tinkle around in a minor key' or 'this is a really poignant moment, let's fire up the violins' – but these are actual people talking about their actual lives and I was paranoid about making anything sound flippant, unconsidered, blasé or trite.
Once the musical themes were sketched out it was just a case of weaving them into the edit and presenting them in different ways depending on what the dialogue and visuals were doing. As with most of the music I make, I like to get a really strong melodic hook and then find different way of presenting it, whether it's through instrumentation, dynamics or the way it's structured.
Why did you want to be involved with this film?
I was lucky enough to have created the music for some interviews of Shantell, Liz and Marion, which were shown at the Fair Treatment event, with Richard Branson in Sydney, so when Dominic asked me if I wanted to score the film, I didn't even have to think before saying yes.
Having seen quite a lot of the unedited footage of those interviews and being utterly drawn in by the super human strength and determination of these people, it all felt quite familiar by the time Half A Million Steps came around.
It was also clear from those simple short interviews that Dom's method of directing and communicating through film was just flawless and he's brilliant to work with. He gave me a lot of creative space to come up with stuff, which is a rarity in itself these days. Even when time seemed utterly against us, or something wasn't working, it never seemed stressful in a bleak or frustrating way. He, along with the editors: Dan and Chris have a glorious work ethic, seemingly endless patience and a wonderful way of cultivating the film as a whole.
It's also an absolute honour to have been a small part and contributed to something that is really having a positive impact on people's lives and hopefully going some way to implementing a change in the way addiction is dealt with.
I think most of us know at least one person in our lives affected by these issues and even if you don't, you'd have to be completely heartless not to sympathise and want to do something to help the people in these situations.
How did you go about achieving a sound which complimented stories in the film and the accompanying footage?
I think much of it was simply just listening to what all these people had to say. I'd watch the footage over and over, playing along with various sounds and almost try and be an echo, or reflection of what they were saying. In other cases the dialogue was just so raw and strong it was almost like being a backing band for a vocalist/lyricist and the two aspects would kind of slot together.
From the start I was blown away by the stunningly beautiful footage of rural Australia, which of course had another side to it, given the vast distances involved in the walk, the isolation and loneliness. I tried to keep in mind all these were factors when producing the soundtrack. Even though there's many dark and deeply upsetting moments in the film, the general feeling in my mind was one of perseverance, strength and optimism, so rather than doing lots of drastic musical changes back and forth, I kept a similar palette of instruments and sounds throughout, and just tried to rely on the melodies and use subtle movements to represent the various moods, which was actually quite difficult for me as I usually love big contrasts and lots of things going on in the mix.
How much sound design was involved and what methods did you use?
There wasn't a massive need for much sound design throughout the film, but there were a few very enjoyable moments, where I managed to get out of the studio and record various sounds and noises. I spent an unearthly amount of time recording a bathroom extractor fan, which I blended with a synth to create the sound of Adam Wiseman's propeller plane, which was quite amusing in retrospect! I also got to do some rather silly driving in my Fiat Panda, in order to re-create the sound of his massive, four wheel drive pickup truck in the desert! ...And I got shouted at by a goose when recording a little stream by a lake!
Were there any influences or reference points when creating the sound track?
I suppose there were a few reference points. One of which being a subtle hint to old hymns, given the involvement of the church in the long walk to treatment. I'm not religious myself, but I did go to church as a child and I have to say I do absolutely love certain hymns. So there are a couple of pieces that I deliberated implied this in terms of melodic structure, etc.
Anything else you want to add?
Just a huge 'thank you' and 'well done' to everyone involved and I wish them all the very best with the Fair Treatment campaign and their own individual roads to recovery. I learned a lot on this film, I'm incredibly proud to be a small part of it - I've got endless respect and admiration for all those out there and what they're going through.
I always have a handful of different musical projects on the go. Also Mr Streeter, undeterred by my pestering emails, irritating messages and indecipherable demo recordings has very kindly asked me to score his next film, about the extremely worrying opiate crisis in Vancouver, Canada. Despite it dealing with similar subject matter in terms of addiction, it couldn't be more different to Half A Million Steps in almost every way imaginable!