Film composer and UC San Diego alumnus Larry Groupé
Blood and corruption may not be for every moviegoer, but dark themes provide creative juice for film composer and UC San Diego alumnus Larry Groupé. “Straw Dogs,” with a score by Groupé, is now playing nationally.
Directed by Rod Lurie, “Straw Dogs” is a remake of the violent 1971 cult classic. Set in a small Mississippi town, this “Straw Dogs” stars James Marsden and Kate Bosworth as a young couple stalked by a crew of thugs led by Alexander Skarsgard. Tension builds to a gory and terrifying climax.
"I think this is the best score I have done,” Groupé said. “My approach was not the expected way to do a mainstream thriller set in the American south. I wanted a Gothic film noir approach but the studio wanted Zydeco or Cajun music. This would have worked but it also could have been too standard and conventional. My score really adds depth to the story and characters which I would not have captured with a more common approach of pulsing synthesizers.
Groupé gets involved with a film early in the creative process.
“I almost always start with the script, before any filming takes place,” he said. “I sketch potential themes, play them for Rod and this starts the dialogue between us. When the first rough cut is assembled I see whether my themes work the way I want them to. If not, I explore new ideas because the tone of the picture is emerging and the feeling needs to be handled just right. The tone influences the instrumentation, tempos, and all sorts of musical decisions.”
Although UC San Diego’s music department is known for new and experimental music, Groupé said that his experiences earning a master’s in composition have proved very useful in his commercial film work.
“I am self-taught as a film composer,” he said. “There were no courses for this back then. However, I draw constantly from my work at UCSD. Modern ideas about harmony, rhythm, and extended techniques [playing conventional instruments in unconventional ways] are tools I use frequently. I credit that to UCSD mentors including Bernard Rands, Pauline Oliveros, and Will Ogdon, as well as visiting composers including John Cage and Toru Takemitsu.”
In the ’90s, Groupé’s agent got a hold of a Lurie script. Though the movie was never made, Groupé composed three themes. He lugged a heavy DAT recorder to Lurie’s office and convinced the director to have a listen.
“He loved the themes,” Groupé said. Their creative collaboration began with Lurie’s 1998 short film “4 Second Delay,” which won several film festival awards. Next came “Deterrence” (1999), picked up by Paramount for distribution, and
“The Contender” (2000), their “breakthrough,” according to Groupé.
“The Contender” stars Jeff Bridges as a U.S. president about to appoint a vice president played by Joan Allen. Secrets from their pasts surface to threaten their careers. “Steven Spielberg saw it and loved it,” Groupé said. “It was was picked up by Dreamworks and garnered two Academy Awards.”
Subsequent Lurie/Groupé collaborations included “The Last Castle” (2001), with Robert Redford as a court-martialed general who rallies 1,200 fellow inmates to seize control of a prison; and “Resurrecting the Champ” (2007), starring Samuel L. Jackson as a homeless former boxing champion rescued from oblivion by a young sports reporter.
Groupé has also written music for television series directed by Lurie including “Commander in Chief” and “Line of Fire,” which earned him a Grammy nomination. And he has composed scores for a silent movie based on cult director Ed Wood’s last script, “I Woke Up Early the Day I Died,” and for the documentary “Missions,” with music performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Groupé won two Emmy awards for Best Documentary Score for “Jonas Salk: Personally Speaking,” and he composed 10 original songs for the rock band Yes’s CD “Magnification.”
Reviews of “Straw Dogs” are just trickling in, but it’s earning praise. Miami Herald movie critic Rene Rodriguez calls it “an artful provocation – a meditation on masculinity and societal mores in the guise of an explosive thriller.” Even better, Roger Ebert says it’s “a first-rate film of psychological warfare, and yes, I thought it was better than Peckinpah’s.”
Groupé is one of 50 prominent alumni recently honored at the UCSD Alumni Celebration: 50 Years | 50 Leaders gala event in June 2011.
Groupé’s score for “Straw Dogs” is available on iTunes and on CD. He recently spoke about scoring the thriller on KPBS “Midday Edition.”
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