How do you write music for the story of a hero who sacrificed everything to rescue the masses of people trapped in the burning buildings of 911? What theme can you write for a man who charged forward to almost certain death to save complete strangers? How do you compose for images of children who will never see their father again, a wife who will never see her husband and siblings that will never see their brother? You let the emotions come and write from the heart.
Some time in early April, I got a call from my old friend Lance Coviello. Lance edited my favorite of all the films that I had the privilege of scoring as a grad student at the North Carolina School of the Arts’, Dr. Undead’s Frightfest. Lance has a great sense of score as an editor, which is such a welcome gift to a film composer. Lance told me that he had been working on a project for almost three years. The subject matter was directly related to the events of 9-11. He said that he was throwing a cue to several composers and asked if I would try something on a clip that he would send me. I jumped at the chance. As I watched what he had sent, I realized that this documentary was much more special than even he had let on when he had pitched it to me. What I was seeing was remarkable.
The film was the story of Steven Siller, a New York firefighter who went to extraordinary lengths to race in to the burning towers, running more than five miles through the Tranpensy Bridge Tunnel in full gear. He died that day, saving lives.
A few weeks later, I was elated to hear from Lance that I was the selected composer. I was awed by the scenes of the towers falling, which I hadn’t seen since the event itself. Watching things again that were so emblazoned in my memory, I was inspired to create some emotional music. I had even recorded a song that I sent along. Apparently the song was a hit with the producers and was already in for the cut. A few more weeks of cutting and I was sent the final cut.
The process was much more emotional than I had anticipated. The film was incredibly sad. I was putting music behind floating photos of a man’s family who will never see him again. Loving, laughing, living in Staton Island. I began to know Steven and all of his family members. His brothers and wife told stories of their lives. It was a Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller world on Staten Island worthy of a series of Norman Rockwell paintings. As with all documentaries, the stuff that would never make the cut in a work of fiction, the things that could never be made up really brought the story to life. Steven had been raised by his brothers and sister, so when he died it was like losing both a brother and a son. His daughters and wife reminded me of my cousins in Philadelphia – sincere, Catholic, working class people. My favorite image of Steven is a devilish look that both he and his youngest daughter are giving the camera as his wife tells us what wicked sense of humor he had. As I watched a wrote, I had to leave the room to get some air about once an hour. The power of their story is epic in it’s own humble way. I must confess, I have never been so emotionally affected by anything that I have been asked to put music to.
After a few complete cuts with notes it was down to the final step. I had to finalize the theme song that I had written for the credits. I had always planned to cut the tune, For The Love Of A Brother with an amazing female singer, Celia Chavez, that I had worked with for a few years, cutting new interpretations of classic songs for Sony ATV. When I mentioned my plan to Lance, I was surprised by his reaction. He said that he really liked the version I had sent with me singing on it. As I said before, Lance has a great street-smart sense of film music. I had taken his hunches back on Dr. Undead and they had sent me in some great directions and the results showed. As a film composer, it is very easy to become myoptic and a fresh perspective, if it is from an intelligent source, can break one out of the singular mindset that comes from spending hours performing music to screen. I recut my own vocal and gave it as much heart as I had. I then called a great female vocalist who I was working with on another project, Taz DeVille. We stacked some luscious backgrounds and the whole track seemed to come together. It was emerging as a pulsing, anthemic ode to people who put their lives on the line for people who may or may not ever know or ever be able to repay them for the price they pay.
The hope in a story like this always comes in the third act. Steven Siller’s family began a charity marathon in his name that traces the route that he ran from Staten Island to Manhattan, through the tunnel. It is an amazing charity that builds smart homes for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, rebuilds New Jersey towns after Hurricane Sandy, sends money for Haitian relief and much more. I was incredibly honored to be a small part of this great film. Lance Coviello and the producers outdid themselves. Everyone should see this movie to be reminded of a moment in our country’s history which is made very real by one man’s story, very least of all for the music.
To learn more about the film, the foundation and see the trailer check out their website.
I had the honor of being interviewed about the documentary for my hometown newspaper the Salisbury Post, you can read the article here