Roger Neill AM '90, PhD '94 (Composer, Mozart in the Jungle, 20th Century Women)
by Kristen Strezo
Growing up, composer Roger Neill AM ’90, PhD ’94 wanted to be a rock star. But he found himself torn between his love of classical music and his love of rock. He was studying Beethoven piano sonatas, yet drawn to power pop and The Beatles.
When it came time to choose a career, this intense curiosity eventually led him to the field of film and TV scoring.
“Film music really became the obvious choice because I was able to combine my interests from all these mediums, all these different kinds of music,” he says.
Today, Neill has worked on over two hundred feature films and decades worth of television episodes and TV commercials backed by his extensive musical knowledge.
The musical process Neill uses to draw out that humanness of his characters and the emotion are just as vital as the music he chooses.
“In this field you have to have a lot of familiarity with lots of different kinds of music… having to understand how lots of different music is constructed,” he says.
Recently, Neill won a Golden Globe for his work on Mozart in the Jungle. The Amazon Prime original series, which is based on the book by Blair Tindall, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, follows a fictional New York professional orchestra and its eccentric composer.
Neill doesn’t just choose the music as composer and music producer. He is also responsible for making the actors appear as if they are as musically proficient as their characters, whether Neill is lying on the set’s floor guiding the proper motions of a professional conductor or speaking through an earpiece the actors wear.
Executive producer of Mozart in the Jungle Paul Weitz thinks that Neill is beyond a composer and conductor; he is a musical aficionado. Weitz says, “if I needed a piece for a drunken flute player to flaunt his prowess, Roger had it in his back pocket. And if a piece had to carry the emotion of a scene, or for that matter a season, Roger would have three excellent options and an accurate choice of which was best and why.”
Neill received a scholarship to attend Harvard’s music doctorate program. And he quickly found Harvard to be a place with so many opportunities to unveil. He formed an orchestra with friends and invited conductors to give master classes. He studied abroad in Africa and Berlin.
“Just having the access to all those kinds of things and also the wonderful people who came in to teach, made it always just an amazing, stimulating place,” he says.
Today, it is Neill’s musical intuition that makes him one of the most sought-after composers and music directors.
Director Mike Mills, who collaborated with him on a number of projects, most recently 20th Century Women, says of Neill, “I love his real understanding of music, the history of chords, who uses them and why, and how they’re made from this almost sonic/chemical base. He can cook up anything we think of.”
Mills continues, “we’ve done so many different kinds of music together, so many styles, so many instruments. He can play all of it.”
And although 20th Century Women is set in 1979 Santa Barbara, Neill chose to lean on Bowie and Eno’s Berlin years for musical inspiration while in the early stages of the film’s production.
“Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, David Bowie, I devoured that stuff as a kid and it was fun to get back into it. My score doesn’t sound necessarily like that, but there are things about my score which are of the same world.”
20th Century Women debuts as the centerpiece screening at the 2016 New York Film Festival on October 8th.
Looking back, Neill acknowledges how personal each project was to him. “Fellow composers—both of film and TV—think in results as much as filmmakers and directors and editors and cinematographers or anyone else. We’re all part of the team that tells a story.”
Mozart in the Jungle is now its third season. Don’t Think Twice is playing in select theaters.