INTERVIEW: Craig Wedren Talks A Futile and Stupid Gesture & David Wain

Craig Wedren
Credit: John Mazlish/BMI
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TV/film composer Craig Wedren recently spoke with Cultured Vultures about his relationship growing up with David Wain, his composing process, and working on the recently released A Futile and Stupid Gesture.

Thanks for joining us today. How are things treating you?
Things are very well, thank you. I’m working on a lot of music and I love it. I can’t complain because it’s pretty cool at present. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

You’ve got a lengthy relationship with David Wain that goes back to pre-school. How have things changed over the years?
Well, very little, I have to say. We met at summer camp –Park Synagogue Day Camp– and my mom was the head (inaudible) instructor. My last name is Wedren and David’s last name is Wain so our cubbies were next to each other. We got to be super buds pretty quick. As we got older, we started making a lot of stuff in the basement. His dad was in radio so we had a lot of–I wouldn’t go so far as saying discarded gear but secondhand gear down in the basement. Two-track tape recording machines, a drum kit, and a whole lot of wild outfits from the 50s and 60s from his mom, and a big beta cam: a very early videotape camera.

David started making videos of himself as different characters dressed in his mom’s outfits. I started making music using whatever gear he had around. Then my bands as we got older started rehearsing there occasionally. It became this whole production facility. We would make songs and record them. We started making music videos with all of our friends. David would make this kind of proto-State type sketches with different characters. We continued doing it in college. We went to college together at NYU. By that point, I had moved to Washington, DC, for a couple years at the end of high school. My band, Shudder to Think, started there at the end of high school. Then David and I went to NYU together and he was in the film school starting up performing with friends that would coalesce into becoming The State. I was doing a lot of sound installation, ambient music, touring and making records with Shudder to Think. My friends like David, Ken Marino (who I still work with), Michael Ian Black –all these characters– needed music for live performances and student films. Invariably, I would kind of wind up make music for their stuff. Honestly, it has continued along that trajectory with my making records and playing shows, composing scores and writing songs for David and Ken and Thomas Lennon — all my college friends, basically. The only difference is that we’re older and we have our budgets sometimes as opposed to when we were kids shooting and leaning on our parents for. So I don’t know if that much has changed. David is still one of my best friends and favorite collaborators. Our children are friends. It’s been quite a remarkably unusual and lovely little relationship.

You recently worked on A Futile and Stupid Gesture. What were you aiming for with regards to the music?
I wanted it to reflect the creative spark and chaotic inventiveness of this group of people and the era. I wanted it to feel very immediate and experimental in a way because we’re all so used to watching brilliant white people behaving badly in the 1970s. We’ve seen a lot movies and TV shows and read books about bands or early SNL or whatever it is. I think it’s very easy for us to forget how radical, electric, and creative it was. I really wanted to use the music to make people feel that. What I did was I have this amazing team of musicians and composers that I work with in various groupings on different projects that I am on. I basically put together a live band with my friends, some of who are also composers. We just got in a room together and it was kind of like summer camp. We just made a ton of music. I didn’t write very much beforehand. I just waited for us to be in the room together and then the ideas started flying. My hope was that it would keep things kinetic, lively, unpredictable, and unexpected. I think it did.

I think there was an immediacy to the A Futile and Stupid Gesture score that a lot of scores, including those that I have worked on, on don’t necessarily have. You’re usually not sitting alone and by yourself with a keyboard and a computer and there’s a sort of austerity and solid parity-ness to that, which I really wanted to shatter for A Futile and Stupid Gesture to give it a different character, which hopefully did that. I liked it. I think I achieved my aim. Once we did the initial recordings, I would get together with David. We would talk about what was working and what wasn’t working. Then my crew and I would get back together and we would continue working on it. Sometimes I would take things and work on it by myself. That was really the goal.

What’s your typical process like for the projects that you work on?
Well, I might be delusional or lying to myself but I try not to have a single way of doing things, which hopefully keeps my music ever-changing and growing. I like to keep surprising myself. Each project –because every movie or TV show has a distinct character with its own peculiar needs– I start by reading scripts or talking to the director or producer. I get a sense of what I would like the music to sound or feel like. I build a team from there. I usually call one or two people for my crew, which I call Pink Ape. I’ll just start free writing and sketching ideas — whatever comes up. I’ll sit down with the director, producers or whomever and talk about what they think and what music they like or hate in general because not only do I need to see the material but I also need to satisfy the director, producers, and the film or TV show. It’s kind of like dating. It’s kind of learning what people like in bed. You just have to try stuff and talk about it. “Does this feel good? Is this Something? Yes, no, maybe?”

There’s a lot of communication and presenting different ideas and different versions of ideas to zero in on what the show wants and what I want. From there, I’ll start getting rough cuts of picture, be it a scene that the director is working on or the editor is cutting or a rough cut of the whole movie. Then I’ll sit down and we’ll talk about what parts need music—what are they going for in this scene, that scene, and what’s the relationship. Then I’ll start really shaping the picture. That’s generally how it goes but within that, there are a million ways to skin a cat. With A Futile and Stupid Gesture, I put together a band. With this movie that I’m finishing right now, which is very different from A Futile and Stupid Gesture, it’s an ambient psychological drama—with that, it’s been late nights alone with me at the computer trying out sounds, much more experimental, and passing it along to other friends who are working on it from my team. I’m working on a TV show, Glow, right now so with that my team and I just get together in a room and we just make music. It really depends on the character of the project with how we approach it.

Do you ever feel like there’s not enough time to do everything?
Yeah, always. I’m having that experience right now but that’s part of the electric cattle prod—I think—I finally have to admit to myself after years of either procrastinating until the last minute and then trying to do everything in a mad rush or just the nature of schedules being such that there isn’t actually enough time to fit X amount of work into whatever schedule gets thrown at me. That’s part of the inspiration and what makes it exciting. I have a big deadline for Monday so my team and I are just cranking through and it’s kind of like going on a roller coaster. It’s exciting and then you lock yourself to the car and dread it a little bit. Then you just get shot out of a cannon and you survive and it’s super cool fun. Then it’s over and hopefully, you’ll have something beautiful to show for it. I always feel like there’s not enough time but somehow it gets done.

Have you had the chance to watch Score: A Film Music Documentary?
No, what is it?

It’s a documentary with all these film composers talking about their process. There are a lot of interviews although John Williams is in there through archive footage.
That’s so cool. I can’t believe I didn’t know about this movie. Is it good?

I loved it.
Okay, good. I’m going to write it down right now.

Regarding Wet Hot American Summer, when did everyone start to get the feel that the film was developing a cult following?
It was gradual over a period of ten years. We thought when we were making it that it was all that. We thought, or at least I did, that it was going to be huge and change the face of comedy. It didn’t and we all went about our business. Gradually, there just started to be signs. I don’t know exactly what year there started being—kind of Rocky Horror-style midnight showings of the movie where people would dress up in costume and know all the lines. It was before streaming so I guess people were renting DVDs. I don’t know what they were doing but I guess it became clearer by 2005 but I don’t think it made our meager budget back until a decade later by which time it was already a major cult following.

Was this year your first Sundance?
No. My first Sundance was in 1998. I went there with my band, Shudder to Think, because we had scored Jesse Peretz’s first movie, which is called First Love, Last Rites, and Lisa Cholodenko’s first movie, which is called High Art. I feel like the same year we had done some songs for Velvet Goldmine by Todd Haynes. That was the first time. I’ve been there a bunch of times subsequently, frequently with David. David’s had a bunch of movies shown there four or five times. Then I’ve gone with some other projects that I’ve worked on. I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s just nice to be around a bunch of film geeks unapologetically.

This was my first time and I kind of wish I stayed longer.
How long did you go for?

I was there Thursday through Sunday afternoon.
That’s a quickie — four days. Are you going to go next year?

I’m going to go next year and I’m definitely staying longer.
That’s great. Did you have a good experience?

I had a good experience.
I think it’s a special experience.

Thanks again for your time.
Of course.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is now streaming on Netflix.