A number of renowned rockers like Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead) and Hans Zimmerman (The Buggles) have written film scores over the years. Many have gone on to earn critical acclaim and even reinvent themselves as Oscar-winning composers.
Ryan Miller of Guster is the latest to appear on the scene. After making pop and rock songs for more than 20 years, he decided to take a risk and write the score for “Safety Not Guaranteed,” which opened in theaters Friday.
“It’s a completely different animal to write an instrumental score for pictures than to make a pop record,” Miller said. “I’ve just been trying to meet people, get them to take me seriously as a composer and learn as much as I can.”
Miller first began playing guitar and piano in junior high and was part of a self-described “terrible” band throughout high school. As a freshman at Tufts University, he met Adam Gardner and Brian Rosenworcel and the three formed the alternative rock group now known as Guster.
Since the band’s formation in 1991, they have recorded six studio albums, headlined tours and performed alongside the likes of Barenaked Ladies, John Mayer and Brett Dennen.
While co-writing the movie “Nobody” a few years ago, Miller was introduced to Colin Trevorrow, who just so happened to be a Guster fan. Trevorrow was hard at work on his new film “Safety Not Guaranteed,” and thought Miller could prove an interesting choice as the film’s composer.
“We had a really good rapport,” Miller said. “He was very articulate and knew what he wanted musically so we were able to bounce ideas back and forth and help me figure out where I wanted to go.”
Miller was influenced by many genres for the score, but believes it still has his unique brand of pop sensibilities. After the first cut of the movie was made, he and the filmmaking team got together and talked through what worked, what did not and what effect they wished to achieve with individual scenes.
One scene in particular was especially difficult, and features Kenneth (Mark Duplass) and Darius (Aubrey Plaza) on the eve of what is sure to be an unforgettable experience for them both. Trevorrow did not want the scene to be comical, but rather show Kenneth’s vulnerable, human side.
“Artists can express themselves much differently through their mediums than they often can verbally, so I think we wanted to shed light on a different aspect of his personality,” Miller said. “It’s a really sweet, sincere, sort of longing part of Mark’s character.”
In the scene, Duplass sings his rendition of “Big Machine,” a song Miller wrote before shooting began that ultimately became the heart of the movie. Although Duplass received very little help with the song, Miller believes he pulled it off like a “superstar.”
Miller already has plans to write another score and try out new projects with both Trevorrow and Duplass. He is interested to see how audiences receive “Safety Not Guaranteed” and feels pleased just to be involved with such a “really cool piece of art.”
“If people notice the score then I didn’t do my job,” Miller said. “It’s kind of an egoless profession in that you’re really there to support the film. You hope you’re involved with great films and can just help make it better.”
As for the future of Guster?
“We’re just going to keep on making records and keep things weird,” Miller laughed.
Photo: Ryan Miller, right, with his band, Guster