BEND At the Hollywood Music in Media Awards, nominees normally spend the evening at the Avalon, walking the red carpet and soaking up Hollywood glamor.
This year, however, the ceremony on January 27 was virtual. Nominee and film composer Chris Thomas stayed at home in Bend in his pajamas, wrapped in a blanket. He sat down with his wife, Brigitte, their cat between them on the sofa, while waiting for the winner of the Outstanding Score short film category to be announced.
When Thomass’s name appeared on screen as the winner, he threw his arms in the air and smiled happily. Brigitte took a photo.
Thomas, who grew up in Pendleton, insists he didn’t expect to be nominated, let alone win. The short film, Imagination Symphony Live, was produced far from Hollywood in central Oregon. When the nominees were announced, it was so far off his radar that he didn’t even look at the list.
The 38-year-old film composer has won other awards for his film soundtracks. One of his scores, for a documentary called Woman Rebel, was shortlisted in 2010 for an Academy Award, and he won Best Music for Film and TV in 2011 at the eWorld Music Awards. His television work includes work for Lost, House, Vice, and CSI: NY. His latest film Haymaker was released this month. That kind of icing on the cake for Thomas. He couldn’t be happier that two such different projects had collided in time.
The two projects, although distinct in subject and scope, drew heavily on Thomas’ compositional skills. Normally, the composition comes last after shooting a movie. In “Imagination” and “Haymaker”, however, the composition came earlier and the film was often edited to match the score.
The seven-minute “Imagination Symphony Live” follows a young boy as he attends his very first symphony. As the music envelops the boy, his mind wanders. He paddles a lake across a lake serenaded by an oboist and walks through the desert and forest, musicians playing all around him. At the end, he finds himself in the room next to his mother as the audience claps.
One of Thomass’s friends, Evan Signaldsen, who plays with Thomas in the cello section of the Central Oregon Symphony, proposed the short in the spring of 2019. It didn’t take much for Thomas to twist his arms to agree to compose the partition.
Count on me, Thomas remembers telling Signaldsen, who directed and produced the film.
To achieve this, the men needed the cooperation of Central Oregon Symphony Conductor Michael Gesme and his entire orchestra.
We made a really big request, said Thomas. We said that we were going to need rehearsal time with this piece and that we would need three gigs to film live. So pick up the first 20 minutes of three shows in a row. and the audience is going to have to listen to a click track that was going to play live in the room.
Gesme and his musicians agreed. At the start of each concert, Thomas stood up to explain to the audience what was going on. No one seemed too bothered by the carefully crafted metronome clicks to make the music land properly on the movie.
Outdoor shots, which involved drones and treks to secluded locations, forced musicians to play without sheet music as music came to them through speakers, with metronome clicks to keep them on track. .
People are kind of stuck with their roles, Thomas said. They knew what the music was like but they didn’t know what their notes were. It was a cacophony of absurdities. We told them to play it the way you think it is.
An electrical fire at Bend High School where the orchestra performs modified shots for the final shoot. The film crew had spent the day setting up and testing a camera that would fly over the audience and stop above drivers’ heads. The concert was quickly changed to a different location and complicated filming plans.
Thomas then needed to record soloists, which COVID made more difficult. He has organized virtual solo sessions with musicians and singers from all over the country.
Haymaker tells the story of a retired Muay Thai fighter who serves as a bodyguard to glamorous pop star Nomi Ruiz, who herself stars in the film. Director Nick Sasso told Thomas he needed something more like a violin concerto than film music, something with soaring violin solos and a great ocean of strings. Thomas obliged.
It’s probably one of my best scores, said Thomas. I had a lot of freedom. The director, Nick Sasso, really let me down.
“Haymaker” is now streaming on Amazon Prime and other digital platforms. To see “Imagine Symphony Live” go to youtube.com or the Imagine Symphony Live website.