Meet the Brisbane native who brought the music of ‘La La Land’ to life

Tim Davies.

Australian Tim Davies is basking in the acclaim dished out to Oscar favourite La La Land, for which he conducted the score – collaborating with director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz to bring the modern movie musical to life.

Speaking to IF from LA, the orchestrator-arranger is now hard at work on season two of animated Netflix series Trollhunters, created by director Guillermo del Toro – and Davies’ first gig as a composer.

The Brisbane native travelled to LA in the late 90s to study film scoring at USC, a one-year program, after completing his master’s degree in Melbourne. Eighteen years later, he’s still there.

“I was going to come back," Davies said. "I was going to stay for a little bit and check out the scene and go back to my lecturing job and writing for my band in Melbourne, but I started getting work as an arranger and orchestrator, which up until recently has been my main focus.”

Conducting La La Land presented the muso, who still has his own big band, with a challenge, with some music done to picture and some not. The maestro spent prep time with Hurwitz, music producer Marius de Vries and music supervisor Steve Gizicki. 

“All of the songs had to be pretty well fleshed out before shooting so that they could be shot. Usually most things are done after shooting.”

Davies conducted the score on the Sony lot, spending a week recording the score, with timings the biggest challenge. “When you’re in the concert hall there’s no sync issues – you don’t have to line up to the picture for a pre-recorded track.” 

Davies and his musicians would stop and start regularly, and the conductor would give his orchestra warning clicks in order for it to catch a new tempo.

Bringing original music to life for the first time, Davies found himself peppered with questions – “how loud should this be, is this note correct, where do we breathe in this phrase? With sight-reading, the players have no idea. I have to decide all of that on the fly, because a lot of the time I’m hearing it for the first time as well.” 

Hurwitz and Chazelle, who had been living with the music for years, were particular, and often requested adjustments.

“Justin had in his head the ways that things would be played and phrased. And you can’t always put that into notation no matter how hard you try. Conducting in the concert hall, 99 per cent of the time the orchestra’s played that music before – the notation’s not giving [the players] that phrasing, they just know that because they’ve played it all before – and the conductor is adding a different take to it. But they’re not trying to find the wrong notes that might have crept in due to someone’s mistake, or [to] fix balance issues.”

“There were a couple of times where Damien would come in and play how he wanted something on the piano, and then you have to put that into notation, which means you have to put it in some sort of a tempo, and that tempo is going to be moving quite a lot. And it’s quite tricky to record that kind of stuff and get it to line up perfectly.”

Davies was particularly impressed with Chazelle’s attention to sidelines – musicians miming on camera in the background.

“In the jazz club, the trumpet player is playing the right fingerings for the notes. And Damien made sure that every time the close-up matched perfectly [with] the music, and that there weren’t shots that gave it away. I’ve been involved in other projects where they start the playback at the same time no matter where they start acting in the scene, so the band is playing out of time and the movements don’t match up. And no-one really notices, but that’s a big deal for Damien.”

Since premiering in Venice last year, La La Land has been racking up awards, and is the favourite going into today’s Oscars ceremony. 

Davies, who nominates fellow composers Alexandre Desplat and Arrival’s Jóhann Jóhannsson as particular favourites, admits he’s hardly seen any of the films La La Land is competing against.

“I’ve been so busy between writing my own music for Trollhunters plus orchestrating and conducting. In the last year I orchestrated Tim Burton's film Miss Peregrine, I did Trolls, I did Rings. I do Empire, the TV show.”

Davies has also become the go-to arranger for hip-hop concerts at Washington DC’s Kennedy Center – “which is funny for a white guy from Brisbane."

“I worked on a show for Nas with them and then Kendrick Lamar. And we’ve got Common coming up.”

Davies' Trollhunters gig came via the acclaimed game The Last of Us, on which he collaborated with acclaimed Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla (Babel, Brokeback Mountain, The Motorcycle Diaries). 

“That went really well and then Gustavo was doing the score and songs for The Book of Life, an animated movie that Guillermo del Toro was producing. Del Toro loved what I did, so he called me one day out of the blue to help on his next movie, Crimson Peak, when they got behind and needed some extra music at the last minute.”

According to Davies, his first composing job was simply an opportunity impossible to turn down, rather than the culmination of a long-held dream.

“I’m actually a rarity in this town – most people come here and they want to be the film composer, and I don’t. I was quite happy orchestrating and conducting. I got to a position in that where I was working on big movies like Frozen and Ant-Man and Minions, and I had no desire to switch teams into composing.”

“And most people thought that was pretty cool because I didn’t want their jobs (laughs). They could trust me to have lunch with the producer and not flip them my demo. But I’m not going to say no, especially when it’s Guillermo del Toro. So we’ll see where the future goes.”