Composer Andrew Morgan Smith began composing for media by making music for local commercials and burst onto the feature film scene when his demo CD landed on the desk of a director. Since then, he has worked on over fifty features and television series, including titles like You Might Be the Killer and The Machinery of Dreams. In addition to his feature work, Smith composed music for G-Eazy’s Beautiful & Damned music video and helped provide additional music for the Star Trek Online expansions.
Recently, Smith was the composer for The Old Way, a western starring Nicolas Cage. The music had to be as grand as its vast, mountainous setting, and so, in addition to working with folk-inspired instruments like the banjo and fiddle, Andrew’s compositions were recorded live by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra in Bulgaria. The film premieres in theaters on January 6th.
In this interview, we spoke with Smith about his career journey, his work composing for various forms of media, and his experience scoring for The Old Way.
Hi Andrew! I’d love to start out by asking how you got to where you are today. What did your career journey look like?
From an early age, I had this affinity for film music. I remember listening to John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith scores and letting the music paint pictures in my mind. I fell in love. But how do you turn love into a profession? I never really saw it as a possible career until I saw Pirates of the Caribbean in theaters and suddenly something clicked: I wanted to be a film composer. But I lived in a small town and the film industry felt a million miles away.
After high school, I studied music production, composing and arranging at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Any free time I had was spent creating music for local commercials and promo videos. My first project was actually writing the music for a football highlights video for a local highschool. Whatever I could get my hands on. Towards the end of college, I attended a film score course at the Aspen Music Festival. We recorded with a live orchestra and worked with some bigger composers, and afterwards, I returned to finish my last semester renewed with confidence.
At the same time, tax incentives had drawn the film industry close to me. There was a production company making TV movies nearby. I figured out where the production office was and swung by, but everyone was on set. The lone watchman was a production assistant. I introduced myself, handed him a CD with some of my work, and left thinking, “Well, I’m never hearing back from them.”
Less than a week later, I got a call from a director named Griff Furst. He’d randomly picked up my CD with a bunch of other stuff on a desk. He brought the stack to his car and when he got in, there was my CD on top of the stack. After listening, he called me about scoring his next movie. It wouldn’t be the only film I scored for that company! It set me on my way as a professional composer. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of working on a wide array of awesome projects across all media!
Can you walk us a bit through the elements of the sound design on your most recent project, The Old Way and how they supported the film’s overall narrative?
Finding the voice of The Old Way was an exciting challenge. The film’s wonderfully talented director, Brett Donowho, had shepherded this personal father/daughter journey through a big Western backdrop, complete with horses and gunfights and everything that has made that genre legendary. I think he’d first imagined a guitar-driven score, and during the edit, they had tried that approach with temp music. But it hadn’t really landed the way he wanted. The movie was just too big. The action was too big. It felt like a classic studio Western that would’ve starred John Wayne if it was made fifty years ago.
Brett and I discussed taking a more classic approach by using an orchestra that was big enough to match the film’s striking imagery, and then incorporating unique elements that would stand out. Since the movie was shot in Montana, I started looking into rocky mountain folk music. That’s where I got the inspiration to bring in the banjo and a fiddle, performed by one of my oldest collaborators, Stephen Rees.
What I think really convinced us all that this approach would work was when I scored the rough edit of the opening sequence. The opening was very big and it was still a work in progress, but I thought it might be the perfect gauntlet that would either make or break this take. After I finished the sequence, I shared it only with Brett. He loved it! In fact, the final version that’s in the movie is very close to that original track. That set us on the right path through the rest of The Old Way.
Your compositions for The Old Way were actually recorded live by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra in Bulgaria. What was the experience like hearing the finished product for the first time?
Working with live musicians is second to none, whether that means a soloist or a full live orchestra. Fortunately, The Old Way provided me with the opportunity to have both! Recording with the Budapest Symphony under the baton of Françios Rousselot was amazing. As the composer, you hear the music first in your head, and then in a series of mockups, but to finally hear all of that come together live is an experience that’s hard to equal. There’s still work to be done, and feedback to incorporate from the producers and the director, who in this case had a strong music background and a gifted ear. But all of it was so much fun. The final piece of the puzzle was my mixer, Robin Birner, who so beautifully brought all of the elements seamlessly together.
You’ve also scored music for a G-Eazy music video, “The Beautiful & Damned.” In what ways are composing for TV, film, and music videos similar? How do they differ?
Instead of a traditional music video, G-Eazy and director Bobby Bruderle actually made a short film for his album, The Beautiful & Damned. It was essentially multiple music videos connected by narrative tissue. I was brought in to score the narrative portions, and help weave everything together. One of their asks was to incorporate elements from the songs into the score. While this might have been new territory for them, bringing together existing elements through score is essentially the job of a composer on any narrative feature, so the process wasn’t entirely different than my traditional scores.
For feature films, I seek out sonically where the story needs me to be. What genre, instruments and themes am I writing? The same searching happens with a television series, but once you’ve established those three elements, you usually stick to those points throughout the lifetime of that show. The actual process of writing music for a feature and TV is largely similar once you start writing to picture.
What’s a style of music you would like to score?
Two personal favorite genres are science fiction and action adventure, but I enjoy working in many genres. It helps keep things fresh. If I do too many of the same style back to back, it can feel a little constraining. Stretching my legs creatively is something that helps keep my job interesting.
What’s coming up for you?
I’m very excited for The Old Way to come out and hit theaters January 6th! So few films get a theatrical release these days, and although the success of Yellowstone and other television series make Westerns seem ubiquitous, what was the last Western you saw in theaters? Theatrical Westerns are actually very rare. With The Old Way, we have something really unique: a powerful, personal story that just so happens to star Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage in his first Western. I can’t wait for audiences to hear my music in theaters across the country. There’s nothing better. That’s the goal. That’s the reason you get into this business.
I also have another film called Bunker coming out in March 2023, which was directed by the very gifted Adrian Langley. He crafted this taut, contained horror thriller set in the trenches of World War I. It’s the polar opposite of The Old Way in many respects, and although I have worked regularly in the horror genre, Bunker was such a unique film that it required a unique musical approach. I’m very proud of how that film has come together and can’t wait to share it with audiences.
And finally, where can we find you on social media or online to keep up with your future work?
You can find me across most social media. Andrew Morgan Smith on Facebook, @amusics on Twitter, Andrew Morgan Smith on Instagram, and Andrew Morgan Smith Music on YouTube, where I make videos for both directors and composers giving advice and I talk about the process of composing. You can also ask me questions on TikTok and I’ll respond with a quick video. My website is www.andrewmorgansmith.com for everything else.