Music can potentially make or break a flick. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. And while most filmmakers won’t even be thinking about this stage until post production, the music that was going to breathe life into my first feature movie was always something that was percolating in my mind well before post production. I wanted to keep my options open. I needed to utilize my resources and really take time to seek out local, unsigned musicians who were willing to give me consent on using their tunes. My plan wasn’t to scramble or run around at the last minute once the movie was done, trying to find the right sound to compliment the tone of my film. That would have felt rushed. And it would have been undeniably evident in the final product. That’s the last thing I wanted for something I had taken four years of my life to assemble. I wanted to have this whole music thing locked and loaded once I was sitting in the cutting room with our editor, Carlo. I knew my story. I knew, for the most part, how things were going to look and play out. Therefore, seeking out new music and applying it to certain scenes, or cutting the movie inside my head so to speak, was a pivotal part of making The Graveyard Gang.
It was June of 2016 when I stumbled upon two of the most fantastic musicians that would later become, quite frankly, some of the biggest contributors to the success of my movie. Nick and Steve were a rock duo and real life brothers. I was attending a James McCartney performance at The Outer Space in Hamden, CT – a small, but badass and intimate music venue with my good friend Jake Goldstein. Jake is a diehard Beatles fan and any opportunity he had to reconnect himself with his all-time favorite band (whether that was seeing Ringo Starr or Paul McCartney or even the son of a Beatle, like James) he was going to do everything to ensure that moment wasn’t passed up. The sheer excitement in Jake’s voice, even to see someone as lesser known like James McCartney, was something I couldn’t ignore. I love being introduced to new jams, so I saw it as an opportunity, and to my delight, an opportunity it became! Nick and Steve, collectively known as The Balkun Brothers emerged from the back and took the stage to open up the night. The moment they started playing, I knew I was in for something special. Nick and Steve fed off of each other’s energy like only two brothers could do, and they did it with an undeniable prowess. Nick was powerful and emphatic with his drumming, while Steve told the story with his bluesy, aggressive vocals and fiery passion on the guitar. Two local guys, from Hartford, CT, rocking out in a blaze of fury to make my James McCartney experience that much more memorable.
Jake ended up buying one of their albums that night and we jammed out to it on the two hour drive home, following the show. There was one song in particular that really caught my attention that they had ended up playing that night as well. As “I Know What Ya’ Did” pumped through the speakers of the car, I started doing that thing that I do with music – I envisioned this song playing out in The Graveyard Gang. I was shuffling through scenes and shots inside of my head, trying to meticulously place the song somewhere plausible. Eventually I landed on a point of interest and I began cutting the movie inside my head while listening to this song. I would continue to do this for months, until I ended up contacting The Balkuns through email, telling them my story, pitching them the idea of the movie and how I was very much interested in potentially using their tunes to compliment the overall tone of the flick. The Balkuns were more than willing to oblige. So for a very reasonable price, that I would be paying to them personally, considering they weren’t signed to any label, The Balkuns gave me the green light to use as many tunes as I wanted. The first building block for our soundtrack had been placed.
When The Graveyard Gang fades to black and the credits begin to roll, it’s not exactly the type of ending that has an audience saying, “I’m really glad he wrapped that up!” It’s not a definitive conclusion and it may not even provide all the answers. It’s quite open ended. I’ve always appreciated flicks that leave things open for interpretation at the end. I want people to talk about the possibilities of what’s next for the characters that inhabit my movie, rather than forcing them what to think by giving them an exclamation point, and essentially saying, “here it is! Deal with it!” But, even with this in mind, I still felt like the end of the movie was missing something. Something the screenplay didn’t provide. It didn’t need an exclamation point, per say, but it did need the icing on the cake — something subtle, but affective. Pleasantly, to my surprise, the least likely candidate stepped up to the plate and provided such a crucial piece that ended up completing the picture once it was inserted.
My father, Jack Hartford, is a creative soul, a great mentor, and one of my role models. He’s not a filmmaker, but he’s a writer (professionally and creatively) and a wonderful musician. My dad is one of the first people to always read and proof my scripts once they are finished. He’s always been great about giving feedback on the overall quality of writing and the story. If there’s one thing my dad knows well, it’s story. So, much like all my scripts, The Graveyard Gang landed in his hands first. After proofing my script, without my knowing, he went off on his own, did his creative thing and eventually came back and handed me a set of lyrics to an original song that he wrote entitled, “The Graveyard Gang”. For years, my dad inspired me in more ways than one and was a big influence behind my pursuing the whole writing gig. Somewhere along the line, when he read the script to The Graveyard Gang, he was inspired enough to venture off on his own and write a song that complimented the story that I had written for the big screen. This isn’t something I asked my dad to do. This is just something he did on his own, because he wanted to do it. It’s endearing to know that my words ultimately sparked that motivation in him – to write, perform, produce and record a song inside of a studio. When it all boils down to it, it’s one of the most flattering things I could have ever received as a screenwriter/filmmaker. One of the coolest things about making this movie and bringing it to life was undoubtedly having the opportunity to collaborate creatively with my father. I couldn’t ask for anything more as an artist. Thank you for stepping up to the plate, participating, and being one of the biggest contributors to the success of my first feature film, dad.
We now had a few building blocks to work with. The foundation for the movie’s soundtrack had been set. But now it was crucial to build upon that with a few more key artists, ultimately completing this beautiful collection of sound that would be thoughtfully layered into the film. We didn’t need a whole helluva lot of music. But we did need a little more than just The Balkun Brothers and my father. Enter Maria Earabino.
Funnily enough, I was attending another James McCartney performance with my buddy Jake and our friend Shane. It was one year after we had seen him at The Outer Space in Hamden, CT – the night I discovered the Balkun Brothers. I had no expectations going into this the second time around, but I’d be lying if I said some of the appeal to see James again wasn’t because he had several acts opening up for him that night. I saw this as an opportunity to potentially scout out local, independent talent. But again, the goal wasn’t to discover a new musical artist. My intention was to go out and have a good night with my friends, drink and listen to some jams I was already familiar with while simultaneously getting a taste of something new. Maybe something cool would arise from the outing, or maybe it would just be a low-key, good night out with friends. The performance was at the Middle East in Cambridge, MA. It’s always a blast going into the city and attending new venues. The Middle East was something I hadn’t crossed off my list just yet, so why not? The Middle East was just as small and intimate as The Outer Space, which gave me good vibes about the whole thing from the get-go, before the music even started. There’s something truly different about going to listen to live music and be standing only feet away from the performer, rather than paying an exorbitant amount of money to see a mainstream artist in an arena. It’s something I’ve done so many times now, that I have a newfound appreciation for the experience. And in several ways, I feel like you get way more for your dollar at indy shows like this, as opposed to the big-time feel.
After much anticipation for the festivities to get underway, a young woman, easily in her early twenties, took the stage by herself. She grabbed her guitar, swung it over her shoulder and began to warm up. No words were spoken. She just started playing, completely immersed in her own sound. She seemed shy, but damn could she play. Her sound was subtle, but profound. It was beautifully chaotic, but mellow. Her lyrics were raw and full of emotion. After two songs, she finally introduced herself as Maria Earabino – 1/3 of her band NOX. It was one song in particular that did it for me. Just one song that made me say to myself, I need this in my movie. I found myself closing my eyes, and allowing her voice to be the tour guide through the images that intermittently popped into my brain throughout the duration of her memorable performance. The song was entitled, “pillow” and it’s a song that would eventually find its way into the final cut of The Graveyard Gang, along with a few other selections by Maria’s band, NOX. I actually approached Maria that night, as she was attending her merch table, and asked her about potentially using her band’s tunes in my film. She seemed elated and more than willing to allow me to use her music. The third building block had been set. Was a fourth and final block necessary at this point?
I remembered a good friend from high school, who had produced and performed his own original songs years prior. His songs were still available for my and everyone’s listening pleasure online. I looked up Joshua Comeau and cued up my favorite of his entitled, “Simple Song”. That was a popular choice among the crowd that knew Josh, especially when he first released it, which now feels like eons ago. Josh even put out samples of songs that he never finished, and I wish he would have. He has such a distinct voice when it comes to what he wants to say with his music. It’s a gift to the world, and I knew his music had a place in my movie. I think one of the main reasons I always kept Josh in the back of my mind as another building block to the soundtrack for my feature was because he contributed one of his songs to an earlier short film of mine (one that was selected and screened at a Massachusetts film festival), giving it just the touch it needed, similar to how my father’s song gave The Graveyard Gang the ending it deserved. Josh wasn’t only a musician but also a filmmaker. Ultimately, like myself, that’s what he went to school for. He’s always been a man of many talents. These are the types of artists we need in the world, and the ones that I am continually thankful for. Josh was probably one of the first ten people to read the original draft to The Graveyard Gang. So throughout this entire process, I am not only thankful for his musical contributions but also his insight as a storyteller, in the early stages of assembling this thing. One of my many hopes is that I can give Josh’s voice and his music a bigger platform by sharing it to the world with my movie. Perhaps it will even encourage him to write and make more songs. Because I know if he does, I will be one of the first people to cue them up. But, when all was said and done, I ended up using one of Josh’s older songs, one he had even put out before my favorite, Simple Song, and ended up being the perfect fit towards the end of the film, leading into the final moments. Thank you for everything over the years, Josh. But most importantly, thank you for believing in my material and trusting it by allowing your beautiful creations to sit side by side with it. You have been more helpful than you possibly know.
Fast forward to February of 2018, about four months before the film was 100% complete – before all the last minute tweaks and post production audio sweetening was done. Carlo invited cast and crew to his joint, for an early, private screening of the flick – ultimately to discuss what was needed or maybe what could have been eliminated before we put the final nail in the coffin. I wanted to hear everyone’s input. This wasn’t just my film. It was all of theirs. So giving them a chance, to come sit in one room together, watch the flick and give notes as needed before we showed it the world was important to me. It was a small an intimate gathering, but during and after the screening with lead stars, Adam Michael Kennedy and Krissy Larsen, lead audio man Ryan A. Jones, and editor Carlo J. Barbieri III and his girlfriend, Won, some of the first comments to be blurted out, much to my delight, pertained solely to the choices of music. Everyone highly praised the selections by The Balkun Brothers, NOX, Joshua Comeau and even the song by my father at the very end. This meant the world to me. These were all selections, that I had handpicked myself and had even told Carlo where to place them in the film. Scouting out the appropriate music and even having a good grasp on the placement of those songs in the movie’s timeline is something I’m immensely proud of. When it all boils down to it, I almost rank that task as high as writing the screenplay to the movie. I have an undeniable love for process. And much like constructing a screenplay from scratch, selecting music is such an elaborate and methodical process. Again, it all stems back to those countless times I was cutting the movie inside my head, while applying certain tunes to those images and figuring out early on if there was a flow or not.
So, while the heavy praise regarding the soundtrack continued to shower down during that little private screening, among many other aspects of the film, I thought to myself – if this reaction, by the ones closest to me who helped bring this story to fruition was any indication on The Graveyard Gang’s future, the future was indeed looking quite bright.