Monika Mia is a Los Angeles based musician and composer. Her unique way of scoring TV and film is quickly making her the go-to composer in the industry. I recently interviewed Monika about her career and her plans for the future.
When did it click for you that film and TV composing is something you wanted to go into?
My first short film I got through a friend – the way quite a few of us start, I imagine! At that time I wasn’t planning on pursuing film and TV scoring at all – but collaborating with a director gave me and my music a very clear sense of purpose, something I felt I was lacking as I loved writing music but wasn’t quite sure who and why would need to hear or use it. So that was the moment for me!
How has your background and training influenced the way you approach writing music?
Despite my not being ethnically Russian, it’s the Russian music school that influenced my orchestral writing the most. I am half Bangladeshi, half Georgian, and one day I would love to study the music traditions of those countries in depth, but they didn’t have an influence on my music upbringing. As to my love for electronics and sound design, that started at the time I lived in the UK – in a city with such a bustling electronic/underground music scene, it’s hard not to get sucked into exploring a little bit of electronica!
Any scores in particular that really influenced you?
I adore the complexity and ingenuity of Don Davis’s Matrix score – and how orchestral and electronic music complement each other in the film; Howard Shore’s Seven score; and hybrid/electronic scores by Newton Brothers. On the other hand, I also love the elegance of John Williams’s Schindler’s List and Memoirs of a Geisha, and Dario Marianelli’s soundtracks for Jane Eyre and Atonement – on the other end of the spectrum!
You mentioned you lived in London, which also has an active film and TV scene. What prompted the move to Los Angeles?
That is very true – but LA has always been the hub for all things film and TV. Possibilities are truly endless! Also John Ashton Thomas, Hollywood orchestrator, composer and conductor, who I met in London at one point, advised me to take the chance when I was still hesitating about the move.
At which stage of the process are you usually brought in by the director?
I am quite lucky in that I’ve always got contacted in advance about a project and that’s definitely the way I prefer it. So much of film scoring is rushing to meet a deadline once you have the final cut, so having that time in the beginning, when the shooting is still done and you can sit down and ponder over the themes and sounds and what the film needs the music to do, is invaluable. I would definitely still say yes if I was brought on to rescue a project last-minute and I really liked it though!
How much freedom are you given as a composer on a project usually?
That really depends – sometimes filmmakers approach you having a crystal clear vision of what they want, and you become the musical translator of those ideas, but the opposite happens too. The optimal situation is somewhere in between – for example, on “Bath”, a short horror film I did some time ago, the director Roma Glova had a temp track but he also gave me the option to not listen to it by sending me one version of the cut with temp and one without. I choose to listen to the temp because it gives you a good idea of the sound world the director is after – if they like the temp that is – listened to it once, never opened the file with temp again, and took it from there!
Have you always been working from your home studio, and how has it evolved since you first started using it?
As of right now, yes! It started with a laptop and a simple audio interface with a pair of headphones – a mobile rig I knew I could take with me as I travel on a regular basis. Now that I know that I will be staying in LA for a while, I’ve allowed myself to grow some roots with a multi display set up, a PC in addition to MacBook, studio speakers and acoustic panels – for big/serious recordings I would still need to book a studio of course, but my writing work is done from room, as well as recording one or two people.
Can you take me through your process of composing a soundtrack on the basis of a movie that’s particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?
I particularly enjoyed working on a short film “TwoBears” directed by Anthony Florez! The story revolves around a Marine Corps veteran and ex-junkie who is trying to turn his life around but encounters some major obstacles on the way – and is eventually given the chance to prove his worth in the boxing rink. The director was inspired by “Rocky” among other films, and it was clear to me that it was vital for the score to have a strong emotional core. However, I needed to achieve that with a palette that was not orchestral – Rocky’s music by Bill Conti features trumpet and horns with a band, and the director had a preference for a more guitar-heavy sound, with no brass.
So apart from Rocky’s soundtrack, we also listened to a number of bands, as well as the score to the film Friday Night Lights that featured a lot of guitar cues.
I decided to use combination of electric guitars, uplifting strings and drums, emphasizing each element more or less depending on the cue: more drums and distorted guitar for box rink, more flowing strings and a cello solo for the end cue that spills into credits, as the main character goes home on the bus, smiling, after proving to the people in the boxing gym he’s a fighter – as well as to himself.
What would be the dream job for you?
I love everything that’s unusual and slightly divorced from current reality – that could be fantasy, sci-fi, but also period films, historical dramas… I absolutely loved House of Dragon – both the series and the score – another big favorite of mine was White Lotus, both seasons – that’s the kind of project I dream to be a part of one day!
What’s next for you? Any exciting projects?
Right now I am working on a few independent film projects that I am truly excited about! I am finishing music for a short film “Aya With Him”, where I had the chance to explore combining contemporary drama writing with Arabic motifs and Arabic instruments (the main characters come from an Islamic background). There is also an upcoming VR Project, part of a critically acclaimed VR series “Perfect City” by Shengwei Zhou that demanded for a lot of interesting sound design, which is now at post-production stage.
I am also contributing custom sound design and additional music to a feature film in development, collaborating with composer Patrick Kirst.