Composer/artist Lauren Culjak, who also records as KOTOMI, scored and wrote the beautiful song ‘If … [+]
Before actor J.K. Simmons won his deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Whiplash, he was the definition of a character actor. One of those faces you knew was familiar for good reason, even if you couldn’t place him.
Singer/songwriter/composer Lauren Culjak, who also sometimes records under the name KOTOMI, might be a current music version of the character actor. She is the composer for Hulu’s TV version of Love, Victor; she has written for the CW series Nancy Drew, and her music has appeared in Rick And Morty as well as ads for Disney, Google, AT&T and Toyota and more.
But the romantic comedy the Long Weekend, released this weekend, could just be the breakout she needs for people to put the name with the music. In addition to doing the whole score, Culjak delivers the spellbinding song “If You Ever,” a dreamy, far-off ballad with equal shades of doo-wop and Twin Peaks, that star Zoe Chao sings in the movie.
I spoke with Culjak about the film, how living in Long Beach influenced the song and her dream people to work with.
Steve Baltin: I am a big believer in how environment affects writing and “If You Ever” has a very dreamy, far-away, doo-wop meets Julee Cruise sound. Did Long Beach factor into that vibe or do you feel anywhere on the song?
Lauren Culjak: Definitely. I think the song stirs up nostalgic feelings, and having grown up in Long Beach, I have all kinds of memories that are sparked by this city, from different eras of my life. The feeling of riding along the bike path on a warm summer evening, or just that feeling of “home” kind of seeped into this song.
Baltin: What attracted you to the Long Weekend film?
Culjak: I loved the script. It made me laugh, and I’m a sucker for a good love story. This one has some unexpected plot turns that I knew would be fun to explore musically.
Baltin: Is there a director or directors you’d really love to collaborate with on a score?
Culjak: I’d really love to work on something dark, with Nicolas Winding Refn, or David Fincher. I loved the hyper realism of Nomadland, and think Chloe Zhao is amazing. I’d also love to tell more heartfelt human centered stories, like Minari (Lee Issac Chung) or Moonlight (Barry Jenkins). I would also love to work with Eliza Hittman.
Baltin: If you could go back to any film and add your score what film would it be and why?
Culjak: This is a pretty obscure answer, but Fantastic Planet or La Planète Sauvage an animated French sci-fi film from the 70’s! I don’t know how I even stumbled upon it, but it is truly one of the weirdest and most whimsical films I’ve ever seen! And I loved the soundtrack, so I wouldn’t be improving it by any means, but it’d be so much fun to recreate it because the visuals are so out there.
Baltin: How did scoring for the film differ from the TV scores you do for projects like Love, Victor?
Culjak: The most obvious difference is the length of the story arcs, and usually with a film, you cover a lot more character development in the course of an hour and a half than you would in that amount of time in a TV show. And with a film, the whole story is laid out for you before you begin, so as you create, you know how the characters will grow and change, and how the story will end. So crafting a musical arc is something that takes a deep level of thought. I wrote the more romantic, magical cues first, and then worked backwards to figure out where our main character was to begin with.
Baltin: Are there artists you admire for the way they are able to bridge their own music and scoring projects? Right now Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are the benchmark for that. But are there people you look to or artists that you see as role models for their career?
Culjak: I’m super inspired by artists who compose, because like most of them, I didn’t go to school for composition. It kind of demystified the film scoring process for me, knowing that so many artists made the leap. And I think having a background as an artist often times gives composers an especially unique voice in their film work. Some favorites include Trent and Atticus for sure, Johnny Greenwood, Devonte Hynes, Grizzly Bear (Blue Valentine), and Air’s score for the Virgin Suicides.
Baltin: I also appreciate how open you seem to be to collaboration. What, to you, makes a good collaboration and how do you know when a collab will work?
Culjak: I think that people enter into collaborations with a rough idea of what they want to make, but a playfulness and curious spirit are so important. A willingness to experiment, try new things and sometimes fail. I think with a true collaboration, you have to get your hands dirty and dig in until you get it right. I definitely had that experience with the director of Long Weekend, Steve Basilone. Much of the collaboration felt effortless, but we had to really buckle down on some of the tougher scenes, and it felt great when we cracked the nut! Oh, and being respectful and kind! That’s a real important one, and Steve was an absolute gem in that regard. He also had great ideas, but never tried to micromanage the process. All of these things are important!
Baltin: Obvious question: who is your dream collab and why?
Culjak: Well, in my dream, Daft Punk has decided to give it one last go and make another album, and they ask ME to be an integral part of the process. They even make me my own robot outfit, and then we headline Coachella. (Obvious answer, I know).
I have written for Billboard, Rolling Stone, the L.A. Times, Yahoo, Vice and every other major publication as well as host the Hulu interview series Riffing With and