Q&A: Composer, Robert Miller, talks music, movies and Oscar nomination

Sarah Ehrlich

Robert Miller has more than 25 years of experience in music, TVs and movies; he sat down with The Collegian to discuss his work, which has earned him seven CLIO awards, two AICP awards, two collective Emmys and, most recently, and Oscar nomination the soundtrack of “Knife Skills.”

a man sits in a chair with computers and speakers behind him.
Robert Miller’s interests in sports, film, outer space and many others have earned him a successful career as a composer, where he continuously experiments with different sounds and subjects. (Photo courtesy of Ben Fraternale)

Collegian: How did your interest in music start?

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Robert: I am a lifelong New Yorker, and I started playing in the Bronx, where I grew up at a very early age. When I was about 11, I became quite obsessed with Aaron Copland’s 3rd Symphony, which has become a lifelong dedication, interest and fascination with the sound of the orchestra. I ended up as a young adult meeting and studying under Aaron Copland for an entire year. He was the one who told me film is an interesting thing to consider.

Collegian: You compose music for various projects, from horror movies like “Teeth” to the American Museum of Natural History’s planetarium shows. So how do your music traits change for each project?

Robert: I think my dedication to writing symphonic music is why I have a lot of “bullets in my gun” for scoring, because I already developed a language as an artist. I draw upon a lot of the things I have discovered in my years of writing concert music for things that I do in the various film projects. However, when you’re collaborating with a director and you’re bringing to life a story, the storytelling with visuals is a different feeling. You’re not the entire story yourself, like with concert pieces; you are trying to enhance and crystalize the feelings of a film.

Collegian: What are some things that directors look for in a film score?

Robert: The directors with the most experience tend to be the ones who also perceived that they hired someone that they trust. Ones that are newer to the scene and little nervous about the outcomes tend to hover over the process, which is understandable. The films are their babies, and they spend a lot of time putting things on the line for their films. There’s a tremendous amount of variation from director to director.

Robert’s Current Projects:

  • Sundance Film Fest music debut in “The King,” executive produced by Steven Soderburgh
  • HBO will debut his work on their original documentary “Atomic Homefront.”
  • His work with the New York City Ballet, “The Wind Still Brings” will play throughout the winter season.

Collegian: How has your creative process changed since the beginning of your career to now?

Robert: I think my wisdom for what I feel in terms of making choices and making a film come to life has evolved over time, (which) has made me a better film composer. You’re looking to sympathize with a story and make good choices to based on that. I’m just feeling over the course of many years that I have become more empathetic to making the films better than I did in the beginning of my career.

Collegian: You were represented by various companies before starting your own, RMI Music. What experiences have you had since representing yourself?

Robert: When your name is on the door and it’s your company, you have responsibilities that far extend beyond anything you could imagine when you were just working for someone, and that’s not for everyone. You should create, be inspired and do it while you know you have to keep your company open. There is business, and then there is art. And people tend to separate them, but I don’t. I think that company ownership is a challenge in a very creative way.

Collegian: You’ve done work for over 2,000 commercials and over 65 films scores. What are some moments or projects that stick out to you?

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Robert: I experimented wildly with sound for the film “Teeth” and consider it one of my fonder moments. The score is very unusual. I’ve done 13 ESPN “30 for 30” films, one of my favorites being “Survive and Advance,” the story of Jim Valvano. (It was) just a beautiful film. And last but not least, my work with Neil deGrasse Tyson and the planetarium in New York. I love Neil, and I love outer space. These planetarium shows are very high-end, almost like feature films. We’re planning a project for the 150th anniversary of the museum, which I think will do very well.

Collegian: Do your projects reflect your personal interests, or are you open to anything?

Robert: I am open to anything, but I have to be able to connect with the story. I’ve never done a film where I’ve had zero interest. With “Knife Skills,” these hardened criminals are rehabilitated through learning to cook French cuisine. That’s a subject I didn’t have a lot in common with naturally, but I discovered these wonderful personalities from scoring the film. I love the premise of this film; through this restaurant, Edwin’s, these people are phoenixes rising. You know, they’re rehabilitating their entire life. You can end up with a strong connection, but it starts with a connection with the director (Thomas Lennon).

Collegian: Did working with a film like “Knife Skills” change your perspective about prison, rehab and the people involved?  

Robert: Most definitely. It just brings you closer to the frailty of humanity and how people can get derailed but are ultimately good. If you believe in the power of the human spirit, then you will see that with people who have made some bad choices. I saw this strong spirit in all of these people. You see the incredible joy of what they’re doing now is just remarkable.

Collegian: Talk to me about the awards and nominations you have had.

Robert: Nominations are fun but you must remember it is all subjective. It’s nice to talk about a nomination and you get a little bit of bragging rights, but will dissipate and you have to return to real life. There’s five other Oscar nominees that are with “Knife Skills”, but I feel strongest about Lennon’s great work. We don’t know what will happen but we’re honored to be nominated.

Collegian: Last question. What advice do you have for students or people interested in making music into a career?

Robert: It’s very easy to get caught up in the allure of the things on the surface. You forget about strengthening your own point of view, your sound and focus as an artist. People get seduced by politics so quickly that they make that more important than what they really have to say. If you do have the fortune to become successful, you still need to draw on the power of your own artistry, otherwise, you will have a very short career because you don’t have a lot to say. Be strong as an artist first, and then tend to all the other things.

More information can be found at Robert’s website, www.rmimusic.com.

Collegian reporter Sarah Ehrlich can be reached at enterainment@collegian.com and on Twitter @sarahehrlich96.