Matthew Gentile (left) and Scott Gentile (right) at the world premiere of ‘American Murderer’ at the Taormina Film Festival.
At the heart of American Murderer is family. Both in the plot, and behind the scenes, where director Matthew Gentile entrusted the scoring of his film to his brother Scott Gentile, who earned his professional certificate in Composing and Orchestrating for Film and TV from Berklee Online.
The film focuses on the real life story of murderer Jason Derek Brown—played by Tom Pelphrey—and the chaos he caused in the lives of his siblings, his mother (Jacki Weaver), and his girlfriend (Idina Menzel). It also uncovers the consequences of generational trauma, given that Jason’s father went missing 10 years before his son ended up on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. The family story with the Gentile brothers also goes back a long way, but is far more heart-warming.
“At one point we actually directed some films together in middle school,” says Scott of working with his brother. “It became very clear that I’ve always loved film, but he was the talented director and I enjoyed being on the set with him.”
In the following Q&A, Scott talks about pursuing music professionally, enrolling at Berklee Online, and what the process was like scoring American Murderer, his first feature film.
At what point did you realize that music was your path and that screenwriting and directing was Matthew’s path?
From a young age, music was something that I’ve just been very passionate about. I grew up playing piano. Matthew from a young age was always into film and always looking up even the business side of movies. When he was around 12 years old he would be like, “Well, this movie was actually No. 2 at the box office this weekend.” It was very evident that he was into it. I got to see him behind the camera in seventh grade, and he was already a director. That for me was obvious then.
When did you know that you wanted to pursue music professionally?
I always loved the idea of it. At first for me in high school, it was solo piano or chamber music. I loved the feeling of performing. And whether it was a crowded hall or a small community gig, I loved that interaction with the audience and hearing the silence when you play a Beethoven sonata and how the crowd responds to it. I think I knew I wanted to go into it when I was applying to music schools and conservatories and when I was doing the audition process. I was accepted to two places on the spot, and I started being offered some scholarships. When you have that type of acknowledgment, “your playing is valuable to us,” it gives you the confidence. It’s like, “Okay, we can do this thing.”
How did you discover Berklee Online’s certificate program?
You know, one of my friends was actually enrolled at Berklee Online, and he had talked about it. This was years ago, and I was like, “I would love to study some of these courses.” Film scoring was always something that I was passionate about. I’ve always enjoyed it. I would occasionally see an advertisement or occasionally see someone posting about their experience at Berklee Online. Even though I was in school, I wanted to take a course. But being busy with conducting and things, it never worked out. And in the pandemic we were at a period where all the orchestra gigs I had were canceled, and I was private teaching purely just to pay the bills. And after about December of 2020, I just remember I was like, “This is the time to do it.” And it’s sometimes little decisions like that that are a game-changer.
Were you able to directly apply what you learned in your certificate program to scoring the film for American Murderer?
Yes, because when I first was on the film, my original role was more of orchestrating, and putting together an ensemble, conducting—more of that type of work. And I enrolled in Berklee in January of 2021, kind of with the approach of if I learned these skills, maybe in a couple years we could apply them to a film. But I ended up composing the score for American Murderer while I was enrolled in classes with Jack Freeman. What Berklee Online did for me, because I had training in composition and I’ve had training in orchestration, it allowed me to learn those basics of applying that to film.
Were you able to share what you were working on with your instructors?
Yes, because I think it was around March of 2021 when things started happening with American Murderer, I had to tell them, “I don’t know if I could finish because I’m now working on the movie as the film composer.” But it was important to me to do it because I was really learning a lot of important things at Berklee Online. So I was communicating with the instructors. And, and I think what’s one of the great things about Berklee Online is that it allows you to work at your own rate, depending on what situation you’re in work wise.
Could you walk me through the process of what it was like to compose the score for American Murderer?
Yes. So as a composer I started in March of 2021. That was when I had the first meeting and we were on deadline for August 1. I watched the American Murderer and the first thing I noticed—they had a temp score and there was nothing in the opening—is there were some natural sounds like this boat horn, and there was some wind, and cars driving in the distance. But the natural sounds on the set kind of formed a D minor chord. I just started there and I actually spoke to my brother and spoke to the editor on the film and said, “I think we need music in the opening.” That’s now called the “American Murderer Overture.” Starting in D minor, that actually set the tone for the whole film because a lot of it’s in D minor, F♯ minor, and related key structure.
What was the refinement process like? Were you showing your brother what you had produced all along the way? Or did you present it all at once and then refine from there?
At first, it was a little slow. I had more time to work on my own. But eventually what we would do, me and the editor—because the editor of the film, Matt Allen, is also the music editor and the score producer—we worked together very closely, and he and my brother, along with the producers, put together the temp and that’s their way of communicating to the composer what they want the score to be like. And in that case, there were some pieces that I … my brain is very classical and there was the desire for more synth-related music and music that I wasn’t as familiar with. And what I did to understand that music and to try to really fully grasp what they wanted is I would write my own theme and variations. So I took the idea and I would make about 24 variations and by the last variation, it was my own. And then I would write variations off of that. So, “This is what you’re looking for, but now it’s mine, and now it has its original appeal.”
One moment where I noticed the score really intensified was obviously after the murder took place and Jason was fleeing the scene. Can you talk about the musical elements that you included in that scene and why you made the artistic choices that you made?
Yes, so as we worked on American Murderer, it did actually change. At first, it was mostly going to be dark synths and lower swells, kind of a darker sound throughout. And then as the film editing process carried on, we had a SWAT team, we had the cops, they’re trying to find Jason, and there’s the murder. You know, when we came to that it was a matter of combining percussion. I wanted the audience to feel the intensity. And we combined that with a very talented string quartet. All the musicians working on it actually I’ve worked with as a conductor or I’ve worked with in my years in conservatory.
I know you’ve been touring as a conductor and you recently performed with the Tzu Chi Ensemble. Could you tell me about the recent performances that you’ve done?
Absolutely. In 2018 when I graduated with my master’s, you know, you leave music school and all of a sudden it’s like—when you’re working in music school, you have an orchestra to rehearse all the time. You have a practice facility and you’re around music. The summer hits and you almost feel like you’re back to starting from scratch in a way. And the conducting world is a difficult job to get because there’s only one conductor for the orchestra. So I immediately started applying for assistant positions and entered competitions because in classical music, if you’re going to get gigs, you have to win a prize. That’s the reality. I got some experience conducting and applied for some competitions. After doing five international competitions where I had success in the early rounds, but couldn’t get the win, I did a competition in Germany where I got second prize, and that opened up my first opportunities to get performances.
I was with the Klangkraft Symphony Orchestra in Duisburg, Germany. And then from there, more gigs started happening. Because when you have the win on your resumé it opens up a lot of doors. Then I did a competition shortly after that in Atlanta and one in Chile. And with those back-to-back wins, I started getting more concerts. That would eventually lead to my current job, where I conducted the Tzu Chi Orchestra and they’re an amazing youth orchestra where we have high school students and some college alumni who play with us. It’s an all-Chinese orchestra. We played Carnegie Hall in June. It was my first time there as a conductor, and it was the experience of a lifetime.
That sounds incredible. How do you even prepare for something like that?
It’s a great question because it’s something that I think you always still figure out. As a conductor, or actually this goes for any form of music with live performance, or it could apply to film scoring too, the question you have to ask yourself is, “Do I have good nerves or bad nerves?” Because good nerves are normal. That means you’re anxious for the performance. You care about it and you’ve done all your work. Bad nerves are when you aren’t prepared enough and sometimes there might be very legitimate reasons for why you’re experiencing the bad nerves, but you always want to find a way to have good nerves.
Were you interested in true crime before you started working on the film? And also Jason Derek Brown could still be out there. What do you think of the fact that he might be seeing that this movie is coming out?
As far as true crime, yeah, I’ve always been fascinated by true crime. When Matthew first told me about the story, it was like 2014 or 2015, and I was fascinated by the idea. And then when I researched it, I was like, “I can’t believe this guy got away.” It just, to me it feels like he’s the luckiest person to get away because it wouldn’t have happened if it happened today. As far as him still being out there, I haven’t given it too much thought. One time I was asked where I thought he was. My guess was Australia.
What advice would you offer to Berklee students who are interested in pursuing film scoring?
As somebody who’s had to fight to get performances and gigs and concerts, you have to find a way to work on the craft every day. And when you get your first film, whether it’s a short or whether it’s a feature, we as composers, we have our ideas, but remember that on a film we are a composer, but we’re also a filmmaker. We are collaborating and you may have ideas that you’re really attached to. But you have to remember that if the producers don’t like the idea, if the editors don’t like the idea, the director, then you have to move forward and move forward fast. One way that will help when you get your opportunity is to work on writing and writing quickly. Because one of the big things about film composition is that it’s not just about being a great composer, you have to be able to do it quickly and be able to hit your deadline.
If you’re in a position where you have no gigs, I’ve been there. Every single day, wake up and research and look up any openings you can find, because you never know what can happen. You’ll sometimes have a voice in the back of your head that says, “Maybe we’ll do that later.” And if I had done that, for example, with Berklee Online, then I probably would not have been able to do this now because Berklee gave me the basics I needed to apply composition to film. That was an idea in my head that I had put off because I was busy with other things. But you can always create time if you really want to.