Composer Interview: Batu Sener
Interview Conducted by Kaya Savas
May 19, 2017
A lot of hopeful aspiring storytellers migrate to Los Angeles every year from around the world in the hopes they can turn their passion into a living. This includes writers, production designers, costumers, directors, producers, actors, cinematographers and yes composers. You’ve heard the phrase, “you gotta start somewhere” and “getting your foot in the door”. Many aspiring young people are always looking for that opportunity.
The one thing you learn is that everyone’s journey is so uniquely different. It takes a whole lot of hard work, passion, talent, determination and luck to make it in Los Angeles. And it’s not as simple as being an intern who serves coffee for a year or two and then finally getting their chance.
In the composing world, we’ve seen many young composers rise through the ranks before finally branching out into their own. Again, that’s the general path. Everyone you meet will have their own special story.
One of those special stories is from a young Turkish composer, Batu Sener whose passion and hard work landed him working with composer John Powell. Batu has worked alongside John on scores such as Jason Bourne, Pan and the upcoming Ferdinand.
FMM: Batu, thanks so much chatting today and sharing a bit about your story. So, I’d love to know what made you want to pursue film composing as a career. Did you discover the passion for composition early in your life? And at what point did you decide to focus on film music?
Batu: Of course, thank you! I was never going to be a composer, actually. I remember, early on, in harmony, music theory classes during high school years, all of my professor said to me that I’d be a great composer if I had stopped pursuing the solo piano career. I was quite determined then. Only towards to end of my teens, I started getting more and more into writing. Of course, I’d written several things until then but I had not considered making a living as a composer. It wasn’t until I watched WALL-E that something clicked inside. A switch immediately turned my life upside down and helped me decide to go for it. I was always interested in film music but in short, Thomas Newman’s score to WALL-E did the trick.
FMM: What kind of composers, either classic or film composers did you listen to (or are still listening to)?
BS: I did appreciate the music in films but I was heavily invested in classical music in my listening routine. Actually, if I went all the way back, the reason that I’m a musician today is Ella Fitzgerald. I remember, in the early 90s, I caught a show on television where she was a musical guest, a talk show, it must have been, and that she was singing ‘Body and Soul’. Actually, there’s a video of a similar performance –if not the same– on YouTube.* Imagine a kid hearing this and being astonished by it. What a diva!
Nevertheless, I did listen to and do continue listening to all the Russian jewels, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, as well as the French impressionists, from Mozart to Alban Berg, really. Everyone. I constantly get new study scores and, well, study them.
As far as film composers, I was very much impressed with Newman and John Powell. Of course, John Williams, Goldsmith, Éric Serra and so on.
*You can listen to the performance that Batu mentioned here.
FMM: I’d love to know about your journey in making the decision to move to the US, going to school here and of course “getting your foot in the door”. Take us through that part of your life. How did you end up where you are today?
BS: It all really happened after WALL-E. I was away from home for college, attending a classical music conservatory. Jumped on a plane, went back home, to Izmir. I got mom and dad in front of me and said “I’m going to be doing composing for films from now on, there’s this school in Boston that I’d wish to apply."
That’s one way of doing it, I suppose.
From then on, I moved to the US and went to Berklee. One thing I did not expect was to finish my undergraduate degree in two years there. So, half way through the program, I started looking into grad school options in the same field.
Not because you need a higher degree or any kind of degree to be doing this job but because I was simply afraid to move to Los Angeles and try to make it, you know? I just said to myself: “hold on a second, you just got here, early 20s, what’s the rush?”
I went on to attend Columbia for grad school. Did another two years there and then moved to LA.
FMM: Can you take us through the time when you started working for John? Did the opportunity pop up by chance? Or did you hear that he was looking for help and pursued it?
BS: The way I met John was quite a dream. He was interested in taking a new set of hands/ears then and I submitted my stuff to him. I’m incredibly grateful that he offered me the position at the time.
FMM: Now, you know more than anyone that John is such a fun, caring and easy-going guy. But back then, were you nervous at all sort of stepping into this fast-paced world?
BS: We’d be here talking about John’s kindness forever if I start getting into it. But in short, yes, one of the most kind, most fun, most amazing persons I’ve ever met.
And yes, of course, I was nervous. Not only was I stepping into this world but also stepping into it with him, or should say through him. I didn’t know what to expect at all. – and being a foreigner brings other roadblocks to the table. I was also nervous about how to maintain my presence in the US working with John. You get an opportunity like that, the last thing you want is having the leave it because of legal reasons. Yet, John was very welcoming. He was and still is an incredible mentor and to this day, he continuously amazes me.
FMM: What were some of things you learned from John, and I suppose are still learning from him? Has being in this role sort of given you a crash-course in both the production and business side of making music for films?
BS: I think I learnt to be a better musician, before even becoming a better composer. He introduced me to so many different aspects of music, before film music. Really. Experiencing this industry from where I am is definitely an eye opener.
FMM: For me, I usually have to make a mistake to learn from it. Someone can tell me “don’t do this”, and sure I’ll remember it but I will still end up making that mistake once or twice before I truly learn from it. Do you have the ability to sort of make mistakes and learn from them, or is there little room for error in the role you have?
BS: Yes and no. No, because there isn’t room for error in this industry. Actually, we should say there isn’t time for it. I also live by a very harsh standard in my work. I try my best to never be in a situation that would require me to say that I’m sorry. Of course, we’re all humans. Like everyone else, I make mistakes, and do learn from them. But I try to make mistakes during the off times, where trial and error will not stop the production, you know? In between projects, I continue writing everyday, a bit or a lot, you learn from experimenting. You learn what you can do, what you’re not really good at, what you need to be improving in your writing.
If I’m saying sorry because of a mistake that stops the production for 2 days, or 2 hours, then it’s kind of too late. I know that a lot of people I’ve spoken to about this ideology don’t agree with me on it. But I guess, that’s just me.
FMM: So how are you taking everything you’re learning and applying it to yourself as a storyteller and a composer? Has working with John changed the way you approach doing your own solo compositions?
BS: Well, first off, I wish I went to Drama school.
Storytelling is everything. John is an extremely gifted storyteller through music. Being here with him definitely improved the way I read the picture, interpret it, and execute the music. Working with John had and continues to have an indispensible effect on my music. Even a casual chat about music opens up a whole new dimension. My own writing has developed quite a lot over the years, of course, but the pace of it skyrocketed recently.
FMM: For you personally, what about a film speaks to you the most when you’re coming up with that first note? Is it the character’s personality, the story itself, the framing of a shot? What’s kind of the first thing that grabs you and starts getting a musical idea flowing?
BS: I’d say what it makes you feel like. What it makes you remember in your past, or what it makes you resonate with your current thought and feelings. Filmmaking is very interesting. Very involved. It is often hard to be objective about what you’re seeing -- sometimes hard to get involved. But all of it, really, the story, the cinematography.
FMM: If you could score any film ever made, pretending the original score never existed with no disrespect to the original composer, which film would you choose?
BS: Hmm, many... The Game (1997), possibly, by David Fincher, music by Howard Shore. Oh, or I could go with The Prestige (2006).
FMM: In your career so far, what has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned that you wish you knew earlier?
BS: Researching and writing every day. I used to be rather lazy or used to feel uninspired about my writing. Granted you’re busy with school and once you’re done with your assignments, the only thing you want to go for is a pint of Heineken, you know? Not to go back to writing...
It wasn’t until I moved to LA and met John that I started writing everyday. Not finishing and polishing a piece a day but, you know, continuing to be actively writing, studying, experimenting, being aware of yourself as a musician, as a composer. Reminding yourself that you can only get better by writing and continue writing.
I remember one of the first pieces of advice that John gave me was to write a minute of music everyday.
Well, that’s a hard task.
But it’s good advice. – and research. There’s an incredible variety of amazing music out there. Sure, in film music too, but a study score of a 20th century symphony can teach you a lot.
FMM: Thanks Batu so much for your time and congratulations on your accomplishments so far. I can’t wait for what’s to come in the future!