White Lies

White Lies

John Psathas

WHITE LIES (28:35)

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Emma Sayers (piano)
Richard Nunns (taonga puoro)
Sasha Gachenko (bass)
Matt Cave (bass)
Rowan Prior (cello)
Paul Mitchell (cello)
Konstanze Artmann (viola)
Irina Andreeva (viola)
Kate Oswin (violin)
Matthew Ross (violin)
John Psathas (synthesizer)


White Lies is a single piece of music for piano, taonga puoro and strings composed by John Psathas. The music was written for the film White Lies, directed by Dana Rotberg and released by South Pacific Pictures. The story is based on the novella Medicine Woman by Witi Ihimaera, and stars Rattle recording artist Whirimako Black as Paraiti, one of the three central characters.

This is John's second outing as a film composer following his acclaimed score for Good For Nothing in 2010, notably from American film critic Leonard Maltin, who singled-out John's score as being particularly impressive.

When John saw the film for the first time, he knew immediately that he could bring something to it. “John brought an exquisite emotional understanding not only of the film, and not only of the characters but also of the two cultural sources that feed our drama,” says Dana Rotberg. “He was wise enough to allow the space of the Māori traditional sounds to tell their story and then hand over when it was needed to the occidental white Pākehā cultural territory of music, which is a very difficult thing and he did it with discretion, with respect and with amazing talent. I think he brought another layer of drama and emotional texture to the film and he made the film fly.” 


The following is an interview with John where he discusses his experiences working on the film.

At what stage of the project did you come on board?
I got a phone call from [Producer] Chris Hampson, and I think they had just finished the first edit so they were really far down their own track by the time they got in touch with me. In fact, they were so far down the track that I thought maybe I was way down on a list of composers, because it was so late! But it turns out I was the first composer that they spoke to. I’ve been approached about quite a few films but have only ever gotten involved in one before and essentially the thing that got me involved in this project was really Chris describing the nature of the story to me over the phone. From that 10-minute conversation I felt right away that I really want to be a part of this, because it’s a big deal telling a story like this, here, now. And I also felt – and this is the key thing from a composing point of view - that I would be able to bring something to it. I was flown to Auckland and watched the film with [Producers] Chris and John [Barnett], [Director] Dana [Rotberg] and Paul Sutorius, the editor. What was interesting about that was I found out afterwards that I was the first person they’d shown the film to. So they were all really hanging on and really intensely waiting for my reaction. It was just great for all of us that I reacted really positively, and very naturally to the film. I think they all felt a bit relieved by that first response!

Tell us about meeting Dana.
I had a very immediate connection with Dana when I met her and we talked about the film and I talked to her about my feeling about the film after I’d seen it and she talked about hers. I felt very much the power of her connection with the story. As the composer, the thing that you want more than anything is to know that the director is married to the story in a really deep way and knows it really well; knows the people, and cares and loves the characters. I felt that straight away and I felt very confident in getting involved.

When you are composing a film score, is it a matter of you going away and tinkering away in a room by yourself, or did you sit with Dana and go through the film with her?
You know it’s interesting because from the composer-director relationship point of view, you don’t actually talk about music very much. What you talk about are the people in the film and what things mean to them and what’s happening to them. And the struggle that they have in their story. So my process in terms of working with Dana was to get her to talk a lot about what she thought and felt about it all and I record all that and listen back to it over and over again. Then gradually, by looking at the film and thinking about the director’s comments and their philosophy, something emerges from all of that. You start to think ‘Well I think that this person is this kind of instrument’. For instance, with the character of Rebecca, she was this sort of fake person who’s living a massive deception, but that deception involves being very high class and aristocratic, and also being very contained in a very small environment. So I thought the piano might work for her, and I started playing around with piano sounds for her and it worked. I found very sad sounds and they worked really well, and Dana responded to that very strongly. For the character of Paraiti, I felt all the way through the first screening that breath and wind - which are in some ways an expression of life - needed to be a part of the score somehow. And that’s why we explored the taonga pūoro sounds that Richards Nunns plays, and the pūtorino, and the purerehua and the bull roarer. We got Richard into a studio for a day and got him to play a whole lot of things. And so the score developed these two identities, one was very much the Māori music identity, which follows the medicine woman’s character all the way through. And the other one is more I suppose the Western-European kind of identity which is the piano and some strings.

This is only your second film score, how did you find the experience?
The thing that I have loved both times that I’ve worked on film scores is that you come into contact with the director when they have lived with this thing for years, and they know every single nook and cranny of every part of it. I’ve read that it’s very common for directors to be kind of jaded at that point, and they find it very hard to keep being enthusiastic about the film. And that all changes when the composer comes on board because all of a sudden this music appears and it re-emotionalises the film. I saw that with Dana and I saw it with the director in my previous film project - it’s like they suddenly woke up all over again to the film and what it was doing. That’s a real privilege to be doing that as part of your contribution.

What was it about this film and the story that appealed to you?
I guess one thing that this film has that was very powerful for me is that it doesn’t flinch from what it’s about. And having since become involved I’ve watched a whole lot of Dana’s other films. And that’s something that through her whole career is that she takes on very difficult things and she doesn’t shy away from them. There are things in this film that are deeply tragic, really disturbing, brutally unflinching, and I thought it’s kind of got a raw power about it. Even though it’s really beautifully shot, the sets are very elegant, everybody’s dressed really nicely, underneath all that there’s something very basic; human nature. And I was really attracted to that. I mean the things from my point of view is that if I’m going to write music for something I’m sort of looking for an outlet as a composer that allows a kind of intensity, and a kind of depth, and a reality and truth about things. I think also everybody’s got their own level in terms of emotion. And some people are just ‘up’ emotionally, others are really balanced, and others are really fascinated by the darker or harder things that we have in us as human beings, and I’m kind of more drawn to the latter…the places where there’s suffering and pain, because then I want to think about how you can make something better. So that was another reason I was drawn to the film was that there’s a lot of that in the film and I thought that the music could somehow humanize that, so that as we watch it we can associate with it, we can share. Because one thing about dealing with pain and suffering, one of the greatest reliefs from that is knowing that you’re not alone in that thing, that’s it’s shared. That’s the other thing that drew me to the film is that I knew that if we got the whole thing right by the end of it, even though it’s tragic. I mean no one smiles in the whole film until the last minute when the little girl appears, and it’s, 'hey, someone’s smiling!'



RAT-D043 (June, 2013)

White Lies  (28:35)
Tuakiri Huna  (4:42) 

Production: John Psathas
Recording: Graham Kennedy
Mixing: John Psathas and Steve Garden
Design: UnkleFranc



Review by Steve Scott

Without doubt, White Lies is one of the most impressive New Zealand films I have had the pleasure to absorb. Not only does the sad story grip you from it’s sudden intensity at the start, but the script, acting and soundtrack beautifully command one’s attention throughout. Two motivators inspired me to see this film. The first was hearing about director Dana Rotberg, who, seeing Whale Rider in Mexico, decided to go to New Zealand to meet writer Witi Ihimaera. By chance she read another of Witi's stories, Medicine Woman, and vowed to direct a film based on this story. The second was singer and (now respected) actor Whirimako Black (who, with Richard Nunns, released Te More on Rattle in 2011), who plays the part of Paraiti. A few years ago I was commissioned by Roger Marbeck (of Ode Records) to write a biography, story and press-release to accompany Whirimako's The Late Night Plays, and I was delighted to do so. With that in mind, I was curious to see Whirimako acting under Rotberg's direction. Needless-to-say, I was unreservedly impressed. Whirimako’s heartfelt, traditional attitude informs her role with commanding power and substance.

Written for taonga puoro and piano (played astutely by Richard Nuns and Emily Sayers respectively), the score is augmented and supported by the atmospheric sounds of strings and synthesiser courtesy of composer John Psathas. Together, this combination of instruments draw the viewer (and the listener) into the film. Along with the beautiful scenery of bush and occasional bird song, this music absolutely enhances the feel of the film. Beneath the slow, emotive piano lines from Sayers, the violas and violins create a beautifully textured undercurrent that produces a potent and highly encompassing feeling. As the plot of the film works its way to its conclusion, the brooding bases increase the intensity and tension, while the taonga puoro speak directly to the traditional ways of Maori. It’s little wonder that when viewing White Lies one finds oneself totally engrossed. Whether you realise it or not, the soundtrack seeps into your psyche and embraces you. John Psathas has composed one of the most acutely emotional of soundtracks. If you've seen White Lies, his music will transport you back to many memorable scenes. If you haven't, it will surely inspire you to purchase the DVD. White Lies, Rattle's most recent John Psathas album, is very special indeed.



Review by Graham Reid, Elsewhere, March 2014

Not having seen the film for which this is the music -- a single, 28 minute piece for piano, strings, taonga puoro and the composer on synth -- is no disadvantage at all.

This beautifully understated, modulating and elegantly slow piece can at time sound less like a soundtrack (in that it doesn't parallel or evoke any kind of physical action) and more in the manner of a long suite of interrelated and gently realised ideas.

The piano of Emily Sayers plays slowly evolving lines with notes placed spaciously, and the backdrop of synths and especially Richard Nunns on taonga puoro have an almost meditative effect, except when the Maori instruments bring an unearthly quality.

This is a lovely piece of music that exists independent of visual images, other than those which you might bring when you let this wash around you.

Very special.