PARK CITY, UT — Writer/director Julian Higgins’ feature God’s Country examines one woman’s grieving process and determination to be taken seriously amid her refusal to surrender to the confines of society. As a Black college professor, Sandra (Thandiwe Newton) finds herself consistently undermined and fighting prejudice. She is tired of trying - and failing - to please her recently deceased mother, while also navigating the challenging politics and power dynamics at the college where she teaches. But it’s a confrontation with two hunters found trespassing on her property that ultimately tests Sandra’s self-restraint.
DeAndre James Allen-Toole (pictured) created the original score for the film, which premiered at the 2022 Sundance film Festival. In a conversation with Post, the composer reflected on his work and collaboration with the director.
How did you get involved with God’s Country?
“I got involved with God’s Country as a 2020 Sundance Film Music & Sound Design Lab Fellow. The Lab was responsible for pairing the director — Julian Higgins — with me, and upon being introduced, our journey soon began.”
How did you get started?
“Julian emailed me the then-current draft of the screenplay for God's Country, along with the source material from which he and Shaye Ogbonna adapted the screenplay — James Lee Burke's short story Winter Light. Production of the project had paused due to the pandemic, so there was only a modest total of twenty-ish minutes of footage available to view. However, I immediately connected to the screenplay, and once I received the footage, I was greatly impressed by the subtle visual storytelling in what I was able to watch.
“Soon after, we settled on the portion of the footage I'd score during the Lab. At the time, Julian wasn't sure if the film would have a score at all, which allowed us a lot of freedom to explore what a theoretical score for this film could sound like and how it could function. The Lab went by quickly, culminating in about ten minutes of music written for God's Country and a budding friendship with Julian that would continue to grow well beyond my time as a fellow.”
What were the feature’s musical needs?
“God's Country was a challenging film to score in the way that it delicately yet deliberately weaves many complex themes, subjects and sublayers of conflict around an ensemble of deeply complicated characters and subtle performances. At the same time, God's Country is an intimate, personal story, presented entirely from the perspective of Thandiwe Newton's Cassandra Guidry. The score needed to feel intimately related to Sandra's emotions and mental state while also reinforcing that what we're watching is a grave tragedy set in motion from the very beginning. It was a challenge to provide a sense of the scale of this tragedy without sliding into melodrama, overpowering the visual/nonverbal storytelling, signposting narrative subtext or losing the score's primary connection to Sandra.”
How did you collaborate with Julian Higgins?
“After the Lab, Julian and I spent a lot of time continuing our conversations about God's Country and sending ideas and sources of inspiration back and forth to each other. As a result of that process, we developed a lot of trust and vulnerability that positively impacted our creative workflow when I officially became the film's composer. He encouraged me not to begin writing to picture too quickly. Instead, I spent most of my time generating suites/themes away from the picture, sending stems over once finished. Julian - who also has a keen musical ear - would experiment with placing different portions of these suites/themes throughout the film while refining the cut. We'd video chat frequently to discuss the placement of the music and the many edits being made to the picture as we moved towards the locked cut. I didn't begin to develop the preliminary suites and themes I wrote until after we locked the film. It was then that I started writing to picture, sometimes with Julian on Zoom in realtime as he was working on some other aspect of the project, alerting each other when we wanted input from the other or had feedback to share. It was a very close-knit and organic mode of collaboration that I believe is a testament to the bond we formed as co-creatives and as friends.”
What gear did you use to create the score?
“I created the score in my bedroom studio running Cubase on a PC I built a few years ago. My palette consisted of a collection of software instruments and effects (Native Instruments, Spectrasonics, Soundpaint, iZotope, EastWest Sounds, u-he, Valhalla DSP, Eventide Audio, Goodhertz, Inc., Soundtoys), sample libraries (Spitfire, Output Sounds, Heavyocity, Sample Logic, Embertone, Wide Blue Sound, ProjectSAM, Big Fish Audio, Orange Tree Samples, Slate + Ash), and custom sound content. I used Joy Music House for orchestration and copying, Fame’s Studio Orchestra to record strings, and solo vocalists recorded remotely to supplement my choral ensemble samples. The Reel Change Film Fund — a grants and mentorship program for composers of diverse backgrounds who have been marginalized in film composition — was a critical resource in producing the score.”