Defined by designing her unique career path, filmmaker and film score composer Nicole Russin-McFarland dishes to us about her new radio play classical genre albums, her goals and throwing a desk at villains.
How did you cast the actors for your new albums?
Really easily. Lots of actors already have relationships with me; I hired them. The line for people acting in material is far longer than the line of people creating material for actors. With my radio play albums, I wanted to fit stories into people’s natural accents. Most of my acting talent is British, so you can think old stories. For my first American actor, William Nunn, I am starting him with a story that flows more off the tongue of the general American accent better. Sometimes, it isn’t the story but the storytelling. Or, it may be the story requires an American or British accent. So many more people now want to participate in my radio play albums the more they hear about them, and I don’t have enough to go around because there’s only one of me composing this music. For that, I am incredibly grateful.
How do you handle composing and directing at the same time?
Simple: I don’t do it at the same time!
How do the new albums change the way people see you?
Being typecast as “she who only scores silly animated films that aren’t studio films anyway and can do nothing more” was making me really angry. The new radio play albums where I score actors performing readings from great authors of the past shuts people up about that, and I do some genre hopping on these. Animation is a respectable career path, but it’s like people made it that all I’m good for achieving in life is dabbling in cute little indie cartoon film scoring. As if working at a studio level for music and directing is only for other women who do all the right things and look the right way to them. Anger is always motivational for bringing out the best in me. But also, you’re talking about someone who stays up all night to finish something if I have to.
What are your music career goals?
I am spending the remainder of 2021 and the whole of 2022 as long as it takes building myself lots of credits. Think anything that qualifies for IMDb composing, directing and acting credits, and as many composer credits with as many new releases I can fit onto my Spotify artist profile. Self animating my own work is really exhausting because it’s forcing my brain to do something it naturally doesn’t, but if it helps me knock out some IMDb credits into completion, I am up to it.
In 2022, my dream is being hired to score my first studio film. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate where I am with finally having a music distributor in AWAL that has an amazing staff, people are finally seeing I am not some girl who only scores silly animated film music for silly self animated toons, everyone is supporting my work, and life is going better than it was for me for a long time. Something needs to change with that: studios hiring me, or someone with the power to bring me onto a studio film score. Until then, I feel like I can scream as loudly as I want that all kinds of people of every background, look, size, gender, orientation and educational story need equality in the music industry but it’s going to continue being viewed as a profession for people of the right old money wealth and connections.
Film scoring in an A-list film score composer position is my eventual goal. And secretly, or not so, I want to in my late 30’s or 40’s have more vocal releases, like maybe influences from The Weeknd and his outstanding productions over a rock guitar so not quite his genre but maybe rock with elements of The Weeknd, if I summed it up neatly!
Being realistic here, the pandemic is getting worse and worse. Banks and big money people are going to be cautious about who they invest in. The film industry may not be ready for handing me a mere fraction of money I dream of in my goal of becoming a $200 million+ per film budget director. In following my very Peter Jackson goal of quality versus quantity, if I am a studio film score composer who sometimes steps away from them to double up as filmmaker-composer, and the one or two handfuls of massive budget studio movies I make are legendary classics, I will be a very happy person. I got into filmmaking anyway because of film music, so this wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Will I someday get to direct my dream live action films, and my first big budget animated work? Yes. For sure. Everything will take time.
What is your method for writing music?
Ideally, I would love to work with a full live orchestra, but as with many people, I don’t have that kind of money laying around. For the film music on our Miss Shaguna’s Chickens animated feature film with Lucky Pineapple Films, which is actually a 2D rotoscoped animated movie made from live action acting on Mari Sherkin’s real farm in Canada, I am planning to use only the free virtual library sounds from Spitfire Audio. This is important to me because so much of what I do is representing to young people or new people that you can work with anything and it isn’t that the product is bad because it is free, but it’s your technique and desire to do a good job on it.
With the new radio play music albums, I am using a mixture. For some like The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe starring Christopher Andrew Norris, I am using a mix of my old custom orchestra virtual instruments with Spitfire Audio free and paid products.
For some of the albums, I am only using UJAM products, like the Symphonic Elements Striiiings program on The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe starring Samantha V. Hutton. UJAM has really brought on more interest from actors who now want to be my little lab rats, because they love the way the products sound. On what I am currently working on right now, The Magic Shop by H.G. Wells starring James Hare, I am trying to see how I can use only UJAM’s Virtual Guitarist Carbon by itself on one of the four instrumental music tracks. I am so nerdy with computer stuff from having studied web design classes for my university science requirement. What interested me about UJAM products was wondering if I could layer them over themselves to have a bigger sound, getting away with only working with one more affordable product. Self challenges limited to one or two “cooking ingredients” help me do things I never expected.
I do this, again, because so much of music comes off like it is only an industry for people who have the right educational degrees and apprenticed with the right people, then they all went out and bought the most expensive software and plug-ins known to humankind. Money cannot buy talent, passion, the desire to succeed, the business spirit one needs marketing yourself, none of that. Any time I can tell people about affordable and free products that work really well and I’m happy with them, I am more than happy to do it.
The current myth of only old money people and those pretending to be them being great at music is almost like how you tell anyone a young lady is a current or former actress or model, and that person now sees her as more attractive than she really is. When I’ve been am agency model a long time ago and know it’s all about you fitting a character for some job in the right moment. Being good looking isn’t required to become an agency model. Brands want anyone like “we need a blonde now, send us 30 blondes to audition for this ad.” Agencies sign up people like factories fitting general criteria, or that’s how it was back then. Try it sometime with your friends. See how differently one is viewed if introducing your friend as “a third grade math teacher” versus “a model” or “an actress.” I did that ages ago as a prank at a small business with a friend’s father, introducing him to some staff as a “movie star,” and they were like, “Wow, he’s so handsome!” He really is handsome but he didn’t get noticed as “OMG, handsome!” without my outrageous prank!
My natural music style feels closest to 19th century works. The good news is, you can adapt this to any genre or time period pretty well. At school, my classmates, the few who wrote on their instruments, all wrote sweet tunes. I played super depressing, octave jumping tunes and probably scared my teachers for extra credit time, or my flute lessons after school tutor who was like, “OK…why don’t we work on these scales and other homework now?”
What are your acting career goals?
Rebranding my website and social media biographies recently happened because assorted people saw I was already acting in my own movies anyway and wanted to know if I would like my name placed into the hat so to speak for some studio work coming up. Of course, being a name in the Harry Potter sorting hat for an acting job and actually getting that acting job are very different things. I want to make it evident that I am always available to say yes for a good part being offered my way.
My dream roles are good dramas and blockbuster action movies. If I were to be in a Terminator spinoff, or to play Poison Ivy in a live action take on the character. I already have the reddish toned hair and could look super cool with a redder wig! Everyone has a realistic part. I’m never going to starve down for roles nor will I gain a bunch of weight for them. What I do great is maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle, authentically looking the part of someone who could throw a desk at a bad guy. I’m always moderately ready so if the phone rings for me to be hired for an action role or something like Jennifer Garner in Alias, I am ready to go, eating right, doing all of the right things.
You could listen into criticism of people doing multiple things, but I would respond to any naysayers with, “Women don’t have choices.” Great. Good on some guy you know of who is a fairly successful enough B-list composer to never worry about money again and he cruises along in life happy being “good enough” for everything. I don’t have that luxury. In my position, attaching a face to the film score music I release helps. Acting holds great power. A Brad Pitt type would have the studio permission to score his own movies and direct them himself. People have long suggested to me to be an actress, and I felt like, it’s OK, I would love to do it, if we can do it my way with movies I naturally love.
Me being a sweetie pie role in a romcom makes no sense. Me taking on the role of a first generation immigrant in old Manhattan finding her way with an authentic look of pale skin and auburn hair, or kicking in the door screaming in a body con dress as the bad guys try to leave an airplane, that work is tailor made made for me. I’m definitely your gal for any natural sounding northern USA accents like New York, Chicago, Midwestern monotonous, Midwestern anything really, New Jersey, Long Island, Boston, you name it, if it’s a northern American city, I have it covered. Hire me!
As far as directing and scoring, my next film project coming out is called Miss Shaguna’s Chickens, starring Mari Sherkin.
Which women in Hollywood inspire you?
This question was pretty much blank for the longest time for me because my go to answer has long been, “I love Peter Jackson and Hans Zimmer not as everyone else does for the art but as businessmen who excel at the art side and the business of show business; my goal is combining that and having a business empire around the creative arts someday that reaches out to everyday people, making them passionate about music and film.” Peter Jackson values quality over quantity to his filmmaking. He was mocked some time ago, “His career won’t go anywhere without moving to LA.” Now, he makes LA stars go to him. In third place as my tie are those two men, is James Cameron, because he does so much with creating technology to advance his filmmaking goals.
Of course, I heavily admire these gentlemen for having a self taught passion one doesn’t buy with film or music degrees because I see in them where I want to end up. Having a worthless university degree myself, worthless because it never led me to good day job income, respect or anything I was promised, I know it isn’t the solution for being a great businessman or creative personality.
Until a few months ago, thinking like, “Must there be someone female who isn’t making standard ‘women’s movies’ or career moves?” and I came to terms with this answer: Margot Robbie. She could have been another actress who is in demand and then one day isn’t, typecast as the pretty girl until someone else, another pretty girl replaced her. She nowadays produces her own roles, hiring herself, building great characters for herself to play, and now with projects like Promising Young Woman, she hires people for great female led roles and directing gigs. Her genres and work are very different than the men I love sure, but she has that spirit of business savvy I love from other men, and in her I felt like it cracked my hard eggshell of a personality I have saying, “This is what acting can do for you. Acting holds the power to change your destiny. Don’t say no to it if someone asks. Acting can get you the name recognition to go film the movies I need in New Zealand and London, to score movies I make myself, and to score for other directors who aren’t me.”
I am really convinced one can create an individual career path no one has had. Cole Porter did it, defining his own career, bringing a niche thing like “high brow” music into the mainstream. Why can’t I continue that? I want to bring in a time period of people who direct and have a huge input as lighting directors, or the people doing set design star in the same blockbuster. Why not?