Music for a Story Running Out of Time: A Conversation with Simon TaufiQue

Isabella Huang
Nov 11, 2019 · 7 min read

The latest offering from Independent Lens, PBS’s weekly documentary television series, is Andrés Caballero and Sofian Khan’s The Interpreters, a hard-hitting chronicle of what happened to three of the 50,000 local interpreters the U.S. military employed during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and then mostly left behind, unprotected by the government that promised them a rosy future.

As the filmmakers have noted, “Making this film made us feel a little less hopeful in humanity despite having good outcomes. The reality is that most interpreters are still out there, in hiding, being targeted and killed as they wait for their visas.”

As Sgt. Paul Braun notes in the documentary: “The interpreters were considered traitors to their country . . . traitors to their religion. They either had to wear a mask over their faces or use fake names. But after a while, people found out who they were.”

So how does one tell the story of people in time-crunch of their lives? And how does one find the right musical notes to accompany such fear and bravery?

Co-producer and composer Simon TaufiQue rises to the task, masterfully enriching the tale of these heroes who put their lives at stake. The British-born, award-winning TaufiQue, who has 53 credits for the scores he wrote for various features and shorts, took a moment off to sit down for a phone chat with us last week.

You’ve have worked on quite a variety of projects such as Jesus Henry Christ, She’s Lost Control, and Are You Glad I’m Here. How did you get involved in this project?

This is through filmmaker Sofian Khan, the director of this movie. I met him when I was the program director for the South Asian Film Festival 11 years ago . . . . [T]he festival [was] inspiring to young south Asian filmmakers. One of those was Sofian Khan. He was the director of photography for a film called Ramchand Pakistani. . . . [W]e became friends from that point on. . . and we just stayed in touch. When he had some projects that matched my style of music, we started working together. After I produced Imperium [with Daniel Radcliffe], we connected and discussed this project. I was so moved by the story and the mission of The Interpreters . . . that I offered whatever I could do to help. I wasn’t thinking musically, but as a producer, a fan of his work, and as someone that wants to help tell this story. Along the way I became the composer of the film. That was a couple years ago, meeting for coffee trying to catch up and being swept away by the story. Khan was just shooting it because he wanted to highlight stories that weren’t being told.

The Interpreters Director Sofian Khan and Composer/Co-Producer Simon TaufiQue (Source: Simon TaufiQue)

How did the soundtrack of The Interpreters evolve?

We realized that the story is a very much a real-life thriller. These are people that put their lives on the line to help the US troops and coalition forces, and they are being seen as traitors by fellow countrymen because they are helping the “invaders.” They believed in the mission of democracy and changing their country for the better with the help of the United States and other countries. So they took that chance, and then when their turn came to leave the country, when the Americans left, and they knew there’d be a bullseye on their back, they were promised a chance to leave, and the promise wasn’t kept.

We were trying to tell the story of how these people survived and made sense of that, and how the Americans on the other side were trying to get these people out. It’s a ticking-bomb scenario type of film because you don’t know how it’s going to end or if the people will find their way to safety. That was the impulse behind creating the music for this film. Not just telling the story of Iraq or Afghanistan but telling the story of people who are in a very scary place. They are in a pressure cooker, so they don’t know if they’ll make it out in time. That sense of urgency, anxiety, but also the story of kinship and love between the Interpreters and their American partners who wanted them to be safe were the impulses behind the music of the film.

How did you start composing and how did you recognize you wanted a career in composing?

Both by accident. I didn’t realize that I could be a composer for film until I was asked to write music for film. I got into music by chance, and the thought of having a career in music was a fantasy, and not something I never thought I could be.

As a first generation immigrant and first in my family to go to college, there were a lot of expectations that I would have a very stable and secure career, and so I was pursuing political science and economics, double majoring in NYU with the intention of going to law school or graduate school for a career in foreign service. I wanted to be a diplomat, an ambassador, and change things for the better.

Along the way in my undergraduate studies, I became really good friends with a young filmmaking student. It turns out he was M. Night Shyamalan. We just were best friends, and he would take me to his film classes, and introduce me to his composer and his team of collaborators.

While that was happening, I was becoming more immersed in music as a hobby. I was writing songs; I was playing in band just for fun. Along the way, he asked me to write a song for one of his films, and I got to see how tangible creativity could be as a long-term goal. I thought then that “if I saved enough money, if I got to practice enough, I could someday record some songs and maybe an album or something.” Then [Shyamalan’s] career took off, and we stayed friends; I got to visit his sets. I got to visit the post-production. I got to see how his composer was doing stuff. So just because of being a supportive friend and just being really excited for him, I by accident was soaking up all these lessons about creativity and collaboration.

Seeing his trajectory from doing stuff that was small scale and easy to digest, and seeing all that catapult and explode into very large scale stuff, but still seeing the same person, creativity, and root source behind it all was very inspiring to me. When I was asked to write music for a friend’s film, I jumped at the chance even though I didn’t know what I was doing. But because of all of that exposure, I knew what I needed to do. I knew what the film needed, and I somehow was able to cobble together music that made that film a better story.

The studio where Simon works on his music. (Source: Simon TaufiQue)

I’ve read that one of your methods of composing is muting the television and playing your guitar along with it. Russian composer Mussorgsky did something similar for his piece “Pictures at an Exhibition.” According to Leonard Bernstein, Mussorgsky “tried to compose music that would describe them, in other words, do what a painter would do with paint.” How would you compare that to your experiences composing along muted TV Shows?

I didn’t know that. That is fascinating to hear! It’s really inspiring because I was not doing it with the intention of scoring a TV show. I was just practicing guitar and the TV was on, and it was interfering with what I was hearing, so I turned down the volume and just played my scales or chords while looking at the TV, and it influenced what I was playing without me knowing it.

So the creative influences and spark of painting a visual with sound is what I ended up doing without real understanding of how to do it or what I was doing in that moment, and then when my now wife came into the room, she said, “Wait! That’s not coming from the TV? You’re doing that?” That’s when I got the idea that something was going on here that I was not aware of; I was channeling some inspiration there that I wasn’t aware I had the ability to do. I think we will always try to channel that raw instinctive impulse, and our technique allows us to shape it into a form that makes sense but without that spark. I don’t think the technique can ever make up for that. I think that it’s just the shaping of the initial idea.

(The Interpreters first airs on PBS this Veteran’s Day at 10 PM EST.)

Isabella Huang

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Isabella is a writer for various websites.

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