When dealing with the impossible grief of losing a child, it’s likely the last thing parents would want to hear is overbearing symphonic schmaltz trailing their every emotional step in a house full of inescapable memories. While this has often been the ideal Hollywood way of giving inspirational comfort to tragedy, independent cinema often doesn’t have the need for soaring string manipulation, let alone the budget for it.
Enter Anton Sanko to the Rabbit Hole of Becca and Howie Corbett (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart)--an affluent couple eight months after the accidental death of their eight-year-old son. Sanko meditates on their guilt-ridden grieving process and disintegrating relationship with a musical approach that speaks volumes in its chamber-like simplicity. A tender guitar theme evokes the heartrending intimacy of Stanley Meyers’ acoustic theme for The Deer Hunter, while the slow-moving motion of plucked string quartet and bass flute recall how classical music was used to communicate another upscale family under tragic siege in Ordinary People.
But while Sanko’s music evokes two of the great movies to deal with loss, the acoustic sound of Rabbit Hole is very much his own. With a Grammy-winnning producing career that saw Sanko backing such storytelling singers as Suzanne Vega and Jim Carroll, Sanko’s distinctively quirky sound for the humanistic, indie likes of Scotland, PA., Party Girl, and Saving Face were successful enough for the NYC-based musician to make the leap to Los Angeles, where his scores for Delirious, When You’re Strange, and Handsome Harry ranged from techno intoxication to vibes that would play The Doors’ rock-changing consciousness.
But none of Sanko’s projects have the potential prestige impact of Rabbit Hole--a startling change of dramatic pace for Hedwig and Shortbus writer-director John Cameron Mitchell, let alone Anton Sanko in adapting David Lindsay-Abaire’s play for the screen. “John is a great musician and obviously knows how to speak that language. That made for a fantastic working environment because we got to fine tune every note,” Sanko remarks. “I don't think John had worked with a composer in this way on his other movies, or on this kind of story. So Rabbit Hole was a new experience for both of us.”
Mitchell and Sanko also were also single men who’ve yet to have the experience of parenthood, which makes the perceptiveness of Rabbit Hole even more remarkable, especially in its music. “It really comes down to being in touch with the human experience,” Sanko ponders. “Life is not black and white, and great art is not black and white. There has to be a balance, My perspective comes from the joy and the sadness present in our everyday reality. That’s where I was trying to write from. I also looked and listened to Becca's inner world and how she deals with grief. That was my touchstone for the score.”
For all of their restraint, Becca and Howie can’t help but break down, yet the sound of Sanko’s score remains a beautifully muffled sob, if not a smile at points--an overall offbeat sense of melancholy that makes Rabbit Hole’s unbearable subject surprisingly watchable, if not entertaining. “You need to maintain a specific warmth and simplicity without telling the audience too much,” Sanko reveals. "I didn’t need to underline the epic sadness that's already intrinsic to this specific story. If anything, my job was to let people know that it was okay to laugh now and then. That made it a challenge in finding the right orchestration, instruments, and harmonies that would work hand-in-hand to capture that feeling.”
Sanko’s eclectically acoustic approach has also helped to capture the zeitgeist of the acoustic intimacy that’s defined the sound of relationship-driven indie cinema--an approach he found out of necessity. "The movies I started working on had zero budgets, so by default, the score was made with instruments that I could play. With each new score, I would buy a new instrument, and slowly some of the more unusual instruments that I’ve collected over the years have become the stars of my arsenal--my secret weapons. Another big help is my longtime assistant and collaborator Joel Thompson. He plays a full gamut of wind instruments, which I don’t. So I ended up writing for a lot for those instruments as well. In addition, I’ve always had a fairly elaborate studio which allowed me to experiment with atypical combinations, like an alto flute and a pedal steel guitar, or a slide banjo played with an ebow.”
You can hear both in Sanko’s forthcoming soundtracks, the first of which proves the composer can bring on an epic orchestral vibe with the National Geographic series Great Migrations. And when it comes to what’s likely the most popular use of Sanko’s singular style of quirk, the musician will once again embody the loopy personal lives of the Henderson clan as he returns for another season of Big Love early next year on HBO. Just don’t expect the darker, if not completely eccentric work for the show’s last season, which saw bigamist eugenics, arm-severing kidnappings, and the Hendersons' announcement of their peculiar lifestyle to the world.
"It's a little more personal this season,” Sanko remarks. "They're dealing with immense struggles, but the storylines seem more intimate and restrained than they were last year. While some of the material I generated was great for last season, which was bigger and more muscular, it’s not always working for this season. So I think my new music for Big Love will have generally more of a delicate touch."
Now that Mitchell and Sanko have helped make unimaginable loss into appealing and thoughtful entertainment with Rabbit Hole, it’s likely his standing will continue to be elevated in the indie world, as well as the bigger one of Hollywood. For this is a powerful, subtle score whose resourcefulness is in making its emotions beautifully play below the surface. “Rabbit Hole is unquestionably the highest profile job I've done in terms of script, performances, director, and visibility,” Sanko concludes. "It was always a challenge to rise to the same level of every one else involved with the movie.”
Anton Sanko's 'Rabbit Hole' soundtrack is available now on Lionsgate Records.
Listen to 'Great Migrations' on the National Geographic Channel.
Special thanks to Nancy Bishop and Venice Magazine.