A conversation with film score composer Ben Lovett

The mastermind behind the music of 'The Signal' and 'Synchronicity' reflects on a career in music and film

Sunday September 25, 2016 04:32 pm EDT

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Ben Lovett is a producer, performer, and songwriter who is, perhaps, best know as the composer behind director Jacob Gentry’s sci-fi thrillers The Signal and Synchronicity. He’s also the founder of Lovers Label, through which he has worked with acts such as Heavens (featuring Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio), and Chris Wollard & the Ship Thieves (featuring Chris Wollard of Hot Water Music).

In 2009, Lovett’s soundtrack for The Last Lullaby won Best Score at The Brooklyn International Film Festival. In 2012, he was awarded Best Score for Ghost Of Old Highways at the Madrid International Film Festival and the Charlotte Film Festival.

These days, Lovett works from his home in Asheville, N.C., delving deeper into work as a film composer. As part of CL’s cover package, Sounds of the invisible:10th Letter and other Atlanta musicians score films for the mind’s eye, Lovett checked in to talk about how his journey into film work began, and coming to terms with calling himself a film score composer.

Did you grow up playing music? 

No. I grew up in Dublin, Georgia, kind of in the middle of nowhere between Macon and Savannah. I didn’t know any kids my age who played guitar or anything. It took a long time before I realized music was even an option. Years later, when I went to college in Athens, I met some burgeoning filmmakers. It’s funny and haphazard how I got into scoring films. You look back and realize if you’d walked through the door on the right instead of the door on the left your life would be much different. I was 18 years-old, and like any kid that age, I wanted to be part of what was going on. It was a huge challenge, which has become a fundamental part of my philosophy: Don’t let fear of not knowing what I’m doing stop me from trying. My friends asked me to create the score for a film. I told them I didn’t know anything about film scores. They said, “So what? We don’t know anything about making a film!” It was a project that Jacob Gentry wanted to make — it wasn’t even a student project.

Even at 18-19 years-old Jacob was driven, and he inspired people to get behind him. It just happened to be that the person I met then — much like myself with my musical pursuits — never stopped making movies. That’s what makes Synchronicity so amazing. It’s 20 years later and I’m making movies with the guy who made the first project I was involved with. In fact, two of the main stars in Synchronicity, Scott Poythress and AJ Bowen, were in that first movie 20 years ago. What are the odds of that happening?

Lakeshore Records released the Synchronicity soundtrack, but Mondo/Death Waltz handled that gorgeous vinyl release. How was that experience? 

Mondo has the imprint Death Waltz. They contacted us the week the film came out and said they wanted to do it. Jacob was really excited. They don’t release things very often. When they do, it’s almost always classic. It’s rare when they put out anything contemporary. When they do, it’s because they feel it belongs among the classics. And yes, Synchronicity is the coolest looking vinyl I’ve ever seen — and it’s my record! When you put it on the turntable it looks like there’s a wormhole in the record. I can’t even figure out how they did that with the blue and the black vinyl.

No value assigned

When did scoring films become a real part of your career? 

I’d say it was sometime after The Signal. That was, ostensibly, the second movie I scored. I had done some short films, but I started counting the films that came out theatrically, or on DVD. Before The Signal I had only done one movie that anyone really saw. It’s called Last Goodbye, and that was around 2005, I think. We made The Signal in 2006. It premiered at Sundance in 2007, and it was in theaters in 2008. Because it was such a big story at Sundance, I got an agent immediately. Still, it took a few times before I said, “This is what I do.” If you do something once, it’s just kind of something you did. If it happens again, it’s possible that it was a coincidence. After as many films as I’ve done now, I guess it’s ok to say I compose film scores.

It felt weird to say that for a long time. At what point does it change from being a coincidence to being something that you do? 

I balance the film scoring part of my career with a career as a songwriter, a performer, I have my own records out, and I've been producing other people's music longer than I've been doing movies. I do so much music stuff, and wear so many different hats, it was a while before I thought, "I guess this works." People enjoyed the work, they kept coming back, and they recommended me to other people. It just took a while to accept it.

I imagine there's also an element of dealing overcoming impostor syndrome.

Oh yeah, for sure. You're always in fear of being found out. I think that's true for any self-taught musician or self-taught artist of any kind. When you're among your peers who have some training or education in this thing that you're just kind of shooting from the hip with, you feel it.

No value assignedBut I am driven by the learning process — not in the sense that this is an opportunity for me to show off what I can do. It’s a service job. My job is to help a filmmaker tell their story. It’s not a platform to showcase my talent.

When we were all in Atlanta — me and this tribe of kids, some are still there, some have moved on to places like L.A. — we all came from Athens in 1999, 2000, 2001. That era was the birth of DV, digital video. There were these little tribes of filmmakers, actors, writers — tribes of creative people — making content. A lot of it was laying the groundwork for this film community to come up around that. We were making shorts, organizing screenings, hosting events, and things like that. The Signal helped boost the exposure of Atlanta’s filmmaker scene.

There are great people in the film industry in Atlanta, and everything is shot there now. It seems like more things are being shot in Atlanta than in L.A. All of those people are working in production. Lighting guys, camera guys, grips, and all of these people that they have to hire in the state to get the tax credit. That’s all production work. Music is part of post-production, and it seems like all that stuff ends up going back to California for post. But the interesting thing about that is that I do almost all of my work from here in Asheville, where I live now. But all of the work comes from L.A. or New York. The thing is, though, I have to maintain an identity and a presence in those places in order to get the work. Part of the disconnect is the fact that the relationship between the composer and the project is not geographically dependent. You can do the work from anywhere, but it’s where you have to be to get that opportunity. More often than not, it’s simply a matter of relationships. Most situations involve someone toward the top of the food chain already having somebody that they have worked with, or would like to work with. There’s some relationship that’s already there with regards to the music. And it’s a very difficult thing to get into, when you’re on the outside looking in. A big part of my entire career success is that I went through this door instead of that door, and lucked into a situation where I was given my first shot by just dumb luck chance. And the more I did it, the more people I worked with, and they referred you to someone else, and then people are saying, “You need to talk with Ben Lovett. He did our music and we loved it.” After a while the work finds you. Having an agent makes it a lot easier for people to find me. It also makes it so that I can be involved in conversations about projects and focus on the creative side as opposed to talking about money and logistics. 

I’ve had a handful of people tell me they don’t know how to get an agent ... 

When it appears that you’re making money, you won’t have any trouble finding an agent. There will be plenty of people lining up, saying “I would love to take 10 percent of that for you.” Talent is not what separates people from opportunities. Talent is the ticket to the dance. It gets you in the room. But if you’re going to dance you can’t lean on that. There’s such an abundance of people with talent, it comes down to things that are much harder to control: time, luck, but most importantly hard work.

Check out this week's CL cover story, Sounds of the invisible: 10th Letter and other Atlanta musicians score films for the mind’s eye. Also check out 6 mind-blowing film-inspired albums: 10th Letter, Ian Deaton, Gregorio Franco, and more explore the sounds of cinema.

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