WINSTON-SALEM, NC—Abundant Acreage Available (AAA)—a drama written and directed by Angus MacLachlan (Junebug, Goodbye To All That) and notably executive produced by Martin Scorsese—is already a 2017 Tribeca Film Festival standout. Set on a modest family tobacco farm in the rural North Carolina foothills, AAA is a quiet, character-driven story of a sister and brother (actors Amy Ryan and Terry Kinney) who just lost their father after a long illness; meanwhile, three brothers are discovered camping on the property under suspicious circumstances. The film features music by singer/songwriter Jeffrey Dean Foster, who aimed to augment the visual setting and serenity with just the right mix of organic and synthetic sound sources and key melodic themes.
A self-professed “rock and roll songwriter,” Foster has done a bit of film-and TV-oriented work over his years in the music business, but AAA’s soundtrack is solely his own. Foster and MacLachlan, both Winston-Salem residents and longstanding friends, have been brainstorming the sounds of AAA for a while.
“At lunches every few weeks over the past couple of years, [MacLachlan] and I would talk about it,” Foster recalls. “He asked me if I would consider [scoring it], and I was pretty excited; I had read the script and loved it, so I already had a picture of it before I saw any of the actual film work. But I was still a bit intimidated because I had never scored an entire film from scratch. There was a bit of trepidation, wondering if I would get halfway through just to realize that I didn’t know what I was doing—or that they would uncover me as a fraud.”
MacLachlan and Foster would discuss soundtracks in general, and soundtracks and albums that Foster specifically liked, which possibly had a vibe or approach that would work for AAA. “Records that I grew up with, like ones by the Rolling Stones and David Bowie records, had weird ambiences,” illustrates Foster. “And soundtracks I liked—like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas soundtrack—were things I played for Angus. You just have to keep whittling on it until you get rid of everything that doesn’t belong. [But] once I visited the set, my perspective was changed a little bit. Before we started, I initially wanted to make a bit different soundtrack.”
From the onset, both MacLachlan and Foster wanted to avoid any obvious, or cliché, collection of instruments or vibes. “[Though] it’s set on a tobacco farm, Angus and I agreed that we did not want to make what would be traditional ‘tobacco farm music,’ even though I love country, folk and bluegrass,” explains Foster. “When you think of ‘rural music,’ there are acoustic instruments that can be made cliché, of course—mandolins, banjos, and whatever. Though I like that, I wanted to go against the grain, possibly conjuring up some other kinds of feelings. I was even originally thinking that it would be more electronic—and some electronic stuff is in there. But on the set, the ground, the clay, the corn stalks, the colors and the wind were so much a part of the story that they were like another character. The wind and ambient sounds of the farm were almost another type of music, so I felt like I needed to steer back towards some earthier sounds. It became a combination of electronics and guitars and banjos and stuff like that.”
With the setting of the film now guiding his creative juices, Foster set out to match music with the airy and open scenes. “A couple of the pieces I made early on didn’t really work with how the movie looked,” Foster admits. “In other cases, I was spot-on [before seeing the set]. With the ambiences and the ‘floaty’ vibe of some of it, the sound designer for the film really did ‘amp up’ wind, bird and train sounds. The music just had to figure out a way to exist in that shared space; like any mix you make, every part or overdub has to lay in it. Even if it’s a great sound, if it doesn’t fit, you have to start over. And sometimes you just have to lay it up against the picture before you know it works or not. The [sounds] have to evoke the right emotion.”
Standout moments of Foster’s work include the slightly discombobulating “Oh My Lord”—a dizzying, Bo Diddley-style tune with an out-of-tempo electronic pulse beneath it. It is an ideal example of Foster’s organic and electric balancing act in AAA, well matching the film’s aesthetic that manages to be simultaneously grounded and otherworldly.
Singer/songwriter Jeffrey Dean Foster composed the film’s score.
In one key scene, AAA’s three brothers were featured singing the classic turn-of-the-century song “Beautiful Dreamer” by Stephen Foster (no relation) live in the film, prompting Jeffrey Dean to re-record the song as well as incorporate components of its melody into the film’s theme. “It incorporates the ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ melody for four or five notes, then it goes off into this minor key thing,” explains Foster of the film’s theme. “As we went along, we thought we might like to have ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ over the end credits, too. A friend of mine, a really great singer/songwriter and piano player from Florida, Beth McKee, was spending the summer up here. One afternoon, she and her husband and I spent about 30 minutes recording that version of the song, and I loved it. It’s a song we’ve all grown up hearing, but until you listen closely to it, you may not realize how strange and poetic the lyrics are.”
A seemingly reoccurring characteristic of MacLachlan’s filmmaking style is to include open space, both visually and sonically, that effectively gives his entire creation room to breathe. Many moments of AAA do not deliver aural stimulation, as they are not necessary. “[MacLachlan] is careful not to use music to dictate how you are supposed to feel about the scene,” offers Foster. “Phil Morrison, who directed Junebug [written by MacLachlan featuring Amy Adams’ Oscar-nominated performance], told Angus to use the music when it’s necessary, as a summation of the emotion. We tried to do that. The first half of the movie has very little music in it. It gradually ramps up to the last 15 to 20 minutes of the movie, which has much more in it.”
And, when AAA’s music is heard, it is almost like an emotional release, yet subtle, like a comforting sigh. “People who have liked the music commented that it almost sneaks in,” explains Foster. “In this movie, with its critical turning points, holding the music until those points did make [the music] more effective and overall, a little more special.”
Tribeca Film Festival
AAA Recording Rig
A self-recording artist, Jeffrey Dean Foster generally keeps his recording rig lean and effective. For Abundant Acreage Available, the singer/songwriter utilized a streamlined Apple Logic X-based rig running on a legacy Mac Book Pro with I/O via Apogee’s original Duet interface. All vocals and instruments were captured by a Shure KSM32 LDC or Shure SM7 dynamic microphone.
“I was living in a friend’s tiny guesthouse,” recalls Foster of the recording sessions. “I recorded everything in the little 8 x 10-foot front room that I slept in. I have some vintage Yamaha NS-10M monitors, but they were in storage, so I used some PreSonus powered monitors [PreSonus Eris E5].”
Sound sources included a Gibson J-50 acoustic, Gretsch Monkees Rock and Roll Model guitar, ’66 Fender Telecaster, Remo’s Veggie Shakers, a few banjos and mandolins, and an “ancient” Roland synth. “Keyboard sounds were from Apple Logic, except when I used my theremin.”