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Thursday, 05 September 2013 14:36

Elkhorn High grad composes score for Matt Damon film ‘Elysium.’

Written by  Todd Mishler/Walworth County Sunday
Elkhorn native Ryan Amon is shown in a recording room in London’s Abbey Road Studios. The 1997 Elkhorn Area High School graduate composed the musical score for the new big-screen drama “Elysium.” s Elkhorn native Ryan Amon is shown in a recording room in London’s Abbey Road Studios. The 1997 Elkhorn Area High School graduate composed the musical score for the new big-screen drama “Elysium.” s Photo courtesy Costa Communication

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Ryan Amon’s nomadic personal and artistic journeys have taken him to Indiana, Kenya, Minnesota, California, Bolivia and Virginia.

His worldly travels have created valuable life and musical lessons that he couldn’t have imagined. Or maybe he could have.

The result has been an out-of-this-world experience -- actually two worlds.

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The 34-year-old Elkhorn native composed the musical score for the current big-screen release "Elysium," a two-year maiden voyage through the big-time entertainment production business.

And his break came innocently enough, thanks to social media.

He received an email from a stranger -- Neill Blomkamp, the South African-Canadian director of "District 9" -- who had come across something Amon had composed on YouTube. That was three years ago.>

"We had one phone conversation that lasted about an hour and allowed us to feel each other out," Amon said. "He wanted to know what I liked, what instruments, what kind of orchestration. Then we had a conversation on Skype … he was in Vancouver and I was in Bolivia. But he was open-minded and it didn’t bother him that I had never worked on a film before. He was willing to go with someone new. But to do it we had to get back to the U.S., and that’s how we ended up in northern Virginia."

Amon needed to do a lot of homework to prepare for his potential film debut.

"I did a lot of research on Neill, interviews he’d done, so I could better understand his personality. I found what books he liked and found he really liked one called ‘The Forever War.’

"I had seen ‘District 9’ while we were in Bolivia, and we liked it," Amon added. "It was gritty, and I assumed ‘Elysium’ would be of the same vein. It helped to see that film first."

However, Amon didn’t get the job until a few months later, when the music supervisor called and said she would send a contract.

"She asked me if I had an agent, which I didn’t," Amon said. "But at that point, with something like this, of course, I was going to say yes."

The science fiction release starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster featured a production budget of $115 million. It opened Aug. 9 and had earned more than $178 million worldwide as of Sept. 2.

The movie takes place in 2154, and the division between social classes couldn’t be wider. The privileged enjoy luxury and access to cutting-edge health care on the space station Elysium, while the rest of humanity fights poverty, crime and disease on Earth.

Coming up with the right sounds for the dichotomy that Blomkamp had written and created proved challenging.

"I started writing stuff right away," Amon said. "Neill wanted me to start working before seeing anything, basically a blank canvas. So I threw together a lot of different styles. ... It was cool but daunting, because I’m such a visual person. Neill has an insatiable appetite for new music, so I kept sending him new ideas every couple of days. I sent him orchestral stuff and some weird, more ethereal instrumentations, some computer stuff with only synthesizers.

"He was open to a lot of different ideas and asked me to try this and try that," Amon added. "I wanted to serve the film and his vision because he wrote the entire script and created that world, and I applaud him for that."

Now Amon is among those receiving accolades, something that he and many of his family and friends may not have envisioned because of his circuitous path to get there.

Amon graduated from Elkhorn Area High School in 1997, and that’s when his globe-hopping adventure began.

He was going to major in biology at Taylor University in northern Indiana, a small Christian school he said is located "in the middle of nowhere, about 20 minutes from any Wal-Mart."

That first stop didn’t help him figure out what he wanted, but it reinforced things he may have known already about himself.

"They would leave some of the doors unlocked, and I would sneak into the music rooms at night and practice on the baby grand piano," Amon said. "There was a tiny window, but it was basically me in the dark listening to the sounds and the music. It was like in the movie ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus,’ where he (Richard Dreyfuss) asks the redheaded girl to close her eyes and she’s all nervous because she can’t see the notes. He tells her she knows the notes and she needs to play what she feels. He tells her to think about a sunset, the point being to visualize. That’s how I write music.

"But I changed my major about eight times ... nothing seemed to hold my interest," he added. "So, I went overseas to Kenya and backpacked and lived out of a tent for a couple of months. It pushed your limits and opened your eyes to a lot of things."

His family -- mother Shari, father Mike, sister Rachel and brother Mark -- could only guess where that would lead.

Amon thought he would be a mountain guide, transferring to Western State College in Colorado. But he soon figured out that wasn’t his calling and he found himself at McNally Smith College of Music in the Twin Cities in fall 2001.

In two years he got his associate degree, and although it still wasn’t exactly where he wanted to be, he learned a lot about new technology and the business side of things that helped later in learning how the music industry worked.

"I learned just how difficult it is to break into the business and how many amazingly talented people there are," he said.

But he worked and practiced hard and created a lot of demos. And maybe more important, "I picked up my guitar again and started teaching myself … and found myself skipping classes to sit in my dorm room to write songs.

"A lot of my friends kept pushing me to perform at coffeehouses and I did it like twice, but I remember the one time I got up on stage and it was so quiet. I was terrified. That was it. I wanted to be behind the scenes."

That experience helped Amon earn a BMI Pete Carpenter Fellowship, which meant an apprenticeship under award-winning TV composer Mike Post.

"I went out to Los Angeles, and even though it was only six to eight weeks, it was a blessing," he said. "I got to practice doing music for scenes and get them critiqued. It was valuable experience. It also gave me the confidence to pack everything I owned into my car and go back out to L.A. My parents thought I was crazy, and I had only about a couple of months worth of rent.

"You have to be ready to work for years and years to make it, but I got a job as an assistant working for guys who composed music for reality TV shows. For the first few months I just picked up coffee and lunch, but at night I learned how to use and utilize the studio, and soon I was writing and composing tracks and contributing as a ghostwriter."

He also did cues for trailers for such productions as "The Watchmen," "The Avengers," "Seven Pounds" and "Monsters and Aliens."

In 2007, he got married and moved to Bolivia, where his wife, Carla, had family. He stayed there for about 3 1/2 years, going back and forth a few times to where she also has family in northern Virginia.

"I had been doing the trailer work ...," Amon said. "I wanted to do film work, and I was doing more ethnic, cultural stuff (while in Bolivia)."

Those creative outlets included forming his own motion picture advertising company, City of Fallen.

But that’s when he received the unexpected email that changed his direction again, something that Amon said might not have been possible if not for his early musical influences and his own stubbornness.

"I started taking piano lessons when I was 6 or 7, but after a couple of years I got bored with it and wanted to do everything all younger boys did," Amon said. "But when my sister started playing, it sparked my interest again. And our mom made us sign a contract that we had to stick with it until we got through high school ...

"I’m glad, because later on I enjoyed making up sounds and songs on the keyboard and guitar … it was like my personal journal, and music became instilled in me and I started enjoying it again. ... I wanted to be on my own and work on my music; that was my creative outlet."

And those strong musical roots have taken him all the way to recording the "Elysium" score at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London.

"Walking into the studio the first time, it was not like I didn’t belong there, more like I hadn’t earned it yet," he said. "I worked with the Philharmonic Orchestra, almost 80 musicians, and solo vocalist Francesca Genco ... But we recorded the strings and brass separately, so it became much more linear."

His work in London finished in January and was mixed in L.A. in mid-February. The film was pushed back to be a summer blockbuster.

"Composers aren’t invited when they go to the dub stage and mix the sounds with the words," he said. "I didn’t see the film until the L.A. premiere two days before it came out. All of the actors were there, so it was a lot of fun. … I was holding my breath. I realized right away they had changed some of the music, and one scene had been pulled. I was a little terrified, but I’m happy with what I did and hope it comes off well.

"I’m such perfectionist, so I’m never happy," Amon added. "I feel like I could have made a lot of things better. But the director is happy with what I delivered ... It was a great learning experience, but it wasn’t about me. It was his vision and project."

Speaking of projects, Amon has two potential deals in the works: another film and a video game.

"I’m excited and hoping to do more film scores," he said. "That’s at the heart of what I want to do. I have a love for drama."

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