Nathan Halpern: Lone Rider

Most composers would be overjoyed to have scored just one film that ends up on Barack Obama’s favorite films of the year list — however indie-flick specialist Nathan Halpern can boast of two. Those being the excellent Cannes-winning The Rider and the Oscar-nominated Minding The Gap. Clearly, the former Commander in Chief is a fan. As are we at Headiner, and we were delighted to chat with Halpern about his career so far, as well as working on the psychological thriller Swallow.

Halpern feels that his main breakthrough moment was a film for HBO, about the performance artist, Marina Abramovich, which was at Sundance about eight years ago.

"I’d done a few little projects before that, but that film certainly felt like the real beginnings of my work in film and the all-important connections that came out of it.”

Of course, I can’t go long without asking Halpern how he felt when he learned that two of the films on his CV had been given the nod by an American President.

“Oh, my God,” he says. “That was wonderful — 2018, a couple of years ago. Not only the fact he watched them, but even the fact he had time to watch them!

“When I think about it, these were films that both have a real sort of existential universality. Both have very profound themes: Minding The Gap in terms of coming of age cycles within families and familial relationships. And then The Rider; very much with personal meaning, existence and one's relationship to mortality. And on the other hand, there is an aspect of those films that is quite American. So that was very interesting to me and cool that he was connecting with the films in that way.”

The Rider is a particularly beautiful film that deserves to be sought out — a stirring story of rodeo riders in South Dakota, with breathtaking scenes of its unbelievable natural beauty providing the backdrop for the real-life stories of the untrained actors who draw heavily on their own life experience. And while Obama may not have singled out the score himself, the music is absolutely a key part of what makes the film so excellent.

“Rider was a very special film,” Halpern says. “Chloé Zhao, the director, reached out to me, and she sent a rough cut of the film. I was so moved by this film. It deals with a cowboy who has suffered this debilitating injury while riding. And it’s his entire essence of his existence, to ride horses, and now he can't do it.

"So the film deals with him coming to grips with who he is and what life is going to mean for him. I just found it so devastating and meaningful on so many levels. And it was beautifully crafted. It’s shot very beautifully with tremendous poetry to it. We premiered at Cannes and (Werner) Herzog came out and was gushing about it, which was beautiful!”

Initially the music is a bit of a callback to the mid century studio era cinema, and puts us in conversation with that American Dream feel.

Halpern’s most high-profile movie in his recent filmography is undoubtedly 2020’s Swallow, the Haley Bennett-starring psychological thriller.

There’s a great lineage of films that seek to unpack the American Dream in a disturbing way, and Swallow is no exception as it follows Hunter, a housewife and mother-to-be, mostly staying at home while her husband gets ready to take over from his father at their Manhattan Corporation.

All sounding lovely so far, but Hunter feels so isolated and apathetic in her marriage and home life, that she develops an obsession with eating increasingly dangerous objects.

“Early on we have this sort of beautiful artifice,” Halpern says. “We’re getting some of this Douglas Sirk kind of vibe, so initially the music is a bit of a callback to the mid century studio era cinema, and puts us in conversation with that American Dream feel. And then we let it slowly unravel as things go on, as the facade gradually disintegrates over the course of the film.”