Painting a picture with music

Halifax music consultant Jeffrey Miller has been working with acclaimed director Michael Mann for 27 years. Photo: Ethan Neville

Haligonian Jeffrey Miller helps acclaimed director Michael Mann bring his Tokyo Vice vision to life

As Jeffrey Miller watched TV at home with his wife, he experienced a surreal moment.

When HBO aired the premiere of Tokyo Vice, the music consultant and musicologist heard something familiar.

“My wife and I got to see a scene where he’s walking into his apartment, and as a Pearl Jam song was playing, that was one of my placements,” he says.

The show, starring Ken Watanabe and Ansel Elgort, is the latest collaboration between Miller and acclaimed director Michael Mann, a 27-year relationship.

Michael Mann. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Miller first visited Halifax in 1996 and fell in love with the city. Feeling that the city was a great place to raise children, he and his wife moved here in 2003.

While he was a PhD student in musicology at the University of California, Miller worked at a record, video, and book store. One day, he saw Mann walk in and sensed he was “someone important.”

“He’s such an articulate person that I knew for sure that he was in film, so I just started talking to him,” he says. “He was asking for music that he could use that was easy to license, and I steered him towards some Beethoven CDs because that seemed like what he was looking for. As he left, I let him know that I was a musicology PhD candidate and if he needed any help working on any projects, please give me a call.”

After Mann left the store, the clerk in the store’s video section excitedly told Miller who he had just helped. Then, two weeks later, Mann connected with Miller to look at some footage and help him to place some music. That project turned out to be the acclaimed and influential 1995 crime drama Heat.

“It was an incredible experience,” he says. “He was already working with people like Moby, U2. And he had everything at his fingertips that he needed because he’s such a powerful person in that film world. He wanted something off the beaten path, and I think I was able to deliver that.”

As for their recent collaboration, Mann called Miller to say he was working on a new project. Soon after, Miller flew to Los Angeles to discuss musical ideas. 

“He’s very articulate and knowledgeable about music,” he says. “He usually can paint a picture for me, at least give me a few crumbs to start, and he’ll give me a script. Usually, there is some storyboard with pictures set up so I can get some idea of his visuals, where it’s taking place, what’s happening, and what it looks like.”

Tokyo Vice is set in the late 1990s, so Mann sought anthemic rock pieces that would complement the scene. After doing research, Miller sent Mann music weekly.

“I’ll start with a broad canvas, and slowly, we narrow it down over time,” he says. “He’ll tell me, ‘No, yes, no, this is wrong, and this is right. Go in this direction.’ After the obvious avenues get more and more exhausted, I start going down some back alleys.”

Miller began listening to Japanese rock. He paired music into the film to see if there was a fit or take it to a scenic setting and share it with the people writing the score.

“A song may not go in as a standalone, but the feeling, instrumentation, or the type of vocals might make it into score compositions,” he says. “There are many things out there that I think (Mann) likes to hear because it’s new, different, and it may not make it into the cut, but it somehow helps … Watching him think about music and how it might go to a scene is amazing … the way he sculpts it together.”

On the heels of Tokyo Vice, Miller is working on Mann’s next project, Ferrari (starring Adam Driver and Penélope Cruz), which takes place in 1957 in Italy. He’s also working with business partner Robyn Traill in their company MillerTraill Screen Music to provide original score music and music supervision to filmmakers here in the Maritimes.

For Tokyo Vice, as with all of his work, he aims to add to the audience’s appreciation of the art.

“It’s to have them the feeling of the music match the visuals so profoundly it’s incredibly exciting,” he says. “I’m wondering and hoping that people are watching it and that it also similarly affects them or has a deep effect on them.”

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