Grant Fonda is the composer for The House That Rob Built, the new documentary that shines a light on Coach Rob Selvig’s women’s basketball program at the University of Montana. Selvig was recruiting players from many different backgrounds, creating an inclusive team during a time when gender discrimination still ran rampant through sports.
In my latest interview, I connected with Grant about incorporating actual ambient basketball sounds into his score, his multiple collaborations with director Jonathan Cipiti, and getting a closer look at his creative process. You can stream his score for the film now on Apple Music.
Brittany Frederick: Much of your career has been scoring documentaries. Is that a purposeful choice, or just the way things have unfolded so far?
Grant Fonda: I think it’s both, actually. I love true stories. It’s so funny because I never thought that I’d be the guy who would be working in documentaries as much as I am. When you get to tell stories about things that have actually happened and people who are either still alive or have been around, it’s amazing because I think it relates on a completely different level. With documentaries, it’s interesting because we don’t realize that these really interesting people exist, and I think it’s because our world is so big. So getting to be able to work in that field has been extremely rewarding.
BF: You collaborated with Jonathan Cipiti on a couple different films before The House That Rob Built. Is that how you came aboard this movie?
GF: That’s absolutely how I got brought on to score The House that Rob Built. We got connected for The Dating Project and then he brought me back on for Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton, for a second collaboration. While we were finishing up Pray, I got an email about The House That Rob Built from the producer and co-director Megan Harrington.
It’s been one of those dream scenarios where someone who’s a collaborator and creative has become a really, really close friend. We talk or text usually about once a week and it’s really wonderful.
BF: Has that history between you also helped your creative process?
GF: I think it’s not only easier, but it’s also so much richer. At the end of the day, a film is the extension of the director on some level. Their voice and their experience are all translating through that film. When you have that personal relationship that exists outside of the context of filmmaking, then you get to see all of those nuances and all the stories and influences come through in the way that they make a movie.
It’s really cool because the composer gets to tell the story of the film, but you also get to tell the director’s story, in a way.
BF: The most unique part of The House That Rob Built musically is your use of actual basketball sounds in the score. Where did that idea come from?
GF: Jon and I talked really early on about how, even though this was a documentary about basketball on the surface, it was really about Robin Selvig and the team, and even Montana itself on some level. By being a documentary, there were going to be a lot of talking heads and there wasn’t going to be a lot of what we would necessarily imagine being “cinematic” footage. We didn’t anticipate that there were going to be a lot of opportunities to play with long, gorgeous shots that were supported by only sound design and score like you would see in a narrative film. And a lot of the archival footage that was being used didn’t have great sonic qualities.
We were talking about different ways that score and sound design could dance with each other. I thought, well, when you watch it on the court, basketball is a really rich sonic experience. You have the cheering of the fans. You have the squeaks of the shoes. You have these swishes. And they’re all really resonant, in many senses, because they’re in an arena as opposed to outdoors. I thought, what if that actually became part of the musical soundscape and we start to blur the lines between sound design and score?
I didn’t actually ask for permission before I started running with the idea. I just decided to go for it. I remember sending it to Jon and saying, “Check this out and let me know what you think,” but I didn’t tell him what I had done. I’ll never forget, he was just blown away. He was like, “What is that? It’s so cool.” And it just stuck. We tried it early on in the film and it persisted throughout as part of what became an instrument, in many senses.
BF: Do you have favorite selections from the score?
GF: There are two, the first of which is “Title IX.” It’s a really unusual soundscape because the Title IX act really came into existence during Rob Selvig’s career. He was pioneering in that sense and so the entire musical approach, to some extent, feels different than the rest of the score because we used vocals and unusual synths That’s where the basketballs are really very prominent. I love that just because it’s as unique, I think, or I hope, as Rob’s story, and the way that he used the Title IX act to help build this amazing legacy.
My other favorite track is “Strong,” which is the last scene of the film, actually. It’s almost nine minutes long. I love it because it’s where all of these different parts of The House That Rob Built, these different rooms, so to speak, these different parts of legacy come together in this really beautiful and really emotional apex.
BF: What are your musts as a composer? Do you have a particular process or specific needs when you’re working?
GF: It’s funny because I think going back and forth between animation and documentaries and narrative and commercials, the process is never the same. Even between different documentaries for the same directors sometimes, it’ll change depending on calendar and scope.
I think that the one thing that persists is communication and relationship. If those two things are there, then the process really takes shape depending on who’s leading it and then depending on what the end goal is.
I wish that people knew how much I love conversation. That seems maybe an odd thing to say for someone who’s working in film, but so many times people think that a composer just locks himself away for a couple of months and then we emerge with some sort of a masterpiece. I think that my favorite part of filmmaking is actually the relationships that come out of it. Both with the creative team but then also with musicians.
I think that this translates even on a personal level, as well. I think the best part of any friendship is the conversation and the relationship that comes out of it. It’s, yes, the things you do together and the memories that you make, but it’s really those small and ordinary moments along the way that make lifelong memories.
The House That Rob Built is now available streaming, on Blu-Ray and on DVD via Amazon.
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.