You Can’t Ask That: Q&A with screen composer Andrew Sampford

BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE VIA LEVEL AND GAIN

“How do you swear in sign language?”

“Did you drink metho?”

“Were you raised as a boy or girl?”

“Why the hell would you go on reality TV?”

These questions are awkward, don’t you think?

That’s exactly why they’re being asked. And they’re just a few of the questions that have popped up on ABC television series You Can’t Ask That. People from all walks of life — from refugees to blind people, swingers to ex-politicians — brave the camera and answer questions so confronting, you might not allow yourself to think them.

The show often ranges from gut-wrenching to hilarious within the space of a single episode, revealing extremes of the human experience. At the end of the day, though, it’s all about compassion. And one of the creatives who drives our ability to watch this show with an open mind is Andrew Sampford.

Andrew has composed the score for You Can’t Ask That since 2017, and he’s guided viewers through televised stories about being homeless, eating disorders, and surviving a disaster. When these real-life stories feel too difficult to keep watching, his music helps lift us back to the present. Despite the subject matter, his music is often light and — perhaps more than in any other series — it so accurately punctuates the expressions of those sharing their lives on the screen.

In this interview, Andrew tells us how he scores You Can’t Ask That. In 2020, he’s recognised for his work on the series with an APRA AMCOS 2020 Screen Music Awards nomination for the episode Killed Someone. You can get a feel for the complexity of Andrew’s work in the video below.

Andrew, let’s talk about You Can’t Ask That. You’ve scored interviews with priests and alcoholics, ice users and Olympians. What is it that brings all these people together — united, of course, under your score?

Bravery.

The people that are interviewed on this show are all incredible. Each episode, I’m blown away by how open and honest the answers can be to some very difficult questions.

From a scoring perspective, that is a wonderful thing.

A huge part of that is a testament to the format of the show. I imagine a lot of the appeal for the interviewees comes from the unfiltered nature of the final product. The mantra across the board is that we are staying out of the way as best we can, and supporting people to tell their stories without judgement.

The soundtrack to You Can’t Ask That really speaks to your ability to pick up on the most subtle and human of cues, from voice to silence to a single facial expression. How in-tune do you need to be with this series on a personal level? Or do you instead approach it with detachment, like a blank canvas or puzzle?

Initially, I will approach each question in an episode with a sense of detachment. Once I have a feel for the pace of the editing, I’ll put down a basic tempo map and then focus on the broad emotional journey of the question.

Once I have the tempo and structure in place — usually, with a very roughly played scratch piano track — that piece becomes the canvas I will start to comb through to highlight those interesting human moments. Sometimes, that means adding in some sound effects to try to put the audience in the moment with the interviewee. Sometimes, that will be taking someone’s nervous humming and working that melody into the piece. Sometimes, it’s best served with a moment of silence.

It depends on the content of the episode, but listening through over and over, and adding in those details, is definitely where I have the most fun.

I’d argue You Can’t Ask That to be one of the most confronting shows on television. As a composer, what is your ethical responsibility in guiding the way the audience watches?

I think my biggest ethical responsibility is to make sure the score is always responding.

Ultimately, you will always have an opinion, and it’s impossible to completely remove yourself from the process, but the music must always be informed by the stories being told.

Practically, one of the techniques I use is to go for the exact opposite feel of what I would instinctively do with a question on my first pass. A simple example would be if someone is talking about a difficult topic, I will try scoring it with bright open major chords, initially.

Those versions almost never make it into the final episode, but I find the process of critically listening to an episode with a contrasting score helps me to remove my own intent from the process and focus in on what is really being said. And sometimes, you stumble onto something wonderful.

In the spirit of the show, I’ll throw a tough question your way. As boundary-breaking as it may be, You Can’t Ask That is nevertheless ‘television’. It’s enlightening, educational, and entertaining. So as a professional, you must face a contradiction: how much do you balance the entertainment aspect against the sometimes-horrifying and tragic ups and downs of these people’s lives?

It’s a question that comes up for me every time I tackle a difficult episode.

I will always score for the stories being told. However, a lot of the time, I feel more like the work I’ve done can go toward almost softening the edges on some of those stories. Whilst the music can definitely be used to highlight moments, it can also serve as a reminder that you are not in a conversation, but listening to a story being told.

Killed Someone, from the most recent season, is a great example of this. I found watching this episode without music to be rather a difficult experience. So despite the fact that when I score, I attempt to enhance the story, the music acts like a cushion, reminding me that what I’m watching is entertainment.

It is a balance, though, that is pondered over and tweaked with a constant back-and-forth amongst the team.

In fact, you were nominated for a 2020 Screen Music Award for the Killed Someone. Why do you think this show was singled out in this award?

First and foremost because it is an exceptional half-hour of television.

The canvas I was given to work with was a dream to work with: such a wide ranging palette of emotions; so many moments of extremely raw humanity buried within an overarching journey that takes you to both the lowest depths and the highest peaks.

The direction and editing by Kirk Docker and Kenny Ang respectively did a great job in shaping those narratives, and that structure allowed me a clear path to doing what I think is my best work of the series.

It’s one of my favourite episodes to watch, too.

How do you approach the difficulty of representing these interviewees with sensitivity in their most vulnerable moments? That is, how do you help them feel safe once the show is aired and they watch the final cut?

I’m fortunate enough that I work on a show where a lot of that groundwork is done for me by our incredible producer/director Kirk Docker. Though you very rarely hear him, he is there at every interview, guiding people through and, more importantly, giving them the knowledge that there are no wrong answers. Their truth is our priority.

I attempt to approach each episode with Kirk’s ethos in mind, and if I ever miss, he’s such an active part of the process from start to finish that he will pull me back on track.

I feel there would be very few projects that would take you on an emotional rollercoaster in the same way as You Can’t Ask That. Having immersed yourself in countless triggering interviews, how do you take care of your mental health?

Walk away. I will watch each of these episodes through over and over again and, on the particularly tough episodes, that can definitely start to build up.

Despite the fact that we often work to incredibly tight deadlines where every minute counts, sometimes the best thing you can do is forget those deadlines and walk away.

That’s definitely something I have learnt over time, too. In the past, I have tried to push through sections that overwhelmed me, and I think both my mental health and the quality of my creative output suffered as a result.

These days, when an episode is hitting a bit too hard for me, I will pack up, make a cup of tea, and talk to my wife about what I’m working on.

Within this environment, what do you feel was the most confronting episode you’ve scored so far, and how did this impact your scoring?

Most definitely Sexual Assault Survivors from season 3. 

I always start working on these episodes by watching through the locked-off edit a few times, but this episode really got to me. I managed one watch-through, and then went for a long walk to process everything and didn’t go back to it until the next day.

Off the back of your previous question, I found myself working in much shorter sessions than usual, as I would fairly quickly get caught up and lose focus. And the contradiction you mentioned earlier was constantly at the forefront of my mind. ‘How do you sensitively score someone recounting their sexual assault for a television audience?’

There was a lot of back-and-forth, making sure the balance was right.

I love the episode, though. It is incredibly important television, and I’m honoured to have been a part of it.

Even in some really difficult interviews, there are moments of comic relief. Tell me a little about your instrumentation and the style you chose for your composition, which helps us feel so many things as we are watching.

For the lighter questions, I love using very percussive instruments. I love the energy that comes from pianos, marimbas, pizzicato strings, and the like. I often find myself leaning on them as a bed for the questions.

But over the years, I’ve had a lot of fun with some odd instrumentation, too. Any time an interviewee uses onomatopoeia, I will latch onto it. Pops and claps and clicks that can work their way into the rest of the score are the most fun you can have, and I try to fill the score with lots of little moments like that for those keen of ear to latch onto.

One of my favourite moments was in the episode on gambling addiction. I spent my time creating a fairly convincing pinball machine synth sound, then layered myself in dropping coins all over the floor.

It can be a lot of fun.

Before we go, what advice would you have to other composers or musicians dealing with sensitive subject matter?

Listen!

The music is less important than supporting the story. Be willing to let go of ideas that you think are great. Just because something is good doesn’t mean it’s right.

And make sure you’re not working in an echo chamber. I’m in an incredibly lucky position to be working with some incredible people on You Can’t Ask That and, without that collaboration, I know my work on the series would suffer.

Andrew’s work on You Can’t Ask That was nominated for a 2020 Screen Music Award. Learn more about these awards and the virtual ceremony on the APRA AMCOS website.

This story features in our sister publication Level and Gainwhich celebrates all things screen music.


Images supplied.