Composer Miriam Cutler Interview: Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down

Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down is a powerful and relevant documentary about the tragic shooting and incredible recovery of the former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords was the target of a 2011 mass shooting, and although she ultimately survived the attack, she was left with the communication disorder aphasia, with which she struggles to this day. Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down was created by directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, who previously collaborated on the acclaimed documentary RBG.

Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down is a testament to Giffords' unbreakable spirit as well as the devotion of her husband, former astronaut and current Arizona senator Mark Kelly. It also highlights Giffords' work to enforce universal background checks for firearms purchases, a cause that Giffords - who is still a gun owner, herself - continues to champion.


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This must-see documentary is bolstered by an uplifting score composed by Miriam Cutler, who has a rich musical history dating back to her early days as a performer when she worked alongside Danny Elfman as part of The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. Screen Rant spoke to Cutler about creating music to suit Gabrielle's spirit, why she's drawn to documentary work, and what she hopes this film will accomplish.


Screen Rant: In watching some of your other interviews, it seems like you found your way into scoring documentaries not just because you're an incredible musician, but also because you're very socially conscious. How much personal research do you do when you take on a film?

Miriam Cutler: Oh, that's a really interesting question. You know, when I first was doing docs, I'd say more like in the '90s and the early 2000s, in those days we didn't have all this digital stuff. We didn't have Google. I did a film called The Desert of Forbidden Art, and it was about Uzbekistan and the Soviet Union. In those days, if I wanted to know about the music from that area, because sometimes it's good to use location - like you can help the viewers follow locations, especially if it's a film that takes place in lots of different places - first, I'd have to call all over town to see if anybody had any Uzbeki music. I might have to go to UCLA and talk to their ethnomusicology department, and maybe meet some people that play Uzbeki music. So I did a lot more research in those days. Nowadays, we just go on Google. I can find any music from anywhere in the world, the most obscure stuff, and really have access to this whole entire world of music and everything else. So if I want to do a little boning up on a place before I work on it, I'll Google it, read a little bit, listen to some music, and then I'm done. So it's quite different.

And I did study anthropology in college, so I've always been very interested in world music, and the world, and traveling, and all that kind of stuff. That's another thing about documentaries that's been wonderful for me. I can do this work that I'm good at and I really love doing, and also feel like I'm expressing my values as an artist. I'm not compromising what I believe in. It's just a win-win-win-win-win, all the way around.

Screen Rant: Was there something specific that drew you to working on this project?

Miriam Cutler: Well, I did RBG with Betsy and Julie, and I love their style, I love the content that they like to explore. They're very into inspiring women, I think. They're very interested in women who have done incredible things. I'm a very strong feminist, and anything that can highlight the contributions and the power of women in our world, I'm very excited to do.

Screen Rant: I'm not sure if you know the answer to this, but so much of this film hinges on this very personal footage of Gabby Giffords' recovery that Senator Kelly had the forethought to gather. Do you know if the filmmakers knew that was there before they chose the subject? 

Miriam Cutler: I'm not sure. I wouldn't be surprised if they knew about it, because they do research before they start a film. So I wouldn't be surprised if they knew it existed. And I think, just seeing who Gabby is and who Mark is, you can see that even in her most horrific moments, she's contributing to the discussion about gun violence. She's willing to show people, "This is what happens."

Today, we just read that an 8-year-old boy at the 4th of July parade in Chicago got hit by a bullet that will leave him paralyzed for the rest of his life. We don't think about that. We hear the headlines, "So-and-so, this many died, this many were hit," and then we move on. But we don't go into their life and see what that meant. And I think Gabby and Mark opening up their life to the public will help people really comprehend a lot more about the human cost of gun violence, and how it just completely makes no sense to not have gun laws.

That's what I love about - Julie and Betsy really pick interesting people to highlight. I loved working on RBG, and while I was a fan of RBG before I worked on the film, I learned so much about her. So that's one of the other real pleasures of docs, you just always come away a little bit smarter. You hope.

Screen Rant: On that, this film takes you through every emotion. Gabby is such an inspiring figure, and she's uplifting despite everything, and then there's all this footage of the NRA. And you see Barack and Michelle Obama being emotional, and you see Mark Kelly's incredible devotion and care. So, when you're composing music, how do you choose what to bolster and what to leave as-is?

Miriam Cutler: Well, that's something that - I certainly have my own storytelling instincts, but it's something that's very carefully calibrated between the filmmakers and the editors and me. Basically, when I set out to score something, I feel like we're on an exploration of discovery. I don't know what the right music's going to be. They have temp music sometimes, which - because the music is such a powerful element of storytelling, it can really affect what the narrative is. In fact, when I teach, I really teach this stuff. That there are so many nuances in music. It can carry so much meaning. And it can do more than one thing at a time, you know? It can be happy and also a little bit scared, or it can be anticipation and fear, or anticipation and excitement. And you want to make sure you're telling the same story as the filmmakers, so these kinds of decisions are very critical.

And we all seem to have a bit of an instinct about, you know, "Let's not have any music here." Or, sometimes it has to do with the pacing of the film. You don't want to have a bunch of music and then no music for a long time, because it's distracting when the music comes back in. It may take attention away from the narrative. So, everything is carefully calibrated with pacing, emotional tone... sometimes if the material is really difficult, you want to stay a little neutral so that you don't pound people to the point where they have to turn it off.

This one was interesting. I've worked on many really difficult topics: Abu Ghraib, child slavery, incest, and all kinds of crazy stuff, and there are some times when you can't ignore something terrible that's happened, but how far do you push it? And I think in this one, we all agreed that it's okay for people to be kind of [shocked] when they see what Gabby's going through because she's so inspiring. The way they edit the film, the way they structure their story, they're making sure that what really comes through is her inspiration, her resilience, her good attitude, and her hopefulness. And I think that that's the kind of film they like to make. And I think it's really wonderful, especially now.

Americans are completely burnt out. We've had it up to here with all this horrible stuff happening, and there is no end in sight. So, I think that right now, filmmakers are realizing, "We have to help people." It's really important that everyone's aware and up-to-date on information, and making sure they have solid information about what's happening, but you don't want to just pound them into the ground with dismay and horror.

Also, [the filmmakers] really like to use music in their films that their people have listened to. Gabby's a big '80s music rock fan, and that's not exactly the music I was ever seriously interested in, but I think it's really important as information for me as a composer. What is Gabby's personality, and the tone of her life? So, I had some elements of that. Enough to not make it feel like the score was completely separate from the other music in the film. There's so much to think about. What's going to distract people, what's going to help the narrative, and what's going to set the right tone so that it's paced well? There's just so much to think about, and that's why it's great to work with such amazing filmmakers. Because we're a team, and we're doing it together. Discovering the right music is hard work, but it's really exciting. Especially when you come up with something that didn't exist before. It's completely unique to that film.

Screen Rant: Your ensemble for this is very small. Strings, guitars, piano, and mandolin. It had a very rootsy, Americana feel. Aside from the '80s influence, why did you choose that style?

Miriam Cutler: I think because she's such a - they're both real Americans, and they live in Arizona. Americana kind of covers a lot of the country, and it's kind of like klezmer music; it depends on where you are, how it sounds. I'm assuming a lot with that statement, but I learned a lot about that when I was doing some klezmer music, and it turned out every single person had a different idea of what klezmer music was. Because it can be Dixieland, or it can be more folk, or more jazzy, it was just really interesting. And what country it came from.

So anyway, we wanted it to sound more rootsy, and I hope it works in that sense. She's a person who likes '80s rock, but she likes guitars. And I always feel like strings add a cinematic element that makes it a little bit more than just a band. That's what I was trying to do, and I do like acoustic sounds. I feel like it's very authentic and goes with who she is as a person. And the Americana feeling... it's kind of a patriotic... more than patriotic, I think it's a love of America kind of feeling. At least to me, when I hear that kind of music.

Screen Rant: It felt like you made a real effort to hone in on the fact that Gabby's spirit, personality, humor, and wit are unchanged. I feel like the instrumentation accomplished that.

Miriam Cutler: That's what I was hoping. She is kind of a mind-blowing person. To be able to - her whole life is about communicating, and what did they take away? They took away her ability to have a normal conversation with people, who she loves, you know? So I think what's really interesting is, from what I understand, her mind is fine. But the aphasia keeps her from being able to connect words to - even, I think, writing, and even coming out of her mouth. Imagine what that would be like when you're a major communicator. And the fact that she would have been an incredible senator. It could have changed some of the destiny of our country.


Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Arizona Senator Mark Kelly

Screen Rant: I read an op-ed with her where she said that for people with aphasia, music often comes easier than speaking. It was very surprising to see how much music and music therapy affected her. Was it powerful for you, as someone who creates music, to see that?

Miriam Cutler: It made me happy to know that the part of the brain associated with music is not the same as the speech center. In other words, that wasn't injured at all for her. So she could still enjoy - it took a while before she could say words, but she could enjoy singing. And you saw; she's riding her bike, she's singing along to the tape. And I think it's a very important message.

I've had personal experience, and I've also seen other docs with Alzheimer's patients, how if you give them music that was part of their life, especially older people with swing bands and all that... I did it with my uncle. That activates that part of their brain, even though this other part isn't working great. But they can have so much pleasure, and they can feel like they're also part of the world. They're able to respond emotionally, even if they aren't intellectually able to. The brain is interesting, and humans are so damn complicated.

Screen Rant: You've done so many documentaries, but you've done features as well. Is there a different way that you approach a documentary as opposed to something else?

Miriam Cutler: I'm so used to it now. I've been working to picture since like 1988, and so I kind of have a natural - I just sit down and start. And it's always a little bit of an exploration. It's kind of like what they say about a blank page. There could be any instruments, it could be any style, any genre. What I love about working on films and other things with directors is that you don't start out with a completely empty page. You have parameters, you have a story to tell, and you have their opinions and their likes. I always think of it like soup. You know, let's throw in all the stuff. And sometimes it feels really disparate, like "I love tuba and I want to have a metal guitar!" Okay, well, who am I to say? Let's throw it in the pot and see what happens. Because it takes my mind in a different direction. Always the storyteller. I think that's more consistent than the music, even. The idea of, what can the music do to help tell the story? And so for me, I find that really enjoyable.

I was a songwriter for a lot of years, I used to love to write songs, and I got so sick of myself. Because it was just me, me, and more me, and I got so tired of just that, you know? "How do I feel?" So this is way more interesting, and it sort of utilizes other parts of me that I really really like. And the anthropology part, too. I loved studying anthropology. It's a worldview. It kind of shapes how you see the world in a very holistic way. It's come in so handy as a composer, too.

Screen Rant: Is there something that you personally hope people take away when they watch this film?

Miriam Cutler: Yeah. I think that humanity, let's come on people. Look at this person, and look at what happened, and look how she's dealing with it. And what can we do to help deal with this issue? And many other issues that have come to the fore now. Our country's falling apart, basically. And if we don't get responsible - I've always been sort of an activist, from college. And that's one of the reasons that I consider my actual life's work in working on documentaries as my contribution to helping shine light on things. And that's why I really like focusing on docs. I feel like it's meaningful, and I feel like for me, it gives me some sort of purpose.

The world doesn't need more great music. There's plenty of great music that exists. So what can we do with our music to make it useful, you know? Anyway, that's my philosophy about it. And I think this film - I hope - will just make people go, as human beings, "Wow. How come all these people have these weapons? What can we do? Oh, guess what! There are things we can do." We have more guns in this country than in any other country in the world. It's insane. It's so insane. And now, their answer is to put more guns in the schools, and have teachers... "Oh, guess what, I want to be a teacher and now I have to also be a marksman. And a Navy SEAL." It's like, "Really? Is that your answer? Okay. Wow." So hopefully this film will wake people up a little bit. We hear it on the news, but this is a personal experience. It's been 11 years, and every day she [Gabby Giffords] has to struggle to be able to function in the world to even a small percentage of what she was able to do before.

But look at what she's able to accomplish with what she's been given to work with. If that's not inspiring, I don't know what is. And it couldn't have come at a better time. Right now, there's a little tiny crack in the door for gun laws, and I think this film will only help that discussion. That's my hope. I'm so proud to be a part of it. I'm just really happy that I could be a part of it.

Screen Rant: And she got the Medal of Freedom yesterday, as of us talking. So it's really coming at a perfect time.

Miriam Cutler: Yeah! And I didn't even know this. She's got this organization that's been taking the NRA on state by state, and winning in a lot of cases. So she's really such a fighter. And Mark... first of all, he's an astronaut, so you know he's got a lot going on. And I think it's so amazing that their relationship has sort of taken on this huge, bigger purpose. It's a really fantastic film. I hope lots of people see it.