Ryan Miller’s gig in the popular rock band Guster has kept him busy for most of the past two decades. As the band has slowed down in recent years, Miller has had his eye on a new career as a film composer. When Miller and his family moved to Williston from New York a few years ago, he was concerned that he’d be out of the loop, away from the action in the city. But within weeks of moving to Vermont, he met the director of a tiny indie film called Safety Not Guaranteed – a meeting that launched his second career.
Ryan Miller is an affable guy and a bit of a rock star. On a sunny summer afternoon, he sits on his porch, sips an IPA, and tells a story that sounds like a studio pitch for an indie flick: A successful musician moves from the city to the country to raise his family. He wants to become a film composer but no one will take him seriously. Then his one friend out in the country introduces him to a screenwriter with an crazy, but brilliant idea. Cue the music.
"I had one friend who lived here, who was a producer on the first film I ever scored. And as soon as I moved here, I was like,"What am I gonna do? Who are my people? I gotta make friends, I gotta meet people." He said, "Oh, my friend Colin, he’s a screenwriter, you should meet. He actually has a script out he’s trying to get made, so…"
Soon enough, Miller’s friend Damien Saccani got him together with screenwriter Colin Trevorrow.
Over a few drinks at a Burlington bar, Trevorrow and Miller hit it off. By the end of the evening, Miller had a new gig: He would compose the score for Safety Not Guaranteed, a film that Trevorrow had developed with fellow screenwriter Derek Connolly.
Safety is the story of a magazine writer and two interns who drive to rural Washington state to investigate a mysterious classified ad that reads "Someone wanted to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed."
At the heart of the movie is an eccentric loner named Kenneth, played by Mark Duplass. One of the first pieces of music Miller and Trevorrow talked about was a song that Kenneth sings during a pivotal scene. The song, "Big Machine," helps Kenneth open up to Darius, a young woman who’s a bit of a loner herself, played by Aubrey Plaza.
"Big Machine" is Miller’s big moment in the film. Time stops as Duplass sings for nearly two minutes on screen.
"It sort of freaked me out when I saw the first cut. I was like, Oh, wow, this is a big thing in the movie. You know, this is kind of like the culmination of, of the love story, in a way."
Miller’s instrumental cues convey simliar emotional weight throughout film, from the lighthearted opening, to the epic finale.
"I think you get pigeonholed very quickly as a composer, and if you do a quirky indie that’s just a quirky indie with really quirky indie score, then you’ll, I think you’ll forever be viewed as a quirky indie composer. So I liked that there was some really big ambition and moments in this that were beyond that."
Though Safety wasn’t a huge hit, even in the indie world, it earned Miller, Trevorrow, and Connolly enough fans in Hollywood that they’re busier than ever with new projects. Miller had been trying to break into film scoring for years, and now he’s working on his fourth film. He sees the success of Safety as an affirmation; he knew he could make the jump from songwriter to film composer.
"There was that moment when I saw the culmination of both what the film was and what the score had done, and a sense of real accomplishment of, like, Wow, I can do this. So that was really singular and really special, and has been fuel for me to carry on."
Miller admits that he’s maybe at "step 2" in his career as a composer. He says it takes about another 30 steps to become Hans Zimmer or Danny Elfman. But Miller hasn’t been as excited about anything in his life, he says, except for being in a band. Which goes to show that trusting his instincts has worked out pretty well for him so far.