„In Girl Picture, the music reflects more what the character is feeling.“ Viðtal við Jan Forsström

Opposite me sits an entrepreneur in his native country. There is no other so-called ‘music
designer’ in Finland other than Jan Forsström, at least not one that has done more than one or
two projects. Jan has done eight. The term ‘music designer’ is not a common job title, and more
so a name that seems to fit Jan’s line of work. The closest thing in Hollywood vocabulary is
probably ‘music supervisor’ or ‘sound designer’, according to him.

Jan’s first love was literature, which he studied, and film second. As he was graduating the
prospect of being able to work solely as an author didn’t seem too feasible. So he chose a path
between the two, writing and film. And speaking of other career paths, Jan would choose to be a
writer, if the film industry was off the table. He has written a collection of short stories and a
children’s book, alongside music design, but knows that if he were to try and make a living as a
writer he would have to do novels, which he is not at all interested in.

Getting into music design was a bit of an accident. Jan himself claims that he can not play any
instruments, but would like to be able to some day. He has absorbed all genres of music ever
since he can remember: “I don’t have an education for being a music designer, I don’t even play
any instruments, I just have a very broad music catalog in my head […] But it’s not really a
career, I never know whether anyone else is going to ask me.” Jan’s music designer career path
started with him working on a short film and being one of the more knowledgeable there on
music. It then progressed onward, from short films to full features, by people getting wind of his
talent and insight. Alli Haapasalo is the director for Girl Picture and this is the first full feature film
that Jan has worked on with her. They have however known each other for 25 years, and Jan
once wrote a short film for Alli to direct quite a few years ago.

Some 90% of Jan’s work takes place before filming begins. He comes in at the script and pre
production stage, to be able to give the director and DOP his vision for the soundscape. For Girl
Picture, this included a lot of pre-existing modern music with a 90s/early 2000s feeling to it.
Interestingly, only around 5% of the final score in the film was actually composed specifically for
this project. Jan is most fond of that era, the sound of music he grew up with, along with modern
classical. He felt that it would be relevant to the film’s characters, while also serving Alli’s tastes,
who is the same age as him.

To make a musical style for a character, Jan looks at them as a person. What is their
background, what interests them? In Girl Picture, he went with music that the girls themselves
would actually listen to. For example, the character ‘Emma’ who is a figure skater has a score
made up of violins, and French music, because she is half French. Jan also decided to add in a
bit of hard rap to shake up her musical image and make it more engaging for the audience. “You
have to think about: How does the film relate to the character? Are we looking at them from the
outside, or are we experiencing the world with them from the inside? […] Is the camera close to
the characters, or do they almost disappear in a wide landscape? All of this will affect the music
choice.[…] In Girl Picture, the music reflects more what the character is feeling, rather than what
we should be thinking about the character, because it is that kind of emotional film.”
For reference while preparing for Girl Picture Alli Haapasalo showed Jan the work of an
American photographer who does imposing black and white pictures of teenage girls looking
fierce. With that in mind he started working out the musical landscape. It was clear that it should
not be too “pretty” or “girly”, and he would be allowed to try setting a romantic scene to pounding
music. Jan starts by making a “map” of the music that will play in the film and then works on
acquiring the rights. Jan feels that a film will only be made better with a pre-decided score. He
takes for example a scene in Girl Picture that happens on a club dance floor: “For the biggest
scene, very important musically, where the couple kisses for the first time, we got the rights to
the music beforehand. Then the DOP shot the scene, he synced the strobe lights to this
particular song.” This sync that draws the viewer even deeper into the characters’ world would
not have been possible without the preparation. Jan also takes for example that he has made
playlists for actors to listen to while in preparation for their role. Most of those songs are for the
actors’ private exploration of character, while a few end up being used in the final version of the

For music design to be memorable Jan talks about opposites, or surprises. Speaking from
experience, he has advice that all filmmakers can take note from: “If every department (tries to
convey a “sad feeling” in a “sad scene”), the scene will end up feeling like you as a viewer have
no space to experience it yourself. […] It might be better if everything is “cheery”, but you have
one element that is sad, like for example the music, and that can make everything much more
effective.” For the crew, getting an idea of what the score will sound like, will usually liberate
them in their work. Departments can then focus on a greater contrast and deeper meaning in
what they deliver.

The secret to being a successful music designer is being knowledgeable on every single music
genre, plus making connections with contemporary composers will ease anyone’s work in the
field. All his experience in the film industry, particularly extensive work as a script consultant on
numerous films, has given Jan a broad perspective. He keeps it simple, intuitive and works with
people that he sees eye to eye with.