Sundance 2019: Composer And Artist Kathryn Bostic on “Clemency”

Years of carrying out executions have taken a toll on prison warden Bernadine Williams. As she prepares to execute yet another death-row inmate, she is forced to confront the psychological and emotional demons her job creates, a move that ultimately connects her to a man she is sanctioned to kill.

Such is the powerful storyline of “Clemency,” from writer and director Chinonye Chukwu, which has been competing in the US Dramatic Competition. The haunting film also features a soundtrack from composer/artist Kathryn Bostic (who is also an executive producer on the film).

Composer And Artist Kathryn Bostic.

Bostic took time to discuss the challenge of composing the music for the film, work that began last spring. “This story exists in a very stark world—not just the world of the prison, but the inner world of the warden and the turmoil she’s carrying inside,” Bostic explains. “It was a challenge to make sonically, because it is very quiet in terms of music. We began the process by examining different textures and instrumentation ideas before finally landing on what we now have in the film. It was really down to discussing what types of sonic information we needed to inform the story unfolding on screen.”

For such a film, how does Bostic develop the tempo for the audio soundtrack for the film, particularly for one so emotionally charged?

“I’d say ‘pulse’ was important—as was the passage of time,” she answers. “There is the monotone pulse of day-to-day activities of prisoners in maximum security, and the internal pulse of Bernadine coming to terms with her situation. I wanted to create specific textures in the film without it being overstated. In terms of the overall soundscape, it had more of an industrial feel, as opposed to more traditional instrumentation.”

For sound design, Bostic prefers to have as much of it completed as possible. “This way I can pick up on cues,” she notes. “The influence of sound design should never be underestimated. It helps define where music is required—and when silence is better! Reading the script gives you initial ideas and sound design assists but, for me, the visuals are very helpful for my final overlay. So much can change from script to the final shot–how it’s framed, the way it’s lit, etc… That’s when I really go to town.”

Bostic discusses why it was important for her to make “Clemency,” first as an artist and later as executive producer: “How do you sustain a sense of your own compassion when you have to do something that is so final?” she says, noting the power of the storyline. “Executions are, on many levels, horrific.”

During the screening of the film, Bostic also saw first-hand how the audience responded. “People were genuinely moved,” she reveals. “They felt the impact of the warden’s transformation, plus the inconceivable experiences of inmates and what they must endure.”

What’s interesting to note is that “Clemency” isn’t the only movie premiering at Sundance that Bostic has created music for. Another film premiering is the documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” for PBS American Masters, directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, and featuring interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Walter Mosley and others.

Being a woman with two films in the festival exemplifies how universal stories from women are being told more often. “We are at a tipping point,” Bostic notes. “Women were compartmentalized for so long, but I think now we are giving voice to extraordinary stories told by incredibly talented women filmmakers from all over the world. I am proud to be part of that group and here promoting my films at Sundance.”