Q+A with Prolific Film Composer and Multi-Instrumentalist Nima Fakhrara

By Iman Sadri

Nima Fakhrara at LA Film Fest (Image Credit AP)

August 13, 2018

Nima Fakhrara’s name, pronounced Fakh-Rah-Rah, sounds so smooth it just rolls off the tongue. His surname just flows and is euphonious, much like the original music Nima Fakhrara creates. This Iranian-American musical savant is a film music composer and multi-instrumentalist. Fakhrara is a living embodiment of musical prowess, talent and realizing life’s ambitions to the fullest potential. All of 33, he has created music for films starring Liam HemsworthLaurence Fishburne, Kurt Russell and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. He studied the Persian Classical Music radif and is a master santur player. He has created music for cult-classic video games such as 1979 Revolution : Black Friday and the Sony hit Detroit : Become Human, and he has offers for film music projects that are pouring in from multiple studios. Not only does Fakhrara play about a dozen instruments, he has also created about half a dozen of his own. To gain greater insight into the mind, life and times of A-List talent Nima Fakhrara, we sat down for a Q+A at his state-of-the-art Marina Del Rey music studio.

Iman Sadri : Thank you for spending time with The Persian Observer. Can you please describe your early life ? Upbringing ? Early Bio ? 

Nima Fakhrara : I grew up in Tehran. I started playing music from the age of 5. I started playing the santur and studied the Persian Classical radif. I studied with the prominent masters, Faramarz PayvarParviz Meshkhatian, and Saeed Sabet, who were the top guys at the time. Two of them have passed away. Saeed Sabet is still alive and doing very well. I chat with him all the time. 

My family and I then moved from Iran to Washington D.C. in 1996, when I was 12 years old. I lived in Maryland pretty much my whole young adult life. I did two years of college as a Pre-Med and then moved to California to do music and here I am.

NEW YORK, NY : Composer Nima Fakhrara and director Nancy Schwartzman attend a screening of “Roll Red Roll” during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at Cinepolis Chelsea on April 22, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

IS : What propelled you to switch from Pre-Med to Music ? 

Nima Fakhrara : It was one night that I was jamming with my buddies and you get that feeling when you close your guys and you’re in a different realm, when you’re playing music. And that happened for me. I realized music is my calling. And I had to do it. I called my parents that night that I am going to L.A.

IS: How were you first introduced to music ?

Nima Fakhrara : My parents, they kind of threw me in it. It was going to be either guitar or santur. I got myself a teacher and started playing it. I learned musical notes before I learned the alphabet. I learned the piano because when I started music school in college I had to pick up a Western instrument. I taught myself how to play the piano.

Growing up, there was a lot of Persian Classical music. I am also a huge film buff. I love film, video games and I love everything about interactive arts. In Iran, because of the many oppressions, there is no knowledge about how to make music for these different types of interactive instruments. My exposure to the world of entertainment happened when I moved to L.A.

IS : What were the early influences that made you realize you could do music as a career ?

Nima Fakhrara : When I first to moved to the U.S. I wanted to be a santur player for orchestras. I quickly realized Western orchestral culture doesn’t accept santurs in their kind of work. I started understanding Western composition and Western harmonies. The influences of people in film like Hans Zimmer and the other amazing composers around, I started studying them and I realized that I could do something like that in the musical world.

That’s when I moved to L.A. and decided to study film music. I wanted to be a concert santur player. But I realized there is no money in it, there is no life in it.

LOS ANGELES, CA – OCTOBER 23: (L-R) Director Eduardo Sanchez and Composer Nima Fakhrara attend “Exists” Los Angeles Premiere at the Vista Theatre on October 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Justin Baker/WireImage)

IS : How much music were you doing from Age 5 – 18 ?

Nima Fakhrara : I was basically in music school, 8 hours a day. There was music and I would go to school. I was learning Persian Classical music. The santur was my thing and that’s what I was studying.

IS : Can your elaborate on your life once in L.A. ?

Nima Fakhrara : I moved to LA and I went to Pierce College and that’s when I stumbled upon the idea that there is a world of film music. I started going to classes of film and music. I then went to Cal State Northridge and was working at the same time.

TORONTO, ON – SEPTEMBER 14: (L-R) Composer Nima Fakhrara, screenwriter/director Nick Simon and editor Michael Griffin attend “The Girl In The Photographs” photo call during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival at Ryerson Theatre on September 14, 2015 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

IS : Where do you think your talent of film music composition comes from ?

Nima Fakhrara : I guess it’s because I love music and film and I am a storyteller. It’s a combination of both. I’ve utilized the studies that I’ve had for the past 20-25 years of me doing this, to combine it with the world of story telling.

IS : It’s amazing how profound music is in films. When I think of Lawrence of Arabia or Gladiator. The music and imagery when combined evokes the most emotion. 

Nima Fakhrara : As a composer of film our job is to take the stories that these amazing directors and storytellers have been living with for three or four years and are putting them on screen. Our job it to take that baby and nurture it and make that story come alive. We as composers are going to help the story come alive.

Nima Fakhrara plays a dozen instruments and has created half a dozen of his own. (Image Credit AP)

IS : Can you elaborate on the music you did in college ?

Nima Fakhrara : At CSUN I studied music theory with music theory and harmony as well. And the art of instrument making and that’s another world that I got in to, starting from Pierce College. I studied the idea of how to build instruments and how to modify instruments.

IS : Is there a favorite instrument amongst all the ones you play ?

Nima Fakhrara : I grew up playing santur, so I would have to go with that. 

IS : It’s amazing how you play so many instruments. 

Nima Fakhrara : I make noise with everything. I play the santur, I am very proficient at it. I know the radif very well, but the reason I picked up these other instruments is that I wanted another outlet of some sort. I wanted to understand them. I understand every single instrument because I have to, especially in the world of film music, you have to know what every instrument does in order to write for them. 

IS : Can you talk about some of your early film influences ?

Nima Fakhrara : I’ve always been a fan of the classical films. 2001 Space Odyssey. Fahrenheit 451. Psycho. Black Hawk Down. Ridley Scott films and Tony Scott films. The one film(s) if I wanted to point at it would be either Fahrenheit 451, but probably the most would influence would be Black Hawk Down, which opened my eyes to a whole different level. It was incorporating orchestral music with electronic and Middle Eastern flavors. And I told myself that this is actually possible. Incorporating all this different type of music in film. 

IS : Can you elaborate more on where your talent of music composition comes from ? 

Nima Fakhrara : It’s storytelling. I have an overactive imagination. I take a small idea and I make music out of it. I am just telling a story with my music. How I do it ? I don’t know. I’ve done it for so long. It’s the idea of 10,000 hours. I’ve passed my 10,000 hours. For me music is a tool to tell the story.

Nima Fakhrara at the premiere of The Signal at the Sundance Film Festival (Image Credit AP)

IS : Who are some of the filmmakers you would like to collaborate with ?

Nima Fakhrara : Asghar Farhadi and Bahman Ghobadi I would love to work with those guys. I am huge fan of Tarsem Singh. I am a huge fan of Ridley Scott. Darren Aronofsky is another one. Terrence Malick is another one. These giants that are making amazing films. I wish Tony Scott were still alive so I could work with him, but unfortunately that’s not the case. I personally go against the grain but I like the idea of art-filmmaking. Films that are thought provoking, more than anything. I don’t like commercial stuff. That’s why I like the films of Darren Aronofsky and Terrence Malik. They tickle my fancy if you will. And make you think about stuff. It opens your entire platform of working in the film music world because you can tell multiple stories and your hands are open to whatever you want to do with it. 

With Bahman Ghobadi, there is beauty in picture, and beauty in story. You can do so much with it. It opens your entire imagination, especially for me. 

IS : Are there categories of music depending on the genre of film that are preset ?

Nima Fakhrara : Not necessarily. Every single movie and project is going to dictate whatever is used. I’ve been fortunate enough to become a chameleon. I’ve worked on animations all the way to comedies. To sad dramas to horror. It all depends on the project and the story. Whatever needs to be told. What the characters are requiring. What the picture is asking for. I always say this many times to everyone, for me when I put up a feature and look at it, even if it’s a single note in piano, if it works it works. I don’t care if it’s an entire orchestra. Whatever that project is I am vessel for that filmmaker, I am a vessel for that story teller for them to actually complete their thought.

IS : How much input does the filmmaker have on dictating the music that you put in the film ?

Nima Fakhrara : It’s a collaborative world of figuring out what that movie is, what that commercial is, or even the video game is. Every director is very different. Every director is an artist. Some of them are very well versed in the idea of music and they know musical perspectives really well. They know instruments. They may even know how to play music. And some of them are not. Some of them are just really good with adjectives. They’ll just throw adjectives at me and describe how they want it to feel. So for me it becomes about translating every single thing they’re saying. I’ve had directors that I’ve worked with who have sent me the script while they are writing it. And I start messing around with the music. I have an overactive imagination and I start writing pieces of music that I think is in my mind with what that thing looks like. And then it goes back and forth. They tell me what they like, and then we just go about figuring out whatever that world is. And it’s whatever that world requires because it’s what happens with music.

Nima Fakhrara produced the music for 1979 Revolution : Black Friday (Image Credit iNK Stories)

IS : Do scripts ever specify which scenes should have music inserted in them ?

Nima Fakhrara : It’s very much a collaborative thing. Unless it’s an actual song that is being played, it’s not on the script. The score is not on the script. When I am reading the script usually I am not writing against a scene. I am writing story-wise. I am writing how is the character going to have their arc through out the whole story and happens to them. Once the film is shot and I have it up on the screen and am looking at it, with the director, producer, whoever it is. We sit down and watch the film. We decide where it needs to have music or where it doesn’t need to have music. That’s another process, we just sit down and just chat for hours and hours. Figuring out which parts of the film need music. 

IS : Just the fact you’re able to visualize music off of words, that’s incredible.

Nima Fakhrara : I think it’s a Persian thing.

IS : No, no I think it’s a genius thing.

Nima Fakhrara : It’s hard to describe it. In Farsi it’s called khalaghiat, which translates to active imagination. For me I was that kid that had every single video game, I was a gamer, I was so fascinated with the idea of other worlds. I was into cartoons. Even animes. In Iran it’s so hard to get animes. I was into comic books and everything like that. That world just fascinated me. So it has translated to the movie life that I have now. When somebody sends me a script I sit with it for a day. Then all of a sudden I come back to the studio and lock myself in for two weeks. It becomes like a ballet or an opera against the story. It helps the filmmaker. One of my close friends, Nick Simon, I’ve done almost 7 or 8 films now with him. He’s one of those guys who sends me the script. He’s working on a script right now. He sends me the script when he is not even finished with it. The producers haven’t even seen the script. But with our collaborative process, I’ve even finished the entire music before he’s done shooting the film. 

Right now I am working on Crypto. I wrote the music before they even finished the film. As they’re editing the film they’re placing the music that I’ve written before they’ve shot the film. It gives the filmmaker another tool to tell their story. I give power to my director all the time. 

With Crypto they’re still cutting the film. But 95% of the music is already done. We’re just fine tuning it. They’re nothing else that we need to do. We talk to the editor, he’s a really good friend of mine. He’s editing it to my music and I am changing my music for the edit, so it becomes a collaborative effort.

TORONTO, ON – SEPTEMBER 14: Composer Nima Fakhrara attends “The Girl In The Photographs” reception during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival at the Adelaide West Hotel on September 14, 2015 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

IS : Is the pace of the music in the film dictated off the script or do you just go off the story ? 

Nima Fakhrara : With Crypto, me and John, (John Stalberg Jr.) the director of the film and I had a three hour conversation before we even shoot the film. He told me what he wanted to capture with the music. The idea that we came up with was the idea of the ticking clock through out the whole film. Not literally putting a clock in there, but the idea that there is a ticking clock in there. So how do you capture that with music ? We didn’t want to do an organic score. We wanted it to be super synthesized. That’s why my assistants are here in my studio. If there is an action scene I write the action scene. I am not looking at the picture, I am thinking about how the music should be from before it’s filmed. 

IS : Can you use existing music from a database or music from a catalog for new projects or is it always new music for each new project ?

Nima Fakhrara : Usually it’s all original music. It comes to a whole legal thing. Every project that I am involved with, I write original music.

Nima Fakhrara is currently working on five film music composition projects.

IS : For Crypto what instrumentation was the source of the music ?

Nima Fakhrara : It’s all synthesizer stuff. With Crypto one of the things I wanted to do was create a technology. I am extremely fascinated with technology. One of the things that I wanted to do, which was very similar to crypto currency, the idea of very minute sounds. Very small sounds were very interesting to me. Me and a close friend, a colleague of mine, created an app. The idea of it was dissecting a sound. So if I am going to record a sound, I am going to dissect it to the smallest possible degree. The idea of this entire movie is based on that. It’s tiny sounds made into bigger sounds. That became the basis of the entire music. Every little sound that is in Crypto, there is a whole mathematical reason behind it. Even the drums are really chopped up.

“So if I am going to record a sound, I am going to dissect it to the smallest possible degree. there is a whole mathematical reason behind it”

IS : People should learn and appreciate the intricacies of that. It’s like a dish at a 5 star Restaurant. There is so much that goes into it.

Nima Fakhrara : It’s funny that you say that, because composition of any sort is very much like cooking. I cook for fun. When I am having writer’s block, or whatever it is, when I am done with work. Music is very similar to cooking. A very simple thing. If you’re making eggs, you can have scrambled eggs, simply. But if you want to make it better you can add salt and pepper. If you add too much salt, then its going to taste salty. If you add too much pepper, it’s going to taste too peppery. But there is an extra part of it, if you add something fresh to it, that will completely change it. Same thing with music. The way that I write. It’s not like I have to remake it, or start over, I can always take it down. I can accentuate it with fresh sounds and make it into a completely different level. Being able to figure out these ingredients. That’s how I correlate it together.

Nima Fakhrara in his studio (Image Credit Zimbio)

IS : What are some of your favorite dishes that you like to cook ?

Nima Fakhrara : I am a huge fan of Italian food. I’ve been mastering carbonara for awhile. I can make a mean breakfast and pancakes. I like experimenting with things.

IS : Can you describe some of your early highlights after college within your discography up until The Courier ?

Nima Fakhrara : One of the things was that when I was in college probably every year I was doing 30 short films. Because I wanted to learn how to write music. I am one of those guys even though I studied music, because I went to music school, I wasn’t one of those guys who was going to analyze Beethoven’s symphony for you. I was a lot more tactical. I wanted to be in the film industry. How do you get into the film industry ? You practice scoring film. So that’s what I did. I hung out with filmmakers scoring short films. I was very much into technology and understanding technology was important to me. 

Coming back to The Courier, it was an awesome opportunity. It’s funny you say that because I was chatting with Hany Abu-Assad the director of it yesterday. It was my first big feature film.

Nima Fakhrara created the Sony hit video game Detroit : Become Human (Image credit Sony)

IS : How long does scoring music usually take ?

Nima Fakhrara : It all depends. It could take 3-6 months, or it could take about a year. Depending on each of the projects. Or you get a call where a score needs to be done in two weeks, that happens as well. It really all depends on different projects. For Detroit, when I was working on it, it took about a year and a half.

IS : Are you able to work on multiple projects at the same time ?

Nima Fakhrara : I always do. Back to the overactive imagination. I get bored quickly. Not that I get bored because of the music I am writing, but because I just want to keep my mind working. Right now I am slated to do five films. I am doing a comedy, a horror film, I am doing Crypto, I am doing a documentary, and another thriller. I am writing different types of music for each one. They’re not moving at the same time line. They’re all different time lines. If I am working on Crypto, I may get an idea for a comedy film, and then I wil jump on it, and then come back to Crypto. So it gives me a completely fresh take on it. It keeps everything new and exciting.

IS : Can you talk about the music you created for Gatchaman ?

Nima Fakhrara : Gatchaman was an anime. I knew about the comic book and the movie. Once I got the call for it I said, ‘Yeah I am going to do it.’ It was basically a nostalgic thing to be able to work on that project.

Nima Fakhrara in his Marina Del Rey music studio, standing next to a series of instruments that he built himself (Image Credit The Persian Observer)

IS : Can you elaborate on the music you composed for The Signal (a Sci-Fi film starring Laurence Fishburne) 

Nima Fakhrara : The Signal was a call from my agent. He called me saying there is this director named Will Eubank who has made a film called The Signal. He had made another film called Love. It was one of the coolest films I had seen. I met with Will. We started chatting. One thing led to another. I read the script. I wrote a bunch of music. The Signal was the first project I started building instruments for. It came back to the whole music anthropology concept. Coming to the point that they needed new sounds in order to actually do something interesting. I started building stuff to explore sounds.

IS : Wow that’s unbelievable, building your own instruments !

Nima Fakhrara : They’re downstairs. They’re basically modifications. I have a modified setar down there. I do it because I have to achieve what is in my mind. I could do it here, just basically manipulating the computer to make that noise, but I’d rather physically be able to touch the instrument and actually play it.

IS :  That’s Benjamin Franklin status right there ! 

Nima Fakhrara : It comes back to the Persian Classical radif. There are restrictions. For me it was about taking a look at the box to see what’s outside of it. In the Persian Classical world there are no base instruments. 

But we don’t have any base notes. So what I started doing was modifying even the santur I was playing. I started to mess with it. And that was the world that opened my eyes to different things. There are no bridges on it, like your traditional santur. The modification was my first step in the world of building instruments. Then when The Signal happened, basically, I told Will Eubank the director, listen, there is this idea I have where I want to build instruments for the project. He said to go for it. I built a bunch of stuff and it became the sound for The Signal.

IS : And you’re able to easily record and capture all the sounds here ?

Nima Fakhrara : Yeah basically this whole set up is for recording and that’s why I have assistants. For recording of it, it’s not a big deal. I like the building of instruments. I have a welder now. I could send it designs and he’ll tell me if it’s going to work or not. The reason I build the instruments is because I have a purpose, a theory in my mind. For Detroit, there is a 20 foot guitar downstairs. The idea was how do you capture sub-harmonic sounds. That’s why I built a 20 foot guitar.

Nima Fakhrara at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (Image Credit AP)

IS : Can you talk about your favorite video games growing up and the ones that influenced you to create music for them ?

Nima Fakhrara : I grew up on FIFA. The video game world came about, I am a huge fan of Resident Evil. So fortunate to be able to work on Resident Evil 2 Revelations video game. I like video games that are story driven, stuff that keeps my mind going. For me to kind of shut down from the day or work.

1979 was a project that I was kind of not chasing, but I was figuring out what was happening with it. I read about it probably three years before it was made. I hit up Navid Khonsari, the creator, on Facebook. I wrote him that I wanted to work with him and what his thoughts were. It was a long process figuring out what the sound was. I decided to use my Middle Eastern background on this video game and then we realized that’s not what the video game is about. So then we made it more universal than it was supposed to be. It was an awesome project to be able to work on it. It hit close to him.

IS : Where was 1979 produced and can you describe the production process ?

Nima Fakhrara : Motion capture. It comes back to the idea of writing against the script because these scenes are not specific at all. They are very vague but you know the story. For Navid Negahban (Haji Agha) I had to create this menacing idea for his character of Haji. And until the mo-caps were done and the graphics were done, I finally saw what is was. Very similar to Detroit, that was the case as well.

Nima Fakhrara wrote the music for The Signal, a film starring Laurence Fishburne and Brenton Thwaites (Image Credit IM Global)

IS : I really think what you add to video games makes the video game. Even at the most basic level, a game I loved a lot as a kid, Spy Hunter, would be much more bland without the great music.

Nima Fakhrara : I remember playing Lemmings, music was a big part of it. Look at Zelda : Final Fantasy. Those are what paved the path for the musical stuff. There was a limit to the storage memory dedicated to music. You couldn’t do crazy stuff. Now, the technology has changed so much. Look at VR-360. These advances allow for the story telling.

IS : What were the main instruments and sounds you used for 1979 Revolution : Black Friday ?

Nima Fakhrara : For 1979 Revolution : Black Friday we basically recorded everything. Tar, drums, piano, santur. We had on there the song Mara Beboos. The world of it is 1970s music. 

IS : Can you elaborate on the process creating music for Detroit : Become Human ? 

Nima Fakhrara : It’s the biggest video game that I’ve worked on. I got an email on my website asking about my interest. I knew about the project, I knew about David Cage and had been a fan of his. It took about a year and a half to do. I chose to record electronics, to do things out of the box.

IS : Can you go over the process of getting an agent ?

Nima Fakhrara : In the music world, especially in the music film world, I chose to find an agent who was close to my age group. For music it’s a little different than actors, we are more responsible for our own projects. They’ll help with projects, but it’s more of a managerial thing. They’ll ask if I am interested in a projected. You do your own due diligence, they do their due diligence. It’s not like there is there are casting sessions like actors.

IS : What do you think can be done to get more Iranian Americans in the arts ? 

Nima Fahkrara : We already do have a lot, we just need more proud Iranian Americans. There are a lot of amazing young filmmakers doing amazing stuff. But not many are saying we are Iranian American, they are more hesitant about it. 

IS : How realistic is it / hard is it to reach out to producers on social media ? 

Nima Fahkrara : It comes back to me being an Iranian guy. I love the business side of music. I cherish it and hold onto it dearly. I used to hit up IMDB Pro everyday. I would have a list of directors that I would talk to, send out emails, ask if they were looking for a composer. Now I have an agent. I am slated with projects till next year. I still do it all the time. If I like a director I’ll hit him up on Twitter or Facebook, we just chat. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do that and usually I get an answer. 

IS : Does one have to have a high level of tech knowledge to be a film composer now ? 

Nima Fahkrara : 100 %. The concept of the studio is that I have musicians here. With Chris, Drew, Navid here and others. They know how to play their instruments. You have to be a techie also.

Nima Fakhrara at his Marina Del Rey Music studio (Photo credit The Persian Observer)

IS : What’s your schedule on a routine work day ? 

Nima Fahkrara : I wake up early. I do a lot of stuff early. I come here and I just write. I send a couple emails and I am back into writing. There is no clock here. When I am writing there is nothing else. No social media.

IS : Who were your main musical influences in film music composition growing up ? 

Nima Fakhrara : I’ve always looked to the greats to see what they’ve done well. John Williams. Phillip Glass. These influences of the old age, I learn from them. We learn from the masters.

IS : If you could have lunch or dinner with a music composer a) no longer alive and b) still living who would you meet and why ? 

Nima Fakhrara : No longer living, Bernard Herrmann. He was the godfather of film scoring. He did Psycho and Fahrenheit 451. If I would meet any one still alive it would be Phillip Glass.

IS Imagine you’re 100 years old and reading your Wikipedia profile page. What other milestones would you like to see on there ?

Nima Fakhrara : To win an Oscar, Tony, and Emmy.


Follow Nima Fakhrara on social media @OstaadNima

Iman Sadri is the founder of @LASmileMagazine and @ThePersianObserver