Composer Jon Ong Shares His Composing Process on Sony Pictures' The Accidental Getaway Driver

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

We recently spoke to Jon Ong, the composer of Sony Pictures’ The Accidental Getaway Driver, directed by Sing J. Lee, who won the Sundance Directing Award. Inspired by a true story, the film follows an elderly Vietnamese cab driver, Long Mā, who is taken hostage at gunpoint after accepting a call for a late-night ride and being forced into a getaway plan with convicts.

Jon’s credits also include creating music for the BAFTA-award nominated Paddington and Love The Coopers starring Oscar-winning actress Diane Keaton and Timothée Chalamet.

PH: Hi there Jon! Can you share your background and a bit about your journey in the production industry thus far?

Jon Ong: I’m a Singaporean composer and multi-instrumentalist based in Los Angeles with over 11 years of experience in film, TV, and commercials. Most recently, I served as the composer of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival official selection The Accidental Getaway Driver, from Director Sing J. Lee who was awarded the Sundance U.S. Dramatic Award for Best Directing.

My very first job in LA was being a runner and doing score notation and transcription. I quickly discovered that working for more established composers was the best way for me to sustain myself and to learn all that I could about the business.

Not long after, I started writing music for Nick Urata and under his banner, I worked on films such as Paddington (2014) and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016). Even though I had eventually stopped working for him, it was through him that I made the connection, many years later, to The Accidental Getaway Driver. 

PH: What have been some of the biggest lessons you've learned working a career in the production industry?

Jon Ong: Landing a scoring gig is an invitation by a director into his/her space to collaborate. It is a place of vulnerability and while you do lend your voice and your expertise, it is ultimately their project and vision you are helping realize. I’ve learned, over time, to not be afraid of notes and revisions. They almost always make something better. This one took some time for me, but it is important to only present something you are proud of as being the final product. The days of rough demos are over. The director/producer might fall in love with it and that will be it.

PH: Can you share how you became involved with The Accidental Getaway Driver?

Jon Ong: I was recommended to the project by the Music Supervisor, Jennifer Nash, who I met while working for Nick Urata, back in the day. So, it’s a small, interconnected world. It all happened organically, and I think the association with Nick helped bolster my name as a young composer with the producers.  

Of course, I had to demo for the project to prove that I could deliver. There was some back and forth, but eventually I had nailed two key scenes for them – and speaking of no such thing as demos – those two scenes stayed pretty much the same in the final cut.

PH: Can you share your composing process for this project? When you land a new project, what's the first thing you do to prepare?

Jon Ong: I am very inspired by the materials that are sent to me, be it the script, or the actual footage (depending on the stage of the project) and quickly find things that I latch on to. It can be a visual cue, or an overall thematic idea, or a character arc, and then usually inspiration strikes and I’m off to my keyboard or guitar to start sketching basic ideas quickly.

I usually sketch a few different iterations of an idea, and love showing the development of it and so it might start simply and then become more complicated as the piece goes along. Then I’d have a spotting session with the director and get things going officially, and then return to the studio to polish my thematic ideas to present. That’s how I’d typically get the ball rolling.

PH: How were you able to draw inspiration from the film's Vietnamese protagonist?

Jon Ong: Long Mã (played by Hiệp Trần Nghĩa) was so crucial in finding a musical voice for the film, as the film largely centers around him and his story.

His tumultuous past, (partly inspired by Sing (Director’s) grandmother) his loneliness and beauty gave me so much inspiration in my musical choices. Long Ma’s theme is a singular instrument playing a 3-note figure, with each note echoing out.

I settled on it being a Nylon Guitar because of the rawness, the earthiness that Sing had envisioned, that also matched the colors of the film and the gritty streets of Westminster, CA.

The intention of the score was to convey the sense that, in some ways, these men are outlaws in the modern-day wilderness, but to do it in an understated and observational manner. So, I felt that the guitar also gave a ‘nod’ to what that genre would typically feature.

Notably, we were careful and deliberate to avoid using Vietnamese/Asian Instruments. I think everything about the film, the place it’s set, some of the songs and the characters, gave us all the cultural context we needed.

What the underscore then needed to do was tell the story of what’s going on inside the character - the turmoil, warmth, and beauty within - a universal condition not bound to a specific culture or nationality. 

PH: What was the experience like, and how much did it mean working with a predominantly Asian and Asian-American crew behind the camera?

Jon Ong: It was a wonderful experience of course. I am usually one of the few minorities in the room or on the crew, and this time I was part of the majority. I think we were all happy to be there and to be doing our roles at a high level regardless, but it was nice to not have to worry about the ‘race’ card at all for once. I feel that as a minority in Hollywood you tend to second guess things a lot, wondering if your race played a role in this or in that.

At the final dub mix at Formosa sound, our music supervisor Jen remarked that the room looked different - with Sing, Yang-Hua Hu (Picture Editor) and I being asian, and her being a woman in that space - that was a nice moment for sure.

PH: You had a pretty tight turnaround for this project. How did that present challenges and how were you able to navigate those?

Jon Ong: The composing process for this project couldn’t be linear/typical because of the tight turn around. I had about 6 weeks to finish writing, recording and producing about 1 hour of music, which is not much time at all. Typically, feature length projects allocate many months or even a whole year to deliver a full score!

Instead, the positive part of coming on late was being able to watch the entire film (as it was already picture locked), and then immediately having my spotting meeting with Sing (director) and Jen (music supervisor).

My plan was not to go in order, but instead thematically: Working on groups of scenes that were related to one another. Before starting on cues, I went away and quickly wrote two Themes for the main characters, as time was of the essence, and asked Jen to help edit those to picture as proof of concept.

Then we tackled the film’s score in non-linear fashion, Jen and I working closely together, and starting with places that were working (again back to the demos and themes) and spreading those out. We covered a lot of ground that way. Both the Nylon guitar and the Mandolin became the key to unlocking the sound of the movie, and once we had that figured out, a lot more doors opened, so to speak. Also, being able to play and record the main instruments in the score myself really helped cut down my overall time.

It was a huge team effort and I couldn’t have done it without Jen and also the wonderful team at Formosa Sound who are so great at what they do.

PH: Let's talk about “The Broken Men" theme. How did that come about and what significance does it hold for the film?

Jon Ong: The Broken Men theme came about as a happy accident. I had composed it for a very specific scene in the film (no spoilers) but it involves someone leaving a room in a hurry. It ended up being the theme that connected all these men together, the escaped convicts and their getaway driver, and became christened as such by Jen!

It’s a theme that grows, from 3 notes, to 6-7 notes and that rises in pitch to a mini climax. It’s played on the Nylon Guitar and Mandolin and I feel conveys a beautiful sense of bittersweetness, familial love, and a sense of discovery/realization as well.

In terms of significance, it holds probably the most weight as it is what we hear in the last few (big scenes) of the film and is the last piece of underscore before the film ends.

PH: Are there any general rules of thumb for composing? Can you describe your process and approach when working on something new?

Jon Ong: Composing for film is very different from composing in general, as it is extremely motivated and guided by the film itself. I think it is crucial to know what the project is asking of you, and to not be distracted from it.

Most things for me start with a theme or a motif, it could be something as simple as a kind of sound, or an actual melody or chords. I tend to sketch things on a Keyboard into my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) Cubase. If it needs a guitar (or one of the many instruments I play) then I’m noodling away and recording ideas as I go.

I think the greatest challenge, as one of my mentors Lorne Balfe put it best, is how to constantly reinvent yourself. With each project and score, I strive to come up with something unique that I haven’t done before.

PH: Throughout your time in the industry, what have you learned about yourself (both personally and professionally?)

Jon Ong: I’ve learned that I can work quickly, efficiently, and am very adaptable in the musical space. 

I’m able to fully compose, record, mix, and produce music to a high standard.

I really enjoy the collaborative process and working closely with directors, music supervisors and producers. Relationships are important to me in addition to collaboration.

PH: Do you have any other upcoming projects you're excited to share?

Jon Ong: There are few things floating about, but the one I’m currently most excited about is getting to work with Nico Casavecchia, an Argentine director I’ve always wanted to collaborate with. 

It’s a short film entitled Border Hopper and is a story close to his heart: a story about his immigration experiences in the US. It’s also something that I can identify with, being a Singaporean living in LA for many years now. I’m really excited for that one!


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