Meet the Composers of Reese Witherspoon’s new film Something from Tiffany's, Ryan Miller and Jay Lifton

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Ryan Miller is a founding member and lead singer of the band Guster who recently celebrated their 31st consecutive year of touring and recording. He has scored over 15 feature films and has worked with directors Colin Trevorrow, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Lake Bell, and Zoe Lister-Jones and composer Jay Lifton who recently wrapped on Rabble Rousers, a documentary about the forces behind NYC gentrification and urban displacement. 

Brooklyn-based composer Jay Lifton has worked with Alicia Silverstone, Kirsten Smith, Sean Baker, Paul Feig, and Errol Morris, among others. Recently he also scored an episode of This American Life, as well as the documentary RABBLE ROUSERS, a documentary about the forces behind NYC gentrification and urban displacement.

Most recently the pair have teamed up to score Reese Witherspoon’s new film, Something from Tiffany's which premiered this holiday season on Prime Video. The film follows the story of a woman as her life gets upended when an engagement ring that was for someone else leads her to the person she's meant to be with. 

Ryan and Jay have said that they work well together because they have very complementary skill sets, which has led to a very fruitful and productive partnership. They explained that Something from Tiffany's used a lot of classic Italian romance scores as references which was a fun world to inhabit.

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

Jay Lifton: Ryan and I went to college together but ironically, did not interact much despite having many mutual friends, including his bandmate Adam. They were having massive success both on and off campus with Guster. I was more into synths, playing in jazz groups, and was also in a cappella group that kept me extremely busy. Afterward, I went to New England Conservatory where I met Randy Roos who was a major influence for me- his main gig was scoring the show Scientific American and NOVA for WGBH. He had an amazing attic studio and it was the first time I saw that this was a real job. From there I moved back to my home state of NY and interned at a music house called JSM. At that time they had a gigantic, 20,000-square-foot space in Chelsea with two SSLs. It was an amazing place where I got to learn from some incredible talents and meet many of NYC’s first-call session musicians.  After six years there several of us moved on to start a company called Pulse. We did a wide variety of stuff- indie features, shorts, albums, and spots. It was a great time with great people. 

Ryan Miller: Guster formed in college (Jay saw us) and then a “lightning bulb moment”  in 2008 led me to the realization that scoring films could be a way to extend my career as a musician. My first score “Safety Not Guaranteed” was a hit at Sundance in 2012 and set me off on my journey as a composer.

Jay Lifton:  Don’t forget “Nobody” (2008) though! That was technically our first collaboration, on those 80’s karaoke tracks.

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

Jay Lifton: The first is organizational- there is a massive amount of spreadsheet making, note-taking, and file managing needed to stay on top of a project’s progress. The other is artistic- definitely push adventurous ideas but always have something they asked for in your back pocket.

Ryan Miller: Communication, above all, is a requisite skill set. Understanding what a director wants and being able to engage in an egoless conversation will get you across the finish line faster than anything else. 

PH: Let's talk about project selection — how do you determine what projects you select to work with?

Jay Lifton: Since the pandemic, most of it is quality of life. How will this impact my family? How creative/fun will it be? Will I get yelled at? And of course, what is the budget?

Ryan Miller: There are usually three factors- 1) is it someone you’re dying to work with, 2) will the project actually be seen by “the people” and 3) what is the budget? If you can check two of those boxes, you’ll be in good shape!

Jay Lifton: I like that you’ve worked a Venn diagram into this. 

PH: How did you get involved with your latest project Something from Tiffany's?

Jay Lifton: Ryan can best answer this one - He was involved early on and initially brought me on in a more support role but it quickly turned into a co-compose and in many ways encouraged our current partnership. 

Ryan Miller: Daryl and I have been friends forever but were always a little hesitant to work together fearing it would poison the well of our friendship (I was less worried than he was!)... We gave it a go on his last project “How It Ends”-- it was a total blast, turns out, working with your best pals can be one of the best jobs. Who knew?

PH: Can you share your creative approach and process going into this project?

Jay Lifton: The pace was very quick, so we basically talked every day, and often zoomed in Dary for live feedback. Luckily zoom had finally added the “hear original audio” feature which, while not perfect, enabled people in 3 states (NY, CA, VT) to have collaborative sessions the entire time.

Ryan Miller: Daryl and the producers were very interested in a non-indie, big Hollywood score. I have worked with larger arrangements and live players but knew this was Jay’s bread and butter. We constantly pushed against some of the quirkier indie score stuff I’ve been swimming in for years and tried to bring some more classic tones and arrangements into the film.

PH: Can you both share what the experience and dynamic was like collaborating with each other? How did you both come to work together on this film?

Jay Lifton: I really enjoyed it. Composing can be very isolating so it was nice to have a morning meeting and set a schedule. We have very different skill sets and backgrounds and this is extremely helpful especially if we run into a roadblock and need to change our approach. We definitely push one another to try stuff and There’s also a huge component that’s not even musical- we are both parents with working wives and this made it possible for either of us to be at family events since someone was always rowing the boat, so to speak. 

Ryan Miller: Jay and I had done one score together previously (2016’s “Land Grab”) and it was a great fit. When Daryl called and said this was a quick turnaround, I thought it would be important to bring in another set of hands, ears, and eyes. It was a really quick call to Jay, I knew we would be able to lock into our collaboration really quickly. Also, even though there’s overlap in our skill sets, we do complement each other in many ways. He has great piano samples!

PH: How was diving into the fun world of classic Italian romance scores that were used as references? Had you had experience with this genre before?

Jay Lifton: I am a huge fan of all things retro and love the many stylish European scores of that era. There was a period when I was working on much of IBM’s music and the creative team often referenced Nino Rota and his contemporaries. The score started centered around this sound but diverged a bit as we progressed. The central motifs for Tiffany’s came from the pieces we wrote in that genre.

PH: What were some of the challenges you encountered, and how did you resolve them?  

Jay Lifton: Toward the very end post, I got COVID and while not too serious, I was sleeping a ton. Luckily Ryan was making sure we got to the end. Something I was anticipating being a challenge but ended up not even being an issue was sharing sessions over dropbox. One of us was on an intel mac and the other the newer M1. We are both Logic users and did some trial runs. I was pleasantly surprised to not encounter any issues on that end.

Ryan Miller: Honestly, this one was as smooth as any film that I’ve done, and this was #15 for me! Something sort of magical unlocked through this combo of Jay/me/Daryl… the studio was thrilled, we made some really compelling cues and the film seems to have landed with its intended audience. One of my favorite experiences as a composer, real talk.

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

Jay Lifton: If I’m lucky enough to be involved prior to filming, I like to create a longer piece of music that can stand on its own, sort of like an overture that introduces various themes. If you’re really lucky the editor will start cutting this in and now you are the temp music.

Ryan Miller: I didn’t know that’s your preference, Jay. We should do that on this new one!

My usual line is that 80% of the work is in the first three cues. Once you have those first three cues approved you usually have the textures and colors and themes that inform the entire score. Sometimes (not always) those first three take some real work but if you pick those three correctly you’re off to the races… 

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

Jay Lifton: Years ago my wife noticed a boxing class at our gym that was popular. I was never an athletic person but got really into the class and then took private lessons. It completely changed my mentality about learning new skills in any part of your life. Prior to that, I used to think people just had “a knack” for something. 

Ryan Miller: Right, when I started putting my foot in the composer world, began a mental shift and lost most of my “imposter syndrome.” If there’s a creative or artistic idea that I want to follow, I’m a lot less likely to think “oh someone else can do that better than I can” and a lot more likely to think “fuck it, let’s give it a shot.”

PH: Can you talk a little about past projects and how they've shaped you as a professional today?

Jay Lifton: The most fun show I ever worked on was called EGG the Arts Show. The producers had an extremely eclectic taste and the show profiled tons of exciting artists from all disciplines. At that time it really motivated me to see more visual art and theater, which in turn gets your own creative juices flowing.

Ryan Miller: The first three directors I worked with were all really really strong personalities and, frankly, badasses. Colin Trevorrow, Lake Bell, and Jordan Vogt-Roberts have had massive success since we collaborated and I learned a great deal from their very unique processes. Collaboration with real talent is one of the most important accelerants of growth.

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

Jay Lifton: We are about to start on a film that Pam Adlon directed, and written by Ilana Glazer. Much of the team is in a mile radius from my studio so I’m excited about real-life collaboration again.

PH: What's a piece of advice you have for upcoming professionals in the industry?

Jay Lifton: Figure out early on how to take criticism as notes, and not as a personal attack. This was a challenge for me but I sort of learned it from visiting the set and watching how a film crew operates- they are very solution-orientated and always offering up ways forward.

Ryan Miller: Early on, I felt some hesitation from directors and producers working with a band guy- I had a story in my head they thought I would come in with an ego and an “I’m right too bad” attitude. Now I make it standard practice, at the beginning of every project: “I am here in service of your vision, if you’re not getting what you want, I’m not doing my job.” I have so far always found a way to thread the needle between what I love and the director’s love. Pretty lucky!

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