Meet the woman underscoring the action in Australian film

Even if you haven’t heard of Caitlin Yeo, you might have heard her music without realising it. If not, it’s probably only a matter of time.

As one of a handful of Australian screen composers who can make a full-time living from writing music for film and television, Yeo’s musical fingerprints are all over the Australian industry.

The Sydneysider wrote the score for three films screening at the Sydney Film Festival next month, including the upcoming big Australian war film Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan.

Screen composer Caitlin Yeo has written the music for three films showing at the Sydney Film Festival next month.Credit:Janie Barrett

Her other two movies at the festival are Australian rom-com Standing Up for Sunny and low-budget documentary Sanctuary.

Yeo, 46, is the first female president of the Australian Guild of Screen Composers. She composed the music for The House with Annabel Crabb and Sam Neill’s six-part documentary series The Pacific: In the Wake of Captain Cook and she’s won a slew of awards for her music on Australian films such as The Butterfly Tree, Getting Frank Gehry and The Rocket.

Danger Close, set in Vietnam during the war in 1966, is her biggest yet. Due for cinema release in August, the film is directed by Kriv Stenders (Red Dog, Australia Day) with Vikings star Travis Fimmel in the lead role.

Yeo says it is unusual for a woman to write the score for a big war movie, but she had worked with Stenders before and he was keen to do something different.

“We set out to make a film about survival rather than a film about heroism,” she says. “Because [the soldiers] are such young boys who’ve only just left home, Kriv really wanted a female voice on top of it – literally a female voice but also ideologically a feminine voice.”

Travis Fimmel in action as Major Harry Smith on the set of Danger Close.Credit:Jasin Boland

For example, Yeo chose to use a lullaby as a musical motif to underscore the craving for comfort and familiarity at the moment of near death.

As well as hiring Yeo, Stenders hired Veronika Jenet as the editor, best known for The Piano, Rabbit-Proof Fence and Lore.

A few years ago Yeo went to Hollywood as one of a dozen hand-picked participants in the renowned ASCAP film scoring workshop, but she is in no hurry to move overseas.

“All I want to do is write music for great films that make a difference,” Yeo says. “I would love to work on overseas films too but I really love Australian film and I really want to foster and be a part of our own industry.”

Many movie-goers do not notice the score, with notable exceptions such as John Williams’ famous themes for Star Wars or Jaws. But, as Yeo explains, that doesn’t mean it’s not important.

Screen composer Caitlin Yeo at the piano in her Marrickville home.Credit:Janie Barrett

“If you take the music away from a film and you watch your film without it, it's quite shocking,” she says. “The music really has the ability to change the pace of the drama … or to make someone's look an incredibly large moment in the film or nothing. It has an interpretive effect for the viewer.”

Yeo says the trend for concert halls to play screenings of films with a live orchestra performing the score was encouraging wider interest in the craft. For example, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra has performed sell-out performances for Star Wars and Harry Potter screenings at the Sydney Opera House.

Yeo lives in Marrickville with her partner, music producer Jordan Verzar, and their 14-year-old son. She grew up on the other side of the Cooks River in Earlwood, with her mother from country NSW, father from Singapore, twin sister Averil and older brother Dylan.

Yeo learned classical piano and flute as a child. As a young woman in the 1990s she was the singer/keyboardist/flautist for the “weird and wonderful” rock band Freudian Trip and also performed in an Indonesian Gamelan group and a Gypsy trio.

She started composing for film back in 1999 when her brother Dylan was studying film animation and wanted someone to write some music for a short film project.

Her interest piqued, she enrolled at the Australian Film Television and Radio School. After film school, she got a commission for a documentary and promptly sank her fee straight back into the score and buying equipment.

Her career has grown steadily through word of mouth – she is still her own agent, publicist and publisher, and was only able to resign from her teaching jobs two years ago.

Yeo says when she started in the industry, none of the music degrees offered screen composition strands but now it was common with the courses educating “many, many more film composers than there are jobs”. One of her goals as guild president is to reduce the exploitation of young composers keen to make their name.

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