In Hostiles, the new film from Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper, a former Union Army captain, played by Christian Bale, is charged with escorting a Cheyenne chief and his family back to their tribal land.
Set in 1892, the film follows their harrowing journey from New Mexico to Montana as they encounter all forms of peril.
The movie reunites Cooper with singer/songwriter Ryan Bingham, who appears in the film as Sgt. Malloy and performs “How Shall a Sparrow Fly,” which he wrote specifically for the film, during a pivotal scene as the weary travelers stop for the night.
Bingham and Cooper’s previous effort yielded great results: a best original song Oscar in 2010 for “The Weary Kind,” the tune Bingham and T Bone Burnett wrote for Crazy Heart.
Bingham created an entire backstory for his character that informed how he approached writing and performing the haunting, acoustic “How Shall a Sparrow Fly,” down to his decision to use a mandolin versus guitar.
Hear the full song in this video premiere, shot at Bingham’s studio by director Marcus Meisler. The dark setting and tone replicate the feel of the song’s appearance in the movie.
In addition to working on a new album, Bingham, who also wrote the theme to the former FX series The Bridge, is writing songs for and acting in Taylor Sheridan’s new frontier western series Yellowstone.
Hostiles is already playing in New York and Los Angeles and expands to select cities Jan. 5 before opening nationwide Jan. 19. Deutsche Grammophon releases the soundtrack Friday digitally and physically on Tuesday.
Bingham talked to Billboard about creating the song, making sure it fit in with the times, and if he was nervous to appear on camera.
How was the dynamic of working with Scott on Hostiles different from Crazy Heart?
It was actually very similar to the first time I worked with Scott. Scott always brings a lot of positive energy into the room, and it rubs off on everyone. It’s so inspiring to work with someone that truly makes you feel like you can achieve anything you set your mind to.
You are singing from the perspective of your character, Sgt. Malloy. How did that influence your writing?
I really had to dig into who this character was and where he came from. His last name being Malloy, I assumed he was of Irish descent, so that was where I started. I felt the only way I could write the song was to first try and understand what these characters were going through in that particular time and place. You had all these different people converging on the West looking to establish some sort of identity, while experiencing unbelievable brutality and hardship. I imagined Malloy as one of these people… and I figured this song was something he had brought with him from home when he first came to America as a young child.
But at the same time, I felt like the song itself needed to represent everyone in the film and what so many were experiencing at that time, not just the character singing it. I really wanted it to be able to stand on its own as almost a separate character in the movie.
The sound and instrumentation is authentic to the 1892 time period. How much did you know about music from that era?
I’ve always been a fan of old-time hymns and Scots-Irish dirges, though I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself an expert on the type of music that was performed in those days.
After reading the script, I felt like this might be a song that Malloy would have learned as a child when his mother would sing it around the house, since during those times, that’s frequently where music was played. Which is why it was really important to me that it also lyrically felt like something that would have genuinely been sung during that time — such as a deep soulful or lonely ballad with lyrics that have a lot of weight to them, while still keeping the song overall more simplistic in nature. Instrument-wise, I couldn’t see him packing a huge guitar on a horseback ride from New Mexico to Montana, so I chose to write it on the mandolin because it felt more realistic to the time period as well.
Were you nervous about being on camera?
I usually am a bit nervous, but this time around I felt fairly comfortable. Maybe it was because I’ve worked with Scott before and the film had such a wonderful cast and crew to be around. Plus, since my character is singing the song in the film, I was in somewhat familiar territory.