March 23, 2023
Alumni Spotlight: Mato Wayuhi '20
By Olivia Kuhn
Mato Wayuhi ‘20 is an artist originally from South Dakota. He works in film/TV both as a producer and musical composer, as well as writing his own music, garnering critical acclaim from NPR, Tidal, Amazon Music, Spotify and Apple Music. Most notably, Mato is the composer for the award-winning FX/Hulu series Reservation Dogs and the feature-length film War Pony, which won the Caméra d'Or prize at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. He is also featured on the 2023 Forbes 30 Under 30 list for Hollywood & Entertainment. Mato joins us today to discuss his time at SCA, his journey to becoming a professional musician, and his creative processes.
When and where did your journey to become a composer and filmmaker begin?
I was creatively awoken by Black Sabbath’s 1970 album Paranoid. I’d listen to that record nonstop on my little CD player. There’s this song called “Planet Caravan” on there. Good God, I had never heard anything like that in my entire life... my entire 7 year old life. I’d lay on the barren, wood floor of my parents' hallway, close my eyes and imagine a movie in my mind as the record played — nothing had caused that type of visual kineticism for me before. I’m grateful to now do that as a career.
Who/what are your biggest influences as a storyteller?
My late grandma & grandpa are some of my biggest musical influences. They liked to sing together. My grandma would cook us oatmeal in the morning, and an impromptu acapella performance of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” often followed suit. I saw her transport someplace else while singing and dancing. I wanted to go too. I recently got a hold of some audio from the 80s of those two singing ceremony songs in our Lakota language. Hearing them sing further instills who I do this all for.
During your time at SCA, were there any classes, professors, or experiences that were the most memorable to you?
Major shoutout to Bayo Akinfemi! Protect that man. I had CTPR 310 with him. He was a memorable professor for me because he let me fly my freak flag unabashedly. For one assignment I filmed a killer clown horror flick deep in the bookstacks of Doheny. In an otherwise stringent curriculum, Bayo gave us room to have fun. Professor Aniko Imre and JD Connor were tight too. JD taught me what “pretension” means and how to spot it. My Media Arts + Practice friends used to sneak me into the secret rooms that they have so I could record music & shoot music videos. I’d stay up all night in those rooms. In 2018 my friends and I won the Ed Wood 24 hour short film contest (I don’t know if y’all still do that). We made this film about a cheetah who returns to their calling of circus entertainment, only to then curbstomp a passerby and eat his brains out of his skull. Everyone counted us out and we won best film and best directing. I was an RA at the time and my boss was on the judges panel. I have lived a life.
How did receiving a film education impact how you write music?
Cinema and Media Studies helps you to contextualize everything, which renders more intentionality in the music I write. It helps to deepen my prose. I still let ambition, curiosity & emotion carry me foremost, and after I’m done I can self-assess my own work because of what I learned in school. It’s a fun major.
What do you look for in a project?
I look for vulnerability. The creator doesn’t have to unearth some deep personal traumas or anything. I just love it when a character bleeds themselves out and seeing how it influences the narrative. I also look to be challenged. I go to art for a degree of spiritual growth, so I like a story that sits uncomfy in my tummy and might later teach me something I didn't know. Why does it make me feel like this? Where is this coming from? The disarming quality of art. I also love romance. If anyone needs music for their romance film let me know!
When you score projects, what does your process entail? Are there specific elements of the story that you take into account?
My scoring process feels very Buddhist (CTCS 411: Buddhism in Film with Professor Whittington). Scoring for me is zen mode: presence, acceptance, concern with the innermost. I tap into the characters, understand who they are and what they’re going through. It’s a really rewarding emotional experience to score. My empathic skills feel stronger since scoring. I take into account what the character needs over what they want. Joe Schmoe might want a promotion at his pole dancing job, but what he needs is motherly affection and validation that he never had growing up. So I’ll score to that deep vacancy in Joe Schmoe's soul rather than surface level desire.
You were recently included in this year’s lineup for Forbes’s 30 Under 30 list. What does it mean to you to be included in the lineup?
It’s cute. They didn’t have my correct email to notify me — my friend Leila (another USC alum who’s doing dope things) broke the news to me. They put me on the front page which is nuts. Right next to Ayo Edebiri. I would watch Ayo’s standup in between writing two fall 2019 final essays, one on the social effects of mukbang and one on the phallocentrism of Rico Nasty’s music. I’m with good company on that list which makes my insides feel pretty.
What has been the most fulfilling part of sharing your music with the world?
The most fulfilling part of sharing my music with the world is that my healing is in tandem with the listener’s healing. Purity of connection. I started making music because I was sad and at a loss of friends. Documenting those lonely times, putting them out to the world with no expectation. I found that others benefited from that vulnerability. The sadness isn’t solved, but with this exchange comes acknowledgment. Creation over destruction is a privilege that I try to exercise each day. Art has held my hand through the most uncertain of times, so I’m grateful that my music can be of any sort of assistance to someone.
What’s next for you?
At this exact moment, I’m at my studio. I have a meeting with Bad Robot in one hour. Afterwards I’m going to tinker with a song and send the stems to my engineer. After that I’m going to walk to Trader Joe’s and buy some dried mango. Then I’ll work on a treatment. Later I’ll drive home while listening to the new episode of Homer Radio.
What advice would you offer to aspiring filmmakers and composers?
Build horizontally. Instead of reaching to the top on your tippy toes, see who’s around you and form your team that way. All of my collaborators are folks that I’ve known since the beginning, people who I love and have grown up with. Do your own thing, the journey is more enriching when it’s paved by your own fingerprints. Have fun! Film school can devolve into a game of comparisons, so just keep your head high and trust the love you have for your craft. Always be kind to everyone all the time. You don't know what everyone in your class or on your crew is going through, so it's best to assume their lives suck and that your bright smile and generosity could mean a lot to them.