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Virginia Kilbertus M.M. ’16 has known since childhood that she wanted to score films, but an early aptitude for piano steered her toward classical music. It wasn’t until graduate school that she turned her focus to scoring. Now her hard work is paying off with the premiere of her first-ever feature film score, for Astronaut, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Colm Feore. The family drama, about a grandfather whose dreams of space travel may come true, had its world premiere in Scotland in late June and opens for wider release this month.
With a father who’s an actor and a mother who’s a writer, Kilbertus grew up surrounded by artists and dreamed of coming to Berklee. She applied to the undergraduate film scoring program and was admitted but couldn’t afford to attend. Instead, she committed to her classical training first, studying piano performance at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. When she saw the chance to attend Berklee for graduate school, however, she jumped at it, despite feeling a little out of her depth.
“I had no concept really of what film scoring entailed [when I applied to Berklee] because I hadn’t been exposed to it. I knew that I wanted to do it, but I had never opened any of the software,” she says, adding that Lucio Godoy, the program director, told her that he didn’t know what to do with her application since she came from a classical-music background. “So, he gave me a script and was like, ‘You need to score this in 48 hours and send us a mockup.’ I had never done a mockup in my life; I didn’t know what it was.” She took those two days and figured it out so that she could complete her application, and then caught herself up to her peers once on campus. Now she calls attending the program “definitely the best year,” saying, “It was everything that I had hoped that it would be.” Its challenges and rigors, she says, positioned her for success.
After graduating from Berklee, she moved back to Toronto, where she’s currently based, and picked up scoring assistant work for a year, building her résumé with film shorts and podcasts. Then she applied to a yearlong music residency at the Canadian Film Center. Getting that residency led directly to Astronaut. “When I was there, they had a visiting composer come in and teach a few classes and lead a few workshops,” Kilbertus says. His name was Mark Corbin, and he had been asked to score Astronaut but was too busy to take it on. “He got to know my music through the film center, and we got to know each other a bit, and he recommended me to the director (Shelagh McLeod), and I sent her some demos.”
Kilbertus got the job and was thrilled to find that not only did she have a wonderful team and a solid working relationship with McLeod, but she also had a good budget to work with. “Often when you get your first feature, it’s very low-budget,” she says. She was able to do an orchestral recording in Budapest, Hungary, in addition to some recording in Toronto. “So [the music is] all live, which was very special.”
Hearing her score brought to life by the musicians, including several she found through Berklee, was the highlight of the process for Kilbertus. She plans to continue collaborating with her former classmates and other Berklee connections in the future: “We still have our Facebook group that we had when we were there, and I’m very close with a handful of people.” Some of those friends will work with Kilbertus on one of her next projects, a Hulu show for tweens called Endlings that will be broadcast in Canada. Because it’s a sci-fi series, she’s looking forward to working with all of the strange new soundscapes she’ll be able to create.
As for potential future Berklee students, she has some advice: “Everyone knows it’s a demanding program, so just stick with it and it will pay off. Because when you graduate, you’ll have a huge leg up, wherever you are. Berklee prepares you well. There are always going to be people who are better than you, but focus on your strengths and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s amazing prep for real life.”