Last December I scored Michael Almareyda's film "Cymbeline" – the play by Shakespeare that nobody knows about but everybody should, and I think Michael took that opportunity in making his film, which is so beautifully and elegantly realized. It stars an A-list cast of Hollywood actors: Dakota Johnson, Milla Jovovich, Ed Harris, Ethan Hawke, Penn Badgely, Bill Pullman, and many other actors you'd know. The producer of Cymbeline is Anthony Katagas, who won an Academy Award this year for “Twelve Years a Slave.” You can check it all out on IMDB, but suffice it to say it was my first true encounter with such major figures in the film industry. I had done some music for shorter documentaries and animated films, but nothing on this scale. Composing for the big screen is about as humbling and exciting as it gets (in equal parts!). I want to share some of what I learned in the process with anyone who is interested or is looking to write a movie score, themselves.
Now if you’re going to score a film, read this article, which features an interview with some of the most influential film composers out there. Reading it will save you...oh, endless anxiety, knowing that these guys—the biggest in the business—have already gone through (and frequently go through) what you’re about to go through many times over. The title of the article didn't apply to my experience at all–everyone I worked with on Cymbeline was super professional, collegial, and warm. But there was also a directness in communication that one doesn't see so much in the concert music business. When there's a tight timeline on a project that costs what these films do, there isn't a ton of room for servile flattery. Your music is a part of a much bigger picture (pun pretty much intended), and it's got to work for the director and everyone else who has the say–not just for you. Flexibility and humility are key to making this happen.
The process of composing a film score usually starts with a “spotting" session, which is where you sit down with the director and others to watch the movie and talk through what each scene is trying to communicate (and how that could be reflected in the music). After that, you start off on your own–in my case I was sent a link to download the movie and that's when the party started. I'd watch the movie on my iPad and would improvise at the piano until something compelling took shape, and then I'd make a note of what I wrote to see if it was worth exploring further. I don't usually work like that, but I realize now that I forgot to mention my deadline (which was very typical) where I had about three weeks to write forty-five minutes of music (it's really ninety minutes of music, since half of it is discarded in the process). Many concert music composers write that much music in a full year.