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.
I'd get the timings pretty well down and then use the computer to find the right pacing; nipping and tucking along the way so that when Milla and Ed* appeared, the music reacted exactly in sync with the image. It's got to be down to the fraction of a second: if something happens too late, it feels awkward...too early and you're tipping the hand of the drama. There is a sound editor who will fit your music in, but it's got to be pretty much exact from the get go. (* I'd like to think we're on a first name basis now...)The cycle begins once you submit your "cues" (sections of music for the parts of the film) to the director. An engineer syncs your music to the film based on the exact timings you give, and then you get a phone call from the directors with "love it!," hate it!," or "feh..." Michael was very patient with my gear-shift to film composing, but never compromising with what he wanted, which ultimately is infinitely more helpful as a guide.. It's a special challenge when you're using computerized MIDI samples to represent your work to others. I must admit that as a “pencil and paper” composer, I wasn’t setup with great synth sounds on my computer for it to render my music…I’m guessing that my initial tracks probably reminded them of something from “Lost in Space,” so crappy was my computer’s wheezy and mechanical attempts to play the score. Since I don’t really use computer playback in my regular composing process, what came out of my speakers sounded more like a dozen vuvuzelas than the oboe, for example...a dozen vuvuzelas played by robot monkeys in a robot monkey band.
You just have to invest in the technology to get decent sounding instrument samples. It’s hard enough for a trained musician to hear through bad MIDI sounds—how do you expect the director to make sense of your lush and brilliant music through a dense thicket of bleeps and blips? I went out and got Garritan sounds, then decided those were just about as bad as what I already had on Sibelius. So I dropped a little more money on the EastWest sound library, which was a big step north. The Vienna Symphonic Library will be next, as pricey as it is. I used to trick my Curtis students in class by playing an excerpt from a computerized Firebird suite and would then ask them if they heard anything weird in the recording. Every year, just a handful knew it was a computer–but just a handful… If the computer can convince top conservatory students, that's a scary level of convincing.
As composers, we're used writing our music and handing it over to be played. Some make changes to accommodate the performers, some edit along the way and in rehearsals wanting to improve the music, and some do neither. But this is entirely different. As a film composer you are sending passages of music to be accepted, rejected, or sent back for alteration. For some, that's a massive compromise, but for me as a creative artist, I found the process totally liberating, fun, and challenging. I admit that when you spend hours writing, only to get the hand of "it's nice music, but not for this film," it's difficult to swallow. It can be what you think is your best music–the most bolt-of-lightning inspired writing you've done on the whole project, but if the director doesn't like it or likes it, but doesn't think it fits with the concept of the scene, it's out. And you have to just be able to turn it around and start writing the next attempt until something clicks. It's a difficult process psychologically, as exciting as it is frustrating at times.
But in three magic words..."that's the gig."