“Add me to the list of composers suffering from excessive verbosity while answering these questions… I take full responsibility for the verbal diarrhea I am about to spew. Perhaps I am trying to compensate for taking so long to actually do this. To anyone reading this, I beg your indulgence!”
1) CHRIS, FROM BUFFY TO ELSA TO ANT-MAN, YOU HAVE WRITTEN SOME UNBELIEVABLY DIVERSE MUSIC OVER THE YEARS. BESIDES THE PICTURES THEMSELVES, WHAT ARE YOUR SOURCES OF INSPIRATION?
You’re not leaving me many options by excluding the films themselves! Film composing is really just musical storytelling, and the story is everything. Honestly that’s where 99% of inspiration should come from, for any media composer. That said, I certainly have my personal favorites when it comes to other composers, and occasionally I am asked to pay special attention to a piece of temp score in a rough cut, but I try to let my own voice lead the way, rather than go to my colleagues’ work for inspiration.
Sometimes I hear concert music or pop music or electronic music that gets me excited, and when appropriate I try to incorporate what I love about what I heard into my own work. Direction and guidance from my collaborators is obviously very important too. Sometimes this feedback can be deceptive. Harmonic, melodic, and coloristic choices could be inspired by something the director or producer says that has nothing to do with the film itself, but is clearly part of the essence of the story.
While more a source of spiritual inspiration than musical, more recently I have undertaken several outreach projects in order to bring more diversity to our industry. The numbers are embarrassing and, frankly, appalling. I can’t say for sure, but I’d bet the percentage of female composers and composers of color in our community is lower than any other craft in Hollywood. With assistance from Victoria Lanier at ETMLA, I taught composition to AP music students at Centennial High School in Compton this past spring, found it incredibly rewarding, and intend to do it again next year. I’m also establishing a fund in partnership with the Sundance Institute and SESAC (very grateful to both for their support) which, starting in 2017, will grant money to independent film producers who have hired a composer from one of these disadvantaged groups. This money would be specifically earmarked for production costs directly associated with the score, on a case by case basis. It might serve to subsidize orchestral recording sessions, a mixing engineer, a music editor – or any other area which directly affects the production values of the music. I’m really excited about this.
Oh and also, re: Buffy to Ant-Man, thanks for making me feel old!
2) YOU HAVE COLLABORATED MORE THAN ONCE WITH DIRECTORS SUCH AS SHAWN LEVY, CHRIS COLUMBUS. WHAT ARE THE INGREDIENTS OF A SUCCESSFUL COLLABORATION?
The composer-director relationship is like any other intimate relationship – at first, we don’t know each other well, and there’s a process of exploration and discovery which can be exciting but also a little scary. It’s like a first date. What’s this person really like? How hard can I push back when we disagree without causing too much upset, or violence towards chairs and windows? Does she or he speak plainly or will I have to work hard to uncover his or her true feelings? Is “I don’t like that clarinet line” secret code for “I hate the musical direction of the entire score and we need to start over?” Is “great job, you finally nailed it!” another way of saying “I shall call your agent in the morning and fire you?” (By the way, I have personally experienced both of these scenarios.)
You’ll hear composers talk about developing a shorthand with frequent collaborators as well. That’s a big part of it too, but it’s more than just the convenience of “hey, remember that thing we did on ‘Snake Eater 4’, let’s do that again here!” It’s knowing in advance what that collaboration will be like and being psychologically prepared for it. Doug Liman (director of “Edge of Tomorrow” and the upcoming “American Made”, which I am working on currently) is a great example of this. He’s a very difficult guy to please and expresses his likes and dislikes in a unique and quirky way that can be frustrating to hear. That nearly drove me to self-immolation on “Edge” but now that I have gotten to know and like the guy, and have more experience with his process and how he communicates, our second collaboration (which we are in the middle of now) is much more enjoyable. Yes, he’s gonna make me write and rewrite and backwards-write and generally work my ass off, but that’s ok with me, now that I know where he’s coming from. It helps that he makes good movies, too!
3) WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES OF SCORING ANIMATED MOVIES?
Honestly the biggest challenge is going back to live action after scoring an animated film! There’s a lot to recommend about working in animation. First of all the production process is such that I have much more time to spend on the score than your average live-action film. I worked on “Frozen” on-and-off for about nine months, “Peanuts” and (the upcoming) “Trolls” for a year. Secondly, it’s really a different culture. The filmmakers in animation are usually internally promoted over a period of years until they get a chance to direct and/or produce their own feature; this means they’re typically smart, nerdy, very thoughtful people who have a great understanding of the process. They have risen from the teams of rank-and-file animators, software engineers, VFX artists, visual character development, and the like. There aren’t many commercials or music video or marketing people making animated films. In short, it’s way more chill than the live-action world.
Furthermore, there’s something about animation, and the way that the universes depicted therein need to be created out of whole cloth, that leaves more room for music. (…quick shoutout to Disney’s Tom MacDougall who first pointed this out to me.) In live action you have real actors in real places with real ambient sounds shot with real cameras that capture it all, and it is often difficult to get a musical word in edgewise (so to speak) as a composer. A great performance by an actor can be powerful enough that any music would diminish it. In an animated film all of that has to be designed and created and somehow this leaves more room for me to do my thing. In short – I feel I am needed more. I can write music that’s bigger, bolder, busier, more melodic; in other words, I can write music that’s more musical. That is immensely satisfying.
To answer your actual question about the challenges: a year is a long time to be on one project and it can sometimes feel stale. I will end up writing a ton of material for scenes that get moved, or turned upside down, or cut entirely, so there tends to be a lot of good music that ends up on the cutting room floor. And a lot of the time I’m writing music to pictures that so inadequately represent what the final scene will look like that they require significant rethinking along the way. Boo hoo hoo, misery, woe is me, right? Small price to pay for all that good stuff in the previous two paragraphs.
4) YOU WERE TAUGHT BY JERRY GOLDSMITH (AND HE IS FINALLY GETTING HIS STAR IN THE HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME!) CAN YOU SHARE WITH US SOME OF YOUR EXPERIENCES WITH HIM?
Yes! In fact, I include forthwith the letter I wrote to the Walk of Fame committee urging them to include him:
“By now, surely you have read many letters attesting to Jerry Goldsmith’s talent, inventiveness, and sheer genius. Before I say anything else, let me agree: he is a towering figure in film music. While many may not know his name, there’s no doubt that nearly every American alive today has at one time or another been touched by Jerry’s talent and musical intelligence. His body of work includes some of the most iconic and memorable melodies of our time.
Rather than merely adding my voice to the chorus and stopping there, I’d like to highlight one aspect of his character that is not often talked about: that of a mentor and teacher. I was fortunate to be his student at USC when I first moved to Los Angeles some 25 years ago. He taught me (and my classmates) the value of a great theme – a subject he returned to over and over again in our classes – and how important it was to have that theme inform every single piece of music in a score, no matter how obliquely. Jerry himself was a master of this technique. As far as I’m concerned, in his ability to make mountains out of musical molehills, he is in a rarefied class with the likes of Beethoven and Richard Wagner.
I’m grateful to have known him, and implore you to grant him his star.”
P.S. the musical equivalent of what I just did can come in handy in our profession. I have a virtual notebook filled with unused ideas just waiting for a good home.
5) WE ARE CURRENTLY EXPERIENCING A BOOM OF LIVE PERFORMANCES OF MEDIA MUSIC. CAN WE EXPECT SOME LIVE SHOWS FEATURING MUSIC FROM YOUR EXTENSIVE CATALOG?
You’re right, there’s a plethora of live film music related events popping up in Los Angeles and all over the world. In fact, there have been several live-to-picture concerts of “Frozen” in Europe recently, notably in places like France, Germany, Spain, and Scandinavia. I’d love to attend one of those someday. I’m sure I’d get a kick out of it.
It’s flattering to hear about a score of mine performed live, but really, and with great respect to my colleagues who are putting on great shows, how many of “[Insert film title here] live to picture!” do we need? It’s a little like when I see in composer interviews (best when read in voice of “Screech” from “Saved by the Bell”): “…for this score I shall combine orchestra with electronics!” It’s not special anymore if everyone’s doing it. If and when I put on some kind of live event it will be because I have my own take on the idea, and will hopefully be something somewhat unique and different. “Christophe Beck performs outtakes from his ‘Hangover 3’ score live on an excessively large modular synth with improvised interpretive dance accompaniment™”… now we’re talking!
Aaaaaand I think I’m done now. Thanks for letting me go on and on.