LAFF 2010: Coffee Talk – Composers
A film can be beautifully written, directed, acted, and filmed, but until there is music, the true heart and emotion will be always missing. Music is a powerful tool, especially when paired with images, which makes the use and placement of it incredibly important.
The three musicians that made up the Los Angeles Film Festival’s panel of composers were BT (THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, MONSTER), Moby (SOUTHLAND TALES, GO), and Gustavo Santaolalla (BABEL, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN). Before getting involved in contributing music for film, all three were already successful in the music industry in a variety of different outlets. Because of this, getting involved with a film project was based on their connection to the film itself or the people involved with it, rather than the need or overall desire to compose.
Each is a unique personality and artist unto themselves, but when it came to the reasons each would (and has) agreed to work on a film, their answers were surprisingly similar. Santaolalla noted that he has to have an emotional connection to a film and feel that he could create music to accompany that feeling. Moby agreed, noting that for him, an emotional or creative connection happens with more odd and idiosyncratic films as he finds unconventional juxtaposition the most compelling. Moby joked that he is actually terrified of people in general (directors especially) and preferred to just make his music based on the film itself rather than interacting with the film’s director. BT said his reasoning fell somewhere between Santaolalla and Moby in that he needed to see that “point of connection between cinema and music” as well as enjoy the people working on the film to want to commit to spending that kind of time working together.
The “courtship” process was a bit different for each, but related back to their original desires to get involved with a film. Santaolalla first got involved in composing when the director of AMORES PERROS (Alejandro González Iñárritu) tracked him down and begged him to watch his film because Iñárritu felt Santaolalla’s musical style would be the perfect compliment to it. Upon watching the first scene, Santaolalla readily agreed and signed on to the project. Santaolalla had his recorded work used in films before, but this was the first time he actually scored a film.
Moby claims he would say yes to working with anyone, as long as the interaction could be mainly via email and he could just send the tracks he creates in his home studio to the director, rather than creating alongside them. Moby prefers to get involved at the beginning or the end of a project, refusing to get involved in the middle because he has found that is often when a director makes decisions based on fear rather than the original intent of the film. Moby explained that at the beginning of a film, he can just send off his work and let them use it how they see fit and at the end of a film, there is usually not enough time for the filmmakers to “fuck with” the music.
Santaolalla works in slightly similar way as the projects he has worked on were either completed by the time he came on board or were only at the script stage when he began composing. He explained that his approach to creating music for a film is to go simply off the emotion of the story itself. He composed all the music for BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN prior to filming, which allowed director Ang Lee to play the music on set for the actors to help them get in the emotional mindset of the scene. Santaolalla prefers minimalist music and hates when music manipulates the emotion of a scene. Although he wrote specific cues for certain scenes in BROKEBACK, he was not sure where Lee would end up placing them (although he ended up agreeing with Santaolalla and used the majority of the cues as Santaolalla had originally intended).
Out of the two, BT has had a closer working relationship with the directors of the films he was composed for, noting that he got involved with the film MONSTER because of mutual friends who introduced him to the film’s director, Patty Jenkins. Rather than the limited interaction Moby and Santaolalla had with their directors, BT almost came to physical blows with Jenkins over their differing views on the emotional impact of the film. BT even went so far as to get the lead actress on the project (Charlize Theron) on his side to help persuade Jenkins, but Jenkins stood firm on her vision. She thought that the feeling of overall sadness BT was writing in his music was off the mark. Jenkins wanted to keep a feeling of hope throughout the film to deliver a more complex impact on the audience in the end when that hope is taken away. Upon completion of the film, BT realized Jenkins was right and it taught him a valuable lesson that you should stay true to the director’s vision. Music can be looked at a variety of different ways, but the director has the overall scope of the film and should make the final call.
When asked what types of projects they have not yet worked on, but would like to, each panelists' answers were more varied. Santaolalla said he would like to work on a dark comedy while Moby would like to work with directors like David Lynch and Takeshi Kitano on their more unorthodox projects. At the opposite end of the spectrum, BT said he would love to work on an animated film, particularly one done by Pixar. BT said he really related to the time and process animators go through to make mere seconds of film because he spends the same kind of time and care creating his own music and believes those similar ways of working would pair well together.
Beyond being artists and composers, all three have talents and projects they are also pursuing and working on. BT spends his time taking apart and creating new recording technologies to use in his own recording process as well as help update and create new ways of recording for other people.
Moby created the Moby Gratis program that provides free music to non-profit and student filmmakers. Having seen and heard many of his filmmaking friends struggle to get the music they wanted, or even just decent music, licensed for their projects inspired him to provide some of his own music to help round out these smaller projects while at the same time providing himself an outlet for some of his more obscure recordings.
Santaolalla is an accomplished musician, but is well-known for his unique style when playing the charango, a guitar-like stringed instrument from South America. Unlike most charango players, Santaolalla picks at the strings rather than strumming. He recorded an album featuring this instrument (“Ronroco”) and it was this collection that caught the attention of director Michael Mann and prompted him to put one of the tracks in his film THE INSIDER, which opened the door to Santaolalla and music for film.
I felt Moby made a good point when he said that no matter what your original intent is for a piece of music, everyone hears and experiences it differently and it is when you try and control how people view your work that you can make yourself crazy. Moby explained that when he creates music for a film, he gives up ownership of it the moment it leaves his studio because once paired with images, it may convey a completely different feeling than what he originally felt when creating it. Music can have a powerful effect on not just the audience watching the film, but also the artist creating that music and it can be a bit of a rabbit hole if you try to fight giving up some of that creativity to other people. As a composer, you are just part of the puzzle that makes up a film, and not always the final puzzle piece.
Despite their differing musical styles and perspectives, each has an obvious passion for music and all the different ways people can experience it. Composing for film is clearly something they each enjoy doing, but it is not the only outlet they have to turn to. Santaolalla might have had the best perspective on how to be a composer without losing yourself as an artist to the business of making a film, and that is to have other things beyond composing in your life, stating, “Film is a part of what we do, not all of what we do.”