LAFF 2011: Coffee Talk – Composers

Allison Loring

by: Allison Loring
June 21st, 2011

One of the events I look forward to the most during the Los Angeles Film Festival each year is their Coffee Talk – Composers program, which brings together composers and musicians within the industry to share their experiences and knowledge on creating music for film. This year’s panel was made up of three distinct and well-known composers – Thomas Newman (WALL-E, THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU), Mychael Danna (500 DAYS OF SUMMER, THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE), and Clint Mansell (MOON, BLACK SWAN). I was particularly excited about this group as I have been fortunate enough to review scores from all three, with two grabbing top spots as some of my favorite scores released in the past year (BLACK SWAN and THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU). Despite their different styles and approaches to scoring, one thing is clear, each of these composers is driven by a true love of music.

The program kicked off by asking each of the three panelists how they got their start in film composing. Surprisingly, each had similar beginnings of helping out friends who were working on their first films and needed someone to help create the music. Newman was tapped by now producer Scott Rudin (THE SOCIAL NETWORK) to create the score for one of his first films, RECKLESS. Danna was involved in theater in college and began working on and learning about film through the friends he made there while Mansell began what has become a life-long working relationship with director Darren Aronofsky (BLACK SWAN) on his first film, PI. All three noted that working with those also starting out allowed them the freedom to create and play around with different ideas, forming the early stepping stones to their differing sounds and creative processes.

When asked if composing is as fun now as it was then all three laughed, noting that is has always been a daunting process even in the beginning, but always driven by that enjoyment of creating music. Mansell noted that he gravitates towards projects that initially excite him while Newman admitted he never really knows how he feels about a project until it is completed. Danna said that you always look back on experiences, good or bad, with rose colored glasses and he seems to only remember the positive aspects of a project he may have actually struggled with at the time.

When asked what their ideal situation to compose in would be, each admitted that idea would be impossible to fulfill because it is the chaos that is both maddening and exhilarating that works to bring out their best ideas and work. Newman explained that there has to be that friction and brute fear and Danna agreed that it is the feeling of hope that gets you involved with a project, but it is the pain that comes from the creative process that becomes a necessary evil because it is what usually produces the best results. Newman furthered that even though they know things can eventually (and usually need to) get chaotic, those beginning moments of throwing out ideas and finding that creative spark always mean more than any frustrations that may follow it.

Each explained their different creative processes where Mansell prefers to work alone whereas Newman turns to a familiar team of musicians he regularly works with. Mansell likes to immerse himself in a project, giving himself the time to experiment and fail while Newman gets inspired by working through ideas with a group. All three agreed that they prefer to not see any of a film’s footage when they begin composing, referring instead to the script and conversations they have had with the director. This approach allows for freer interpretation and the ability to focus on the qualities in the music rather than trying to match it to what is being shown on screen.

All three noted that they do not like to use temp tracks, particularly in the beginning of the composing process. Both Danna and Newman noted that it is helpful in starting the conversation about why certain tracks are preferred, but it still closes creative doors. Newman explained that while he understands using temp tracks is not without meaning (as it gives investors and financiers an idea of where the film is going) from a creative standpoint it is only limiting. Mansell said not being restricted by temp tracks is one of the many reasons he usually selects small budgeted projects that do not have the pressure of appeasing those backing the film.

Dovetailing off this idea of working on smaller films, Mansell explained that he also rarely works with a music editor because he prefers to work one-on-one with a film’s director. He admits this is a luxury and is one of the many reasons he usually chooses to work on smaller projects with smaller crews. Newman said a music editor can be a composer’s greatest ally as they act as a liaison for them with the director.. It also involves someone from the beginning that can help you work through your thought process and give you a second set of ears. Danna agreed that sometimes films (particularly larger budgeted or studio projects) can become politically complicated and you simply cannot get as much time with the director as you would like so the music editor becomes essential in shortening that distance that can develop between composer and director.

While working with the director is the ideal, all three also agreed that they prefer directors do not try to convey their ideas to them musically. Newman said he would rather get adjectives (faster, slower, more abstract) to help hone his ideas rather than specifics about tempo, key changes or chord progressions. Mansell prefers a director simply stay consistent in their vision and have an end result in mind which they can then convey in simple terms to keep both composer and director on the same path. Danna explained that he understands the director is essentially forced to hand over the emotional core of their film to the composer and that is why it is imperative to establish a solid level of trust from the beginning. However Danna did note that it is part of a composer’s job to sell a director on their own ideas while also understanding how to decipher what a director wants to combine those two visions.

When dealing with a negative feedback, all three admitted that it is never easy to hear someone critique your work because in order to be creative, you must allow yourself to be vulnerable. However it is a part of the process and Mansell noted it is definition of “just business, not personal.” Mansell also added that anything created (good or bad) is never for nothing as it gets you to the final product. Newman said that without critiques and boundaries, there could be no end of the writing process and it does become the director’s job to rein the composer in.

When it comes to the music mix and making the score work alongside the actor’s dialogue, the sound design and sound effects, Mansell said he tries to work with the sound designers to make sure the music he is creating does not conflict with what they are putting in to a scene. All three agreed that they actually prefer less music because it allows the moments when music is used to standout and feel fresh. Newman said the best mixes are subtractive and leave only the necessary elements in. Danna explained that the music is supposed to help the journey and arch of the story, it never has to be the central feature in a scene and composers rarely want it to be.

Newman became well-known after the score he created for AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999) and when asked what it was about that score that worked so well Newman laughed saying he never understands why some things work out better than others. He said  sometimes it helps to work under a time crunch where you do not have the time to second guess yourself and actually remembered trying (repeatedly) to get off the film while working on it because of the time constraints he was under. Danna chimed in that it again comes back to the chaos and madness that is also the allure of being a composer because it challenges you to see if you can work under those pressures.

When asked if they listen to other composer's work when beginning to get ideas for a project each responded with a definitive, “No!” Danna explained he does not want to get someone else’s sound in his ear and that the best tool a composer can have is a bad memory because it lessens the chance for plagiarism. Mansell admitted he actually has very little interest in film music, which makes his choice of profession all the more ironic, but it is simply not something he prefers to listen to on his own time. Like Danna, he does not want to pick up on tips and tricks used by other composers, even if he happens to already use them, and he prefers to stick to his own process and vocabulary.

To wrap things up, each composer was asked what advice they would give to those just getting started in the business. Mansell turned to the film TRADING PLACES and quoted, “Just be yourself, whatever happens, they can’t take that away from you.” Danna advised that to be successful, do what excites you because that will translate on screen and in your work. Newman said you must simply love music because at the end of the day, that is what you can control and that is what should give you joy.

Whether working with a team or on their own, for a big budget studio film or a small indie, it is obvious Newman, Danna and Mansell each find their joy and passion in creating music, regardless of the sometimes chaotic process that can surround it.

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