Filmmakers, composers find common ground

There are plenty of film schools, and a growing number of schools that have film-scoring programs. The problem is that most of the time, the filmmakers learn about filmmaking and the composers learn about film music — but they stay within their own disciplines, rarely interacting. Together, the Sundance Institute and BMI are attempting to change this via a pilot program called the Sundance Composers Lab, in which young filmmakers and composers collaborate and learn from each other.

According to project director Peter Golub, the program’s aim is twofold: To give composers who may not have much film experience an opportunity to learn from established film composers as well as to work with independent filmmakers; and to introduce up-and-coming filmmakers to the scoring process, allowing them to collaborate with talented composers.

Back in the ’80s, Sundance offered a similar training program for composers that was supervised by composer David Newman, but it was disbanded for a variety of reasons in 1989.

BMI a good fit

“Sundance wanted to have another composers lab,” Golub reports. Coincidentally, BMI — the performing rights organization that represents many of the industry’s top composers — was looking for a successor to its own workshop that for many years was run in L.A. by Emmy-winning TV composer Earle Hagen.

“I’ve always had this fantasy about creating a workshop where composers not only got to walk out the door with various demo tapes but could actually walk out the door with actual relationships with filmmakers,” says Doreen Ringer-Ross, BMI’s assistant VP for film/TV relations.

The two concepts merged last June, when six composer “fellows” met at Sundance. They represented a diverse cross-section of American and world music: Brent Michael Davids, a Native American composer; Camara Kambon, musical director for Dr. Dre and Ice Cube; Rebeca Mauleon, Latin percussionist; Stan Ridgeway of Wall of Voodoo; classical composer Carlos Rodriguez; and “Arsenio Hall Show” musical director Michael Wolff.

The other Newman

Director Robert Redford and composer Thomas Newman kicked off the session with a screening of “The Horse Whisperer” and a frank discussion about their collaboration.

Newman was one of several first-tier composers who offered insights into the process during the workshop, which shifted locations to L.A. and back to Utah through the summer. Others included Graeme Revell (“The Saint”), Stewart Copeland (“Very Bad Things”), Shirley Walker (“Escape From L.A.”), Basil Poledouris (“Starship Troopers”), Christopher Young (“Rounders”) and Richard Gibbs (“Dr. Dolittle”).

Also contributing their expertise were a variety of pros from related fields: music supervisor Randy Gerston, agent Lyn Benjamin, music editor Dan Carlin Jr. and the personnel from Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures studio in Santa Monica.

This year’s workshop, Golub says, will be more tightly organized, running roughly from July 20-Aug. 4 and entirely at Sundance. During the first week, composers will rescore segments of existing films and hear presentations by another panel of top working composers.

The second week will involve the directors, as the composers create short scores for the scenes filmmakers have shot in June during their own lab. Music will be entirely executed on synthesizers, although in the past the workshops have featured small ensembles of acoustic players.

More interaction

The plan this year is for “more interaction,” Golub says. “The filmmakers and the composers will have several passes through the material. They’ll be hanging together, previewing, and going back and forth several times rather than just having one shot at it — the way it is in an actual working situation.”

Concert-hall composer Rodriguez, whose opera “Nerdlandia” was premiered in May by the Los Angeles Opera, says, “Being there was a real charge. It felt like going to camp. It was valuable from the point of view of establishing relationships, being paired with a filmmaker and going through the process.”

“There are very few opportunities where, outside of the heat and the demands of production, composers and directors can learn how to have a dialogue,” Golub says. “They can discover what the issues are and learn how to make a more effective film score. This provides that opportunity both to filmmakers and composers.

In on the ground floor

“For filmmakers, especially in independent film, music is often an eleventh-hour consideration. You’re out of time, you’re out of money, everybody’s after you to license songs. So the ability for filmmakers starting out to actually have music as a more integral part of the creative process is of real benefit.”

To Ringer-Ross, “The opportunity to get to the filmmakers early on and start them thinking along these lines is great. The point is about the quality of film — and the quality of film music.”

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