Handful of directors-composers suggests new flexibility
“But what I really want to do is compose. …”
Increasingly, that’s becoming a realized wish of directors whose plans for their films includes creating the soundtrack.
The old division of labor exists, helmers in one corner and composers in another, but that there are even a handful of director-composers suggests the arrival of a new flexibility, a new form of hyphenate.
“It’s not that I’m just throwing my ego around, demanding that I do every task on the movie,” says John Carpenter, who customarily does the music for his movies and has a tally of 16 composer credits. “I just hear the music in the early stages of working on the movie. It’s in my head. Who else would do it?”
It also helps, of course, that Carpenter trained in music (his father was a music scholar), and even led his own bands, including a unit called Coupe De Ville.
Carpenter, along with Alejandro Amenabar, Tom Tykwer, Mike Figgis and John Ottman, have had at least as much grounding in music as filmmaking, and in many cases, studied music before they ever picked up a camera.
Unusually, for a kid growing up in Spain, Amenabar was most taken with Hollywood movie soundtracks, especially the scores of Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann, and John Williams’ “Superman.”
“I wasn’t allowed to watch TV or many movies, but the ones I did see made a big impression, through their music,” Amenabar says. “Instead of pop music or Spanish music, it was just soundtracks for me.”
Naturally, when he made his first short films starting at 18, Amenabar composed for them.
For “The Others,” Amenabar wrote one of the most orchestral scores of recent years, but did so with less music in mind, not more, and with a complex pattern of three themes with variations for each.
Like Amenabar, Carpenter’s specialty is horror, but otherwise the pair couldn’t be more different.
Carpenter operates much like the organist at a silent-film screening: He brings out his guitar, and starts improvising to the edited film.
“I like to respond to what I see, and not think too much about it beforehand, even if I have themes or riffs floating around inside me,” says the maker of “Halloween” and “Ghosts of Mars.”
Carpenter frequently goes for a wall-of-guitars sound, and will invite bands to join him in the music making, such as the now-famously-named Anthrax for “Ghosts.”
He’s also the closest thing to a living legend in the small director-composer club: Tykwer says, “Carpenter has been a huge influence on me. He combines film and music so they can’t be separated.”
Figgis also leans toward improv — not from a rocker’s position, but as a jazz pianist and trumpeter. After studying classical music in London, he was member of R&B unit he Gas Board, along with Bryan Ferry. Performing against images used in various performance-art pieces he worked on in the ’70s and ’80s led to his entry into filmmaking.
His jazz ensemble was highlighted in his feature debut, “Stormy Monday,” which involved characters in the jazz scene. He’s been director-composer on nine of his 12 features, including the upcoming “Hotel,” and just as he’s shifted toward lightweight digital video cameras as his filmmaking tool of choice, Figgis now composes on his personal keyboard and recording setup, which includes state-of-the-art mikes and ProTools software.
“An advantage of being your own composer,” observes Tykwer, “is that if you need to cut the film to your music, you can do it. That’s what I love in the collaborations of Peter Greenaway and Michael Nyman, who would often write the music first, and then Greenaway would cut to it. That’s extremely unusual, but if you’re your own composer, and the need arises, you can do it.”
On the other hand, Tykwer doesn’t work alone, often teaming up with Oz musician Johnny Kilmek and fellow Teuton, music producer and technician Reinhold Heil.
“Johnny comes from the techno side, and Reinhold tends toward jazz, with classical training. He’s also a mastermind of studio technology. I’m responsible for what I’d call the atmosphere of the soundtrack, the final editing phase.”
Tykwer’s latest, preeming at the Berlin Intl. Film Festival, is his adaptation of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Heaven,” and for the first time his music is his own solo piano.
Starting with “Winter Sleepers,” and continuing with “Run Lola Run” and “The Princess and the Warrior,” Tykwer’s films foreground sound and music, “because I’ve never related to films in terms of the image, but in terms of the whole sensory experience, which includes the soundtrack,” he says.
Ottman is a sort of superhyphenate: Not only directing and composing, but editing as well. He has edited and composed for several of Bryan Singer’s films, including “The Usual Suspects” and “Apt Pupil,” but took on all three jobs for his feature debut, “Urban Legends II.”
Like Amenabar, Ottman grew up entranced by movie scores (“I idolize Goldsmith, and when I ended up sitting next to him at an ASCAP dinner, I feverishly talked his head off about his work. He was probably wondering who this kid was”).
“I love the sense of creating new sounds through instruments, not through a synthesizer,” says Ottman, who laments the time-pressured process of the studio-produced score. “I had already scored for other directors, but suddenly, when I was director, I had some insecurity about what music to write. I think it’s the time squeeze, having to go to meetings, handling the inevitable crisis moments and finding some quiet time alone to think and write.
“Now,” Ottman observes, “I have far more understanding and sympathy for what a director who can’t compose goes through.”