Thrifty niches often lead to musical riches

Composers find fertile ground for original scores in small films

Films need music no matter what the budget. Unlike studio releases, there’s rarely much money for music in indie films, but there can be plenty of creative freedom, say composers active in both realms.

With a major studio release, execs and filmmakers alike often have built-in expectations about the type of music they want — usually something that’s worked before in other big films. Even more damaging to hopes of originality, some are tied to a beloved temp track that numerous music editors have labored over for weeks. With indies, that’s rarely the case.

“My own personal conspiracy is to try and be as creative as I can regardless of the financial structure of the movie,” says Jeff Beal, whose impressive score for “Pollock” won admirers and helped him land the new Bob Rafelson film, “The House on Turk Street.”

Beal — a classically trained composer with a second career as a jazz performer — has spent the past year shifting from indies to cable movies (“Joe and Max,” “Door to Door”) to series TV (new USA series “Monk”) to documentaries (the forthcoming “Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion”).

“One thing I always look for is the role of the music,” he says. “I often find that the better roles for score tend to come from unusual places, like indie films or cable films. A lot of times the music has a more interesting role to play.”

From a business perspective, most indie scores are packages, meaning a single fee must cover not only the composer’s bill but also the costs of executing the score: orchestration, musicians (if live players are used), the recording studio, a mixer, etc. Sums from $35,000 to $85,000 are common, although the amounts can be more and are often even less.

Experienced composers juggle these costs and still try to eke out a reasonable fee. But it can be difficult, especially for writers who believe that live musicians bring something extra to a soundtrack.

“Music has to express emotion, first and foremost, and that requires real people playing it,” insists Jeff Danna, whose 45-minute score for the Robert Evans biopic “The Kid Stays in the Picture” — despite being a package deal — was carefully planned out to include four hours of recording time with an orchestra.

“Kid” was more complex than many scores, he explains, because the music needed not only to support the emotional beats of Evans’ life arc, but also to connect the dots between the many songs in the movie, “whether it was ‘Love Is Blue’ or Cat Stevens. It had to make sense in tone, in pacing, and in key.”

David Julyan, who scored “Memento,” prefers the solitude of his London studio. The composer says he never considered doing Christopher Nolan’s film any way other than with his own samplers and synthesizers.

“It would have been pushing it financially to do it orchestrally, which would have pushed it creatively,” he says. “I would rather deliver a good electronic score than an orchestral score that’s a compromise.”

However, Julyan is not opposed to using live musicians. His “Insomnia,” also for Nolan, combined synths with orchestra, and his “Happy Here and Now,” playing the festival circuit, employed a small string ensemble.

Julyan started out writing “instrumental, atmospheric music, ambient soundscapes and so forth,” which made him instantly employable for films. He’s now scoring Renny Harlin’s psychological thriller “Mindhunters,” which he expects will be more electronic than “Insomnia.”

Mark Adler’s music for indie cinema has run the gamut from a 12-piece jazz group for Wayne Wang’s “Eat a Bowl of Tea” to piano and chamber ensemble for last year’s Arthur Miller-penned drama “Focus.” With a degree in film, plenty of experience as a music editor and an Emmy for musical direction (“The Rat Pack”), he may have the ideal background as an indie composer.

Adler considers himself a melodist, but thinks “melody has gotten a bad rap, particularly in the indie world.” So his m.o. lately has been the creation of “stealth melodies, that bring something to the picture, that stay in your mind, sneak up on you.”

“The main thing is the storytelling and character,” Adler says. “(I’m) looking for interesting musical problems to solve on films that have something to say, where there’s some passion behind it. You see that in the indie world, but you’re also starting to see it in studio films that aspire to those values.”

Alex Wurman’s delicate score for “13 Conversations About One Thing” combines two pianos, two harps, recorder, flute, celeste and unusual percussion (including big clay pots). It needed to be neutral but affecting, he says, so he wrote a melody that could be interpreted both ways.

“Subtlety is my best friend,” he adds. “I get to read between the lines so much, and imply what cannot be delivered in words.”

As for the money, Wurman is pragmatic. “It’s just a matter of reality and craftsmanship,” he says.

Wurman, too, has worked on studio films (“Play It to the Bone”) but he likens his career to an actor who appears onstage and -screen. “I enjoy working in both (indies and studio films). I’ll be unhappy if I don’t get to do both consistently in my career.”

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