Filmmakers more savvy in tapping music to serve film

The beat may be going on, but in the world of indie film in the past five years, it has definitely been coming from a different drummer.

Music supervisor Gemma Dempsey (“Shallow Grave,” “Leaving Las Vegas”) says that these days, “directors, especially indie directors, are much more savvy about music. They do their research on the ‘Net, they come into the studio with soundtrack ideas that are extremely creative.”

It’s Dempsey’s feeling that much of the change was facilitated by the rise in rave culture and the electronica underground.

The financial drawbacks of an indie production means these films don’t have the big budgets for a hit MTV track, but neither do they have the restrictions that kind of music requires. “If you can’t afford the big names,” says Dempsey, “you end up making far more interesting choices and often times those choices are a better fit for the movie.”

Chic to chic

“The days of the big-budget soundtrack are gone,” says Thrive Records owner Ricardo Vinas. “The market is abysmal and soundtracks aren’t selling like they used to. Indie directors looking for a compelling soundtrack have to find a partner in the music business to help them carry the burden.”

Vinas, who has just such a relationship with Lions Gate and Newmarket, believes this is more than just sharing the cross-marketing risks/rewards, but really about finding someone who has music relationships.

For example, when Chris Nolan did “Memento,” he wanted a Radiohead track for the film — a tune that would normally exceed the entire music budget. But Vinas went that extra step. “I know Radiohead’s manager, so I showed him the film,” he says. “He thought it was cool and creative and the kind of thing Radiohead should be involved with, so we got the song for cheap.” The presence of that song helped the soundtrack do exceptionally well.

In certain cases, big-name acts like Paul Oakenfold are shipping copies of new tracks to Hollywood music supervisors long before their own labels are hearing them. But with some directors crossing over from musicvideos and other media, they’ve also got their own soundtrack ideas. Early versions of the script for Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” had artists and songs written into the script and the vast majority of her choices sit far outside mainstream radio.

Writer-director-actor Zach Braff took things even further with his “Garden State.”

Not only did he write the movie with a soundtrack in mind, but he also included songs by several unknown and unsigned artists right alongside the recognizable names, and then used the whole thing as a sales tool.

“When I was try to sell the movie,” says Braff, “I gave producers a copy of the mix and asked them to listen to it while reading. I just thought it was the best way to convey the tone I wanted.”

His tactic worked, but when it came time to try to secure the rights to the songs by big acts, the initial music quotes they received were astronomical. “Let’s just say you could buy a small house for what some of the songs cost,” says Braff.

So he wrote individual letters to all the bands and included clips of the scenes he wanted their songs for and all the bands agreed to help him out.

“It was great, it was artists helping out artists,” Braff says.

This level of artistic exchange is changing the traditional relationships between music supervisors, composers, directors and screenwriters.

Brian Reitzell, who worked as a music producer for both of Coppola’s films and Roman Coppola’s debut, “CQ,” says, “I like to score a film long before it’s shot.”

To this end he filled three CDs with music, to which Sofia Coppola listened to long before her “Lost in Translation” script was finished.

Sound and vision

Composer Jon Brion, who worked with Paul Thomas Anderson on “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love,” and with Michel Gondry on “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — two directors known for the complete integration of their soundtracks — says success for those directors was helped along by their physiological understanding of the effects of music.

“They understand how music can tell the story. That music shouldn’t be something tacked on at the end. Usually, producers allocate about 1% of the budget for soundtrack. Ask a first-year film student how much difference music makes in the emotional impact of a film — it’s certainly more than 1%.”

But, as “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream” composer Clint Mansell says, “When you’re talking about people like Sofia Coppola and Paul Thomas Anderson, you’re talking about the cream of the crop.

“It’s no surprise that the best work is being done by the most talented people. The last thing I want as a composer is to be the smartest person in the room.”

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