Composers and music execs discuss tech tricks, marketing and originality in film music
On Nov. 6, a group of top composers and music execs gathered at the Variety offices to talk about the state of contemporary film music. Composers Hans Zimmer (“The Da Vinci Code,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”) and John Powell (“Happy Feet,” “United 93”) were joined by Fox Music prexy Robert Kraft and Sony Pictures Worldwide Music president Lia Vollack. Composer Thomas Newman (“The Good German,” “Little Children”), unable to make the lunchtime meeting, was interviewed on the same topics later in the day by moderator Jon Burlingame.
Variety: Let’s start by talking about the role of technology in the job of a film composer. Has it changed how you do business?
Newman: It gives collaborative immediacy. There are ways in which you can put music up against image and have an immediate response to it — so a lot of the poetry of being a composer is gone because here you are “presenting.” But that’s also a good thing because in fairness to directors, who want to be able to collaborate and tell stories well with music, oftentimes that kind of collaboration in a small studio environment is valid in terms of good dramatic musical choices later on.
Zimmer: Our ambitions are still the same. Let’s just write a decent tune and somehow get it in there. The world is our oyster with iChat. It doesn’t cost anything, and suddenly I’ve got a drummer in Senegal in my room, a guy I always wanted to work with. As a musician, it’s fantastic, and it’s great for filmmakers.
Kraft: The job hasn’t changed, but the way it’s done has absolutely evolved. I had a number of bad experiences with composers on different continents — but recently we’ve had spotting sessions with a composer on a big screen in one room, and a director sitting at the table, and everybody’s happy. The technology has evolved to a place where it feels like we’re together.
Variety: Some film songs, and even film scores, are no longer available on CD but are available as downloads. Does this mark a sea change in the marketing of movie music?
Newman: This happened to me on “Little Children.” We were told it was going to be a digital release, and the reality of it all was startling. The way in which we listen to music, the delivery of music is so profoundly different. As someone who grew up with LPs and CDs, I’m used to the physical aspects of having a jewel case, taking out the artwork and perusing it as I’m listening.
Vollack: Consumers don’t want to consume music in a way that they’ve been told they have to. They want to be able to get this song, to hear this from their friends, to see it on a MySpace page, to get an email about a clip on YouTube. It’s mostly about giving consumers that extra piece they want to have, but at the same time being able to give it to people in a satisfying way.
Beyond what we do in servicing the film, which is the most important thing, the bottom line is, none of the commerce of getting the music out is substantial.
Kraft: “The Devil Wears Prada” did $288 million worldwide for Fox studios. It was No. 1 in every market. A soundtrack that has Madonna, U2, Alanis Morissette, Jamiroquai — the kind of movie for which, five years ago, all of us would be celebrating platinum records. With all due respect to my great friends at the label that put it out, we might be at 30,000 units. That is a stunning sea change.
If you see “The Devil Wears Prada” and you hear the U2 song over that beautiful scene where Meryl Streep arrives in Paris, you think, “I love this song, I’m going to go cherrypick that song off the iTunes site, or maybe it’s already on the U2 album I have. I don’t know if I need Fox to compile 14 songs for me on a separate, stand-alone album.”
Variety: Is there less originality in movie music than, say, 20 or 30 years ago?
Zimmer: I think there is more originality. There’s just so much of it: the diversity of voices, and they’re strong voices and styles.
Kraft: There is an international film community now where I am hearing things that are not coming out of Hollywood — other voices that ordinarily might be hard for us to hear.
Powell: (At a recent film music concert) Gustavo Santaolalla came on and played “Brokeback Mountain.” It struck me what an amazing piece it was, an amazing score. It resonated through me, and more significantly, he just played it on a guitar. Not only did it evoke the movie, it evoked everything that’s great about good music. Gustavo comes from a record background.
Newman: I don’t go to a lot of movies and say, “Wow, I’ve never heard something like that before.” I think what I’m aware of more than anything, with such a high degree of collaboration from film people to musicians, is that a lot of the essential musical choices are made almost before a composer is hired. You can argue that, yes, it’s temp music, but it still is an indication from editorial and filmic people that tell you the direction you need to be going in. So oftentimes a lot of those dramatic issues have been solved prior to your involvement, and your job is to satisfy those dramatic requirements and hopefully not have to cop the temp.
Variety: Why are so many scores now thrown out at the last minute?
Vollack: Film scores go south more often now than they used to, but not because the composers are any less talented, or because the directors are any less clear about what they’re saying. I think part of it is, oddly enough, temp scores are so good now. On a film where a composer doesn’t start doing the mockups early, some directors get really accustomed to being able to cull from all of the best pieces ever written and put them all in their movie. They temp the whole thing with everything that they love.
Kraft: Lia’s correct. The pressure in a preview situation with the temp music — and the picture working in that situation — and then suddenly somebody’s job is to replace that with something original? It’s of course going to be different.
Newman: It’s the cheapest way to effect change in a post-production environment. Sometimes it’s sacrificial; sometimes composers are thrown off movies not because the scores are bad, but because it’s the easiest thing to unload and fairly cost-efficient. I think temps are terrible things mostly because if you listen to anything, you immediately become biased to it. You can see a movie with no music in it and you can have a number of types of creative reactions, but the minute they play a temp you go, “Oh, it’s that.” You can say, “No, no, no, it’s the temp, I’m not going to pay attention,” but still you’re tainted now. There’s a pill in your drink.
Vollack: I don’t think you always have to throw out a score entirely. I think there’s a lot you can do to triage the score, fix the score, license a piece of music here, get somebody to fix three more spots if the composer and director are at an impasse. It can be done really well; you can achieve good things.
Variety: What does that say about how respected composers are as creative collaborators in the filmmaking process?
Kraft: Alberto Iglesias (at a “Volver” screening) talked about the way that (director Pedro) Almodovar discussed the light in a particular scene and he wanted the music to be like the light in a Velasquez painting.
Powell: That’s one of the most useful things somebody could say to you. (Instead of) “Listen to this piece I’ve temped in here, can you do something like that?” If somebody says, “Look at the light,” and treat you as an artist, they’re going to get much better results. I think what’s great is to always have at the back of your mind: “OK, I can make a piece that sounds very similar to that temp. But I’ve got at least three ideas on this, and I’m going to give it a really good go, and if it doesn’t work, I know how we can fix it.”
Zimmer: When I play a cue to a director, I might have worked on it for weeks, yet the director doesn’t like
it. First of all, they are not saying, “You’re an idiot for having written this thing.” But the thing is, it just doesn’t communicate yet. I’m happy to go back and have another bash at it, because this isn’t some sort of mathematical formula. These are very subtle shadings, and usually words don’t work. We’re forever trying to progress in some way or another, but we love the idea of: A) the process of writing, and B) solving the riddle.
Newman: It can be a great time for film music. Does it turn out that way? Not all the time, because there are so many people — middle-management people — with agendas that can make things more difficult. I’m so grateful to just be in a room with great players and hang with them, and have lunch with them. Any time is potentially a great time. Yes, you may be shot down, and things may be awful, but things can also be potentially fantastic. Sometimes when you say, “I want to be a part of this movie,” as opposed to ride a surfboard on top of it, everyone does better.