Composers sound off

Danna, Wilson speak their minds at Santa Barbara fest

“Imagine you’re Philip Seymour Hoffman and you’ve just signed on to do ‘Capote,’ and the first thing they do is sit you down to watch some other actor doing the role. Or really, more like 10 other actors.”

Thus did composer Mychael Danna, who scored “Capote,” summon up today’s biggest bete noire for film composers: being asked to watch the picture they’re about to score with a temp track comprised of music penned by others.

Danna aired his lament Sunday at the second annual “Scoring the Film” panel staged by the Santa Barbara Film Festival. He was joined by fellow composers Heitor Pereira (“Curious George,” “Ask the Dust”), Nancy Wilson (“Elizabethtown”), Alex Wurman (“March of the Penguins”) and J. Peter Robinson (“The World’s Fastest Indian”) on a program moderated by Jim Svejda.

Subject of temp scores loomed large on last year’s panel and, as before, there were various views of the phenomenon expressed this time.

“The big problem,” Danna explained, “is that I like to score from the point of view of coming up with a conception of what the music can do for a film. By the time we get onto a film, there’s almost always a temp score in place. It’s a guide. But the unfortunate reality is that the composer spends at least 50% of his energy pulling away from what was put in. Sometime they even use your own music from another film.”

Robinson expressed a more measure view. “At least these temp scores give you an idea of the taste, or lack thereof, of the director,” he said. “It can sometimes give you a shortcut into what they’re looking for.”

Noting that some composers are now refusing to listen to temp scores — “I ask if I have to” — Wurman observed that composers today are not nearly so wedded to conventional notions of how a picture should be scored. “One of the fundamental changes is the variety of types and styles of music you might use for a film score. In the old days, if you said, ‘It’s going to be like Wagner,’ people knew what to expect.”

Today, as the range of this year’s Oscar nominees alone illuminate, many different techniques and instrumentation styles are fair game.

“As certain scores are becoming more abstract, with more sound design aspects being included, you really have to provide a finished score to a director or producer,” Robinson stressed.

Danna seconded the notion. “One thing that’s really changed from the old studio days is the involvement of the director,” he said. “In the old days, the director was kept a little bit away; it was the head of the music department who had more say. Now, directors have much more input and control. And now that we’re able to put a lot of the stuff up electronically, a lot of the mystery is taken out of it.”

While some directors are notoriously deaf to and/or inarticulate about musical matters, Pereira, a Brazilian guitarist and performer by background who has been writing for films for a decade, noted that “there are certain directors who really enjoy seeing music being born,” including Barry Levinson and Sean Penn, both of whom were part of the process when Pereira worked with them.

Wilson said her husband, Cameron Crowe, is intimately involved in the musical side of things on his pictures and explained that, as a classically trained musician, she is continually storing up notes and tracks that could be used down the line for a film.

Asked what he does when not working on a specific project, Pereira said, “When I don’t have a movie, I go into my studio and push a button and play for hours and hours. I create a palette of myself, and later, I have my own temp music for a score. I write and work and play all the time.”

Wilson said that on “Elizabethtown,” she had the luxury of nine months to work on the soundtrack, while Robinson admitted that he once did an entire score in three days, for his first film with frequent collaborator Roger Donaldson.

Despite the intense time pressure and cluttering of minds created by temp scores, Danna expressed enthusiasm and optimism about the increased opportunity for varied and diverse music in films compared to the old studio days.

“If you look back 20, 30, 40 years ago, 90% of the music you hear in films represents exactly what you see on the screen,” he said.

The options, with technology and so many different musical influences swirling around the world, are now much greater, he believes.

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