Director-composer teams think synch

Film tandems find harmony in creative tension

One of the key dynamics in the collaborative art of filmmaking arises from ongoing relationships between like-minded artists. Think of directors and their favorite cinematographers, screenwriters or set designers. The same holds true of helmers and composers.

Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann’s suspense-laden collaborations established the template in this regard, but there’s also David Lean and Maurice Jarre, Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, and the late Anthony Minghella and Gabriel Yared.

Other notable recent pairings include Darren Aronofsky and Clint Mansell (“Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain”), and Joe Wright and Dario Marianelli (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Atonement” and the upcoming “The Soloist”).

But what exactly makes for a winning combination between director and composer, and how are such relationships sustained?

“I guess we have similar outlooks — in particular putting the characters in the films in cruel but amusing situations,” says Carter Burwell, who has scored all the Coen brothers’ movies, including “Burn After Reading,” their latest effort. “My wife claims they just don’t want to interview other composers, and Joel once told me that the auditions they did for ‘Blood Simple’ (the Coens’ first feature) involved the oddest group and that he found composers difficult to read and understand.”

A more likely common ground for Burwell and the Coens is flexibility. “They’re willing to let me try things they might not have anticipated,” he says. “They often know exactly what they want, as in ‘O Brother, Where Are Thou?’ I try not to be too whiny when that happens.

“But there are other times when they don’t know, like with ‘Fargo,’ and that’s the most fun for me. ‘No Country for Old Men’ also had very little score, but ‘Burn After Reading’ has a lot of score. That balance works well for the films, and also for our relationship.”

For Terence Blanchard, who since “Jungle Fever” (1991) has scored every Spike Lee pic requiring original music, it’s a question of understanding the boss’s needs.

“Spike wants his story told a certain way, and my job is to facilitate that,” Blanchard says. “But while he is very determined in terms of the type of music he wants — he likes melodic, orchestral themes people can recognize and remember — he doesn’t tell me how to achieve that.”

Their latest effort, the WWII-centered “The Miracle at St. Anna,” found Blanchard on a quest for “melody that hits you in the back of the throat.”

Lee, who calls Blanchard “a great musician” with “a wonderful ability to look at a scene and give you what you need,” notes that “Miracle” was in many ways their toughest collaboration, requiring 110 minutes worth of Blanchard’s music — the most he’d ever written for Lee — and their biggest orchestra thus far.

But Lee and Blanchard long ago perfected a system.

“As soon as the script is done,” says Lee, “Terence gets it, and we talk about it. While I’m cutting the film, I send him scenes in New Orleans. The first time the film is screened, he comes up to New York. Then when there’s a final cut, he comes back to New York to talk about instrumentation. He then goes back to New Orleans and sends me a CD of sketches of the themes. Then I approve, he writes the score, and we record it.”

Ultimately, Blanchard summarizes their relationship in a single word: trust. “The director may ask for something, and the composer thinks, ‘We can do this differently,'” Blanchard says. “It may sound outlandish, but you need to trust that person. And it works the other way, too. The director has been living with this film much longer than I have. ”

Thomas Newman, with whom Sam Mendes has worked exclusively on all four of his films, including their latest, “Revolutionary Road,” finds another word essential. “I’m looking for leadership,” he insists, “for someone who knows when not to throw out good material. You want someone who doesn’t backpedal. Sometimes, you get acceptance followed by rejection later, when there’s less time to fix things. That’s not good. So leadership is big.”

He also finds Mendes’ method of exploring and working the material appealing. “Sam stresses presentation,” Newman says. “We look at what we can refine through music. What interests me about music in general is sharpening the tonal or dramatic focus. And because Sam’s movies are so filled with nuance, that can be very rewarding.”

Not surprisingly, Mendes is very involved throughout. “Sam has heard every cue in a formative form,” Newman says. “Then he comes to the studio and hears it, and then he’ll listen when I record it with orchestra. He’ll approve every mix. He’s there at every turn.”

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