'Bourne' composer offers students 'magic' lesson

Want to be a great film composer? Learn to be an actor first.

“When people ask me how to become a composer, I say you should go to drama college,” said composer John Powell, whose credits include “The Bourne Ultimatum” (and its two predecessors), “Shrek” and “Happy Feet.” “Studying drama is what’s going to get you everywhere; your ability to understand a story and what music can do to push it, pull it [and] tweak it.”

It may be a bit late for the 12 aspiring composers participating in the 21st annual ASCAP Television & Film Scoring Workshop to head back to school — most of them already have advanced degrees in music — but his point on the role music plays in propelling a story forward was well taken.

On July 16, the British-born, Los Angeles-based composer who also scored movies such as “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “X-Men,” “Ice Age” and “Bolt,” discussed his background and scoring techniques. However, the red meat was in the lessons he learned along the way.

Never underestimate the power of bluffing, Powell said. “I don’t want to tell you there’s not a lot of bullshit in this business because there is. It’s about your confidence. People are looking for someone to confidently lead them toward completion… If [the music] seems to be wrong, put the brake on and confidently go in another direction, whether you know where you’re going or not.”

Also, learn how to be a team player, even when it means swallowing your pride. He advised not talking to directors in musical terms, but in their own vocabulary. “On the whole, try not to talk in musical terms [because the director] will be thinking you’re a wanker because you know more about music than they do… just make their movie work as well as possible.”

That also means always remembering that what works better for the film, even if it means changing your music, is always in your best interest.

“It took me years and years to really see that,” he said. By the time he scored the third installment in the “Bourne” series, he’d learned that lesson well. He spent four months on a score, only to have the director decide at the last minute that the temp score, taken from Powell’s score for the second Bourne movie, worked much better in about 30% of the movie. “At a certain point, you have to [realize], it’s a pragmatic art.”

He also spoke of the struggle to stay away from the dubbing stage. “You’re not welcome, don’t let anyone tell you you are,” he said. “I used to go to dubbing stages and could never understand why I didn’t work with the same folks twice. I changed agents and she said, ‘Jerry Goldsmith never went to the dub; don’t ever go to the dub.’ You’re assaulted by the reality that you’re a third of the sounds: there’s dialogue, special effects and your music.”

Then, after holding forth on the craft and answering questions for nearly two hours, Powell admitted in some ways he had no idea what he was talking about.

“It’s magic,” he said of the writing process. “I don’t know how it works. Exactly how you do this is unknown and you shouldn’t know how you do it.”

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