Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the French Touch, the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York turned the spotlight on music composers with a panel highlighting the work of musicians from different nationalities and backgrounds.
The roundtable, organized by UniFrance and the Film Society of the Lincoln Center, brought together Nicolas Jaar for Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan,” Gregoire Hetzel for Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Years” and Catherine Corsini’s “Summertime,” Morgan Grace Kibby for “Bang Gang,” Mathieu Lamboley for “Lolo” and Mark Snow, whose eclectic credits include “X-Files,” “Smallville” and Alain Resnais’ “Wild Grass.”
The New York panel illustrated the variety of musicians with different trainings working on movie scores today.
“We’re in a very interesting time for composition, especially bringing up electronic music. Bands are crossing so much now into doing scores. Directors are now seeking out bands for the music they create, to be married to films,” said Kibby, whose band M83 just scored their first pic, Robert Schwentke’s “Insurgent.” “The world of composition is opening up to people who have different sets of skills and there’s so much more opportunity for the people who aren’t the Hans Zimmer of the world,” added Kibby.
Jaar, for, instance was approached by Audiard even though he comes from the electro and deep house world.
Hetzel and Lamboley both have a classical training but are versatile.
“When you have a classical training, you can work on many different type of music, electro or rock included but we don’t work the same way as electro or rock pros and we’ll always be better at orchestras,” explained Hetzel. “An electro composer can spend one week to find a sound of drum or beat but we won’t,” quipped Hetzel.
With the entry level for composers more accessible than ever before, budgets allocated to scores and/or time limitations have also gone down on most films.
On big movies, says Snow, time limitation is more of an issue than money. But on other pics, “usually the line from the agent will be ‘this great director is doing this new thing, very edgy and cool, you should do it’. But ‘they don’t want to pay you anything but you’ll get your royalties. And everyone steps right up for that,” said Snow.
Back in France, budgets allocated for original scores rep on average 2% of budgets in France, per Hetzel, who is one of the “happy few” composers working on high-profile French films.
Although France is home to some of the world’s most famous composers, notably Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat, music hasn’t always played a significant role in French movies. “New Wave directors like Francois Truffaut were fond of music but there is also a longer tradition of social realism in movies perpetuated by directors like Abdellatif Kechiche or the Dardennes brothers (from Belgium),” said Hetzel. Indeed, many French composers such as Desplat work more in the U.S. than in France.
“Since French movies tend to be very chatty, music is often confined to an accompanying role consisting in undulating between words,” Hetzel added.
Concurred Kibby, “French cinema tends to use music in a very different way than American cinema.” In France, the approach to music is often “less is more,” pointed out Kibby, who collaborated with Husson and French producers from Paris-based Full House.
Lamboley, who is part of a new generation of music composers working on mainstream pics, said the challenge in France is to avoid getting typecast in certain film genre. “Directors mostly call me for comedies. Even if you want to change, they call you for that; it’s a sort stereotype,” said Lamboley.
Addressing the differences between the French and American way of composing music, Snow said he had never been given as much creative freedom as when he worked with Alain Resnais for the first time on “Coeur.”
“Alain Renais just told me ‘just go, do what you want’ and I thought ‘amazing. This is never going to happen again, this is impossible,'” reminisced Snow, who admitted that he had no idea who Resnais was when he called up and assumed he was a “friend impersonating Charles de Gaulle.”
Snow said Hollywood execs are less willing to give composers much leeway. “When you work on a big movie in Hollywood, (filmmakers and producers) take music from other movies and put it in and then they test screen the film on people. And they have a box ‘Did you like the music?’ And then they call up the composers ‘Do this – don’t get sued but that’s exactly what we want.'”
But even within the constraints of Hollywood, Snow has been able to impose his ideas. “With “X-Files,” at the beginning, they just wanted nothing but vapor and ambient. And slowly but surely, I started to sneak in some music complementing the sound effect,” said Snow, who created the famous “X-Files” theme song.
Having to work with temp scores (music used in previous films or coming from other musicians) is a major turn-off for composers. Jaar said he was offered to work on a TV show but turned it down because they sent him a Coldplay song.
In France as well, composers are increasingly forced to work the American way with temp scores. “It’s a setback when a filmmaker asks you to inspire yourself from a music that you don’t like; but the worst is when you have to imitate your own music,” said Hetzel.
Kibby said she told Husson from the very start that she wasn’t allowed to have her use temp scores. “I said ‘the last thing I want to do is deal with you, making me re-hash something that’s already been done, I refuse to do that and she said ‘ok.'”
In most cases, composers start working on scores once the film is completed but they still have to collaborate closely with filmmakers, as do cinematographers or editors. For instance on “Lolo,” Lamboley said Delpy was very specific about the type of score she wanted.
“(Delpy) was looking for a kind of romantic comedy music and she knew all the scenes where she wanted music. She had French references likes Alexandre Desplat and Henry Mancini so I decided to compose a mix of orchestra and jazz music, which fits the film,” said Lamboley.
Working with Audiard, who is also known for being highly meticulous, proved a learning experience for Jaar who had never scored a movie. “I would just send him something and I would get 25 no’s until I got one yes. It was also about creating a large volume of work so that he could pick stuff. Because what I did for scene number 3 ended up being used for scene number 7, I realized that I was creating a little dictionary of sound that he could re-use,” said Jaar, who .
Kibby, who is a close friend of Husson, was able to write about 80% of “Bang Gang”‘s score before it started filming. She explained that she approached the score through the mood and texture envisioned by the director rather than through theme and character.
“I kept writing and writing and writing – and (Husson) would play the music on-set for her actors so they could get in the headspace of what the mood was,” said Kibby.
Regardless of their backgrounds, nationalities and level of experience, composers always find inspiration from unexpected sources. Jaar, for instance, said he watched “No Country for Old Men” to get ideas because he thought the movie’s vibe was similar to “Dheepan'”s. “I watched ‘No Country for Old Men’ and I realized there was no music in this film (…) so what I did was making a whole score (two hours) of music that was playing inside the movie!”