Women Composers Look to Even Up the Movie Score

Jackie Venice
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

As the movie business struggles with diversity and gender equality issues, there are signs of progress on the music front: At least four features being released between now and year’s end have been scored by women, and at least two are expected to be major awards contenders.

That may not sound like much. But consider this: No female composer has been nominated for an original-score Oscar in the past 15 years, and only four women have been nominated in the entire 81-year history of the category. Two have won: British composers Rachel Portman, for “Emma,” and Anne Dudley, for “The Full Monty.”

“Rainbow Time,” scored by Heather McIntosh, opened Nov. 4. “Elle,” with music by Dudley, opened Nov. 16; “Manchester by the Sea,” with music by Canadian composer Lesley Barber, opened Nov. 18; and “Jackie,” with music by English composer Mica Levi, was released Dec. 2.

“What films you get to work on is a roll of the dice, like it is for everybody,” says Academy music-branch governor Laura Karpman. “But there is change in the air, and opportunities for women like I haven’t seen, ever. People want this within the Academy, and within the business as well.”

Karpman is also president of the Alliance for Women Film Composers, which staged an all-women film composers concert attended by 1,500 in downtown L.A. in August.

Recently, Women in Film sponsored another L.A. concert, showcasing the work of 13 more composers including Deborah Lurie (“Safe Haven”), the most successful American female film composer in terms of box office (15 films grossing over $400 million).

Last year, according to statistics compiled by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women made up just 2% of composers working on the top 250 domestic-grossing films; and in 2014, it was just 1% of the top 250.

“These numbers just need to change,” says music supervisor Tracy McKnight, chair of WIF’s newly formed music committee. “We have to be in the conversation. Directors, producers and studios need to have these women on their radar.”

Whether by coincidence or a commitment to change, the likelihood of women composers vying for top awards this year is greater than it’s ever been.
It is impossible to ignore the music of “Manchester by the Sea” or “Jackie,” two films that have already gotten buzz for their acting performances. In “Manchester,” Kenneth Lonergan’s drama about a tragedy-stricken Massachusetts family, it’s Barber’s use of voices that, the composer says, “felt right for the location and the emotional landscape.”

The Toronto-based composer wrote music that she thought might complement the classical pieces (Handel, Albinoni, Massenet) Lonergan had already slotted into the film.

She took inspiration from Calvinist hymns brought by the 17th century Pilgrims to New England, wrote a piece for voice, and recorded her 19-year-old daughter — who is studying opera at McGill University — singing all the parts via Skype. With the chorale as a starting point, she then wrote additional music for a small chamber orchestra, predominantly strings and piano, all with “a certain amount of restraint … something a little bit cold and inevitable as well.”

In the case of “Jackie,” a searing portrait of Jackie Kennedy in the 1963 assassination of her husband, President Kennedy, and its aftermath, director Pablo Larrain specifically sought a woman and chose Levi, whose “Under the Skin” score earned a 2014 BAFTA nomination.

Says Larrain: “I thought it would be more meaningful if our composer brought a feminine sensibility to the score. Mica understood the direction I had in mind, but came at it in a completely unique way. I would send her scenes and moments and she would send me back music which wouldn’t always work for that specific scene but I would find another [scene] where it fit perfectly.”

Their striking, unsettling use of a massive string sound at the start of “Jackie” has already garnered attention. “I got together a group of instruments that I thought felt resonant to the time because it was a period piece,” Levi says. She chose a small ensemble of strings, flute, clarinet, and percussion.

“That story is very unique, not just the privileged position she was in, but also the amount of loss and the kind of extreme trauma that she experienced. I was trying to write music that I think she’d like, something that might move her. The way that it was used came down to where Pablo put it.”

The opening piece was originally designed for “a more dramatic moment, maybe the middle, Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination,” Levi notes.

For “Elle,” Paul Verhoeven’s French-language rape-revenge movie starring Isabelle Huppert, Dudley points out “the character of Michele could come across as very cold, almost heartless. The music needed to give her a bit of warmth, a bit of soul. Also, the music needed to draw people into the story. I approached it like a thriller.”

A very rich-sounding chamber orchestra of about 30 players was required, Dudley said. Late in the film, she notes, “it becomes seriously weird and quite disturbing. So I used two solo violins, played without any vibrato, so that it’s almost painful, you feel so on-edge.” She also added synthesizers and programmed drums “for the violent parts.”

This was Dudley’s second film with Verhoeven (after 2006’s “Black Book”) and she praises him as “articulate and knowledgeable about music. We talk about what the music’s trying to do, the moods it’s trying to evoke. I play him some demos, he has some things to say, he comes to the session, he smiles and he’s charming.”

For the just-released indie “Rainbow Time” — a comedy-drama about a family with a developmentally delayed brother — McIntosh supplied a mostly electronic score, a late discovery when she realized that her more traditional orchestral score was “a bit too cloying.”

Trying out her new Prophet 6 synthesizer, “that more synthetic sound offered a new vibrancy, opening up the palette and giving it a less pushy emotional space. It allowed the performances to really shine.”

McIntosh, reached by phone in Chicago where she is composer-in-residence at Columbia College, says she thinks “there have been some really big strides in awareness” of women composers. The concert [in August] was a huge step, to have our music showcased; what a dynamic range of music we are making.”

Observes Barber: “The more visible we are, the more it will shift the way people picture a film composer. When filmmakers are looking for a new voice, they can also think of the women in the room. And the more wide-open those doors are, the more exciting cinema is going to be.”

Adds McKnight: “Let us be in the conversation. Let those women try. Put them in the ring. When you have a film like ‘Wonder Woman,’ why not let a woman demo for that?”

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    1. Jo Mama says:

      There are no man or woman composers, just the music. For all your championing of womens’ projects, it doesn’t help you get them off the ground. Winter’s War, Agt Carter Season II, Ghostbusters, Miss Sloane, they all get no respect in terms of creative talent, and are doomed from the start. If you believe so much in the product, show it. Or shut the fuck up.

    2. Josivaldo says:

      It would be awesome to have Wonder Woman scored by a female composer, but, instead, they chose a dude from Hans Zimmer’s factory. So, yeah, get ready to hear the same score again: Man of Steel percussion, power anthems Transformers-style…

      • not relevant says:

        why would a score composed by a woman be necessarily different? if anything they’ll try to match the director’s style and she’s a woman

    3. Steve says:

      Mica Levi is a mad genius. If you want to hear music you’ve never heard before, check out her “pop” band Micachu and the Shapes.

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