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How to Find a Great Composer for Your Film

The following is a guest post, presented by ASCAP Composer Spotlight, by Alex Steyermark, the director of The 78 Project, Losers Take All, One Last Thing and Prey For Rock & Roll. Steyermark has also worked as a music supervisor and music producer for such people as Ang Lee and Spike Lee, and is a member of the Columbia University Faculty, running the ASCAP/Columbia University Film Scoring Workshop.

Dogme Manifesto and current filmmaking trends notwithstanding, if you’ve decided that music is something you want for your film, and you’re at that point in your production where your musical needs are becoming clear, then you have two choices: license pre-existing music or get someone to write original music for your film. The first option requires some knowledge of copyright, licensing issues, industry contacts, money, time, and is scary as hell. The second option is mostly just scary as hell.

But not insurmountable. Remember your first experience directing actors? Presumably you got through it, and you’ve got persuasive performances to show for it. Remember your first time sitting down with your d.p., and trying to explain all the complicated ideas and feelings you had in mind for your film? Presumably, your film looks and feels amazing as a result of all that conversation and planning. You can get a great score for your film, and you can get one within your budget. But you do need to find the right person.

The first thing I tell other filmmakers is to think of choosing your composer as casting one of your lead roles. That person has to be right for the part. How do you know? It helps to start by first doing your homework. Load a bunch of different music into your Avid or Final Cut Pro system (that’s the easy part), and start laying it up against your picture. Get a sense of what feels right and of what doesn’t work. This seems painfully obvious, but I’ve had many a conversation with filmmakers who say they like this or that band, or this or that composer, and when I ask if they’ve actually tried their music against picture the answer is, “Well, not yet… but I have all their CDs, and I think they’d be awesome.” Maybe they would be. But music takes on an entirely different character when placed against picture. That’s what’s indescribably magical about it, and that’s what’s incredibly infuriating as well.

Be experimental. Try music that isn’t obvious. Maybe a teenager is dying in your film. Instead of sad, sweet music, try something light and upbeat to suggest optimism and hope; if poignant is what you’re going for, conflicting emotions in the audience will produce the stronger effect. That’s what the composer Anton Sanko did for my film, One Last Thing…, and I liked the way that worked. Another example: when I was working on the music for the Jim Sheridan film, The Boxer, there was a scene where several young boys start a fire which ends up being an event that erupts into a riot. Instead of tense, pulsating action music, we created score that was lyrical and majestic, with a children’s choir singing over it. It became an elegy, and the scene played as tragic. Which it became clear that it was. In other words, your music should add something to the conversation, not underline what’s already there.

Listen to all kinds of music. You wouldn’t start looking for DPs without watching at a wide range of movies and deciding what kind of visual styles resonate with you. You should do the same with music. And I don’t mean put on some music while you write emails or cook dinner. I mean put everything else aside for a few hours and surround yourself with the music. Really listen. What is that instrument that I like? (Read the liner notes). I really like that melody and not that one; how would I describe why to someone else?  This mix sounds right for my film, that one doesn’t. If you’re not a musician or musically literate yourself (and more often than not, that is the case), put together a basic working vocabulary of instruments and artists and genres and ways of describing your feelings about music.

Be realistic. Unfortunately, most films (studio and indies alike) treat music as a budgetary afterthought. I believe that a minimum of 5-10% of a film’s budget should be set aside for music. But whether you have $500,000, or $5,000, or $500 set aside for music, understand that music usually does have fixed costs. Musicians like to get paid, or at least get taxi fare to haul their instruments. Recording engineers like to get paid. Even if a composer has their own home studio (most do), their materials cost money.

Also, your music should be appropriate to the scale of your film. If you’ve shot a film on a shoestring budget with DSLRs in your apartment, a full-blown orchestral score just might seem silly. And while it’s gotten to the point where most synthesizers have great natural instrument sounds that are really convincing, do you really want your film to sound like the big budget Hollywood something it’s not?

Think of innovative ways of giving your film a unique musical voice. Maybe your score could feature a musical saw (that’s what my friend Stephen Trask did to great effect for Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent). That distinctive voice is what will add the most to your score and help your film make the greatest impact.

“Where do I find composers?” Well, that actually isn’t too hard, since composers are everywhere. And they’re eager. If anything, the hardest part is narrowing your search down to the best choices. It’s good to have a few composers you want to speak with before you make your final choice. These days, most music schools have some kind of film scoring program. In New York, that can be NYU, Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, there are more. Contact them about your film, put up a flyer. Craigslist works. Go to shows, maybe you’ll see an artist you like; go up to them after the show, start a conversation. I once found a band, Mecca Bodega, in the subway to score an HBO feature length project called Subway Stories.

ASCAP, a performing rights society, is a great resource. They have an entire department dedicated to representing composers who have written or want to write for film. The film scoring program I started in Columbia University’s graduate film school is sponsored by ASCAP, and was founded precisely to pair film directing students together with emerging composers. ASCAP has created a “Composers To Watch” feature on their website that is a great resource for finding eager composers (many with a great deal of experience). It’s very worth checking out: http://www.ASCAP.com/ComposerSpotlight

Other places: jingle houses (many composers there are extremely eager to work on narrative and documentary films), music agencies (with the right approach, you can persuade an established composer to consider your project, much as you might be able to get a name actor), scour the Internet.

Get the conversation started. Once you’ve made contact with a few composers, let them see your film. Set up a meeting over coffee to talk about ideas, ask the composer to bring along some other music samples that they think might be appropriate for your film. And remember this: you think you’re nervous about handing your baby over to a total stranger? This person really wants to write music for your film, and is nervous about whether or not you’re going to like their still nascent ideas, not to mention their entire body of work. And film and music feel like two entirely different languages, so you’re both going to have to work to find common ground.

It’s also really important to keep in mind that the composer is usually going to be the first audience for your film, so be prepared to hear feedback and insights that may come as a completely unexpected surprise to you. Think of this as a good thing. It’s been my experience that the really good composers will bring a whole wealth of non-musical references to the conversation: literary, dramatic, scientific. Be open to new ideas. You may have had one instrument in mind, but now the composer suggests something else that could really be unique. You thought you wanted a flute. They suggest a duduk. You’ve never heard of a duduk. That could be really cool, have them play something for you with duduk.

Can you work with this person? It’s not like you’re going to have to be best friends, but you are going to be spending a whole lot of time in cramped quarters eating smelly takeout with this person, so make sure you can get along. You want the conversation to be open, uninhibited. Can you make suggestions without the composer getting prickly about it? Are you open to suggestions that go against your preconceived ideas, and can the composer make suggestions in a way that doesn’t make you all sweaty and nervous? Maybe you really like them as a person, but you’re not so sure about the music. Go with your gut. This is tricky, because you have to be prepared to cede control on something extremely important, something that can elevate your film to new heights or can bring it disastrously crashing down. At the end of the day, though, it is still a director’s medium, and both you and composer need to be clear on that relationship.

After going through all of the above, you’ve decided you’ve found the perfect composer for your film and you’re ready to begin your collaboration. You and your composer will go through your film together from top to bottom, you’ll pick the places where you think there should be music, you’ll both talk about ideas you think might work. But you can only talk about music so much, you need to actually hear something, so the composer will start out by sending you some rough sketches of musical ideas for your film, either general thematic ideas or cues for specific scenes. Either way is fine. The main thing is to get a musical dialogue going.

The first time you hear these sketches you will most likely freak out, they’ll sound technically crude and awful, the melodies will be awkward and unformed. You will go many sleepless nights. You will wonder how it was possible that you turned over your entire life’s purpose to this other person. This is normal. I have yet to meet a director at any level of experience who hasn’t felt this way. Take a deep breath. Remind yourself that the composer is already scared to death that you’re going to hate their sketches, they’re afraid of failing, they wanted to impress you right out of the gate. Everyone’s feeling vulnerable here.

And then, like in any good relationship, be honest and be gentle. Don’t try to talk “music.” There’s nothing a composer dislikes more, and finds more confusing and unhelpful, than a director who tries to speak “music.” Don’t say things like, “I wish it were more minor” or “It’s not the meter I had in mind.” Instead, speak about emotions, feelings, dramatic intentions, think about how you’d express the same idea to an actor. In fact, it can often be useful to explain the scene in exactly the same way you explained it to your actors when you were rehearsing or filming. Be positive, be constructive. Your composer is eager to please, they’ll rush back to their studio and make it all better.

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