Roundtable: 6 Composers on Dealing With Delusional Directors and 'Fake Praise Rejection'

Five veteran composers, along with one relative newcomer who recently graduated from music editor to potential Oscar contender, discuss their biggest challenges, whether they look at box-office numbers and how they'd handle getting fired (one word: "drugs").

This story first appeared in the Jan. 3, 2014, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Put six film composers in a room with a bottle of wine and camaraderie is sure to develop quickly. That's exactly what happened on Dec. 5 at Acabar in Los Angeles when THR's composer roundtable got underway. While actors, directors and producers routinely get all the filmmaking glory, composers are, as one prominent agent said before the roundtable, the "red- headed stepchild" of Hollywood. Frequently working in isolation, facing punishing deadlines and often tasked with "fixing" problematic material, film composers certainly have their fair share of angst -- but they also love to discuss the minutiae of a craft that is not for the faint of heart. After all, creating good film music presents a unique paradox: An effective film score is one that doesn't draw too much attention to itself, but a great score is unforgettable. What's more, a successful film composer must possess traits that have little to do with music: thick skin, a tireless work ethic and the people skills of a seasoned politician. Candid, articulate and often hilariously self-deprecating (of course, the wine helped), the six composers -- Hans Zimmer (12 Years a Slave, Rush), Thomas Newman (Saving Mr. Banks), Christophe Beck (Frozen), Henry Jackman (Captain Phillips), Steven Price (Gravity) and Alan Silvestri (The Croods) -- appeared to relish the opportunity to share war stories and offer a glimpse into one of the most important, yet least understood, jobs in Hollywood.

PHOTOS: Composers Roundtable

What was the biggest musical challenge you faced in the past year?

CHRISTOPHE BECK: We all have to deal with temp scores and music that gets put into the picture at a very early stage that filmmakers fall in love with. And on Frozen, there was a particularly unusual situation where the production designers for the film [went] on a research trip to Norway and came back with a pile of CDs of very obscure Norwegian music of all kinds … one of which was a sung, beautiful rendition of a Christian hymn. When they first played it for me, they talked about how much they loved it. I was quite terrified because that's far outside the field of what I'm comfortable with -- it's not my expertise. After bringing in a Norwegian singer and other instrumentalists, and trying to do our own version of it, we ended up searching out and finding the original composer of the piece and the choir that sang on the recording. So I ended up collaborating with the original composer and we wrote a new tune. We found a way to bring it back in a couple places in the film. We really integrated it into the score.

HANS ZIMMER: Challenges? I don't know. I mean, if we just for a moment not mention Lone Ranger. (Laughter.) The two movies I really enjoyed were actually two truly indie movies: Rush and 12 Years a Slave. Rush was a sort of funny homecoming for me because there was Ron Howard, a friend, and I said: "This isn't going to be a Hollywood movie. Let's embrace this and make it an indie movie." It was truly an enormous amount of fun. In a funny way I feel like there's nothing to be said about the music in 12 Years a Slave. You should only talk about the movie, because it's one of those things that happen very few times in your lifetime, where you're given a chance to work on something which you think is important. Steve [McQueen] made a really important movie. All I tried to do was be translucent and transparent and stay out of the actors' way and embrace Steve's vision.

Did you have to fight the tendency to make the music sound important?

ZIMMER: No, because I was working with a director who was incredibly articulate. … When you work on a film like this, the only way to keep your sanity is to have a lot of humor and camaraderie. So it was incredibly enjoyable. I wish I could tell you some dreadful stories. There wasn't one. I loved the experience.

ALAN SILVESTRI: The Croods was my first opportunity to work at DreamWorks. I would say the challenge was in syncing my work process. When you go there, you really do walk into a family. They had worked passionately on this movie and it went right on up to the top, to Jeffrey [Katzenberg]. One of the first things that I was presented with was a "schedule of review," [where] every two weeks we did this Skype session and reviewed [my progress]. Somewhere around review number six, I was feeling like I haven't rung anybody's bell yet and it was starting to feel like a problem. So I tried to think of what might help. The decision was to walk away from the film and write two thematic pieces of music, and I had to prepare them just as pieces of music. They weren't for a specific scene. It was almost like a technical challenge to try to sync my creative process with the filmmaker team's creative process. But I think they were as nervous as I was at various points -- certainly in the beginning.

THOMAS NEWMAN: Which is why presentation becomes so tough, right? Because you have to almost finish a piece entirely before they reject it. (Laughter.)

SILVESTRI: It's interesting you say that because my natural sense is to always write something to a piece of film. In the initial stage, I took one of the most challenging scenes and I wrote the whole cue. I had a fabulous mock-up of it. And …

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NEWMAN: They rejected it.

SILVESTRI: Well, no. … They didn't reject it, but it was one of those things …

NEWMAN: Fake praise rejection?

SILVESTRI: "This is all great, but it's not right. Thank you for your trouble."

NEWMAN: Right. OK, that's fake praise rejection. I know that one. In Saving Mr. Banks, the challenge was just transitions. Time transitions from 1961 to 1906; how do you follow a character in one environment to another? And sometimes these transitions were quick, so how do you do that?

Are transitions always a problem?

NEWMAN: I think so, because they're kind of a self-conscious moment in writing music. It's always easy, I think, to raise the importance of a scene through the addition of music. But it's very awkward to end it unless there's a door slam or a gunshot or something that just takes you right out of it.

You run the risk of drawing too much attention to the music.

NEWMAN: You always do. Because music is kind of, at its worst, awkward in a movie. How you make it less awkward -- as much as you can -- is the deal. If you're having a transition there's a requirement for music. So you go into a scene but then, how do you get out? And are you getting out in 1961, or are you getting out in 1906?

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So how do you deal with that? Trial and error?

NEWMAN: [Take it] day by day. It's a fly-by-night progress. The thing about the creative process is it's so chaotic.

ZIMMER: I remember on one DreamWorks movie I had "the idea." I just was so sure of it. And as soon as I played the first three notes of that idea … I thought, "This is all wrong." So I said to Jeffrey [Katzenberg]: "I'm really sorry. It's all wrong. I think it should be an abstract, electronica score." He says, "OK, fine." So for about six months, I'm doing this electronica thing. And it's getting more and more boring. And one day he just came by and he said, "Is it me, or is this really boring?" One of the great things about filmmaking is you're actually working with people who encourage you to fail, in a funny way.

NEWMAN: If you believe it. But you have to believe that when they encourage you to fail, they're not lying to themselves. You have to really read people because sometimes they say it's OK to fail and then they're freaked that you're failing.

ZIMMER: Yeah, we've all been there.

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