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

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.

[pagebreak]

Is there enough time to experiment?

HENRY JACKMAN: One thing that I feel really lucky to have learned from Hans is the discipline of: Don't panic. In a panic, you could think, "Quick, let's just start writing music!" You're tempted to think it's a linear process, which ties into what Alan was saying happened on The Croods. If you can just stop for a second and find what the thematic material is, the speed in which the rest of it will happen will actually be exponential.

ZIMMER: I had a theme that was beloved by our director but I knew it was the wrong theme …

STEVEN PRICE: This is Batman Begins. He was getting a little nervous. [Editor's note: Price was Zimmer's music editor at the time.]

ZIMMER: Yeah, twitchy … but it was because I was hunting down this other idea that I knew I couldn't articulate. So poor Steve -- part of his job was to occasionally remind me [of deadlines].

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PRICE: My main memory of that film is that I had a director, [Christopher Nolan], who liked to start working at 8 in the morning, and then … Hans. (Laughter.) So I mainly remember the sleep deprivation, and this kind of middleman position because, obviously, we needed the score. I'd have to go and tell Hans that. I could kind of tell that all of these experiments were going on in the middle of the process.

So you had to talk to Hans at 8 in the morning?

ZIMMER: No!

PRICE: No, you can't talk to Hans at 8 in the morning.

JACKMAN: That's not his time.

How did you take all those experiences and apply them to Gravity?

PRICE: Well, I've come through the wringers, basically. I've orchestrated, I've programmed, I've edited. Music editing offers a great learning curve because you're there for the duration. You see the filmmakers in every moment. With Gravity, it was a very experimental process, because I had a director who freely admitted he didn't like film music. And with this canvas, [traditional film music] didn't work, because you're up in space and there is no sound in space. So, anything you would normally do for an action film, I had none of that.

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But you had to find a way to incorporate sound into the score, right?

PRICE: Yeah, basically. They made a very clever decision, early on, that the sound was based on vibrations. So, if someone was wearing a suit and they'd touch the table, they would hear that vibration through the suit. So that's basically low frequency rumbling. Everything else was music. They wanted an immersive sound track.

What do you consider your personal best score?

BECK: It is hard to separate the experience from the final product. You can have really fond memories of working on something and it may have very little to do with how good or bad the final product is. But for me, it's a score I did 12 or 13 years ago called Under the Tuscan Sun, which I don't think did very much box office, but it was a great experience. I have very fond memories of the filmmakers on that film and it's still one of my favorites.

SILVESTRI: Romancing the Stone was a favorite because it was the first. It was a rhythm score. I'm a drummer and a guitar player. There's orchestra in it but it was all driven by rhythm. Shortly after that was a small movie called Fandango where I kind of went through a significant crisis as a writer. I walked into this project being recommended by Bob Zemeckis who, after Romancing the Stone, thought I could do anything. And they played me the temp dub, which was very carefully put together, and it's temped with the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony.

JACKMAN: Oh, easy …

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SILVESTRI: So I had this horrible crisis. I mean, it was darkness. My wife basically did an intervention on me with the creative people in my life. And I had a kind of breakthrough as the result of the agony because I did [my first] orchestral score for Fandango. Thank God I had that experience because my next film was Back to the Future, which was only the second time I had ever written a piece of music for an orchestra.

ZIMMER: But hang on, do you guys have the same experience that I have, which is, when you play your cue back for the first time and it's just the most terrifying moment?

NEWMAN: Yeah, just gaze down …

ZIMMER: You hear the difference.

NEWMAN: It all sounds like tin, right? It just sounds awful.

PRICE: You think, "I've got it this time." And then you sit there and you know it's wrong as soon as it starts.

BECK: You stop it and say, "You know what …"

PRICE: "I'm going to go away now."

ZIMMER: I think you, Steven, were even in the room on Da Vinci Code. It stopped after five reels and I thought, "OK, I know. Don't say anything. I'll start over."

[pagebreak]

How often are you asked to fix problems with the music?

SILVESTRI: You'll write a cue based on what you're seeing. But there is something in your feedback from the director and it doesn't [feel right]. You can't quite put your finger on it. And you'll find out at some point that the dog just didn't run fast enough on the day they shot the scene. The director has had a problem with that piece of film from day one. And so you're kind of getting this subliminal wish: "Can't you make this damn dog go any faster?"

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BECK: They're so subjectively involved in their film it borders on delusion. I can recall some instances where a director asks, "Can we hit the change in emotion on his face in this moment?" So you say, "Yeah, let's roll back and see where that is." And you find exactly [nothing].

JACKMAN: I think one of the secret weapons in scoring is the picture editor, because the director's still in a semidelusional state about the "incredible change of emotion" that frame 22 has. Whereas the picture editor is actually making the film from the footage that's been shot.

Let's say you're in a situation where things aren't going so well and you feel like you might get fired. How do you handle that?

JACKMAN: Drugs.

ZIMMER: Yeah, drugs. (Laughter.)

BECK: For me, day by day, cue by cue. I mean, that's all you can do.

NEWMAN: You have to let people know you're flexible. If you come in like the guy who knows what he's doing, and this is what it is, that's tough.

ZIMMER: I don't want to be that guy.

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NEWMAN: I get that. And that's why you say, "OK, I'm going to get out there and, if I fail, let's understand that together and make better choices." But you have to be fluid and you have to trust that the directors are not telling you false things about how it's OK to fail.

JACKMAN: But if things are collegiate enough, then there is a safe enough environment to go, "I don't think this is the right direction." And because it's not an "us and them" type situation, if it feels like a joint venture, then some of those failures are OK and don't mean that you should just not bother showing up to write anything new.

ZIMMER: I wrote this little tune for Terry Malick for The Thin Red Line. I played it to him and he says, "Oh, Hans -- not memorable." Off I go writing away. Two months go by. Phone rings at 11 at night, it's Terry and he's humming something. He says, "What is this?" And I say, "That's the tune you said nobody could remember!" "Oh, it's rather good," he says. (Laughter.)

NEWMAN: That's kind of the politics of how you present ideas, right? We're all shocked by new ideas and we're less shocked when we hear them again. And less shocked when we hear them a third time. Being casual and informal in your presentations makes them less inclined to dig in their heels in the end. A lot of it is just people skills.

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Do you look at box-office numbers?

NEWMAN: Only while squinting.

ZIMMER: No, people tell you when you're doing really badly.

JACKMAN: Fortunately we don't encounter quite the same terror as the producer.

ZIMMER: No, but everything we talked about -- how we get to be collegial -- it goes the other way, too. Because if the movie is out, and it's not doing well, your friend, the director, is going to phone you and tell you.

SILVESTRI: The director has now become a friend -- it's kind of like waiting to hear what his X-ray results are.

JACKMAN: You feel bad if it's something that doesn't pan out too well at the box office. You feel like the guy did a pretty good job, you know? You're kind of part of the team.

SILVESTRI: Exactly.

BECK: One way to solve the problem is to just do a lot of bombs. And when anything does well, it's like an amazing surprise.