Film music panels hear new songs

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Day 2 of The Hollywood Reporter/Billboard Film & TV Music Conference at the Beverly Hilton featured panels on a small indie film, an animated tentpole and the growing business of music in video games.

Composer Alan Menken, who opened the two-day event Thursday with a keynote Q&A, said his guiding principle in composing for musicals is that "song moments have to be protected and supported and take precedence."

The best practices in doing so, both from a business and creative standpoint, were discussed throughout the confab.

Fox Searchlight's "Once" is a film built around strong songwriting, rather than the other way around, the movie's musician-stars said during a morning panel Friday.

That was partly out of necessity, given the duo's almost nonexistent acting experience. Glen Hansard, a songwriter on the film and member the Frames, was cast when the lead actor pulled out of the project. His friend Marketa Irglova, only 17 at the time, merely auditioned for director John Carney on piano.

"I said, 'Do you want me to read some lines? Because I don't know if I can act or not.' He said, 'No, it's all right. Anyone can act.' "

Hansard and Irglova wrote songs first, and then Carney placed them in scenes, sometimes writing around them. With one exception, the songs were recorded live during filming and were kept whole rather than being edited down.

Hansard described his and his co-star's acting as "very stiff" until Carney allowed him to sing the dialogue, particularly in one scene shown to the audience Friday in which Irglova's character asks him about his breakup with a former girlfriend. Hansard responds to her questions in an improvised song.

"There was a script, but we didn't stick to it," said Hansard, recalling that Carney wanted "two musicians who can half-act, rather than two actors who can half-sing." The singer added, "The music had to be right."

After being rejected from several festivals, the film was screened in Ireland. A person affiliated with the Sundance Film Festival, who was vacationing in the country at the time, happened to catch the showing and recommended it for Sundance. It took home an Audience Award.

For all the critical acclaim the movie has received, "I don't think we're going to have a career out of acting," said Irglova, who tours with Hansard as the Swell Season. The duo wrapped up their session with a performance of songs from the film.

An afternoon panel focused on one of the biggest animated hits of the year. Directing and scoring a film about a French rat who wants to be a gourmet chef — as Brad Bird and Michael Giacchino, respectively, did on Disney's "Ratatouille" — required mutual trust, a close match in the pacing of the scenes and the music, and a little help from Google.

The challenge was to differentiate the film from what Bird called the animated "yak and critter" movies that preceded it. Giacchino went to see the movie for the first time thinking it would be "cute," but the story's emotional heft led him to write a main theme that was full of longing and melancholy.

"If you put it side by side with the name 'Ratatouille,' you'd think, 'That's crazy,' " Giacchino said. When he wrote the main theme, "I was afraid to send it to (Bird). It was one of those things that I threw out there and then ducked."

But a quirky story allowed for an eclectic mix that drew upon jazz, French romantic and Latin influences — and Bird gave his composer scenes without temporary suggested music cues so that Giacchino would have a blank canvas on which to create.

Another panel Friday focused on the growing business of video game soundtracks. With score budgets soaring, allowing for live orchestras and real choirs, composers have found fertile ground to create — and so have recording artists.

John Mayer, Steve Vai, Incubus and Ozomatli were among the artists mentioned as having contributed music to video games, which are fast becoming "the new radio," according to panel moderator Jonathan McHugh of SongStew Entertainment.

"These bands have so much downtime, and they're mostly playing games," said Marty O'Donnell, audio director and music composer at Bungie Studios. Mayer liked "Halo" so much that he contributed music to "Halo 2," asking that his screen name be given the credit, O'Donnell said.

Video game soundtracks have become an important tool in marketing the games themselves, with CD soundtracks being packaged with collector's versions of some games and online mash-up contests drawing hundreds of thousands of hits, the composers said.

Ayala Ben-Yehuda is a correspondent for Billboard.
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