How 9 top screen composers hit the high-A list
EmptyEven though most young composers spend years toiling on student and low-budget independent films or in other musical disciplines, they often face an uphill battle when trying to get their work heard by the right people. Many even spend their own money to fatten up the budget for a scoring session and hire additional players in an effort to make their music sound better -- all in the hopes of creating an attractive calling card for future projects. So, it's all the more remarkable when composers find themselves on the verge of becoming major players in an area of the industry that is notoriously insular and competitive.
We talked to nine film and television composers whose solid track records and recent projects have elevated their industry profiles to find out how it feels to be on the cusp of A-list status.
Credits include: USA Network's "Monk," HBO's "Rome," ABC's "Ugly Betty"
First gig: "It was a little independent film called 'Cheap Shots,' and I met the guys in Rochester (N.Y.) because I was graduating from Eastman School of Music. I remember the filmmakers told me about their love for Nino Rota, so I got all the Fellini films on VHS at that time, and that was a real revelation to me. Nino Rota has haunted my work for a long time after that."
Toughest assignment: "I would say the two HBO series, 'Carnivale' and 'Rome.' Creatively they were mind-bending because they were both (like) really long movies. 'Rome' is really a novel of a show, and integrating that sense of story structure with the time period -- which was so new to me -- was really a challenge."
Dream job: "I've never done any animation, and something about that is intriguing to me because the role of music and animation can be really expansive and involved."
Advice: "You need a really good coffee machine, and I guess I would say a love for what you do. The work has to be its own reward because you have very little control of what happens to it sometimes. And you have to be a collaborator. It's like being in a band -- you're only as good as your work fits in with the greater whole."
Influences: "(Jerry) Goldsmith and John Williams are two of my big heroes, but I've also always loved Ennio Morricone's work. Those guys are all consummate musicians, but they've also managed to write very specific scores to the material they're doing."
Credits include: Screen Gems' upcoming release "Resident Evil: Extinction," the films in Lionsgate's "Saw" franchise, CBS' "Numbers," NBC's "Las Vegas"
First gig: "The first feature was (2004's) 'Saw.' They had this crazy German band, Einsturzende Neubauten, playing out of one speaker, and a Nine Inch Nails mix I had worked on playing out of the other speaker -- two different beats going on. They said they wanted the music to be this chaotic and crazy, so I knew it was going to be interesting working with this director, James Wan."
Toughest assignment: "One of the toughest was one of James Wan's movies, (Universal's) 'Dead Silence,' which had an element of a traditional horror movie like a Vincent Price film. It was about the spirit of a crazy ventriloquist, and they wanted a playful, almost music box quality that was not in my background, playing with Nine Inch Nails and things like that."
Dream job: "I'm leery of getting pigeonholed into these intense horror movies. The things I'm drawn to are things I'm sort of not sure how I'd do. If you had me do (2003's) 'Big Fish,' which I love, I'm not sure I'd know how to approach it -- or (1998's) 'Rushmore,' which I think you need (Mark) Mothersbaugh to do."
Advice: "I think it's always good to try to not be involved in the technicalities and not be too gadget-reliant, because the best directors speak in the most abstract terms. The single most important skill is being able to communicate, because you're the only one who knows musical terms and you have to communicate musical ideas to people who don't know those terms."
Influences: "I still bow down in amazement to the work of Jerry Goldsmith and Lalo Schifrin and the giants of the old days, but in the modern context, I also love the work of Marco Beltrami and John Powell."
Credits include: Buena Vista's "Primeval," Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Reaping"
First gig: "I had a net profit of $10. It was an independent film called (1995's) 'Opposite Corners,' and the director has now produced a lot of Jon Favreau's films."
Toughest assignment: "I think scoring (1997's) 'Alien: Resurrection' was an enormous challenge in terms of the scope and the awesome legacy of that series. And 'The Reaping' had a very short schedule this year, so those can be endurance tests."
Dream job: "A kids' film. I've got two kids, and I know every kids' movie, and most of the films I do they haven't seen, so they wonder what I do all day."
Advice: "You need tenacity. You have to be very self-motivated and always want things to be exceptional."
Influences: "So many people I admire ... James Newton Howard got me started and will always be a big inspiration, and all the legends of film scoring, from Jerry Goldsmith and Aaron Copland to John Williams."
Credits include: MGM's "Death at a Funeral," BBC's "Doctor Who"
First gig: "A documentary for Channel 4 in the U.K. (about) advertising guru Tony Kaye."
Toughest assignment: " 'Doctor Who' is easily the most challenging because it's 35 minutes of music a week, and I think any composer would find that challenging, even Alf Clausen."
Dream job: "I'd love to work with Alexander Payne, but that's not going to happen because of my fellow Brit, Rolfe Kent, who does a great job on his films."
Advice: "You need enormous optimism and your own special sound, and a lot of good fortune and luck."
Influences: "I love Ennio Morricone because his scores are so unusual and have such grandeur and wonderful melodies and they stick to film. And the same thing with Danny Elfman -- when (1989's) 'Batman' came out, that first score was fantastic. And then underneath it all there's Bernard Herrmann, who's just a gem."
Credits include: Fox Searchlight's "Waitress," 2006's "Gray Matters"
First gig: "It was a really low-budget feature called 'Snapshots from a .500 Season.' A close friend of mine was starring in the film, and she said I should meet the director. We met and hit it off, and I got to do the score and some original songs for it. It was a really fun experience. I was timing cues with a stopwatch and stuff because I didn't have a lot to work with."
Toughest assignment: "I've had a couple that were challenging in different ways. 'Waitress' was challenging in finding the balance between making the movie funny and heartbreaking when it needed to be. I did a film earlier this year called 'East Broadway,' which was a very traditional romantic comedy, and it was the first time I had to work so specifically in a genre and more traditional perimeters."
Dream job: "I'd love to do something really dark. I'm a big fan of David Lynch, and I love the stuff Angelo Badalamenti does for those films -- where you're really in another world musically."
Advice: "One of the most important things is to realize that creating music just on its own and creating music for a picture is different -- you always have to keep in mind what the director wants. So you have to be well-versed in music and have a lot of styles at your disposal."
Influences: "I would say Ennio Morricone and Angelo Badalamenti are both big influences."
Credits include: Paramount's "Transformers," ABC's "Desperate Housewives"
First gig: "The first thing I did was a TV show called 'American Fighter Pilot.' It was a Tony Scott reality show that lasted about three episodes. It was a cool idea, but they didn't find Tom Cruise. It was regular guys, and it didn't come off that well. But it was cool to work with Tony, and it was wall-to-wall action music."
Toughest assignment: "I suppose 'Transformers' was it. It was produced by Steven Spielberg, and that was always in the back of my mind -- that he was going to hear my music and what was he going to think of it? There was a lot riding on this giant project that was highly anticipated."
Dream job: "I would like to do a film where it's just a simple story, a family drama with some emotion behind it. I always point to (Irwin Winkler's 2001 drama) 'Life as a House.' Good actors, good cast and a good little story, and I liked (Mark Isham's) music a lot. The music can really play a part in a film like that, where it's a bit more intimate."
Advice: "You need confidence in your abilities. Early on I would be so nervous sitting in front of a blank screen. But at some point, I just realized I didn't know why, but people seemed to like what I do, so I learned to trust my instincts more."
Influences: "Hans Zimmer and Ennio Morricone were always my two favorites growing up, and Hans is the reason I'm in this business -- and Harry Gregson-Williams. They both helped me along the way."
Credits include: The music for the popular "EverQuest" video game franchise, ABC's "Masters of Science Fiction"
First gig: "It was (1989's) 'My Brother's Wife' with John Ritter. I totally lied my way into it. I did demo after demo, but I said I'd done things. I can't even remember how I got the network to put me on the list, but it was a lovely movie with a Bach-like score."
Toughest assignment: "It would have to be (the 2002 Sci Fi Channel miniseries) 'Taken.' It was the best job, but it was such an enormous amount of music in such a limited amount of time."
Dream job: "I'm writing an opera for Jessye Norman, and that's something I never dreamed would happen. I suppose, like everyone, I'd like to try doing a big studio film."
Advice: "The really important thing for young composers is to keep your sense of self and develop yourself as an artist and do it in conjunction with your commercial work, so you develop a voice and stick to it. Having tremendous musical integrity helps you through the tough times."
Influences: "My big mentor was my teacher at Juilliard, Milton Babbitt. And Shirley Walker was a mentor to me to an extent at (the Sundance Institute). And John Williams is someone we all look up to."
Credits include: Lionsgate's May release "Bug" and the upcoming "War"
First gig: "I think the first one was (1998's) 'Six-String Samurai.' That was a pretty crazy movie -- really quirky and independent and a blast to do (when) I was 23 or 24. I was able to use a lot of the instruments that I could play because it didn't have the budget for an orchestra. The strange thing is that, with very few exceptions, the music I ended up scoring after that had very little to do with that soundtrack. It was guitar-based, and you'd think it would have led to more things like that. Instead, after that I did (2001's) 'Frailty' and (2003's) 'Timeline' and things like that."
Toughest assignment: "The toughest had to have been (2003's) 'The Hunted.' I was such a huge fan of the director (William Friedkin), and it's strange when you follow someone's career and work for them. It was a huge challenge for me, but what Friedkin wanted was really interesting, and he made me do stuff I wouldn't have thought of doing. We still work together -- we just did 'Bug' -- and we have a great working relationship. But he gave me some sleepless nights on 'The Hunted.' "
Dream job: "I love historical dramas, and I also love films that have an epic science-fiction quality to them. Something that was a pure fantasy film would be a lot of fun to do."
Advice: "You can't treasure your sleep very much, but you've got to love composing. And just as important is you've got to love movies and be a real student of film and all the intricacies of it."
Influences: John Williams
Credits include: Disney's February release "Bridge to Terabithia," Sony Pictures Classics' upcoming "The Jane Austen Book Club"
First gig: "I got (2002's) 'John Q' because I had known (director) Nick Cassavetes previously, and although he didn't have final cut, he gave me the whole opening montage to write a mock main title to. I went in with a 65-piece orchestra and wrote a piece that impressed him, and he played it for New Line and that got me the job. He had to get me approved, so I went in with my own money to make the demo."
Toughest assignment: "Toughest is being in a situation where it's not the writing but who you have to please. Sometimes you might have three or four people that matter, and the toughest challenge I've had is when seven or eight people are weighing in and you're trying to please all of them."
Dream job: "I have done action sequences in 'Bridge to Terabithia' and a few in 'John Q,' but I really want to get the action/dark thriller genre and bigger-scale projects because as an orchestral writer I feel very well-equipped for that world."
Advice: "Being able to adapt and write in every style -- that's what helps me because I'm not stuck in one genre."
Influences: "I like Tommy Newman, Alexandre Desplat, and everybody would say they like John Williams. But I relate to the way Newman and Desplat move into different areas and maintain their same voice."