Summer Film & TV Music

So you want to be a film composer? Writing great music is just the beginning

It was 1980, and Christopher Young was packed and ready to leave his hometown of Red Bank, N.J. Like countless Hollywood hopefuls before him, the young composer squeezed all his earthly possessions into his car and prepared to head west to stake his claim in the film business.

A few years later, an obscure avant-garde composer named Elliot Goldenthal was hanging around NYU in an effort to learn more about the film industry, and an unknown, London-based musician named Harry Gregson-Williams was about to make a life-changing connection with an up-and-coming composer named Hans Zimmer.

Meanwhile, back in New York, another young, ambitious composer named Michael Giacchino was dividing his time between a marketing job at Disney and composition classes at Juilliard.

Since then, all four have gone on to create music for some of the biggest films of the past decade, often working repeatedly with A-list directors and becoming the envy of the next generation of aspiring composers. And while each took a different path to success -- indeed, there is no single, sure fire route to establishing a career in composing for film -- their ability to successfully navigate the hyper-competitive world of film music makes them ideal role models for starry-eyed composing hopefuls everywhere.

So how did they do it? They wrote great music of course, rising to every challenge and seizing every opportunity that came along early in their careers. But given the unique demands of film music -- the harsh deadlines, the long hours, the politics -- all agree that talent and tenacity alone are not enough to guarantee success.

The reality is that composers, often inherently solitary artists unaccustomed to the nuances of collaboration and the complex dynamics of Hollywood, must accept that film composing requires as much of the right brain as it does the left. Who you know and how you simply get along are as essential as the work itself.

So if you really want a career as a film composer, you'd better be ready, willing and able to hone some skills that have very little to do with music.

For Young, who is so dedicated to helping up-and-comers that he purchased a house in Los Angeles where aspiring composers can live and pay cheap rent while learning the ropes, nothing prepared him for the decidedly nonmusical demands of being a working composer.

"In terms of getting along with people and understanding that the film music business has a lot to do with nothing pertaining to music itself, and that it has to do with film music politics -- it's hard to define exactly what that means," says Young, who got his start writing music for student films, which eventually led to work on low-budget features with Roger Corman, Cannon Films and Dino De Laurentiis.

Young learned first hand just how demanding the politics of filmmaking can be on one of his early projects, a comedy helmed by a particularly nervous first-time director.

"Whenever I met with filmmakers to discuss a project I'd take along a tape recorder, but when this guy saw that I was recording our conversation he went nuts," Young recalls. "He literally pushed me up against the wall and accused me of spying on him for (the production company)." When the producers on the project heard what had happened they offered Young the opportunity to drop out, but he refused.

"I wanted to stick it out," he says. "The lesson I learned was that no matter how insane it gets you really have to just hang in there."

It's a paradox that agent Seth Kaplan of Evolution Music Partners says confronts every young composer: Writing effective film music requires unflagging confidence and dedication, but if aspiring composers can't set their egos aside and play nice, they won't go far.

"The ability to collaborate is more important than anything else," he says. "Obviously you need to be talented, but it's not a meritocracy in terms of talent. It's about people who want to be creative collaborators with the people they're working with. They want to be problem solvers; they look at this like it's a math problem that they just want to solve."

If young composers require a concrete example of this approach, they need look no further than Michael Giacchino, who credits his first big break to his attitude, not his ability. While working in the marketing department at Disney, Giacchino's first paid job came about after he overheard co-workers discussing the need for a TV jingle. He came up with something he thought might work, and his composing career was off and running. Now Giacchino is one of the hottest composers in Hollywood, earning an Oscar nomination for 2007's animated hit "Ratatouille" and working repeatedly with such directors as Brad Bird and J.J. Abrams.

"This business revolves around relationships," he says. "If you approach it in that way, with an honesty, with a true love of what you're doing, people will notice."

These days, Giacchino says he can instantly recognize when a young composer has the right temperament for film composing. "Almost immediately you can see it," he says. "It's something I didn't know I'd ever be able to recognize, but you can absolutely see it immediately, whether that person is there for themselves or because they love to be there, because they have to do this."

For Harry Gregson-Williams, whose recent credits include "The Taking of Pelham 123" and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," embracing the spirit of collaboration was one of the first lessons learned after Oscar winner Hans Zimmer invited him to sit in on meetings and observe the process from the inside.



"I was able to be a fly on the wall in really high-pressure, stressful meetings with Hans, and no one was looking in my direction in the room," he recalls with a laugh. "It became very clear to me early on that while there was a lot to composing, it wasn't just about the music. There was a lot of diplomacy involved. Thinking about it now, it's possibly the greatest gift Hans gave me, that he showed me I had to be open and collaborative if I was going to go forward."

While he doesn't consider himself a "selfish musician" Gregson-Williams does admit to an early impulse to "compose behind closed doors."

"Hans said, 'You're going to have to share. You're going to have to take a hit here and there.' I learned, in order to proceed as a film composer, you really do need to be open and collaborative. I wouldn't liken a film composer to a golfer or a tennis player. We are team members, we have to be."

Like Gregson-Williams, Elliot Goldenthal offers up his own sports analogy to underscore a point that young composers can fail to grasp: There is plenty of pressure in film composing, so don't add to it by swinging for the fence every time you're at bat.

"You have to just remind yourself that sometimes composing is like baseball," he says. "In baseball, if you fail seven out of 10 times as a hitter, you're still hitting .300. You must realize and accept that you're not Mozart. Even Beethoven had forever and ever, grinding out different versions of things and trying to perfect them and he had confidence issues. As long as you know you're not Mozart, you can deal with that baseball analogy."

It's a problem Young faces regularly when he teaches film music classes at USC. His students, eager to demonstrate their talent, often labor under the misconception that in order to get ahead they must stand out. But while it might seem counterintuitive to a young composer bursting with talent and ideas, film music is unique in that calling attention to yourself is tantamount to advertising your inexperience. It's a classic rookie move.

"There's always the one in the class who thinks they know everything," Young says. "Every year there's some hotshot who doesn't think they need to be in the programs. They think they're better than John Williams. You look at them and think, 'Hmm, OK ... I'll see you in three years and I'll know exactly why things didn't quite work out the way you expected they would.' "

And in the event a young composer does land a high-profile job early in his or her career, one veteran agent offers a cautionary tale: "I know about a guy who hadn't done anything, and he got a big movie with huge stars and a legendary director. His agent worked with him very diligently on a spec theme that got him the job. This was an agent who knew the strengths of his client and had a huge stake in his success. After he got this gig, the composer felt he'd hit the big time and decided to switch to an agency that handled a big group of A-list composers. But when he got to the new agency, he was the lowest person on the totem pole. He didn't get any attention after that and his career completely stalled. He never recovered. So I'd say to young composers, if you have a representative that understands and believes in you, you might think very carefully before you decide to move on."

Finally, if all else fails, there's always luck. It's a fact of life that Young still marvels at.

"I think about the day that I moved out to L.A. in 1980," he says. "I often have asked myself, 'I wonder how many people drove into L.A. the same day I did that wanted to get into film scoring?' Why is it that I'm the lucky guy that has the career that other composers look up to? Why did it work for me? I cannot tell you. All I can say is I know that I worked like crazy. The only formula other than talent that I know of is this insane work ethic, combined with the ability to collaborate and be a good politician."
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