Emmys: How a Composer Convinced TV Academy to Finally Recognize Documentary Scores

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
'Love, Gilda' debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018.

Nonfiction doc music will be honored for the first time this year, thanks to the work of longtime composer Miriam Cutler ('Love, Gilda'), who reveals her pitch to the organization and how scoring a doc differs from scoring fiction.

This year for the first time, the Emmys will honor original scores for documentary series and specials, largely thanks to the campaigning of the queen of doc scoring, Miriam Cutler (RBG, The Hunting Ground). Cutler spoke to THR about the new category and her score for Love, Gilda.

What was one key to the pitch that you and music governor Rickey Minor brought to the TV Academy?

An important part of our pitch was that both the TV Academy and AMPAS are really trying to increase diversity, and documentaries [have] lower budgets, so there's not as much of this pressure and fear around newcomers, women, composers of color. So we feel like it's really helping with diversity too, and it's bringing in more people to the Academy who never dreamed [of participating in this way]. Like all the years I’ve been working — and I’ve been working since the ’80s — I never thought any of this was for me. It didn’t seem like there was any chance. But that’s where I wanted to work, so I just kept doing it, and now the industry is kind of caught up and interested in this kind of work. So it’s been pretty wonderful.

In light of documentaries' booming popularity, what conversation is the doc community having about the role of music and its ability to manipulate an audience?

It’s always been talked about. This is another thing I really love about [the doc community]: Ethics is a huge part of being a documentary filmmaker. They teach classes in it, they have robust discussions, they have articles all the time, because there’s so many ethical situations that come up where decisions have to be made. Part of documentary [filmmaking] is sort of like journalism, with the same kind of standards. And part of it is also moviemaking and storytelling, and you want to have people not turn it off. You want people to be compelled to watch it and you want it to be a great film.

How does scoring a doc differ from scoring fiction?

There's a certain kind of authenticity that I feel is important — a real commitment to the truth and the integrity of the subject and the people in the film. I find myself constantly checking myself to make sure I'm not using music in a manipulative way, in a way that might actually take away from the authenticity of the film.

Your Love, Gilda score has both a funky pit-band sound and some very gentle themes. What informed your writing?

First of all, it really helped because I grew up watching Gilda, so I already had strong feelings about her. And I also loved Saturday Night Live. I loved the music. I think they really kind of created something very special that has lasted through time of having the band onstage.

What was really fun was, there was the personal story of Gilda [Radner], and then there was the beloved character on television and Saturday Night Live — and all that craziness and funkiness.  I really felt like it needed to be super-heartfelt and really get at her inner self, the part of her that people didn’t really know, that her fans didn’t know. There's the real heartfelt, inside-the-little-girl-inside-her Gilda with the ukulele themes, very gentle and super sweet. And then there's the Gilda onstage — I was thinking of A Chorus Line [and] Putting It Together.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.