Independent thinking key to smaller scores

Writing music for indie films often means less money and tighter deadlines, but it offers ambitious composers some much-needed artistic freedom.

When it comes to composing music for indie films, you better love what you do.

Often more an act of passion than a financial windfall, composers who work in the independent film sector say that while there are certainly a number of challenges -- lack of resources, punishing deadlines, etc. -- if you love writing film music, the rewards more than make up for any headaches indie films can present.

"I like the fact that a lot of times you're asked to do something that hasn't been done before," says Andrew Hollander, whose composer credits include Fox Searchlight's current release "Waitress." "You're given the freedom to say something that isn't necessarily in the style of this or that. In bigger Hollywood films, often the films are a particular genre, and the music has to follow a template. Indie films tend to have a little more leeway."

In fact, Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, Oscar-winning composer for "Finding Neverland," says one of his favorite projects ever -- major or indie -- was Overture Films' little-known "The Visitor," for which the budget was "almost nothing." It helped that his background prepared him to think lean and mean.

"I come from the avant garde Polish music (world)," says Kaczmarek, whose credits include "Aimee and Jaguar" (1999), "Unfaithful" (2002) and the upcoming mini-series "War & Peace."

"I was very much against the mainstream. When you start as a guerrilla fighter, even when you become a member of a big army or a general, you have an imprint that is still there. You're very resourceful, even under the most glorious circumstances."

And while many aspiring composers assume there are fewer masters to serve on an indie film, Aaron Zigman (Lionsgate's "Why Did I Get Married," Sony Pictures Classics' "The Jane Austen Book Club") says that notion is far from certain. "I worked on an indie where it busted my cojones," he says. "There were eight or nine chiefs. 'Jane Austen Book Club' and 'Alpha Dog' were my favorite indies I worked on because I only had to answer to the director. The dialogue is between them and me and not six people."

Adds Brian Reitzell, whose credits as composer and music supervisor include Sony's "30 Days of Night" and Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" (2006): "Indie movies can be a lot more stressful than studio pictures. The stakes are just as high whether you're talking $3 million or $40 million. The movie I worked on that had the most problems and interference came from the smallest indie movie I've ever done. I couldn't believe what the director had to go through; he was destroyed."

Conversely, Reitzell says when he worked on 2004's "Friday Night Lights," producer Brian Grazer "never gave me any flak."

In some cases, the difference between major studio and indie films has little to do with the music budget and more with creature comforts. "With 'Friday Night Lights,' I got to fly on a private jet. With (1999's) 'The Virgin Suicides,' I flew myself up to Toronto," Reitzell laughs.

In terms of budgets, composers interviewed for this story -- many of whom easily traverse between indie and major studio projects -- say money spent on indie film music can range from "a few thousand" dollars to low six figures, with many projects falling in the high five-figure range. For major motion pictures, the budget will usually, though not always, be six or seven figures.

Many of these composers maximize their music budgets by wearing several hats: Kaczmarek composes and can also serve as orchestrator, arranger and producer, while Reitzell can act as composer, music supervisor and music editor. Additionally, like Reitzell and Zigman, Hollander has pop music chops, which meant that when late director Adrienne Shelly wanted a pop song for "Waitress," he could deliver. "I can switch gears from Shostakovich to Radiohead if I need to," the classically trained Zigman says.

Hollander, however, admits that an indie film can occasionally demand a little too much from too little. "One of the first films I did, I was timing cues in my apartment with a stopwatch," he recalls with a laugh. "There's a moment where you think, 'Ennio Morricone doesn't have to do this'"

The key, Hollander says, is making sure everyone is working from the same script from the very beginning. "As soon as we start talking about the movie, if it seems like someone has mentioned something unrealistic, I say, 'Just so you know, I can totally do it, but that's going to alter the budget.' They can usually come up with what they need at the end of the day."

One area that can cause concern in managing any unrealistic expectations is the music editor's temp score, especially if he or she has used cues from movies perhaps created with a much larger budget. Looking on the bright side, Zigman says, "That's how music budgets expand. If the temp is really grand and the producer and director get attached to something much more grand, they usually find the money."

For many of these composers, working with a developing director early in the filmmaker's career goes a long way toward building a solid musical foundation. For example, Sophia Coppola uses Reitzell for all her films, and Hollander worked on many Shelly projects before her death. And although she was well established before they started working together on international features, director Agnieszka Holland has paired with Kaczmarek on at least four movies.

Reitzell says he and Coppola don't even use temp scores. For all his movies -- regardless of the director -- Reitzell creates a mix CD of existing tracks that allows the director to hear the direction he feels the music should follow. "It's so much better that way," he says, even though the process can be very time-consuming. "I have to do my private investigator work," he says. "I'm spending hours in record shops, on the Internet, and I usually go to the place" where the movie is based to get a sense of the geography.

Willingness to hop on a plane can come in handy, especially when it comes to recording orchestras. Financial constraints have led composers for many indie and major studio films to leave Los Angeles to record orchestras in less expensive locales in Eastern Europe.

Clearly Kaczmarek has the hometown advantage in Warsaw, but he says his favorite city to record an orchestra in is London. "But when budget calls for it, I go to Warsaw because I know the best musicians there," he observes. "I'm always afraid to go to new places where I know nobody there, because there's the risk of disappointment. But when I go to Poland, I know it well: This is my country."

Los Angeles-based Zigman, on the other hand, has found a way to make the numbers work and stay local. "I don't go out of town anymore. I'll go to London, but I don't go to Prague or Budapest. I am extremely prepared when I do my scores. It's orchestrated to a T. I can do 30 minutes (of score) here in a day to a day and a half, with 70-80 musicians. ... It's absolutely doable."

While many indie films rely less on orchestral components than their major studio counterparts because of budgetary concerns ("Six figures opens the orchestral door and gives you freedom to do more than a few orchestra cues," Hollander says), some composers are loathe to use anything but the real deal when it comes to classical instrumentation. Reitzell, however, thinks it's about "whatever way you get emotion. An orchestra can add some class, a historical vibe, but I believe you can get the same emotion from pottery wheels."

Reitzell speaks from experience. The resourceful composer employed an $800 pottery wheel -- jerry-rigged with mikes and tubing and various implements -- to score part of his latest effort, "30 Days of Night."

Other studio gizmos allow him to take one cello, "process it through my gear and it sounds like 100 cellos. I beg anyone to tell me it sounds less classy than 100 cellos on the Fox scoring stage."

When the money well runs dry, some composers say they even tap their own reserves. "When you get passionate about what you're writing and a budget disallows you to be pristine and as perfect as you want to be in your presentation, sometimes you have to dip into your own pocket," Zigman says.

Indeed, it is that passion for working at a high level that keeps composers flocking to work on indie films, many of which carry a certain cache that major studio films may not. Consequently, composers used to toiling in the indie world still occasionally find themselves fending off the big-budget boys when it comes to scoring a hot indie film.

"You'll have 10-15 composers all wanting the same job because it's something they want on their resume," says Zigman, noting that James Newton-Howard chose to score "The Great Debaters," the forthcoming indie film from Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Prods. and director Denzel Washington.

"It's incredibly surprising that this competition never ends," Kaczmarek says. "Even if the picture is small, you'd think there's no competition, but if the content is of high quality, people are always hungry for intellectual encounters with others. So when that happens, we're going to fight. Let's not lie to ourselves: Brilliant films are very hard to find. That probably explains why we compete."