LAFF: 'Crash,' 'Valkyrie,' 'The Notebook' Film Composers on Forging Relationships With Directors

New Line Cinema
"The Notebook"

Mark Isham, John Ottman and Aaron Zigman gathered to share their experiences and expert advice as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival's Coffee Talks series.

"I don’t write music for the money; I write music because it comes from [my heart]," said film composer Aaron Zigman, the go-to composer for directors like Nick Cassavetes, Anne Fletcher and Tyler Perry, during a panel as part of Los Angeles Film Festival's Coffee Talks series, held June 15 and also featuring composers John Ottman and Mark Isham.

Zigman started his composing career with a lucky break, as he left behind an illustrious career in the music industry when offered a shot at composing Cassavetes’ John Q. It was a risk, he said, but composing was what he really wanted to do. "When I was in my first production of my first film, I was so relieved that I had finally found a group of people that were smarter than me," he said. "I felt like an artist for the first time, a true artist, and yet I lost my ego. It's kind of an interesting dichotomy."

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The panelists all agreed that one key to success is creating confidence and rapport with every filmmaker. The relationship between the director and composer "becomes more and more essential because you gain a shorthand and a trust," Ottman said. "In the case of Bryan [Singer] and me, we've sort of created each other's sensibilities by making movies together. I know if I'm thrilled or get chills by something I just did, I have a pretty good bet that he'll come in and have the same reaction."

Ottman met Singer while attending University of Southern California's film school, and the pair have since created eight films together, including The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie and Ottman’s most recent credit, X-Men: Days of Future Past.

The panel also bonded over mutual hatred of "temp love," an issue that comes about when a film's director or producers fall in love with the temporary scratch music used during editing, and are then reluctant to let the composer replace it with original work. While temp tracks are helpful in rom-coms and action flicks, says Zigman, they tend to be a nuisance in more serious films. Likewise, each panelist has his own method for making his work outshine the temps.

Isham, who has more than 100 credits in film and television, gets his skeptics to "go through it bar by bar and … when you keep going through this, you'll get two pages of notes where it could be better, which is good because they then realize it can be different."

Isham started his career in music as a classical soloist and eventually transitioned into electronic, avant-garde composition. He broke into film after Carroll Ballard sought him out to create the score for his film Never Cry Wolf. He went on to compose scores for dozens of iconic films, including Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It, for which he was nominated for both a Grammy and an Oscar.

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When asked to impart some wisdom for aspiring composers, they all agreed that decisive action was central to their success. "I always say, 'produce, promote and persist,'" Isham shared. "I mean, just do, do, do it and tell people that you've done it. Then do more and tell more people."

"The worst piece of shit little thing you're given to do could be the thing," agreed Ottman. "The thing you least expect will lead you somewhere else."

"I like working with younger filmmakers, and it doesn't matter what their budget is," Zigman concluded. "Relationships are key. It's not about the film, per se, or what you're going to make. It's the relationship. That relationship, you may find, could turn out to be something incredible later."

LAFF runs through June 19.