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Composer Roundtable: The Need for Diversity and the Agony of Waiting for Inspiration to Strike

Six top musical talents open up about the horror of the temp track, the best way to talk to a director and the power of a well-executed film score.

Film composers are nothing if not adaptable. Moving from project to project, they are frequently forced to adapt in multiple ways — to new directors, different budgets, punishing deadlines. To hear them describe this process of adaptation, it becomes clear that creating effective and memorable music for movies is really only part of their job. The other part involves a delicate balance between composing music they find personally satisfying but that also, somehow, pleases a director, a studio and, ultimately, an audience. And as they will freely admit, this process isn’t just about tinkering with a piano until inspiration strikes (although plenty of that happens, too). It also demands that they master other skills — patience, timing, intuition, some light psychoanalysis — that go well beyond music. “We’re like actors,” says Oscar winner Michael Giacchino (Coco, War for the Planet of the Apes), 50, who joined Carter Burwell (Wonderstruck; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), 62; Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water, Suburbicon), 56; Philip Glass (Jane), 80; Daniel Pemberton (Molly’s Game, All the Money in the World), 40; and Tamar-kali (Mudbound), 44, for THR‘s annual composer roundtable.

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Gathered together to discuss the various roles they play, one skill in particular seemed to strike a chord: the art of listening. And so they listened to one another — a rare occasion in the film music world, where composers rarely have the opportunity to interact — as they compared notes on everything from their mutual disdain for temp tracks (“I turn it off,” says Giacchino), the best way to talk to a director (“To be a good doctor, you have to understand who your patient is,” notes Glass) and the power of a well-executed film score (says Tamar-kali, “It really developed me as a human being”).

What were the biggest musical challenges you faced in the past year?

ALEXANDRE DESPLAT As the title says, water is the main element of [The Shape of Water]. So when you start on a project like this, you wonder what type of motif or melodies or chords you can figure out. But the main thing is: How does it sound when you write something for a movie where water is the main element? There’s many pieces in classical music about water, from Handel to Ravel to many others. So you try and figure out something that will at least be new to your ears. What I was trying to achieve was to make you feel that you’re listening to a piece of music that comes from underwater. When you’re underwater in a swimming pool or the sea, you can hear music in the distance, but it’s very blurred. There’s an opacity to it. And I just tried to do that.


TAMAR-KALI Mudbound was an independent film, so I had a very short amount of time [four weeks] in which to compose, orchestrate, record and mix 40 minutes of score. But in terms of the composition itself, it flowed. Except for one cue, which is essentially the climax of the film. Every approach that I was taking initially just wasn’t the right one because I was very sensitive about it. It’s a very emotional and violent scene that has to do with our past as a nation. I didn’t want it to come off cliched, and I wanted it to be honest. What I realized is that the only way I could really get the authenticity and the honesty that was required was to actually just run the scenes over and over again and just play in the moment. I just really had to play it over and over again and build the cue because I had to have this emotional reaction to it, which is what I was actually afraid of initially because it’s so intense.

PHILIP GLASS The challenges with Jane were several. There were so many different stories happening at the same time. There’s Jane and there’s Jane and Hugo — that’s her husband. And there’s Jane and the chimpanzees. Then there’s her son. Then there’s the whole panorama of Africa. The successful thing about it is that we finally arrived at something where you can go from focus point to focus point throughout, and it ends up being one movie. But the process of arriving at that was not easy and it was not obvious. There was a certain amount of yelling and screaming at one point and a little bit of drama. But not in a bad way because people were passionate about what they were doing.

How much should your average moviegoer be aware of a score?

DANIEL PEMBERTON I always think the [idea that] you shouldn’t notice film music is nonsense. Some films you want to notice it, some you don’t. Really good film music, as soon as you hear it away from the film and you’ve seen the film, you’re taken back to that world. That can be anything from the sound of it to the melody or the concept. But really good film music, you always re-enter that world of the film as soon as you hear the music.

TAMAR-KALI I definitely agree with that. I mean, I believe that it’s a vehicle to transport the viewer into the film so that they’re not experiencing it objectively but from within the world that’s being created onscreen.

PEMBERTON What makes such a difference as well is the director’s attitude toward music. I actually often use the first Star Trek as an example: There’s that scene that’s like the crazy action scene, and they strip everything out and it’s just your [Michael Giacchino] music, and everyone goes, “The music’s amazing.”

MICHAEL GIACCHINO Well, it’s interesting because that scene originally was temped with a lot of action music. I usually don’t listen to the temp music. I will write the scene just by watching it. And then after, if I’m happy — or happy-ish — with what I wrote, I will then go back and see what they had as temp music. And I went, “Oh man, I totally did the opposite of what they had in the temp.” To me, the whole scene was so sad. What was happening was so sad, even though it was an action scene. So I wrote sad music. I showed it to J.J. [Abrams], and he was like, “No, no, that’s exactly what we should be doing.” So I was lucky. I got away with it that time.

GLASS My view of it is, the emotional shape of the piece will be dictated by the music. That’s my point of view. And sometimes the directors can get along with it, and sometimes they don’t get along with it so well. But that’s what I have to offer. … I feel that our vocation depends on our ability to provide that. Now it’s not always accepted so well. Sometimes there have be differences between the directors and the composers.

How do you know when to stand your ground and when to compromise?

GLASS Look, if it’s an opera, I get to say. If it’s a film, the director gets to say. It depends whose house you’re in. And it’s important for us to understand that the workplace is different in different places. If I’m writing a ballet, it’s one thing. The reason composers like to do operas is that we get the final say on everything. But we don’t get that in movies. We can argue for it. And we can argue for it through the quality of our work. If the work makes it work, then it happens.

CARTER BURWELL As in what Mike was saying about the Star Trek scene, the real challenge is if you really want to take it in a completely different direction than the director had foreseen. They almost certainly have something in mind. And I agree with you, I like to not listen to the temp music because I’d rather figure it out myself and have the opportunity to explore those options. But when you do come up with your solution, it’s completely different than what the director had in mind. That’s a test of the collaboration. You’re asking a lot of them to say, “OK, just put your idea on hold, watch it in the context of the film, see if you can reconceive what it does.” And sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But in the best cases, it’s still an open discussion. People have to put their preconceptions aside.

GLASS Well, to be a good doctor, you have to understand who your patient is.

TAMAR-KALI There’s a certain amount of translation that has to go on, too, because sometimes whatever they’re thinking, they’re not able to articulate into musical terms, per se, and you have to kind of figure out what it is that they’re asking for and split the difference. I know that one thing that was challenging for me sometimes when I would get the feedback and I needed to edit was: How do I maintain the compositional integrity of this piece and give [director Dee Rees] what she wants? Sometimes I just had to get clever with it because maybe what she was expressing in terms of language, there was a way for me to get around that. It’s about translation because they’re speaking a different language.

GLASS I agree with that, that there is a skillful way of doing it. It is a collaboration, after all. And after all, in this medium, the director will have the final say. So to get what you want, it takes not only the skill of writing but the skill of introducing the music in the right way.

It sounds like there’s some psychoanalysis that goes on here.

GIACCHINO Sometimes, yes. Probably on both sides.

DESPLAT But also, you have to understand that the ear of a composer is different from the ear of a director or anybody else because our ear is trained to hear several layers. And you figure out which layer is important or which layer will become important as the movie goes on. The director, he can only hear one, two, three sounds sometimes. And you love your counterpoint, but maybe he doesn’t like it because he can’t hear it.

BURWELL That’s true.

DESPLAT Sometimes you have to just lose the counterpoint.

BURWELL In the end, the film wins.

GLASS Yes, but it is our vocation to do the best we can.

BURWELL That’s right. Exactly.

GLASS And it’s their vocation to frustrate us when they need to.

PEMBERTON I always think that’s the hardest thing: You’ve written something you’re really proud of, and they just cut it.

GLASS I’m impressed that the six of us, we’ve never sat and talked, but we really have similar experiences. (Laughter.)

Tamar-Kali, Mudbound is one of your first projects, so how much confidence did you feel in pushing back?

TAMAR-KALI For the most part we were good. I had to kind of psychoanalyze myself in a way and figure out what it was that I was having knee-jerk reactions to, think about my goal and how to get there. I enjoyed the rigor of sorting that out. I felt like it really developed me as a human being, outside of being a composer.


Should young composers study the entire filmmaking process?


GIACCHINO I tell them that all the time. It’s all about communication. You’re going to be communicating with people who are filmmakers, and they — filmmakers, the crew — all know how to talk to each other in terms of the technical aspects of what’s going on.

GLASS When I was working with Marty Scorsese on Kundun, I was in the editing room the whole time because he was constantly talking about film.

BURWELL He is a great educator.

DESPLAT You have to learn the language to communicate. It’s a different vocabulary, words, grammar, everything. You have to know what cinema is about. We’re part of this collective artwork. So we need to know what everybody else is doing. Otherwise it makes no sense.

GLASS Marty got into it. He showed me his shooting script, and all the camera angles were there. At one point he said, “I don’t want the trombone there, I want it there.” And I said, “No, no, it has to be there.” He said, “No, no, come here, I’ll show you.” And he showed me that there’s a lighting change there. I had to do it.

But how does that get translated into music?

GIACCHINO Well, because it’s like anything else in art. It’s going to trigger an emotional response.

PEMBERTON There’s also the way a director shoots. I just did a film with Ridley Scott, and the way he uses light is so spectacular in the shots that you have to kind of try and build that into your score. It’s one of the things you’re relating to when you write the music.

DESPLAT Don’t forget that the composer comes into a story that goes from point A to point Z, as music does. Music has a chronology. So we just have to figure out what the hills and valleys are of that chronology in the film and figure out what is not there yet that music can bring.

GIACCHINO It’s a little like being an actor at times. You’re taking on a character, a role, and you have to explore those emotions and those story arcs, the ups and downs.

GLASS There’s an important part here, which is the role of the spectator. And I’ve studied this a lot. For the emotion to be delivered to the spectator, actually, what’s really happening is the spectator is covering that distance personally themselves. When they do that, what the music can do is provide a vehicle for that to happen. I absolutely believe this is really what’s happening, that when someone is, say, moved by something, it means that they have covered that distance between themselves and the film, and the music is the vehicle for that to happen.

BURWELL One of the roles for music in film is to sort of open the right brain. You put your analytical side a little bit to the side when music comes in. And in film especially, it lets you just begin to enter into the characters or enter into the story. It’s definitely a right-brain activity. Unless you’re a composer. Then your left brain’s saying: “Oh, listen to that harmony. Listen to that instrumentation.” But for the spectator, it allows them to enter through this emotional aperture.

GLASS John Cage used to say, “The spectator completes the activity.”

One of the biggest complaints in the film-music world these days is that there’s just too much music that is too direct and obvious.

GIACCHINO Well, there’s a big problem with just too much music in general in a lot of these movies because sometimes in order to feel something, you need the absence of music first.

As a moviegoer, it can feel kind of like being bludgeoned by the music. Why rely on so much nondescript music?

GIACCHINO It’s an insecurity thing.

BURWELL It’s insecurity. Exactly.

GIACCHINO They feel like the music is going to save them. It’s going to distract you from whatever issues or problems that they’re having.

BURWELL They want to be absolutely certain you get everything about the story. … In Wonderstruck, it’s not exactly the same problem, but it’s definitely related to that problem because it is a silent film. I would score a scene several minutes long, and that would work. But when you put it against the score of the previous three scenes and the next three scenes, it was just too much. I would pull things out and pull things out. And I began to realize it was kind of like if you entered a scene and the melody played, I had to hold it back. I might have to hold it back for three or four more scenes.

In more than 10 years of doing these roundtables, this is only the second time a woman has participated. What can be done to improve diversity in the composing world?

GIACCHINO Hire more women.

BURWELL I agree. The Academy has invited more women and people of color [to join], which is great, but that’s the end of the process. What we really need to do is find ways to hire more women.

TAMAR-KALI I feel like there’s a step before that because every time people talk about diversity, before it even becomes a numbers game, it’s like, “We need to get more.” [But] before you can get more, you have to find out what exists. So there needs to be a shift in culture. Horizons need to be expanded. How can you hire more women if you don’t even know who the women composers or directors are? There needs to be an understanding that there’s a whole periphery out there that, for some reason, you don’t have access to. You don’t have to worry about being patronizing because, it’s like Schopenhauer said, that we experience the world through our limitations. So the language that we’re using is very limiting in how we approach it. And what it really is, is taking a look at yourself and saying, “I don’t have enough information. I need more information.” How we’re talking about it is very limiting. It’s not about, “I need to hire more.” You need to educate yourself as to what women are out there doing work. And then from there, more women will be hired.

Why hasn’t that happened?

BURWELL This is a business that doesn’t like taking chances.

PEMBERTON Because they just want the same thing again and again. It’s like, I always feel, every now and then a score comes along that changes stuff, and suddenly it’s allowed, you’re allowed more freedom. Like when Alexandre kind of exploded, what was so exciting for me was it felt like the more mainstream Hollywood world was very much a factory-driven town. I don’t know if it was, but it felt like that to me. And then suddenly you have this artistic voice that really had come through. And that felt like it changed things.

What is the thing you like the least about film composing?

DESPLAT The least? I think we all agree about the temp music.

GIACCHINO I turn it off.

BURWELL I do the same.

DESPLAT But the problem is that even though we’re by ourselves struggling with the film, battling with the film that has no temp music, at the same time in the editing room everyone is listening to some existing music. And the editor and the producer and the director. Everybody is being, how do you say, hypnotized. Because music has that quality of hypnotizing you. And the score that you hear again and again, [if you] listen to it three times — it’s over.

GIACCHINO Well, for them it’s sort of a necessary evil as they’re showing it to the studio. So I understand from their point of view why they have it. And I’ve even worked with directors who have just straight out told me: “Don’t listen to the temp. We had to do it.” It’s always edited together and cobbled together. They are directors who understand that and just don’t want anything to do with it.

Alexandre, Shape of Water has a very strong main theme. Does that come from character?

DESPLAT No. I think it always starts with the deepest soul of the film. What is hidden inside.

Can you get that from the script?

DESPLAT No, no, no. That’s from watching the movie again and again … it’s just ink and paper before. It’s good to choose a project because the subject talks to you. So that’s why I like to read the script if it’s way before the shooting. Otherwise, it’s the movie. And I write music for films because it’s the images that go to my brain. And so I have to dive into the film. That’s how the theme will come.


Where does it come from?

DESPLAT You know, you play around. You think about it. You go on your Vespa and you come back to your studio if you didn’t find it.

PEMBERTON Do you go on a Vespa?

DESPLAT Then you go running and you can’t find it. You find a very bad idea, so you sleep. And then you wake up, and there’s something, a few notes, seems to be better. It’s like, “Oh, [something] is coming, it is coming together.” And then it takes another 24 hours. And it’s like 24 months for us. It’s a long time. You’re dying.

PEMBERTON Do you have times where you have a melody or some kind of idea, and then you’re like, “This doesn’t work,” and you kind of trash it? But then you come back and reconfigure it in a very different way?

GIACCHINO I usually just sit down and I wait. I wait for myself to play something that feels the way that I felt when I watched the movie.

TAMAR-KALI This is so refreshing. I thought you were all mages.

GIACCHINO I’ll be like, “Oh, that’s terrible. That’s not it.” But then I usually stumble upon it. … You can’t just write and you’re [automatically] there. Most of the time it’s about finding it — you’re searching for it always.

DESPLAT Philip, do you have to go through that?

GLASS I’m just listening to this because I’m delighted to hear that everyone’s doing what I do. (Laughter.)

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.