In their own words: spotlight on screen composers


Murray Gold
'Death at a Funeral'
MGM/Sidney KimmelEntertainment
Release Date: Aug. 17

"(Director) Frank (Oz) didn't give much of a directive. He just bought me a muffin and told me to get on with it. He likes muffins. The day I met him in Starbucks, he told me I wasn't to touch his muffin, then disappeared for a few minutes. I think me being such a reliable guardian of his muffin might have been what landed me the job.

"Frank was quite keen that the film didn't sound too 'Hollywood.' He wanted something a bit more European, which was probably a good thing, as we were about $1 million short of the budget you'd need for a Hollywood score.

" 'Death at a Funeral' is about two brothers who discover truths about themselves and their family whilst trying to lay their father to rest. It turns out that the father was rather a more active father in life than they were aware of. The characters in a farce are often no more than ciphers for a frantic plot, but because of the skill of (writer) Dean Craig and Frank Oz, it rises above this.

"In a farce, music is a dangerous business. One false move and you can spoil a joke. It's intricate but needs to sound breezy and accidental. To be honest, it's probably easier scoring a thriller because you also have a quite narrow range to draw from. The music should always be light, which removes a large portion of your expressive armory. So really, the music supports the frantic plotting and weaves through the piece, adding vividness and color here and there. There's also a long animated sequence at the beginning and an original song at the end, which was a good opportunity to say a little bit more.

"In terms of instrumentation, I had one session with a small string orchestra and a couple of sessions with banjo/guitars/accordion/piano -- more of a folky sort of band. The music was very difficult. It sounded easy, but it was tough on the guitarists. Luckily, we had two of the best anywhere in the world: John Parracelli and Mitch Dalton."

Jesse Harris
'The Hottest State'
Release Date: Aug. 24

"(Director) Ethan Hawke was very specific about what he wanted. Ethan could work in the music business if he wanted! He picked almost all of the songs and matched them with the singers. He knew exactly the instrumentation he wanted from my character's band (Harris plays a musician in the film) and the character Sarah's band.

"(Hawke) was weary of soundtracks that only license pre-existing songs, and he wanted the music to be unique to his film. Also, he felt that although there would be a number of different singers with different styles performing the songs, having one composer would give it continuity. He wanted a rock score, both in the songs and the instrumentals.

"We wanted the music to function as a sort of Greek chorus, echoing the plot. Obviously that's what scoring is supposed to do, but in this case we matched the lyrics of each of the songs to the scenes in which they're used, even if the meaning was portentous. This film is about self-discovery -- about a young man who confuses his obsession with the wrong girl with his need to connect to his parents, especially his estranged father.

"Since the character Sarah is a singer-songwriter, she does have a musical theme, 'Never See You,' which she sings in Spanish and English. It also appears instrumentally and in 'written' versions. Also, there's a song called 'No More' that is another theme of hers, which she sings at the end of the film, but which appears earlier as an instrumental.

"For my character's band, I used an upright bass, upright piano -- an old Steinway -- acoustic guitar and drums. And for any of the scoring, it was all small group stuff. Sometimes we added horns, accordion, electric guitar or marimba. We used a Chamberlin on one song, but overall it wasn't very nutty."

Carlo Siliotto
'La Misma Luna'
Fox Searchlight
Release Date: Sept. 28

"'La Misma Luna' is a love story between a mother and a son. The mother is a housekeeper in Los Angeles, while her 10-year-old son (Carlitos) is living with his grandmother in Mexico. They are connected only through a weekly phone call that the mother makes every Sunday from the same public telephone that she describes to him. When the grandmother passes away, the son finds a coyote to cross the border and find the phone booth. The only other connection is the moon. The boy's mother says, 'If you feel lonely, just look at the moon because I'll be looking at the same moon at the same time.' When they finally do meet each other at the phone booth, you don't see them hugging one another, you just see the city lights.

"So that's where it started for me, my inspiration was by watching this last scene. As a composer, you get to be the first person to give back to the movie. (Music) is the only actor that you don't see in the movie. My position is always to see the film without any temp music and to be the first one to propose an idea for the music in the movie. So from the beginning with (director) Patricia (Riggen), we were on the same page. The three main things are the moon, the journey and the pain. Since we were in a rush, I had only 17 days to write and score the music and the theme.

"My three main themes are: First, the connection of the moon between the mother and the son; the second is the journey and the travel of the son to the mother; and third is the pain and the sorrows to tell of the way that Mexicans live in Southern California. So you see them working in tomato fields, you see them persecuted by the media, immigration police and poorhouses.

"In the movie there are many Mexican songs, (and) some were written specifically for the film. One is a song about crossing the border called 'Por Amor,' by Los Tigres del Norte. Because that element of music was sufficiently represented, I decided to focus on feelings. My music tells about this love and this search, this travel toward Carlitos' mother. With the exception of one song that is performed live, all the Mexican songs come from radio or jukeboxes -- they are the ambiance music. It was the job of the score to be the true music that comes from the characters and (is) for the characters of the movie.

"The instrumentation is very simple because I kept the point of view of Carlitos for the movie. So I have a group of strings, piano, harp, cello, oboe, flute, clarinet, bassoon and wind instruments. For the travel, I use percussion (to represent) the pain of the journey. The percussion has been accused of being very political. In places it represents the immigration police and the cops in L.A., but not in a political sense. I still kept the point of view of Carlitos, which is important because he doesn't know anything about America."

Brian Reitzell
'30 Days of Night'
Sony Pictures
Release Date: Oct. 19

"Director David Slade said he wanted music that would blur the lines between score and sound design. His last movie had six minutes of music in it ... and for ('30 Days of Night'), I was told that there would be about 20 minutes. So far, we have about an hour, and we are only three-fourths of the way through scoring. I was hired as the music supervisor and the composer, and so far there isn't one song in it.

"Because the movie takes place in Alaska in the winter, where it's dark for 30 days straight, I felt it was kind of appropriate to create a very cold, dark atmosphere. So the movie is pretty shrouded in this bizarre atmospheric world that we created with mostly organic instruments that have been manipulated in bizarre ways. One of the first things I bought (to score the film) was a pottery wheel. It doesn't make any noise, so I could use that as a way to spin things and mic them up. The whole process has been a bit experimental.

"The pottery wheel basically looks like a turntable. It has a metal platter on it I can mount different things on top of. That wheel is motorized and has a foot pedal that makes it spin from zero to 280 (revolutions per minute), so when that thing's flyin' around, watch out. We have to wear goggles and protective armor because if something were to fly off there, it would impale us. I've taken to setting up a whole array of different tuned metal discs around it like cymbals; and I put a mallet in the pottery wheel, and it spins the thing around and it hits each one, creating this insane rush of sound. I then mute all the cymbals with felt and tape so it's a more noticeably articulate tonal sound. Then I take it off completely to achieve a wide-open sort of cymbally white noise. Then I arc all three of those together so you get the opening and closing of the sound. It's nuts.

"So that's the process with every instrument we've used. I've used a lot of cello, a lot of melodica. I did not use a waterphone. It seems that waterphone is in every horror movie. It's like the sound of horror movie. Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful instrument, and I happen to own several. I've used them on pop records because it sounds interesting on a pop record. On a horror soundtrack, it's not interesting, because it's been done. Our approach here has been how do we make this sound like something we haven't heard before?

"You can score an entire movie and never actually use music and you could be just as emotionally entrenched in things if you've done your job right. I sort of think that my job has always been sound, whether it was picking a song off a record or it was being a musician as part of somebody else's cue. ... It's still all about sound and the emotions and telling the story."

Gary Calamer and Garth Trinidad

Calamar: "The music in 'Entourage' is the soundtrack for the four coolest cats in Hollywood. Our heroes run in the hippest circles in L.A., and the music has to reflect that. We've always got our ears to the ground to find something new and fresh. You never know when Kanye (West) is going to slip Vince an advance copy of his new album. We also try to incorporate some old-school underground classics as well."

Trinidad: "Overall, the music is used to create a vibe where some additional flavor may be needed."

Calamar: "HBO shows have a reputation for being tastemakers, but so does KCRW (Santa Monica public radio station at 89.9 FM), where both of us have hosted shows for years. So, we don't actually feel much pressure about what songs we select -- it's more of a fun challenge. For both gigs, we are always seeking the new, interesting and unique music from around the world."

Trinidad: "In 'Entourage,' the plots move fairly quickly. With that in mind, the tracks we select tend to help with scene transitions, slow moments down to linger, increase the emotional intensity and sometimes leave the viewer to question, rather than assume they know what's coming next. The challenges to working on the show fall mostly in the clearance part of the process."

Calamar: "An interesting and unique aspect to this show is that 'Entourage' does not have a composer to provide a score. Therefore, every piece of music needs to be licensed, which adds a creative -- not to mention a financial -- challenge. Generally we have about a week to pick and clear the songs. It really gets fun when we are trying to clear a song that is not yet released. We really put our friends at the record labels and publishers to the test, and they bend over backwards to try and make things happen for us. The biggest reward, outside of the paycheck, of course, is watching a scene transform after you put some great music against it."

Jon Ehlich

"'Life' is a show where the music will mirror the lead character's inner life and be representative of his unusual journey. He's someone who has been through a catastrophic, life-changing experience. He's been unjustly persecuted and systematically tortured over a long period of time, but has risen above it to some degree through a newfound sense of enlightenment and hyperawareness of his natural surroundings -- an intense appreciation for life.

"The score needs to place us within his consciousness, which vacillates between his struggle for enlightenment and a primitive desire for vengeance and justice. Our task (along with my writing partner, Jason Derlatka) is to create a sound world that is evocative of a kind of psychotic break or breakthrough. Using and manipulating sounds that summon his hypersensitivity to the natural and organic world, while also expressing the sideways nature of his scarred yet beautifully unique mind. It will feel life-embracing and -affirming. The music will be the element that will also, at rare moments, serve to remind us of the underbelly and, ultimately, the hidden driving motor of the show, which is his almost unconscious desire for revenge. This thread will be in stark contrast to our 'enlightenment' sound for him. It will be dark and subterranean and secret.

"We're still in the process of exploring the instrumentation and sounds. The instruments may not be as important as how we use them."

Russ Landau
'Survivor: China'

"As always, 'Survivor' is scored like a movie with long lines and heavy action sequences. The music really punches up the reality into something more like hyper-reality. Its constant commentary helps to define emotion and focuses on the story lines.

"Producer Mark Burnett is a big directive that I always try to follow. In the beginning, Mark and I brainstormed the musical direction for the theme and the show. We went through a lot of iterations, and after a four-and-a-half-hour road trip to Mammoth, listening to all Mark's favorite music, we came up with this wonderful hybrid of ancient music in combination with modern scoring. The 'Survivor' theme, 'Ancient Voices,' is exactly that. I have a wonderful directive each season to find the ancient voice of wherever we happen to be shooting and incorporate that with the theme and underscore. This sometimes leads me towards some really unique adventures in strange, faraway places!

"Luckily, 'Survivor' has a decent scoring budget. I used an orchestra on the theme and always try to use live players as much as possible on the score. It's getting harder and harder to budget for live players as producers are failing to see the importance, the depth and soul that live players bring to a score. I've been asked, 'Don't you just push a button and the score automatically comes out of the box?' There are composers out there willing to do a score for next to nothing, but they won't use live musicians, and the music will have no visceral impact. ... There is no sonic comparison when the low-budget score, which is obviously devoid of live players, is held up to the theme.

"In terms of moving the plot forward, the characters and storylines have their own discreet themes. Certainly, the personality of the inherent drama needs to be acknowledged through the music."

James Raymond
'Side Order of Life'

"The basic premise of 'Side Order of Life' is that the lead character, Jenny, in finding out that her best friend's cancer has returned, gets a major wake-up call from the universe. This is brought to life through some very funny and clever magical-realism moments where she sees things that are not there and hears voices. So music plays an important role in shaping that part of her world and letting the audience in on what's happening. There are many fun and funny moments, as well as some very real, raw emotional scenes, so the music has to shift gears quite a bit, sometimes within the same cue.

Ultimately, the music is an extension of Jenny and how she goes about re-evaluating her life.

"Margaret Nagle (creator and executive producer) and Mike Pavone (showrunner and executive producer) have great musical sense. In my initial meeting with Margaret and Mike, we decided that the score should be orchestral for the most part, with piano and clarinet being the featured instruments. Margaret wanted a fun, plucky sound, which to me means pizzicato strings, harp and mallets. I love writing that kind of score, so it was a match made in heaven.

"The music really has to propel the viewer into those fun magical moments. The themes that I've developed are not really character-specific. They are more relationship-specific with regards to how Jenny is dealing with (her friend's) cancer. The guest character usually gets a signature instrumentation or melody that I can play with throughout the episode. There is this one character, 'Cell Phone Man,' who remains faceless; he does have his own theme.

"The biggest challenge is sustaining that fun, 'plucky' sound without falling into a trap. I plan to avoid that by adding new elements to the instrumentation on every episode. There are so many wonderful moments on this show. ... If I can accentuate the laugh, add to the fun and help pull the heartstrings in the right spots, I will have done a good job."