Score one for the team
The once-solitary job of film scoring is becoming a collaborative effort.As most filmmakers will attest, making movies is an immensely collaborative process. While producers, directors and writers often end up getting the lion's share of the credit when a film succeeds, the reality is that great movies are never the work of one person. The same cannot be said of film scoring. The life of a film composer is frequently a solitary one, with weeks, months and sometimes years spent painstakingly writing and rewriting the cues and themes that can bring a movie to life.
Lately, however, the traditional view of a film composer slaving away all by his or her lonesome has changed, and it's more and more common to see multiple composers on a movie receive screen credit, whether they start out as composing teams or when extra hands are brought in to help out late in the process.
This year boasts a number of high-profile collaborations, some between composers and artists who might be considered outside the music world altogether -- namely, directors.
Helmer Tom Tykwer has collaborated with composers Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek since 1999's "Run Lola Run," but none of their previous efforts prepared them for Paramount/DreamWorks' "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," a vivid period epic that revolves around a killer with a superevolved sense of smell. Tykwer had begun to think about musical ideas for the movie well before filming began, and he started to develop musical material with Klimek and Heil before the project was even greenlighted.
"We do a lot of films just me and Reinhold alone," Klimek says of his composing partner, with whom he's worked on projects such as 2002's "One Hour Photo" and the HBO series "Deadwood." "With Tom, it's a special situation. He's the keyboard player between the two of us, so we sit and spit out themes, and then it's like a remix process -- I'll take what we've done and do my variations of it, and he'll take it and do his variations of it. We don't play each other what we're doing until we've finished. Sometimes, I'll just hand him something and say, 'Do whatever you want with it.'"
Even with Tykwer's blessing, Klimek and Heil faced an uphill battle, as "Perfume" required a kind of scoring they had never tackled before. "We knew immediately it was going to be the biggest challenge for us even to convince the producer that with our track record of mostly electronic stuff, we would be capable of putting out a fully orchestral, big score," Heil says. "We wrote a bunch of the big themes in May 2004 and orchestrated this stuff and recorded it with an ensemble in New York called the Absolute Ensemble. (They're) a bunch of classically trained people who have pop sensibilities and love to experiment with sound, so we had a recording session where we demoed to ourselves as well as to the producer how we could actually tackle this."
The trio's early jump on the film's music allowed Tykwer the unusual opportunity to actually play the score on the set during filming. "It was a very demanding production, but the music composition took us basically three years -- let's say two years of composing and one year of adjusting," Tykwer says. "I started composing that music parallel to the script writing, which is really helpful. From the script writing, I found my way into the ideas and the characters, and from the composition, you find your way into the atmosphere and the emotions, the more abstract things about it."
Multiple composer collaborations don't always come together so organically -- sometimes, bringing in multiple people on a single project is simply a necessity in order to complete a score in less than an optimal amount of time. When Universal's "The Good Shepherd," directed by and starring Robert De Niro, faced a time crunch, Universal Pictures and Universal Music Group president of film music Kathy Nelson paired New York-based composer Marcelo Zarvos with Bruce Fowler, a veteran orchestrator (and former band member in Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention) with more than 150 films under his belt.
Since De Niro's previous directorial effort, 1993's "A Bronx Tale," required mainly songs, not score, Nelson says he needed a composer who could help him with the process. "I suggested Marcelo to him -- he had done some work on (2005's) 'Brokeback Mountain' for Focus, and I knew he always delivered and they thought very highly of him," Nelson says. "I suggested they meet, and Marcelo was the one who came up with the melodies and had an approach that Bob felt very comfortable with."
With "Shepherd" clocking in at two hours and 40 minutes -- and needing about two hours of score -- it was clear Zarvos would need help in order to complete the job. "It's not a traditional thing for two composers to work on a picture together because most composers have an individual sound, and you don't want it to sound like two different people worked on the same movie," Nelson explains. "We thought this would be a good way to team up two people because Bruce could help Marcelo realize his score in a way that was more epic than what he's done in the past, and Bruce would also be able to write music."
Mindful of the hazards of blending two musical sensibilities, Zarvos says that he and Fowler made every effort to bring a unified sound to the score. "We talked a lot about instrumentation and colors and the tone we were looking for and proceeded to really write separately," he says. "Only at the very end did we start to really use each other's themes in cues. I would learn things from his cues, and he would learn things from mine. He's a master orchestrator, and the dimension of the project was something that was a real challenge."
While it's ideal for two or more composers to interact face to face while they exchange ideas, current technology alleviates the necessity of composers working in the same room -- or on the same continent. "I've done orchestral sessions in Hungary while I've been in Santa Monica, and we're able to have meetings with people and record musicians anywhere now," says Andrew Gross, who collaborated with John King on New Line's "Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny."
"John and I used different systems (on 'Pick of Destiny')," he continues. "He's on ProTools, and I did my writing on Digital Performer. Sometimes, my music didn't line up to picture at John's studio as it did in my studio. I have collaborated with another composer, Gil Talmi, and because we use the same software, we're able to avoid this trap. When we work together, we both use Apple's Logic Pro. Even though he's in New York and I'm in L.A., it's very simple. We can transfer our files to each other over the Internet and then double click on the session, and we're off and running. I can immediately open his files and start tweaking."
The interaction between director Anthony Minghella, his longtime composer, Gabriel Yared, and Rick Smith and Karl Hyde of the band Underworld on MGM/The Weinstein Co.'s "Breaking and Entering" took similar advantage of cutting-edge software and communications tools. "We got together in Gabriel's writing room in London, and we would have evenings of playing stuff for each other, even playing other people's stuff for each other and describing sonic pictures," Hyde recalls. "Then later, we started sending Logic sequence files back and forth between Gabriel and ourselves. Sometimes he was in Paris, sometimes in London, and our studios are in the countryside, so thankfully, the Internet was up to us being able to work in that way and create a virtual studio."
Although David Arnold and Corinne Bailey Rae were co-credited for scoring Miramax's Peter O'Toole starrer "Venus," Rae's involvement was curtailed by her schedule, even though both director Roger Michell and Arnold were keen to work with the vocalist. "Roger had finished this film and was going to go for a very minimal, classical score," Arnold explains.
But when Michell heard Rae's single "Put Your Records On," the director thought she would be ideal for the score. "Roger thought it might be a nice idea if she scored the film," Arnold continues. "Obviously, she hadn't scored a film before, and her time schedule was quite restricted, so he asked me to oversee that; as it turned out, she had one day to work on it. Roger went up to her studio in Leeds in the north of England, and they put some ideas down and brought them down to me. It was my job to make that fit the picture and write strings and such so it would work as score."
Ultimately, Arnold says the two musicians never worked in conjunction at all. "Would it have been any better if we'd worked in the same room?" he asks. "I don't know. Ultimately, it's almost like we were anyway because she did what she did and I did what I did, and I love what we did because it's so beautifully simple."
Similarly, classically trained composer John Debney, who also has experience playing in bands, collaborated with remix artist Cutmaster Swift on his score for Universal's hip-hop-infused musical "Idlewild." "I gave him final mixes and stems, and he took elements of the score and remixed them in a very cool way," Debney says. "There are three or four areas of the film where he and I shot different things back and forth to each other."
Debney believes being in a band provides the kind of background that can make collaborating on film music seem far less foreign than it might to someone whose experience is only in the conservatory. "I enjoy doing it for that reason," he says. "For those of us who've been in bands and played live, it's all about collaboration, and therefore, I embrace it."
This comes as no surprise to someone like Hans Zimmer, who's collaborated on many projects and also has a background in rock 'n' roll. "I was in a band before I did film, and that's how you work in a band," he observes. "There's nothing wrong with (John) Lennon/(Paul) McCartney -- they proved you can come up with some pretty good things when you have two guys sitting in a room together."
Agrees Yared: "I've been lucky to collaborate with a band like Underworld because it's widened my field and, in a way, brought me back to what I was fond of in the beginning, which is a very small rhythm section and funky rhythmic things, which we have in ('Breaking and Entering's') score."
Zimmer, who became part of one of the most high-profile composer collaborations of late when he joined forces with James Newton Howard for 2005's "Batman Begins," sees music composition as just another part of the greater collaboration that is filmmaking itself. "The collaboration isn't just with James Newton Howard and me because there's (director) Chris Nolan involved as well, and so much of what we do as film composers is to tell the story the director's trying to tell as well, so in a funny way, the conversation's already started."
But Zimmer's collaborator on "Batman Begins" still isn't so sure about team composing. "I think generally speaking, it's a bad idea," Howard says. "In most multiple composer situations, you find it because someone got nervous about the music and insisted that somebody else come in and help. 'Batman' could have been a disaster, but the kind of schizophrenic nature of Bruce Wayne and the Batman character lent itself to a wide interpretation musically. And even though we did collaborate on almost every cue, there are areas I worked on more than Hans and areas Hans worked on more than I did. I think we'll repeat it hopefully many times in the future, but overall, I don't know anyone who wouldn't feel hemmed in and restricted by having to compromise with another composer."
Arnold acknowledges the problem but still sees collaborating as a viable alternative under the right circumstances. "You have to be reasonably selfless about it," he says. "Ultimately, you do get possessive about music and the way it should be, so you'd have to be with someone you trusted and respected and knew could do the job."
While there will probably always be some composers who prefer to fly solo, as Gross points out, even they might like to have company now and then. "John King's studio was the hub of creativity, and I liked that," he says, "because I was a little autonomous -- and a little lonely!"