Writing music for nonfiction films <br />


The truth is out there -- but what does it sound like?

Effectively capturing and presenting true stories, genuine history, real events and actual people is the enduring challenge facing documentary filmmakers. But music can be just as crucial an element in support of a real-world story as it would be for a scripted one; and for composers who score documentaries, the form brings its own special set of rewards and difficulties.

Perhaps not so long ago, there was an identifiable "documentary sound" -- or lack of it. Pioneering documentarian Frederick Wiseman has long taken a cinema verite approach that eschews any musical underscore, and for decades the genre had the reputation for scores that sounded canned, rather than crafted. But as directors as varied in tone and approach as Ken Burns, Errol Morris, Barbara Kopple and Michael Moore have popularized the documentary form, the range and artistry of documentary scores have been elevated as well.

"My philosophy in approaching documentaries is that it is a dramatic medium," says composer Laura Karpman, whose most recent docu work includes "Craft in America" and the "American Masters" profile of Carol Burnett, both for PBS. "When you look at a documentary as a composer, it's exactly the same as looking at a narrative work. You have to find out who the characters are, how you want to represent them and what function music is going to play in the context of the film. Those are the same questions you'd be asking yourself for any dramatic show. And just as in the best narrative films, the best documentaries have wonderful, original, interesting scores that add so much to what's on the screen."

Composer Graeme Revell (2005's "Sin City"; Sony's upcoming "Pineapple Express") took on his first major documentary work with last year's "Darfur Now," and he also adopted a narrative approach to real-life stories. "Darfur raises so many complex issues with so many different camps and viewpoints around it," he says. "The filmmakers decided that rather than being issue-based, the film would be presented from the point of view of human interest. We had six intimate portraits of different characters in the conflict, and the real challenge was to try to find the connection between these very different people. In that sense it was more like feature work in that we came up with themes for characters that are in some way musically linked, and the link we found in the characters and the music was the idea of family."

But Revell also points out a key difference in narrative and documentary work -- that a docu score must sometimes practice emotional restraint in relation to the emotions on the screen. "In a fictional world you can go a little bigger, but when things onscreen are real, you don't want to feel that you're pushing any sentimentality buttons or schmaltz buttons. I have a strong schmaltz filter to begin with, but it's set even higher on documentary work."

In fact, supporting a film's storytelling without sounding emotionally manipulative is one of the key objectives for a docu composer. "When the audience knows that actors are portraying characters and that a writer has written the words, what you have is a suspension of disbelief," says composer Mark Adler, who has scored both narrative and documentary projects for film and television, with docu credits ranging from the "War Letters" episode of PBS' "American Experience" series to last year's feature work "Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm." "In documentaries, there is no disbelief to be suspended -- in a sense you're looking through a window onto an actual event. Because of that, something artificial, which is what a score is, needs to do its work much more discretely. In some ways, that makes documentary scoring a bigger challenge, but it's a challenge that composers working in documentaries wholly embrace."

Adler has confronted the challenge directly in the film he's currently scoring, an as-yet-untitled feature-length examination of the American food industry. "There are long stretches of distressing sequences," he explains, "but the film needs to keep the audience engaged with some sense of optimism rather than just negativity. The music has a very specific role to play in solving that problem. You don't want to deepen the emotion of what you're already seeing. You don't want to pull the audience down into a vortex of depression. But you also don't want to trivialize what's being shown. It can be a very difficult balance to strike."

In achieving that balance, documentary composers may find they have a wider range of musical choices available to them than they would in the narrative world. "There's a greater sense of freedom not to paint such a complete picture as you might with a big studio feature," says composer Alex Wurman, who, in addition to such Hollywood features as 2006's "Talladega Nights" and Dimension's "The Promotion," has scored a wide range of docus, including the Oscar-winning "March of the Penguins" (2005). "You can be more suggestive, and you don't want to be leading. There's actually a sense of relief that you don't have to push things so hard. You can be creative without hitting things over the head. I've found the most interesting harmonies come out of me when I'm doing documentaries because the stories are so complex. The type of thinking a viewer does while watching a doc lends itself to more adventurous, unmanipulative music."

At times though, the presence of any music in a documentary can feel manipulative -- a challenge that composer and master guitarist Michael Brook wrestled with in scoring the Oscar-winning "An Inconvenient Truth" (2006). "You support a documentary story just like you would do with a drama, but you have to have some more checks and balances to make sure you don't push anything too hard," Brook says. "There were essentially two different sections of 'An Inconvenient Truth' -- Al Gore's lecture, and the background parts where he's doing voice-over. We tried music in both of those sections but quickly found that it never worked during the lecture. He's trying to convey important information, and by giving it any emotional shading with music, it made you not trust what was being said. It felt like somebody was trying to sell you something. You have to be so careful about the tone in docs."

Composer Lee Holdridge has garnered Emmy nominations for such dramatic works as "The Tuskegee Airmen" (1995) and "The Mists of Avalon" (2001), but his credits also include documentaries ranging from the sports-themed works of Bud Greenspan to a number of Holocaust-centered stories. "The challenge with documentaries is that often you're dealing with big subjects, and you have to think of yourself as another voice in the storytelling," he says. "You don't want to simply underline what people are already seeing. In an action-adventure film, you might feel free to pull out all the stops and go over the top, and it still works because everything about the narrative is heightened to begin with. But when doing a film about Simon Weisenthal or the Kindertransport, you have to be much more careful in your choices and really think through what is on the screen and what you're trying to say. You can't push -- you have to let the story do its own work."

Some of the particular difficulties of documentary scoring are as much emotional and psychological as they are musical. As composer Ben Decter worked on the score for last year's Oscar-nominated "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience," he felt a connection to the film's subjects that had a powerful impact on his music. "The fact that you're looking at something that has truth to it is inspiring to begin with," says Decter. "But that also brings with it some challenges that are very daunting. You're very aware that you are working with real people and real stories -- and in this case, real tragedy. For a sequence in the film where you're learning about all the soldiers that have died and looking at their families, I felt a tremendous responsibility to get the emotion just right."

The sense of connection and responsibility to the subjects and subject matter is one of the great rewards for many in the docu field.

Miriam Cutler began her musical career as a member of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, before transitioning to work as a composer for low-budget horror films, such as "Body Parts" and "Witchcraft 6: The Devil's Mistress" (both in 1994). Now working almost exclusively in documentaries, Cutler's credits include 2002's "Lost in La Mancha," Cinema Libre's "Bloodline" and the Emmy-winning "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" (2007).

"My first 10 years of composing I didn't have anything I wanted to show anyone," laughs Cutler. "It was tremendous to begin working on projects that felt so meaningful, and to me it doesn't get more dramatic than docs -- the stories of real life. When I first started with documentaries, I think there was more of an idea of a doc style. But now it's just filmmaking: Anything goes and people aren't afraid to tell stories in all kinds of ways. The scores can be just as innovative or edgy as anything in features. You're never going to get rich working on docs, but I have a body of work I'm so proud of."

In documentaries centered on stories of conflict, a composer may wrestle with scoring the divided emotions of adversarial parties. The Oscar-nominated "Deliver Us From Evil" (2006) examined the emotional devastation wrought by a pedophile priest, and for the score, director Amy Berg worked with rock 'n' roll songwriters Joseph Arthur and Mick Harvey. "It was a disturbing and terrifying story, and it was hard to spend time with it in that sense," recalls Arthur. "But for me, the process was about trying to identify with everyone in the picture. I made music from the victim's perspective and from the priest's perspective, too. I felt like I had to identify with both to get the right balance, even though that was a dark process at times."

As for the difference in writing to serve his own muse and composing for a documentary work, Arthur says, "I look at the film as a song, and the composer is the band that has to perform it. The film is really the artistic composition, and your job is to play it well. You have to have a voice that's strong enough to serve the film, but not so strong that it's a distraction."

Ultimately, any of a docu composer's more abstract considerations have to be resolved in musical terms. When Earl Rose took on the task of scoring the eight-hour miniseries "The Presidents" for the History Channel, the challenge was to bring a fresh perspective to the subject matter, and the solution was to create a score using completely unexpected elements. "The producers said they didn't want a serious, brooding commentary on the office of the President," Rose explains. "They wanted to shake things up and not do anything that sounded like the obvious documentary score you'd expect. It was almost anti-scoring. I

ended up incorporating elements of hip-hop, rock, rap, jazz, country. There were times when I used a harpsichord, but I also had the harpsichord playing boogie-woogie. It helped give all the stories more relevance -- it wasn't just dusty history anymore."

Rose faced a different musical challenge scoring 2006's "Stardust: The Bette Davis Story," in which his score was heard between Davis' film clips that featured the grand, classic Hollywood film scores of Alfred Newman and Max Steiner. "There had to be continuity between the clips and the score, but I

wasn't going to try to imitate those guys. What I came up with was using a trio of piano, bass and cello, with the cello working as a kind of bridge to those classic orchestral scores. It worked, and it turned out to be a very enjoyable challenge."

Composer Edward Bilous had the opportunity to score against type when taking on the 10-hour "Carrier" series on PBS (airing April 24-May 1). "The series is taking a look at life on an aircraft carrier," Bilous explains, "and you're looking at what life there is like for admirals and pilots and sailors. You're seeing nothing but military imagery, but in the entire 10 episodes, there isn't a single minute of music that is heroic French horns and trumpets. It's all grinding guitars and bluesy stuff and electronica. And I think that musical approach helps you see the stories in the series with a fresh perspective."

Bilous will soon be approaching the documentary world from some new angles, serving as an executive producer within his newly created production company, Cornucopia Arts. He says the opportunity to become more immersed in the documentary community is its own reward.

"One of the reasons I like to work in documentaries is the intelligence and integrity of the filmmakers and the passion they have for subjects that are usually worthy of being brought to the public's attention," says Bilous. "When you're a part of a great documentary, you feel like you're contributing something to a larger good. The most successful docs usually have some moral fiber to them, and I'm drawn to people who make that kind of energy part of their life's work. For a composer, being in an environment where you're helping to tell important stories, and working with such caring, intelligent, passionate people -- that's what it's all about."