by David A. Koran
First on the agenda for the day was a panel with the sound team that worked together on The Matrix. The panel included composer Don Davis, Executive Vice President of Music at Warner Brothers, Doug Frank, and recent Academy Award winner for sound design, Dane Davis. The panel not only discussed how they approached working on the film, which was filmed in Australia while most of their work was done in Los Angeles, but also how each of their separate elements came together perfectly for the final film. Demonstrating this process for the audience in attendance was one of the biggest hits of the day. For the examples, a scene from The Matrix ("How deep the rabbit hole goes"), was played four times, each with the different sound elements isolated to demonstrate how the layers add to the final film. Don and Dane (no relation) expressed that this is the first time they've seen the film in such a fashion, and were amazed by their own and each other's work on the film. It was just as impressive and overwhelming for the audience, so much so that this session was made reference to throughout the days other panels and sessions.
The previous session ran understandably over the allotted time, but most there barely cared or noticed. But, as the say, the show must go on, and next on the agenda, were director Peter Hyams and composer John Debney discussing their work on End Of Days in the first of three director/composer panel sessions. Being a former musician himself (drummer), Hyams discussed his approach and working relationship with Debney, who he worked with previously on another thriller, The Relic. Hyams mentioned that the rhythm of music for suspense films versus actions films is tied to the viewers heartbeat, 60 to 70 beats per minute for suspense and 120 beats per minute for action. However, he mentioned that music doesn't actually "enhance reality" but rather sets the emotional tone of the film. Using his example of The Relic, Hyams mentioned that the score, especially with Debney's work on the project bumped up the "I.Q." of his films by enhancing the story. Debney agreed that the role of a film's score should support the film in such a manner, and sometimes, "less is more" when it comes to supplying a score to a picture, such was his work on The Relic. John also mentioned a method that composers of action oriented films take when trying to work with sound effect laden films. Echoed later by Graeme Revell, Debney said that composers will work with the director and sound designers to pick a register (low, middle or high) where their music can fit in and not "interfere" with the sound effects in certain scenes. This, along with the chance to get involved with a film early helps foster a good working relationship between director and composer on a film project. If there is a good relationship, there then is usually very little "bull" to sift through when trying to communicate each others motivations and wishes. These revelations from Hyams and Debney met with a lot of nodding heads and affirmative mumbles from the crowd in attendance.
The third session before the break for lunch was one of the slower points of the day. This mock negotiation was a companion to last year's session, this time instead of highlighting the "big budget" film, the panel looked at scoring for low-budget and independent film. The tone set by the role-players was light and friendly, trying best to keep people's attention while instilling some realities of the negotiation process. Being new to the whole "business" of film music and scoring, I found all the machinations displayed by the participants very shocking and eye-opening. I never knew that there were so many twists and turns to getting rights for library music as well as hiring a composer on a limited budget. One moment that brought some laughs and gasps from the crowd, in realization that many of them have experienced before, was when the budget for music was outlayed and how everybody tried to take their piece of the pie until there was a pittance available to pay the composer. Unlike the days of the studio composers and orchestras, the composer for a film nowadays is required to do everything to provide the score, from writing to scheduling recording time to hiring the musicians to record the music. This is where the money goes, and it's lucky the composer for today's films has enough to live on, let alone run a business.
After the break for lunch, which we spent in the company of SCL vice-president, Simpsons composer, and all-around funny guy, Alf Clausen, the conference reconvened with the songwriters panel. The twenty minute introduction of the panel was understandable, given the legendary individuals who sat upon it. Songwriters Dianne Warren, David Zippel, husband and wife team of Alan and Marylyn Berman, and composer-songwriter Marc Shaiman answered a smattering of questions between clips, as Marc stated, "from the sublime to the ridiculous." Shaiman, by far, had the attendees in stitches, from his larger-than-life on-screen presentation of South Park's "Uncle F**ka" to his improv parody of Ms. Warren's current project Coyote Ugly. If one thing can be taken away from that oddly moderated sessions is that never try to match wits with Marc, because he'll beat you silly. By far, this session could have been presented a bit better, and had many folks edgy in their seat for the previously mentioned twenty minute roll-call of credits of the panelists.
To make up for some of the lost time, there was some muddling around the edge of the stage for a few minutes with folks talking to some of the panelists for the song writing group. This was followed shortly by "spot the composer", which involved figuring which one was Graeme Revell who was to accompany his latest collaborator on Pitch Black, director David Twohy, in the second director/composer panel of the day. Moderator Ray Bennett, while reading Graemes credits, mentioned his previous occupation working in a hospital for the mentally ill as great training for dealing with folks in Hollywood, which garnered a chuckle from everybody in the audience. Both Twohy and Revell echoed what Hyams and Debney mentioned earlier about "the dance" that the music must do with the sound effects on many of the action/adventure films of today. Revell likened it to getting separate sections of bandwidth for music and sound effects, in order that each track remains separate, never crossing into the other's auditory zone. Like the session for The Matrix, a piece of film from Pitch Black was shown and was analyzed as to how the music was selected (Revell used techno beats combined with "world drums") to counterbalance the SFX in certain sections but also to bolster them in others. The questioning then turned more to a commentary by Revell on dealing with rejected scores for film (which he's had very few instances) and the working environment with filmmakers and how important that is to a successful end product. Graeme also mentioned that the composer has to be flexible and open to the filmmakers wishes. He commented on his three separate scores that were written for his first film, Dead Calm, which actually had the filmmakers arguing among themselves as to what they wanted rather than arguing with the composer. He segued into discussing temp scores, which, once again, had the audience nodding and mumbling in acknowledgement to how they, as well as Graeme deal with such items. Revell says that he never likes temp scores, but commented on the fact that Ennio Morricone and Thomas Newman actually request to be temped with their own previous work, of which he says has a lot of their scores sounding a lot like work they've done in the past. But overall, David and Graeme agreed that the most important asset to the composer and his establishment of a good relationship with filmmakers is his music editor. The editing can make or break a score when viewed with a semi-final cut of the film. If it doesn't work, the composer is left trying to justify his work to the director. This may actually double his workload by having to re-score already scored pieces of film, such as the case with his work on The Negotiator, a working environment he would never recommend.
Closing out the sessions for the day, we slipped back into a more lighthearted mode with director Jay Roach and composer George S. Clinton discussing their work on the Austin Powers film series. Here, George was asked how it was like to "compete" with himself and keep the music fresh and new since he scored both films. Clinton responded with how one of his bigger challenges was actually working with Quincy Jones' "Soul Bossa Nova" for the opening title sequences, which, for the first film, had the entire opening sequence for the film rewritten to accommodate the song. For the second film, George had to almost rewrite the piece and extend it for the sequels opening sequence, surprising even Jones' people, who had thought it was a long lost and forgotten version that Quincy recorded himself. A more recent example, George noted, was his latest work on Ready To Rumble, where he was going against a temporary-dub of his own work on Mortal Combat. He also stated that his approach to writing the music for Austin Powers was to pay homage to the likes of John Barry and Henry Mancini without having the music be strictly parody. George states that, "music is to have its own character, but it should serve itself by being able to trace it back to its origins." This was crucial when he tried to integrate "The Look of Love" without ripping it off and without making its appearance in the film look bad. Remembering his beginnings as a songwriter and his early collaborations with Cheech and Chong (the Corsican Borthers' composer in residence), he mentions that writing music for comedies is extremely hard, especially when trying to help sell an onscreen joke. As an example, George set up how he approached scoring the scene in Austin Powers II where Dr. Evil attempts to use the time machine for the first time and fails. He attempted to sell the joke by building up the orchestra as the drama intensified and broke off the music, as if the orchestra hit a brick wall, just as Dr. Evil ran into the non-functioning machine. George and Jay relayed to the audience that they spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly where to stop the music to best sell the joke, a few seconds here or there altered the audience's reception of the humor by varying degrees. They both recalled that they did this many times for both films, with one notable example being Dr. Evil's "one-million/trillion dollar" ransom announcements. It involved an enormous amount of time, but it's time well spent for both films given their box-office successes. To help in that process of scoring and selecting the music to use, George said he thought that the themes developed for each character would "be the music they would choose for themselves" to best serve their own personality. Remembering a past musical collaboration on Geronimo: An American Legend, George had to work with co-composer Ry Cooder on providing distinct musical personalities for the U.S. Calvary and Geronimo. Rather than providing distinct themes to disseminate the characters, they decided to distinguish the two sides through the use of orchestration, Sacred Harp music for the Calvary, and Cooder's own western-atmospheric music for the Native American contingent. Clinton's parting remarks on working in close collaboration with a director on a film were that composers should be open for suggestions and understand points presented by the filmmakers. "Otherwise," George stated, "a composer that doesn't listen (to the filmmakers) is likely to get a swift kick in the pants. (But) dealing with the changes is like trying to fit clothes on a running man."
Finalizing the conference on the lighthearted themes of Austin Powers, the sessions came to a close and were succeeded by a reception where attendees got to ask some of the panelists more questions and share and discuss what they learned throughout the day. Overall, not only was the conference informative, but also proved to be surprisingly entertaining, a recommended event for those who are just getting started out in the business or those who just want to know how the magic is done.
Thanks to Ray Costa of Costa Communications, Richard Bellis and The Society of Composers and Lyricists, and others at The Hollywood Reporter for their help and support.