NMC Archive - Composing Music for Film
29 August 2019
This week on our blog, composers Howard Skempton and Geoff Hannan discuss their experiences of writing for film.
Howard Skemtpon: Cross-fading in Manhattan
If not twins, music and film are certainly siblings. Both play with time and exercise charm. My own practical involvement in film began when I was thirteen, when I bought a cheap 8mm cine camera. A 50-foot spool of film cost about thirty bob (including processing) and I quickly learnt to “edit in camera”. Making films was never the all-consuming passion that composing became when I was sixteen, yet it remained influential and itself open to innovation. Richard Lester’s Help! (with The Beatles) prompted me to turn the camera on its side, and the preternaturally long shots of Antonioni’s movies encouraged me to follow suit, stretching both my budget and the credulity of my audience (my immediate family). It was about ten years ago, some time after my cameras had been retired (irretrievably on the blink) and celluloid had become an endangered species, that I had an email from mode records in New York asking for my address because a director, Michel Gondry, had been in touch to investigate the possibility of using my music in his latest film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A few days later, a disarmingly handwritten letter arrived from Michel who explained that he had recently been editing the final sequence of his movie, with the radio on, and that my Surface Tension, the title track of my mode disc of short chamber pieces, had been broadcast and had somehow “lifted” the scene. Not knowing anything about what he had heard, he first contacted the radio station and then the record company.
Anyone who knows and admires Michel Gondry’s films will understand why he chose to write a characterful letter rather than send a simple email. In due course, we had a meeting in London where his music videos were being shown at the ICA. He booked me into his hotel so that discussions could be open-ended and even resume over breakfast. Dressed inappropriately in my best (OK, my only) suit, I must have seemed eccentric, positive and perhaps a little wary. Two months later, I had a call from one of Michel’s American producers, asking if I could spend a week in New York, firstly to view the film and then to work on some musical ideas. No payment was mentioned, but the offer of assistance (a music editor, and any equipment I needed), plus flight and hotel accommodation, was generous. It was a busy time, I was tired, with a big choral piece to write, but this was a golden opportunity.
The evening I arrived at my hotel, Michel rang to welcome me and to arrange a meeting at the Partizan offices just round the corner. Two months after filming, Michel was fully engaged in the editing process, so my music editor and I were left alone to watch the movie in its provisional form. When it finished, I turned round, and there was Michel in the doorway, obviously curious to know my opinion. Even in its unfinished state, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was magical. The filming, script and performances (the all-star cast included Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) were a delight. My only complaint was about some of the music. Two or three tracks from my mode disc had been used and worked beautifully. At other times, the film seemed to be let down by the broodingly minimalistic material that had been substituted for silence. Perhaps this drone-based material (by a relatively well-known composer) was too close, stylistically, for comfort? Maybe. I realised that music must do more than resonate with a movie: it must somehow enliven it. I think Michel must have been as surprised by my strong reaction as I myself was, but was also amused.
On subsequent days, I spent most of my time in the music editor’s tiny studio, mostly at the computer, looking at scenes from the movie and working with fragments of existing music (for example, some of my piano pieces). I witnessed with wonder the benefits, or otherwise, of Pro-Tools and cross-fading. We would work from early in the day until late evening, taking a break, mid-afternoon, for hamburgers and salad in a local bar. Michel would appear only occasionally (the music editor’s studio was in a different part of Manhattan) to discuss progress; and to remind me that he needed to persuade his producers that I was the right composer for the job. I remember a meeting with the producers. I mentioned that concert music was my bread and butter and one of them was quick to reply, “That’s the trouble, Howard! That’s all it is: just bread and butter!”
Once I was home, a contract was drawn up, but eventually the producers’ misgivings held sway. Michel has since used my music in another film of his, and is excited about using much more in an animated feature (a work in progress). And, yes, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, spared my involvement, was marvellous!
Geoff Hannan: The Air We Breathe
I applied and got into the National Film and Television School in 2009 as a media composer, courtesy of a scholarship from the Alan Hawkshaw Foundation. I’d been working as a musician and concert composer professionally since 1997 and by the time of going there had picked up two international prizes for my work. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the prize money (the amount I had earned from concert music between 1997 and 2009 was about enough for a dozen mobile phone top-ups) you can really only get so far like this and I resolved to put two interests together, composing and film, in an effort to continue doing what I like best (or perhaps, more to the point, what I can only do). Of course, I still compose concert music.
I lost a few supporters on the back of this decision to go to the NFTS: the Marxist-Leninist ones thought I was prostituting myself. However, I gained many others at the NFTS and continue to enjoy their varied perspectives and insights. What distinguishes media composing from concert composing is the fact that it is collaborative. In my concert work I’m accountable to myself only, while in my media work I’m accountable to directors, producers and those involved in preview screenings. Re-writing is an essential part of the process. It’s very unlikely for composers to get the music right first time – usually the third time does it – so when they say they have scored a film, they have generally scored three films. (I like to think of this as the ‘Holy Trinity Principle’.) The ability to write quickly is essential; also, I think, an intuitive, empathic understanding of people.
Acquiring proficiency in media composing was an interesting process. At the beginning of my time at the NFTS I was writing music which worked better without picture, while a little later on my music really only worked with it. I discovered, like many before me, that musical interest for its own sake doesn’t work well on film, and can actually hijack a narrative. (Incidentally, every film composer, including ‘A list’ ones, will have their score rejected at some point, for whatever reason. Perhaps the best known example is Alex North’s score to 2001, which Kubrick rejected in favour of his beloved temp tracks.)
Collaborating with other people is unpredictable. No two collaborations are the same. The best ones are those in which, together, you come up with something better than you could have done on your own. When directors are sure of what they want to say with their films, and allow you the freedom to bring your own ideas to the table, the result is always good. Digital technology encourages some directors to micromanage every aspect of a film, and this can inhibit collaboration. Diffident directors who cannot commit to an approach are perhaps the hardest to work for. Sometimes collaboration can be strained for totally preposterous reasons. I worked on one film at the NFTS which was never officially completed because not only had the director run out of time to shoot the final scene, but he had also been placed under house arrest for doing runners from expensive restaurants, and was therefore unavailable for post-production. The editor, the sound designer and myself did everything we could to salvage the film, but to no avail. This was a pity because the film, as far as it went, was wonderful. Post-NFTS I provided the music for a documentary called The Secret Life of Objects. Here I gave the director four hastily-done pieces of music, inspired by the stills he had shown me, which I thought he would find useful in the cutting room. I never heard from him again until he emailed me to tell me about the première. Of course I asked him whether he had actually used any of my music, and he said he’d used all of it. So in this case I scored a documentary without really scoring a documentary. Collaboration is full of surprises.
The last NFTS-related film I did was an animation called Kahanikar (dir Nandita Jain). It was an enjoyable collaboration – my third with Nandita – and the film has done well on the international film festival circuit, having garnered about ten awards. It didn’t quite make the final Oscar shortlist though. The film is about a little girl, Nirmala, and her grandfather who live by a beach in Kerala, South India. He tells her stories, and when Nirmala realises that grandpa is losing his memory (Alzheimers), she tells them to him to try to make things right again. I worked very closely with Jay Price, the sound designer, and there are several moments in the film when it is difficult to tell sound and music apart. The awards are a testament to the collaboration in which all the elements came together organically. When you think of film-making in this way, it seems almost absurd to single out a particular person’s work for attention.
Going to the NFTS has, without a doubt, influenced my concert work. The range of my writing has broadened considerably, and I don’t get hung up on the sort of aesthetic prerogatives and embargoes which matter to only a very few. I write for a general audience. I think about audiences a great deal, perhaps as much as a stand-up comedian. At this point people sometimes ask ‘Are you trying to make your music accessible?’, and I confess accessibility means very little to me except in a very practical sense. However, I do want to know how an audience responds to my music, which is why I prefer Q&As to pre-concert talks. Since being a composer, especially of concert music, is a rather solitary occupation it is quite easy to think you are working in a vacuum, when actually there is so much breathable air.
NMC Archive blogs are all articles written for our Friends Newsletter over the years. If you'd like to receive our quarterly Friends Newsletter, you can become a Friend here (memberships start from £50). If you'd like to support our work with composers as well as our expanding Learning Programme, you can make a donation to our 30th Appeal here. Thank you!
All entries in chronological order
26 June 2020
18 May 2020
11 May 2020
9 January 2020
16 December 2019
9 December 2019
28 November 2019
21 November 2019
7 November 2019
24 October 2019