The “Coffee Talk: Composers” panel is always a highlight of my LAFF-ing each year and this year may haven taken the cake as it not only featured my number one composer from last year (Mr. Cliff Martinez, thanks to his outstanding scores for Drive, Contagion and The Lincoln Lawyer), but it also began with panelists Martinez, Rolfe Kent (Young Adult), and Michael Penn (Girls) breaking out into an impromptu performance of the Lawrence of Arabia theme with Martinez on djembe, Kent on ukulele, and Penn on theremin. These odd instrument choices made it clear from the start that this was a lively group and the discussion would prove to be just as unpredictable.
Moderated by BMI’s Doreen Ringer-Ross, it was apparent from the start that this trio all have a great deal of respect for one another, but it was hard not to notice the good-natured competitive tinge to their respective relationships as well. Read on for the ten things I learned during this year’s composer panel.
1. “Drugs, straight up.” Despite Martinez’ tongue-in-cheek answer (delivered via deadpan) to Ringer-Ross’s question about how each begin their composing process, all three agreed that while you are certainly forced to sit down and do the work at some point, it seems to be the moments of distraction (whether in the shower, on a walk or doing the dishes) that provide those “ah-ha!” moments and let the left-side of your brain take over. Kent added that having someone else in the room listening to your work always causes him to hear his music with different ears and is another good way to get a less subjective perspective on it.
2. “How long could I go on stage with a sock on my genitals?” Martinez again provides quote-worthy quips as he explains how he got out of rock and roll and into film composing (having started his career as a drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.) Realizing his career was starting to get threatened by the emergence of drum machines, Martinez found creative fulfillment using those machines to create odd sounds and created what he called a “Greatest Hits of Rude Body Noises” compilation. This compilation eventually found its way to (then) up-and-coming director Steven Soderbergh which got Martinez signed on to score Soderbergh’s first film Sex, Lies and Videotape and thus began their life long relationship and Martinez’ career in composing.
3. Scores give new music built in emotional attachments. Kent explained that with most music you hear on the radio, you have to have a moment such as a first dance or first kiss to relate the music to anything, but he found with film by hearing the score attached to images it immediately gave him those associations. And he liked it. So much so that at the ripe ol’ age of 12, coming home from the movie theater, he decided what he wanted to do with the rest of his life – compose.
4. If you are a musician, but into making records more than performing live, film composing may be for you. While Penn fought becoming a film composer since it was the “family business” (his father is actor/director Leo Penn and his brother is Sean Penn) he found getting (and keeping) a record deal more and more difficult. After avoiding Paul Thomas Anderson for a year, he finally agreed to score Anderson’s first film Hard Eight (originally titled Sydney) and realized that, fight it as he may, his future was in composing since it allowed him to make records without the strings (and uncertainty) attached to having a record deal.
5. The future of composing seems to be in experimentation. Kent praised Martinez for his ability to create his own unique style that re-imagines how to use sound. Kent pointed out that with so many action films sounding (and looking) the same the industry seems to be falling into a pattern of constantly repeating itself and it is these new ideas that he hopes will start coming to the forefront to shake things up a bit.
6. The shared experience of listening to recorded music together is quickly fading – except in theaters. With everyone able to listen to music through ear buds on their iPhones now, Penn explained that the theater is one of the last places to find that communal feeling of experiencing something creative with others. He continued that this changing musical landscape is what makes composing for film so special because it gives you that rare opportunity to have your music heard in a communal setting.
7. Film is one of the few places audiences are able experience a variety of music from orchestral to world music to avant garde. With Martinez’ style falling a bit “left of center,” he said it seemed inevitable that he would fall into the world of film composing where odd and unexpected music is not only welcomed, it is celebrated. Martinez created the majority of the Drive score on a baschet cristal, an instrument that “reupholstered his brain” the first time he heard it. He always tried to incorporate it into his scores, but Nicolas Winding Refn was the first director to really embrace the odd sound.
8. “The next Oscar winning score could be written on an iPhone.” While advances in technology have certainly evened the playing field and made the ability to create music more and more accessible, Penn noted that great music can really be made on anything. Martinez expanded further that he used to think his set up was fairly simple, but when Skrillex showed him that he just scores on a lap top with Ableton Live it made Martinez want to strip down his set up even more. While more new talent may come to the forefront thanks to this ability to create music with smaller and smaller systems, Martinez still noted that classically trained musicians (like John Williams) would always have a place in the world of composing. The entire panel agreed that regardless of the amount of new composers coming to play, it will always be the true talent that will succeed and survive.
9. The ideal composing situation would be to come in once picture is locked with two months to work on the score. But this rarely happens. The entire panel laughed at this fantasy scenario since they are usually brought in while the editing is in progress and they have to keep up with what Martinez described as a “moving target.” While it can be infuriating to compose something that fits perfectly into a scene only to have it re-edited and cut out, Penn did admit that when editors starting cutting to fit your tempo it is that creative collaboration that is hard to beat and would not happen if you came into the picture once it had been locked.
10. You can begin composing without picture. Both Penn and Kent are working on projects that have yet to be filmed (the second season for Girls for Penn) or have just begun filming (Jason Reitman’s new film Labor Day for Kent), proving that you can begin to come up with ideas based on scripts alone, but it is developing those relationships and gaining the trust of directors you have worked with before that allows you to come on so early into a project.