9 Things We Learned From Composers Mark Isham, John Ottman and Aaron Zigman

By  · Published on June 19th, 2014


When you get three different musicians in a room, you never know what may happen. But when you get three composers in a room, it turns out there are more similarities between them than differences. Mark Isham, John Ottman and Aaron Zigman have an impressive combined resume having created the music for such films as A River Runs Through It, Crash, The Usual Suspects, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, John Q, and The Notebook.

While their musical styles may be different, their approach to their work is very similar. BMI’s Doreen Ringer Ross once again assembles an impressive panel for the Composer Coffee Talk (which featured actual coffee this year!) during this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival. Whether you are a composer, a filmmaker, or simply someone who appreciates good film music, read on to find out how Isham, Ottman, and Zigman deal with the changing musical landscape, how important a director can be to a composer’s career, and how communication and collaboration are the keys to success.

1. Develop Relationships with Directors

Ottman is known for his work with director Bryan Singer and Zigman with Nick Cassavetes, and both admitted these relationships have helped shape their careers. Ottman said one of the benefits of working with the same director is it helps you develop a natural short hand, but more importantly it creates trust. When a director is willing to work with you again, it shows other directors you have a good track record and makes them more compelled to want to work with you themselves. Zigman echoed the importance of trust and how having a relationship with a certain director could help them become your cheerleader and give you the validation you need to pursue other opportunities. Isham also added that trust can be contagious and once directors see that you are able to establish that, the more likely they will want to work with you.

2. Boundaries Do Not Exist

Ottman may have a special ringtone to let him know when Singer is calling, but he always answers. Ishman is proud that he is a full service composer and happy to do whatever he needs to in order to help a director achieve their vision. Zigman was on vacation and recovering from surgery when Cassavetes called him to start work on the theme for My Sister’s Keeper (which had not even started filming yet) and Zigman said he was in the studio working on it the next day. This kind of dedication is also what helps develop and maintain that ever important trust between a composer and their director.

3. Surrender Your Artistic Ego

Before coming a film composer, Isham was trying to purse a career as a recording artist and he explained that you have to surrender much more of yourself to the marketing department of a label than you do to any director. Isham explained that when you have a good relationship with a director, you are given the space you need to create and no ego is needed. Zigman agreed, saying being in a room with people smarter than him (which has been his experience working on films) helped him lose his ego because he could let go and trust those around him. All three agreed that there are more possibilities when working on a film which cultivates a more natural collaboration where ego is not necessary.

4. Temp Music Can Be Helpful (Sometimes)

Zigman made it clear he only likes temp music when working on romantic comedies or action films because those genres have less emotional beats to go off of when creating the music. Temp music in those genres can help give the composer an idea of the feel the director is going for.

When he has to work with a temp score, Isham likes to go through bar-by-bar to break down the temp and understand why the director likes it to help him create an original score that speaks to that. Ottman advised that if you find yourself in a situation where your music is being compared directly to the temp, make the temp sound awful when you play it back to help sway perception to your music. And try not to ever let you score be placed in test footage. (Since music is always the first thing to go if footage tests poorly.)

5. Licensed Songs Are Not the Enemy

Ottman explained the difference between score and placed songs is, “One is tailormade to soul of movie and other creates profound moments you cannot do with score.” There are moments in a film when a song simply works better than score would. Ottman noted the scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past when Quicksilver (Even Peters) is running around in slow motion set to Jim Croce’s “Time In a Bottle” which made it a more memorable scene in a way a scored piece could not have achieved. Isham added that pop songs have a different tone and Zigman agreed saying certain scenes needs songs simply because they “feel better” than score would.

6. Silence Is Also Not the Enemy

Isham stated there are two important things a score does which is, “Start and stop.” The silent moments are just as much a part of the musical vocabulary as any note or melody. Zigman said it is better to leave room for the music to breathe because things like the wind or birds chirping are just as much a part of the sound and impression of a film as the music.

7. Be Involved in the Final Dub

Ottman advised that whoever is doing the final dub should have a vision and understand what will help reinforce what a scene is about. If a scene is not about how loud a car’s engine is, that probably should not be the sound that dominates the scene. Isham makes sure to work with the sound designers from the beginning to help make the process of the final dub easier since they are already on the same page. Zigman also advised that in the end, if something you worked hard on is turned down and barely part of a scene, you have to accept it and be happy in the fact that you did good work.

8. You Produce Electronic Music, You Write Orchestral Music

Ottman noted that creating an electronic score is harder because takes longer than simply writing music. Isham says the trend of having more electronic elements in a score is something that comes in waves and is happening more right now because there are fewer budgets that allow for a big orchestra. Zigman said his biggest muse is his piano and being able to just write, but creating new sounds can also be fun and he knows it is important to be open to both mediums.

9. Produce, Promote, Persist

Isham made this simple statement when asked what advice he has for fellow composers, filmmakers, or even actors. He advised the key to everything is communication. Ottman agreed that persistence and continuing to work, no matter how small the project, can lead to bigger things. Zigman also advised to keep your focus on the one thing you want to do because very few people are able to be successful at multiple things at once. Zigman also told the audience it helps to visualize the future you want for yourself and one of the key ways to getting there is networking and creating relationships, a lesson taught to him when he first started out and has forced him to fight his urge to be a musical recluse ever since.

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You can currently hear Ottman’s work in X-Men: Days of Future Past, Isham’s in ABC’s Once Upon a Time and Zigman’s in The Other Woman.