The Process of Scoring

One of my film composition instructors said that a good score cannot save a bad film, but it can make a good film a lot better. I would take this one step further, though, to say that a well- written score can improve any film and turn a great film into a classic. I know that I have been uniquely endowed with the ability to touch the deepest parts of a music listener’s soul, to reach places in the mind that the audience member may never have imagined and to find the uniquely human in any story. These inborn abilities make me naturally suited to film scoring.

I begin my work on a film by asking the director, during the initial meetings and spotting session, two questions which would point me in the right direction in understanding the film. First, I ask him or her why he or she chose to make the film. Perceiving the director’s concept is essential for understanding the goals of the film. His or her core conceptualization gives me a basis upon which to build a musical foundation for the film. Secondly, I ask the director what his or her ideas for the score are. Of course I do not depend on the director to provide the musical foundation, for that is my job. Listening to the director’s ideas, no matter how tempting it may be to simply forge ahead with my own, nurtures synergistic collaboration. The director’s musical suggestions often provide vital insight regarding the underlying dramatic themes and motifs present in the film. Understanding what has come before directs my dramatic role in the project’s narrative. These themes and motifs form the collaborative connection between director and composer as well as form the basis for key musical themes that are the spine of an effective score. I strongly believe that proceeding blindly, without first seeking to understand what has preceded, is a formula for disaster.

The individual steps of this process may seem trivial on their own, but together they help create a score which enriches the emotional content of the film. It is possible to argue that the character and plot analysis which I undertake is simply a logical process which anyone can accomplish. To this, I add only that I can write music that evokes emotions with singularly vast intensity. The process is only a framework upon which I stretch the vast canvas of my musical instinct. My work suffuses the production with a melodious musical narrative whose contribution to the film is unique. My score becomes a part of the storytelling—a part of the story which cannot be supplanted any more than can the crucial story points or the actors’ performances. Total integration is what I achieve. To remove my score is to damage the production irreparably, not because of what the film needs from the score, but because of what it becomes with the score.

Next, I read the script and get intensely involved with the characters: their limitations and strengths, their aspirations and failures, their passions and hopes, their dreams and fears. Why are they here? Why do they say what they say? What are their motivations? I labor to gain a thorough understanding of the dramatic underpinnings which support the tightly interwoven lives of the characters. I invest a substantial amount of time doing this emotional character analysis because the characters’ emotions will translate into the musical themes of my score. This analysis is always a fascinating process of discovery, and it further familiarizes me with the musical needs of the film. Sometimes painful, other times exhilarating, this process is absolutely essential to becoming worthy of the characters and the story.

Following the analysis of characters, I revisit the director’s advisement while I study the structure of the screenplay to discover each character’s pivotal moments in the fabric of the story. I seek to understand the characters’ perspectives during and their transformations resulting from those crucial moments. Next, I begin the process of writing themes which crystallize the emotions of those moments. These themes form the basis of my score material.

A process of pulling back from the crucial moments necessarily follows. Looking at the “big picture” allows me to experiment with the score, reserving the big pay-offs for the most essential moments. Throughout other cues than these large moments, I alter and fragment the themes, play them at different tempi and transform them in other musical ways to set up the big moments. When introduced in its various and fragmentary forms, my theme material seems benign, unassuming and unintimidating—almost naîve—but all the while I am preparing the audience for the time when musical theme comes together in sync, conceptually and emotionally, with the film. These crucial sequences then undergo a transformation, moving from reality into magic and projecting a deeper level of understanding on all that has come before.