What I Learned About Scores on My First Feature 'CENTS' with Composer Kathryn Bostic
As we continue our conversation with composer Kathryn Bostic, we discuss her approach to temp scores, best practices for communication and collaboration between directors and composers, and how first-time feature film directors should reach out to established composers. If you missed it, be sure to read Part I of our interview to catch up with our conversation.
NFS: Most films use a temp score to help with the editing process. How do you approach temp scores as you begin your composing?
Kathryn: I always like to hear what the director may be working with for purposes of shaping the film. It’s a good point of departure, it’s a good place to start. Then, I take it from there. When we do our spotting session, I may weigh in on how that temp score is working with that particular scene or not. It’s a good point of reference and an important aspect of the process.
NFS: Do you have a preference of working on films with or without temp scores?
KB: With the August Wilson documentary, that director wanted me to give him themes first and he was going to cut to themes. So I didn’t have a visual, I just had to think about what the content of that documentary meant to me, what August Wilson meant to me. And I came up with an emotional response that enabled me to create those themes.
I found that to be very liberating because I had a completely blank canvas. I was able to create from my own impulse and instincts without the direction that would be given with a temp score. That was creatively expansive in many ways. I found it very liberating and it’s definitely something that requires a tremendous amount of trust and collaborative simpatico between the composer and the director. And it’s rare that you come into a situation like that. It’s very rare.
On the other hand, when I have worked with films that have temp music, I still try to find a way to create something that is going to be innovative and creatively resonate with what is already in place. I try to elevate it to a place that has something specific to my own individuality as a composer.
That’s what I mean about the importance of being present. You’re always going to have information — sometimes a lot of information, sometimes not very much — but you’re still being informed either way. So how do you take that information or feeling and create music from it? That’s why I just strip it all down and get very present. I also tell myself I’m going to have fun, this is fun, no matter what the theme is. Even if the theme is dark and challenging, the chance to create music for these scenes, that’s fun for me.
NFS: What still fascinates me about our collaboration is you and I still haven’t met you in person! And yet, through our phone calls about the film and your cues, I felt very connected to you and your music throughout the process. What specific tools and techniques have you found work best for you in terms of collaborating and communicating with directors?
KB: The main thing is to instill trust. Communication should be an ongoing element in the collaborative process. You want there to be comfort and an effortlessness in that exchange between you as the composer and the director.
For our collaboration, it was about giving you that feeling of support and giving you different options musically that you could listen to and derive what you needed for the next step of the creative process. It doesn’t need to be a lot. I’m not the type of composer that says, “I have ten ideas for you to hear.” I try to sit with a specific idea and develop that, then send that to you and see how that hits you emotionally.
You want to have an ongoing dialogue. You don’t want to be put off as a composer if your ideas are rejected. It’s very hard because it can be creatively exhausting to come up with idea after idea and nothing is hitting. You become dejected and deflated at times. You can spin your wheels. Then, there’s a breakthrough.
Or not. And when those times come, you may need to move on to another scene and then come back.
NFS: As someone who cannot compose music, I know I was initially afraid to offer criticism about a cue if I didn’t think it was working because, hey, I can’t write music. Early on, though, you told me that I had to be honest about my thoughts regarding the cues. If a cue isn’t working for a director, what is the best way for that director to give you feedback?
KB: Just keeping it real. Saying what works and why and what doesn’t work and why, albeit respectfully. Nobody wants to hear something that’s inflammatory. It’s all about being respectful.
But I also believe it’s about the film. So if the director is not feeling something, then find ways that communicate what’s needed. And it doesn’t have to be musical. Find ways that communicate what you’re looking for, and express that with an emotional suggestion, and have that kind of clarity.
In tandem with that clarity, I appreciate an openness. I’ve had some directors who are so beholden to the temp that they can’t be budged from it. You could come up with the most beautiful score and they even say, “This is extraordinary,” I’ve had directors say, “I love this, Kathryn, but I really want X, Y, and Z.”
So clarity, honesty and respect in terms of how you are communicating are very important to me.
NFS: A great lesson for me during our collaboration was to have an open mind about the music. I needed to cleanse my palate of the temp music to be able to listen to your cues. I liked to listen to your cues on my iPhone separate from picture to get a sense of the mood and vibe before watching them in sync, especially when temp music was so ingrained in my memory. Do you have any suggestions for directors on how you think they should listen to your cues during your collaborations?
KB: I think that your approach was definitely one that works. I think that it’s great that you heard the music apart from the scene so you could see how the music hit you emotionally. You could do a gut-check, and I think that’s a great way to distance yourself from the temp and how it was used in a particular scene.
It’s so funny when I hear people tell me they listen to the music on their iPhone or their iPod, that’s the way things are done today. With the advent of technology, everything is so instantaneous, and thank goodness the audio quality on those devices is still pretty high. That’s my only thing.
NFS: Is there a part of you that cringes a little bit when I tell you that I listened to your cues for the first time on my earbuds on my iPhone?
Well, yes and no. Like I said, the technology is so extraordinary that you’re going to get a very good idea of how the music sounds. Whatever works. If that’s how you listen to the music, that’s going to work for you. Honestly, I want ultimate feedback to be given once you’re in the studio looking at it with picture and hopefully with some nice speakers, but that’s not always the case. I prefer it that way because music has so many layers and nuances of sounds and dynamics and different elements. But I like your process, it works for me. I think it’s a great one.
NFS: I also really appreciated how on the few occasions when an initial cue didn’t work for me, you and I could have a candid conversation about why. Many times, certain stems of the existing cue could be tweaked or even removed. Sometimes, you wrote entirely new pieces of music, which are some of my favorite cues in the entire film. How do you handle revisions to the score?
KB: It goes back to communication, being open, and getting the feedback about what works and what doesn’t work, then trying it again. It’s a back-and-forth process that ties into what we talked about earlier about communication and just keeping it fresh. I have to make sure that I listen to what you’re talking about in terms of what you need to feel, and then creating that musically.
NFS: For future first-time feature directors, what advice do you have about how and when to reach out to a composer?
KB: Do some research. Look at composers whose sound you really like and who create a texture and sonic world that appeals to your film, and reach out to them.
Don’t feel like anybody is off-limits. I mean, obviously, if you’re talking low-low-budget, then there are going to be some caveats. If you’re dealing with more established composers, there are going to be some things in the deal that may or may not appeal to you. So you might be barking up the wrong tree if you’re looking to own all the rights and control everything and you’re only paying $50. You may not want to call that experienced composer (laughter).
Life is all about relationships, whether it’s professional or personal. A lot of composers build relationships with career directors. I say, just go for it. Don’t think that anybody is out of your reach. Ask your fellow filmmakers who they have used. Ask producers and directors who they would recommend. Also, make sure there is a creative simpatico. That’s very important.
As a director, again, just communicate, communicate, communicate fearlessly with respect and clarity. Be open. And enjoy the process.
As a composer, I have the utmost respect for directors because you all have so much you’re juggling. You have to have complete overview on the whole process of making the film and getting it done, so I want my role to be as easy for you as possible, and not a contentious one. It should just be about the creative process and enjoying that process.
Once again, my thanks to Kathryn for her insights into composing scores for films, her generosity of time, and most of all, her beautiful score for CENTS. You can learn more about Kathryn and her music by clicking the links below.
You can read more about my lessons learned from making my feature film CENTS here.