What I Learned About Scores on My First Feature 'CENTS' with Composer Kathryn Bostic
One of the essential elements for conveying emotion and setting tone in a film is the musical score.
Even though I've collaborated with composers on original scores for short films, the process of creating a score really remained a mystery to me as I ventured into my first feature film CENTS. Because I'm type-A (are there writer/directors who aren't type-A?), this musical mystery around composing scores made me anxious. So I was incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to work with composer Kathryn Bostic as she created the score for CENTS.
Kathryn's approach to composing music and working with directors put me at ease throughout our process. Now that we have finished, I asked Kathryn if she would talk to me about her creative process as a film composer and her collaborations with directors in various creative media to share with our NFS audience.
Here's Part I of our telephone interview:
NFS: You have a very diverse musical background as a singer, songwriter and musician in addition to being a composer. What do you find specifically compelling about composing musical scores?
Kathryn: I love the nature of storytelling through music. It’s something that I have always appreciated as a songwriter and as a composer. These different arenas for collaboration, whether it’s theatre or film or performing as a singer-songwriter, are really platforms for storytelling. For me, they’re ripe for unlimited ways of telling a story musically and sonically. That’s what appeals to me. How are the music and sound going to set the tone for the story that is being told?
NFS: You’ve created scores for narrative films, documentaries and Broadway plays. Are there particular differences in creating scores for each of these types of creative works?
KB: Each project is different, each director is different, the needs are different, and it really depends on the story that is being told.
But again, we’re still talking about storytelling, so the music is there to serve the forward movement of the story. How is the music going to enhance the overall emotional tone and thrust of the story?
I recently worked on a documentary for PBS American Masters on playwright August Wilson, The Ground on Which I Stand, and Sam Pollard, the director who put that wonderful piece together, did not want a lot of music. He wanted about maybe twenty minutes of music. Understandably, he wanted to feature August Wilson’s words and different scenes from the plays that the actors so beautifully brought to life in this documentary. So I didn’t do a lot of scoring per se. We mainly focused on themes.
That brings me to the one thing I can say in general about scoring and storytelling, whether it’s theatre, narrative or documentary: focusing the score on the themes of the story is important to make the story feel more cohesive.
NFS: In a previous article, you talked about trust between a director and a composer being the biggest part of their relationship. Can you talk about how you work with directors to build that trust?
KB: The main thing is communication. I think that in building trust, you have to be able to feel comfortable communicating what the process is for you.
I usually try to make the directors understand the importance of not only communication, but candid communication also. Don’t withhold what is appealing to you or what kind of feedback you want to be able to give because that’s how we’re going to get to the issue, to the dynamic of the cue. We need to be able to have an open conversation at all times about what’s working and what’s not working.
I think trust comes in when the communication is effortless and you feel comfortable, and you feel like you can have this exchange -- there’s this meeting of the minds. Then, you have to take the information from that conversation and create the music, and do it until the music resonates with both people.
Once that communication has been established and the director feels comfortable that they can now come to you with different opinions and feedback, the whole collaborative process is demystified.
NFS: Back in October when I was looking for a composer for CENTS, I came across your work in Indiewire, first as a Composer to Watch, then in your two-part blog post for IW’s Shadow and Act. One of the things you said that really spoke to me was that a director only needs to speak in terms of emotional intent, and not in musical terms, which may or may not be correct. Do you find that directors have difficulty understanding their role in the process of creating a musical score, especially when they don’t have a musical background?
KB: Most of the directors that I’ve worked with have been very clear about what they want the emotional direction to be. They have been living with the film and the storyline for a long time, so there’s clarity. And sometimes, directors do know music, so they will speak to me in musical terms. I don’t want to say that I rule that out. I just want directors to know that it’s not mandatory.
A lot of it is a combination of being aware of what you want that scene to convey emotionally as the director and being open to different nuances of that emotion. For instance, if you’re in a scene with tension between two characters, you could score that a little bit off the nose so that it doesn’t play into the obvious tension. You could score it on the nose so it heightens the tension. You could have silence. You could have a cue that has levity and humor that diffuses some of that tension. It’s about having an open mind to the different possibilities.
It really depends on a lot of other variables, too. Sometimes, you don’t have the time for a lot of back and forth about cues. I’ve worked on films where I’ve had two and a half weeks to deliver a score, and the stakes are high. The director has put in what works for them and pretty much asked me to replicate that kind of feel, that kind of sonic world. So I have to work within the creative confines given to me.
NFS: Do you work well under that kind of pressure? Or would you prefer a long window for composing a score? Would you even prefer getting involved with the director before the film has started production?
KB: That’s a great question and an interesting one because again, it’s a per-project response. I’ve worked on films where I’ve been brought in right with the script, and I’ve been asked to create themes to script, which is great. But of course, once the visual component kicks in, sometimes the themes not only don’t work, but they have to be greatly modified.
I just get into a zone; I just get into a creative space. I don’t really think about, “Oh, I wish I had been brought in earlier.” Obviously, to have the time to create the score is a luxury because you get a chance to live with the way the film is evolving. You have a way of working on themes and working with the director to determine how these themes are going to be placed in the movie, then the director can cut to the music beforehand as opposed to working exclusively with a temp score during editing. So in that sense, there can be a little bit more creative latitude.
When you don’t have very much time to create a score, you still have to get into that creative zone. Once I get into that place, I’m fine. I don’t think about constraints. I just get it done. I think most creative people get into a zone and you get it done. And we don’t get it done recklessly. We have to sit inside that creative space and make it work. And it usually does, beautifully.
NFS: Is there anything that you do specifically to get into that creative space?
KB: The key is to be present -- the key is to be in that moment and see what comes up when you’re first creating. Often you go back to the drawing board and you may even throw out some of those first ideas.
When I’m really present, that doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to notes and direction that I’ve been given, but creative information has a life force of its own, a conversation of its own, and it has a way of informing you.
If you’re in that place of being present, you have something very special and very magical. So I really just try to be in the moment and see what the film is sharing with me at that moment.
It’s like having a conversation with a new friend, meeting for the first time. It’s a new experience and in that newness is the ability to cultivate something fresh. That’s why being present and open is very important for me.
NFS: So, I emailed you through your website around 11 pm one night last October, thinking there was no way the composer of Middle of Nowhere and Dear White People and plays by August Wilson is ever going to get back to me. Then, early in the morning, I check my email and discover around 1 am, not only had you responded, but you had found our website and Kickstarter page and were excited about the project. What was it about CENTS that made you respond so quickly?
KB: I really appreciated that you were telling a story that was primarily female cast, and I really appreciated that the main character was incredibly intelligent. She was a very smart character, she was a math whiz and math was a natural language for her.
I also liked that you were bucking certain stereotypes about how people are portrayed in various communities, whether it’s the Latino community or the Anglo community. The film had a universality to it, it had something that transcended a lot of the branding that race and ethnicity and gender have. And it was done in such a natural way. I never felt, “Oh wow, here we have the single Latina mother raising her child.” I never saw the racial polarity.
I just felt that these are some kids who interact with each other, and like any kid in middle school, there are challenges. Being that age is a rite of passage, no matter what your background is. I felt the story was more about that rite of passage and coming to terms with your own sense of worth. And I really appreciated it. It was just refreshing. You weren’t working hard at dispelling certain notions. You were just presenting this story, and I really liked the honesty of that. That’s one of the things that made me want to work with you and be a part of this film.
NFS: As a first-time feature director, I really wanted to work with an experienced composer who connected with the story of CENTS, but would also push both me and the story creatively. I thought you did that very well during our collaboration. How do you find the balance between expressing your thoughts about what will work best musically for a scene or sequence with what the director wants to hear from the score at the moment?
KB: It goes back to communication and having an ongoing dialogue about what the needs of the film are, then creating the music that reflects that conversation and fits those needs. Hopefully, the music then becomes something that both the director and I resonate with.
There are times when I may disagree with a choice the director is making, and I’ll talk about that. That falls under that ability to communicate. Ultimately, the film is the director’s vision, and I really respect that.
I always try to communicate effectively and to be respectful of the director’s vision. I let the director know, “I understand your vision for this film. Here’s my contribution to that vision. Is this resonating with you? If yes, then great, and if not, what do we need to do to shape it so it does?” Usually, that creates trust. Sometimes a director will come back around and say, “I see what you’re saying. Maybe we should try this differently.” So it’s a very organic dynamic in the midst of being very specific.
Be sure to check out Part II of my interview with Kathryn as we talk about the impact of temp scores on the composing process, tips and tools for long distance collaboration, advice for directors on how to give composers feedback on their musical cues and much more.
Many thanks to Kathryn for both her wonderful score for CENTS and for taking time out of her busy schedule to share insights into her creative process. You can find out more about Kathryn at her two websites listed in the links below.
You can read about the many lessons I've learned making my first feature film CENTS here.