I Drove My Composer Nuts! Here's How to Avoid Doing the Same
How do you work on a film for 3 years without driving your composer nuts?
If a documentary's story materializes during the edit (as is often the case), the rough cut can be worlds different from the final film. So, what does this mean for a composer who comes on board in the beginning? In short, a lot of work that changes — often — throughout the process. Add to that a flabbergasting number of different characters and time periods, and your composer can get a real headache.
Luckily, my composer Mark Bertuldo was willing and able to work through the process with me. We ended up with a unique score for the film that features live musicians, quirky leitmotifs, and tonal shifts, all of which fit my movie pretty damn well.
I sat down with Bertuldo to get some insight into writing cues, working with live musicians, and what worked for us (or didn’t).
NFS: How did you learn to compose for film?
Mark Bertuldo: When I was in college, I wrote music for a couple of short film projects that my friends worked on, but I never really had any formal film scoring training until I moved to LA. I ended up taking some film scoring classes at UCLA because being a composer sounded really appealing and fun — until I worked on a couple feature-length projects (while also working a full-time job) and realized, "Oh, this is kind of hard, and a lot of work."
But the classes I took really prepared me for the work I did on Brave New Wild. One of the best things about UCLA's program was that we had the opportunity to have actual industry musicians play and record the film cues that we wrote. On the last day of my last class we got to conduct a 35-piece ensemble, which was pretty thrilling (and incredibly nerve-wracking). But those classes really helped when it came time to record musicians for Brave New Wild since I already had experience in booking musicians, arranging parts, and conducting scores.
"Be malleable: directors are not going to like 100% of what you write 100% of the time, so be prepared to revise a cue or two (or five)."
"One minute I was writing a solemn piece for chamber strings, the next minute I was writing a bouncy 1950's-style instructional sequence, and the minute after that I was writing surf rock drenched in Fender reverb."
NFS: What's the difference in composing for a documentary as opposed to a narrative, based on your experience with my film?
Bertuldo: The main difference was that I had to write a lot of varied cues due to all of the different storylines and sequences. Typically, composers will write two or three main themes and use those as a basis to create music for the rest of the film. And even if the film goes in different places tonally and emotionally, the music will tend to stay pretty consistent in terms of instrumentation and motifs and textures. But in Brave New Wild, there were so many different people telling so many different stories from so many different locations and eras that there ended up being a lot of variation between all the cues. One minute I was writing a solemn piece for chamber strings, the next minute I was writing a bouncy 1950's-style instructional sequence, and the minute after that I was writing surf rock drenched in Fender reverb. I had to draw from a lot of different styles to write all of the music, which was a unique challenge when working on this film.
"Typically, composers will write two or three main themes and use those as a basis to create music for the rest of the film."
NFS: Can you describe the creative process you went through for Brave New Wild, from idea stage to finished score?
Bertuldo: When you first gave me the scene breakdown for Brave New Wild, we went over ideas for what the music should sound like for each scene. There's a fairly wide scope in terms of all the different people and stories in the film, so I realized pretty quickly that I would need to write several individual themes in a wide variety of styles. Since the main narrative push of the film comes from the story of the rivalry between Warren Harding and Royal Robbins, writing each of their themes seemed to be the best place to start. You wanted each theme to reflect their personalities: dignified and centered for Robbins, mischievous and lively for Harding. With these written, I could revisit them in later cues as the Harding/Robbins story progressed in the film.
Ideally, it would have also been a good idea for me to compose the main theme of the film early on, not only so that I could establish the overall tone of the film, but also so that I had something to draw from for later cues. In that early stage, though, the edit that I was working on hadn't been finalized yet, so the overall arc of the film had yet to be determined. I think I also became really caught up in writing for some of the other scenes during that time and wasn't fully considering the importance of establishing the main theme upfront. By the time I finally did finish the main theme, a good amount of the other cues had already been written, so, in the end, there aren't a lot of moments in the film where the main theme is brought back or referenced. It's definitely one of my main regrets — not being able to draw a clear line between the main titles and most of the other cues in the film.
That said, I had a lot of fun writing cues for some of the more specific sequences: the 60's surf rock for the Vulgarians section, the wah-wah guitar of the 70's cop-show instrumental for the free climbing sequence, the pizzicato-heavy How To Be A Dirtbag Climber section [which became a separate short film]. These cues were more about conveying a certain spirit or attitude rather than having to hit specific marks, so I felt like I had a little more freedom when writing them.
In the end, it took a very long time to get all of the music written, arranged, and recorded, but I'm happy with the results, and I especially like the variety of everything I worked on.
NFS: We spent a lot of time talking about what the music and cues should be. What kind of communication was the most helpful in that process?
Bertuldo: It's helpful when a director can articulate the mood or tone for a given scene as clearly as possible, or provide a good road map with respect to shots or cuts that the music should accent within a sequence. I also don't mind when a director has an existing song or piece of music in mind to accompany a scene and wants you to write something in a similar style. The sequences in Brave New Wild that you had a clear vision for meant you could convey specific ideas to me, which made it easier for me to write effective cues. Any time you felt more open-ended toward a scene, it meant going through a bit of trial and error in order to find the cue that fit best.
"It's helpful when a director can articulate the mood or tone for a given scene as clearly as possible, or provide a good road map with respect to shots or cuts that the music should accent within a sequence."
NFS: When it actually comes time to record the score with live musicians, what's important to know? Is there anything a director can help you out with at that point?
Mark: We recorded a portion of the score with musicians under a very tight time frame (two hours!), which meant that the session had to go as smoothly as possible if we wanted to get all of the music recorded. And the best way for things to go smoothly was to be prepared. That meant having extra copies of the music available, making sure my pre-records matched the recording format, and knowing every inch of my score by the time I entered the studio. If you're like I was on this project, and you end up doing everything yourself — composing, arranging, orchestrating, copying, and conducting — you've got to be ready to answer any questions that come up during the recording session, whether it's from the musicians, the engineer, or the director. Even if you get to the point in your career where you have access to a massive budget with weeks of studio time and a half dozen assistants, being prepared still won't hurt.
NFS: Do you have any tips for filmmakers who are about to work with a composer for the first time?
Bertuldo: As a filmmaker, it's best to have as close to a final cut (if not the final cut) of your film as possible before you give it to the composer. Once the composer starts writing music for your film, it becomes very difficult and time-consuming to make changes to the cues if you end up making further edits to the film. That's not to say you can't show a work-in-progress of the film to the composer before your final cut is complete so that they can start generating ideas (which is what you and I did). In our case, however, I treated the rough cuts a little too much like the final cut, which meant when changes were made in the editing process, I had to do a lot of re-writing and editing of my own.
As for composers: try to get a full picture of the story that the director hopes to tell before you commit to writing any music. Use that overall arc to inform the tone of your themes and go from there. And be malleable: directors are not going to like 100% of what you write 100% of the time, so be prepared to revise a cue or two (or five).