Lessons on Making Music for Film
During the Academy’s Careers in Film Summit, a day dedicated to students interested in working in the industry, one panel brought together a range of musicians to share their experiences and answer questions for the uninitiated. Questions like: what does a music supervisor do? Moderator Mike Muse shared the stage with music editor Jordan Corngold, composer-songwriters Germaine Franco, Justin Hurwitz and Trent Reznor, music supervisor Morgan Rhodes and songwriter Taura Stinson. Over the course of the hour, these are some things we learned.
Don’t be afraid to change mediums or genres.
Taura Stinson began her career in an Oakland-based girl group. She wrote songs for pop and R&B artists, worked as Paris Hilton’s assistant and contributed to the “Men in Black” soundtrack. That job encouraged her to narrow her focus. “When I decided that I wanted to be a songwriter in film, I knew that the biggest thing was going to be to just expand my knowledge of music.” Since then, Stinson has worked on everything from Black Nativity to Rio 2.
Trent Reznor, founder of the rock band Nine Inch Nails, hadn’t composed for a film before David Fincher approached him to work on The Social Network. “I knew nothing about the process or how it worked.” And the subject of the movie prompted a concern:
“What does a film sound like that’s about some unlikable characters in dorm rooms creating a social network?”
Through the process, he (along with writing partner Atticus Ross) learned to inhabit the characters and write instinctually. He also discovered similarities to his day job.
“My job as a writer of songs, usually, was to start with an idea or a lyrical idea and then try to arrange music to fit that idea,” he said. “And that wasn’t that different from what this is: replace my lyrics with the script and try to get inside David Fincher’s head to figure out what he was trying to articulate and what he wanted music to do.”
As a music supervisor, Morgan Rhodes comes in at the script phase, making notes in the margins about what certain lines or moments feel like. “You are responsible for helping to carry that narrative sonically,” she said of the job. Rhodes, who is also a DJ and record collector, listened to 3,000 songs while working on Selma. She then pared it down to 300, which eventually became 13.
She discussed one scene in particular, where the crowd solemnly crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Silence was crucial because “I wanted it to feel like a prayer,” she said. “I wanted it to feel like a meditation.” The music complemented this mood. “I also wanted something that was true to the times… I wanted something that was precious to the movement.” She used a lot of B-side tracks to keep the audience from recalling songs they already knew.
A traditional music background isn’t necessary — but in some cases, it helps.
“Some music editors are trained from a musical background. I wasn’t,” said Jordan Corngold, music editor on Bridge of Spies. “My training came from being a theater director. I learned to speak ‘director’ more than to speak ‘music.’ But everyone has their feeling about music.”
La La Land composer-songwriter Justin Hurwitz, who had a traditional music education, agrees. “I would say it’s very, very helpful to have, but I find one of my biggest challenges is letting go of all of that and not feeling like a slave to ‘five has to go to one’ and ‘parallel fifths are always bad’.”
While Hurwitz relied on his formal training for La La Land, he admitted that so many types of music completely disregard this method.
“Be aware that the rules don’t always apply.”
Making music for film is a collaborative process.
Germaine Franco wrote the score for Dope in about a month. Working with Pharell, she took themes from his songs for the film and expanded them into a score. As a composer, she said, “your job is to find the tone of the film. What is the tone that the filmmaker wants to project through music?”
Corngold’s role calls for an understanding of both the composer and director’s visions. He recalled an early meeting with Bridge of Spies director Steven Spielberg and composer Thomas Newman. “A lot of what a music editor does is listen and collect information about that creative process, about the collaboration that’s going on between the composer and director.”
“I’m a facilitator and a communicator and also kind of a translator… When [the director] says, ‘Make it hot,’ what does he mean? How does that translate musically?”
Usually, Corngold said, the music editor is hired before the composer. His or her first task is to create a temp score, which serves as “a good communication tool for the composer.” Once the temp score is completed, the editor supports the composer, facilitating workflow and communicating changes: “the picture’s constantly changing while they’re writing.”
Watch the complete panel, and others from the Academy’s Careers in Film Summit, HERE.