Scoring for the screen: Composers and film directors work in harmony


On Emma, Doug McGrath’s first film as a writer-director, composer Rachel Portman suggested a solo oboe to set the mood of a scene. McGrath replied, only half-jokingly, that the oboe was not among the four instruments he could identify. McGrath later asked Portman to score his two other films, Nicholas Nickleby and Infamous, and gained a music education in the bargain.

While making her directorial debut with This Is My Life, Nora Ephron learned that scoring a film involved more than the writing of original songs. Music editor Nick Meyers’ symphonic orchestration of Carly Simon’s score was Ephron’s musical epiphany: “I had no idea it was that exciting to work with music,” she says.

Before Tony Scott picked up a movie camera, he worked with a paintbrush. When Scott put oil to canvas, it was always to the accompaniment of classical music—a habit, he says, that led him to think of image and music in an integrated way. Now, Scott scores every one of his picture edits, often with the help of composer Harry Gregson-Williams: “He gives a part of his tortured soul for every movie he does for me.”

In his collaboration with composers, Francis Ford Coppola draws upon childhood memories of a household replete with music and opera. Coppola, the son of flautist and Oscar-winning composer Carmine Coppola, also remembers his first boyhood fascination with movie music: It began with Miklós Rózsa’s score for The Thief of Baghdad and Alfred Newman’s for Captain from Castile.

Though their partnership is brief, every director considers the composer a key crew member. “Of all the people who collaborate with me to make films,” McGrath says in a telephone conversation from New York, “I think of Rachel as my closest collaborator because she’s the second voice in the movie, along with the actors. That music is the author’s voice, so to speak.”

Ephron, who worked for the first time with French composer Alexandre Desplat on her upcoming Julie and Julia—her longtime collaborator is George Fenton—thinks of music as the finishing touch. “Music,” she says in a telephone interview from New York, “is what makes the movie a whole, breathing thing.”

Scott, who sends his composers the script and often invites them on the set, underscores the interdependence of the soundtrack and the picture. “Music and image are equally important,” he observes. “If one fails or one misses, the other side suffers.”

Composers sometimes ask to read the script before committing to a project, and then usually meet with a director once or twice during pre-production to discuss the nature of the score. After that, composers generally wait for early footage of the film, which is what leads to an exchange of musical ideas with the director—although not in person. More common is a digital “dialogue” in which MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) files are prepared by the composer and dispatched to the director. MIDI software allows composers to create fully orchestrated “demos”—albeit with electronic musical instruments—of themes they have composed on the piano.

Directors, who already have digital footage of the movie, can then see, on a computer screen, how the music works with the image. MIDI software also allows directors to make digital notations for the composer. After the final picture edit, the score is written, recorded and mixed, often in a matter of weeks.

Coppola avoids the creative crush of the last few weeks of post-production by sustaining his musical partnerships throughout an entire project. “It is always very much like working with the collaborators in the other areas of filmmaking,” he writes in an e-mail exchange, “and in particular, the actors, trying to develop ideas of how we could best serve the theme and tone of the movie, specific ideas, coming out of many brainstorming creative sessions.” Asked his thoughts on the purpose the score serves in each film, Coppola replies: “It can be different in different films, but in general the score helps to set the tone, style and period of the story—and when moments become emotional, it allows the audience to feel them as completely as possible.”

For The Conversation, Coppola asked composer David Shire to read the screenplay and then to write a few different pieces of music. He chose one that Shire developed into the film’s all-piano score. “That was many years ago, and it’s hard to remember,” Coppola says about the direction he gave Shire, “but no doubt it was about the theme, which was privacy and how the music might enhance that idea—a solitary man, living alone. Out of that no doubt came the idea of an all piano score.” Walter Murch, Coppola’s re recording mixer on that movie, recalls that Shire’s music was played for the actors during production. “David and Francis gave the actors this wonderful benefit,” Murch says, “which was to conjure up the invisible partner with whom they would be dancing when the film was finished.”

A director may ask a composer to underscore mood, or character, or place, or may view the score primarily as an instrument of pacing, but the composer’s task in every case is to draw the audience closer to the movie’s intent. “The purpose of a film score,” Portman says in a telephone conversation from her London studio, “is to illuminate the story, in particular to guide the viewer through the emotions of the film.”

Gregson-Williams, who scored Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, often writes music for animated features. “My job on a ‘Shrek’ film is to track the emotional arc the characters go through,” the British ex-pat says, “and my job isn’t much different when it comes to Denzel Washington and John Travolta in Pelham.”

Murch, like Portman, views the score as essential for understanding the emotional underpinning of the story: “Music performs many functions, but in my view it is primarily what you might call an enzyme of emotion. The film creates all kinds of emotions and the music helps the audience to digest those emotions.”

When David Shire saw early footage of Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men, he worried that music would add an emotional intensity inappropriate for the documentary-style film. “Pakula said that he wanted the score to remind people periodically that beneath all of this Washington stuff and newsroom technology there are two hearts beating—Woodward’s and Bernstein’s,” Shire recalls in a conversation in his producer’s studio. “Pakula said: ‘We have to keep checking in with the characters.’ Then I knew what he wanted.”

Desplat’s challenge for Julie and Julia, which is about famed chef Julia Child and author Julie Powell, was to give the score a very particular eurythmic quality. “Nora Ephron’s movies are very special,” he says in a telephone interview from Paris. “They’re like a Swiss clock. All the jokes have to fall here, there, with precision, and there is something in the pace which the music can sometimes hurt. You have to find the pace, the right tone, otherwise you ruin the jokes and the emotion.”

Scott, Ephron, McGrath and Coppola all enjoy frequent partnerships with a single composer, and Murch, in his one wonderful turn as a writer-director, chose Shire, with whom he had collaborated as a re-recording mixer on Coppola’s films. Murch remembers that while he was writing the screenplay for Return to Oz, he heard the music in his head. “It was a combination of turn-of-the-century American music,” he explains in a telephone interview from his California home, “Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ and Bartok’s ‘Concerto for Orchestra.’”

Murch told Shire to consider “that cocktail of three very different things” and add “his own creative input.” The composer recalls the collaboration vividly: “It’s the only chance I ever really got to do the kind of score I love most doing, which is a big, multi-themed orchestral score.”

Not every composer receives such specific musical references. McGrath’s collaborations with Portman center on discussions about the principal characters and the theme of the film. “I always send Rachel the script, so she’s not reacting or writing automatically to picture,” McGrath says. “She’s writing to character and to story. Of course, later, we watch the movie together, but her first impression is from the script.”

Portman, who won her Oscar for Emma, appreciates McGrath’s approach. “The best directors,” she observes, “talk about the film and what they want to feel.” Asked about the sort of collaboration that does not work, Portman, who is very circumspect, nevertheless recalls directors who are too controlling. “They may say they love the cello and want it to be the main instrument,” she explains. “That’s very hard. Even worse is: ‘I’m terribly fond of Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin and I'd like you to write something like that.’”

Shire, whose Oscar was for Original Song on Norma Rae (shared with lyricist Norman Gimbel), explains that each collaboration asks something different of a composer. “It all starts with the director.” he says. “Francis considers music such a visceral, important part of what he does that he wants to have the opportunity to work with you sooner.” More recently, Shire scored David Fincher’s Zodiac. “Fincher was thinking about an all-piano score like The Conversation, and I said that really didn’t feel quite enough. The Conversation was very intimate and Zodiac was broader in scale. So, we put the solo piano together with a soft string orchestra used in very particular ways.”

Shire enjoyed the partnership, although it highlighted for him the changes in a composer’s way of work post-digitization. “It was a close and detailed collaboration,” he recalls, “but I was only in the same room with Fincher on two separate occasions for the many months I worked on the film—when we first talked about ideas, and when we spotted the movie.”

Spotting sessions are when the director, the composer and sometimes the picture editor screen a final cut of the film together. At this point, the movie has a “temp score”—a score that’s been assembled, although not professionally mixed, with music from another movie, generally one the composer scored. During the spotting session, all the “cues” are identified, the places where music will be mixed into the film. Cues can be a few seconds long or the entire length of a reel, and are written specifically to picture. Discussion during the spotting session also centers on what the director and the composer envision as the purpose of a cue—to emphasize character or mood, quicken or slow the pace of the action, or to repair a scene that lacks emotion. A “cue sheet,” reflecting the decisions made during the spotting session, is prepared for the re-recording mixers who mix all the elements of the soundtrack, including the score.

Composers write as little as 25 minutes, and as much as two hours, of music for a feature film, which includes 18 to 24 cues—and all of it must be orchestrated. Some composers view orchestration as inseparable from composing, and others as a time-consuming task they reluctantly surrender.

“I would never have thought that composing was not orchestrating,” Desplat says. “For me, it’s part of the same work, of the same craft and the same vision.” Shire agrees: “It’s part of the composing process and what helps you to get a unique sound.”

Gregson-Williams orchestrates and demos his “hybrid scores” for Scott on the MIDI. Portman must often rely on her orchestrator, Jeff Atmajian. “Many years ago when I did Benny & Joon,” she recalls, “I did all the writing and I spent three weeks orchestrating it. It was heaven. That would be impossible now because films are being recut right up to the very end. The fiddling goes on forever.”

Portman is over 20 years younger than Shire, yet both recall a time when they could pitch themes to a director on the piano, and in person. Digitization, Portman observes, has transformed directors’ expectations of their collaborations with composers. “Music is an abstract language which is very hard for a director to keep tabs on or have control over,” she explains. “It’s very threatening, actually, to directors, and more and more they want and need to know exactly what a thing is going to sound like before we go to a recording studio.  That wasn’t the case before.” The MIDI, and other forms of soundtrack digitization, have also affected timelines. “There is a subtle thing about the machines,” Shire says. “Everybody is used to getting everything faster, so the expectations get faster.”

Shire, Portman, Desplat and Gregson-Williams all had a classical music education and compose on the piano. “That classical training brings an enormous amount of confidence to the composer,” Portman says. “Mostly, they’re going to know how an orchestra works. Somebody coming from the pop side of things probably won’t know at all, and they are going to have to rely very heavily on an orchestrator.”

Shire, who has written for musical theatre, has a slightly different take: “It’s my experience that musical ‘street smarts’ is sometimes of more value than the stuff I learned in counterpoint class. In fact, some of that you have to unlearn with pictures. You need the technique, but sometimes you have to break the rules.”

Gregson-Williams is not sure his classical training gives him any advantage over other composers, but he says: “I do think that not one day of my musical education has been wasted as I sit here trying to be a film composer.” Desplat points to the “choices” his knowledge of classical music always provides, regardless of the type of score he’s asked to compose.

Composers and directors identify many of the same challenges to collaboration: Composers say directors get attached to their temp scores and then are not open to original musical ideas, and directors admit that is often the case. Ephron remembers one partnership in which a composer solved that dilemma: “Marc Shaiman came on very early when we were doing Sleepless in Seattle, and he actually sat down at the piano with some of our footage and made us some temp score. You always hope that a composer will do that for you.”

Everyone carps about short timelines, and directors complain that music budgets are inflexible. “I fight,” Scott says. “For me, nothing is ever enough—the music budget, how much film I shoot, and how many days I’ve got altogether.” Ephron calls it a “negotiation” but she echoes Scott’s sentiment: “The music budget is never enough. Let’s say you suddenly have a shot that comes out of an improv with the actors, and it needs a Talking Heads song. It might cost $100,000 more for that cue than was in the original budget.”

Film budgets are closely guarded secrets, but one music executive at a major studio agreed to be interviewed if she could speak in general terms and remain anonymous. “The genre, the director and the script go into determining the music budget,” she says in a telephone interview from California, “with action movies being the most expensive because there is a lot of music and many cues.” A $1.5 million budget, she explains, is average “for a movie with a lot of songs, like those aimed at teenage audiences.” These costs represent salaries paid to composers, lyricists, music editors, orchestrators and other members of the music department, in addition to budget items associated with the recording process. Source music, which is not written by the composer—music that emanates from a radio or a live band in the film—can add tens of thousands of dollars in licensing fees. Asked about the percentage of the film’s budget that might be devoted to music, she replies: “Let me put it this way: A $20 million movie with a $2 million budget is unusual.”

The composer’s creative process may begin with the screenplay, but it is the director’s interpretation of the story that shapes the score. “The script is one thing,” Desplat observes, “but the art of the director is crucial because the same plot by three different directors would be three different movies—they’re three artists with different tastes and levels of craft.” Desplat explains that he begins a score by imagining a “MacGuffin,” an “intellectual link.” “With Benjamin Button [for which Desplat was Oscar-nominated this year], the first thing I remember that we discussed besides not making it too big or too overwhelming was to create this little thing that could go forward and backward.” That idea resulted in a theme for the character which is the same when it’s played backward.

Portman thinks about the instrument that best expresses the director’s intent. “I adore the piano,” she muses. “so I have to remember not to over-use it. Instruments have ‘color’: For instance, I like using the clarinet because it can be happy and sad, although not as sad as an oboe, and not as romantic as a flute.”

Once the composer has completed the score, it gets recorded on a scoring stage large enough to accommodate the number of musicians. The movie is projected on the stage during the scoring session, and the recording is monitored by the music editor and his or her crew, who all sit at consoles inside a scoring stage’s specially equipped booth. Most directors attend the scoring session with their composers, and some composers conduct.

“That’s the end of the work, when you finally hear what you have been writing,” Desplat observes. “Only the conductor can correct volume, vibrato, emotion, etc.”

Gregson-Williams and Shire also conduct, but Portman does not because she feels she is more useful in the booth, where she can listen and correct mistakes. Having heard MIDI demos of the score, Scott does not attend the scoring session, although Ephron, McGrath and Coppola do. “There’s a difference between what your composer plays for you on his synthesizer and what happens on the scoring stage,” Ephron observes. “You might have an oboe that you absolutely hate. I’m also the person who often says: ‘Get that harp out of there.’”

After the scoring session, the re-recording mixer, in collaboration with the director, determines the final cues and the volume at which the audience hears the score. Many things happen in the final mix which can alter a cue or eliminate it entirely. Tom Fleischman, the lead re-recording mixer on Angels & Demons (lead mixers do dialogue and music), explains: “Very often, a director will want to put all the music that’s been recorded into the movie, and see it, and decide whether there’s too much or too little. Then they weed stuff out.” Fleischman says composers generally think of the score as a “standalone.” “But it’s going to be played with sound effects and dialogue,” he observes. “Good composers know that and write the music with that in mind.”

Fleischman, a four-time Oscar nominee, talks to composers to learn the nature of the score, and confers with the music editor on the recording of it. “I like to know what instruments are carrying the themes,” he says. “These should be miked so that there is some separation, and if we have to edit, we have more control over them.”

Both composers and directors agree that a good score is one that is so integral to a movie, audiences would be hard-pressed to recall it. Critics, however, are scorned for forgetting it: If they mention the score at all, Desplat says, it’s to underline the fact that it is too loud. “We don’t decide that,” he declares, “but I worry about volume and Mickey Mousing.” When a score is “Mickey-Moused”—the term was coined, ironically, by Max Steiner, who advocated for it—the music punctuates every emotion, and is often plastered over the entire film. “If you use music as a steroid, you can induce emotion,” Murch observes. “Just like a steroid, there is going to be an element of inauthenticity to it because it’s been conjured up by the chemistry of music and film, whereas if you have silence, the emotion of the audience rushes into that silence and fills it up with their own authentic emotion. At the right point, the music can come in and channel that emotion into the right place.”

Murch, who authored a book on editing, In the Blink of an Eye, is the only person ever to win Oscars for film editing and sound mixing. Both were for The English Patient. He was awarded an earlier Oscar for his mix of Apocalypse Now. Murch does not play an instrument, nor has he ever had any musical training, but he expresses an aesthete’s appreciation of the composer’s art: “Music takes emotions that are sometimes at odds with each other and describes a place where they can be resolved. That’s really the true magic of great composers—they’re able to deal with recognizable human emotions, a blend of conflicting emotions that we all feel but that are beyond the ability of words, or even pictures, to cope with.”

Musical Highlights

Alexandre Desplat: The Upside of Anger, The Beat That My Heart Skipped (Silver Bear, Berlin Film Festival), Syriana, The Queen (Oscar nomination), The Golden Compass, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Oscar nomination), Cheri, Coco Before Chanel, Julie & Julia, The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Harry Gregson-Williams: Enemy of the State, Chicken Run, Shrek (BAFTA nomination), Shrek 2, Kingdom of Heaven, The Chronicles of Narnia (Golden Globe nomination), Shrek the Third, Gone Baby Gone, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Rachel Portman: Benny & Joon, The Joy Luck Club, The Road to Wellville, Emma (Oscar, Best Score), The Cider House Rules (Oscar nomination), Chocolat (Oscar nomination), Nicholas Nickleby, The Manchurian Candidate (2004), The Duchess, Grey Gardens (2009)

David Shire: The Conversation, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), All the President’s Men, Norma Rae (Oscar, Best Song), Return to Oz, Streets of Laredo, Zodiac