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How Film’s Top Composers Push Past Constraints Of On-Demand Creativity

The doc “Score” explores film’s intrinsic connection to music and pulls the veil back on the creative processes of the best composers in the business.

How Film’s Top Composers Push Past Constraints Of On-Demand Creativity
From “SCORE: A Film Music Documentary”, featuring the film American Beauty, 1999

There’s a scene in director Matt Schrader’s documentary, Score, where film composer Joe Kraemer lays out a frank truth: “When you’re a film composer, part of the gig is you’re giving the director and the producers the music they want. But at the end of the day, if they don’t like it, it’s not in the movie.”

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Film composers navigate in a space where their creativity is on consignment–their duty is to tailor their artistry to fit a vision that isn’t their own. In addition to exploring the human body’s physiological responses to music and digging into the history of film scores, Schrader’s doc also touches on the creative process of some of film’s top composers and how they work through some of their most challenging work. Below, three of the composers featured in the film expand on their methods, dealing with writer’s block, and what they would change in their industry.

What has being a composer taught you about the creative process?

Marco Beltrami (Logan, The Hurt Locker, Scream): “If I’m working on a movie, I don’t try to work at a particular scene. I try to get the overall feel of what it is–the emotional heart of what it is. Sometimes it’s a sequence of notes that come to mind; sometimes it may be a harmony. Sometimes it’s even just a sound that will be a starting point for me that I can expand on. The creative process, it sounds very elusive but you have to be able to tap into it on-demand. And that is often a scary thing because I don’t fully understand the process of inspiration and developing ideas. You work at a problem and sometimes nothing happens. But then, out of the blue, when you’re not thinking about it, you solve it. But the people that hire you don’t want to hear about that–they just want the results.”

John Debney (The Jungle Book, Iron Man 2, Sin City): “For me, one of the biggest challenges is just to start the process. I’ve learned over the years to not think too much about it–I sit down and let the creativity flow through. That has served me well because the creative process gets difficult when I’m overthinking when I’m trying to intellectualize too much about some emotional piece of music I’ve got to write. So I always try to take my ego out of the process and just write. And I bet there are a lot of other artists that would agree with that, to get out of your own way.”

Composer John Debney and director Garry Marshall behind the scenes of “SCORE: A FILM MUSIC DOCUMENTARY” [Photo: courtesy of Gravitas Ventures]

How do you get over writer’s block?

John Debney: “It’s trial and error trial–you can’t be afraid to do a piece of music 20 times before you get it. Part of that is divorcing yourself from it and realizing that you’re servicing the movie–you’re servicing the director’s vision. But I work best when there’s the pressure of having something done at a certain time. For whatever reason, that spurs me into activity. So let’s I’m working on a film that I know I have to have done by a certain date–I break it down and I force myself to sit at my keyboard and do four minutes a day or five minutes a day, whatever the math is that would then enable me to have a completed score by a certain date. Part of it is trusting yourself and pushing through.”

Composer Harry Gregson Williams behind the scenes of “SCORE: A FILM MUSIC DOCUMENTARY” [Photo: courtesy of Gravitas Ventures]

What’s missing from your field as a film composer?

Brian Tyler (The Mummy, The Fate of the Furious, Now You See Me): “Something I’m a big proponent of is knocking down the borders of music genres–I’m someone that really loves to blur the lines. I find that people get in their lane and they’re afraid to embrace things that are unfamiliar, and my mantra is to love the unfamiliar. There are people around the world that love every type of music and there’s a reason for that: They’re all legit. But you have to really dive in and not just give it lip service but really learn about it and love it and incorporate that into your arsenal. It’s a good tool that’s often overlooked.”

John Debney: “If somebody gave me a magic wand, I would just try to get a little more time on some of these films. The longer I’m on a show or film it always seems to make my work better because I have more time to make a mistake or fail. My friend [director] Jon Favreau, what I love most about him is we’ll start working together and he’s not afraid of me failing. In fact, he wants me to fail because then we can discover something together and then get to the spot that’s right for the film.”

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Marco Beltrami: “The fact that it’s so easy to edit and change both movies and music is something I think has caused some of the creative process to suffer a bit. By doing mock-ups of everything, you’re not allowing for some of the performance creativity that happens, some of the magic that used to happen when you’re out there working with the orchestra. Oftentimes you’re not even recording the whole orchestra–you’re recording just the strings and just the brass and just the woodwinds. It becomes less and less musical and more and more a technical process. And that, to me, I don’t think is a good change. On the other hand, I think technology has opened the doors for a lot of people that have ideas and they don’t have a whole orchestra at their disposal. There’s a lot of room for experimentation with virtual instruments and creating sounds and coming up with your own idea of what music is.”

Score is currently available in select theaters.

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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