We tend to spend a lot of times in our own head, but rarely do we actively envision how we come across to other people. This is nowhere more obvious than in romantic relationships, where one person feels like they couldn’t be communicating more clearly, but the their Significantly Annoying Other just can’t get it. It turns out that there is actually quite a bit of art to effective communication, and it has a lot to do with understanding how to speak a common language.
It’s often said that while filmmakers are walking encyclopedias of production knowledge from everything pre- to post-, music is the one area where the fear of the unknown sets in. Leaving aside the rare genius/savant who can actually read music, if you handed your director a 12 stave score and began to blather on about the beauty of the contrapuntal voices and retrograde inversions, you would be met with anything from vacant stares, to frothy terror, to irritation and offense. What does this have to do with the film?
As I seem to say often on this blog, composers for the screen are in fact not composers at all. We are actually filmmakers, and our job is to help tell the story using sound and music. While discussing music (never mind that pithy cliche about dancing and architecture) can be fun and meaningful, it’s actually quite distracting if not downright dangerous and detrimental if you want to get on the same page. And that is the goal after all – you want to ensure that you know exactly what is being asked of you, exactly what function music is to perform at any given time. It’s win-win – you can get to the business of writing the music, and if you’ve done your homework and communicated effectively, you can deliver the right cue to the director the first time. They will be happy because they got a useful product that they wanted, on time and without stress and worry, and you won’t be stuck in re-write hell, slowly eroding the confidence that you worked so hard at building in your collaborator.
Here are some ideas for both composers and filmmakers to consider, that might aid better communication:
Conversations regarding the function of music should be in emotional, story telling terms. Avoid the use of technical musical terms, and instead talk about the feeling that the music should create, or how it should function to provide understanding or move the story forward.
If you have a specific piece of music, style, or composer in mind, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS provide examples. If it’s really specific, listen to the piece together and pinpoint exactly what it is that you like. Again, it’s better to speak about the feeling that the music conveys as opposed to why/how you think it’s happening – it’s just too easy to misinterpret things. The director might say “dark” and mean “in the low, register of the cellos, with sadness”. The composer might go and write a “dark” piece, but one that means “foreboding and for brass”, which was not what the director wanted at all, even though the composer did “exactly” as instructed. Musical genre terms are also tremendously flawed and indeterminate. If you say “heavy”, that could mean Led Zeppelin, or Slayer… or Stravinski.
Composers should be working to understand the story, directors should not need to work to understand the music. Read the script, study the film, ask questions, and really get into the head of your collaborator and find the heart of the story. Then, talk about how music can help tell it; everything does and should relate back to that fundamental thing – the story.
Temp tracks are great as a reference – but again, there is a reason that the word ‘temp’ is used – they are not intended to be permanent. In my opinion, having a composer re-create the temp track is like using Robert Deniro’s stand-in instead of the man himself. We should be striving for works of quality and integrity, and when you request a facsimile, you are cheating yourself of an incredible value – the value a composer adds to a film which is a unique, signature element. The temp track, as it relates to the spotting session and conversations with the composer, should again be used to start conversations about the feeling/emotion/function that the music creates.
Criticism is fine, but communication is a two-way street, and nothing is worse than being left stranded. Telling your composer something like “It’s not right. I don’t know why, but it’s just wrong and I hate it. I’ll know the right thing when I hear it” does no one any good. You’ll both end up frustrated. Be honest, be real, but be constructive. I often hear people say “Oh, but I don’t know anything about music”. BULL. Creative people (like filmmakers) know what they like, and they know what works. They may not know the mechanism, but that’s not your worry. Again, the magic solution for this is EXAMPLES. Don’t try and explain it, just show us, and try to be as specific as you can. Composers need to be specific too – the problem might be as simple as an instrument being too loud, or wrong – they hate oboes, oh, you didn’t know? Make sure you are on the same page before throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Oh, and to this point – NEVER, EVER, EVER DISCARD A PREVIOUS VERSION. EVER!!! I can count many times when things the client swore they LOATHED were in retrospect quite liked and requested restored to their former glory.
There is a great deal of trust that is demanded of a filmmaker when he allows a composer to contribute music. The responsbility, in turn, of the composer is to honor that trust by knowing the film, it’s characters, it’s text and subtext, it’s arcs and lines, through and through. Finally, there is a shared responsibility of both parties to engage in GREAT communication, which ultimately leads to brilliant win-win collaborations that everyone can be proud of.