Music in Film Panel @ The Woodstock Film Festival, October 3, 2009
October 3rd, 2009, @ 2pm
Utopia Studios, Bearsville, New York
L-R: T. Griffin, Jonathan Demme, Doreen Ringer-Ross, Tom DiCillo, and Tze Chun
Doreen Ringer-Ross, VP, Film-TV Relations, BMI
T. Griffin, Score Composer, Children of Invention
Jonathan Demme, Director, Neil Young Trunk Show
Tom DiCillo, Director, When You're Strange
Tze Chun, Director, Children of Invention
Late in the Music in Film Panel, moderator Doreen Ringer-Ross addressed the audience and said, "I really believe in the independent film scene as the artist development forum for our business. So I think you're in the right place being at this festival. Go see all the shorts, go meet all those filmmakers and work it. Because I think there's a very fertile ground for new collabortations."
The Music in Film Panel at this year's Woodstock Film Festival was mostly devoted to directors who have made distinctive choices when incorporating music into their films, and why they've made the choices they have.
T. Griffin, the sole composer on the panel, fell into score composing by accident. He had been in a band called The Quavers, which a lot of filmmakers liked, and that led to scoring some of Jem Cohen's short films. In 2008, Griffin was a fellow at the Sundance Composers Lab. He scored Children of Invention, which was directed by Tze Chun.
Griffin says that he does not approach film music as a career, but in the same way he approaches writing his songs, and alternates between working on film scores and his own music. "I spend a lot of time on lyrics and stuff, and I consider building the production around them. I let the characters and songs speak through it, no matter how unusual it is, no matter how much wavering static there is. I try to take the same sensitivity when I work with someone, and that I think is the thing that has brought me to work with filmmakers."
On why he chose Griffin, Chun felt that Griffin possessed a point of view that score composers often lack. "Sometimes if you look at a composer's website, it seems like a publisher's clearinghouse. It's like 'You want sad? I got sad! You want happy? I got happy! You want hip hop? I got hip hop!" Todd's, was just, like, his music, which I really, really liked. As a director, you have to try to control everything. It's such a blessing when something unexpected happens, something mysterious. That's one of the things I really liked about Todd's music. A lot of the stuff I was hearing, you could tell that it was composed in Garageband."
Tom DiCillo thought that the reason why Chun chose Griffin was interesting, and lamented on the lack of originality in contemporary movie scores. "If you think back to some of the scores that Ennio Morricone did in the early 1960s, where he was just having the sound of bells, a guy whistling, a choir, and a snapping whip in his soundtrack. I happen to feel that we really have not progressed too far from then."
DiCillo added, "It seems to me that the movie going experience has changed. I really believe that. I think that it's become in its own way less emotional. And so the music tries to put this artificial feeling and emotion into something that has no emotion whatsoever."
Jonathan Demme and DiCillo shared some interesting anecdotes about working with studios, score composers and prerecorded music.
After the success of the film Beloved, Demme wanted to work with composer Rachel Portman again on the movie The Manchurian Candidate. Paramount contacted Demme, and told him that they had vetoed the idea of using Portman on the film. Why? She was a woman.
Demme recalled being livid. "You hear this, and you can't believe that this is the 21st Century, and you hear, 'Well, women can't do suspense!' Did you hear what you just said? And what woman you're ascribing that to?!?" Demme eventually won out.
As Demme and Portman began working together, Portman would send music to match scenes, and at first it didn't work. After having advocated for her, Demme was embarassed. "The horrifying truth was, 'You know what? Maybe Paramount wasn't right that women couldn't do suspense, but maybe Rachel can't do this hardcore, dark movie. Maybe it's just not in her.'"
"I said to Suzana [Peric], 'I don't think this is going to work, and I think we have to find a new composer, because you know what? I think at the end of the day, Rachel doesn't have a dark side.'"
Peric promptly replied, "Oh, Rachel has a dark side. Wait until you see what happens when you tell her!" He had a conversation with Portman where he told her that "if we didn't get something that really scared the shit out of us within a week, we're going to have to do something different. And the stuff just started coming in. I think Rachel stopped writing so much, and started feeling."
When seeking source music for The Manchurian Candidate, Demme dove into his record collection of homemade tapes and imports from the 1980s. "So much stuff by so many well known artists have gotten so expensive." Peric tracked down members of punk bands like Desperate Bicycles and The Prats, and asked if they'd accept $500 to use 30 seconds of one of their songs. Demme also used a song by the band TV On The Radio before they were more widely known.
Tom DiCillo remarked, "I think Jonathan is a prime example of someone whose music in his films has always, always taken on its own life. I doesn't just supplement the material. It's a marriage."
DiCillo got screwed over by the first composer of his movie, Box of Moonlight. "This guy was famous! And the producers were saying, "Yeah, okay, he's good. He's done a lot of work in the underground, and he's done films from the New York Independent Scene, and I said, "Okay, great!" I knew him, but from the onset, he only wanted to do what he wanted to do. I respected that. I said, "Fine, this guy's got talent, some experience, I should let him do that, instead of stopping him. The movie was about juvenile delinquency in Rural America. The music came in sounding like it was written after a bad heroin fix."
I called him one night, and I said, 'Listen. I just want you to know that you're doing a great job, and the movie is going to sound fantastic. I really trust that.' He said, 'Yeah, you're right. I am doing a great job. And you know what? My music is a gift to me, and it's really, really, hard just to give it to you.' I was so stunned that it took me a second to realize and say back to him, 'I don't think you're just giving it to me. We're paying you eighty thousand dollars.'" DiCillo fired the composer, and brought in Jim Farmer, who scored the movie in two weeks. (DiCillo talks more about this story here.)
"If you do have a connection with a composer or anyone you have a real bond with, value it, cherish it, and stay with it." DiCillo advised filmmakers. "When you have the choice between someone who is famous, and someone just starting out and has enthusiasm, enthusiasm wins everytime."
For When You're Strange, DiCillo composed his own music. "There were long sequences where there were transitions happening, and I needed some sort of musical interlude, just to have something to edit with, so I started composing pieces myself. Very, very, simple stuff--I wouldn't even call it music. To my utter astonishment, The Doors heard it and liked it. So it stayed in there. It's kind of a musical palate cleanser between their music, which is so intense and rich. My music sort of bridges the gap and adds a little mystery to some of the most surreal elements."
At the conclusion of the panel, DiCillo stated, "In some ways, every film has something that music can help somehow. It's not that you want to put a Band-Aid over it, or put frosting over it. That's not the point. Making a low budget film, you're going to find an extremely difficult and chaotic process. So if you're lucky, maybe you'll get 70% of what you set out for."