Making Music

Pt.1 Style counseling.

Long before movies had sound, they had music. Not the 10,000 piece orchestra of Hans Zimmer*—instead, a single pianist on a cheap upright piano, or later a cinema organ, improvising to the picture as it played. Nonetheless, from near the beginning, moving images relied on music as a trusty guide, steering the audience through the emotional highs and lows of the story.  There’s a lot to be said about music in film, so there will be more than one part to this article.

The first and biggest question to answer when considering film music is style: what sort of music will best suit your story? Most genres of film have their own established musical styles: the eerie strings of a horror film, galloping orchestras or lonely harmonicas for westerns, bugles and drums for war movies… you know the rest. While it does no harm to nod to these conventions, sticking too closely to them can make your film feel clichéd, over-familiar.

Sometimes filmmakers will turn to musical styles not specific to cinema to lend a tone to their story, whether it be hip hop in Ghost Dog, Delta blues in Angel Heart or sixties soul in Last Night in Soho. The style might reflect the geographical, historical or cultural setting of the film, but it doesn’t have to.  You can mash up musical styles, to add an edge to a story that might simply be seen as a genre piece. Peter Greenaway and Michael Nyman had fun resetting the works of Purcell and Vivaldi, with saxophones and other playful additions, for The Draughtsman’s Contract and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

‘Last Night in Soho’

Alternatively you can go all the way and pick a style that is deliberately at odds with the milieu of your story. Famously Woody Allen scores most of his film with trad jazz, including in his science fiction spoof Sleeper, where the zaniness of the music nicely underlines the film’s slapstick comedy.

Similarly, Sofia Coppola scored her film of the life of Marie Antoinette with post-punk tracks, to draw modern parallels to her 18th century heroine.  More recently Pablo Larraín and Johnny Greenwood put a dissonant, experimental score to Spencer, their film about Diana Princess of Wales, thereby advertising that the tale would be considerably darker and more disturbing than your average royal biopic.

But how do you know what will work? One part inspired hunches to ten parts just trying stuff out. Editors often joke that you can edit a scene in half an hour and then spend a week working out what music will fit it. You just have to throw a lot of tracks at a scene or sequence; you will find in that process that you learn the most from seeing what doesn’t work. You can experiment by using the soundtracks of existing films and temp music; movie scores often work best, because they’re designed to go with moving images – I’ve written more about temp music here.

‘Calendar Girls’

When I assisted editor Michael Parker on Calendar Girls, we took forever to find a musical style that didn’t just fit the tone of the story, but lifted the film.  Eventually a slightly random “why not?” experiment with tracks by the Isley Brothers (included on the Out of Sight soundtrack) gave us the key. Patrick Doyle’s eventual score for Calendar Girls embraced a combination of joyous funk and mischievous boogie-woogie. While these musical styles were far from an obvious fit with England’s Lake District, they perfectly reflected the optimistic, playful energy of the characters.

There is however a big pitfall when deciding on musical style: taste. Of all the arts, music is probably the one that most divides opinion. Most editors will recognise the experience of having, after a long search, found the perfect track, and showing it with confident pride to the director or producer, then watching them wince. It’s not that you were wrong; it’s just not the sort of music that they like. Mike Figgis tells the story of laying down a jazz sound track to an edit of one of his films and screening it for the studio execs, only to be told “people don’t like jazz”. While it’s true that some people don’t like jazz—it’s often thought to be exclusive and intellectual—Figgis is himself a jazz musician, so it was probably the right sound for his film and the audience he was addressing. My guess is that it was just the exec who didn’t like jazz.

How do you get round differences in taste?

You don’t.  The challenge of finding a style of music that everyone likes has been faced by the people who select music for use in lifts, for ‘hold music’, and for national anthems, and the results have been almost universally underwhelming. By trying to please everyone, you please no one. Bold decisions often work best, lending a real flavour to the film—can we imagine Sergio Leoni’s spaghetti westerns without Ennio Morricone’s eccentric scores? But bold decisions are also the most difficult to sell. Often if you can find a style that the producer and director agree on, and that works for the film, you’re doing well.

I should add that, even if an individual audience member doesn’t like a particular musical style, that’s not going to ruin the movie for them. Personally I hate Country and Western, but I can’t think of any film I’ve seen where I’ve felt my enjoyment to have been damaged by the inclusion of Country music. In fact I really loved the film Wild Rose, which was all about a Country singer. Rather than the music making me like the film less, the film actually made me like the music more. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. Of course if the film isn’t working, or the style of music is a poor fit, audiences will be critical. But if the story is good and the music works with it, audiences will embrace the score, no matter what the style.

‘Wild Rose’

In the next posting I’ll talk in more detail about where and when to use music and how prominent to make it in the mix.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2022

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

* I can’t say with authority that the bullying grandeur of Hans Zimmer’s scores requires 10,000 instruments. It may be more.

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