Colleen's thoughts on writing, directing and coaching, and her unique take on life itself!

Monday, August 17, 2009

more on collaborating

If you followed my other blogs on preproduction prep for directing a film and how I like to collaborate with all my creative colleagues, I thought I'd mention a couple more folks who are normally brought into the work at post production - I like to bring them in even before pre-production:

The composer and the editor.

The composer comes in even before the editor, because music plays such an integral and important part of my films. In the case of WALLS, which was a silent film, composer/musician Evan Schiller's music was a crucial character.

I see the composer's work as part of the script development.

After I've found the perfect composer - one who loves the script and is willing and eager to strech far beyone where he or she has been before, creating a whole new sound - I like to come up with instruments that represent each main character, scene and sequence as well as a "template" sound.

That is, an inspiration for the music that will go with the film.

For THE WHOLE TRUTH, I chose act II of DIE FLEDERMAUS operetta by Johann Strauss. If you've seen the film, you know you haven't heard Strauss' music; it's only used as an inspiration. The harmonies, the feeling of theme familiarity, the touch of European and classical music and some selection of instruments representing various characters.

In DIE FLEDERMAUS ("The Bat"), men and women work hard to deceive one another - which is what THE WHOLE TRUTH is about, only the characters also deceive themselves in the process (even Sean Patrick Flanery's character - who is the most grounded and stable, he's the moral compass in the movie).

By pulling the composer in so early, at the "script level," the musical artist has time to create a score completely original and specific for this particular film.

When pre-production begins with crew and cast (about 6 weeks before cameras turn), I'm listening to samples for characters and scenes that give me more ideas about when I can just turn the scene over to the music - no need for dialogue when expressions, sounds and music can say it so much better.

We go over each scene's score: should the melody be taken out and just leave the harmonies and rhythms? Should the instrument for that character be replaced? More bass? More tenor? Should there just be silence? Should the music comment" on what is transpiring on screen? Music should be a character in the film - but how to integrate that character? Should there be a Mickey Mouse here - or there ("Mickey Mouse" is the term for a little musical sound effect that is usually "on the nose" of a character's action - it takes place as the character moves, as in a cartoon).

These and many more questions are mine to answer - in collaboration with the composer. He comes in with strong ideas and samples for me to hear on which we can negotiate, as do I. I only asked him to completely rewrite one small scene of music because I felt it didn't match.

In one of my short films, the composer came back with what he thought was a completed score and, seriously, I only saved three notes from the entire composition. He was furious, but when he reviewed with me what would actually work and why - and performed the historical music homework I requested initially? He created a sound he had no idea he could make - it was truly brilliant.

I love pushing great talent to accomplish what they never realized they could. I have terrific relationships with composers because I respect them and recognize their talent as well as their skills.

And I'm a music *nut.*

As Phoebe Snow sings, "There ain't no music .. I can't use.." (from her album, LOOKS LIKE SHOW, "Drink Up the Melody, Bite the Dust Blues).

Normally, composers are brought in at the last minute, after the film is completely edited, and told to put the music together in as short a time as possible. When a composer who is allowed to compose does this, too often they fall back on what they already have done and what they already know, so there's not really much they can claim is new for the film.

Most studio movies don't even use composers to compose any more. They pull music samples from several other similar films and create a hodgepodge of what they think will make you feel comfortable and make you think that what you're hearing feels familiar. Well, in too many ways, it actually is.

I like to feature fresh, new, original work for you to hear.

I'll never forget a MFT movie (made for TV) I saw that was really good - except the music felt like it was a vat of sticky syrup poured over the whole thing - eeeeew. The director said she did not work with the composer, it was just turned over to him and handed back to her, completed. She was pretty upset, but according to the way that particular studio works, that's the way it's done.

Our TWT composer Ragnar Rosinkranz had never worked with the types of music you'll hear in the film. But you'd never know it from his score.

Literally the first question asked after screenings has been, "Who did the music!? Wow!" One person, intimately acquainted with a certain type of music we use in one part of the the film, wondered where on earth we found someone who could create and perform that type of music so well! Go Ragnar!

Likewise, bringing the editor in at the script level helps because he or she can make shot recommendations that will put a scene into the next level of excellence. Like, "an ECU (extreme close up) of her lips would really sell this scene." These suggestions are also made after reading the script and my shot sheet - where the editor can see I did not call for any ECU's in that particular scene.

Suggestions for other types of coverage can also be made. Coverage is all the angles from which a scene is shot. You normally don't think about coverage - but the next time you see a film scene at home, count the various angles from which that scene was shot. Every time what you see changes, that's another angle.

This preparation makes the final work move much more quickly and with a higher quality than could possibly happen otherwise. When I asked Ragnar to do that scene with other music - I think I gave him a note of, "It needs to be lighter."

Unbelievably, he had it ready the next day and it was *perfect!* Our sound mixer was astonished at the speed and quality of the replacement. But that's what happens when we collaborate over a period of time - and the composer is in total synch with the project and the director.

Remember, the music has to blend in with at least 16 other tracks of sounds, dialogue and other sound effects, each standing out as they need to in the process.

Having said all this, I have to add that the injection of wall-to-wall pop and AC songs in films and dramatic TV programs has become too intrusive to me. That trend started in a big way with the WB TV phenom Dawson's Creek, more films before that and has since become the cornerstone of several television dramas, with varying results.

One of the reasons is that it's another way for studios to make money - shows such as NCIS also sell CD's of music they've featured on the program.

Don't get me wrong, I like it - I love the attention it brings to great musicians as the music world is hurting financially. I just think it's overdone when it's used, now.

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