Wait. You’ve already recorded the soundtrack?

Might I suggest you click play before reading this entry?

Fellow filmmakers as well as some friends of mine have been surprised when they hear that I’ve already recorded the music for the soundtrack of my next film. After all, I haven’t even cut anything yet. I’ve only just started gathering archival materials, and the usual workflow in filmmaking is essentially to leave the music until the very end. Typically, during the editing process the director and editor select a number of “temp tracks” for the soundtrack. These are basically placeholder music cues meant to convey the right mood and feeling but which will be replaced before the film is finished. They’re temporary because, well, most filmmakers don’t have an unlimited budget to license whatever tunes they want. Or maybe they’re just not sure yet what they want.

But what’s irksome about this way of working is quite often a filmmaker gets very attached to these temp tracks, making it painful to drop them even though they’re destined to be discarded. There can be a lot of sweat and angst to find just the right bit of music to slide into the gaps, and invariably you end up having to make compromises. Imagine how the composer feels. It’s not a whole lot of fun to be told, “This cue needs to be like Elvis. Oh, and also it needs to be exactly 12 seconds long.” For whatever final music gets dropped in needs to fit precisely where the temp tracks were.

Economically, of course, I understand why this workflow has evolved. It’s much cheaper to hire a composer to only write, say, the twenty minutes of music the film needs; much cheaper to hire the musicians to record exactly what’s needed as efficiently as possible. And it’s true that these creative restrictions can inspire a collaboration between composer and filmmaker that’s sheer perfection. There are plenty of examples of it too, spanning the whole history of sound cinema. (Bernard Herrmann’s music for a pivotal scene in Hitchcock’s Vertigo is one of my favorites.)

Nevertheless, I was not interested in working this way for Roy’s World. Instead I wanted to try doing it the way Philip Glass prefers, how David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti like to work. That means, early on in the project you’re already writing and recording music. Building a “music library,” so to speak, that you can draw inspiration from while you’re creating the film and use however you see fit on the soundtrack. Giving up a measure of control as a filmmaker so that the composer has more freedom to stretch out.

My documentary is about the 1950s and early 60s, and I knew that being able to afford period stuff like “Lucille” by Little Richard or “Con Alma” by Dizzy Gillespie (both mentioned in stories by Barry Gifford) was going to be out of the question. I needed music that fits that time and place and also still works for a soundtrack. Primarily, I needed jazz.

So, I gave Jason a bunch of “moods” to write. He recorded some demos at home and then we talked about them. I pushed things in certain directions. He rewrote. Wrote some more. In the end he composed eight tunes, and over the the course of two days in the recording studio we laid down a ton of different versions of each one. Jazz can be perfect for soundtracks because, by its very nature, it’s highly sectional. You’ve got themes as played by the group, and breaks for solos, and riffs that can build and repeat. You can arrange and play a tune multiple ways: fast or slow; as a duet or a trio or the whole group. And jazz players are incredibly skilled at making adjustments on the fly that take the music to a whole different place (our group certainly blew my mind!)

If you approach it that way, you’re left with plenty of options. That’s just what we did. Now I have my very own music library to help me out as the documentary moves forward. Let me tell you: I am so thrilled to be able to ditch temp tracks!

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One Response to Wait. You’ve already recorded the soundtrack?

  1. Pingback: ROY’S WORLD receives a City of Chicago DCASE grant! | RandomCha

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