Anjelica Huston, photographed at home, Central Valley, California, 2010 - Photo by Paul Jasmin
Warning: This report isn’t as exiting as some of my previous ones. This is, after all, my day job, but some of you may be interested in the seamy underside of film music. It’s usually more of a breeze than it was on this occasion! This gig had the added unstated threat that if I didn’t get it right Anjelica would turn me into a rat. Anyone remember THE WITCHES?
Scoring With Anjelica
March 9, 2005
This was a gig that arrived very quickly. At about four o’clock in the afternoon my manager, Derek Power tells me about a movie produced by Larry Sanitsky, an old friend of his and directed by Anjelica Huston. Sounds cool. I once sat next to Anjelica on a trans-Atlantic flight and we got along famously.
First thing next morning Derek is on the phone again. Have I watched the movie? Um, it just arrived by Fed Ex. So I watch the movie.
It is a three-hanky tearjerker starring Rosie O’Donnell as the retarded sister of a sleek power bitch played by Andie McDowell. It is a very emotional piece and O’Donnell eats up the screen. At the end of the film, just as the end-credits begin, and as I’m reaching for my fourth hanky, the phone rings again. It’s Larry Sanitsky, the producer. Can we meet at my place in, say, half an hour? “Sure” I sob.
Anjelica and Larry soon arrive and we all yuck over how Anjelica and I have both been dining out on how we slept together over the ocean. Does this make us members of the Mile High Club?
We get down to business and spot the movie. This is where we map out where the music is going to go and what it’s going to say. We talk at length about the meaning and sub-meaning of each scene how the music can impart, imply, illuminate or even obscure the different threads of the story.
Anjelica is leaving town for ten days so I’ll have the score pretty much completed by the time I show her anything. This is good because I can really tweak it before the first show-and-tell but bad because I may go down a wrong path and waste effort. Usually, I like to do about a third of the score and then get some feedback earlier in the process. This is a new client and music can hit people in unpredictable ways.
Well, I have a terrific week. Scoring is fun and this is a good film. I’ve been doing a lot of comedy lately and this deep emotional stuff makes a change. When actors direct, you know the performances will sing. Actually, very little music is needed. Rosie and Andie don’t need much help from me this time.
After the composing phase I call up my favorite players and start recording. For this score I call Michael Thompson for guitar, a small string ensemble led by Charlie Bisharat, and my all round Swiss army knife of music, Judd Miller.
On the appointed day Larry and Anjelica arrive for the first show-and-tell. It’s time to face the music.
I sit them down and ply them with coffee and cakes (blood sugar saturation is good for business).
The first thing they hear is the main title music. It’s an up beat piece and I can see that their toes are tapping and they have assumed appreciative body postures. This is good.
Soon however, as we get into the movie, a cold chill has entered the room. I normally play all of the music cues in a row so that the director can get the overall picture before going back to discuss each cue individually. By the time we get to the end of the first pass, the temperature has dropped thirty degrees. There is silence in the room but the body language is growling. Uh Oh. I have already mentally rearranged my up-coming week since I know that I’ll be re-scoring this movie. Or not.
Tempting as it may be, to meet un-love with outraged indignation at the non-appreciation of my work, it is actually smarter to be suave. There are just a couple of things wrong but since they apply to cue after cue, by the end of the presentation these faults have the curse of Magog upon them.
One offender is the rack of cymbals and crotales that I like to use for an atmosphere of magic nostalgia. I probably mixed them a little hot but if you decide not to like them, they cut through everything. Cue after cue. The biggest surprise is Larry’s reaction to all of Judd’s stuff. He spots the sampleness of it instantly. I have NEVER been busted for Judd’s work before. I rely heavily in all of my scores on Judd’s ability to give me rich woodwinds and brass (as well as all other kinds of weird drones, and wails) that he plays with great sensitivity. Although I congratulate Larry on his eagle ears, I silently suspect him of having peeked behind my curtain. For cue after cue Larry is like a Puritan fingering witches. Out Fake Instruments! Out! And just to rub it in he keeps referring to Judd’s lovingly recorded and crafted and performed samples as “synthesizers”.
Anjelica has just one problem. It’s the fundamental approach of the composition. Since the actors on the screen are creating much of their own music, I have just given them wafts of atmosphere (the accursed crotales and woodwinds) with unconnected pangs from a solo acoustic guitar. Wrong. Being Irish, Anjelica needs actual melody. A waft here and a sprangle there would work well for many directors but not if they are Celts.
To their credit, neither Larry nor Anjelica appears to be panicked by this parade of dud cues and they leave the studio mollified by the remedies that I have smoothly proposed. I award myself a D- for the presentation and then start rescoring the entire movie. Whole new composing concept, whole new sound palette.
Meanwhile, there is the issue of a song that is required for one scene in the movie. It’s a three-minute scene of the two sisters frolicking by the lake and rediscovering their love for each other. It is the emotional center of the movie. My job is to commission a songwriter, find a singer and record an original track. There is a process for this. Pro songwriters will normally work on spec for this kind of thing since a good song can have many uses (if we don’t use it) and having one appear on network TV in an Emmy potential movie is good enough bait to get several guys across town competing for the gig. A couple of the guys stabbing at it have won awards and had big hits. This ought to be easy…
Well, I have a productive week. Scoring can be challenging work and I’m not as fresh as I was the first time around, but at least I’m better educated as to the proclivities of the client. I write some actual melodies and get my players back (except Judd). As I work, songs are beginning to arrive via email.
One of them is hand delivered by the most unlikely contestant of all, a slightly scraggly and darkly mysterious young woman. Very young, very non-industry.
After completing the second pass at the score I collect up the four songs that have arrived and lay them against the scene. Two of them just plain suck, one of them is right on the money, and one of them has a mysterious, haunting charm that works not with picture. Pity, it’s got a kind of charisma to it. All of the other three, written by flinty eyed professionals, follow the contours of the scene perfectly. Even the ones that suck soar when the scene lifts and duck when the scene goes to dialogue. The haunting one just sits there.
Now it’s time for round two with the director and producer. They are in good cheer as they arrive and I briskly caffeinate and seat them. Then I hit PLAY on my keypad…
I run down the cues, one after another, without stopping for comment. The body language is not bad. Every now and then Larry’s head jerks to a forty-five degree angle (skeptical) but mostly, he’s relaxed. Anjelica is leaning forward intensely (engaged). I figure, anything less than major improvement would be reflected by morose hunching of the shoulders, brooding forward tilt of the head, ugly sideways glances.
When we get to the song scene, none of the submissions pass muster. They are just too straight, too perfect. Except for the strange one, which is kind of cool but just sits there.
With the score, Anjelica declares herself pleased. She likes the tunes and the sounds and looks very relieved to have something to work with. Most directors leave the studio happy at this point. Anjelica is just getting started. We spend the rest of the afternoon microscoping each cue. She is fixed like a laser on the pace and nuance of every line of dialogue. Although she likes the music I wrote, she likes even more to move it around like paint on a palette. She cheerfully moves cues around, switching them, mixing and nixing them. After mashing down the entire length of the movie, she and Larry leave, exhausted but happy.
All I have to do now is tidy up after the carnage. Wherever we grabbed phrases and pasted them here and there, I have to smoosh the seams and make beautiful the new transitions.
On the song front, two more wrong songs have arrived and I’m starting to worry. Meanwhile the hippy tune is reappearing in my head. I give Jesca Hoop a call and she comes right over. I put her song against the picture and try to explain the dynamic of music and movies. When the scene goes up the music needs to go UP, I gesticulate. Lift, Rise, Swell, Release, Grow, UP. Although it appears that the words coming out of my mouth are Chinese to her, she nods vaguely and offers to take another stab. It needs to go up.
Next day she comes back with a new version. I put it up to picture. At the place where it should go up, it becomes more beautiful. Very beautiful in fact, but not UP.
Over the course of the next week Larry and Anjelica come over several more times. I think they like my place. My studio, situated on a leafy knoll, is a large square tower with windows on all sides. Facing the ample screen and terrifying array of speakers is a large couch, from which directors love to play with music. Who wouldn’t?
Most of the score is done by now but there is one scene that evades us. Anjelica has the idea of using an ancient Irish air (melodies that are ancient are always bankable) so I find a version of SHE MOVES THROUGH THE FAIR. Michael comes back and plays it like a leprechaun. Just one mournful solo acoustic guitar with long reverb. Everybody in the room is weeping. How about if we try laying it over some of those other scenes…?
For the song there is only one way forward. I strap Jesca’s demo (which is just her voice and an acoustic guitar) on to my computer, figure out the tempo, analyze her finger picking guitar part, and insert a section of my own device that goes UP. I build up the backing track with drums, bass, electric guitar and whatever else I can throw into the pot. I give her the track, which has a piano tune indicating a melodic line for the new section, and she goes away to write some more lyrics.
By the time she comes back and sings all her stuff into my fancy microphones, this song is beginning to really pop. She has a great voice and her pitch is good enough for her to stack up some pretty oblique harmonies. Time for the Huston/Sanitsky shredder. Actually the bosses are pretty happy with the song but how about if we take that cool part which goes “Yeah, Yeeaagh” and put it over this shot? And that second verse sounds a bit vocally light. How about if we get a big black voice to sing the song? Ooookey.
Damn, at three o’clock, the day before the dub (which is the giant mixing session for all of the music, sound effects and dialogue) I have to find a black lady singer. Vicky Randles, my favorite, is out of town so I have to take a chance on a stranger. Actually, two of them, since the first sounds like Ethel Merman and we have to find another. Finally, Alex Brown comes over and is able to match Jesca’s exotic phrasing, adding that rich black timbre to the vocals.
On the morning of the dub, the bosses swing past my studio to check out the song. Eureka! Huzzah! It’s good! How about if we take the Yeah Yeeaagh’s and put them over the end section? No problemo. With a trifling flick of sound editing we are at the finish line! With bittersweet hugs and kisses I bid them good speed at the dub and they leave. Aaaaaaaaaghhh. Jeff Seitz, my engineer staggers off to pick up the threads of his life. I quit the applications; decouple the crevulators and power down the hard drives.
For the first time in weeks I notice that the birds are singing outside my window. The sunshine is dappling gently through the trees on a gorgeous California morning. I waft down to my Jeep and glide down the valley to Venice Beach for coffee and a newspaper. Lunch by the pier stretches into a meandering afternoon of idleness and light contemplation. I’ve got a hot date with Fiona tonight, so I eventually head home but on the way, I stop by the studio. There are six messages for me. Larry and Anjelica want to know if we could…
The movie is called RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER
It airs on May 1, 2005