Facing the Music

Added on by Chris WHITE.

Music is the filmmaking tool I struggle with the most. Even though it influences so much of my writing, acting, and directing, when it comes to actually bringing music into a film, I find that it says so much…often too much.

Non-diegetic music underscoring a scene starts telling you how to feel about the scene…and it often runs roughshod over great acting, perfect shot composition, and immaculate writing.

I feel like we spend so much time getting each shot, every scene just right…and then here comes music, like too-loud microphone feedback.

Except for when it’s not that at all. There are so many times that music fulfills the promise of a great scene. There are even times when music saves a scene.

On location, TAKEN IN. March 2011.

On location, TAKEN IN. March 2011.

When I was directing the film TAKEN IN in the spring of 2011, I made these “30 Second Pictures” to explore the film’s dramatic and comic possibilities with different kinds of musical accompaniment. When it came time for Josh McGill’s score, he and I used the clips as a jumping off point for our collaboration.

GET BETTER (2012) was even more precarious, musically. It took so long to get the mostly improvised movie right, adding music seemed particularly disruptive. Though Daniel Harnett’s song “Say You’re A Good Soul” worked so well for our trailer, when it came to scoring the film, every note sounded like too much…until we began our work with composer David C. Wright who found ways to gently inform the story, enhance it with music. When I watch the film now, the music is one of my favorite parts.

CINEMA PURGATORIO started with music in a way. Music helped Emily and me figure the movie out early on.

When we were writing CINEMA PURGATORIO, it was Dave Grusin’s theme to Warren Beatty and Buck Henry’s 1978 comic-fantasy HEAVEN CAN WAIT that most captured the tone of the film we wanted to make.

There is a kind of doggedness in the melody…a relentlessness you can hear in the piece that feels a lot like Liz and Neil to me. It’s an optimistic melody that forms a circle within the composition, suggesting perseverance.

And then there’s the bridge…a sweeping, romantic confession of sorts. It’s the part of the song that admits to fear and failure. It suggests that the melody’s protagonist is no fool. He is scared…even in his wistfulness.

Emily and I watched a lot of movies about making movies as we were writing and prepping CINEMA PURGATORIO. One of the most amusing (and offbeat) films about filmmaking has to be Michael Winterbottom’s TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY (2005).

8 1/2

8 1/2

For the film's musical score, Winterbottom reanimates Nino Rota’s musical theme to Fellini’s 8½. Rota’s theme is carnival-like, a proud march built on a relentless low brass drive and embellished around the edges by merry piccolos and flutes. Oh and crashing cymbals…lots of crashing cymbals.

When I first met with our composer, Eric Barnhart, he and I listened to the Grusin and Rota music. As Eric writes and arranges his score for CINEMA PURGATORIO, both pieces have certainly been an influence. The themes he’s found are distant cousins to Grusin’s theme…encompassing much of the same sentiment. And the instrumentation reflects Rota’s small orchestra score.

And then there’s the pop song at the end. CINEMA PURGATORIO is a film that should end with a happy pop song. And we found that song on a Paste Magazine/Noisetrade compilation; “Hold On Now” by the Scottish band, The View.

The melody and production of the song was spot-on, but it was the lyric that sold us:

Your circles square, your life needs repair
You're holdin' on to childrens books.
I wanna tell you I love you a lot,
But for that I need a belly full of wine, wine, wine, wine!

At present, Eric. Emily, and I are working on the score to CINEMA PURGATORIO. A temporary score is in place, made up of various instrumental music, compositional sketches, and a couple of really weird songs that capture something we’re going for in the score.

I am excited…and nervous. Dreading the moment we have to add our original score to the film, and we listen to the movie again for the first time…curious to see if it's shouting.