24 September 2008

Music for Pancho

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While the visuals of any film are critical, it’s hard to underestimate the importance of music for establishing tone and bringing out emotion. Early on in the editing process, Amanda Pope (Director), Monique Zavistovski (Editor) and I pooled our CD collections, and picked out music we thought might be appropriate for “temp track.” The result was a hodge-podge that included works as diverse as Philip Glass’ minimalist score to The Fog of War, danceable western swing guitar by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, jazz by Duke Ellington, and Rachel Portman’s The Cider House Rules. This is what we cut into the film while we edited, sometimes with mixed results, and sometimes with quite satisfying ones.

It’s not hard to fall in love with your temp track, and after hearing some of it for weeks if not months on end, it’s hard to consider that -- sooner or later -- you will throw it all away and replace it. Why, you ask? Well, for one thing, actually having music composed for certain parts of the film is a must if you are going to really give it a sense of character, and bring out all the color and detail that you want. Another issue, is a legal and budgetary one: licensing. The cost of paying for the rights to use a single piece of music, written by a famous composer and performed by a well-known artist, might run into the thousands. Sometimes, the tens of thousands by the time you pay for both the performance and use rights. In many cases, the artists or their agents don’t even want to license the music. In cases like that, it's often much cheaper and smarter to either buy music from a stock music library, or ask someone to compose some for you.

I should clarify one thing, and that is, music in a film usually falls into two distinct categories: score, and stock track. “Score” is the material that a composer creates for you, custom tailored for your film. “Stock track” is all the off-the-shelf material that you might buy or license. More on how we handled that type of material, down the line. The most critical consideration for us, and what I'm going to write about today, was the score. What might it sound like, and who would be the most appropriate person to compose it for us?

The choice was an obvious one: Nathan Wang (photo at right). Nathan is probably most well-known for his stirring score to Brian Terwilliger's One Six Right, and that put him on our short list from day one. But, what really convinced us he was appropriate was the fact that we’d used some of his work as temp track in our film. That’s right! A few years ago Monique worked on a documentary about the trans-Atlantic cable that Nathan scored. She’d kept his CDs handy, and some of his tracks ended up in our rough cut. In fact, they were some of our favorites.

Nathan may have been who we wanted, but getting him was another matter.

Good composers, after all, are busy people! When I first called him, Nathan was just about to get on a plane and fly to China. Turns out, he was writing music for the famous fighting shaolin monks as part of the fanfare surrounding the Olympics. Somehow, in the midst of that gigantic commitment (which I think was about an hour’s worth of solid music, performed by an all-Chinese orchestra) and the staging of a revival of his musical Imelda (left), Nathan found the time to work with us.

It didn’t take long for us to realize what a gift we’d found in Nathan. A Fulbright Scholar who studied at Oxford, Nathan has worked on scores for films as diverse as Jackie Chan whack-em-ups to Steven Spielberg’s The Last Days. His command of various genres, and his abilities as a piano player (he once spent a summer playing the ivories on a cruise ship) impressed us right away. But what really made working with him a lot of fun, was the fact that he understood what we needed and had tremendous enthusiasm for the film. And, when he didn’t blow our socks off on the first go-around, Nathan repeated the pattern, took notes and made adjustments until we all said “that’s it!”

Working closely with Nathan is Knox Summerour (photo at right), a graduate of Berkelee and a composer in his own right. Knox was kept quite busy orchestrating our score, and supplementing Nathan’s work. He even added his considerable skills as a trumpet player to a few tracks.

The result is a score that is historically rooted. People tell us it sounds like it could have come right out of Pancho’s era, which is exactly what we wanted. It’s also playful and full of energy. Most importantly, it supports our picture, and helps us tell our story without getting in the way.

How successful are the results? Well, you'll have to wait a little while to hear the finished score. But after Amanda heard it all put together for the first time, she was brought to tears. That is the kind of ringing endorsement that makes you forget you ever had temp track!