Creative Composer Collaboration
The film composer / film director collaboration can make or break a project. It can also make or break your future success with a career in composing. Know what to expect and have ways to approach the creative process. You can put these tips into action right away for a better composing experience, and ultimately a better soundtrack.
The key is to think of the director as a creative ally, not an obstruction.
In the end, you are both working towards the same goal: to make the best film possible.
If you keep that in mind, then the
arguments conversations can stay focused on what the story needs.
There are many potential pitfalls when building a relationship with a director, especially in the context of a high-pressure production environment. Here’s what I’ll cover to help your next collaboration go smoothly:
- Artistic Backgrounds
- Creative Differences
- Professional Arguments
- The First Conversation
- Script Analysis
- Constant Input
- Feedback & Revisions
- When Things Turn Ugly
- Future Collaboration
As a composer, your musical background and life experiences influence your creative aesthetic. Similarly, directors often come from extremely diverse creative backgrounds. This can bring a unique artistic perspective to the film score.
This can be a challenge because it can often feel like there is no common creative ground between you and the director. Instead of seeing this as a red flag, take it as an opportunity to work across disciplines and learn new things.
Some of the most rewarding collaborations (and some of the most interesting music) can come from the of two very different creative minds.
In addition, some directors may have a background in music, while others couldn’t clap to the beat if their life depended on it. Either way, talk about your favorite artists and exchange playlists; listen to what they like and vice versa. Then you will have a touchstone when talking about music for the film you’re working on.
Inevitably, there will be a project where the composer and the director fundamentally disagree with each other’s idea for a particular cue, or the overall approach to the score in general. It can be a roadblock, but:
Having “creative differences” doesn’t have to be the end of the road.
If you feel strongly about your idea for the score, by all means voice it – the composer’s opinion is just as valid as the director’s (you could even argue it is more valid because you probably have some musical reason backing up your point of view).
At the end of the day, though, realize that the movie belongs to the director. Ultimately, it will be their creative decision to make. Each composer has to ask themselves if they can put aside their creative differences in order to finish the project.
If you find yourself in this position, take a step back and re-evaluate your role in the process, and how big of an issue it is for you. You can always keep your idea for the score in your back pocket for a future project. Or, take those ideas and turn them into demo cues to share online. Who knows – that could lead to someone who really loves your idea hiring you for their project, and you’d be able to explore it on a different film.
When two creative people feel passionately about opposing ideas, arguments occur. This is as true for the composer / director relationship as any other collaborative relationship.
The key is to keep arguments professional, not personal.
Writing music is a profoundly personal experience; the composer is baring a little bit of their soul with every note they write. When someone (like a director) disagrees with your choices, it can feel insulting.
Directors face the same thing when a producer disagrees with their creative choices. In a different way, directors are exposing themselves when making a film, and can be insulted when anyone disagrees with their personal vision.
Knowing this, however, doesn’t make them immune to criticizing (sometimes quite rudely) the composer’s creative output. If the director is arguing with you, try not to let it get personal. Keep discussions professional, with the film’s best interests in mind. Even if the director resorts to personal insults, keep yourself above the fray. Try to steer the conversation back to specifics about the music.
If you can keep the discourse professional, the director will eventually realize you are just trying to make the best film possible, and you are both on the same side.
The First Conversation
This might be the most important part of building a rapport with the film’s director. First impressions are important in any relationship, and this is no different.
Ideally, the composer’s first conversation with the director won’t even get into specifics about the score. Instead, it should be more about discovering who each other is as a person.
Don’t jump straight into work, or even music. Ease into talking about influences and inspiration after you both know a little about each other.
The most important basis for a successful collaboration isn’t that you understand each other’s favorite music, but that you understand each other.
Keep this first conversation light on specifics about the project, making more of a meet-and-greet. Take them out for a drink and find out what they do for fun. Basically, start a friendship that will survive the rigors of a film production, and maybe gain a collaborator in life, not just work.
If you’re interested in learning more about how a director thinks and works, check out Ron Howard’s Masterclass.
The score is dictated by the needs of the story, and the story is laid out in the script. Therefore, a film composer spends time analyzing the script in order to inform their music that will enhance and broaden the movie.
Often, this takes place in a vacuum – the composer in their studio or office, reading the script on the train and taking notes for themselves.
While it is essential to break down the script for yourself, don’t assume that what you see in the script is the same thing the director sees.
When you’ve done your first few passes of the script, or built out some rough ideas for the story arcs that you are going to layer into your Attack Plan, take that analysis to the director, and go over it with them. Make sure what you think is happening for the characters in a particular scene is truly the subtext the director is going for.
Like any piece of fiction, it is open to interpretation, and the director’s interpretation is the one that will make it on screen, so it’s important to be on the same page. Believe me, the director will love talking about the deeper meanings of the characters and subplots with you.
This way, when you get into writing music, you and the director are working toward the same goal with the story.
One-on-one time with the director can be a rare commodity, depending on how hectic their schedule is. It can be hard or near-impossible to get them into the studio to audition music until it’s time for them to review the mock-up score.
Make it a point to reach out to the director regularly to get input on music in-progress.
Try to get over any qualms you may have about showing something before it’s polished, or even fully fleshed out. When you have an idea that seems to be working, especially if it’s for a key part of the score, send the rough sketch over to the director.
Maybe you have a couple different ideas for a theme or melody, and can’t decide which is right for a character – send three versions over to the director for review. They can listen to it and provide invaluable feedback while you’re still in the writing stage.
Even if you know that the music is perfect for what you had in mind, allow the director to give early feedback to make sure you are actually on the right track. You don’t want to go too far down the road, only to be told much too late that you took a wrong turn.
This will also give the director more implicit buy-in to the score. When they finally hear the fully mocked-up version, they will know some of what’s coming. And, their initial revisions are essentially already incorporated into the music.
This is also a great way to build efficiency into your workflow.
Feedback and Revisions
Even if you’ve been following the tips in this article and have developed a great rapport with the director, you could still be blindsided when they start giving you feedback.
The truth is, no matter how hard you try to see the film through the director’s eyes (or hear the score through their ears), they are probably hearing different things in the music than you are as the composer.
It’s important to take feedback in the collaborative spirit of the filmmaking process. Multiple revisions are a normal part of the game.
Definitely try to press the director for specifics, though. Try to take concrete notes with you back to the studio so you can implement their changes. Nail the director down to exactly what is or isn’t working.
If you have ideas to address their feedback, suggest the changes while in the screening room. Talk through the solutions together so you have meaningful guidance in the revision process.
This will help you get closer to the all-important stamp of approval with the next version.
When Things Turn Ugly
Hopefully you never reach a point on a project where creative differences can’t be resolved, or the revision process drags on and on to the point where the director / composer relationship sours. But when things turn ugly between you, all is not lost.
First, when you reach a breaking point, take a step back. Take a couple hours and go for a walk, or read a book. Cool off for a bit and try not to think about the project. When you come back to it, re-evaluate what the film means to you, and whether it’s worth fixing.
Nine times out of ten, completing a film project and moving on will be better in the long run than stepping away from it mid-production.
Now is the time to cash in on the relationship you’ve built with the director. Go back to square one and take them out for a drink again, try to re-connect as people before talking about work. It’s a shame to lose a friend over a work dispute.
If you’re beyond that point, consider just pushing through and finishing out the score in a completely detached, professional way. Deliver the revisions, keep the conversation focused on specifics, and work toward completing the music as quickly as possible.
If you can work through a producer as the middle-man, utilize them as a barrier against further confrontation. Odds are the producer will do anything in their power to get the project completed.
With any luck, when you’ve completed the score for a film, you haven’t just written a soundtrack, you’ve also made a friend. More important than having some successful music cues under your belt is the potential for future collaboration with your battle-tested creative collaborator, the director.
You’ve both gone through an intense creative effort together, and that is a solid foundation for working together again on a future project.
It could be the director’s next film, or a project years down the road, but it’s important to nurture the relationship you’ve built over the course of the film production. Filmmaking can be an intense environment, with many people working very closely together for many long hours. Once you are out of the environment, it is easy to lose touch. Make a point to check in every once in a while, and keep each other apprised of your respective projects.
A common truism which is more applicable in the filmmaking realm than most others is that “it’s more about who you know than what you know.” Keep the relationship alive and it will pay dividends in the future.
Many composers, myself included, would maybe prefer to lock themselves alone inside the studio and emerge, weeks later, with the perfect completed score.
However, filmmaking is one of the most collaborative mediums to work in, and depriving yourself the input of the key creative mind involved in the project – the director – would be doing the score a disservice.
Embrace the collaborative spirit when working with a director, and your next project will go much more smoothly – and your music will better fit the story.
For more insight into working with directors, check out my eBook, Film Scoring 101 (coming soon!).