Interview with Composer/Musician Michael Abels (GET OUT)

michaelabels.jpgMichael Abels is an African-American composer known for his orchestra works Global Warming, Delights & Dances, and Urban Legend, and choral pieces such as Be The Change and Limitless. “GET OUT” was his first foray as a composer in the film industry, and it definitely won’t be his last. It was great interviewing this extremely talented musician.

Matthew Toffolo: Where were you born and raised? Was music something you always wanted to do as your career?

Michael Abels: I was born in Phoenix AZ, although I lived on a farm outside Aberdeen, SD with my grandparents from infancy through age 6. My earliest memories are of music — seriously, I can remember my grandmother’s recording of Edvard Grieg’s In The Hall Of The Mountain King terrifying me in the crib. Ironically, that’s now my job.

MT: How did you get the job composing the film “Get Out”?

MA: Writer/director Jordan Peele heard an orchestral piece of mine, Urban Legends, on YouTube. It’s a very dynamic piece in which all hell breaks loose, even though it’s also quite tonal. Jordan said this piece convinced him I could bring a fresh voice to film music. He wanted someone who could use the film harmonic language with an African-American perspective.

MT: How was your working relationship with with director Jordan Peele?

MA: Jordan is whip-smart, unbelievable talented, and refreshingly modest. He knows what he wants, and is extremely capable of communicating what he’s hearing and feeling. At the same time, he respects his team as artists, and enjoys the collaborative process. Did I mention how funny he is? A dream to work for.

MT: What are you generally looking for in a director in terms of guidance and tone for your music?

MA: It’s helpful when a director can communicate the feelings a piece of music brings up for them, or the feelings that a character is feeling, or that they want the audience to feel. Most people who are drawn to directing are great at this, since they are storytellers.

MT: What do you think a producer/director is looking for when they bring on their composer to score the film?

MA: The director is looking for someone who can bring the music they are hearing in their imagination to life. The producer is looking for someone who can bring the director’s musical imagination to life on time and under budget. It’s great when these priorities align!

MT: What is your passion in life besides music?

MA: I appreciate home design, I’ve seen my share of home improvement shows. I also love riding my bike, and try to bike at least once a week no matter how stressful the rest of my life is.

MT: What’s next for you? Will you be composing more films?

MA: I have a wind orchestra commission that I’m working on. Yes more film is in the works.

MT: What move have you watched the most times in your life?

MA: The Sound of Music. Do Re Mi changed my life forever. “One word for every note, by mixing it up, like this…” Rogers & Hammerstein taught me that writing music is simple and fun! Been striving to make that lesson true ever since.

MT: What advice do you have for young musicians who would eventually like to compose movies for a living?

MA: Write the music that inspires you, because writing music purely for money will make you hate your creative life. Try to remove your ego from every piece you write. It’s so difficult to be inspired-yet-unattached, but it’s required to remain in a highly creative state. And you are a composer, regardless of whether you have a high profile project to your credit or not. Be the person you want others to see.

GET OUT Movie:

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 20-50 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto, and Los Angeles at least 2 times a month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

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Interview with The Newton Brothers (Composers – Ouija: 2, The Runner)

the_newton_brothers.jpgWhat a great time I had chatting with the extremely talented Newton Brothers (Andrew Grush & Taylor Stewart). A composing team that has already “scored” an impressive resume. I talked with them while they were in the midst of promoting their composing work on the horror film “Ouija: Origin of Evil.”

Matthew Toffolo: You guys are called the Newton Brothes but you’re not actually brothers.

Taylor Stewart: Yes, we wanted to write under one entity. Whether that is writing for film, TV, or an Opera. So we named ourselves after the great Isaac Newton.

MT: So not the bank robbers then?

Andrew Grush: We found out about them after we named ourselves..but we just decided to go with it.

Have any of you ever played with a Ouija board?

AG: That scared the crap out of me when I was a kid. I stayed away from all of that stuff. Only since we came aboard this project is when we have played with them. And we’ve now played with a ton of Ouija boards.

Do you believe?

TS: I personally think that people believe what they want to believe and things manifest. I do believe that there are things beyond us – and whether people want to believe that a Ouija board can bring that out is up to them to believe or not believe.

Did you play the board to inspire you to write the score?

AG: The sound designer was playing with the board in the post studio to grab folly off of it and it was laying around. So we did play with it.

We attended a few parties leading up to the premiere of the film and the played on different boards that some of the fans had. Some people had these amazing boards. Very old and artistic. I think I may be done with them. Don’t want to tempt faith.

I heard that you recorded the score of the film in an old church and that it got a bit creepy.

TS: Lucky enough we recorded it in only a day. It had a vintage feel. A traditional sense that others things have gone on there in the past. The owner of the church mentioned that “things” have gone on. So that brought another feeling. The church was beautiful and it definitely helped bring the emotions needed to execute the score.

With this score you went full out with your score – lots of intruments, with lots of layered emotions. Your rough cut. Then you scaled back and removed a lot of stuff. Is this your general process with scoring films?

AG: Yes that’s our usual approach. To take it too far just to see how far we can take it. Then go backwards and ween things out. We found that in the end that it worked out nicely. In the original score we had a lot of brass and ended up removing it entirely to have a more timeless feel. So it’s now more of a woodwind score. It now has the quality of the era of the film.

It’s almost like it was too busy with the brass.

AG: Exactly. To enhance the themes of the film and the amazing cinematography, less was definitely better.

Speaking of that. When I was researching you guys you were talking a lot about silence. To set up your score, you need silence first to enhance things.

TS: That’s true. There are so many movies with wall to wall music and usually when that happens it’s a student film or a young filmmaker’s film. They want to push the emotional buttons and many times they go too far. Silence gives more reality to the film. It’s a mistake that many student films make.

Sometimes the composer just wants their music in the film and they don’t think about the entire scope of the film. And sometimes to get the best overall score, a score isn’t needed in certain moments of the film.

AG: It’s very true. There are so many themes in so many films we do. We write music for all of it. Sometimes we work a week on a cue in a scene that just doesn’t work and no music is needed for that particular scene. But you have to try it. Explore the themes in the film. And doing that makes the rest of your score better.

It’s very important to know what we aren’t making an album. We don’t need to paint our sound all over the place.

What do you look for in your director?

TS: We welcome as much input as possible from the director. Getting to know what they want to relay what they want to give the audience. Whether that’s a two note score, or a very detailed score with many counter points. We want to work on the story with them and interject our talent onto the film.

The more that director gives us, the better it is for us.

How did you guys meet?

AG: We meet through a mutual friend in 2001. We started working together on songs and bank stuff. That turned into working on films. We decided to work on it together and came up with the Newton Brothers. Then we just started jumping into stuff.

It’s really nice to bounce ideas off each other. To work alone and go down out own natural roads. Then collaborate and bring those ideas and feelings together.

So you guys are basically a creative married couple?

AG: Yes we are. Good call.

What movie have to seen the most times in your life?

TS: E.T.. Star Wars. Back to the Future. Predator.

AG: The film I watched the most is Aliens. I recorded it on VHS in 8th grade, and I would watch it over and over again.

What type of movie would you want to score that you haven’t scored yet?

TS: Sometime futuristic and electronic. Or a period epic movie like Braveheart. We write a lot of stuff like that and I guess people will hear it eventually.

AG: Same. That is our goal.

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Composer Henry Jackman (Birth of a Nation, Captain America 2 & 3)

henry_jackman_1.jpgWhen I called up composer Henry Jackman’s office to do the interview, I was put on hold. Fittingly, while I was waiting I got to listen to the music of Henry Jackman. It was a great way to start the interview as his music is moving even when it’s “on hold” music from the phone.

Henry’s list of credits is already legendary, and he’s just getting started. He has composed Captain America 2 & 3, X-Men: First Class, Kinsman 1 & 2, and the upcoming Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, just to name a few. And I didn’t even mentioned his Animation movie composing (Go to his imdb profile).

In this interview, we centered on his score on “Birth of a Nation”, which should definitely lead him to his first Oscar nomination.

Matthew Toffolo: When did you first come aboard “Birth of a Nation?

Henry Jackman: The very early stages. My agent was friendly with Nate Parker (director of the film) and he introduced us. He initially suggested Nate get in touch with me, stating that I’m not just a big budget composer.

I read the script and I knew this needed to happen. Nate was a man consumed with purpose and whatever was needed to get this film done, he was going to do it. So I was in right away. There was no financing completed, and he didn’t even have a studio on board yet, but I knew that Nate was going to make it happen.

The story of Nat Turner in “The Birth of a Nation”:

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MT: How did the process work with you completing the score of the film? Did you receive a rough cut at first?

HJ: By the time I got the picture, it was about 85% completed. He didn’t have the luxery of doing an extended cut where I score the music and they cut that. He knew what he wanted in production and shot it. So when I began working on it, it was almost already done.

MT: What kind of direction did you get? What kind of thematic were you told to create?

HJ: Nate just told me that he loves the human voice and it would be a great way to connect with the audience for this story. I had the budget contraints on my mind and thought we could get really creative and use a solo singer, and a solo celloist and just a few other intruments. But to Nate’s credit, he said to create the score like we have all the money in the world, and he’s figure out the budget. And that really helped me. By the time we got to the ending, I knew we needed a big musical score with lots of singers and Nate got it done. We ended up with what we needed.

MT: From a practical and creative standpoint, working on this film must have been apples compared to oranges in comparison to you working on the Captain America films?

HJ: It’s funny you say that. Ultimately, yes, there are differences, but the differences are only surfaces. The process of coming up with the thematic score, writing the music etc… is the same on both films. The budget is there and of course I had more financial freedom with Captain America, but the creative process was exactly the same.

MT: I was at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) screening of “Birth of a Nation” and the energy was amazing in the cinema. When the film ended, it received a standing ovation. But of course there is a controversary with the director (if you do not know, please Google it) that the media keeps bring up that, and some can say, has tainted the film. Do you have any opinions of the conversary surrounding the film? How “Birth of a Nation” is probably not getting the attention it deserves?

HJ: The only thing I can say is that I encourage anyone to go see this film. Speaking about myself growing up in a European heritage, I didn’t even know about this part of history and the story of what happened in 1831. Everyone knows the basic history, but this film tells a story, without being heavyhanded about it, about what happened then and the legacy this time still holds for us today. That’s such an important thing. So if anyone has any hesitation, please keep that in mind.

MT: The controversary is kind of a 2016 problem. The film itself is never just the story and promotion now. It’s the social media influence and how the personal lives of everyone part of the film get mixed into what the film is trying to say. So Nate’s personal history, some can argue, taints what this film is trying to say.

HJ: That’s true. People make their own opinion and judgements. Whatever tweets that are flying around now is part of our present day communication and there’s nothing wrong with that. The story of Nat Turner is definitely something people should also be talking about – and going to see this film.

MT: What type of working relationship do you like to have with your director?

HJ: I think the best relationship is a consistent vision and they are never flip-flopping. An overall vision that’s in the costumes, editing, acting etc…, but with sufficient space that allows each artist do what they need to do.

For example, all the conversations with Nate were about the film and it’s themes. What each scene is about. So all the little conversations, like what’s not working etc…, is about the overall vision. So there isn’t any conversations that are NOT about the film and its visiion. Which makes for the best working relationship.

Edward Zwick (just finished working with him on Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) is an example of a great director/composer experience. He brought the tranquility to the process. Everyone is pulling on the same rope to create the vision. When films get in trouble is when the vision changes.

MT: Tell us about the CAPTAIN AMERICA experience? Working for MARVEL?

The Russo Brothers are also great directors to work with. It is different because we’re working on a franchise and all of the films in the Marvel universe need to connect. What makes the Russo’s amazing is that they can do their own film and make it connect with all of the other films. They are masterful directors in capturing their own unique voice in this massive franchise.

Captain America: Winter Soldier was such an amazing experience and many regard it as the best comic book movie made.

MT: Because it wasn’t a comic book movie. Tone-wise it was a spy/thriller?

Exactly. But they didn’t go so far in that direction and leave the fans behind. They mastered the circle. So by the time we did the 3rd film (Captain America: Civil War), Marvel left them completely alone to do their thing as they trusted them. And I have to say they nailed it.

MT: And you nailed it with the score of that film?

Thanks. I am proud of that film.

MT: From a technology standpoint, where do you see the future of composing in the movies?

The future is always a guess. If you go back 30 years in music in film, the tolerance then is different than it is today. There is more variety in music in film today. Film scores are now a broad church. Producers are less freaked out by a wide score of music composed in a film. People now listen to a wider range of music so in relation there is more freedom for the composer to add a wider range. So the future is probably going to simply go wider as access to all kinds of music that people listen to become less judgemental.

henry_jackman_2.jpg

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go tohttp://www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Composer/Vocalist Dominic Lewis (Money Monster, Batman v Superman)

Dominic Lewis is a pure talent in the industry. He is a master vocalist, and composer of the new film “Money Monster”, directed by Jodie Foster and starring George Clooney & Julia Roberts. I had the privilege to interview him and talk about his career and the art of music in film.

dominic_lewis_3.jpgInterview with Dominic Lewis:

Matthew Toffolo: You were credited at “Featured Vocalist” on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. What did you do on that assignment for the film?

Dominic Lewis: A lot of vocals!!! Hans had created this incredible texture of a very distressed voice (in harmony sliding up to a single pitch and sliding back down to the chord) It was a long process and I couldn’t talk for a week after.

MT: How many instruments do you play? Do you have a favorite? And/or an instrument you’re most skilled at?

DL: I play a few, my favorite is the cello (which I’m rather rusty at these days) or singing. I also like to mess around on the guitar and keys when I’m in a pop-ier mood.

MT: Generally, how does one compose the music for a feature film? Do you receive the rough cut, and some guide music tracks for influence/inspiration? When do you generally begin working on the film?

DL: Normally its between 2-3 months for a feature. The last couple of movies have been a lot shorter than that. The usual process is that I’ll receive a cut of the movie (normally as its still being edited) and there will be a temp track to give an idea of what the film maker’s want. I’d also spot the film, which is the process of really nailing down where music is needed and what the specific tone and feel should be.

MT: Who do you generally report to when you’re working on a big budget film?

DL: Depends really. Normally it’s the director and towards the end of the process the movies producers will express any notes if they have any. But mainly it’s the director and editor.

MT: From a technology standpoint, where do you see the future of composing in the movies?

DL: We are already hugely reliant on technology in film scoring. There aren’t many left who have a VHS watch and some manuscript. Everything is done on computers and the way things are going I think we are only going to rely on them more. Samples are getting better, computers faster it’s a natural progression in my book.

MT: How did you first begin? Was composing in the movies something you’ve also aspired to do?

DL: From a certain age yes. I started performing when I was young and as I became more and more intrigued with songs and composition I fell in love with the orchestra and film music.

MT: Do you have a favorite experience? What work on a film are you most proud of?

DL: Freebirds being my first big movie is a fond memory but I have to say getting to work with Jodie Foster and so many amazing people on ‘Money Monster’ has to top the lot so far. I’m also really proud of the score, it’s different and I was given a chance to push the envelope.

MT: Do you have a composer mentor?

DL: Many!! Rupert Gregson Williams was the first when I was starting out and then throughout my career I have had the amazing fortune of working with John Powell, Hans Zimmer and Henry Jackman. Those guys have taught me so much.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most in your life?

DL: Weirdly, I think I’ve seen Gladiator and Back to the Future the most out of any films. They were my go to whenever I was sick as a kid.

dominic_lewis_2.jpg

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Composer David Buckley (The Good Wife, The Town)

What a joy it was to chat with the extremely talented composer David Buckley. You can hear his music every Sunday on the hit TV series “The Good Wife”. He was also the composer on the upcoming film “The Nice Guys”, directed by Shane Black.

To learn more about David, you can go to his website: http://davidbuckleymusic.net/

davidbuckley_good_wifeMatthew Toffolo: The action/comedy “Grimsby” is out in theaters. What can we expect to see? How was your working experience composing music on that film?

David Buckley: Well, the truth is now out! It’s a total flop. Shame really, as a lot of people spent a lot of time working on the film. Maybe the problem was that too much time was spent on it and it started to lose focus. I’ve always been a fan of Sacha’s work. I can see it’s harder for him to make movies like Borat and Ali G because everyone knows who he is now. Grimsby was a brave attempt at coming with a new character, but clearly the cinema-going world did not love him. The experience on this one was a bit unusual as it was a co-score with Sacha’s brother, Erran. He was based in London a lot of the time and I am in LA. It was also tricky as there were a lot of re-shoots for the film – new material was coming right up until the end. But we divided the work up and got on with it!

MT: Generally, how does one compose the music for a feature film? Do you receive the rough cut, and some guide music tracks for influence/inspiration? When do you generally begin working on the film?

DB: Yes. One is sent a rough cut, and this often includes temp tracks. Sometime after getting it, one hopes to sit down with the director and producer and discuss their musical needs. Sometimes the temp is spoken about as a reference point. Hopefully the conversation does not dwell too long on it, however! It varies, but on the whole I’d say I’ve had an average of about 2 months to write and record most of the scores I have composed.

PHOTO: David Buckley in his studio:

davidbuckley_composing.jpg

MT: What type of working relationship do you like to have with your director?

DB: A good one! With the demands of modern film-making, it’s not always easy to physically sit in the room with a director as he/she will have many things to deal with other than music. When there is a moment, I think it’s important to try and absorb as much information one can from the director or any other film maker. Not just specific things but bigger picture issues too. Learning what they know and what they have experienced (be it on the movie, or life in general), will presumably help deliver a score that is to their liking.

MT: You created the theme music for “The Good Wife”. A song that keeps on giving! Do you remember how you got inspired to create the music for the extremely successful TV series?

DB: Well, these days, I write a different opening title each week. There is not a lot of score in the show, so we thought to keep it interesting and relevant to each episode I would crescendo into the main title from the preceding scene. These have been some of the most enjoyable cues I have worked on for the show.

MT: You’ve composed a lot of music for action films? How is this genre different in terms of themes and tones than working on a straight up drama?

DB: I find one of the problems with action scoring is making sure the music is more than just functional. It often has some very specific jobs to do – keeping up energy, maintaining tension, heightening certain moments, etc, and this can either be done in a very plain fashion, or with some interest. The problem is that paranoid/fear-mongering film makers are not always going to allow for the interesting approach and will settle for the safe.

MT: You’ve also worked on a few video games. How has been your experiences working with this format?

DB: Fun. A lot of work but an interesting to genre to try my hand in!

MT: From a technology standpoint, where do you see the future of composing in the movies?

DB: Not really sure about this. Clearly technology has helped composers be able to realize their musical ideas and editors cut their movies a million times until the director (or a test audience!) is happy with it. I suppose for music, samples will get better and better and more realistic. I would wager that no technology will ever be able to beat human performance. I certainly hope not.

MT: How did you first begin? Was composing in the movies something you’ve also aspired to do?

DB: For a long time, yes. When I was a boy, I sung on a soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Chris, and a flame was ignited. I went through a couple of decades of classical training before moving to London and starting to compose for jingles and crappy tv. I was learning as I was going though, and building up my studio and knowledge-base. I got the opportunity to come over to LA just after I turned 30, and jumped at the opportunity.

MT: Out of all the TV shows, films, and video games you’ve worked on, do you have a favorite experience? What do you think is your best work?

DB: I really enjoyed scoring The Forbidden Kingdom. It was the first score I composed. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was lucky enough to have a big orchestra and solists at my disposal, and quite a fun movie to be inspired by. Just about every project since has provided me with some form of musical pleasure.

MT: Do you have a composer mentor?

DB: Richard Harvey was my initial mentor. He was the person who encouraged me to come to LA, and he set up a meeting with Harry Gregson-Williams. I had actually known Harry since I was 10 – we both came from the world of cathedral music. At the time we met in LA Harry was fantastically busy and he extended an invitation for me to come out and help him for a bit. From there he helped me find my own career and let me do my own thing. We remain good friends today (I’m supposed to meet him for a drink tonight!). So I can safely say I would not be doing what I am doing today with Richard and Harry. I have also been very fortunate to work alongside some other distinguished composers including Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, John Ottman, and Harry’s brother, Rupert.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most in your life?

DB: The Day After Tomorrow. Not my favorite film by a long way, but whenever I see it on the tv I get sucked in. A guilty pleasure for sure!

PHOTO: David Buckley working on a film:

davidbuckley_studio

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to http://www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Music Editor/Composer John M. Davis (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies)

The music editor is a type of sound editor in film responsible for compiling, editing, and syncing music during the production of a soundtrack. Among the music editor’s roles is creating a “temp track”, which is a “mock-up” of the film’s soundtrack using pre-existing elements to use for editing, audience previews, and other purposes while the film’s commissioned score is being composed.

John M. Davis is one of the most talented people I have had the pleasure to interview. Just go to this website http://www.johnmdavis.com and explore his world of music.

Matthew Toffolo: I love the photo of you on your website. It describes who you are in one picture. Composing attire. The dog you obviously love. Cup of coffee. Piano. A rocking chair for thinking. Art Work. And a relaxed but determined look on your face. As they say, a picture says a 1000 words, or in your case a 1,000,000 words! 

John M. Davis: I’m glad you like it.  I don’t photograph particularly well, so I find all the accoutrements more interesting than me.  I do like that piano; it’s a 1954 Steinway we inherited from my wife’s grandfather.  The dog is a whole Russian novel in himself.

Matthew: From an outside perspective, it seems like you’ve mastered the balance of working on your pet projects while being a successful Music Editor for Hollywood productions. How does one do it? 

John: I wish I knew.  I like the camaraderie and diversity of different projects.  I would like more jobs as a composer, but composers don’t have a union while music editors do, with pension and health insurance.  If I only composed for the small films and documentaries that I do then I couldn’t support a family.  I love playing live music for silent films, but only a handful of humans on the planet can make a living doing that.  When I retire from music editing I’m planning on composing large scale works for orchestra.  Whether anybody wants me to do that is an open question.

Matthew: Do you have a musical mentor? 

John: Not really.  Music is something I’ve always done.  I was arranging for bands and choirs from junior high on.  I went to NYU film school with the intention of becoming a director or screenwriter, but over time I discovered that my musical abilities were more unique and more marketable.

Matthew: Out of all your personal projects, what are you most proud of? And what would you love to share to our audience? 

John: Next Saturday I’m performing a live score with a quartet to the 1929 Dziga Vertov documentary “The Man With a Movie Camera” at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. I’m very proud of my performances at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy.  Early filmmakers saw cinema as the synthesis and apotheosis of all the arts, and live silent film music is the purest manifestation of music to picture.  Everything else we do — recording, editing, mixing under dialogue — is all a diminution of that ideal.

Matthew: Out of all your Music Editor work, what film was your best working experience? 

John: Working on a musical is the best.  “Black Nativity” was a film that almost no one saw, but I was on the set every day during the shoot, and I was involved in the entire post-production.  Nothing is better than having Jennifer Hudson in a church singing her heart out, capturing her live performance and using that in the final mix.  There were a lot of technical challenges involving playback, using earwigs (tiny radio controlled ear pieces), microphones hidden in her hair.  Then there was the tap dancing, the modern dance, choirs, the works! “The Producers” was also fun, especially when we could use the singing recorded on set and not the pre-records.

Matthew: What is the difference, if any, between working on a narrative film compared to working on a documentary? 

John: Some documentaries are very narrative, so you might score a montage the same way in either format.  A very dry talking heads type of documentary usually doesn’t support much music.  Some of the greatest scores of all time were written for documentaries.

Matthew: How do you choose your jobs? From working on short films to doing (more) paid work? It is all about the story? 

John: The more important consideration is the people you’re working with.  That said, in my experience the jobs choose you.  My phone rings just enough to keep me working throughout the year.  If I hit a dry spell it doesn’t last too long.  A few years ago when “Flight of the Conchords” was shooting in New York I thought “this is the perfect project for me!”  Unfortunately I had no idea how to get hired on it.<

Matthew: Ideally, where would you like your career to go in the next 5 years? More passion projects? More sound designing? Working on bigger productions? 

John: I would like to have composing be a more regular part of my work.  Right now it seems like it’s about 15% to 20% instead of 50%.  However, part of that is preconceptions.  If people see you as a music editor then they don’t think of you as a composer.

Matthew: What are the key qualities to be a great music editor? 

John: Surprisingly it’s not musicianship.  Being a musician is a help, but some of the more mad-scientist musicians I know would be terrible music editors.  The main requirement is being organized.  You have to keep track of the music, know which version is where, know how to fill out a cue sheet.  If you’re a musician who keeps their hard drive very tidy and doesn’t have a lot of files on your desktop, then you could be a music editor.  It goes without saying that you have to be able to cut on the beat, and you have to know something about musical structure.  You also have to get along with the director and the composer.

Matthew: What film, besides the ones you’ve work on, have you seen the most in your life? 

John: I’ll say “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”  That’s the only film poster I have in my studio.  John Williams has said that it is his favorite score, and I can see why.  The music is the means of communication between worlds.  It goes from drama to action to the most modernist and atonal to romantic, and the story is more ambitious and multi-continent expansive than almost any film before or since.

Matthew: What is your favorite era in music history? 

John: Despite my love of silent film, the best music was written later, in the 40’s to the 70’s — the Golden and Silver ages:  Steiner, Korngold, Herrmann, Mancini, Williams, Goldsmith, Morricone.  The fact that two of them are nominated this year for an Oscar is amazing.

Matthew: Do you see your job as a Music Editor changing because of technology in the future? 

John: Well, Pro Tools 12.5 will make my life easier, if it works as advertised, because I’ll be able to update a co-worker with the push of a button.  The new Melodyne 4 has a tempo detection function that I plan to put through its paces.  I’m always extremely up-to-date, and I’ll upgrade the very day something is released.

On the other hand, technology can make music too rigid, which works for a very few films.  I look forward to the day when technology makes it easy to capture the inspiration that happens in a spontaneous silent film performance.  It should be as fast to write notes in a notation program as it is on a piece of manuscript paper.  We’re getting there.  Technology should become more intuitive and bend the learning curve back to the humanistic.  It should capture lightening in a bottle, not turn out glass bricks.  Music is emotion.
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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go tohttp://www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.