NOTE: This was originally written for publication in the San Diego Troubadour, a terrific local music news publication run by Liz Abbott and Kent Johnson here in San Diego.
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I made a movie! OK, "I" didn't make a movie, we made a movie.
In early 2010 my close friend Mike decided to make a documentary. He's been working in Hollywood for years & has enough talented friends to make this a real, honest-to-goodness film and not just a "hey, let's put on a show on the barn!" kind of a project. What an opportunity. As a 100% "indie" musician, it's a great chance to do something that's seen by people, get my band involved in the thing, have fun, collaborate with interesting people. Sounds like fun, right? Well yes it was fun. The rub is that what I was having fun on was a documentary about suicide.
In brief, the documentary is an attempt to approach the subject in an honest way, try to use humor - and was as much motivated by wanting to NOT make a soft-focus, soft-piano, typical, earnest, boring and safe film about the subject. That in itself is making the film fairly controversial within the suicide prevention and mental health communities; but from my perspective, people keep making the well-meaning, hand-wringing docs about suicide and how's that actually working out for stopping people from killing themselves? Perhaps it's a bad idea to define what one's doing in negative terms but it was important to me that I didn't populate the film with the poor man's "Adagio For Strings" or Sarah Machlachlan-lite, that's strenuously not what we were going for. (No knock against Sarah; despite me being a heterosexual dude, I'm a huge fan.)
My assignment, should I have chosen to accept it (and there was no way that I wasn't going to accept) would be vaguely defined but fairly apparent: Do something a little different with the score.
What Is Scoring?
For those of you not that familiar with movie music, terminology, etc. I should mention some basics first. There is a difference between placing songs in a movie and "scoring." Many film soundtracks do take existing songs and place them into the movie, usually editing the film around them. Whether it's having Kevin Bacon dance to "Let's Hear It For The Boy" in Footloose, or pre-existing background music from libraries, a majority of modern movies' music is done like this. "Score" is the long-standing, but increasingly outdated process of a composer writing and recording music specially for the film to support and drive the action.
While sometimes bits of score become famous in their own right, such as the swelling strings of Bernard Herrmann for Vertigo that denote emerging passion or the just flat-out cool showdown music that Ennio Morricone did for Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns in the 60's ... by and large, the role of score is usually to make the viewer feel something but stay out of the way. Just as you shouldn't notice a baseball umpire unless he messes up, many would say that you really shouldn't be too aware of a musical score.
Putting it one way, music or art is an effort to make an audience, even if it's just the artist himself/herself, feel something. With self-contained music (such as when an artist writes & records a CD) the song has to do 100% of the work. In the case of film score, especially since it's almost always written after the film has been shot and edited, it's intended to support the emotion that's already in that scene. Sometimes a film needs the audience to feel like there's action going on, so the music directly puts rhythm in it to make it happen. Other times if it's already an emotional scene, then there's the choice of whether you want really emotional strings to jerk a few tears out OR back off from that and not lay it on too thick. There's all kinds of choices being made, but they should be made to support the film. In that sense, it's much more goal-oriented and mechanical than just writing a song.
Where To Start
At least that's what I believe happens on a "normal" project. Strangely enough, with my own idiotic confidence that I know what I'm doing (often with little evidence) and my own hubris, I really didn't do much research on other film scorers' process. I actually grew up with Mike Andrews who's done killer film scores (known for Donnie Darko and Walk Hard) and I'm in a fantasy basketball league with Teddy Shapiro who scores about three major films every year (I love his one for State And Main). I could have asked either one of them to throw me a bone. Or I could have grilled people in production for what's normal. But where's the fun in that. If this was a "normal" film, I wouldn't be the one doing the music ... so to hell with that.
What I do know is normal for score is that composers are normally the last stop on the route to making a movie. It's at the end of a long process - after pre-production, shooting, editing and more editing. And since films usually have an expected finish date and films usually are behind schedule, which means that composers are usually the ones who get screwed for time. (Luckily, the beauty of being a tough subject like a suicide documentary is that there's no studio or crowds clamoring for it, desperately saying "I gotta see people talking about suicide!", so I still had a little time to do my thing.)
But since I was trying to work on music DURING the editing process, I created twice as much work for myself (and Andy, who was engineering everything I was doing in the studio): composing pieces, then having to re-edit them specifically to the film's timing, many times which is not going to be allow for finishing 4/4 measures. So, we'd have a second process of doing surgery on those abrupt cuts that would seem non-rhythmic to everybody's natural ear.
Basically, the movie, Don't Change The Subject, was/is such an odd, organic project (in the best sense) that from the word "go", this wasn't a normal film score assignment. I can describe the documentary as being really three major courses: 1) Mike's family's history with suicide, 2) Getting survivors and people who attempted suicide to talk about it in a frank, direct way, and 3) Commissioning various artists to create something about suicide.
So even though I would eventually score what ended up in the movie, I had a pre-assignment within the context of the movie. It's seen on camera, but I was told to write a song about suicide that you could dance to. That's not an everyday assignment. And as irreverent as both the movie could be at times and also as jokey or flippant that the band I'm in (The Bigfellas) can seem, there really still is "a line" to not cross to be outright disrespectful of people who've suffered from suicide in some fashion.
2 Original Songs
I ended up writing two songs, "Always Be" and the playfully titled "The Suicide Song". The point of both of them lyrically was to try to say to those contemplating suicide that they should keep in mind that suicide is a brutal thing to do and will ultimately be the only thing you're remembered for. I suppose my intent was to try to make sure that what I wrote didn't idealize suicide in any way. I particularly find the bullshit romanticizing of Kurt Cobain and Sylvia Plath to be awful, childish and damaging ... but maybe that's just me.
Anyway, "Always Be" wasn't used in the film (though it's on the soundtrack now). "The Suicide Song" was used in the film, and The Bigfellas are shown playing it at an L.A. show in Don't Change The Subject. By the way, another thing that was unusual about my scoring was that we had two songs for the band BEFORE the movie was edited. What a process. I think about 90 seconds after I was finishing writing the songs, Shay (The Bigfellas' drummer) was putting tracks down. We've never done that before; it was a trip. (If I can give a shout-out to Shay and Andy for getting that done so fast and so great, it's stuff like that which made what seemed like insanely difficult musical assignments for the movie not only doable but fun.)
Speed is really the insane key to film scoring. In some ways, you don't have time to be an "artist." You have to come up with X amount of stuff; in my case about 65 minutes of music. It's like a painter being commissioned to create 2000 square feet of art. The amount was large but finite, that was the given.
But then it had to be good and fit what the director and editor wants. Just like with any artistic effort, occasionally some of the things that I thought were gold were rejected, and some things that I thought were embarrassing placeholders at first eventually established themselves as rightfully belonging in the movie.
Part 2 will cover how well we did with the music for the movie and will be available here starting April 5, 2022.