I made a movie! Okay, I didn’t make a movie, we made a movie.
In early 2010 my best friend Mike decided to make a documentary. He’s been working in Hollywood for years and has enough talented friends to make this a real, honest-to-goodness film and not just a “hey, let’s put on a show in 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, and 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 makes 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 Mclachlan-lite; that’s strenuously not what we were going for. (No knock on 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) would be vaguely defined but fairly apparent: Do something a little different with the score.
For those of you not that familiar with movie music and terminology 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 “Score” is the long-standing, but increasingly outdated process of a composer writing and recording music especially for the film to support and drive the action.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, which denote emerging passion, or the just flat-out cool showdown music that Ennio Morricone did for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns in the ’60s … 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 and 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, 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 are 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.
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 were a “normal” film, I wouldn’t be the one doing the music … so to hell with that.
What I do know is normal for scoring is that composers are usually 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 our 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. 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 stupid 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 LA 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’d never done that before and 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 that kind of stuff that made what seemed like an insanely difficult musical assignments for the movie not only doable but fun as well.)
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 2,000 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 wanted. 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.
There are definite differences between writing songs and writing a score. Songs need to be fully realized and have several layers to be listened to by themselves over and over. A score really just needs a couple of elements. This is great news for a new composer, especially one like me in a rush. It afforded me the opportunity to pull long-abandoned false starts of songs that were little more than two chords back and forth, record them, and voila, you’ve got another piece for the movie.
I wish I could describe the process, but truthfully the process is such a wild mess, especially to get 50 cues just right within a tight schedule. I would describe it as pulling whatever I had out of my pocket and throwing it at the wall to see how it looked. I broke up the “Always Be” song a couple of ways to buy a couple of cues. I used a recording of Mike’s deceased mother singing the old traditional “Early One Morning” and flipped those chords around a bunch of ways for some cues. I knocked out an electro version of Faure’s “Pavane” as a placeholder and we never got rid of it. I put simple grooves over beats for music during walking or exterior scenes to feel like we were moving. I recycled a failed jazz songwriting attempt (once “My Dog Loves Jazz” became “Meet Your Artist”) for one, and removed the Roosevelt samples from a thing on the shelf I wrote years ago (“Fear Itself”). I wrote an unusually trippy accompaniment to a performance art piece using coroner reports from the autopsies of David Foster Wallace and Elliott Smith (“Two Autopsies”), then deconstructed that into another two things in the film. I wrote quick tremolo guitar moods that seemed like rejected notes from a bizarro episode of “Friday Night Lights” for other interview scenes. Seriously, I was throwing in everything but the kitchen sink.
I remember in late 2010, before my job on the film began (my scoring was done mostly from March to June 2011), I was very high minded and wanted to come up with some super-unified, thematic complete film score like two of my favorites: Carter Burwell’s score for Being John Malkovich, and Jeff Danna’s for The Kid Stays in the Picture (I should tell you that I think those two are in their own ways the greatest two film scores that I’ve ever noticed. They won’t jump off the screen like flashier things from a Tarantino movie, but they’re incredible). I was in Sweden at the time at New Years with the daily two hours of daylight, walking all around Stockholm with my headphones and falling asleep listening to those two soundtracks nearly around the clock. I guess I was hoping for inspiration to come up with something complete. Falling asleep in Sweden every night I pictured myself like Randy Newman at a grand piano with a full orchestra in a sound stage. That’s not how it ended up getting done. At all. It was more of a panicky rush, like a guy in a sinking balloon throwing things overboard.
When time came to deliver, I ended making 50 cues for the movie (27 songs for the soundtrack CD) that are stylistically all over the map. Perhaps that would sound like a bad thing, but it fits the movie. The movie has a constant series of stylistic turns that jump around just as quickly. By the way, I really do urge that you see the film — it’s a ballsy film, and you won’t believe me at first but it is a faithful documentary about suicide that just might make you laugh and feel good at the end; ideally it could start conversations that prevent a suicide. (OK, commercial over.)
At the point where the whole movie was scored, we noticed that we had two minutes of credits with no music. Normally a movie with any budget at all would have put the word out and bought the rights for a song from an unsigned band for the end. But we didn’t have the money, for starters. And I did want to tie the end to a little of the music for the movie. So I did one last song for it. I just kind of wrote what was going on in my head at the time — the lyrics were a combination of a thank you to a close friend and a shout-out to a musician friend (who many of us here know and who was having a hard time). Again, it’s not the type of song I normally write, but the whole movie score was filled with things that I don’t normally do with the Bigfellas. By the time I pulled Mary Grasso in to sing it as a duet, she totally made that song. Everything about everything here was a happy accident. And shows that you set sail for one destination and always end up at some other one — definitely in music and probably in life, too.
Looking back I’m not sure how it happened, but the right music really happened for the whole movie. I’m proud of myself; actually; I’m proud of everybody who made the movie. Unintended consequences are terrific in art as many directors make mention of “happy accidents.” And that’s good. It’s why we musicians shouldn’t be holing up in garages, home offices, and ProTools all of the time.
Here it is two full years later after Mike and I were hammering vodka tonics and discussing just a germ of his idea for a documentary. It’s been in the can for a few months; we’ve had some advance screenings and we’re learning about the painful process of trying to promote an independent film in advance of an official fall 2012 premiere. If you want to make money or be famous, I really suggest taking another route. And the time spent doing my part really was fairly stressful, difficult and frustrating to just be one cog in a whole production, not just a dude with an acoustic guitar. Yes, this whole thing was a wonderful pain in the ass. And I can’t wait to do it again.
More info on the film, Don’t Change The Subject, can be found at www.dontchangethesubject.org or its Facebook page.
The soundtrack CD can be found on iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby and at www.bigfellas.net. Charlie Recksieck can be found tweeting pearls of wisdom, information, and idiocy at www.twitter.com/thebigfellas