Film composers and directors always have a unique relationship in the movie making process. “The music” tends to be somewhat mysterious to most people, and yet, it is also something that everyone has an opinion on. It is also generally one of the last things to be done, before a movie is released. So it’s not surprising that the collaboration between a director and the composer has a good chance of breaking down through disagreement and tension. How then, do you have an effective collaboration between directors/producers and film composers?
Enter Steven Spielberg and John Williams
I recently watched a fascinating discussion between John Williams and Steven Spielberg about their collaboration, as well as the act of collaboration in general. Pretty much anytime anyone at the top of their field speaks, you should listen. This is just a general rule of thumb for me. Like them or not, they have accomplished something serious and chances are, they have something to teach you. As Charlie Munger says,
To get what you want, you have to deserve what you want. The world is not yet a crazy enough place to reward a whole bunch of undeserving people.
It just so happens that I like both John Williams and Steven Spielberg.
Throughout the video, you get the sense they both have enormous respect for each other. I think this is important for a solid collaboration. I am, as I write this, in the process of composing the score to a short film. The good thing about this job, is that I genuinely respect the director for his work, as well as his character and attitude. This has lead to a great working relationship, and clear feedback on my music.
What’s interesting, is what Spielberg actually says about music not working in the film.
If something is wrong with a cue that may not have serviced the scene, I blame the film. It’s the film’s fault. ~ Steven Spielberg
This is interesting and key. He is so confident in John Williams ability to compose the right thing for the film, that he says if it’s not working, it’s the film’s fault.
Now I don’t for one second think that Spielberg goes back and changes the cut of the film, every time a cue isn’t working. For the most part, he probably has John Williams change the music. But it’s the concept that matters. He is not blaming the music or John Williams for not being able to make the scene work. He is in effect taking responsibility. The scene should carry itself without music. The music is there really to intensify the scene, add emotional color, or a stronger sense of tempo and pacing. But the scene should still work without music.
There is several times that I’ve actually just cut out scenes because the musical narrative stalled out with a certain scene – that reminded me – that scene shouldn’t even be in the film. The musical narrative would have an effortless transition if that scene weren’t in the picture, and the music just carried on to the next scene. Sometimes I do the best work with my editor, in the editing room, often after John has finished with the score. ~ Steven Spielberg
But respect is not enough.
The ability to be unguarded enough to make the mistakes you need to make, not compete with each other, not try to impress each other, just have fun with it, and that unbuttoned trust is the essential thing, I think that if its there, in the chemistry of the personalities, a lot of fun can be had working together. ~ John Williams
I had never heard the term “unbuttoned trust” but it definitely sunk in as soon as he said it. There is something scary about playing your music for someone else – especially when that person is judging your music in terms of how it makes their film better or worse. It’s one thing to write a piece, and just play it for someone that has no stake in it. It’s another thing entirely when that person has invested a significant amount of their life on a creative project, and then has to trust you not to mess it up.
What is important to understand, is that sometimes, the composer will mess it up. Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we don’t read the scene correctly, and compose something that just doesn’t fit. If there is an unbuttoned trust between both the composer and director, then it’s not a big deal. Because beyond the mutual respect, with unbuttoned trust, you now have a mutual vulnerability. More important, you have the ability to change things without egos being involved. It no longer becomes a competition about who read the scene better – it’s a team effort to bring about the best story possible.
The Creative Process of John Williams and Steven Spielberg
How they get from no music to music, is also an interesting process, and I think something to emulate.
Steven will show me the film, and I retreat to my writing room. And I am unreconstructed to the extent that I don’t use computers or synthesizers and so on. A pencil and paper, a piano and score. And I typically will write several themes for the characters and locations, or whatever the musical needs seem to be. And Steven will wander into my room, very often unannounced, and he’ll say, “How are you doing?” And we talk about a lot of other things, other than the film we’re working on, and if I feel like I have something that I can play for him, I’ll play him a few notes, like Jaws or something more elaborate. And I can always tell by his eyes, his facial expression, his voice – whether he’s unsure, whether he dislikes it, whether he likes it. And we really don’t ever reach decisions I don’t think.
(Steven Spielberg) No it’s a process.
The great thing is he always leaves happily. He’s not uptight about maybe I haven’t got anything that makes sense. It’s alright, we’re having fun anyway. That’s the mood. ~ John Williams
(Unreconstructed means not reconciled or converted to the current political theory or movement. Don’t worry, I had to look it up.)
The key is that Spielberg is not uptight about the process. Composing is hard work. It’s quite mentally exhausting. And there is always something a little mysterious about where the right ideas come from. Sometimes they just happen quickly, but sometimes it is a fight to the death. You spend hours trying figure something out, and in the end it doesn’t work.
Reaching a creative brick wall like this is part of the process. But this process is delicate, and the wrong words from a director or producer before or during can seriously derail it. Ultimately it will lead to a worse score.
We’ll have two or three of these meetings before I start to orchestrate anything. So, it’s a working, comfortable process of give an take and familiarizing each other, and trying to, at least for me, trying to discover what that film, and only that film should sound like. ~ John Williams
On Mockups and Live Recordings
After spending the last year and a half composing film scores, and recording cues with studio musicians, what has become painfully obvious is the importance of recording with live musicians. Certainly there are amazing mockup artists that can create very convincing orchestral cues from completely inside the box, but its never quite the same.
In our work, the orchestra or the musical performance is more important than the usual electronic assemblage of tracks built up, so that we capture a moment of expression with the orchestra, like you would in a theater or a concert.
Now it’s clear he doesn’t do mockups like most composers do nowadays. His point is not really about the mockup versus live debate. It is about the performance. A great performance of good music can equal a great score. A bad performance of good music can equal a bad score. When you record with live players, you get the benefit of each player’s experience – poured into every note. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your music is so ground breaking that it requires some new form of interpretation. Chances are, they’ve played the music of a composer that you were influenced by. And they’ve done it a lot… with amazing conductors. You want that experience in your music.
I remember recording a relatively simple cue, with a string trio, clarinet, and bass clarinet. There isn’t a lot of movement, but each note sings. Especially in the first violin. It wouldn’t even be possible to do this with the best sample libraries – they just don’t have the living quality.
Just listen to the violin at 42 seconds. He plays the same note a few times in a row, but each time, its a little different, as if they are the most important notes in the history of music… or at least in the piece.
Other Interesting Quotes
On variety in film music, and releasing your score to the wild:
What is wonderful about film making in the way that I’ve had the opportunity to do it, is the fact that the distance musically between Schindler’s List and Superman is a universe, and it’s not hard to stay fresh. It would be if you did six comedies in a row, or six space films in a row. For me at least, as a composer, there’s a journalistic element in writing for film in that we write the score, and print it, and record it, and it’s released. It would be as though you’re writing for the New York Times, it’s published a week later, you look out and you think, my God, the prose could be better if I’d had another week. And always, in retrospect, we look back and think we will improve things and we hope we do. The beauty of work is, every new opportunity that we have, gives us a chance to keep improving and keep learning. ~ John Williams
On dreams and making a career:
People have great ambitions, I guess all of us, to design a spaceship, or to become a president or a senator, and there is so much disappointment, you know, so few people can ever really achieve what there dreams are. I’m sometimes suspicious of these great goals that we have in mind for ourselves, because we can get tripped up and become disappointed, and cynical, and depressed about it all. Few of us can design spaceships, or become presidents, or become Steven Spielberg. It may be better to get outside of ourselves, and confront with joy, and pleasure, and a sense of opportunity, every little simple task we’re given. Rather than to try to do the big task. Rather than to try to shoot Gone With the Wind, but do a postcard and grow from there. Even though our eye is on the Gone With The Wind, maybe where it shouldn’t be. Maybe that should be the result of a path that leads to a goal. ~ John Williams
This one is bitter medicine, but its true. You need to focus on enjoying the process and not so much on an end state. Sure its okay to dream occasionally, but your life shouldn’t be built around a dream. Instead build it around something you are interested in, and can find new angles on throughout your life. Dare I say… something you are passionate about.
(The passion word is thrown around a lot these days, and people seem to be averse to it. I still think it’s appropriate. But you also have to realize, every job eventually becomes work. The difference between those who make it and those who don’t, is their ability to do what most people won’t do… get their hands dirty with hard work.)
Just remember to learn your craft. Even before you start to think of yourself as an artist, learn your craft. Because you really shouldn’t think of yourself as an artist. You should let other people think of you as an artist. And you just need, when somebody comes to you with an opportunity, giving you a shot, you’ve got to be able to take that opportunity and be able to give them something that they’re expecting from you, which is a basic knowledge of the craft of putting together a story. ~ Steven Spielberg
Overall, I am always impressed with both John Williams and Steven Spielberg when they speak. They come off as genuinely good people. I don’t know either of them personally, but I am always struck by the gentleness with which they speak.
Always take the time to learn from those that have come before you – especially if they are the top of their field, and apparently… just good people.