Original underscore for independent feature film. Distributed by IFC Films. Vinyl and CD on Waxwork Records
Director Phil Tippett
“Want to check out this weird thing we’re working on?” was Phil Tippett’s initial pitch to me back in 2009 to see if I was interested in working on MAD GOD. I had met Phil through our mutual friend, filmmaker Alex Cox, while working on one of Alex’s films, and I soon realized that we had quite a bit in common in terms of our politics, and taste in art, music and films. I didn’t really know the scope of Phil’s work at the time, but I was familiar with his company TIPPETT STUDIO, a well regarded Bay Area visual-effects house. And surprisingly to me, Phil was familiar with a lot of my music, all the way back to my old band/film score-collective PRAY FOR RAIN.
One day Phil told me the story of how, while archiving film from some of his older projects, people at the studio had come across, and become enthralled with an old stop-motion short he’d started in the pre-CG 90’s, but never finished titled “MAD GOD”, and had volunteered to help him resurrect and complete the project. The first 9ish minute version I saw (although Phil remembers it as 3 minutes) was largely a study to see if the original film, he had shot on 35mm, could be cut together convincingly with newer digital stop-motion footage (it could), but even at that early stage MAD GOD had all the wonderfully insane and surreal qualities the finished film has today. It was a gorgeous and inspiring little piece with no dialogue – which meant lots of room for music! But the main reason I was keen to get involved was that Phil seemed eager and open to folding new ideas, the weirder the better, from anyone in the production team, into the MAD GOD experiment. A virtually unheard of quality for a director. Since there was no temp score I asked Phil what kind of music he had in mind and he just said “I dunno. Try stuff.” (I learned much later that this initial exercise was purely a test of my instincts). The film was short so I told him I’d try a few different directions and send demos of each as a way to triangulate on what worked for the film.
Once I had the video in my studio, I realized the piece, while chock full of meaty archetypal imagery, presented zero traditional cinematic points of reference to bite into and get started with. It felt dystopic, but not conventionally dark or scary. Drama and portent, and even humor was implied, but the narrative was wide open for the guessing. With no clear points of entry I decided to just do as Phil suggested and “try stuff”. The first pass was an awkward, rough sketch. Despite there being a lot of activity on the screen in places, I kept the initial ideas sparse, and ambient – I think with the intention of going back and filling in the spaces later. At this stage there wasn’t a sound designer for the project, and it wasn’t clear there would ever be one, so the demo included various, sort of, “musical sound-effects” created with musical instruments and synthesizers that stood in for sound design. Much of it placed in there just so I had sound to work to – I find it weird and lonely to try and write music to scenes that have no production-sound at all (being a stop-mo project there was none, of course). Creating the initial sketch gave me some specific ideas for the other two demos I was going to send, but thought it might be a good idea to test the waters with this initial outline to see if it was anywhere near what Phil wanted. As semi-presentable as it was I sent over the demo with a clear proviso that it really was just a rough sketch and that I’d be sending another pass soon. However, it wasn’t but a few hours later that Phil called and said “you nailed it”. “Thanks” I said, “but that was just a crappy preliminary sketch. I have another idea that’s going to be really great”. “No.” he insisted, “This is it’’. ….And that was it.
“MAD GOD is, by design, meant to invite the viewer to find their own dots to connect”
I managed to get Phil to agree to listen to the other demos I was 100% intending to send, but I got sucked into another project, and then another. A month or so later when I went back and listened to what I did, I thought “Hey, this is it”. As the film expanded I recalled and reapplied the same shoot-first-aim-later approach that worked so well for the demo to almost the entire scoring process. Of course with most films, the score plays a specific role to help cue the audience into the intentions of the filmmaker by using vernacular musical devices. But MAD GOD is, by design, meant to invite the viewer to find their own dots to connect, and extract their own meaning from the piece. Traditional musical devices could only inhibit that participation, so I steered away from ideas that leveraged those formulas overtly. I guess as an attempt to make sense of MAD GOD’s madness, the film is often lazily assigned to the Horror genre in the minds of some, but at no point did it occur to me or to anyone involved with the creation of MAD GOD, particularly Phil, to approach it as any type of genre-film. Any musical ideas that conspicuously suggested a particular genre wouldn’t have even made it out of the gate as I was writing the music. I didn’t always know what the score for MAD GOD should be exactly, but I always had a sense of what it shouldn’t be.
This isn’t to say the score for MAD GOD is without conventional musical approaches. There are themes and through-lines and the music does just what movie music is supposed to do in places, but most of the score is, simply put: a holistic response to the picture. This is exactly the approach I normally try to avoid with other films. I’m sure they teach on day-one of film score school (I imagine. I never went to film score school) to play to the subtext of the film, not necessarily to what’s on the screen. But MAD GOD even rejects formal subtext. Playing directly to my take on a subtext would make no sense, so…I responded. However, I learned almost immediately that the ink blots I was seeing in MAD GOD were entirely different than what others saw. At early screenings, I noticed people being completely freaked out by, and sometimes fleeing the theater during scenes I found beautiful and whimsical. On day-two of film score school, I bet they teach about counterpoint, the idea of juxtaposing the music with the image to enhance a scene. The score for MAD GOD stumbles into that category more often than not for most viewers I suspect.
“At early screenings, I noticed people being completely freaked out by, and
sometimes fleeing the theater during scenes I found beautiful and whimsical”
I’ve been asked what kind of direction Phil gave. As I’ve alluded to, the answer is: Vague. Big-picture almost exclusively. I learned early that Phil’s style of directing is to stay out of the way of the creatives he’s chosen and trusts. He deliberately set up an environment, a framework that allowed for, and almost demanded maximum creative expansion from everyone involved. For whatever reason, that first demo earned me access to that framework. I remember once Phil gently shushing someone from the production when they tried to voice a small suggestion about what the music for one of the scenes could be, saying, “No direction”.
During the first year or so after I signed on it became clear that MAD GOD would need a proper theatrical audio mix, rather than just my “score-effects”. Bay Area sound designer Richard Beggs (Apocalypse Now, Lost In Translation, Harry Potter, and on and on…look him up), who Phil and I knew from working on Alex Cox’s films (him again!), agreed to have a look at the rough cut, and with little hesitation said flatly, “I’m interested”. It should be pointed out that MAD GOD was always sort of a side-project-of-love for everyone involved. No one was expecting to be paid, so it was a wonderful surprise when Richard agreed to do the sound. The technical knowledge and experience he brings to a film is invaluable, but it’s his unique conceptual slant on the role that sound design plays in Film that makes him an artist in the formal sense of the word – and also a perfect fit for MAD GOD it turned out. Richard’s sound design on MAD GOD is absolutely inspired. A masterpiece within a masterpiece it could be said. Not for one second during the long process of making MAD GOD did I take for granted, or not appreciate what a gift it was to be collaborating with these two luminaries of their respective fields.
I’d had the pleasure of working with Richard on several projects before this, those experiences being among the best I’ve had working on films. However, when Richard started in I wasn’t sure if the atmospheric, sound-designy approach staked out by the music at that stage would annoy him or get in his way, but it did neither. He welcomed it and encouraged me to do more, influencing the rest of the score considerably. I ended up working more closely with Richard on MAD GOD than I ever had with a sound designer. On most films it isn’t practical for the composer to work to anything resembling the finished sound effects track – leaving both sound designer and composer to guess at what one another are up to until very late in the process. But Richard allowed me generous access to hear what he was doing as things developed. This sort of back-and-forth affected the music directly. We routinely discussed ways to work together to enhance the piece and/or things we could do to stay out of each other’s way sonically. Given Phil’s hands-off style Richard often ended up hearing and incorporating the score into the mix long before Phil heard it.
“So protracted was the scoring process that not only did my aesthetic as a composer (and a human) evolve, so too did the tools. The synthesizers, workstations and other music tech the score was organized around changed considerably over the span”
There were lots of reasons why MAD GOD took so glacially long to complete (30+ years for Phil. 12 for me). The biggest chunk of time being the period when Phil set the project aside before the TIPPETT STUDIO people exhumed it. Then, as I mentioned, it was mostly a side project worked on in between everyone’s “day jobs”. It was also, of course, mainly a stop-motion project of incredible detail and craftsmanship, which had obvious built-in time constraints. But from the time I was around the main hold ups, if you want to call them that, seemed to be that each time the film neared completion Phil’s brain would gush another deluge of ideas – ideas we were always excited to run with. That first MAD GOD study I did demos for actually started, ended and had an arc, albeit a much shorter one, very much like the finished film, but Phil’s imagination kept manufacturing fresh, moist, wonderfully deranged schemes to “open up” the film, as he put it (essentially inserting scenes into the timeline, as opposed to extending it). With a talented and inspired crew on board Phil was free to expand the piece, and expand it more. As time consuming as the changes were, each one brought MAD GOD closer to the vision Phil had started out to realize in the early 90’s.
This ever lengthening, moving-target format had its own set of challenges for the music. It meant ripping apart and expanding cues I had composed, and that Phil had approved years earlier, that we had all become attached to, without losing their vibe. I also had to make sure that the established musical themes did their job of maintaining continuity without sounding repetitious once it was all done. As many may know, MAD GOD was first completed as chapters, being released every few years (I started the first chapter in 2009, the last, around 2019), so there would be years between working on scenes that would be only a few minutes apart once the chapters were strung together into the feature length version. Keeping a sense of the entire film’s score in my mind with such large breaks in the process required some vigilance.
So protracted was the scoring process that not only did my aesthetic as a composer (and a human) evolve, so too did the tools. The synthesizers, workstations and other music tech the score was organized around changed considerably over the span. A lot of the decisions I made in 09 I wouldn’t make today (2022). Fortunately, I must have been at least semi-aware of MAD GOD’s out-of-time quality when I started and didn’t employ too many of 2009’s trending film-scoring formulas or “cutting-edge” synth sounds* that would date the score. Towards the end of the process of completing MAD GOD there was a window of time where I could have gone back and updated the music with the latest sounds to de rigueur, but made a deliberate decision to let my choices over the years stand as a record-of-the-time. I made some late changes to the mixes, but mostly left any 09isms to fend for themselves.
“No one was sure how it would land with the outside world. It wasn’t until MAD GOD’s premiere at the Locarno Film Festival (Switzerland), did I realize that the film could very well be destined for a place in film history”
As lengthy as the process was I don’t think anyone wanted it to end. Phil said he was glad it was over, but I believe if MAD GOD hadn’t been accepted to film festivals, and subsequently found distribution, he would have just kept going and going, and all of us along with him.
Whereas I and everyone who poured themselves into the project are ecstatic and proud of the outcome, MAD GOD is not, to put it mildly, a normal film. No one was sure how it would land with the outside world. It wasn’t until it’s premiere at the Locarno Film Festival (Switzerland), did I realize that the film could very well be destined for a place in film history. In many ways I saw the film for the first time at that screening. There were still the requisite walk-outs even at the premiere, but something about seeing the film in that theater with a fresh, uninitiated audience made me recognize in a material way what a work of art Phil had created.
The response at Locarno and elsewhere was enormously, almost eerily positive. The wave of recognition visibly fazed the mostly unfazeable Phil Tippett, and I again took notice of my incredible fortune of wandering into, and sustaining orbit around him and the MAD GOD team.
As validating as the response was, I can honestly say that even if the film had crashed and burned it wouldn’t have mattered to me one bit. MAD GOD is a rare work of artistic purity. An uncompromised outpouring of creativity directly from the heart and mind of a visionary. It’s the kind of experience a film composer can only dream about being involved with. The kind of experience I was after when I began composing music for film.
Liner-notes from the double-vinyl album package. Waxwork Records
Film-blogger Hubai Gergley asked me to submit entries for his film-music series blog called “SEVEN SCORES”, about (7) scores that I composed for. Here are those entries:
Sid & Nancy
Original underscore for Samuel Goldwyn Co. feature film.
Cast includes Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb. Producer Eric Fellner
Director Alex Cox
Director Alex Cox’s second feature film, Sid & Nancy, was the first non-student film I composed music for. I met Alex through my sister, Abbe Wool, who went to UCLA as a film student with Alex. Among the first things I learned about Alex was that he was a Spaghetti Western fanatic and had already written a book on the subject (“10,000 Ways to Die”). As I recall, he immediately started initiating me to the scores from those films. I was just out of high school and tunnel-visioned into punk music at that time so I was only vaguely aware of Ennio Morricone’s classic scores. Somehow Alex, who was also enamored with the punk scene, gave those scores context and relevance for me and I began collecting and admiring Morricone’s innovative approach to composing for film. However, even as Alex made his first film, Repo Man (score by The Plugz) it hadn’t occurred to me to write film music. I was playing in what would eventually become the band Pray for Rain and I was far more concerned with moving that project along than anything else. It wasn’t until my sister and Alex were green-lit to write the script for Sid & Nancy together that I thought it might be wise to try to get some music into a film. So based only the script Alex and Abbe wrote I created a set of instrumental demos on my 4-track recorder that I thought might work in various scenes in the film. Although the demos weren’t Western sounding in any way I did try to give them Morricone-esque orchestral haunting qualities. The script was like a dark, post-modern fairytale and that was how I wanted the music to sound. Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi and Morricone’s Western scores were the only film score soundtracks I owned. I was trying to get the music to set somewhere in between.
It’s important to note that Alex hated the band Pray for Rain at that time. We were much more of a pop band than punk band, and not his thing at all. I remember the same night I handed Alex the demos for Sid & Nancy he told me “you should quit Pray for Rain, man! …join a band like the Red Hot Chili Peppers” – who had recently become all the rage in LA. It’s also important to note that by the time I gave him the demos he and my sister were at the tail end of an epically acrimonious relationship, both professionally and romantically, and were barely speaking to one another (they’ve since forgiven and forgotten) so I didn’t think Alex would be all that open to my compositions. However, despite all that he loved them! So much so that he called me a few weeks later from England, where post-production was being done, and asked if I would bring Pray for Rain to London to score the film. Joe Strummer and The Pogues were also contributing music and the production company wanted everyone in the same city.
What Alex and the production company didn’t know was that there was no real need to bring the entire band. The demos were just me playing guitars and synths, but I was very much into the band-thing and saw this mainly as an opportunity to promote Pray for Rain. In fact, when our bass player turned out to be unavailable I insisted that my step-brother (Zander Schloss) come along to play bass despite there not being any bass on the demos. Somehow the company bought all this and the four of us went off to England with absolutely no clue as to how to write a film score. Because of the strong labor laws in England, when we got there we discovered that we were not even allowed to play the instruments on the recordings! A counter-part for each of us had been hired and they would be required to execute the performances to placate the musicians union in London. So there were now eight musicians in a very expensive English studio hired to redo what I had done by myself in my bedroom. When I say redo, that’s pretty much what the recording session was. From reading the script, I had composed pieces that I thought might fit the mood of specific scenes, but when they sent me a tape of the rough cut, all the music I wrote had been cut in, but switched around and placed into completely different scenes than I intended. Plus the editor had actually cut the picture to match my 4-track score demos (something that rarely occurs outside of music-video productions and/or when a hit song is used in a film). There was only one cue that needed to be extensively arranged to hit the action and the cuts. The rest were essentially hi-fi recreations of the demos [original Taxi to Heaven (falling garbage) cassette demo, original Burning Room/Off the Boat cassette demo]. In fact, the synths that my English counterpart brought to the session proved to be much too expensive sounding for some of the parts and we had to hunt down the same $50 Casio I used on the demo to get it to sound right.
Arguably, the most enduring image from this film is the slo-mo sequence with the silhouetted Sid and Nancy kissing as garbage cans fall and my strummy synth cue plays. It’s safe to say that piece of counter-point that editor David Martin had the foresight to cobble together started my career in creating music for film. Although the credit is getting uncomfortably old, I feel fortunate to have it. Looking back, I can’t honestly say I technically scored that film. It was as much Alex and David Martin’s ideas that made the music work, but it did give me a very good lesson on how images and music work together and how powerful they can be.
[So iconic was the slo-mo garbage scene that The Simpson’s chose to parody it in the 2008 Valentine’s Day episode (in the parody Homer is the one throwing the garbage down!). The parody includes a sound-alike of my composition that easily crosses the line into legally indefensible plagiarism (music does not fall under parody laws). It didn’t come to my attention until recently. It was very strange to see it! My reaction was equal parts flattery and “hey, F you!”. Since my legal team is not quite as sharp as FOX’s, I’ll have to live with just the flattery as compensation.]
The Simpsons “homage”
Original underscore for independent feature film, Roger Corman/BBC Films. Distributed by Microcinema Interntional. Cast includes Jaclyn Jonet, Ed Pansullo, Del Zamora, Sy Richardson. Producer. Jon Davidson
Director Alex Cox
Searchers 2.0 was an ultra low-budget film directed by Alex Cox in 2008 (released 2010). It was the tenth project I scored for him. Over the years Alex had become weary of the never-ending slog to find funding for his unique films and had put matters more into his own hands by developing a series of films that could be made for $200k or less. No one would get very rich making them, but this approach has enabled him to continue to make films he likes with very little outside financial help.
Although the box-office for Alex Cox films has always been uneven (even Repo Man and Sid & Nancy had been modest financial successes compared to mainstream movies) Alex has earned a reputation for creating artistically worthwhile projects and for being easy to work with. Because of this rep people are always happy to get on board his projects for much less money than they might get otherwise. All the key above-the-line people agreed to partially deferred salaries or profit-sharing in order to have the opportunity to contribute to the film. The sound designer, Richard Beggs, in particular is someone who is considered an A-Lister.
Richard was the sound designer on many classic and/or successful Hollywood films: Apocalypse Now, Rumble Fish, Harry Potter…..the list goes on and on and on. He had a role in the sound design for Alex’s first film, Repo Man, and they have remained friends since. One of the nicest things about composing for Alex’s films is that I’m able to work closely with Richard. With most films there are several people between the composer and the re-recording mixer (music editors, music mixers etc), especially on the films Richard is accustom to working on. But on Alex’s mini-budget films, it’s pretty much just me and Richard! I’ve done a little sound-design of my own and a lot of music engineering and Richard has an extensive background in film music so we’ve developed a comfortable relationship that makes the mixing process on Alex’s films fun and easy.
I learned early on working with Alex never to send him a demo that I wasn’t prepared to live with in the final film as-is. More than one time I’ve sent very rough demos that ended up in the final film because the subsequent “final” versions I created differed (often incrementally) from the demo in a way that Alex didn’t like. This isn’t all that uncommon. Once people make a creative decision they tend to move on to the next. It can be difficult to get them to revisit something they’ve already signed-off on. This isn’t so terrible nowadays but when I first started working with Alex, demos were created on cassette 4-track recorders. There are a couple of 4-track cues that ended up in Alex’s Straight to Hell that still bug me. With very few exceptions, Alex defers to me about how the music should work in a film. This is not to say he’s not involved or doesn’t care about the music. Music has always played a big role in his films, but how Alex works, not just with music, but with all the department-heads in his projects, is to let them do what they were hired to do. He’s very careful about whom he chooses to work with, but once that decision is made he gives them a lot of room. Only when I get it very wrong will he reject a cue. Since we’ve been at it so long, that’s very rare. I usually know exactly what he’s looking for even before we’ve spotted the film.
S2.0 takes place largely in Monument Valley, Utah. The two main characters are washed- up actors who spout endless half-baked film references throughout the film. So we decided that a highly referential Western score would work well – they are petty men with small ideas so the grandeur of an epic score would dwarf them further into insignificance. We had discussed referencing American Western scores, but since the climax of the film is an extended Leone-style standoff, an Italian-Western score seemed more compatible. Plus, neither Alex nor I care for American Western scores all that much and we love Morricone’s! Although it’s a comedy (though you may not be able to tell by my description), I kept the music as serious as I could. I didn’t want even a hint of levity. This earnest counter-point serves to make the absurdly self-absorbed characters even more ridiculous. Alex and I have always used the music as counter-point, but this score goes a step further than anything we’d done before in that regard.
One problem was that I would have to rely on technology to deliver the grand orchestral parts. I was able to pull this off by spending the small amount of money there was for the music on live players to sweeten the parts I recorded using an orchestral synth library. The combo of the two came out well. With only six live orchestral players (strings, horn and woodwind) I was able to create something that sounds pretty realistic, I think. I’m very happy with results.
There was only one time in the course of scoring this film that Alex didn’t immediately approve of what I did. The end title song was supposed to reference Spaghetti-Westerns just as the rest of the score did. If you’re familiar with those soundtracks you know that the end title songs from those films were often horrible! I imagine, then as now, the powers-that-be would want a song that would help them sell the soundtrack album so they’d ask the composer to write a pop song with a vocal using the motifs from the film. Maybe it’s cultural, maybe they were trying to be funny, but whatever the reason, there is often a song that outright sucks at the end of many classic Italian-Westerns. I never liked those songs, so for the end title of S2.0 I had the radical idea to go off script slightly and create a song that did NOT suck for the end title.
Despite Alex’s reluctance (to not suck), I managed to create a pop song that quoted the score that (if I may be so immodest) was actually good and that Alex really liked. The only problem was that I couldn’t find the right vocalist to pull it off. I demo-ed several people that were pretty good, but Alex wanted something “extreme” sounding, like the vocals on those kitschy old tracks. Everyone I tried was either too straight or too jokey sounding. Also, it was a very tough part to sing technically and required someone with wide vocal range. After about a week Richard (the sound designer) finally said, “Hey my niece is a singer. You should try her”. I thought, “uh oh, this could be turn out very badly. Despite his A-List cred, Richard might not be all that objective about his niece’s ability to sing this incredibly difficult part.” If it didn’t work out it could make working with him very awkward from then on. However, she turned out to be perfect! His niece, Vanessa Beggs, I soon found out is an extremely versatile fully-trained soprano who has an enormous range. She had literally graduated the day before the session from Mills College where she had earned a scholarship based on her unique vocal ability. She managed to deliver a completely earnest yet over-the-top Shirley Bassey-esque performance without a hint of irony. …that did not suck.
A scene from Searchers 2.0 that features my score
Car 54 Where Are You?
Original underscore for Orion Pictures feature film. Cast includes David Johanson, Fran Drescher and Rosie O’Donnell. Producer Robert H. Solo
Director Bill Fishman
Car 54 Where Are You? from Orion Pictures is the only Hollywood studio film I’ve ever been involved with. The movie was not well received critically, but it was an excellent experience for me – and the film has many worthwhile moments in it. The original script for the film was really good. The writer/director Bill Fishman had managed to take the original premise about dim-witted New York City cops and make it into a smart, political satire that commented on police corruption and graft.
However, the studio slowly imposed incremental changes as things progressed that brought the film back to being the broad comedy it became. Originally, I think Billy and the music supervisor, Sharon Boyle, wanted a score that was much rawer and underground than what the studio was looking for, but by the time I got involved it was clear they were looking for a score that sounded like what was currently on R&B Pop radio. I had been involved in a lot of music production by that time so I was able to put together a pretty strong reel that reflected those trends to get the job of scoring the movie. Not really an ideal situation as a composer, but it was a studio film and it did present some interesting challenges.
Most of this studio-wrestling occurred during production and didn’t effect post-production and the scoring process per se. That experience couldn’t have been better for me. Billy had mainly done music videos (plus the celebrated cult movie Tapeheads) and had extensive connections in the music industry. He managed to convince Bernie Worrell from Parliament Funkadelic to co-compose the score with Pray for Rain. I was of course a fan and really excited to get the opportunity to work with someone of his iconic stature – and a little nervous. I had a meeting with Bernie in LA and he turned out to be very low-key, humble and cool. However, I had developed specific ways of working and organizing film score projects and I still wasn’t sure how things would work with a bona fide star thrown into the mix. There was no way of knowing if we’d get along creatively, but everything ended up falling into place pretty easily. Whereas Bernie was a classically trained musical genius, who operated on a level far above that of most musicians, he was also a world-class sideman and studio musician who was equally comfortable in either roll. Since I had more experience with mechanics of film scoring, it quickly became apparent to both of us that I or one of the other members of Pray for Rain (Gary Brown, James Woody) would handle the musical structure and blocking of the cues, much of it R&B/beat-based, and Bernie would give the pieces the character and legitimacy with his signature Moog, Clavinet or B3. With Bernie Worrell on board we were able to convince Bay Area hip-hop legends Dan the Automator and rapper Paris to contribute to the score – they only agreed to do it if they could come to the studio to record so they could meet Bernie!
Another great thing about working on the Car 54 score was that, in addition to the R&B influenced tracks, it also called for a few orchestral cues as well. It was the first chance I’d ever had to work with an arranger (Barry Phillips) and live orchestral players. Again, Bernie’s classical background came in handy. It was only a nineteen-piece chamber orchestra, but it satiated the need all film composers have to have their scores performed live by an orchestra.
One of the most interesting, if not surreal, things about the process was that Bernie Worrell basically moved in with me in my apartment in San Francisco for the duration of the composing and recording process! Bernie was a charming charismatic man and an incredible musical talent. It was a real pleasure to work with him. I’ll always be grateful for the experience.
She Fought Alone
Original underscore and source composition for television Movie of the Week, NBC Productions. Cast includes Tiffani-Amber Theissen and Brain Austin Green. Producer Bonnie Raskin
Director Christopher Leitch
She Fought Alone was the first of several MOWs (Movie of the Week) I did throughout the nineties. Although I’d already composed for over a dozen feature films and an episodic television series, I may have learned more about the craft of scoring from composing for this project than I did from any project before that. I’d worked in broadcast television before on the FOX series Key West, but that was a unique experience in that the producers had complete confidence in my abilities and with very few exceptions gave me free rein week-to-week to deliver what I wanted.
SFA ended up being much harder than what I was used to and what I expected. I’m not sure I’d seen a TV movie since I was a kid and didn’t have all that much interest or respect for the “genre” as a viewer (still don’t, frankly). Since I was brought into the project by Key West producer Alan Marcil, I wrongly assumed I’d be given the same kind of room as I had on Key West. This however, was very different. This was for NBC and they took the genre very seriously. In fact, it was during this project that I learned that there were people who considered MOWs to be a distinct genre!
The script, written by the director Chris Leitch, was strong. It read like a heart-felt independent film. Not TV Movie-ish at all. It had the working-title of Scared By Love (it wasn’t until after I was done that the network slapped the much more TV Movie-ish title on it, much to the chagrin of many involved).
The indie-rock, guitar-based score they wanted was right up my alley, but the movie needed a ton of music and it needed it in just three weeks! A much faster turnaround than anything I’d done before. To complicate things further, there were extensive notes coming back on almost everything I composed. Nearly every cue I delivered was the subject of debate in LA and I had to redo many cues more than once. The director and producers, Alan and Bonnie Raskin seemed to be happy enough with what I was sending, but the picture editor, John Duffy, definitely was not, and said so in extremely blunt terms to everyone who’d listen. Me, the director, the producers, the network, his assistants all got to hear what a crappy cue I’d tried to pass off on them. I was sending what I thought was called for and what had been discussed, but John didn’t buy any of it. He wanted the score much more on-the-money than I did. I wanted to kill him. I hated his ideas. They seemed conventional and obvious to me, and nothing like what I was comfortable composing. Since it became apparent that the network and everyone else were deferring to him on many decisions and because time was so short, I finally gave up fighting and did just exactly what John said for each cue almost by rote.
As it turned out John was right. What I had been composing was fine for an art house indie film, but John was cognizant of what was needed for the MOW genre. He also knew from listening to my previous work that I wasn’t likely to compose something that completely sucked even if I tried, so he pushed me as hard as he could into delivering as conventional a score as I had in me. Until this project I had built my reputation as a composer on scores that relied on broad musical counter-point and irony, and not on milking the emotions in every beat, in every scene as is the norm in many conventional movies. But with SFA I learned that I can do both, if need be. By the end of the project I had an enormous sleep-debt, but also a score I was happy with and new respect for John Duffy. The network loved it. She Fought Alone ended up getting very high ratings and was extremely well received. I ended up with much more TV work because of it. The lessons that John force-fed me: to think within the scope of the project, and more importantly, that sometimes the score really does need to be conventional, helps me on every project I’ve scored since.
One side note: The director happened to be friends with Jerry Casale from the band Devo. I think Jerry was trying to be the music supervisor or something, and for whatever reason he showed up at the spotting session (in a three-piece suit I should add! You don’t see a lot people in LA dressed like this, especially in the entertainment industry. He looked like a stock broker). No one seemed to know why he was there, but he started making comments on each cue we went over. The temp score had a lot of current and classic music tracks, Neil Young, Nirvana etc., and with each one he would say things like “what we should do here is just take that song and rip it off! Do a sound-alike. Change one or two chords. Most people won’t know the difference between what we do and the Neil Young song, yet no one will be able to sue us”. Since he was Jerry Casale and I loved Devo, I didn’t say much. No one in the room did for the same reason. I just tried to be polite and say, “um well, let me see what I can come up with first before we start doing the sound-alikes”. We took a break for lunch and Jerry never came back. That was the last we saw of him. No one knew where he went or why he was there in the first place.
Death and the Compass
Original underscore for independent feature film, BBC Films. Cast includes Peter Boyle and Chris Eccleston. Producer Lorenzo O’Brien
Director Alex Cox
Death and the Compass was a unique project in that it was completed in two parts. Originally commissioned as a one-hour television drama for the BBC, the director Alex Cox wrote the screenplay (based on Jorge Luis Borges’s short story) with the hope of one day expanding it into a feature length film for theatrical release. So the one-hour version was completed in 1993 and then reconfigured and expanded six years later when additional funding was found.
This was the third feature I’d worked on for Alex. It was partially funded by Churubusco Studios in Mexico City. All the major production and post production for the film took place in Mexico. The score was composed and recorded in San Francisco, where I live, and subsequently brought to Mexico for the dub.
The film is set in a beautifully dystopic non-future. The main character is an over-thinking, absurdly spiritual detective (played by Peter Boyle) who attempts to track down his comic-book-like arch-nemesis (Christopher Eccleston). The look of the film is over-the-top and gorgeous, with heavy use of mattes, primary colors and deep shadows. Alex really wanted the score to help the film feel like it took place neither in the future nor the past and came up with the idea of doing an obviously period-80’s score ala Tangerine Dream (among others). At that time in the early 90’s the 80’s weren’t all that in focus yet so it wasn’t easy figure exactly how to do that, but it was an interesting idea that forced me to digest the sounds of that era while virtually still in it. The impressionistic results helped the film exist in a place outside of time. Alex also asked me to have a listen to the soundtrack for the William Friedkin film “To Live and Die in LA” by Wang Chung as a study for what might be appropriate for “Death and the Compass” (it’s a great film and a great score if you’ve never heard it). There are several Wang Chung-isms in the score and a lot of Tangerine Dream-like washes of ambient tension.
This was a fairly collaborative score compared to other efforts by Pray for Rain. James Woody and Gary Brown both were involved in several of the compositions. Jimmy was much more of a synth aficionado than I was and had lots of input and knowledge about how to access the sound and feel of those not-quite-yet classic 80’s tracks. Also, a lot of score was needed. Not only was the music nearly wall-to-wall, but we also ended up creating all the source music. Since the source music was often playing over/at the same time as the score, the running-time of the film is actually shorter than the running-time of the music. Unlike Sid and Nancy, where the rough cut was nearly completely scored with my own demos, the temp score for Death and the Compass had none of my music and consisted of completely off-the-mark cliché police drama cues. The editor, Carlos Puente, was a great picture-editor, but didn’t have the time or budget to do a proper temp score so he just used music that he had available at Churubusco, which was largely from Mexican police dramas. Having a really awful temp score that everyone hated, had an interesting effect. Pretty much everything I wrote was a major improvement! Usually the temp diminishes your chances of getting your own ideas into the film. Inevitably everyone wants the score to resemble the temp, but this truly rotten temp did me the favor of having the opposite effect.
About six years after the one-hour version was put to bed, Alex managed to get additional funding for the feature-length version. Every composer, when watching films they scored in the past, sees things they’d like to fix. This gave me the rare opportunity to do just that, but first I had to unearth the original score’s assets (computer files, mixes, spotting notes etc). When I finished the one-hour version, the feature-length expansion was only a vague possibility, so I didn’t really archive the project as well as I could have. This was before DAWs were able to effectively recall everything. Plus there was tape involved so much of work on the long-version was forensically recreating the original score in order to seamlessly knit in the new cues. Also, the original was delivered on two-track DAT and I wanted to deliver multiple stems for the final mix of the feature. This meant remixing everything.
The post-production resources at Churubusco for the one-hour version were beyond primitive. The film was edited on a Movie-ola (!) and the mix took place in what looked more like a broken down radio broadcast booth than a dub stage. There were literally packs of wild dogs that would roam around the studio lot. Alex taught me to keep rocks in my pocket for when they got too close. However, when we went back to do the long version something had happened. Someone had sunk a lot of money into the facility and everything was now totally state-of-the art. THX and Dolby-certified, SSL console, ProTools, non-linear video and a fully trained and knowledgeable staff. It was as nice, if not nicer, than anything I’d seen in LA or London. And, no dogs.
Original underscore for independent feature film, co-composed with Zander Schloss. Cast Includes Rebecca DeMornay, Vincent Donofrio, Frank Whaley.
Director Alex Cox
The Winner was the fourth feature film I’d worked on for Director Alex Cox. What distinguishes this score from the rest of my body of work is that this score was, over the directors strenuous objection, completely removed by the producers after I had completed it and re-scored by another composer. Having one’s score replaced is akin to being inducted to the Composers-Hall-of-Shame. It can be demoralizing and discouraging to have all you’re months of hard work tossed out – the ordeal took place years ago and the wounds have since healed. It now provides for a very interesting anecdote about how a score comes to fruition.
The following is an excerpt from an interview with me conducted by Hubai Gergely as research for his book “Torn Music”, that focuses on the rather common phenomena of entire film scores being rejected and redone. Inevitably it happens to most film score composers that are active in the business for any length of time, including all the greats. A fact that gave me great consolation when my own score was rejected (see “Seven Scores: Dan Wool – Trust Me”, where I discuss how I ended up on the other end of the equation by replacing a score by the great Elmer Bernstein). The interview provides details on the scoring processes for the film and the politics behind the score’s ultimate removal.
What were Alex’s instructions on the score (for The Winner)? How did you communicate?
Since Alex and I had worked together on several projects previously the lines of communication were open and clear. Alex’s basic MO is to pick the key people involved with his films very carefully and then stay out of their way to let them do their jobs. Ninety percent of his input on most films is given very early on, well before post production begins. In the case of The Winner, which was set in Las Vegas, the one thing Alex didn’t want was a score that played obviously to the scenery. The production design was so heavily laden with old Vegas sleaze that to have the score continue along those lines with a ‘lounge music’ soundtrack would have been redundant. A joke on a joke. Also, Alex hates Jazz, always has, and was adamant that the score not go in that direction no matter how loudly the locations asked for it. To Alex the only relevant “Vegas music” was done by Elvis Presley – which composer Zander Schloss brought to The Winner soundtrack along with other compositions. The original score for The Winner was carefully and deliberately designed to play to the characters and to the comically metaphysical sub-plot. In doing so we organically created counter-point to the visual that framed the natural vulgarity of Las Vegas.
You’ve described the score as “experimental”. What kind of unusual solutions did you use? Also, were there any guest performers?
Much of the original score was heavily synthetic and atmospheric. Extremely processed and over baked sonically. Tangerine Dream with a hangover. Atypical for a noir-y, Vegas-y film. The rest of the music was guitar based with both Zander and I often abusing the instrument to generate the desired tone. The guitar-based parts that did have melodic content we left as raw as possible. Nothing sounded remotely the way a Hollywood film, even an ‘indie’ would be scored. In no way did we attempt to cater to the norms of what the genre called for. While the score was hardly on the frontier of sonic innovation, it at least didn’t sound like any film we were aware of. Also, while scouting locations for the film Alex went to several casinos and was struck by the deafening maniacal din created by the slot machines and wondered if these sounds could be incorporated into the score and/or the sound design. While they were shooting in Las Vegas I visited the location and went around with a field recorder and captured an hour or so of various casino ambiances. The recordings were later sampled, chopped, filtered, mangled and used as plastic musical elements in the score. Much of the original score was either based on these samples or had them playing underneath as a sound design element.
There were some guest performers (Josh Freese, Matt Tecu, James Woody), but the vast majority of the score was performed by either Zander or myself. Rebecca DeMornay’s character had two on-screen performances that were written into the script that needed to be composed and recorded during pre-production for her to lip sync to during the shoot. Rebecca has an adequate singing voice so that process went smoothly as I recall.
The movie was heavily re-edited. Was the music replaced only because of the edits or did the producers deliberately want a different type of score?
Actually the picture edits were relatively minimal so none of the decision to replace the score was based on that – I should say that, although the edits were small they changed the film drastically. Most of the cuts were designed to minimize Frank Whaley’s darkly eccentric character, a character that Alex felt was pivotal to the film. Indeed, much of the timbre for the score was drawn from the chorus that Whaley’s character provided. There were some differences early on between Alex and the producers (Mark Damon and Rebecca DeMornay) on several points regarding the the direction of the film in general, and the direction of the music in specific. All the notes that they gave regarding the score were attempts to impose a more cinematically conventional approach to the music. Clearly they didn’t understand what we were trying to do. If they did they definitely didn’t like it!
Alex Cox described Daniel Licht’s replacement work as “porno music”. What’s your opinion on it?
Alex’s quote on the subject: “(the Pray for Rain score) was completely stripped out and replaced with fake jazz, of the kind producers buy by the yard for pornos.”
I didn’t think it was so bad. I probably would have never heard it except the director’s cut with the original score was accepted to a film festival. Through some mix up the festival ended up with tapes of both versions. Alex was out of the country and asked me to have a listen to make absolutely certain the right version went to the festival. I thought it was a fine score. Daniel Licht is a very capable composer. Much more so than me. However the music was exactly the opposite of what the director had envisioned – a faux noir Jazz-score that played to the location. Watching both versions of the film is a fairly good study on just how much influence a soundtrack has on the film viewing experience. I think even the layman film goer might agree the footprint the Licht score has on the film fundamentally changes the film and the statement that the director was trying to make. I’m sure Licht was underpaid, overworked and doing as his employer asked, but his score is utterly void of creativity. It is a very “proper” film score that flows nicely with the film and draws no attention to itself whatsoever. Also, Jazz scores were trendy at the time so even that choice (made by the producer no doubt) lacked original thought. The Pray for Rain score was composed deliberately, not only as counter-point to the story and locations as I’ve described, but also to prevent the film from being a redundant adjunct to the independent films that were the rage of that period in the 1990’s.
Some copies of the movie (in Japan) still retain your score. How did that come about?
Although they’re notoriously commercial as a society the Japanese retain a great deal of respect for the artist. Specifically the director. As I recall, since Alex was so vocal about his disapproval of the version that the producers were releasing the Japanese distributor asked if they could show the cut with the original edit and score as the director intended. Since Alex’s cut was fully delivered and in the can it was easy to create prints.
Original underscore for feature film, Cinecom/Virgin Pictures. Cast includes Adam Ant, Talia Balsam and David Packer
Director Bobby Houston
Pray for Rain’s third film score was for a low-budget film called Trust Me, directed by Bobby Houston. It was by far the most collaborative score we did as a “soundtrack-group”. Since I had composed all the music from our first two films we scored, I took the lead in spotting, producing and coordinating the score for Trust Me, but there were compositions in the score by all members of the group at that time (Gary Brown, Paul Trupin, James Woody and myself). We created demos at my home studio in San Francisco and then went to LA for ten days to record the score.
It wasn’t until we had been hired for the project that I found out the film had already been scored once before, and that the director had rejected the music. It isn’t all that uncommon for producers to reject a score and have it redone by a new composer, but this one happened to have been composed by Oscar-winning, film music luminary Elmer Bernstein! It wasn’t until years later, when one of my own scores was rejected (see Seven Scores: Dan Wool – The Winner) that I came to appreciate the effect this can have on a composer. I’m sure Elmer Bernstein was very confident in his ability as a composer. I doubt he had as much anxiety as I did about having his work tossed out, but that couldn’t have been his desired outcome.
The following is an excerpt from an interview with me conducted by Hubai Gergely as research for his book “Torn Music”, that focuses on the rather common phenomena of entire film scores being rejected and redone. In this excerpt I go into some detail about how Pray for Rain came to replace the great Elmer Bernstein’s original underscore for Trust Me.
Regarding the re-scoring of the film “Trust Me”, originally scored by Elmer Bernstein: How were you contacted to do the movie?
Victor Ratto, Pray for Rain’s manager at the time (Pray for Rain was primarily a band until the early 90s) was friends with the music supervisor, Peter Afterman. Since we only had two scores under our belt Victor was calling in a favor by asking Peter to give us a shot. We ended up doing demos of a scene or two that impressed the director (Bobby Houston) enough to give us the job.
What kind of instructions did you receive?
This is the only time in my career that I can recall where the type of score was was left entirely up to the composer. I think the demo was mostly a test of our instincts so we were given no instructions. They just wanted to see what we came up with. I think we thought it’d be fun to try something completely outside the pop genre that we were used to as a band so we chose to try a modern Jazz score. The main character of the film was sort of a slick pretentious modern art dealer so the choice to use a slick (pretentious) modern Jazz score seemed to make sense.
Have you heard Elmer’s score? If yes, what did it sound like?
No. I’m not even sure they told us initially that we were replacing a score. When the tapes showed up they still had Elmer Bernstein’s credit on it! I thought it was just a joke – a place-holder with Elmer Bernstein’s name being used as a generic composer-credit-goes-here slug. Trust Me was a very small film. It didn’t occur to me that Elmer Bernstein would actually have been involved. At some point while we were scoring we learned that the director didn’t care for Bernstein’s score and that was why it was being re-scored. It wasn’t until several years later that I happen to run into an engineer that worked on the original score, that I found out what had happened. He told me that Bernstein had composed the original score using a Theremin – an esoteric electronic instrument – as the main instrument and in fact he (the engineer) got the impression the only reason Bernstein agreed to score the film was so that he could experiment with the Theremin.
Why was the change necessary? Do you know of any drastic edits?
I don’t think there were any big changes to the picture. As I recall the the director had very little input on the original score. It was like “do you want Elmer Bernstein to score your film?” “Um, yes”. Who wouldn’t? But what happened, I suspect, was that they sent Elmer the tapes and he sent back the Theremin experiment.
How would you describe your own score?
There were a couple of guitar based, “pop-ballad” cues (it was the 80s), but mostly it was a “Jazz” score. The irony of course is that my own experimental score for Alex Cox’s The Winner was replaced with a Jazz score by another composer a few years later. It’s a fairly traumatic thing to happen to a composer really. When The Winner score got tossed I took comfort in the fact that even the great Elmer Bernstein had had scores rejected. Even Elmer must have felt a little hurt that his music had been swapped out. It’s just a part of the business. And not that surprising really. The last major creative element to be added to a film is always the music. It’s the last chance for anyone to have input.
There are reports of Bernstein’s score retained in some prints of the movie. Do you know anything about that?
I never heard that before. I hope so. Since Elmer Bernstein’s notoriety far outshines Pray for Rain’s, any of the actors’ in the film and the director’s combined I would think that score would be a very good selling point of any DVD rerelease. Even if it’s only for the soundtrack-philes.
Straight to Hell Returns
Liner notes from the updated reissue of the soundtrack to Alex Cox’s “STRAIGHT TO HELL”
It’s been many years but I recall it clearly: “No Dan, you can’t come to Almeria. Your job is to stay in San Francisco and compose the score”. After contributing music to Alex Cox’s first two feature films, Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, I tried to convince Alex how invaluable I’d be as an on-set composer for Straight to Hell, which was being shot in Spain on the very sets built for the Italian Westerns of old. He didn’t fall for it, and of course with a cast largely made up of rock stars and musicians (Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer, The Pogues, Zander Schloss, Cait O’Riordan, Courtney Love, Edward Tudor-Pole), by the time the film got back from the Spanish desert Pray for Rain’s work-load had been cut down substantially. But no complaints. Once I saw the list of the heavy-weights on the roster with whom I’d be splitting my residuals, I felt fortunate to have a job at all!
Either Alex got really lucky or he should be given a measure of credit for knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each of the mules on his composing team. One might expect whining, tension and chaos among the creatives in such an arrangement, but I can recollect no such grumbling and the surprisingly cohesive end result can now be heard in its entirety on this ‘official’ soundtrack cobbled from the respective archives of The Pogues and Pray for Rain, as well as from the original Straight to Hell soundtrack CD.
Of course any liner notes for the Straight to Hell soundtrack would be incomplete if they failed to acknowledge the man who wrote the bible on Italian-Western scores: Maestro Ennio Morricone. Whether they admit it or not, all modern film composers love to quote from that bible but Straight to Hell delivered the perfect excuse to play extensively with the toys Morricone used to transform film score as we know it today. In a strict sense the score for Straight to Hell often works in the opposite direction of the classic Leone-Morricone collaborations. While Morricone’s musical jokes and pop-music modernisms often play as counter-point to the austere grit of Sergio Leone’s version of the old-west, the earnest and careful homage from the collective composers of Straight to Hell serves to bring the anachronistic insanity of Cox’s anti-comedy into the realm of the surreal.
Pray for Rain – Soundtracks and Music Production
Standoff (aka Prairie Fire)
Director Andrew Chapman
Original underscore for feature film, TriStar Pictures . Cast includes Natasha Henstridge, Robert Sean Leonard, Keith Carradine
A very old score for a film I composed in the late 90s, with creative contributions and performances from my scoring partners of that era, Gary Brown and James Woody (aka Pray for Rain). PRAIRE FIRE (later changed to STANDOFF) is a solid independent action film directed by Andrew Chapman that never really saw the light of day. The score still holds together, as one of my favorite dramatic-scores that I worked on from those days.
Largely a guitar-score that amazingly, apart from some gratuitous wah-wahing, is nearly bereft of embarrassing 90sisms. I’m still happy with the choices and the deliberate soundscape-y, guitar-mangling approach. Though created entirely in my home studio, it was sort of an in-between-time technologically, before I had lots of virtual instruments, and before I recorded and mixed everything in-the-box – so lots of banging on things, throwing of objects at prepared guitars and other sonic experimentation (plenty o hardware samplers too).
The score was completed in 4ish sleepless weeks, save one short cue. “Quote-Unquote Love Scene” was composed and added for a scene shot and inserted after the film was supossedly in the can. In what can only be described as some quintessential, cliche Hollywood bullshit, at the last minute the studio suggested (demanded) that a lesbian love scene be added. Hottie of the moment Natasha Henstridge had a starring role in the film (she’s quite good in this playing a non-hottie) and, presumably, the studio wanted to leverage her sexy status. So even though it couldn’t have made less sense to the story, a flashback was concocted, a body double hired, and a cue was composed to address the studio’s suggestion. Of course this afterthought didn’t help the film’s box-office one bit. It only served to make everyone involved feel icky. ….and to make a disposable story for this bandcamp paragraph perhaps. Cheers, _dan wool