Composers add new dimension to documentaries
January 17, 2013
In late October, the Sundance Film Festival seems light years away. But among the falling leaves and hints of winter at the base of Mt. Timpanogos there is an intense bustle along the pathways at Sundance Resort where an intimate group of filmmakers and composers are experimenting with new projects.
They have been invited by the Sundance institute to participate in an intensive Composers + Documentary Lab where they will work one-on-one with a composer enlisted by the Institute
In addition to experimenting with a musical score, the directors receive feedback on their films receive advice on their works-in-progress from some of the top veteran filmmakers in the country. And, of course, they have lots of opportunities throughout the week to learn from each other, to network and soak up the Sundance ethos.
Nestled among the pines in a shire-like collection of guest cabins at the resort, Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa from Delhi, India are working with Ed Barguiarena, an accomplished composer from Los Angeles. They are one of four pairs matched up by the Institute and they have been wrestling with Version 3 of a possible underscore for the opening scene of Kakkar and Mustafa’s film "Powerless," a narrative about the struggle to provide electricity in a waning industrial town in India.
There has been a breakthrough. Barguiarena has incorporated the wail of the factory’s shift whistle into a haunting chord that conveys a sense of haunting desperation. They have been using just a snippet of the film and a minute of music, but there is a sense that they have found a tone that taps into the core of the film’s story.
That is exactly what Peter Golub, Director of the Sundance Film Music Program and Cara Mertes, Director the Sundance Documentary Film Program were hoping would happen when they sent out the invitations to the lab.
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According to Golub who has been working with Sundance for more than a decade, "We started with the feature film lab but a couple of years later we saw there was an opportunity to extend that mission into documentaries. I think something changed in the kind of documentaries that were being made that seemed to want music in a way that maybe a previous generation of docs didn’t."
Mertes, who has helped to nurture Sundance’s growing support for documentary filmmakers all over the world, concurs.
"Documentary filmmakers have become more sophisticated in the way they tell a story and as they become more familiar with the possibility of using original music designed for their film they are adapting to that. In fact, they are extremely hungry for it because it is one of the things that makes a film cinematic," she said.
According to Mertes, Sundance’s effort to teach documentary filmmakers about working with composers is unique. "The fact that Sundance has a film/composer lab devoted just to nonfiction story telling is unique in the world."
In another cabin Berit Madsen, a documentary filmmaker from Denmark is experimenting with a soundtrack for a new project tentatively titled "Break of Dawn." The film revolves around a young Iranian girl who hopes to buck the limitations of her culture to become an astronaut. She and Damian Montano, a composer and performing musician from Los Angeles are huddled over a computer screen and a keyboard.
"I arrived late at night in the dark and woke up to the mountains. It is the most fantastic time for working," she said. Madsen and Montano are zeroing in on an orchestral-sounding score. "We decided it would be more universal," Montano explains.
Later in the afternoon, the filmmakers and composers gather in Sundance’s screening room, an intimate theater that serves as one of the busy venues during the Sundance Film Festival. There, the Emmy-award winning composer Miriam Cutler is conducting a seminar-like lecture about her work on the film "Ethel," a documentary about the Kennedy family that won accolades at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Scene by scene Cutler describes the challenges and rewards of composing music for a documentary.
"Nothing makes me more excited than talking to people who are excited about documentaries.," she said, adding "When I am working on a documentary I am creating an emotional storyline."
Mertes, who sees documentaries evolving and gaining new audiences by incorporating all of the tools that dramatic films already use, would agree.
Teaching documentary filmmakers how to communicate with composers gives them a powerful new tool for telling their stories. Music, Mertes says, "brings life and breath to a film. It makes it poetic, gives it a heartbeat that it wouldn’t have without that."