What comes first, the music or the film?
When the singer and songwriter behind the Sundance Film "The Go-Getter," M. Ward, plucked his guitar and belted his folky blues lyrics in his deep voice, a field of quiet filmmakers stood elbow to elbow intoxicated. This was Sunday night at the Sundance House at the Kimball Arts Center, and for the moment, the superstars of film allowed the oft-sung, seldom-seen half of moviemaking take the spotlight.
The musicians behind the Sundance Festival films "Once," Marketa Irglova, and "The Ten," Craig Wedren, also took to the stage that night. Occasionally, a performer would invite a director to sing accompaniment or strum some strings, but this night the focus was on the sound-makers of film, some of whom played songs that might have inspired a scene or two others played songs that were inspired by the scenes. When it comes to sound-makers and image-makers, it appears the influence is reciprocal.
The task of musicians in film is to fill the space between — the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters. When composers talk about scores and soundtracks, they often end up talking about the emotions behind the film.
"It’s a really understated score it’s about the quiet desperation or the quiet redemption," score composer Michael A. Levine says when describing his score for the 2007 Sundance film, "Adrift in Manhattan."
Levine, who composes the soundtrack for the series "Cold Case," created the score for his first film at Sundance 10 years ago for a short called "Cupidity."
After seeing a fairly polished "rough-cut" of "Adrift in Manhattan," Levine says the work came easy because of the expert editing and directing he had seen already, and turned out a score in a matter of three weeks.
"It’s about three characters adrift and each one has a kind of spiritual crisis, but what I loved about the film, is that it’s intimate and emotional without being melodramatic," he explained. "So the music is subtle the emotion is not explicit, as much as it is implicit in the music."
Levine explains the composer’s task is to provide the "third dimension" missing from the "two-dimensional" medium of film.
"In film, you’re watching people do stuff and talk and that can make it emotionally detached if it’s not handled well and one of the ways that music functions really well in film is it gives you a kind of emotional and spiritual dimension that you can’t achieve any other way," he said.
Film scores are only as strong as a film’s moving image, however. A score is bound to fail when the film fails, and succeed when the film succeeds, according to Levine.
"I think usually the worst situation for a composer to be in is when there’s something not working either in the performance or the script or some other aspect of the film, and the director says let’s have the composer fix this up," he says. "The reality is that you can only make a sow’s ear into a silk thumb-warmer — you can’t really make it into a silk purse Fortunately, I didn’t have that problem on this film."
Jeff Beal, composer for the television series "Ugly Betty" and "Monk" (for which he won an Emmy Award for his theme song), says that music has a slightly heightened role to play in documentaries than in series. When composing the score for the Sundance documentary feature "Protagonist," he based his work on a lot of the music he created for the HBO dramatic series, "Rome" and his work on the Ed Harris film, "Pollock."
"A lot of documentary filmmakers are expanding their notion of what a musical score can be, and audiences are willing to accept something more involved and emotional in a documentary, which I’m finding fun," he confirms. "I feel in general, there’s a lot of creativity brewing in documentary filmmaking right now."
And "Protagonist," is no exception. A film about tragedy through the experiences of four lives, including the story of an ex-terrorist, director Jessica Yu employs puppetry to unite the stories with the plays of Euripides. Puppets enact the tragedies of the Greek playwright to unite the various narratives, and to underscore that connection. Yu asked Beal to provide a bridge between scenes, Beal says.
"The thing I love about the movie is that even though the stories on the surface are very different, the connections between them are fascinating and universal, and I think music is one way we use to connect the themes in these four distinct, very personal stories," he explained.
According to Levine, as he approaches the challenge of articulating emotion through instruments, it’s largely intuitive.
"Even though I went to music school and I’m classically trained, at the end of the day, music is very much a product of your subconscious and your instincts," he confesses. "The best analogy I have is that I used to play jazz, and I guess I kind of look at [composing] like playing in a band. I really look at the role of the music as trying to support what you’re seeing and feeling on screen."
For the score, Beal says he took a risk, "going for things that might be considered just on the edge of really being almost sentimental," using a string ensemble to portray the "heightened, fevered feeling" of obsession and tunnel-vision that the four protagonists evoke.
"Part of what makes it safer to take risks is that there’s just not as many people working on an independent film," he admits. "If you’re doing a studio movie, there are just more layers of people that have to approve your work."
"Chicago 10" composer Jeff Dana, likewise worked on one of this year’s more creative documentaries, writing music for animated as well as documented subjects.
"With [‘Chicago 10’ director] Brett Morgen’s film, it’s the more daring the better, which is a nice change," Dana says.
For many of his compositions, including the music for Morgen’s series "Nimrod Nation" and his 2003 Sundance film, "The Kid Stays in the Picture," Dana observes he works independently, and that coming to Sundance is a nice change of pace and a chance to interact with his peers.
"I don’t know many composers, because we’re always apart," he says. "It’s a funny job. There’s always only one of us on every film Film festivals are where we meet up."
Beal seconds his fellow score-maker.
"L.A. feels much more like a company town, whereas at Sundance, all the projects here have some very personal passion behind them," he concludes. "When I work in L.A., I’m actually very solitary a lot of the time I really relish being around like-minded people."
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