The Zen of Film Scoring: A Blank Canvas

Photo by  Dave Fancher

Photo by Dave Fancher

I'm currently knee-deep in scoring a feature-length independent film. I think it's about time I started telling you alllll about it. Read the whole series here.

Several years ago I was working at the most miserable office job I've ever had in my life. Despite this, or maybe because of it, I made friends with many people I still talk to today, often about how shitty that job was. It was actually a hell of a good bonding experience—kind of like our own version of 'Nam, but we only suffered emotional deaths—and proof that good things can come from awful situations. One such co-sufferer was a gentleman (I use that term loosely) named Brad who led a team with me. We spent many hours playfully insulting our freelancers and talking to each other about the things we actually cared about rather than the work we were doing. For me it was music and this idea for a webcomic I had. For him it was a movie he was writing. I made him promise to let me score the film when it was done, whenever that may be. He agreed for reasons I cannot explain.

Fast forward to sometime in 2014 when I get a Twitter message out of the blue: Hello Sir Evan. You still interested in scoring my film?

The Hate Begins

We met up and discussed the project, a movie he finished shooting called I Hate You, which was funded by a modest but successful Kickstarter campaign (I contributed about 20 bucks so I could have the scoring gig in the future). Brad mentioned he was following through on the promise he made to me in passing years before. I helpfully informed him he had no obligation to let me ruin his movie; I've scored some short films and commercials before, but I've never done anything remotely as large scale as a feature-length production. Hell, I never even took a single class in film scoring when I was in music school. Once again, Brad stubbornly ignored my incredibly helpful and sensible self-deprecation. "I have total confidence that you can pull this off," he replied.

Ugh. I hate when people say that.

That was about nine months ago. I've been working on the score, off and on, in my free time since December. At first the work was sporadic, then I stepped away from it for three or four months while I awaited the final cut. Now I'm diving in headfirst and working on it almost every day during my spare time in order to get it finished in the next couple months. I wanted to write a series of blog posts about my experience, partly because I've found the process interesting and partly because it has been consuming my life and I need a reason to occasionally take myself away from the work for a few precious moments. I mean, my obsession with the movie is even triggering my sleepwalking habit, a fact proven by small mementos I see in my room in the morning, such as the paper towel that was on my chair the other day. True story!

Narrowing From Infinity

For this first post, I'd like to talk about the very beginning of the scoring process. I first saw a rough cut of the film in December 2014. Brad and I sat down and talked about all the places he wanted music and generally what he was looking for out of each cue. I conveniently had a week off from work for the holidays, which I hoped to spend toiling away writing music. It turned out to be more of a week spent agonizing over what the hell I was going to do. This was the biggest creative project of my life, and I was responsible for doing the whole thing myself.

Getting started is often the hardest thing an artist has to do. Imagine staring at a blank canvas; it's both exciting and intimidating. It has the potential to be turned into anything you want it to be. But you also need to figure out what that anything is and start taking on what will likely be a very long road of hard work to get there. Sometimes a few restrictions are actually a good thing. When you know you're painting a still life of a bowl of fruit and not an abstract cubist portrait, you've narrowed the possibilities down from infinity to slightly less than infinity. When scoring a film, you are most likely going to have a general stylistic guideline to work within and possibly a vague idea of a sonic palette.

Still, while I had an inkling that I wouldn't be recording 60 minutes of thrash metal, the only real direction I got to start with was pretty much to do whatever the hell I wanted.

Ugh. I hate when people say that.

Stop Intimidating Yourself!

Just kidding about that last part. It's not that he didn't have a vision (quite the opposite in fact), it's that he didn't want to stifle my ideas before they even started. I looked at the 34 or so music cues I had to write. Some were a couple minutes long, some only 15 seconds. But they were all going to have to be unique pieces of music, and they were all going to have to be written, performed and recorded by me and me only. 

Jesus. That's a little intimidating.

Sometimes it's other people's confidence that gives us something flimsy-yet-still-real on which to build our own self-assurance. Brad thought I was up to the task (or at least he said so, he could have been terrified of the amateur tripe I might present him) so I had no choice but to get started. I picked up a guitar and started coming up with ideas for one of the main themes in the film. I knew if I could get the vibe for that scene right, the rest could be built from there. I just needed to begin.

I actually came up with something I liked rather quickly. I have no idea how or why, it just kind of happened. I recorded a rough version on my phone and emailed it to Brad. Then I put down the guitar and turned on a movie to take my mind off the daunting task ahead. It wasn't long after that I received a reply. It went something like this:

"F#$% YES."

OK, it's on. Time for the real work to begin.