What I learned working with my film composer Kieran Kiely

Nov 17, 2019

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I have a confession – I’m not a musical person. I don’t listen to music when I work. I’m not the guy who can rattle off the names of different bands and musical genres. But when it comes to movies, even I know that music can make or break a film. The problem is that as a filmmaker, working with a composer is a bit of a dance. If you’ve never had the pleasure of having a film that needs an original score, it will be hard to relate to the struggle that most filmmakers go through in trying to articulate what they want. In fact, oftentimes filmmakers don’t even know what they want in terms of music. With all this in mind, I thought I’d write a blog post about what I’ve learned from my experience with past composers and what my latest collaboration was like. 

My last feature film, Immortal, was scored by the incredibly talented Kieran Kiely. Initially when we wanted to score the film all of us were at a bit of a loss as to how to find the right composer. Believe it or not, what we ended up doing was putting posts up on all different kinds of filmmaker forums and other places around the web and asked people who were interested to submit their samples. We got over 400 submissions from different composers all over the world. We were able to narrow down the portfolios to a few dozen but the issue we were facing was that Immortal is an anthology directed by four directors who all had slightly different approaches. 

In order to get us to make a cohesive film we decided that there would be one writer, one main editor, one cinematographer, and one composer. But when it came to selecting a composer we found ourselves butting heads a bit. What we ended up doing as asking the final composers to create a sample cue and Kieran was by far the best and blew us away. That amazement didn’t stop throughout the entire process of working with him in post-production. 

What I brought to the table

This was my second feature film. My first composer really taught me how to spot a film. How to feel where music should come in and when the film needs to be silent. It was a bit of a learning curve for me but it has proven invaluable as a filmmaker and I can’t thank him enough for showing me the proper way to cue a film. With that knowledge in hand, I was able to help all the filmmakers and make suggestions as to where the music should come in and go out. Luckily we all pretty much saw eye to eye on cues so we were able to create a spreadsheet with timecodes for Kieran to work with.

Where I realized I fell way short

I didn’t know it going in, but I wasn’t nearly specific enough for Kieran or any composer really. I had a couple of references for the sample cue he made but when it came to scoring the actual film I left a lot of it up to him without giving him much direction at all. That’s great if you’re not picky and don’t have a vision in your head and you’re looking to the composer to really bring to the table their vision of the film, but most filmmakers are not like that. Even if most filmmakers don’t know what they like, they will still know what they don’t like. 

What ended up happening was that Kieran sent me a couple of cues that were not quite in line with the vision I had for a particular scene. These were very polished, fully produced cues that clearly took a long time to think through and create and I felt embarrassed asking him to take it in another direction knowing that I had just cost him tons of time. 

It’s better to over-prepare

What Kieran taught me is that you really can’t give your composer enough in terms of planning. While giving exact timecodes with cues is great, it’s always better to give as much information on each cue as you can so that the composer knows what it is you’re trying to go for. In the future. I think the way I’m going to approach it moving forward is to have additional columns on my spreadsheet. One will have the timecode in, one will have timecode out and then in another column it will be the mood of the scene, and it yet a fourth column I think I’ll be putting actual samples of other scores or songs that have the right feel. That’s the bare minimum I think I would provide for a composer moving forward.

Kieran’s other suggestion

One thing that’s not in those columns that Kieran suggested for me that was quite useful was also providing an emotional breakdown of the scene for the composer. Write up a short blurb on what the character is feeling in the scene, how the music should echo or provide contrast to that emotion and if there’s an arc within the scene to consider. Again, the more detail the better. This may sound like a lot of work, but on a feature film how many cues are you really going to need? Let’s say you have a music-heavy feature with 40 cues for a 90-minute piece (which is kind of unheard of but I’m trying to look at the most cumbersome example). If you were to write up 2 paragraphs on each scene to give the composer direction that would come out to 80 paragraphs. If you know your movie well that might take you a day or two at most and the amount of time you’ll save in scoring as a result of providing such great information for your composer is going to be well worth it. 

Using Temp Tracks

Not every composer likes having temp tracks in a film so consult your composer if it’s something he or she is comfortable with but when I was at a loss as to how to describe the music I was looking for I found that a sample cue was a great way to get the point across. Luckily for me, Kieran already had his musical themes and motifs well established for our film so giving him a sample cue didn’t really hinder his creativity at all – it was just a useful guide on tone. Knowing more about Kieran now that I’ve worked with him I have a feeling that he figures out his themes before he does any scoring so my gut tells me he’s the kind of composer that would never be hindered by using temp tracks but some composers don’t work like that and do like seeing the movie without music – or what I call dry. 

Your work is never done

Working with Kieran on immortal was yet another lesson in preparedness. There are filmmakers out there who are able to show up on set without a plan and still make magic but I’ve found that the older I get the more I’ve realized I’m not really one of those filmmakers and I’m starting to appreciate that style of filmmaking less and less as an audience. Ironically, I’m enjoying it less and less in music too. 

I went to a Jazz concert recently with my brother who is a jazz musician himself and was in total shock to see him enthralled by the improvisational jazz whereas I found it kind of insulting. Instead of being inspired by the spur of the moment emotion I just felt like the performers didn’t care about their audience enough to prepare and put together a cohesive show. I felt cheated like they were performing for themselves instead of for us as an audience and now when I look back at mumblecore films and some of John Cassavetes’s work I kind of feel the same thing. It’s strange because when the emotion hits in experimental Jazz or emotionally raw improvised films it hits big but I guess I’m just getting too old to be able to sift through the rest of the rawness of those art styles to comb through it for the gems.   

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