Andrew Hollander (who also works with Jeff Slutz and Francis Garcia at Sugarbox) kicks it at his studio.
Photo: Glenn Maida
I was always interested in film music. I loved the idea that you could help to create this whole world that is unique to a particular movie. Having played in bands, studied orchestration/arranging and written a lot of different kinds of music, film is a great medium for me. Every film requires something different. It keeps me on my toes. The only advice I have is, only do this if you really want to — if you have a real curiosity of how music works in film. Also, be sure you love to collaborate because scoring films is all about collaboration.
I started Sugarbox (www.sugarboxstudios.com) about two years ago because I wanted to have a studio set up in a way that made it easy for me to do what I do. Oftentimes when I'm writing, I like to record my ideas right away — not just a mock-up of what I'm envisioning, but bringing in musicians and recording. Having my own studio with the gear I like, the instruments that I need, the drums and the piano always miked up and ready to go, and a great staff including an engineer, recording coordinator, etc., enables me to have a lot of creative freedom.
What's the general process for a film project?
The budget is established before you start working, so you know exactly what you have to work with. I have a conversation with the director about what his or her vision is. Then we'll spot the film, decide where the music should be and talk about some basic thematic ideas. Spotting the film simply means sitting down with the director (and sometimes the editor and/or music supervisor), watching a cut of the film and deciding what music will go where. That includes discussing which scenes will be scored, which might have a song and getting an idea of what the music needs to accomplish in each scene.
From there, I'll compose with basic instrumentation in mind that may or may not change as I write. At various points during the process, I'll bring in musicians to play on different cues and then, once the entire score is composed, I'll generally set up a few bigger recording sessions to record the bulk of the score. Oftentimes, a handful of cues are recorded along the way, as well. I use different musicians for different scores. It all depends on what kind of vibe I need on any given project.
My day-to-day schedule is generally writing and recording sketches. I'll then play those sketches for the director every few days, get feedback, revise certain pieces, compose new cues, etc. This goes on for about four to eight weeks. Then once the entire score is composed, I'll often collaborate with an orchestrator — if it's an orchestral score — to prepare and further refine the music for the orchestra. If it's not an orchestral score, I tend to record a lot of pieces throughout the writing process, bringing in musicians along the way. I'll also have detailed discussions with my engineer/mixer about the kind of sound I want. Sometimes it's a small, intimate sound; other times it's a bigger cinematic sound; and sometimes it's about creating things sonically that are more left of center and require more experimentation in the studio.
How do you work to satisfy the producer, director and other parties involved with a film project?
Communication. Generally, you're working with the director, but oftentimes a producer will weigh in on certain things. It's good to know who is part of that process and try to get a sense of what everyone is envisioning. If it seems that the director and producers want different things, it's best to try to resolve that early on. There are times when they're not on the same page, and you have to be as diplomatic as possible and listen to what everyone is saying.
There was a film I was working on several years ago where the director had a very clear vision and the producers had a very different vision. One was very stripped down, and the other was a more traditional film score. Once I got everyone's input (there were about six people weighing in), I realized that the ideas weren't mutually exclusive. I found a way to compose a score that, at its core, was very spare, but then augmented it with a string orchestra in a way that felt right to me and to the director and to the producers. It all worked out very well.
How'd you get your foot in the door as a film composer, and how do you handle project offers now?
I got my first film-scoring job through an actress friend of mine from college. She introduced me to the director of a film she'd just starred in, and we hit it off and he hired me. I got my first agent at ICM through a music-producer friend who was kind enough to introduce me to his agent. I guess it sounds kind of obvious, but if you're trying to get your foot in the door as a film composer, the best thing you can do is meet directors and offer to work on their films.
When I started, filmmakers would usually say, “This is how much we have for the score,” and I'd say, “Great, I'll do it.” Now I have an agent that handles the negotiations and works out the fees and recording budgets.
How do you coordinate with music supervisors?
Some music supervisors just deal with licensing songs and have little interaction with the composer. Others are very hands-on. I love when music supervisors are really involved because I like to have a real connection with all of the music in the film. And there are really amazing things that music supervisors can help coordinate. For instance, there was a film I did a few years ago where the music supervisor called David Johansen [of the New York Dolls] and asked if he'd sing a song the director and I wrote for the film. He was totally into it, came to the studio the next week and we cut it. It was totally fun, and it was the supervisor who came up with the idea and coordinated the whole thing.
What mistakes do people make in this industry?
Don't try to be all things to every director or producer you meet. Be honest with people about what you do and what you don't do. And trust your instincts, both musically and on the business side of things. If something doesn't feel right to you, it probably isn't.