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Musical score can add up

Directors value role of composers in film’s success

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PARK CITY — A character exits the scene and something follows her. She arrives somewhere else and it precedes her.

That something will remain unseen throughout an entire film and yet will surround the characters and prove vital to the production's success.

That something is the film's musical score. And the directors and composers who took part in a Sundance Film Festival roundtable discussion Tuesday stressed the critical role music plays in the moviemaking process and the audience's experience.

"Producers think that they are experts on music," said George Hickenlooper, director of the Sundance offering "The Man from Elysian Fields."

"But ultimately, the composer is the most important person on a film, next to the DP (director of photography). I think the music should be there to serve the telling of the story."

Hickenlooper, who has di-rected more than a dozen projects, has settled into a comfortable working relationship with composer Anthony Marinelli — the first composer he has worked with more than once. Hickenlooper said good creative chemistry between a director and a composer is essential.

"Anthony had 10 pages of notes, single-spaced, and came with all these incredible ideas," Hickenlooper said of the first time they worked together. "It's great to find someone and build a relationship together because you grow together."

Marinelli said he often brings his piano to the set and will sometimes end up being in a film.

But close working relationships like that are not necessarily the norm.

Graeme Revell, composer for the Sundance entry "Human Nature" and films like "Titan A.E." and "Blow," said he had an interesting experience in submitting music to director Michael Mann for his 1999 film "The Insider."

"I was writing for four scenes, and I wasn't allowed to see any of the scenes or know anything about the characters," Revell said. "Three pieces got used. And not where I wrote them for. So there are many ways of doing things."

Jeff Danna, composer for "The Kid Stays in the Picture," said he was able to visit a farm where one scene was to be filmed. He stayed for several hours before going home and writing the music that wound up being used for that scene.

"It's nice to get that vibe if you can," Danna said. "It doesn't happen that often."

The composers also discussed the practice of "temping" a film, which is when directors will put a temporary soundtrack down as they edit the film — often music from a composer's previous film. That, they said, can create a scenario in which composers begin to repeat themselves, and their music sounds the same from one production to the next.

And, "there are some big-name composers who steal from other composers because they make so much money and they get lazy," Revell said.

Hickenlooper said he doesn't like the trend of inserting pop music hits into a film score.

"It takes me out of the movie," he said. "It's sort of two aesthetics competing against each other."

Most of the composers essentially stumbled into the film business, either being in the right place at the right time or coming to it through their own evolution as music writers.

"Just do your thing and if someone likes it you'll have a career," Marinelli said. "Otherwise, you're still just doing your thing."


E-mail: zman@desnews.com