The Creative Process Part 1

Everybody has one.  For some people it involves alcohol. For others, meditation.  And sometime, and I fall into this category, it involves insane deadlines and short amounts of time to do it in.  Creativity can be a tricky thing.  It comes and goes, which can frustrate the heck out of you.  Many times I’ve spent too long choosing instruments and setting up a session only to realize my creativity disappeared by the time I was ready to start writing.  I combat that now by breaking up the “task” part of composing into its own event, and not try to jump into writing right after the session is set up (which is a whole other blog). I tried to think of the best way to describe my creative process, and I think the best way is to talk about a feature I scored this summer called Broken Hearts Club.

Originally, I had about 8 to 12 weeks to score the film.  The running time was a hair under 2 hours, and after the spotting session with the director, I knew I needed to write about 86 minutes of music, including source music (the music that plays from a stereo onscreen, or at a party; anything that’s actually part of the film and the characters can hear it).  12 weeks is a lot of time for a composer.  It’s a necessary amount of time for that much music, but definitely a luxury.  A luxury that went away quickly.

The director and I spent a few weeks dialing in the sound for the film.  He wanted an orchestral score, but he wanted piano and acoustic guitar to dominate.  After a good deal of back and forth, we finally found the right “tone” and I was ready to start working on themes.

 A few nights later, he sent me a text and said he wanted to make the deadline for the Toronto Film Festival.  I asked when that was.  He told me it was June 9th.  I looked at the calendar.

It was 10 days away.

He asked me if I could have a score for him by then, but he said that it wasn’t the end of the world if I couldn’t make the deadline and he could add it in later if it got into the festival.  My initial reaction was a stream of obscenities, followed by disbelief.  Techincally, I hadn’t even started writing yet!  But I’ve never backed down from a scoring deadline, ever.  86 minutes in ten days was steep, but I thought I’d give it a shot.

 Rule #1 of film scoring: Never tell someone that you can’t do something.  Always say yes and then figure it out later.

So the next morning I sat down at the controller and stared at the footage.  Up ’til that point, I was having writer’s block.  I didn’t know what the film needed musically to enhance the scenes and characters.  I knew what instruments I was writing with, but that was it.  When I write, it’s at the controller with the footage looped so that a scene is playing over and over. Some composers write to paper, some at the piano.  Because the music is linked so closely to the film, I have to see how the characters interact to be inspired.  I need to see the emotion onscreen to create something that fits.  I start auditioning things, erase, write again, erase until something sparks.

My plan for the film was to create a handful of themes to represent the couples in the film, who are undergoing relationship therapy.  I realized that another way to approach it would be to write one central theme (which represents the doctor, who has his own marital issues) and alter the theme for the couples themselves. Under the current time constraint, it made sense that one theme would save time, but I realized something more important. Although there were multiple characters each with their own lives and problems, they were linked together by the same thing: love.  They were all trying to find it and failing miserably.  I realized that I only needed one theme, one that linked them together.  Each couple was in a different emotional state and different instrumentation of the same theme (which became the Broken Hearts Club Theme) would separate them, but keep them linked together by the core value of the film, love.

I create better under a deadline, and within the first hour I had a melody, which turned into a theme.  Then I “colored” the theme with different instruments for each couple.  One couple needed a jazzier version, so I used a saxophone. One needed a slightly comical version, so I adapted the theme for the oboe.  Another was guitar-based. The version used for Terrence (the doctor) was closest to the main, and it utilized a solo cello. Problem solved.

Now I just needed to write, orchestrate, mix and deliver 86 minutes of it in 10 days…

…and you’re going to have to wait until part 2 to find out if I got it done in time and how. I’ll also post the central version of the theme, so make sure you come back tomorrow.