Neil Brand

BBC Sound of Cinema presenter Neil Brand tells us what it takes to be a film composer

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 18 Sep 2013
  • min read
The history of Hollywood and cinema is full of great music and memorable film scores.

But perhaps spare a thought for those composers behind the music. It’s often the creative input of these sometimes unsung heroes which helps turn an average film into something spectacular.

Silent film composer Neil Brand believes the ability of composers to leave their musical ego at the door is just one of the essential characteristics for any music writer who wants to sustain a career in the industry.

It’s one aspect of film music he explores as part of new series entitled Sounds of Cinema: the Music That Made the Movies. His three programmes are the jewel in the crown of a new BBC season given over to screen compositions throughout September.

Neil’s musical career is steeped in film. He’s been a regular silent film accompanist at London's National Film Theatre while recently pulling together scores for films from 1920s including The Wrecker and Anthony Asquith's Underground.

M quizzed him on what he sees as the key challenges currently facing composers wanting to work with film…

Can you explain how you got involved in the Sound of Cinema series?

I took the idea to BBC Bristol, a department I’d already worked with on a Paul Merton show. And they took it to BBC 4. They were very keen.

The BBC haven’t done a dedicated series to the history of film music so the plan was to look at the whole subject and give people some idea of its development as well as talk to some great composers.

We spoke to Hans Zimmer, Angelo Badalamenti and Vangelis. In all cases, they were very thoughtful and committed to film music and philosophical about the way the music worked.

They were all very self deprecating people. Not egotists. They were used to this collaborative world in which they have to provide music as part of a team.

Is collaboration key to being a successful film composer?

Absolutely. You need to remember it’s not your gig. Well it is and it isn’t. You don’t have final say. Under these circumstances, you are providing a service to the project.

Having said that, good directors will make you an equal partner. So you will get plenty of time to talk through stuff. You’re not just a hired gun. But at the same time, you’re not in complete control.

What other attributes do film composers need?

Now the technology is there to make quick cuts of visuals, the cut of a film will be shifting all the time under your music right until it’s supposed to be locked off.

So you need to be thick skinned to go into film music. It’s something that requires the best you’re capable of and will eventually be the most rewarding music you can do. Thousands, possibly millions of people could end up hearing your music but with it comes a hell of a lot of pressure which emotionally you need to be able to handle. You need to be the sort of person who isn’t going to blow up because something you’ve done doesn’t work due to the cut changing.

What are the other key challenges facing composers

Coming up with new and original material. No one wants to hear something they’ve heard before. Unless they say they really want something which sounds like the Dark Knight Rises.

Generally, everyone is looking for innovation. It doesn’t have to be musically innovative. Maybe just a use of sound, a sound texture or a mash up of genres they haven’t heard before. Ultimately the way you get the job is by giving them a truthful piece of music from you.

Film composers need to be as au fait with as much music as possible so they can turn their hand to pretty much any genre or style. You also need to be a good dramatist.

The music is an integral part of the narrative then?

Very much so. You’ll notice with the good composers that they bring out all the layers and subtext of drama very well but very discreetly. They don’t hit you round the head with it. They find the key moment in a scene and dramatise that with the smallest amount of music possible.

People assume film music is always about huge statements but the majority of the time it’s actually about making very small statements very briefly.

It’s a completely different way of working to when you work on your own material?

You are not your own artist, unless you’ve been hired because they like your music and want you to bring your own style to a film.

But if you’re looking to set up as a film, games or TV composer for hire, then it’s likely that in your first meeting you’ll be given a brief to make music you’re not familiar with. You’ll be asked to come up with what they want. It’s very different to the creativity of those who write their own album material.

From the series, who were you most excited about interviewing?

All of them – I'd wanted to talk to Carter Burwell for years. He scores the Coen Brothers movies and he’s fantastically discreet. He works with a sound designer and there are certain movies of theirs - No Country for Old Men for example - where you can barely tell there is a score there at all.

As soon as you add music, it makes it unreal. It’s all about how sweaty and real this man hunt is with Javier Bardem hunting down people and killing them. So you have to listen hard to hear Carter’s music and what it’s doing. You could also mistake it for background sound - the sound of the wind or the hum of a motor but it’s actually Carter. It’s astonishing.

Do you have a favourite score?

Alex North’s score for Tennesse Williams’ Streetcar of Desire as it’s the first time cinema used modern jazz in a score to create dramatic effect. It’s very hot, very sweaty, lots of bent saxophone notes. All the time it’s just sitting underneath the action. It’s a film about sex made at a time when you weren’t supposed to be showing sex on the screen. All the sex is in the music. And boy is it. It is the hottest score and it does have a tremendous effect.

Have you any advice for aspiring composers?

It’s a good move to be au fait with music tech. Getting to know a composition pack, getting to know how to use basic samples. That world is important. Even if you’re not a keyboard player, as a composer it gives you a palette to work with.

Film makers aren’t musicians. They’re going to know what they like. So you’ve got be able to play them what you intend to put to their film and make it sound great. Watch as much film as possible. Particularly with the big blockbusters. Listen to what is going on. Film makers aren’t asking for big scores – they want texture. The way you use that is crucial and you’ve got to do it in a way that is yours.

Find out more about the BBC Sound of Cinema season.

Read our feature Score! Insider tips for writing soundtracks featuring comments from Neil, Daniel Pemberton, Don Letts and Jon Hopkins.