It really started early for me, in fact my mom tells me the first movie I ever watched when I was still in a baby carrier was Fantasia, and I was silent throughout the entire thing. Or how I would immediately stop doing anything as a baby and watch intently when the Jeopardy theme came on TV. I guess my brain was naturally attracted to sound and image.
When I actually remember seeking it out though was when I was 6 years old, seeing Jurassic Park. I had a book (made for kids, some movie tie-in) with screenshots and scenes from the movie that my parents got for me before we saw the movie. I sat in the theater turning the pages of the book to make sure the images matched what I was seeing onscreen. Afterwards, my parents got me the soundtrack on cassette for my Walkman (a cassette I still have), and I would listen to it while trying to re-create scenes from the movie. Then when I was 9 my mom let me see my first R-rated movie, and I mean come on that’s a HUGE deal for a 9-year old boy. It was Michael Bay’s The Rock, and you can criticize Bay all you want, but no one can deny that The Rock is one of the best pure escapism action films. Although my mom would make me leave the room so she could fast-forward through the Nicolas Cage sex scene on the rooftop. And to be honest, I still fast-forward through any Nicolas Cage sex scenes and you should too. Anyway, for a 9-year old boy, it was MIND-BLOWING. Especially the score by Nick Glennie-Smith, Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams. Names that didn’t matter at the time, all I cared about was the music.
But for the first time I wasn’t trying to re-create scenes from the movie with this soundtrack. The music was sparking new ideas and new images. I could actually see scenes in my mind. It was at that point I knew I wanted to make movies or be a visual storyteller, whatever that entailed. But strangely I never wanted to be a composer or a photographer, I always wanted to be in both worlds at the same time.
My dad’s friend owned a record store in Washington DC, and he would usually give my dad any of the promo copies the store would get. Many of those were soundtracks. So I would fish through the boxes and pull out any soundtracks. The ones I gravitated to throughout the 90’s all seemed to have the same name on them, and that was Hans Zimmer. It was the late 90’s where I really began to take notice of who was composing what, what directors they worked with and in an essence that put me on my track to wanting to become a filmmaker.
So now I’m nearly 30, have a film degree, moved to Los Angeles, married the girl of my dreams who I met out here in LA, got to work at Walt Disney Studios for a few years and am now managing production assets for the entirety of Cartoon Network Studios. It was always my goal to carve a path into this industry and I never forget what started it all.
How did you begin your website? Tell us a little about its history, and what you do now in terms of film music journalism.
The one thing I did a lot was write. And naturally if you’re interested in a topic (such as film and TV for me) you probably will write about it. I wrote screenplays, short stories and ideas I had, but I also wanted to keep learning. I wanted to keep challenging my brain to analyze and understand cinema. So I literally started doing mini movie reviews in my AIM profile (AOL Instant Messenger, anyone remember that? Anyone? Hello? God I’m old…). Then I started a bare bones movie review site hosted on GeoCities (Anyone at least remember that? Anyone? Hello? Holy hell I’m old…). That led to me writing reviews for sites like MovieWeb and I even became one of the top 1,000 Amazon Customer Reviewers. I would post every review I did on Amazon, back when they had listings for theatrical movies before they came on home video.
Anyway, it got to the point where I wanted to streamline my focus. Film music was always my passion so I said, “why not just focus on that?”. I really believe analyzing the way music works with the film is the best way to get to the heart and character of any movie, TV or game. So I started a BlogSpot (Okay, I KNOW people remember that, I mean it’s still around as Blogger…). It was essentially just focused on film score analysis, I really didn’t think anyone was reading it. I didn’t advertise it much, because really I never have been to be the person to put their opinions on blast. And I actually hate the term “critic”, especially because when it comes to film, there is no right or wrong way to do anything. It’s all subjective. It’s just opinions. If you hate a movie or a piece of music, someone else is out there who will like it and vice versa.
So yes, I was using this blog as a way to just put my thoughts down. Trying to figure out why some things didn’t resonate with me and why other things did. And then out of nowhere I got an email from a publicist. It was actually the lovely Beth Krakower who now I call a dear friend! At the time she said that one of the record labels she does PR for caught wind of my blog and she was wondering if she could send some soundtracks for me to review. “I hit the jackpot!” I thought, I mean, free soundtracks? All my money went to soundtracks anyway, so yeah sure! Anyway, things started rolling as they do. The blog got some attention. And then I thought, hmmm, I wonder if I could reach out to these composers to do interviews? I always felt there was a lacking presence of composers speaking about their craft and I wanted to fix that. Plus who cares about my opinions? To hear from the composers themselves is WAY more interesting.
The first composer I found was Geoff Zanelli on Facebook, and I asked him if he’d be okay with me sending some questions. And he agreed. Next I found David Buckley, who agreed to do an interview via Facebook chat and then a few more. I eventually thought it was time to graduate from a “blog”, so I bought a web domain and built out a full site. And then I wondered, “Let’s try audio interviews on Skype.” Ramin Djawadi was my first audio interview, but please don’t go listen to it because I was literally a nervous wreck! And yeah, the snowball kept going and going. After a few hundred audio interviews, I thought “why not video?”. And that’s how Film.Music.Media: All Access was born (thanks to Lorne Balfe for agreeing to be my guinea pig on that). Now Film.Music.Media gets around 10-15k visitors per month, we’re approaching 6k subscribers on YouTube, where all our interviews live, and I have a couple great writers such as my brother Koray Savas along with Leo Mayr and Michael Hollands who help with score reviews.
In the end I wanted Film.Music.Media to be a resource for any aspiring storytellers. Not just composers, but any filmmakers out their whether your craft is directing, writing or producing.
Your work as a film music journalist is focused very much on the visual medium, with filmed interviews being a major aspect of what you do. Can you talk a little about that specifically, the benefits and drawbacks of working that way, and what sort of response you have received to it?
I had always felt that the best way to appreciate and analyze any craft is to hear it straight from the mouth of those creating it. Which is why I started doing audio interviews. And when I set out to do interviews it’s because I grew up in a world where you could only see a composer speak if you were lucky enough for the studio let them have 3-4min as a DVD extra. I also wanted to take that PR shine off of interviews. While I know a publicist and a composer may want to do an interview for exposure, that is not MY goal. My goal is to have a deep and meaningful conversation, and not really “interview” per se. I never wanted to be Barbara Walters asking “so tell me, which notes make you think about your broken childhood and how often do you cry yourself to sleep.” Almost 2 years ago I started a series called “All Access” (original name, right?). Because as I mentioned before, there are really no long and in-depth video interviews with composers. I was a huge fan of the Hollywood Reporter roundtable discussions they started doing during Awards seasons, and I felt there was a gap that could be filled by composers who rarely get any kind of attention. I mean their entire careers are about being heard, not seen. So I wanted to fix that.
My goal for All Access has always been to capture raw and real conversations. I keep it as a one-man crew, just me and the guest with the camera. I choose to not be on-camera, not because I’m a hideous goblin but because no one is watching these for me. When I see interviewers on-camera I kind of get this sense they want to be seen sitting next to the guest so they boost their own ego. I opt to not use lav mics and utilize simple battery powered LED lighting. In fact, I have gotten some unsolicited advice (emails, messages, comments) from people who think I’m oblivious when it comes to recording interviews!
Here is my take on it, and what I’ve discovered. Film is the illusion of reality, right? The more “produced” something is, the further from reality you get. No matter what, if someone knows they are being recorded, they will act differently. No matter what. But, the more stripped down I can get it, the more realistic and more genuine the answers will be. I can’t tell you how many times composers have told me how they felt comfortable, relaxed and how much fun they had while we did our interviews. To me that lets me know that in the past they felt uncomfortable. So imagine adding tons of lights, wiring a mic to their collar, using a camera crew, multiple shots, and the interviewer sitting with a pad of notes and questions. The more scripted you are, the more scripted the answers. Sure the image and sound will be top notch, but the content will not be.
For my All Access interviews it’s just me, the camera, some LED lights, and a field recorder. I also don’t prepare questions ahead of time for my All Access interviews. I’ll research and prepare bullet points that I review before we start, but if I were to prepare questions then I would get prepared answers. And if I were to be sitting there with a pad and paper, it only helps everything to feel like an interrogation. The idea is to have a dialogue and a relaxed conversation. And I want to capture everything. I want you to see the pauses as they think of an answer, gestures of their hands as they speak. You get SO much more information with both seeing and hearing someone speak versus just listening or reading a transcript. Plus I’m learning too, just as much as the audience is. I’m asking questions I want to know the answers to.
I’ve shot films on 16mm film, shot in the woods for 8 hours in pouring rain, done ADR, spent all-nighters editing in the studio. I know how to create a professional and produced image. So when people think I’ve never heard of a lav mic before, it does amuse me. And sure, the camera framing might be a little tilted and the audio a little soft because of my approach. But the words spoken will be more genuine and the conversation more inspiring.
The majority of the responses I get though are positive and overwhelming. So many people message me how the videos have helped them whether they are students looking to learn or just aficionados who gained a better appreciation about a composer and their work. I’ve even had other composers who I’ve interviewed tell me they watch the All Access interviews. When I first heard that I almost cried! I’ve had other journalists whom I respect dearly and look up to contact me saying they’re using these interviews to prep and research for their own interviews. I really just want these chats to be an everlasting resource of inspiration and appreciation. There really isn’t any drawbacks to this method in my opinion besides the incredible challenge of finding time to do them that works for me with my 9-5 work schedule and the composers’ 24/7 work schedule. But in the end I am so thankful to every composer (and actors and directors in some cases) that have taken time to speak with me because I know time is the one thing that can’t ever be replaced.
What, in your opinion, are the things that are necessary for a film score to be successful?
It really is just as simple as the music working with the image to tell a story. There really isn’t any rulebook of how to make a movie, show, game or score. This isn’t physics or calculus, there is no 1 right answer. The art of storytelling is all about finding new ways to connect and resonate with an audience. A film score could be just a spoon banging on pots and pans. What makes it successful is totally subjective. Sure there will be a general consensus of something that is “good” or “bad”, I guess the “Rotten Tomatoes” way of judging something. But there can be a score that is universally hated and I guarantee there will be people who enjoy it, and vice versa. So my idea of success will be so different than someone else’s. But for me personally, I love big themes and big arcs. I love melody. I grew up in the 90’s, so I’m accustomed to images and sequences with a score that supports the narrative as the backbone of the whole story. But hey I also loved No Country For Old Men which was practically scoreless.
So a score’s success is totally dependent on the film’s needs and if the composer is allowed to fulfill those needs. So many people will shit on a score for doing something they personally dislike. I also see hate for a score but people end up loving the film and I think, “What’s that about?”. And some people will merely hate a score because it doesn’t make a good album experience, which is insane to me. A score should never be judged as standalone music. Just because there is a lack of melody or thematic structure doesn’t mean the score wasn’t successful in the film it was meant to accompany. I think people forget that most composers don’t have the creative freedom you think they have. A score can fail or succeed based on what the director or producer wants as well. Sometimes you can’t hate the player, hate the game.
What is your opinion of the film music industry as it stands today?
There will always be two sides to the film industry (not just film music specifically), and that’s the business side and then the artistic side. Film, TV and games are an artistic expression of those who make it. But it can only exist if they are financially viable. So you will always find good things and bad things about it.
I think the film music process and film process in general has gotten a bit more mechanical. With franchises eating up every studio’s budget, we are getting these $250 million tentpoles churned out every year with a film score that is safe and expected. We don’t see experimentation that much, and if it happens it’s usually in some tiny indie film that wins Best Picture that no one sees.
I mean, remember when Best Picture winners were movies like Braveheart, Schindler’s List, Gladiator, Titanic, Forrest Gump and Return Of The King? I mean seriously, look up a list of all the Oscar Best Picture winners (not that I think the Oscars are the top barometer to measure excellence) and scroll across the decades towards the past 10 years. Watch how each and every Best Picture winner is a movie with a smaller and smaller budget and hardly any distribution.
This trickles down to the scores as well, which are traditionally the last thing to be done on a film. So we get these massive blockbuster movies now that are being churned out over and over. The studio controls everything, the director is usually some no-name picked from the latest Sundance hit so the studio can control them, and the score is nice and safe.
I think good things are happening too though, we are getting some great new talent and fresh voices every year. Live film music concerts are on the rise. And television is really where all the bright ideas are coming from. Every now and then a true gem shines through where you know you’ll be revisiting it for years to come. But I do think we won’t hear the big bold scores of the 90’s and early 2000’s again until franchise filmmaking begins to die down and studios start granting bigger budgets to dramas and auteur filmmakers again.
There’s a lot of testicles and pale skin in the film music world too. The more diverse the storytellers are, the more interesting and original the stories will be. So a little more gender and racial diversity in the composing world would be great to see. But that all starts from the top, the people doing the hiring.
Who do you think are the best film music composers, historically and working today? What is it about their music that appeals to you?
If anyone has made it this far they’ll know Hans Zimmer will always hold a special place in my heart. His music is what ignited my mind to start thinking in terms of visual and musical storytelling, and I resonate to his “storytelling first” mentality of how he works. His thematic structure, his arcs and his ability to make composing a collaboration with his team and the filmmakers is all so inspiring. I owe it all to Hans’ music really. Plus on a personal level, his music was there during hard times in my life growing up and I gravitated to his music the most when I needed an emotional escape. He has conquered this industry both from an artistic standpoint and a business one. Whatever your opinion of him is, one can’t discredit his immense talents as a storyteller and iconic inspiration.
Shhh, did you hear that? I think I just heard all the clicks of score elitists and snobs close the tab on this interview.
Some other huge influences to this day would be John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams and Michael Giacchino. Their music in the past and now have been instrumental in keeping my mind in “story mode”. John’s ability to pinpoint the smallest emotional nuance is striking. Harry’s work with Tony Scott is so iconic and just damn engrossing. And ever since I played a little game called Medal Of Honor, I’ve seen Michael Giacchino grow into one of the most amazing auteur composers.
If you were to ask me who the best film composer of all time is I’d probably say Ennio Morricone. Just looking at how influential and iconic his music is across all genres is just breathtaking. Plus Sergio Leone is my favorite director. His themes may not hold a pop culture iconic status as much as John Williams, but his ability to hone in on emotions and characters by being unconventional has always put him at the top in my book. Once Upon A Time In The West and The Mission might be my favorite scores of all-time.
Henry Mancini and John Barry might as well be cozied up there next to Ennio for me. Their music is so iconic in their own ways, their sound so distinct. I mean come on, Breakfast At Tiffany’s and The Pink Panther are just so perfect. The something like Out Of Africa or Dances With Wolves just transports me to an emotional state of mind that I want to revisit over and over.
John Williams of course, I mean I don’t need to echo what everyone knows. My favorite score of his? E.T., hands down. The music is so intimate and big at the same time. And the finale is so moving beyond words. It’s a love story at heart. When he performed it live at the Hollywood Bowl a few years, conducting the last 20-minutes himself live to picture. I was an emotional wreck.
You can’t ignore big names like Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Miklós Rózsa or Elmer Bernstein either. And many more, but that’s enough. I’d be just be listing names everyone already admires and cherishes. The beauty of it is that each composer brings their life story and style with them into their music. Some you’ll connect and resonate with, some you won’t. Just sample as much as you can and take in as much as you can. Then find a way to let it inspire you in your life even if you don’t tell stories for a living. That’s the power and beauty of music for visual mediums. It’s what pushes me to keep Film.Music.Media going and it inspires what I do in my professional and personal life. It really is the best way to reflect and experience the human condition.