Last year I was given a life-changing opportunity to compose an all-original score for an award-winning short film about the American Revolution, “The Loyalist.” This cinematically stunning film depicts the duality of men at war, the beginnings of war espionage, and the genesis of the Culper Ring in Long Island, New York.
Note: This article contains spoilers! Keep up with upcoming festivals, awards, and general updates here on The Loyalist Facebook page.
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"How did I get here?"
For me, networking and discovering opportunities is not a science nor an art, it is all random. For nearly a decade I worked in corporate America, so when my partner, Bobby Sansivero, was in the process of making a film I took a chance and asked if I could be involved in the scoring process. With my stubbornness, piano training, and some help from a former DJ and current friend, the plan quickly escalated from potentially working with another composer to BEING the composer. I went from lightly knocking on to completely smashing down that door of opportunity.
Through the process of composing the score, I realized it was a passion and a potential career. Leading me to realize, love of music plus opportunity with a dash of crazy can produce a film composer if you get the basic tools, create collaborative relationships, and try to achieve emotional complexity with your scores. Check out my article about the 5 basics needed to kit your own music studio.
Build a Good Relationship & Mutual Understanding
Like with most things in life, creating good relationships is key; and creating a collaborative dynamic between yourself and the director is essential to the process. Tension can arise when you have two artists together, so it’s best to create an open and honest environment and try to carve out a mutual understanding of terms.
For the initial meeting, the composer and director will discuss artistic direction and ideas, and despite how successful conversations go, they will most likely not be fully aligned. I was with Bobby throughout the whole creation process of his film; from the first draft of the script, to location scouting, to script supervising, to edits, to color grading, etc. However, it was still a struggle to get aligned on music. Music is subjective and a moving target depending upon the listener. Directors will have varying knowledge about music, and they may not have the musical vocabulary to describe what they want. Some directors will most likely have sample music, and while this can be extremely helpful, everyone knows the sentiment “like that, but different” doesn’t lead to a straight forward execution. Our dialog included questions like:
What are the goals of this film?
What type of music is needed for each scene?
When should there be silence?
Are there any ulterior messages, undercurrents of themes the music needs to capture?
What are the characters’ motivations, feelings, conflicts?
Should a theme be associated with any characters or concepts in the film?
Our approach was to be extremely honest about the project, to have deep-dive discussions about other films, other scores, and historically accurate music from that time period. Also, as I was composing I continually checked in to see if we were still aligned. Over time we developed a common understanding and a language for music and emotions.
“What about this one?”
Film composers differ in that they don't write music to fit their brand, band, or artist identity. Instead, they need to be able to adapt and ameliorate into the imagery of a film and adjust with the director's notes and ideas. The whole process started with me at my Yamaha keyboard playing different melodies and asking “what about this one?” After a bunch of no’s, I played something that made him stand up straighter and slightly cock his head. With that, I knew it was a winner and it ended up being the end credit song, "Loyalty." Meanwhile, our ongoing discussions consisted of listening to scores from films like The Patriot and The Grey, picking out the pieces we liked, discussing why we liked it, what emotions were captured and what instruments were preferred. Bobby really wanted to maintain historical integrity and keep the instruments traditional. With the exception of synths I added to build tension and some effects on the piano, I kept the instruments simple: violins, cellos, pianos, flutes, and brass.
Honor the History
During this process, there were also disagreements on melodies and which emotions to emphasize with the score. I remember writing a melody for the encampment scene that was perceived by Bobby as sorrowful and full of angst. He wanted to convey a sense of victory and camaraderie, so I had to shift and rethink. I took it as an opportunity to honor history, looked up music from that time period, and found a song called "Washington's March No. 3." I transformed those notes with glissando violins and flutes, then used it in the barn scene later on to reinforce that same sense of camaraderie. Being able to adapt and rise to the historical need made the director incredibly happy and, ultimately, it benefited the entire project.
Add Emotional Complexity
Bobby had an interesting angle to his Revolutionary War film- he didn’t necessarily take sides. During this tumultuous war for freedom and independence, this story acknowledges the ideals, the violence, the deception, and the beginning of war espionage, but more importantly the humanity. By having John and Will, the loyalist British and the colonial American, share equal weight in the film, it refuses to give way to political leanings. Even though John has killed two American spies and one of his own to keep up the facade, he shares a moment of vulnerability, he shares his past and his heartbreak. John is human.
When they discover John’s comrade died in the night, there is a soft theme playing to draw out a sense of loss. That soft melody is then carried across the scene depicting Will murdering John. While Will’s movements are violent and his eloquent speech could have accommodated a hero-type swell of music, it just wasn’t right. The delicate melancholy of the score playing over their interaction lent to the confliction. They had come to know one another and perhaps even bonded, yet John was the enemy and had to die. There's contempt and pride in Will's speech, yet the music reverberates a sense of sadness when John dies by Will's hands. War is hell.
War can sometimes be idealized, but ultimately it’s men and women living, fighting and dying. The score reflects this with a lack of hero themes. Instead, the recurring themes emphasize camaraderie and the heartache of death regardless of allegiance.
Working on this project as a producer and composer was an incredibly rewarding experience that made me realize a harsh truth- you only live once. Instead of being another corporate employee I started thinking I could do something more creative and fulfilling with my life.
Now, creating and composing beautiful music is only half of the equation. I’m discovering the world of film seems vast and yet the higher you rise the smaller the world becomes- so fostering a great relationship with your director is essential. Also, carving out mutual understanding and a common language about music is difficult, perhaps that’s why there are recurring partnerships like Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer, Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, Steven Spielberg and John Williams. Maybe one day the next dynamic duo will be Bobby Sansivero and Rosie Record.
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