Following on from last week, when I interviewed Brazilian Composer Marcelo Zarvos, it became apparent that there were so many valuable pieces of advice that he gave, that would help young composers. So whether you are just starting out and need some inspiration from someone so knowledgeable on the subject, or if you’re already active and would like some insight for the future, then there is no one better than Marcelo to guide you on your way.
Collaborate and listen: Why talking about music is like talking about food
Most of the creative choices and directions one can take, are dependent on collaborations. A composer writes alone with their own thoughts and instincts. Many have said that they spend most of their lives alone in a dark room with a pencil and paper, or a computer in front of them, waiting to be filled with ideas. As a writer, I am fully aware of the terror involved in a blank page, and the feeling of sitting there as it mocks you with its emptiness. Therefore, it is almost impossible to understand where that glimmer of hope and spark of inspiration comes from. Marcelo told me how he deals with the blank page, and how the input from collaborators, specifically directors, is very important in the way a score turns out.
If it’s a first-time director, which I’ve worked with many of them, you just meet up and read the script and learn how to communicate with each other for a successful collaboration. They’re thinking the same thing as you when you meet, and it’s a little bit like going on a first date; you’re trying to say the right thing whilst also showing who you really are, so they can make their decisions. I’ve always said that talking about music is like talking about food. Music is its own thing. And it’s almost better to talk about it indirectly, like what is it accomplishing and what is it not, and how can we give dramatic directions that take it to the place you want it to be?
I prefer the director to talk to me like they would talk to an actor; addressing the motivation and what they’re trying to accomplish, without saying “okay, can you hit the brass here or can you change the chord there?” Obviously some people can do that very well, but the main thing with a director is that they’re focused on their film and the drama first.
Because we were talking about the subject of Composer/Director collaborations, he told me about some of his fruitful partnerships over the years, and how it has benefited his career and kept him involved in new and interesting projects.
I just finished another project with Barry Levinson called Rock the Kasbah, which is a wonderful, wacky comedy with Bill Murray. We’ve done five movies together that are very different. We went from the multi-stylistic score in What Just Happened, to The Bay, which was a found-footage horror movie. From You Don’t Know Jack; a dramatic biopic with Al Pacino, to The Humbling, which was between a comedy and drama, again with Pacino. It’s a very rewarding partnership, and it’s been an incredible journey with Barry. The main thing with collaborations though, is that you need to do something different each time. If you find yourself at one point saying, “okay, I’ll just do the same old thing,” then I think it’s time that you start to retire.
Closing words to young composers: You will get out of it what you put in
So that was the end of my time talking with Marcelo Zarvos. Before he went, he was kind enough to impart his own personal piece of wisdom from the decades of experience he possesses, in the hopes that it may help or inspire those that are at the beginning of their careers, or those who wish to venture into the world of scoring.
The most important thing is to trust your voice, and really try to figure out who you are, what your musical voice is and build on that. Originality is one of the most important things in this business.
I would say to a young composer that you should really look at television, because there is a renaissance happening. There is an incredible demand for product now, and the overall level has raised a lot. So whereas in the beginning, when people would always focus on films, I would say that young composers should really think about television and other things, such as web-series and short-films. But most importantly, I think doing something significant in whatever medium it is, will ultimately get you to doing film scores.
To break into films is not easy. There are a lot of very established composers that are very good at what they do, and films can cost millions, so people sometimes don’t really want to take a chance. But you have to take everything you do extremely seriously and don’t spare any effort in trying to make it as good as it can be. I can say that for many of the first movies I worked on, I made no money, but you get out of it what you put in.
Focus on writing the best you absolutely can and trust that it will lead you to better things. Focus on what you have in front of you, and really try to do excellent work, even for things that you feel nobody will ever watch, because guess what? People will watch it! You never know who and when, so keep the level of your work as high as you can, because there’s no better way than that to insure a career in this business.