Calibrating emotional tones in film with Miriam Cutler

By Patricia Hului
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Perhaps some of us are too young to remember the movie, but when someone mentions “shark”, the first sound that comes to mind is the theme song to Stephen Spielberg’s 1975 movie ‘Jaws’.

Composed by John Williams, who later won an Academy Award for Jaws’ film score, ‘Main Title and First Victim’ begins with the alternating sound of two tortuously slow, ominous bass notes playing, which slowly pick up in speed, followed by the sound of the tuba as Jaws finds its target and takes its first victim in the movie.

It’s been almost 40 years since Jaws first played in cinemas, but it has become an iconic soundtrack until today, indicating how much musical scores can stick in our imagination long after the movie.

A film composer of note is Miriam Cutler, credited for numerous award-winning and festival favourites like Oscar-nominated ‘Poster Girl’, ‘Ethel’ which was shortlisted for an Oscar in 2013, two-time Emmy nominee for ‘Desert of Forbidden Art’, Emmy Award-winner for ‘Ghosts of Abu Ghraib’, Emmy-nominated for ‘Thin’ and many more.

Miriam Cutler

Miriam Cutler

She has served the Sundance Institute Documentary Composers Lab as lab advisor as well as on documentary juries for the Sundance Film Festival, Independent Spirit Awards, International Documentary Association Awards, and American Film Institute’s Film Festival Award.

Today, Cutler is one of the film experts in the 2014 American Film Showcase, a touring programme which brings contemporary award-winning American documentary, narrative feature and short films to audiences worldwide with the cooperation of US Embassies and Consulates.

The Los Angeles-based composer was at Sarawak State Library on June 4 to give a talk during the ‘Music Film Composer Workshop’ as part of the showcase.

Mostly attended by music students, the workshop was also organised in conjunction with the Lincoln Corner Sarawak’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

During the workshop, Cutler described her work composing music like calibrating the emotional tones of a film. Without music to accompany the story and the visuals, you might not get the exact feeling you’re supposed to have during the film.

The Borneo Post SEEDS was able to grab Cutler for a short interview during the workshop where she talked about her passion composing for documentary films, incorporating world music in her compositions and one of her notable film scores ‘Ethel’ a documentary about Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy.

Plus, she had a message to all the young people out there, especially those of us in Malaysia.

Over the years, what sort of satisfaction have you gained from doing this? How do you enjoy what you do?

Miriam Cutler at the talk

Cutler at the ‘Music Film Composer Workshop’ on June 4.

I really love what happens when you put music together with pictures. For me, I can sit in my studio for hours, days, weeks and months and be very entertained because I’m trying all these different ideas.

You know, I never know what’s going to happen, and I never know what the film makers are going to really want, but it is really thrilling and also entertaining for me to sit there, try ideas and see how they work.

I worked on very interesting stories. They are all different, especially in documentaries. A good documentary film will make you very interested in something that you didn’t even know existed or cared about and suddenly you’re watching this film and you’re having a whole new world opening up to you. For me, it’s always the learning thing.

It’s such a challenging profession. It keeps me on my toes. I never get bored or tired of it. There are always things to figure out and new sounds to hear, and new things to try.

You’ve worked with ‘gamelan’ music before; do you tend to use world music in your scores?

Very early, when I was young I was really into folk dancing and world music, mostly from Eastern Europe, Greece. And as I went on through life, then in college I learnt about ‘gamelan’ and all these other kind of music.

In America now, everybody is really interested in world music. Lots of movie scores – even the big Hollywood movies – are incorporating such an interesting sound and interesting concepts.

Your musical concepts, like the ‘gamelan’ is very different than western musical concepts, yet when you put them together, you get something amazing actually. It’s a fun time to be a composer in a film because the audiences are open.

Taking ‘Ethel’ as an example, when writing a score for a documentary film about somebody, do you take into account what the main subject is or their personal preferences?

It is interesting that you say that. I was told by her daughter, the director (Ethel Kennedy’s daughter, Rory Kennedy) she doesn’t like swing music, don’t use swing music. So, I didn’t use any swing music.

Because I grew up with that whole thing, and I have this big nostalgia and many people my age with certain age range had incredible amount of nostalgia for those times.

There’s a certain way how the TV and music sounded at that time. So when I did that film I was really trying to tap in the feeling that I had of looking at that footage and the feeling that I felt when watching it on TV.

How does it feel to be a part of the jury in film festivals? What do you get most from attending all of these film festivals?

I love watching all the films and discussing them with people. It is an on-going conversation about everything.

So if I’m at a festival and watching 16 really good documentaries, and I’m talking to really smart colleagues, it’s so much fun.

I’ve done over 100 films and so I have a lot of criteria now. If something’s not working in a film I pretty much understand what that is.

I feel like I really care about acknowledging the fine work and I want to make sure I’m giving it my utmost attention.

I love being a part of the community and being a part of setting the standards, keeping the bar high so that we have good work.

So do you think the bar is higher now in film documentary now compared to when you first started?

What I think is that there are more people interested in documentaries that are making them and watching them. So there are more of them.

I think there are amazing documentaries made very early on but then there’s a slew of not so great (film documentaries).

Now I think it is back to being taken seriously as filmmaking. With documentary, it used to be content was all that mattered, now people are saying ‘no, you have to have good film making too.’

Content is very important but what good is it without a good film?

How does a young aspiring composer in Malaysia get to where you are professionally?

It is a very long road. I just follow my interests and what felt good to me the whole time I’ve been doing my career.

To do this, it’s sort of like a part of you. There’s this personality type. It’s sort of like there’s no alternative for me. I couldn’t just stop. There was something that kept driving me to keep at it because I got so much out of it.

I started out as a performer, I used to play live and I loved the audience interaction and the energy. But I wanted to do something more. That was just one night at a time. I wanted to have something that lasted.

As I start scoring, when I sit in the audience and watch people watching my film, it’s like performing, I get the same enjoyment, like ‘Wow, they’re watching.’

There are so many thrills in doing this work. There’s a thrill of discovering what it is going to be, there’s a thrill actually making it happen, there’s thrill of the director liking it and then there’s a thrill watching it with the audience.

What do you think about the young generation’s involvement in film music in general?

I think it is very different growing up today. We have this whole digital world where everything is available on your computer. When I was young you had to drive around to 20 record stores to find a record that you wanted. Now I can hear something, put Spotify and it will tell me what it is and I can download it from iTunes or something.

On the negative side, I think that kids don’t understand how much work goes into creating this material. If nobody pays for anything how are we going to survive as artists, how are we able to keep making music, art and films?

Yes, we’ll have YouTube and it will be amateur because everyone will make their own films and it won’t be about somebody actually doing something magnificent. That could happen but it is less likely.

If you have people dedicated to creating that kind of material, you know we work very hard at it, we put a lot of time, years, effort and learning. So we try to make it really special.

If I had one message for young people, understand that if you don’t pay for these things there won’t be anyone to make them anymore.

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