Say Hello To Hollywood: Writing For Film and TV

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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Before Los Angeles had record labels, it had movie studios.

Hollywood has been the center of America’s film industry for more than 100 years. It’s the town that gave us Citizen Kane, Gone With The Wind and The Graduate. A town whose backlots and sound stages include sights like Norman Bates’ house and the clock tower from Back To The Future. A town where all of the “Big Six” movie studios have headquarters. Songwriters like Brian Wilson may have created the “California sound” during the 1960s, but California had a look long before it had a sound.

So what happens when the look and the sound combine?

Even before movies had actual audio, their screenings usually involved some sort of live music. During the early 20th century, organists would play along with silent films, only stopping after the credits rolled. Even the Lumiere brothers got a piece of the action on December 28, 1895 – the day they held the world’s first movie screening ever – byhiring aFrench pianist to help add some sparkle to the event. From the very start, music and movies were close cousins.

Who gets to make that music these days, though? And how? Those are the questions we asked some of our favorite L.A.-based musicians, bandmates, songwriters, supervisors and licensing agents. Their answers paint the picture of a community that’s as diverse and complicated as the city that spawned it.

COMPOSERS VS. SONGWRITERS

There’s always been a fine line between composers and songwriters. Composers write instrumental music and themes for films. Songwriters, on the other hand … well, songwriters write songs. And if you’re a songwriter looking to break into film, you should be prepared for a bit of an uphill climb.

“This isn’t the easiest world to break into, especially if your history is with a band,” admits Robert Schwartzman, frontman of the power-pop band Rooney and nephew of Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola.

In a town filled with hundreds of wannabe John Williams’, it helps to know someone on the inside. Someone who can grease the wheels, so to speak. For Schwartzman, that person was his cousin, Gia Coppola, who recently asked Schwartzman to write a full score – including instrumental music and traditional songs – for her independent film, Palo Alto.

“Typically, the filmmaker is either a big fan of the band,” Schwartzman continues, “and they think, ‘I just wanna work with this artist, and whatever we do, something cool is gonna happen,’ or that songwriter is someone who’s studied orchestration and has worked his way into the film world. If you’re a songwriter, you’re not really viewed as a composer. It’s a different beast. You need to find an entry point, a way to get your foot in the door.”

In a city like L.A., it’s common for musicians to have some experience in front of the camera. Take Jenny Lewis, who kicked off her career as a child actress before ditching the silver screen to form Rilo Kiley. Still, that doesn’t mean she wasn’t excited – and maybe a bit surprised – to receive a call from Disney in 2008, asking her to write music for the CGI film Bolt.

“I was so shocked that Disney asked me to do it, and the process was amazing,” Lewis says. “I was invited to come see the film before it was concluded. I got to stand in a room with sketches of the characters tacked up on the wall. I got to see a three dimensional figure of one of the characters. I went home and wrote the song in an hour, then demo’d it on Garageband and sent it along, and they put it in a Disney movie. A Disney movie! And that song has probably been heard by more people than any of my other songs combined.”

Lewis notes that there’s a crucial difference between composers and songwriters, but she thinks it might give songwriters an advantage – at least when it comes to adventurous directors who’re looking for a change of pace.

In a town filled with hundreds of wannabe John Williams’, it helps to know someone on the inside.

 

“It’s exciting for filmmakers to work with someone who isn’t coming from a traditional ‘music for film’ background,” she explains. “You know what you’re gonna get with an amazing composer, like Hans Zimmer or John Williams. But if you’re working with a songwriter specifically, you’re gonna get a different approach.”

There are several people who blur the lines a bit. Danny Elfman, the man behind most of Tim Burton’s scores, was the lead singer of Oingo Boingo for nearly 20 years. Les Claypool, who wrote the theme song to Southpark, is the frontman of PRIMUS. Trent Rezor wrote the soundtrack for The Social Network. Adam Schlesinger, who composed the titular tune for the Tom Hanks movie That Thing You Do, plays bass in Fountains of Wayne.

“My entry point into the film and TV world was a little unusual,” Schlesinger admits, “because I started out doing the band thing primarily. Fountains of Wayne got started in the mid-’90s, and shortly after that, I had my big break with That Thing You Do, which was a song I wrote totally on spec. Thanks to those two things, I started getting calls to do other stuff. Some people were fans of Fountains of Wayne, and some were fans of That Thing You Do. Eventually, it just started to snowball.”

Even when things start to snowball, though, it’s important to keep some space between your different projects. In order words, remember that writing songs for film is different than writing songs for yourself

“It’s two different kinds of writing and two completely different head spaces,” says Andy Paley, a songwriter and producer who moved to L.A. in 1987 to work on Brian Wilson’s first solo album. Shortly after Paley arrived, he landed another gig working on the Dick Tracy soundtrack, which helped open some doors in the film and TV world. These days, he’s one of the most successful composers in the business, writing music for shows like The L Word, The Ren & Stimpy Show and SpongeBob SquarePants.

“Personally, I usually lead with the melody,” he says of the writing process. “You can create different moods with that. You’re a little bit freer when you’re writing for a film or TV, because you don’t have to follow a conventional ABAB structure. You don’t need a bridge or a solo if you don’t want one. It’s a very open plane, rhythmically. You’re more open to modulations and instrumental things. You can get away with more, and basically, the whole thing frees you up.”

Lewis agrees, adding, “It’s exciting to get the opportunity to write with a different set of parameters. Writing about yourself can get boring. Being able to assume a male perspective, for example, is really challenging and fun – and it’s something I wouldn’t always do in my own material.”

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