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INTERVIEW: Jeff Toyne – Composer

jeff-toyne-headshotbwJeff Toyne is a composer whose oeuvre includes feature films, many shorts — including two nominated for Academy Awards, composer for “The Two Coreys” on A&E and is renowned for his extensive orchestrations for Hollywood features such as District 9 and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.  He splits his time between Vancouver and the States; back in December of 2008, we met up at his Los Angeles studio to discuss his career and insights into composing music for the moving image.

WOODY: How did you get started in music?

JEFF: I was thinking about music as a career in high school.  What solidified it for me was the summer I spent at Interlochen in Michigan, which is a wonderful music and arts camp.  At school, I did well in most subjects, but music really challenged me.  I wasn’t a prodigy by any stretch of the imagination, but I played the piano well, so I went to university with piano as my instrument.  I started on a music education track, which allowed me to learn the basics of many orchestral instruments, but my secret desire was to switch over to piano performance.  I had a wonderful piano teacher who was actually one of the only students that Horowitz ever admitted to teaching, and he was a great pianist and a really great guy.  Previous teachers had allowed me to develop some bad technical habits that I was always able to overcome, but the only way for me to get to the top level of repertoire would be to stop everything, go back to basics and rebuild my technique from the ground up.  That would take a year or two, but I needed to perform a recital at the end of every semester.  There was just no way to go all the way back again unless I took a year or two off.  So performing fell away as a possibility for me, and at the same time I took more advanced theory and composition courses, for which I showed aptitude.  I became more interested writing music, so I did a Masters in Composition.

WOODY: What were some of the first compositions you worked on?

JEFF: Growing up taking piano lessons, I’d improvise something and my teacher would say “you should write that down.”  One of my first experiences writing was in high school.  I put together an R&B band that had a horn section, but the players didn’t play by ear, so I transcribed and arranged the horn charts for them.  In retrospect, that was a really good exercise to fuel my interest in composing. The last year of my undergrad I did my first film score, which was a feature that I recorded with a 13-piece big band and an eight-piece chamber ensemble.  I had no sequencing software; I wrote it in Finale.  And that’s how I was synching to picture; I was playing back in Finale and pressing play on my VCR.  When I came to USC I was so ready for that course because I had actually scored a film, not knowing how to do it.  So I had all the questions.

WOODY: What made you decide to go into film composing instead of focusing on other types of work?

JEFF: By the time I was in my third or fourth year of undergrad, I saw the music that I wrote and the kinds of composition that I was interested in, had a place in film.  I was interested in aleatoric composition, pandiatonic stuff…  The serial stuff wasn’t really where I wanted to go; even the new tonality was interesting to me, minimalism as well, and all these things had places in film.  I’m not just a “classical music” guy, I had experience in Jazz, Blues and Rock as well.  I struggle now as a film composer to find a hole that people can niche me into, but I came to film because of eclecticism.  I imagined that I could actually make a living – get paid to write music and have orchestras record this music.  This seemed like the way to go.

WOODY: That sounds like a good way to come about a career where you get paid for it, and you work with world-class musicians and sync it to the film, and it becomes an emotional experience for people and their understanding of your music.

JEFF: I really believe that Wagner’s idea of gesamtkunstwerk is alive in film today.  I think films represent his idea of total artworks.  They bring together artists from every field to completely envelop an audience in every sense and involve them in the story.  If I have a score that’s attached to a film, that’s the way to reach the most people.  The Beatles or Madonna may reach more people, but I think a couple of people saw Star Wars!  So I’m really happy to be involved.  One of the reasons that I think directors like to work with well-known performing artists, is because of the idea that you’re bringing in people who are experts from other fields.  If you come in and you’ve already sold a couple of million records, then maybe we should listen to your idea before we tell you how it’s going to be.  They have something they can offer, something they can bring to the film.

WOODY: So you’ve worked with Ed Shearmur on a couple of things.  Tell me a little bit about the collaboration between the two of you and what you did for him and also the value that you’ve taken out of it as a composer.

JEFF: I started working for Ed straight out of school as an assistant.  I was really lucky to be recommended to him.  I’d just graduated USC, and he was looking for a new assistant.  I think they recommended three or four people based on the software he was using and the kind of things he was looking for. So I started off getting tea and making sure lunch happened at 1 o’clock and making sure the couch didn’t go anywhere.  He was really linear about the responsibility that he doled out, but it began very much in the technical arena.  Some of my first tasks were sorting out word clock issues and making sure samples were organized and loaded.  After assisting him for a month or two, my first musical job was cutting together piano takes for K-PAX.  He was really searching for the right piano sound for K-PAX.  Giga piano was new at that time, so he had a pass done with that, and he went to Capital Records and he recorded on Nat King Cole’s piano.  He recorded a Disklavier and he wasn’t completely happy with any one of them.  He wanted to be able to A, B, C any pass at any one time, so he had me go in and slice those performances to match each other.  So that was my first slightly musical job. Then at some point, I think on The Sweetest Thing, I did some music copying.  After a year or so I got a chance to orchestrate a couple of cues on Reign of Fire, which was a big opportunity, and then I started doing more orchestrations for films after that.  I worked for him for about three years full time.

WOODY: What were you able to take from that, now yourself as a composer, having worked with someone like that?

JEFF: One of my USC instructors said that if you’re an assistant, you can see how a composer does his job; how he interacts with the director, producers, engineers, musicians; and you’re right next to the heat, but it’s not your heat.  That’s a really great place to be.  You’re a fly on the wall.  You’re assisting someone who’s working at the highest level for A-list Hollywood films and you can see how they’re doing it and you’re involved.  You’ll inevitably make some mistakes as you’re learning.  But that’s his career that you’re making your mistakes and learning on.  So that’s a really valuable chance to be given – to cut your on somebody else’s dime, in a way.  I’m really grateful for that experience.  Ed is an uncannily gifted musician and film composer.  He’s just a force to be reckoned with.  Here’s a guy who has amazing classical chops, concert pianist skills and rock ‘n’ roll credentials to boot.  He brings those two together.  And he’s one of those people that will never ask you to do anything that he couldn’t do himself.  It was quite intimidating to work for someone so talented.  In addition to the musical component, he was adept at understanding the drama and getting inside the structure of the movie and the interaction of the characters.  His ability to get to the heart of what the filmmakers were trying to do dramatically and how the music may affect them — that was really impressive.  It’s one thing to write a beautiful piece of music, but it’s another thing to have that beautiful piece of music be the right tone and start at the right time and be the right emotional variant that makes sense dramatically.  He was very good at that.

WOODY: Tell us about the process of composing a film.  When do you get involved, and how do you start the process with the director?

JEFF: I like to be involved as early as possible, even to the point where I’m reading the script and having conversations with the director before they shoot to discuss themes and what the sonic landscape might be like.  And having that kind of time takes away some of the pressure, especially on a lower budget movie.  As a filmmaker, you can give a composer all of this time in lieu of the fact that you can’t pay them very much, but you still want it to be really good.  I’ve found that if I’m able to be brought in really early it’s nice to have that in the back of your mind somewhere just fermenting and having conversations, thinking about how it might go and maybe even putting down some material that the director can have on set or they can at least be thinking about.  So, I’d like to be brought in as early as possible, but generally the real work starts to happen once they have a cut to look at.  One of the main goalposts in the production schedule is the spotting session, when the filmmakers have an edit and they’re ready to start thinking seriously about the sound.  So they come in, and we watch the film.  Spotting always takes longer than we think it’s going to take, at least eight hours for a feature, sometimes more.  We talk in detail about where each piece of music is going to start and, if there is a temp score, where it is starting and where it should start and what it does and what it’s supposed to do.  These discussions can really become quite protracted and abstract.  It’s an important step of the process.

WOODY: How do you approach the work when a director comes to you with a temp score?

JEFF: I don’t have a problem with temporary score.  I think a temp score is a good way to have both of us point at something and talk about it objectively.  Composers will generally say that they want directors to talk not in musical terms, but in dramatic terms.  They want them to talk about character and emotion and mood and feeling; how they want the audience to react; as opposed to, “Oh, I think this should be an oboe or cello.”  What a temp score can do is it can allow you both to say, “Okay that music there, I don’t know what it is, but it works with this scene at this moment for some reason.”  Or, “Here I don’t like it, there’s something that is not right.”  And at least it allows you to very quickly say, “Yeah, this is a great place for music to come in, this is a great place for music to come out and this mood is kind of what I was going for.”  So in that regard a temp score is a useful tool.  And we can’t deny that they are absolutely necessary when the directors need to show their film to other people and get finishing funds or to submit to festivals or get distribution.  They need to show the film in the best light they possibly can.  There’s going to be a temp score in there whether you as a composer listen to it or not.  Where the problem generally comes in is when they’ve spent a lot of time with the temp score and are having a really hard time getting away from the temp score or are not really interested in trying a new approach.

WOODY: How do you combat that when a director is really attached to a piece in their temp score and they feel that you the composer are not getting what they want?

JEFF: You have to pick your battles.  Depending on the situation, as a last ditch effort, if it seems there’s nothing else that you can possibly do, you can suggest they try to license the piece.  “If I’m not going to replace this, you should really license this.”  The last film I did, I went around a couple of times with the director who was having trouble getting away from the temp.  He had a song at the end of the film that when we first started I could tell he loved, and they were supposed to be able to license it.  So I said, “You know what, if you’re going to license this song, I will take the melodic motive from this song and I will weave this into the rest of the film.”  Music can offer this to a film: unity and diversity.  So we’ll have this little motive that will tie everything together and after we’ve heard these little fragments, then at the end of the film we’ll hear the full song and it’ll feel familiar and satisfying and everything will be great.  And so we did this and a week before they were going to mix the film they said, “You know what, it turns out that we can’t really get this song unless we pay another “x” dollars, can you replace the song?”  And I thought, “Can I replace this song that you’ve been living with in an edit for two years, that you’ve had in your record collection for five years before that, and when you were writing the film were probably listening to this song?  Can I replace this?  Of course I can, no problem.”  I did kind of drag my heels for a few days, saying, “Are you sure,” giving them time to flip-flop back.  Finally he said, “We’re really sure,” so I finally did it and I spent another two or three days on it.  And I thought I had come up with something.  Then a couple days later they said, “you know what, we decided to pay the extra money and get the song.”  So that’s a situation where I can’t say that I won or lost.  The film got made, the filmmaker got what he wanted and the lesson there is that people will always find the time and money to do what they really want to do.  Sometimes the way a song is of its time suggests not only the meanings of the song, but also the meaning of the situation that the filmmaker was in when he first heard it and the things that were going on in the world.  But at the end of the day, I keep in mind that we’re all working towards having a good film that affects audiences.  I basically have a can-do attitude about it.  I’m not super precious about the music.  There’s a push and pull between the needs of the film and our need for artistic integrity.

WOODY: I go through that all the time as a sound designer and mixer because the choices made ultimately are not mine.

JEFF: Exactly.  But that being said, nine times out of ten the filmmakers have really good reasons for the choices that they make.

WOODY: Absolutely.

JEFF: Their ability to see the film from beginning to end in one vista is amazing.  I definitely get myopic sometimes.  In the same way that they have to trust me to deliver their score on time and on budget and do a good job and get what their story’s about, I have to trust them that they’ve been living with this a whole lot longer than I have.

WOODY: Do you set the cue points, the director or both?

JEFF: The last couple of films that I’ve done there’s been a temp score.  Either an editor (ideally a music editor, but usually the picture editor) or the director have kind of gone through a couple of times, at least for themselves, to see where music might go.  Often, as in Shadow in the Trees, we may come to a couple of points in the film where there isn’t temp music and I think we might try having a cue.  I generally leave it with, “Let me try something and if I think it’s working I’ll show it to you, and if I don’t think it’s working I won’t.”  That gives me options. We have these kinds of conversations about whether or not we think this should be here or there, and if so, why.  And then we’re into it, we’re starting to do show and tells, (what we call the meetings after the spotting session), where usually a director is coming over to my studio, or I am occasionally sending QuickTime movies over the internet or sometimes mp3’s for them to slide into their timeline.

WOODY: And these are sort of sketches or demos even though it may be an orchestrated piece?

JEFF: Nowadays, demos are expected to be pretty detailed.  If it’s a director that I have worked with before, and we both have confidence in their ability to extrapolate from a sketch, then I don’t need to spend as much time on the demos, and can spend more of my time writing.  If they’re really nervous about how it’s going to go, then I’ll make the demo more fleshed out and more “convincing.”

WOODY: What kind of timeframe are we talking about from your spotting session to really having fleshed out cues?

JEFF: Well, a composer is supposed to be able to crank out anywhere from 3-5 minutes a day.  That’s really smokin’.  The big boys do that.  They’ll do fully realized, big orchestral demos like that, 3 minutes a day for sure.  So if you’ve got a schedule where you’re scoring a film and you have six weeks to do it, and there’s 60 minutes of music in the film…it starts to just play out.  You need to be showing the director every couple of days a certain amount of music so that they’ve seen everything and you have time for notes, changes, music prep, recording, mixing and everything like that.  I heard that Danny Elfman usually has two parties when he gets a job.  One’s a going away party, and one’s a welcome back party when he’s done.

WOODY: Let’s talk more about the process for you.  Do you find that you are generally the composer, the performer, the recordist and the mixer?  How do you break that out?

JEFF: Yes, but at every opportunity I will hand off a job to an expert. I’m delighted to have a mixing engineer at least mix my music.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of time, there isn’t enough time to get files over to somebody and back or to have somebody come in.  In terms of performing, to be honest with you, I would really rather have somebody else play.  The piano part I can go in and tweak the midi, but we have a beautiful grand piano out there (in the tracking room of my studio).  I’d rather bring in a pianist with great touch. I remember one time I had a violinist come in and she was trying to play along with the demo and for some reason it just wasn’t happening.  After a couple of takes, I asked her to play with a little more vibrato and a little more portamento.  And she said, “Oh, I was trying to get it to sound exactly like the demo.”  I said, “No, no, I want you to play like a human being.  The reason I brought you in is because the demo sounds like that.  I don’t want it to sound like that!”  When somebody’s interpreting your music, there’s another level of musicality going on there.  I tend to write for instruments in a way that they’ll sound the best.  And I really try to avoid situations where I am trying to do something with samples.  If I know I’m going to be doing a synth score, then it won’t be an orchestral sound.  And if I’m using orchestra stuff, then I’ll try and write in a way that’s idiomatic for the instruments. I really do believe that this is a collaborative art form, and I’m happy to not be here by myself all day.  I’m delighted to have someone come in and music edit, someone come in and do the copying and bring in any performers I possibly can.  But the best experience is to record with an orchestra. That’s the juice for the composers.

WOODY: Have you been thrown for a loop on shows?

JEFF: This is where the spotting session comes in and you kind of have to know your audience, as small as it is.  I’ve worked with Steve McLaughlin and one of his big successes was with Badly Drawn Boy for the score for About a Boy.  He said that a film composer only has an audience of one.  You only have to convince a director that your music is good, sometimes with a producer or a little committee.  But even at best you’re convincing 15 guys or girls that this is good music as opposed to someone who goes out and tours their album and convinces a hundred thousand people that their music is good.

WOODY: Have you found yourself in a situation where you’ve had a spotting session and you thought you were on the same page and you’re presenting cues, yet they’re scratching their head going that’s not really right?  Or has the temp score sort of solved that and you understand what they want?

JEFF: I’ve definitely been in situations where I’ve just missed the mark and there are different reasons that happened.  As a student there was one film that was supposed to have authentic Japanese kabuki theater music. Under time pressure I just fired up the sampler and put anything remotely Asian on there.  The director came back and said, “No that’s Chinese, and that’s a Thai gong, and that’s Korean, that is Japanese, but it’s not kabuki and I really need this to be authentic kabuki theater music.”  So that was a huge miss and a failure to listen carefully to what the director had already said. Film music can occasionally give a composer the opportunity to dive into unfamiliar territory, and explore exotic instruments and musical styles. This is an opportunity and a risk. It helps to be a quick study, but more importantly to hear what your director is telling you.

WOODY: When you’re creating a score what sort of problems arise?

JEFF: There’s occasionally a conversation that kind of goes around when the demos and samples don’t really show the score very well, but you know it will sound great when played by live players.  There’s only so much of that that a director, especially one without a lot of experience, can really take.  So sometimes I have to go back and spend more time that I really wish I didn’t have to spend polishing a demo that’s going to have many elements replaced by recorded live players.  On indie films, it’s a soul-crushing conversation to have to say we don’t have the time to spend this level of detail on every single cue because we’ll just run out of the amount of time and money that is available for this movie. So what happens is directors often on indie films have to wear producer’s hats, and I often have to wear my agent’s hat.  They’re trying to get the best for their film, and I have to somehow be gently realistic saying, “You need to understand that I really want your film to be great, and I want to do a good job for your film, but we don’t have unlimited time and money.”  Unfortunately, especially when they’re doing it for the first time, they’re doing everything at a low-budget level so they don’t really know, necessarily, what things actually cost.  Composers like to be problem solvers.  We like to find creative ways to solve problems and our number one problem is often they don’t have enough time or enough money.

WOODY: Do you have any kind of theory for composing or do you have a way of working in terms of the creation of the music?  Or is it just really inspired by the picture and the story?

JEFF: Every project is different.  I tend to try and find something that I can use as a starting point and often it might be an instrument that makes sense as a voice that relates somehow to the characters in the story.  I’m usually driven by points in the story that we can take and extrapolate out into musical references. Usually films are thematic and they generally fall into either one theme for the whole movie or themes for individual characters and/or ideas.  When they have themes for individual characters and ideas, they start to resemble more classical opera forms.  Most of the films I find myself working on as the orchestrator or the composer, you say, “Oh this guy is on the screen and he’s doing this and there’s his theme.”  It’s a pretty accepted practice.  In film, melody is king and we’re generally writing melodies that have significance that we can attach to dramatic ideas.

WOODY: How do you go about getting work?

JEFF: When I was just starting out as a student at USC, I went down to the film school to put a poster up that said “Composer Available,” next to the poster that said “Composer Wanted.”  I did a lot of student films.  My main kind of networking has been just to stay in touch with the directors that I met when they were students.  I also get a lot of work from friends of mine that are composers.  A lot of work.  My first student film in LA was from a friend that couldn’t do it.  And he said, “Why don’t you get my buddy to do it, he can do a good job.”  My first television show was from a friend who was a composer who couldn’t do that show because they needed specifically a Canadian composer, and he only knew one Canadian composer, so he said, “You should call Jeff, he’s Canadian.”  It’s funny, I remember reading a marketing how-to and it said make to sure that people know what it is that you want to do.  So, just tell your friends and family, “This is what I want to do,” you never know who they’re going to run into that is looking for something like that.

WOODY: On a different note, tell us about your composition “No Fanfare” for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

JEFF: “No Fanfare” was a commission from the Vancouver Symphony.  When Vancouver was successful for the 2010 Winter Olympics bid, the Symphony decided to commission young to write short, 3-minute works on Olympic inspired themes.  They specifically said not to write fanfares because there are already so many great ones out there.  And so, the title of my piece is “No Fanfare”.  I thought if I said it’s not a fanfare, if it sounds a little fanfare-like then you can’t blame me, it says right in the title it’s not a fanfare.  But it also made sense with what I was interested in exploring musically.  I was interested in exploring musically some of the emotional landscape of the athletes that compete and don’t really do well by gold, silver and bronze standards.  If you compete and you place 76th, yes you’re proud that you went to the Olympics, but I wondered what that was like. I wanted to have a piece that was exciting for the audience, so I imagined a race where there were people racing at the same time, not against the clock.  If you start the race and freeze-frame somewhere in the middle, then consider all the possibilities that expand forth in separate timelines, nobody has won and nobody has lost yet and everything is still possible.  At that moment everyone is a potential winner and everyone is a potential loser and that’s the most exciting part of the race, when it’s actually happening.  Musically this had nice tie-ins to the Winter Olympics because you’re thinking of freezing things, flash-freezing a moment, and you have reflections in ice and things like this, so that’s kind of how I got into it musically.

WOODY: And that was played when exactly?

JEFF: The Vancouver Symphony performed it a couple of times in 2005, and now they have it in their repertoire.  I haven’t really spent a lot energy pushing it further into the classical concert world, but that was a very blank page: writing a piece of concert music after being in film for a couple of years.  I have been exploring that side of music further.

WOODY: What advice would give a new or first time director in terms of collaboration with a composer?

JEFF: I think one of the bigger pet peeves is that music comes as an afterthought, that directors start to think about music really late in the process.  Maybe they’re thinking about sound late in the process, but this is half of the experience.  People are taking in the film through their eyes and their ears.  Directors have so much to think about, I know they do, to make a film.  There are so many different parts that go into it, but you can get a lot more out of your composer (or any crew member) if they feel that their job is valued and their contribution is valued because you’re thinking about the music early.  My advice to a director would be to think about the sound and music when they’re writing their script, when they’re doing their prep, when they’re shooting. Begin talking and thinking about music even at that early stage.  There’s nothing more stressful than being out of money and out of time and having to come to somebody and say, “Can you drop everything and do this?”  That’s really, really difficult to do.  And I really don’t want to have to say no to somebody.  Part of my job is to go on a journey and figure out what it is that this movie is supposed to be.  But films don’t get made overnight.  If you have a conversation while you’re in pre-production then you’ve got plenty of time to think about what it might be.