“Standing on the podium and hearing it for the first time, I guess it’s like seeing your child for the first time,” Oscar-nominated composer John Debney (“The Passion of the Christ”) says in the trailer for “SCORE.” Fittingly enough, the feature-length portrait of the power of film music, in the works from a Los Angeles-based team of journalists, producers, and photographers, is a passion project in itself. Director and executive producer Matt Schrader and executive producer Trevor Thompson have thus far used their personal savings to fund the movie, after first discussing working on a documentary together while classmates at the University of Southern California.
“There’s clearly a sacrifice there,” says Schrader, who left a career in journalism in Sacramento to work on “SCORE.” “Trevor and I have both had to do some freelance stuff here and there to keep the money flowing.” (Full disclosure: I was acquainted with Schrader at USC, where we both worked at the student newspaper.)
The idea for the film originated with Schrader and Thompson’s shared interest in film scores, including the sonic innovations of Zimmer’s music for “The Dark Knight.” Zimmer is the latest composer to agree to appear in the film, which will also include interviews with Debney, Danny Elfman (“Good Will Hunting,” “Milk”), Howard Shore (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), John Powell (the “Bourne” trilogy), and many others.
“Often, [the score] is relegated to the bonus feature section of the DVD of the film — it’s kind of buried,” Thompson says. “This is a way of expanding and deepening that… We’re also going to have a hard time cutting the dozens or even hundreds of hours we have down to 90 minutes.”
The filmmakers, who’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the remainder of the production, including lighting and audio equipment, fees, taxes, and other operating costs, describe the process as a “leap of faith.”
“We hadn’t lined up any of those guys when we first started doing this,” Thompson says. “We really have been just taking this one step at a time, building up bigger and better interviews, refining our understanding of film music, refining the questions we ask.”
The film uses these extensive conversations with composers and other film experts in lieu of voiceover narration, in part to shift “SCORE” away from the vernacular of broadcast news — in which Schrader and Thompson, both Emmy-winning journalists, are well versed.
“I don’t see this as a ‘talking head’ documentary,” Schrader says. “I see this as an illustrative documentary that shows the process [of scoring films].” “Ideally,” he adds, when asked if “SCORE” will feature its own original score, “we want this film to be completely made up of existing scores that have had a meaningful impact on the world.”
The aural nature of the film’s subject matter posed a particular challenge to director of photography Nate Gold, also a USC alumnus, who cites the “graphical” representation in Walt Disney’s animated classic “Fantasia” as an inspiration. From macrophotography to the use of certain styles of lighting and coverage, Gold sought to capture film scoring in visual terms.
“Because this process is so magical, we really wanted to tap into that. It was kind of an interesting obstacle to think about it,” Gold says. “I really wanted to visually explore the ethereal world that most composers live in on a daily basis… They’re constantly swimming in these very amazing textures. Music is full of that. So I think you can also think about that in a visual way. There’s also a lot of visual textures as well.”
Name-checking “Birdman,” “Inception,” “The Homesman,” “The Social Network,” and “Gone Girl,” Schrader, Thompson, and Gold — whose production company, Epicleff Media, also includes Kenny Holmes, Jonathan Willbanks, and Crystal Chavarria — all highlight the “new Renaissance” described by composer and orchestrator Deborah Lurie (“Mozart and the Whale”). Increasingly, the filmmakers have been drawn to the inventive techniques and diverse genres on which contemporary composers now rely.
“These guys are really revolutionary in sound design,” Thompson says.
“I always had this idea, this impression, that most film scores are created by very classically trained musicians, that they go through this very stuffy process of [learning] how to compose,” Gold adds. “But now that we’re using much more contemporary music in film scores, they’re really taking a nice detour away from that classical [tradition]… A film score in this day and age is not just orchestral.”
Whether “SCORE” becomes “the definitive source of information on film composing,” as Thompson hopes, remains to be seen. But Schrader, already discussing plans for a limited theatrical and VOD release in late 2015, is confident that the subject of film music is close to viewers’ hearts — maybe even closer than they realize.
“Our big realization has been that everyone loves film scores in some capacity,” Schrader says. “If they love movies, they love movie scores as well.”