Recently I spoke with Composer Paul Mills about his work and his new film “Overcomer” which has received good reviews from audiences.
How did you get into composing?
I have always been fascinated with music for film. Even as a kid at the lone theater in my small hometown I had an innate sense that the music behind the action on screen was having a great power in how I perceived the film. I started collecting some of the score albums I could find by composers like Henry Mancini, Earnest Gold, and Ennio Morricone.
Later, I studied composition at the University of Houston School of Music, and while there I worked part-time at a new local recording studio as the resident arranger/keyboard player/extra engineer. I met a filmmaker from San Antonio who was doing short films and documentaries and started doing all of his music scores. Years later, he moved to Los Angeles and while working on a film project, introduced me to the other filmmakers who gave me a shot at the score. It was an amazing experience, and many of those people are like family to me now. We recorded the score at Paramount M Studio, where many of my film heroes like Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry and Bernard Herrman recorded. That film was “Still Breathing” starring Brendan Fraser, the late Celeste Holm, Lou Rawls and Joanna Going. A childhood dream was realized and I was hooked.
Where do you find your inspiration when composing?
I have several things I use to get my inspiration going. I listen to classical music, like Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, 2nd movement, and although overused in films, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings” which is just an incredible ten minute workshop in writing for strings. Those two are a great way to start a morning and clear out any musical cobwebs. I also listen to modern film composers. Hans Zimmer’s “Inception”, Thomas Newman’s “The Road To Perdition”, Craig Armstrong’s “Far From The Madding Crowd”, and Junkie XL’s “Mad Max Fury Road” are just four of the varied scores in my iTunes library that I listen to for inspiration and pleasure. All of these, of course, are accompanied by a great cup of strong coffee, some wonderful dark chocolate and a quiet place with a great view!
In addition, a composer always hopes that the film itself will be inspiring, and I have to say I have been fortunate to work with great directors and cinematographers that give me inspiring visuals and stories to enhance with music.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced scoring and what have been your greatest triumphs?
For the film “Run The Race” I was up for the film but hadn’t won the job yet. I was known more for big orchestral scores that were epic and broad in texture, and this film needed to be much more intimate and small for the most part. Instead of a huge orchestra, it needed instruments more akin to the heartland and small town life; for example, acoustic guitar, mandolin, Appalachian dulcimer, Bouzouki, pump organ, even washboards and bicycle bells! It was a very new pallette for me, and I asked the director, Chris Dowling, to direct me the same way he would direct his actors. We ended up having the most wonderful time, and he pulled music out of me and stretched me in the best way. So that initial challenge turned into one of my fondest triumphs, especially since Chris has chosen me to score his next film.
Can you explain a bit of your creative process when composing for a film?
After reading the script and having initial conversations about the film and music with the director, I will load whatever bits of the film I’m given at first and start to explore how to make the filmmakers’ vision for the music a reality. For instance, on “Woodlawn”, the Erwin Brothers wanted the movie to be bigger than just a film about football, they wanted it to have the weight and girth of a Superhero origin story. So, I started on one of the football game scenes and experimented with very heroic, slow moving themes in the low strings and brass, as well as choosing low sounding percussion and effects. I experimented with natural and synthetic sounds to add pulses and accents to the music. In some of the slow motion scenes in the games, the score blurred the lines separating music and sound design. I used percussive loops manipulated in both pitch and speed, as well as synthetic sweeps and almost industrial sounding mechanical drones and metallic percussive rhythms. It’s a lot like a painter choosing their colors until there is a palette created that will unify the whole painting. All of these sounds, both natural orchestral and synthetic manipulated ones, made up the palette for the rest of the film.
For the Kendrick Brothers film “Overcomer”, as well as their film “War Room”, they wanted strong and memorable themes. Being a film about cross country racing, there were very aggressive running sequences. But there were also a lot of very intimate scenes between two characters. The creative goal in these scenes was to have thematic material, but with as few notes as possible, moving as slow as possible, to let the dialogue win with no distractions. So even in the scenes where music could shine, I tried to make the themes simple with only a few notes. So later in the dialogue scenes the audience just feels a subtle familiarity in the music bed under the speaking. Therefore, the entire film is unified musically, but not in a blatant and obvious way.
When scoring for a film, do you have the opportunity to watch several clips prior to working on the score?
I’m always sent a script to read, so I am familiar with the story. Before I start composing, I always meet with the director and sometimes the producer, and we watch an early cut of the movie and discuss where music can be etc. This is called the music spotting session. Sometimes they will put “temp music” in the film, which is where they will add score music temporarily from other films so that they can give producers and test audiences a feel for how the film will end up. I usually ask a lot of questions about the temp music like, “how successful do you feel this is” etc. This process will usually take four or five hours and by the end I have a ton of notes I’ve taken that I will use as I start composing.
Is there a particular piece of music that you are most proud of? Or a project that you worked on?
There is a final cross country race at the end of “Overcomer” that is over eleven minutes long. It’s the longest score cue I’ve composed so far, and it literally took a couple of months to get just right. I am really pleased with the musical and visual journey there, and have seen this scene with a couple of live audiences. They are always rising up out of their seats and clapping and yelling, so I think that is a super effective scene in the film. It’s another great example of the visuals inspiring me to create the music. That plus hearing director Alex Kendrick’s feedback on the early versions of that music helped me to shape a good musical match to the visuals.
Do you find a genre more interesting or challenging to do? Is the process different for the different genres?
I am currently working on a comedy, which is a genre I have never done but have looked forward to doing. And so, I have great appreciation for my fellow composers who routinely work in this genre. I think it is more difficult to get a comedic moment just right musically than perhaps an epic battle scene, because it is so easy to overdo it, or to telegraph the humor in a corny way.
What is the same in all genres is that the composer must enhance the film, not take over the film. I like to look at good score music like looking at the lighting of a scene. If it’s done well, the audience doesn’t say to themselves, “oh, this scene is really well lit!”, they just are immersed in a wonderfully natural way. The same goes for music. The story is the most important thing. The music should just enhance in a way not usually felt.
What sorts of composers inspire you? Are there any composers in particular you listen to when preparing for a film or series?
Michael Giaccino’s work ethic inspires me as much as his music. I read in an interview that he has never had writer’s block, and just gets up early and gets his work done, and then spends time with his family. Hans Zimmer, in videos and interviews, is always hammering about “the story.” The story in the film is the most important element, and if you understand the story, the music composing is much clearer. John Williams inspires me to just get to work. He said in an interview with Steve Moss from The Guardian “Any working composer or painter or sculptor will tell you that inspiration comes at the eighth hour of labour, rather than as a bolt out of the blue. We have to get our vanities and our preconceptions out of the way and do the work in the time allotted.” BOOM!
Part of my preparation for a film will be to go back to my studio after the spotting session and listen to the composers they chose for temp music in certain scenes in the film. I have my notes and I try to analyze what I think it was that made the successful temp music scenes work for the director and editor. It usually boils down to emotions both conscious and subconscious. Then I can explore and find my own voice for these scenes, and try something completely different that will work even better, because it’s a unique direction for THIS story.
What do you like to do you in spare time?
Believe it or not I like to watch movies! I love watching a movie for the first time as a regular viewer and enjoying the journey it takes me on. Then I’ll go back and watch again as a composer and listen to the film composer’s choices in various scenes. I could watch three movies back to back in this way, if I had a day off!
The best thing to do in my spare time is hanging with my wife Cathy and son Riley. It’s great to get up on a day off and make coffee and sit and talk with Cathy as we gaze out our window and watch the birds on our feeders and fountain. Then around noon, I’ll go into the kitchen and make breakfast for lunch, and our son (who lives fairly close to us) will come over and we’ll have a great diner-style breakfast and sit and talk about life. The best!
What do you have upcoming?
I will be finishing producing and mixing the songs for the new Erwin Brothers music biopic “I Still Believe”, and I will also be mixing the score. Right on the heels of that, I am scoring the new Chonda Pierce comedy “Lien On Me” directed by Chris Dowling. I alluded to this earlier, my first foray into scoring for comedy. I can’t wait!
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