Published on November 19th, 2019 | by gareth0
Talking Composing Television And Film With Composer Shie Rozow
Recently I spoke with Composer Shie Rozow about his career and his numerous film and television scores.
How did you get into composing and music editing?
I’ve been composing my entire life, when I was in elementary school a friend’s dad passed away suddenly from a heart attack. In response I wrote my very first song and have been writing ever since. Growing up in Israel, I served in the military as is required of all healthy young men & women after high-school, and as I prepared to leave the military at the end of my service I realized that I was a composer through and through, so I decided perhaps I should actually learn how to read and write music and get a formal education. I went to Rimon School of Jazz & Contemporary Music in Israel, and was later awarded a partial scholarship to Berklee College of Music where I earned my degree in Film Scoring. It was at Berklee that I was introduced to music editing as it was a mandatory class in the film-scoring program.
After I moved to LA I found a job at a post-production house that worked mostly on low-budget projects like Biography, Intimate Portraits, Modern Marvels and so on, where I worked as music supervisor/music editor/composer and that’s where I cut my teeth working on about 600 hours of TV in 2 years. After that I went freelance and one opportunity led to the next and here I am 20 years & 100 films later, extremely grateful to still be doing it.
Where do you find your inspiration when composing?
When writing for film or TV it’s always from the story and what I’m seeing on the screen. Everything from the plot points, to the acting to the wardrobe, the set design, the lighting, the cinematography, the editing, it all informs the story and that’s where I find my musical voice. It’s all about using music to further the story and ideally add some depth, emotion, or subtext that elevates the show. And if I can’t do that with music for a particular scene, it probably doesn’t need music. Knowing where NOT to use music is just as important.
What were some of the biggest challenges you have faced and what have been your greatest triumphs?
Professionally, the challenges and triumphs seem to go hand in hand. Hustle & Flow was a huge challenge. It was relatively early in my career and John Singleton asked me to do the film. It was very low budget and had lots of music happening on camera as well as a ton of songs and we were working with a first time composer. So it presented a lot of creative and technical challenges and the end result is a classic that I’m very proud of. There have been some other projects, big and small budget, that presented unique challenges that have gone on to do well. Recently I finished working on Wu Tang: An American Saga for Hulu, and that was hugely challenging working with all the on-camrea stuff, tons of songs and working closely with The RZA who also wrote the score.
I’d say my biggest personal challenge was back in 2001 I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, and learning how to manage that and stay healthy and grounded while building a career and a family. And truly my greatest triumph is that here I am 18 years later healthier than ever, married with two incredible kids AND a career. That’s by far the greatest triumph of all and I feel very fortunate to be where I am today.
How much leeway do you have with the creation of a score? What about when music editing?
I happen to think that my job isn’t just to do as I’m told, but to bring my talent, creativity, sensibility and experience into each project I work on and use those to help shape the score. Whether I’m composing or music editing it really depends on the filmmakers. Some filmmakers have a very strong and rigid idea of what they want, and my job is just to deliver what they’re asking for. In situations like that there’s less leeway, but even within that I try to find a way to do it with my own voice, especially when composing. Other filmmakers are happy to experiment and try different things, or perhaps we’ve worked together before and have built up trust so they just let me do what I think is right and then we discuss and make any changes or tweaks they feel are necessary. The best scenarios are when I’m allowed to experiment and try things and “swing for the fences.”
Can you explain a bit of your creative process when composing for a film or series?
I like to get involved as early as possible, on some projects even before they shoot. In cases like that I’ll watch dailies and early cuts and let ideas start marinating in my brain so by the time I get a cut to work with I’m already intimately involved and familiar with the story, the characters and the aesthetic of the project. More often I get hired when they’re in or about to start post, so the first cut I see is a rough cut. Usually there will be some kind of temp score that was created by the picture editor or a music editor. I always like to watch it without any temp at all for the very first time. I like to get that raw, gut impression of the show. Then I’ll watch it with their temp and it gives me an idea of what they’re looking for (or think they’re looking for) and that’s when we start to talk about the music. It’s not uncommon for me to write a theme or two not to picture and send to the director or show runner for his/her input before I start writing to picture. Then when I do start writing I like to pick the most climactic or emotionally charged scene and do that one first and then work from there. I find that if I can score the peak moment and nail it, everything else then becomes about building to that peak. On a series it’s the same idea, but I like to get an overview of the arc of the entire season since I don’t get that peak moment of the season in the first episode. Then when I write the first episode I have that future plot points and peaks in mind as I go through the episodes, though within the individual episode it’s the same idea, find the key scene and start with that.
When scoring/music editing for a series, do you have the opportunity to watch several episodes prior to working on the score or the music editing?
It depends on the show, but usually no. Sometimes when working with the streaming services and we’re creating the entire season before it airs I may get to watch a couple of episodes at once, but it’s pretty unusual. What’s more common is that I get sent specific scenes from future episodes where the editors need my help temping their rough cuts, so I get to see various scenes out of context. I always have the scripts so I make sure to read them so I get the context before doing those scenes.
Do you find certain genres more interesting or challenging work on? Does your process change for different genres?
I love strong stories where I get to play with emotions. Whether I make the audience cry or laugh or put them on the edge of their seat, that’s where I think I thrive. Doing a big action cue with a huge orchestra is really gratifying and fun because there’s just a lot of overwhelming power when 80-100 musicians are blasting away, it’s really intoxicating. But great as that is, I prefer the moments where we’re doing something really intimate and delicate. I’m just as happy doing a synth score with maybe one or two live musicians and when we’re done with the recording session we both feel like we’ve shared a very special experience. It’s really magical when my music moves someone, especially the musicians who are playing it. These are the best musicians on the planet and they play a LOT of music, so if I can move them, I’m pretty confident the audience will be moved and that’s magic.
I think the process is essentially the same – it’s always driven by the story first and foremost.
Is there a particular piece of music that you are most proud of? Or a project that you worked on?
That’s a tough one because I’m my harshest critic and I really don’t like to toot my own horn. There’s a piano piece called Esmé’s Moon, which is very special to me. I dedicated to my friends daughter who died by suicide and it’s very special to me (You can hear it here https://youtu.be/HCaqWsBjWks). In terms of projects, there are a few. Hustle & Flow is very special to me. Big Fish is another. But more than these successful films, I think Matt & Maya is one I’m truly proud of. Matt & Maya is a short film that was written by Jon Huntley, who was afflicted with ALS and living at the MPTF assisted living facility in Woodland Hills. Despite his body being frozen and only being able to communicate with the world using his eyes with the aid of a computer system that tracks his eye movement, he wrote a short film, which was directed and shot by fellow residents, staff, and volunteers on campus and later he edited the film. With his eyes! I got to write the music for this beautiful film and two dozen of the finest musicians in LA all donated their time and talent to record the score live at The Bridge Recording (which has since closed). The studio was donated by the then wonder, Greg Curtis, and that project is truly a once-in-a-lifetime type opportunity that I treasure.
What sorts of composers inspire you? Are there any composers in particular you listen to when preparing for a film or series?
In the film-scoring world I’m a huge fan of Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. I’ve had the good fortune to work closely with Danny Elfman for many years and have been influenced by his work, I’m sure (not to mention being a fan). I’m currently working with Pinar Toprak on Stargirl and watching her is quite inspiring. Last year I discovered the music of Ariel Marx and I think she has a very unique voice that I really like. Austin Wintory does some great things in the gaming world (sometimes he reminds me of Goldsmith). I also love Mozart and Beethoven in particular and find their music to be breathtaking, along with some of Wagner’s music. I think Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus is probably the most divine piece of music ever written.
When I prepare to write a score I actually avoid listening to any film or classical music and either listen to audio-books or pop or world music or anything but film music. I don’t want to be overly influenced by something that I may then try to emulate. I try my best to find my own voice and my own way to approach it.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love hanging out with my wife and kids more than anything. Seeing the world through my children’s eyes is magic. I love to SCUBA dive (though I haven’t been able to do it in far too long). I recently discovered that I enjoy baking breads (mostly different types of bagels). But other than being with my family the majority of what I do with my spare time is write concert music. I really love writing music. It’s my greatest hobby, which I’m also lucky enough to get to do as a career.
What do you have coming up?
I’m finishing up the last few episodes of Stargirl, which I can’t wait for folks to see next year. I’m about to start on a really interesting 8 episode series for Amazon. I’m also scoring a gorgeous indie feature called Monologue and need to finish that score, and there are a few more possible projects in the mix, which may or may not happen. Ask me again in a couple of months and we’ll see if any of those actually materialize 🙂