Composer and director relationships - how do you know if you have a good one?

Music is such an important part of the film.  It helps support the storyline, conveys emotions and helps to set the tone and mood of the film.  It’s closely related to the pacing set by editing, and overall is an integral part of any film.  So, the relationship between the director, whose every effort is put forward to convey the best version of the film they can, and the composer is super important.  While there are other people the director needs to work closely with (the DP, editor, Assistant director and producer, just to name a few) I would go out on a limb and say that the relationship between the director and composer is one of the most important to get right.

 Once a director and composer find each other, how do they know if the working relationship is going to…. well, work?  In my experience working with directors, the best collaborations I have had all generally have had the same things in common. 

 One of the things that I found to be a good sign, is when there is mutual respect of each other’s work, and with that, an understanding of what each person brings to the table.  Without a film, there would be no film score, and without a composer, a film would have no sonic accompaniment.  Since I’ve been working primarily in the independent world, I know that the directors I’ve worked with wear different hats at varying times.  Not only did they probably write the script, they are often responsible for hiring the actors and the other crew they will need, depending on what the producer is handling.  It takes an incredible amount of hard work and grit to go from an idea to a finished project, and I have an enormous amount of respect for what they accomplish.  If a composer has respect for a director’s work and there is an understanding of how the composer can enhance the film and the director has the foresight and ability to acknowledge what the composer brings to the table, then that is a good sign that the relationship has a strong footing. 

In addition to all of the creative aspects of the film, there is quite a lot of people management to deal with.  The last thing a composer should be, is one of the difficult people a director needs to deal with!  So, while this point falls a bit more on qualities a composer should have, I would say a healthy collaboration is comprised of people whom aren’t difficult to work with, but are cognizant of how to get things done in a timely manner.  After all, the goal of this is to create something magical, and if there is animosity between two people, that is probably going to come out in the final product!  When a director and composer are getting to know each other, it should be easy-going and almost like a budding friendship, because at the end of the day, despite the fact that one person is hiring another person for their creative services, you’re both human beings, and its going to be a better collaboration if you treat each other as if you could be friends.

As is the case with any relationship, communication is key.  Whether its communicating deadlines, discussing spotting notes, or staying organized with revisions, maintaining solid communication during the film scoring process (and even before and after) is a really important thing to have to make a director-composer relationship work well.  I’ve had some fantastic communication experiences, and then a couple not so great ones, and I definitely learned from all of them!

Finally, and this one is the most nuanced but very important, is that the director and composer need to be on the same page creatively.  Maybe they don’t need to both be working in identical genres, but there should be a clear understanding, on the part of the composer, of what the director is looking for musically and emotionally for their film, and a director, hopefully has some vision for what the music should be doing, even if they don’t have a lot of examples or know exactly what they want.  Formulating what is going to be written and where is a process that takes some time to determine over the course of many conversations, so it’s ok if the two don’t have all of the answers immediately.  I’ve worked with some directors that knew exactly what they wanted, and others that gave me a largely blank slate to work from.  And both situations can be really wonderful and productive. 

There have been some incredibly fruitful director – composer relationships.  Here are the most well known!