People say that your soundtrack is one third of your film – so why is it so often overlooked by independent filmmakers? What actually is narrative music and why is it so important in the film industry? We discuss this and a whole lot more besides with accomplished movie composer Andrew S. Markus from 4scoreand7music.
Andrew also tells us how established men like him are supporting women in film and other under represented groups, by working at cost for the right projects, via his new initiative: The Equity in Film Program.
FF: Would you like to introduce yourself?
AM: Sure. My name is Andrew Markus and I’m a film composer/sound designer mixer from 4 Score and 7 Music in New York City.
Composing film scores and movie sound tracks
FF: So, how did you get into composing film music and soundtracks?
AM: I always loved movies and always loved music. I think it was in high school where I started to get very interested in instrumental music. Then in college I majored in music composition, I would write for all different kinds of instruments, basically whatever we had. String quartets, woodwinds, and brass… I became friends with all the musicians and they all played my music for me, because I always wrote my music out neatly. I remember one time asking a flute player to do a piece I wrote. She said that she couldn’t, she didn’t have time, she was really busy. Then she opened up the envelope and she said, ‘Oh, everything’s so neat. Oh, you have a schedule. Yeah, I’ll do it’. So being malleable and being organised was a big help. I had a lot of interest in musical theatre, which is a very American thing, and studied at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, which is an audition-only program and graduated to the advanced level. What I found was that learning about musical theatre made me a better film composer, because I think in terms of story: everything being story-driven, character-driven. It’s not about creating music that’s the kind of music I want to write, but the kind of music a film needs, and that makes a story come alive.
I have a little saying, that ‘The purpose of music and film is to make the story feel real, whatever that story is’, and I always come from there.
FF: So where did your passion begin for music? Did your parents get you into music? Or was it something you gravitated towards yourself?
AM: It started before I could even play an instrument. I would write songs and build instruments out of wood, or rubber bands and things, and just sing songs and write songs without even knowing how to play anything! So when I got my first lesson on the piano at about 11, the first thing I did was write a song. I would have trouble practising the piano because whenever I would practise something, I’d make a mistake. But then I’d come up with some kind of thing of my own, and I would go down that path. So performing wasn’t as big of a deal for me as writing was; I really like being the heart and soul behind something visual.
FF: Rather than being like in the limelight, in the spotlight, I guess?
Meet people. Write music – fail – learn. I think the one thing for anybody who’s creative is don’t worry about achieving everything in your first project.
FF: Do you sing as well? Obviously you’re writing lyrics, so do you ever pick up anything yourself? Or do you always hand it over to someone else?
AM: Well, I usually write instrumental music at this point, but I would always hand things over to other people. Although, in developing a career as a composer, before having it be my job, one thing I did was being a teaching artist, and I taught kids Musical Theatre in New York City for many years. So I actually developed a decent voice by teaching kids to sing.
FF: So, what’s your approach? You were saying that the narrative and the story are so important for you creating music, and making sure that the music assists to move the story along. Music is such a huge part, such a crucial part of any film, in my opinion, I’m sure it’s yours as well, for obvious reasons. I do think that often the sound production is the thing that falls down in a lot of indie films. When you’re approaching writing the music for a film, obviously, you’re inspired by the story, but do you also pull inspiration from other aspects of your life or other experiences?
AM: Probably, but I tend to want to see the world through the eyes of the characters and keep a distance. I scored a film called Video Girl (2011) many years ago. It had Meagan Good who’s a pretty well-known actress; it was her vehicle and it was Ruby Dee‘s last movie. When I was scoring that film, my kids, my twins, were just born, and my businesses had a little bit of a dip. So there was all this pressure of that and having kids, and there was a certain… maybe sadness or stress or something… that made its way into the music. So when I hear that music, I still feel that way. But that’s the only time I can think of, having done a couple of hundred things, that I brought the way I was feeling at the moment into it.
From Meagan Good to Ralph Macchio
FF: You mentioned a film that included Meagan Good… What other projects have you been on and what type of involvement did you have?
AM: There was another film a few years ago called Lost Cat Corona (2017), which was an indie dark comedy with Ralph Macchio from The Karate Kid (1984), and now Cobra Kai (2018 – ), where he plays this sort of pushover guy. He goes out on this adventure because his cat gets lost, and he sort of finds his passion in life, and his bravado.
Ralph Macchio is really good in it. He’s not playing the Karate Kid, or any of the other roles I’ve seen him in, and he was just terrific in it. In April, something came out called Gravesend (2020 – 21)on Amazon Prime. It’s a limited series about a young mobster who becomes a captain, and his trials and tribulations. That was really good.
A film called Chronicle of a Serial Killer (2020) just got released in the beginning of October. That’s on all of the digital platforms, and it has some great actors like Dominique Swain and James Russo. It’s a psychological thriller and it’s really good. It was a project I got thrown into – ‘thrown into’ that makes it sound like I didn’t love every second of it – I loved every second of it! I got hired because there were problems with the quality control before distribution, and I was hired to remix it. Even though I’d never met the director, we only had a couple of phone calls, I just had this feeling like ‘I know this guy’. So I was a little bold, and I wrote some music for it. I said, ‘Look, I think your movie is great, but the score you have is not quite right for this film’. I said ‘Listen to this, I did this cue on my own time. This is what I think your film should sound like’. And he said, ‘Okay, score it, too’.
It’s not about creating music that’s the kind of music I want to write, but the kind of music a film needs, and that makes a story come alive.
FF: Wow! That’s quite a project to just stumble upon, to put your weight into, which is great. I mean, if you don’t ask you don’t get! Well done!
AM: Yeah, you have to be pushy. That’s not something that comes easy to me, actually. But sometimes you just believe in something, and you go with what you believe in. In this instance, and others, I felt like ‘I could really make this better. I can make something good, or something great, a little greater’. It worked out very nicely.
Finding work as a young film composer
FF:So as a young musician and artist that really loved film and narrative storytelling how did you find work when you were starting out? For example, as an actor, I know that I go to Spotlight or I go to Actors Access… For musicians, where are your jobs? How do you come across them?
So, for example, I met Lauren McCann because she was at a mutual friend’s house, an old friend of mine for 20 years. He was doing a reading of his pilot called How Am I Doing (2020) which has had a very similar life like Girl Boxer (2019) on the festival circuit. We met at my friend’s apartment… We’re talking and she said, ‘Oh, I’m going to need music for my film pilot’ and we just kept in touch. I don’t think it was more than six months between the time we met and when I started to do the project.
FF: So networking opportunities… Obviously for that one you happened to share a common friend, but do you go to any networking events or film festivals or anything like that?
AM: Yes, definitely. It’s been a little bit of a shame for me [with COVID]. It was a huge festival season and I had six projects in different film festivals, but none of them really happened. They happened virtually. I probably could have taken advantage of that a little more in terms of some of the virtual events. But I think getting to know people in person is really the best way, and then sometimes you meet people…I had someone I worked with on dozens of projects, and I would become his go-to person. Every composer wants to be somebody’s go-to, or a few people’s go-to, because once you develop trust and a track record with people, and they know that you’re going to do the best that you could do every time, it’s really a lot less of a headache for the filmmaker. It means there’s a whole lot of hoops they don’t have to jump through in finding someone.
FF: What’s your take on working for free to begin your career, so that you can build some kind of portfolio? Get credits? Do you think that that’s kind of a rite of passage? Or do you think that you should always be paid from the get-go?
AM: I’ve worked on and done a ton of things for free that I don’t regret. Sometimes you do a job for someone that doesn’t have the money, and you develop a bond, a friendship, they can turn you on to other people, they can recommend you. I would rather get paid a little bit of money and work for a small window of time, than not work for a small window of time. So I think if you’re just starting out to work for free, or to work for cost, or if someone gives you 100 bucks to do it, and you can get a new plugin for your system, I think it’s worth it.
FF: I know when I started acting I did a lot of free work as well just to get a showreel – because without showreel you can’t get paid work. It’s quite difficult.
I guess it’s similar for composers? You would need some kind of reel to show what you’ve done previously. After I’d done a few things, and I had a showreel and I was starting to get some paid work I was then like, ‘Okay, I may accept other free projects, but only if I love the script, and only if they can guarantee me an IMDb credit’. If I’m not going to get official credit, and it’s not going to go anywhere, then I’m not wanting to do it, because I want to make sure that I’m getting something valuable. Then I would also ask myself, ‘Okay, how likely are they to go into film festivals? Am I going to get visibility from that?’ I guess you went through a similar process as well with your music, where you kind of ramped up the levels of what you were willing to do at which point in your career.
Music with a punch: Lauren McCann’s Girl Boxer (2019)
FF: In terms of Girl Boxer (2019), how did you come up with the score for that?
AM: Lauren was talking about the idea of slip jig, very Irish, so that really is where it all started. I think I started with the fight scene…it’s sort of like filming Iraq, the boxing scene at the end is my favourite. My second favourite scene is when the two brothers come to meet each other. Jack Mulcahy and David Sitler.
David is the one with the beard and Jack Mulcahy is the clean shaven guy. Jack comes in, but you don’t know – they have this sort of stony-faced look at each other, we don’t know they’re brothers – they exchange this glance, there’s this real tension when the door knocks and there’s an ominous tone… and then they hug! Then there’s this Irish pan flute. A warm, warm feeling that comes through the music, it’s probably even better than the fight scene because fight scenes are more obvious. Lauren came to me with the idea of this slip jig, this Irish folk music – and it needed to rock out a little bit.
FF:That’s funny, because it stuck out to me! Maybe because [I’m] Scottish and, so, Irish, you know, we have quite similar music. Straight away I was like ‘Hmm, I’m watching an American film but this sounds Irish’. Straight away it definitely adds to their character. I think you did a superb job there, bringing home who they are and where they’re coming from.
Andrew S. Markus’ Equity in Film Program
So what do you feel is next for you in terms of your career within film?
AM: Well, I’m starting a new project, or a rather new program. With projects like Girl Boxer (2019) and How Am I Doing? (2020) and several others, I noticed that I was working with really strong indie projects that were often female driven. Like, in the case of Lauren McCann, and How Am I Doing? (2020), they were directed and produced by a woman. There were also a couple of other great festival projects like a show called Always, written, directed and produced by women. So, I created something for my company called the Equity in Film Program. If someone who’s a minority, a woman, or LGBTQ director, producer or writer wants to have their sound done, I review the film, not like a critical review, just what needs to be done, then I basically do it for cost. The website has the application or questionnaire.
FF: That’s amazing. That’s so lovely to hear. So basically any less represented groups, does that include ethnic minorities and things like that as well?
FF: That’s really nice to hear, because it is hard for women, especially women of colour. I’m North African myself, I know I have a Scottish accent, but it can be very difficult, I think, to connect with the right people or to even get projects. So that’s just amazing to hear.
AM: I just did a very short project called America Rise. It’s more of a very experimental film. It’s only about six or seven minutes long. I did that through the program. I’m about to start a… I guess it’s a pilot or proof-of-concept called Glasshouse, which is a political drama. A really, really interesting story. I don’t want to give away too much, but I’m about to start on that. There’s just so many awesome stories from the underrepresented voices.
FF: I completely agree with you. That’s one thing that I’m focusing on as well, within the Film Forums Podcast. The creator of Film Forums, Richard Williams and I, both feel very strongly about making sure that there is representation. So we want people of colour, we want people of all different backgrounds, whether it’s LGBTQ or women in film… We want to increase visibility for the underrepresented.
AM: True. The thing is when you have when you have underrepresented people, and you see the different looking faces, and the different skin colour, they still have the human experience that we all have, the same human experience. Obviously, we have different human experiences, but we all love, we all value family, community. Through diversity, we find the things that are common in everybody.
FF: Is there anything coming out really soon that we could watch, or listen to and get into?
AM: There’s Chronicle of a Serial Killer (2020), which is on demand and all the digital platforms and Gravesend (2020 – 2021) on Amazon Prime. There’s a really nice short I did called Black N’ Blue (2018). That’s a 12-13 minutes short. Black N’ Blue (2018) is on Amazon Prime also.
There is one other thing I do, it’s called Film Music Mentor. It’s a YouTube channel, and I give stories and advice about how to use music in film, and how to avoid all kinds of issues, like legal issues and common mistakes that people make with music, and just to create a better dialogue between composers and filmmakers. It’s been on YouTube for a couple of years. If anyone’s interested in learning about how to communicate better, how to find a composer, what questions to ask, the difference between a songwriter and a composer… there’s a wealth of information there.
FF:I think that’s a fantastic wealth of information there for people who are coming up.
AM: If you’re coming up, just keep doing it. Meet people. Write music – fail – learn. I think the one thing for anybody who’s creative is don’t worry about achieving everything in your first project. You don’t have to make the funniest, most dramatic, scariest political film ever in one film. Let your career be a wealth of diverse projects and expressions. Don’t worry about doing everything at once.
Presenter: Aiysha Jebali
Transcription: Ben Kelly
Editor: Richard Williams
Scottish Tunisian actress. Yes, that’s a thing. BAME. POC.