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11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Film Composers

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Film music can be iconic and catchy or underrated and subtle; it can help drive the plot forward, build suspense, or elongate a moment, creating a space for contemplation. With one foot in the world of visual storytelling and the other in the world of music, composers bridge the gap between sound and vision. Here are a few things you might not know about the profession.

1. THEY OFTEN WORK CRAZY HOURS.

Because deadlines are constantly shifting, composers frequently end up with a lot less time than expected to complete a score. "Schedules always get changed, and deadlines move forwards or backwards,” says Dan Romer, a composer best known for his work on Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) and Beasts of No Nation (2015).

When mental_floss spoke with Romer, he was preparing two documentaries, Gleason and Jim: The James Foley Story, for their premieres at this year's Sundance Film Festival. “Sometimes it works out where you have to do a lot of work in a very small amount of time. Right now, I’m getting ready for Sundance and working very, very long hours—between 12 and 16 hours a day. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.”

2. THEY KNOW HOW TO READ MINDS.

While most directors have a sense of what they'd like their film's score to sound like, they don't necessarily have the musical vocabulary necessary to express their ideas. Composers need to learn how to translate a director's creative ideas into music. “The job of a composer is mainly to translate the filmmaker's musical vision,” Jeff Russo, who is best known for his work on the television shows Fargo and Power, told Reddit. “Some don't have a musical vision ... And in that case you need to be a bit of a mind reader.” 

“Words that directors will use a lot are ‘bright,’ ‘dark,’ ‘airy.’ Those kinds of words are words you have to learn how to decode, to figure out what the director means," says Romer. "And, as a composer, you might have a very high instrument without much high end, and you think, ‘Oh, that’s a very dark sound because there’s not very much high-end on it.’ But the director might hear it and hear that as a very bright sound because it’s high. The best thing to do, I find, is to ask the director a lot of questions about what they mean, and which instruments they’re referring to."

3. SOMETIMES THEY DREAM OF MUSIC.

Most composers will tell you that inspiration can strike at any time, and often comes from unexpected sources. In a 2014 interview at Loyola Marymount University's School of Film and Television, Hans Zimmer claimed to have heard an important musical segment from The Dark Knight Rises (2012) in a dream: “I dreamt that whole sort of insane Bane opus. And, so I wrote it out, and went to Warner Brothers and said 'You know, I had this idea, and I don’t know if it’s going to work,'” he explained. “And they thought for a second, and they went, 'Yeah, go on, do it.' And it really turned out great.”

4. COMPUTERS HAVE CHANGED EVERYTHING.

Over the last few decades, computers have changed nearly every aspect of film production—and composing is no exception. With the switch from film to digital, filmmakers spend more time in the editing room, tinkering with changes both large and small, and those changes affect the score. “Because of digital editing films are never really locked any more,” says Joseph Trapanese, who scored Straight Outta Compton (2015) and Tron: Legacy (2010). “We have to record everything in separate passes (strings separated from brass separated from percussion etc.) so that we can edit the music after we record.”

Nowadays, most composers work everything out on their computer before they begin recording actual instruments. While this lets them experiment with different sounds, it can also be limiting. “The problem is that a real orchestra can make so many sounds that a [music] library cannot even capture,” Junkie XL, a.k.a. Tom Holkenborg (2015's Mad Max: Fury Road), told Reddit. “What happens then is that you start writing what sounds great on your sample set instead of what sounds great for real players!”

But Hans Zimmer sees the computer as a useful instrument: “I’ll tell you what I play—I play the computer,” he said. “When computers came along, in the '70s, I suddenly thought, hang on a second, this is interesting. These things can become an instrument.”

5. THEY COME FROM DIFFERENT MUSICAL BACKGROUNDS.

Film composers don’t always grow up knowing they want to compose music for movies. It’s not uncommon for composers to start out as classical musicians or members of rock bands. Danny Elfman had his first brush with film composing when director Tim Burton heard the music his band Oingo Boingo was making, and thought he’d be the perfect composer for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). Elfman told Rolling Stone, “When I met him, it was like, 'Why me? Why would you want me to do a score? That's crazy.' Tim was like,'I don't know. I've seen your band and I think you could do it.' It was kind of that simple.”

By contrast, John Williams, who composed the scores for Jurassic Park (1993) and The Force Awakens (2015), among other films, studied to be a concert pianist at Juilliard before moving into composing. "I played pretty well," Williams told NPR. "I did hear players like John Browning and Van Cliburn around the place ... and I thought to myself, 'If that's the competition, I think I'd better be a composer!’”

6. COMPOSING CAN GET PRETTY EMOTIONAL.

“I find that I have to, when I’m scoring a very emotional film, I have to let down my guard and really let it affect me and take hold of me in order to make the right kind of music. It’s a litmus test for me: If I cry while I’m watching a scene, then I feel like I’m doing an okay job,” says Romer. “If it’s an emotional scene and I’m not crying, there might be a problem.”

7. SOMETIMES THEY DON'T WANT THEIR WORK TO BE NOTICED.

In films with more understated scores, sometimes composers try not to make music that stands out too much. “I love it when the movie reviews are great and nobody mentions the music. That means I'm doing my job—helping to make the film better but going unnoticed,” says Trapanese. “Though I've had a fortunate position of being involved with some amazing film scores and artists who do stand out. I don't think there is any one way to make a successful film, and I've enjoyed both films where the music is very very minimal (like Network and Drive) and where the music plays a huge role (Star Wars and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly).”

8. THEY LET THE STORY DEFINE THE SOUND.

When people ask what the inspiration for a particular season is, it's the story,” explains Russo. “The characters and the story are always the inspiration.”

9. THEY'RE ALWAYS ON THE LOOKOUT FOR WEIRD NEW SOUNDS.

In recent years, music software has expanded the range of sounds composers can play with. A number of programs let composers take any sound sample and turn it into a musical instrument that can play at any pitch. For Beasts of No Nation, Romer used everything from wine glasses to submarine sonar sounds. “All these instruments, if you can get one cool note out of it, then you can stretch it across the keyboard,” says Romer. “With Beasts of No Nation what we were able to do was, instead of taking one note, we were creating dissonant chords. Then, I’d play many of those at once, which would make a totally dissonant, chaotic, kind of drone sound.”

10. THEY ALL HAVE DIFFERENT CREATIVE PROCESSES.

When they first begin work on a score, some composers grab a pen and paper, while others sit down at their piano or computer. “I don’t use a computer when I write and I don’t use a piano. I’m at a desk writing and it’s very broad strokes and notes as colors on a palette,” Avatar (2009) composer James Horner told The LA Times in 2009. “I think very abstractly when I’m writing. Then as the project moves on it becomes more like sculpting.”

11. IF YOU WANT TO BE A FILM COMPOSER, BE OPEN TO NEW OPPORTUNITIES.

The path to becoming a film composer is often full of twists and turns. If you’re interested in composing, Trapanese recommends learning as much as you can from as many teachers as you can, and being open to internships. “Every job I’ve ever had can be traced back to my first two internships,” he says. Romer, meanwhile, recommends focusing on music, in general, instead of just film composing. “Don’t try to be a film composer, just be a musician,” says Romer. “If you really want to be a film composer, lean towards it, but don’t turn down jobs that are music-related but not film composition.”

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20 Things You Might Not Know About Mr. Show
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You never need an excuse to look back at Mr. Show with Bob and David, but given that today is co-creator Bob Odenkirk's 55th birthday, now seems to be as good a time as any.

1. BOB ODENKIRK AND DAVID CROSS’S FIRST MEETING DID NOT GO VERY WELL.

Following four years of writing on Saturday Night Live, Odenkirk was in Los Angeles in 1992 as a writer for the Chris Elliott Fox cult classic Get a Life. David Cross was a comedian in L.A. after performing for years in Boston. One boring afternoon, Cross asked friend and fellow stand-up Janeane Garofalo if she knew anybody that played basketball. The two went to Odenkirk’s house, and Garofalo introduced David to Bob and then asked if he wanted to play basketball. He said no.

2. ODENKIRK AND CROSS FIRST WORKED TOGETHER ON THE BEN STILLER SHOW.

Despite their inauspicious beginning, the two ended up having numerous fruitful collaborations, starting with their work on The Ben Stiller Show. Odenkirk was a writer/performer on the short-lived but Emmy award-winning sketch show with Garofalo, Stiller, and Andy Dick. Cross was brought in in the middle of the show’s 13-episode run as a writer.

3. THE CO-STARS FIRST PERFORMED ON STAGE TOGETHER AS "THE THREE GOOFBALLZ."

Odenkirk and Cross performed sketch comedy together at the Diamond Club in Los Angeles, with a third improviser that, the joke went, would either be deceased or out elsewhere getting high.

4. "THE THREE GOOFBALLZ' WAS ALMOST THE TITLE OF MR. SHOW

Odenkirk also pitched the title Grand National Championships, but David Cross was never a fan of it.

5. JACK BLACK, SARAH SILVERMAN, AND OTHER FUTURE STARS APPEARED ON THE SHOW BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS.

Black was in four episodes of Mr. Show, starring in the classic Jesus Christ Superstar parody “Jeepers Creepers.” Silverman was a performer in 10 episodes. Mary Lynn Rajskub, best known as Chloe on 24, was a featured actress in the first two years. Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, was a series regular for a majority of the run. Scott Adsit, a.k.a. 30 Rock’s Pete Hornberger, was in six episodes.

6. PATTON OSWALT WARMED UP THE MR. SHOW CROWD.

In addition to performing stand-up before tapings and keeping the studio audience interested in between scenes, Oswalt played Famous Mortimer in the episode “Operation: Hell on Earth” (but was credited as “Patton Oswald.”)

7. HOMELESS PEOPLE WERE NOT KIND TO THE ORIGINAL SETS.

Because the pilot episode was shot at a “down and dirty,” small Central Hollywood club, the sets had to be placed outside, where homeless people defecated on them.

8. YOU MIGHT ALSO RECOGNIZE SOME OF THE WRITING STAFF.

Dino Stamatopoulos was already on the original writing staff of Late Night with Conan O’Brien and had written for David Letterman before writing for Cross and Odenkirk. He would later create three shows and play Starburns on Community. Writer/performer Scott Aukerman co-created and executive produces Between Two Ferns, and created and stars on Comedy Bang! Bang!. Writer/performer Paul F. Tompkins hosted VH-1’s Best Week Ever! and currently hosts the satirical debate show No, You Shut Up!, where he moderates discussions by a panel full of puppets. Bob Odenkirk’s brother Bill has written ten episodes of The Simpsons.

9. THE DIRECTORS OF LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE LEARNED HOW TO DIRECT COMEDY FROM MR. SHOW.

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton were known for directing music videos like The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” and Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing,” and decided to direct two Mr. Show episodes to expand their filming vocabulary. The husband and wife team were behind the camera for the classic sketch “Monk Academy.”

10. ONE SKETCH WAS INFLUENCED BY LOUIS C.K.

One of the first sketches in the show’s history involved Odenkirk playing a priest forced to do rather unpleasant and un-priestly things. The idea sprang from a conversation David Cross had with fellow young Boston comic Louis C.K., where Louis talked about annoying people that try to claim a prize on a bet that their friends never agreed to in the first place.

11. HBO ONLY CENSORED THE SHOW ONCE.

Throughout four years and 30 episodes, the lone note Odenkirk and Cross got from HBO was to get rid of a line where one character tells another to have sex with a baby. Odenkirk admitted that being told to edit it out “wasn’t too much to ask.”

12. THEY ONLY RECEIVED ONE VIEWER COMPLAINT.

The only angry letter that Odenkirk and Cross were ever made aware of was from a military veteran who was offended by the sketch in “Who Let You In?” where Cross’s performance artist character attempts to defecate on the American flag. The two stars actually called the viewer and discovered that he didn’t watch the entire sketch, and therefore never realized that Cross’ character was never able to actually go through with it.

13. ONE SKETCH WAS CUT FROM THE SHOW SIX TIMES AND NEVER MADE IT TO AIR.

A sketch called “Party Car,” a joke on old, low-quality shows filled with '70s celebrities was cut from half a dozen scripts and never filmed. It would have featured Nipsey Russell, Zsa Zsa Gabor, (or reasonable facsimiles), and a baby in a balloon-filled car.

14. BOB ODENKIRK GOT IN TROUBLE FOR USING A PICTURE OF HIS DEAD GRANDFATHER.

Because the sketch “Old Man In House” needed a photo of an old man, and the elderly gentleman was not the butt of the joke, Odenkirk thought it would be fine. Instead, some Odenkirks were “very upset.”

15. CROSS WAS PAYING OFF HIS STUDENT LOAN DEBTS THROUGHOUT MOST OF THE SERIES.

David Cross and Amber Tamblyn
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Despite executive producing and co-creating a series on television, Cross had trouble paying off his student loan debts from his time at Emerson College. Figuring that the person calling from the bill collection agency wouldn’t believe that he couldn’t pay if he knew his job status, Cross pretended that he worked at Mr. Show as a messenger.

16. ONE PERSON WAS GIVEN A "SPECIAL THANKS" IN THE CLOSING CREDITS OF EVERY EPISODE AS A JOKE.

As Cross once explained, Rick Dees was thanked in the credits of the pilot episode, even though he was “certainly nobody we would ever thank, or be in a position to thank.” Some personalities that were thanked for no discernable reason were Greg Maddux, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, Gabe Kaplan, and Howard Zinn.

17. HBO CHANGED THE TIME SLOT FOR ITS FINAL SEASON, AND IT WAS "DEMORALIZING."

After airing Fridays at midnight for the first three seasons, HBO moved the show to Mondays at the same time, confusing some loyal viewers, and the ratings decreased as a result. Bob Odenkirk told a reporter that, after 30 episodes, HBO was still treating the cast and crew as “second-class citizens,” and that they were “demoralized” by the slot shift.

18. BOB AND DAVID TOLD A STUDIO AUDIENCE THAT THEY HAD JUST WITNESSED THE FINAL EPISODE, AND THEY WEREN'T JOKING.

“Patriotism, Pepper, and Professionalism,” the 40th and final episode of Mr. Show, was taped on November 21, 1998. After the final sketch was filmed, Odenkirk and Cross made their announcement, although the show’s cancellation wasn’t made official for another few months.

19. THERE WAS A MR. SHOW MOVIE THAT WENT STRAIGHT TO VIDEO.

Run Ronnie Run focused on David Cross’s redneck criminal character Ronnie Dobbs. It was filmed in 2001, but never made it to theaters. Bob Odenkirk admitted that the movie wasn’t perfect, but he blamed the poor quality on director Troy Miller, for not allowing himself and Cross to edit the movie.

20. THE TWO HAVE REUNITED A FEW OTHER TIMES.

David Cross and Bob Odenkirk star in 'W/ Bob and David'
Saeed Adyani/Netflix

In 2002, Bob, David, and Mr. Show writer/performers Brian Posehn, John Ennis, and Stephanie Courtney (Flo in the Progressive commercials) toured the country to perform some of the show’s sketches and material from their unproduced screenplay Mr. Show: Hooray For America! The next year, Odenkirk guest starred as Dr. Phil Gunty on a season one episode of Arrested Development, alongside Cross’ character Tobias Fünke.

In 2012, Odenkirk, Cross, and Posehn went on a six-city tour to promote their book filled with more unproduced material. Bob and David appeared briefly together the next year on an episode of Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang! In 2015, 20 years after Mr. Show's debut, Netflix premiered W/ Bob and David, a five-episode sketch comedy show created by and starring the duo.

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30 Memorable Quotes from Carrie Fisher
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Just days after suffering a heart attack aboard a flight en route to Los Angeles, beloved actress, author, and screenwriter Carrie Fisher passed away at the age of 60 on December 27, 2016. Though she’ll always be most closely associated with her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher’s life was like something out of its own Hollywood movie. Born in Beverly Hills on this day in 1956, Fisher was born into show business royalty as the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds.

In addition to her work in front of the camera, Fisher built up an impressive resume behind the scenes, too, most notably as a writer; in addition to several memoirs and semi-autobiographical novels, including Wishful Drinking, Surrender the Pink, Delusions of Grandma, The Best Awful, Postcards from the Edge, and The Princess Diarist (which was released last month), she was also an in-demand script doctor who counted Sister Act, Hook, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Wedding Singer among her credits.

Though she struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness, Fisher always maintained a sense of humor—as evidenced by the 30 memorable quotes below.

ON GROWING UP IN HOLLYWOOD

“I am truly a product of Hollywood in-breeding. When two celebrities mate, someone like me is the result.”

“I was born into big celebrity. It could only diminish.”

“At a certain point in my early twenties, my mother started to become worried about my obviously ever-increasing drug ingestion. So she ended up doing what any concerned parent would do. She called Cary Grant.”

“I was street smart, but unfortunately the street was Rodeo Drive.”

“If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive. That's my word for it.”

ON AGING

“As you get older, the pickings get slimmer, but the people don't.”

ON INSTANT GRATIFICATION

“Instant gratification takes too long.”

ON THE LEGACY OF STAR WARS

“People are still asking me if I knew Star Wars was going to be that big of a hit. Yes, we all knew. The only one who didn't know was George.”

“Leia follows me like a vague smell.”

“I signed my likeness away. Every time I look in the mirror, I have to send Lucas a couple of bucks.”

“People see me and they squeal like tropical birds or seals stranded on the beach.”

“You're not really famous until you’re a Pez dispenser.”

ON THE FLEETING NATURE OF SUCCESS

“There is no point at which you can say, 'Well, I'm successful now. I might as well take a nap.'”

ON DEALING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS

“I'm very sane about how crazy I am.”

ON RESENTMENT

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

ON LOVE

“Someone has to stand still for you to love them. My choices are always on the run.”

“I've got to stop getting obsessed with human beings and fall in love with a chair. Chairs have everything human beings have to offer, and less, which is obviously what I need. Less emotional feedback, less warmth, less approval, less patience, and less response. The less the merrier. Chairs it is. I must furnish my heart with feelings for furniture.”

“I don’t hate hardly ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.”

ON EMOTIONS

“The only thing worse than being hurt is everyone knowing that you're hurt.”

ON RELATIONSHIPS

“I envy people who have the capacity to sit with another human being and find them endlessly interesting, I would rather watch TV. Of course this becomes eventually known to the other person.”

ON HOLLYWOOD

“Acting engenders and harbors qualities that are best left way behind in adolescence.”

“You can't find any true closeness in Hollywood, because everybody does the fake closeness so well.”

“It's a man's world and show business is a man's meal, with women generously sprinkled through it like overqualified spice.”

ON FEAR

“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”

ON LIFE

“I don’t want life to imitate art. I want life to be art.”

“No motive is pure. No one is good or bad-but a hearty mix of both. And sometimes life actually gives to you by taking away.”

“If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

“I shot through my twenties like a luminous thread through a dark needle, blazing toward my destination: Nowhere.”

“My life is like a lone, forgotten Q-Tip in the second-to-last drawer.”

ON DEATH

“You know what's funny about death? I mean other than absolutely nothing at all? You'd think we could remember finding out we weren't immortal. Sometimes I see children sobbing at airports and I think, 'Aww. They've just been told.'”

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