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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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10 Fun Facts About Spice World
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In 1996, the Spice Girls took the world by storm when they released the song “Wannabe” from their debut album, Spice. Their mantra of “Girl Power” inspired a generation of young women to “Spice Up Your Life.” After Spice sold 31 million copies worldwide, the inevitable next step was the Girls starring on the big screen. So 20 years ago, on January 23, 1998, Columbia Pictures unleashed Spice World on American moviegoers.

In their film debut, the Girls—Melanie Brown (Scary Spice), Melanie Chisholm (Sporty Spice), Emma Bunton (Baby Spice), Geri Halliwell (Ginger Spice), and Victoria Beckham (Posh Spice)—played comical versions of themselves. The plot revolved around them trying to perform their biggest show yet, at London's Royal Albert Hall, while a tabloid newspaper reporter spied on them. And their best friend went into labor. And Ginger Spice kissed an alien.

Director Bob Spiers recruited several British luminaries to cameo, with Roger Moore, Bob Hoskins, Elvis Costello, Jennifer Saunders, and Elton John among those who appeared in the film. The Spice Girls were so popular that Prince Charles and his sons, Princes William and Harry, attended the Spice World premiere.

The movie, budgeted at $25 million, grossed a robust $100 million worldwide, despite Roger Ebert giving it a half-star rating and writing that the Girls were “so detached they can’t even successfully lip-synch their own songs.”

Spice World was nominated for seven Razzies, and won one: Worst Actress, an honor shared by all five Girls. In a 2007 UK poll, it was voted the worst film ever made. But over the years the film has endured. Esquire suggested it was better than The Beatles’s A Hard’s Day Night, and the podcast How Did This Get Made? spent more than an hour debating the film’s ridiculous plot.

Though the best-selling girl group of all time disbanded in 2000, Spice World remains a relic of Spice Mania. On its 20th anniversary, here are 10 fun facts about the film.

1. IT TOOK ONLY A YEAR FROM THE IDEA TO THE FINISHED FILM.

Prince Charles and Prince Harry pose with Spice Girls Victoria Beckham Mel C
WALTER DHLADHLA, AFP, Getty Images

Barnaby Thompson, one of the film’s producers, started a production company with Annie Lennox’s husband at the time, Uri Fruchtmann. Lennox and the Girls shared the same manager, Simon Fuller. Over lunch, Fuller, Fruchtmann, Thompson, and Fuller’s brother Kim decided they’d make the movie. "We finished it within a year of that lunch," Thompson told The Telegraph. "That lunch was on November 1, 1996 and we delivered the film exactly a year later, November 1, 1997."

2. THE GIRLS STOPPED TRAFFIC IN FRANCE.

By May 1997, the Girls had four number-one singles in the UK, and were one of the most popular music groups in the world. To create anticipation for Spice World, the producers took the women to the Cannes Film Festival, even though the film hadn’t been shot yet. "We put out a photo call notice," publicist Dennis Davidson said. "The traffic on the Croisette came to a standstill, there was a screaming crowd, people hanging out of the windows, it was totally insane." An estimated 5000 to 10,000 people showed up to see the pop stars. The film shot around London between June and August of 1997.

3. RICHARD E. GRANT’S DAUGHTER FORCED HIM TO DO THE MOVIE.

Richard E. Grant attends 'Their Finest' after party during the 60th BFI London Film Festival at on October 13, 2016.
John Phillips, Getty Images for BFI

Richard E. Grant’s 9-year-old daughter was a fan of the Spice Girls and when he was offered the part of the Girls’ manager, Clifford, she told him he had to do it, despite his concerns about “my acting credibility.” “And she’d say, ‘No, no, you have to. You have to because I want to meet them,’” Grant told Vulture in 2014. “So I did, and she was so thrilled. I had school playground credibility for about two semesters and then of course you dip into the other side when they go, ‘No, I was never a Spice Girls fan!’ Now that generation has all come back around again going, ‘Yeah, we love the Spice Girls!’”

4. SHAKESPEARE HELPED CAST ALAN CUMMING.

Alan Cumming played a less-than-Shakespearean role in the movie as a paparazzo-like guy named Piers Cuthbertson-Smyth. Ginger Spice was the one who suggested him to the casting department. “I remember seeing Alan Cumming performing as Hamlet [at the Donmar Warehouse],” she told The Telegraph. “When it came to Spice World, however many years later, it came to casting and we were going through pictures and I was like, ‘Let’s pick him, I saw him in Hamlet.’ It was brilliant to have that caliber of actors to be in our funny movie.”

5. YOU CAN VISIT THE SPICE BUS.

The Spice Girls arrive atop a double decker bus for a screening of their new movie 'Spice World' in New York.
HENNY RAY ABRAMS, AFP, Getty Images

The 1978 British Leyland Bristol VRTSL3 double decker bus, covered with the Union Jack on the outside and a swing on the inside, made its debut in the movie. Though a bomb destroyed it at the end of the movie, in real life it was saved. However, after filming ended the bus fell into disrepair, until the Island Harbour Marina, located on the Isle of Wight, purchased the beauty and restored it to its original state. They put it on permanent display in July 2014. The only thing the bus is missing is Meat Loaf driving it.

6. WITHNAIL AND I CONVINCED ELVIS COSTELLO TO MAKE A CAMEO.

In an interview with The A.V. Club, Elvis Costello said he loved Richard E. Grant’s film Withnail and I. “You know, I thought, ‘If I go to IMDb, I’m only a couple of clicks away from Withnail!,’” he said. Costello, who plays a barman in the movie, said he found his role to be “ironic.” “I’d only quit drinking a couple of years before, so I think the idea of being a barman was sort of ironic in my mind.”

7. THE PRODUCTION MADE SURE THE GIRLS DIDN’T READ THE SCRIPT.

Kim Fuller wrote the script (with additional writing from Jamie Curtis), which was originally titled Five. He knew the Girls might not like the script, or even read it. He gathered the ladies in a hotel in London. “I went in and said, ‘Look, turn your phones off, this is serious. I’m going to read you the story,’” he said.

They liked the story, and Ginger Spice contributed script ideas, even when she was in Bali. “I was spending hours on the phone trying to get it all sorted out and make sure that it was right,” she said. “By the time that we started, it was almost perfect.”

8. BUT THEY DIDN’T STICK TO THE SCRIPT.

Fuller said he gave them daily script pages and then they rehearsed it. “You needed to catch them at the right moment, when the energy is there,” Fuller said. “They’re not going to do 20 takes of one line, you know, so you had to think quickly on your feet.” In the Spice World documentary, Mel B confessed that she and the Girls interpreted the script. “We contributed our own little sparkle on top of it,” she said. “There were some times when we’d say the lines wrong just to make us laugh,” Baby Spice added. But those improvisations caused the script supervisor to almost quit.

"The script lady went beserk and nearly resigned because we kept changing everything," Fuller told The Telegraph. "There were a lot of flowers and we consoled her for a while and everything was fine after that."

9. THE GIRLS RECORDED AN ALBUM WHILE FILMING.

Their first album was such a massive hit that they needed to record their sophomore album to keep up the momentum. In order to fit in filming the movie and recording Spiceworld (one word), they had a mobile studio on set. They ended up writing some of the album’s—and movie’s—songs during production.

“It was quite good doing the album at the same time as the film because we were always hyperactive after a day on set and that meant we could go in the mobile studio and vibe off each other,” Posh told The Telegraph. They managed to film during the day and record at night. Virgin Records released the album on November 3, 1997, and most of Spiceworld’s songs made it into the movie, which meant there was an unofficial soundtrack.

10. MEL C LOVES THE MOVIE.

Melanie Chisholm (Sporty Spice) at the premiere of 'Spice World'
Brenda Chase, Getty Images

Mel C told The Telegraph that the film was difficult for her to watch, but when her daughter and friends wanted to watch it at a birthday party, Mel changed her mind. “I sat down with them and I actually really enjoyed it,” she said. “I laughed out loud. It brought back so many memories, and I think enough time has passed for me to be able to watch myself. You know in a way, it is brilliant. It’s very tongue-in-cheek, very silly. And the thing that I really realized was there was so much of us in it. It was very, very real.”

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Here's The Full List of 2018 Oscar Nominations
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There are only two things that can get Hollywood’s biggest stars out of bed at 5 a.m.: an early call time or Academy Award nominations. The nominees for the 90th annual Oscars were announced on Tuesday morning, and represented a great year in movies.

Guillermo del Toro’s merman-meets-woman love story The Shape of Water leads this year’s nominees with a total of 13 nominations, followed by Martin McDonagh’s divisive Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which received nine nominations.

Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig both made some Oscar history with their nominations for Best Director: Peele is the fifth black director to compete for the statuette (joining John Singleton, Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen, and Barry Jenkins—none of whom have won the award) while Gerwig is the fifth woman to be nominated for the prize (in 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the first female Best Director winner with The Hurt Locker).

The Academy Awards will be hosted by Jimmy Kimmel for a second time, and will air on March 4, 2018. Which movies will you be rooting for on Oscar night?

BEST PICTURE

Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

LEAD ACTOR

Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

LEAD ACTRESS

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Meryl Streep, The Post

SUPPORTING ACTOR

Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

DIRECTOR

Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Jordan Peele, Get Out
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water

ANIMATED FEATURE

The Boss Baby, Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito
The Breadwinner, Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo
Coco, Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson
Ferdinand, Carlos Saldanha
Loving Vincent, Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman

ANIMATED SHORT

Dear Basketball, Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant
Garden Party, Victor Caire, Gabriel Grapperon
Lou, Dave Mullins, Dana Murray
Negative Space, Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata
Revolting Rhymes, Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Call Me by Your Name, James Ivory
The Disaster Artist, Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Logan, Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green
Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin
Mudbound, Virgil Williams and Dee Rees

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

The Big Sick, Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
Get Out, Jordan Peele
Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig
The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh

CINEMATOGRAPHY

Blade Runner 2049, Roger Deakins
Darkest Hour, Bruno Delbonnel
Dunkirk, Hoyte van Hoytema
Mudbound, Rachel Morrison
The Shape of Water, Dan Laustsen

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Steve James, Mark Mitten, Julie Goldman
Faces Places, JR, Agnès Varda, Rosalie Varda
Icarus, Bryan Fogel, Dan Cogan
Last Men in Aleppo, Feras Fayyad, Kareem Abeed, Soren Steen Jepersen
Strong Island, Yance Ford, Joslyn Barnes

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

Edith+Eddie, Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lee Wright
Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, Frank Stiefel
Heroin(e), Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Kerrin Sheldon
Knife Skills, Thomas Lennon
Traffic Stop, Kate Davis, David Heilbroner

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM

DeKalb Elementary, Reed Van Dyk
The Eleven O’Clock, Derin Seale, Josh Lawson
My Nephew Emmett, Kevin Wilson, Jr.
The Silent Child, Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton
Watu Wote/All of Us, Katja Benrath, Tobias Rosen

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
The Insult (Lebanon)
Loveless (Russia)
On Body and Soul (Hungary)
The Square (Sweden)

FILM EDITING

Baby Driver, Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss
Dunkirk, Lee Smith
I, Tonya, Tatiana S. Riegel
The Shape of Water, Sidney Wolinsky
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Jon Gregory

SOUND EDITING

Baby Driver, Julian Slater
Blade Runner 2049, Mark Mangini, Theo Green
Dunkirk, Alex Gibson, Richard King
The Shape of Water, Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood

SOUND MIXING

Baby Driver, Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin
Blade Runner 2049, Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hephill
Dunkirk, Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo
The Shape of Water, Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick

PRODUCTION DESIGN

Beauty and the Beast, Sarah Greenwood; Katie Spencer
Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola
Darkest Hour, Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
Dunkirk, Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis
The Shape of Water, Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

ORIGINAL SCORE

Dunkirk, Hans Zimmer
Phantom Thread, Jonny Greenwood
The Shape of Water, Alexandre Desplat
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, John Williams
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Carter Burwell

ORIGINAL SONG

"Mighty River" from Mudbound, Mary J. Blige
"Mystery of Love" from Call Me by Your Name, Sufjan Stevens
"Remember Me" from Coco, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
"Stand Up for Something" from Marshall, Diane Warren, Common
"This Is Me" from The Greatest Showman, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

MAKEUP AND HAIR

Darkest Hour, Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick
Victoria and Abdul, Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard
Wonder, Arjen Tuiten

COSTUME DESIGN

Beauty and the Beast, Jacqueline Durran
Darkest Hour, Jacqueline Durran
Phantom Thread, Mark Bridges
The Shape of Water, Luis Sequeira
Victoria and Abdul, Consolata Boyle

VISUAL EFFECTS

Blade Runner 2049, John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, Dan Sudick
Kong: Skull Island, Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza, Mike Meinardus
Star Wars: The Last Jedi,  Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Chris Corbould, Neal Scanlon
War for the Planet of the Apes, Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Joel Whist

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