Mark Degli Antoni on scoring documentaries, working for free, and Werner Herzog

A chat with the composer

BY CHRISTOPHER LEON

 

Documentary scoring requires a unique approach. With a limited number of ‘characters’ and tailored narratives compared to film scoring, the music plays a far different but equally important role.

“The score has room to evolve and morph and be experimented with. In documentary, there often isn’t a story until the editing phase”

In the latest story with our CutCommon Global series, we ask composer Mark Degli Antoni about scoring documentaries, his work with Werner Herzog, and the pertinent question of composing music for free.

Mark Degli Antoni has scored narrative and documentary films for award-winning directors including Werner Herzog, Wallace Shawn, Finn Taylor, William Wegman, Lily Baldwin, Jed Rothstein, and more. He’s the co-founder and keyboardist of the avant-pop New York band Soul Coughing on Slash/Warner records. Mark splits his time between Los Angeles and New York City. He received composition degrees from the Mannes College of Music, NYC and is a Composer Fellow of the Sundance Institute.

degliantonimark

How did you first become involved in scoring documentaries?

My first documentary was Roman Polanski: Wanted & Desired, 2007, directed by Marina Zenovich and edited by Joe Bini. I grew up with Joe, we were art comrades. He was editing the film and brought me on to score.

You have scored numerous documentaries since. What are some key differences between scoring for a documentary and scoring for film?

For me, the real difference is between documentary and narrative. In narrative, the written/acted story is first and everything else hangs on that. The score, mostly, comes after the fact and is tailored to the action, playing under and over many different scenes. The score has room to evolve, morph, and be experimented with. In documentary, there often isn’t a story until the editing phase. During the editing, the story can evolve and become something very different than intended; thus, editors often prefer to edit to existing music. For me, that means writing music much earlier in the process, as the editor will build a scene — build the phrasing and breathing and peak of a scene — around something already written for them.

I have not scored for TV, but from what I understand, it is the quick turnaround time which is significant. Broadcast deadlines can be tight.

What do directors look for in scores for their documentaries? Do you craft the music to an overarching narrative or do you write for individual elements and stand-out points?

Mostly, not always, but mostly, I find that in documentaries, directors aren’t looking for overarching, repeating themes. Documentaries are often lots of talking heads and directors get nervous that their film isn’t interesting enough. Therefore, they look for the music to have lots of variety and little repeating. They use variety of score to give the feeling that the film is changing and not flat. But, if the story is really compelling and well told – like, say, God Loves Uganda, a doc I scored for Roger Ross Williams – then the music can be very thematic and overarching. In fact, I became nervous during the mix at how repetitive some of the score was and Roger had to assure me it was okay. He was completely right and the film is brilliant.

What was it like working directly with Werner Herzog on Into The Abyss

It was a huge honour that I took seriously. I worked hard, always mindful about that quality of that score. As a person he is humble, witty, and soft-spoken. When having score meetings, Werner talks about everything but the film and loves to take cigarette and coffee breaks. It goes without saying, he is a phenomenal intellect and a voracious reader; few subjects are beyond his thinking or experience. As a director, he let me go. Werner trusted Joe Bini, the editor, and myself to pull it off. He liked a piece of mine that Joe had temped in and upon hearing it simply said “let’s hire Mark”. There were no big discussions about tiny details. Werner is very broad-stroke oriented.

You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you prefer working with independent artists. What are the differences when working with a high-profile director like Herzog and independents?

Budget – hah. I actually consider Werner an independent artist.  I treat every director the same – each one of them is directing something they feel important and that should be respected. By independent, I simply prefer directors who are thinking outside the box – whether like Lily Baldwin, who is making intense movement based narratives, or Wallace Shawn, who is making intense word-based narratives.

What distinguishes someone like Werner is the pace he works at — very fast. Unlike many new independent directors, who do not have many films under their belts, Werner has a huge body of work and is fully confident in his story telling, and utterly without need to fuss over tiny details. He understands that sometimes tiny details won’t actually alter the viewer’s perception or understanding. Most young directors fuss over very small points, not yet able to see the film through the audience’s eyes.

It is important to create a full atmosphere when scoring for TV/Film/documentary. Do you play a part in the sound design (as opposed to composition) for your documentaries and short scores? 

I do have a lot of experience, and a long interest in building music from any sound source, whether natural instruments or found objects. Sometimes I produce a piece of score which blurs the lines and, though obviously a piece of score, it might be built out of sound that steps into the space the sound designer was expecting to fill. I always make sure to run my sketches by the sound designer so that they are aware of what’s coming.

What’s your opinion on emerging/semi-professional composers doing work for free?

It’s a case-by-case basis. Unless it’s a really good friend, or an insane opportunity that has clear, real and worthwhile exposure, then I say don’t do it for free. Directors who ask for free often don’t actually know what they want and might not recognize appropriate music when they get it. Also, they are likely to overwork a composer. No aspiring smart director is going to ask a composer to work for no money. Even $100 is something.

You have scored many documentaries. What are some key differences between scoring for a documentary and scoring for film?

For me, the real difference is between documentary and narrative. In narrative, the written/acted story is first and everything else hangs on that. The score, mostly, comes after the fact and is tailored to the action, playing under and over many different scenes. The score has room to evolve, morph, and be experimented with. In documentary, there often isn’t a story until the editing phase. During the editing, the story can evolve and become something very different than intended; thus, editors often prefer to edit to existing music. For me, that means writing music much earlier in the process, as the editor will build a scene — build the phrasing and breathing and peak of a scene — around something already written for them.

I have not scored for TV, but from what I understand, it is the quick turnaround time which is significant. Broadcast deadlines can be tight.

Do you have any personal preference for musical style/genre when composing? 

That’s a great question. My thing is that I’m open; I don’t have one way to solve a drama, and I don’t rely on the same instruments. I am game for anything – orchestral, synth, abstract, mouse traps, etc.. Whatever it takes to make the drama on screen pop and make sense – that’s all legal for me.

What values should emerging composers adopt when moving into scoring for visual productions? 

Scoring for film is a collaboration. It is not writing concert music; it is not writing a band song for stage. It is fluid. You are being hired at the end of the process when expectations are high. Directors and producers have come to the moment when all is supposed to fall into place. You have to be a problem solver. You have to listen carefully to editors and directors and not listen for their musical opinions, but for their dramatic opinions. A composer should always have a clear understanding about what the drama is and how it is being musically supported, and think musically outside the box. Do not always think in verse-chorus format. Film music is much more fluid and sometimes formless.

 

Want to learn more about writing a score? Check out our Skype mentoring services.

 


Featured image: Dale Mastin via Flickr, CC2.0.

%d bloggers like this: