Exploring the Challenges and Freedom of Composing for Independent Films with Ben Lovett

By  · Published on June 27th, 2013

There are two main challenges with most independent films ‐ time and money. But whether you are dealing with a big budget studio blockbuster or small independent fare, music is usually the last thing to be added and usually puts composers up against tight deadlines with little money left to work with.

Brian Tyler, who recently composed the music for Iron Man 3, commented that no matter what kind of movie you are working on, “It’s a race and there’s really no time to second-guess yourself on a movie, regardless of the scale, when the time crunch is upon you.” This race against time is a common adversary for almost all composers, but this time crunch seems especially heightened when it comes to independent films.

To dive in to this issue further, I spoke with Ben Lovett who composed the music for two independent films released last year, Sun Don’t Shine and Black Rock. Independent films can be a double edged sword allowing for great creativity (thanks to fewer “cooks in the kitchen” that come with studios), but with less funds and time to work within.

Sun Don’t Shine premiered at SXSW last year to positive reviews (including one from FSR’s own Kate Erbland) and while many may think the filmmakers spent the weeks leading up to the festival simply steeling their nerves, there was one person who was suddenly working in overdrive. Lovett got the call to compose the music for Sun Don’t Shine just a few weeks before its SXSW premiere, begging the question, why would anyone agree to such madness? Lovett explained,

“I’ve had some intense post production schedules before, but nothing as nuts as this one. I had to somehow pull together the entire thing in a matter of days with no budget, which is one of the inherent challenges of composing at the indie level ‐ typically you’re one of the last departments to come on board and too often the production is out of money or time. You generally need at least one of these to make something. Sun Don’t Shine had neither, but it had everything else it takes to make a great movie so I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it. I ended up piggybacking the recording sessions off another project and got some help from a great musician named Nick Campbell. Nobody slept those last couple days, but we got it done.”

While independent films may not have the resources of bigger budget productions, this stripped down format does allow for one thing that you cannot put a price tag on: creative freedom. During the Los Angeles Film Festival’s Coffee Talk: Composers this year, Tyler, along with Zombieland composer David Sardy, spoke about the challenges that come along with those bigger budgets and advised composers, no matter what they are working on, to align themselves with the film’s director.

Working alongside the director seems to come more naturally on indie films since those directors are usually the ones most tied to the project, putting these composers at an immediate advantage and setting the stage for creative collaboration without the influence of outside opinions (or checkbooks).

Lovett recalled working on Sun Don’t Shine with director Amy Seimetz and creating that balance of music versus silence which resulted in the film’s restrained score, saying,

“I had a good director. Amy was very specific about where she wanted music and didn’t. I thought the film was driven by the subtlety and nuance of her decisions, and that the music’s role was the reinforce the strength of the performances onscreen. The score didn’t need to manipulate the scenes too much, just create the proper mood around them. Musically things drift in and out of tune and slide between the foreground and background to the point where you’re not sure what’s score and what’s sound design. We were consciously trying to push that line around in the film.”

While indie films and festivals are able to avoid many of the pressures of big budget films, the point of showing your film at a festival is (usually) to sell it to a production company or studio to get it seen by a larger audience. But once the film is in front of a larger audience, the music is usually the first thing to get stripped or swapped out as licensing fees start to double once the audience does.

This was the case with Black Rock, and the reason Lovett was brought on to create the score, recalling,

“Black Rock actually premiered at Sundance last year with a difference score. When the film got distribution I was asked to come on board and create a new one. So the film was finished in every other aspect by the time I started, which was very helpful. However they were already pushing toward a release date, so once again I had to hit the ground running. One consistent challenge of the process at any stage is that everyone begins to see daylight once you start adding the music, so of course, everyone is anxious to get to where we’re going. There’s never quite the budget or time you hope for to do your best, but that can never be an excuse for not aiming for it anyway.”

When Black Rock was shown at Sundance, it was full of songs from The Kills so when Lovett came on board, he needed to make his score fit with the music that was already there. Lovett approached this challenge by focusing on a single element to tie the two together, explaining,

“Their [The Kills] song, “Future Starts Slow,” is used on the end credits and has this enormous drum sound at the beginning of the song. I had the idea to try and bookend the film with that drum beat, so I took the opening few bars and looped them across the opening credits, then built a score piece on top of it. The band was kind enough to allow us to keep the drums in there and I think they add some levity and create a nice cohesion to the overall film. They’re also the only band whose songs are used in the film, so it seemed appropriate since they were already part of the overall sound.”

Lovett revealed that Sun Don’t Shine had a similar moment of combining the score with placed music, saying,

“My favorite moment in Sun Don’t Shine might be when Cary Ann Hearst’s (Shovels & Rope) song “Long Road” comes on the jukebox. It’s one of those great opportunities in a movie where source music gets to score a scene, and when it’s done right it feels like pure cinema magic.”

While both Sun Don’t Shine and Black Rock hail from the indie film world, they have very different tones and that is where any composer makes their mark. One could be considered a crime thriller while the other a horror thriller, but Lovett made an interesting point saying he never thinks of the films he works on in terms of genres, simply stories. Going back to the idea of working with the director, Lovett explained that his approach is to always use his music to help tell the story that director is aiming to tell, explaining,

“If I’m ever thinking about genre it’s only in terms of how to avoid the expectations of it wherever possible. The goal on both films was to keep things simple and use a minimal amount of noticeable instrumentation ‐ both scores are largely more about mood and emotional tonality than musicality. The physical environment played a big role in both movies too.”

Money and time will always be a factor, and one that can frustrate the creative process, but it is in the creative moments where you can do something new that keep things ever moving forward, and sometimes it is within the less controlled indie environment that these moments can shine. Lovett included a very different “instrument” in his score for Sun Don’t Shine — the sound of music boxes, explaining,

“We wanted to hijack the nostalgia and innocence inherent in the sound of those things. There is an unmistakable familiarity to them, but they always play a recognizable melody, so the goal was to distort that sound into something a little more sinister and unsettling, something well meaning but fractured. During the recording I would wind them slowly so the notes plucked off one at a time, then go back and rearrange them into a new melody. This became our character theme for Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil), one that was more about the overall psychological effect of the resulting sound more so than any particular melodic phrase within it.”

Working on independent films can be terrifying and challenging, but the draw is that creative freedom and the ability to try something new to push the envelope. But even if you “graduate” to bigger films with bigger budgets, or continue to facilitate between independent and studio films, every project will inevitably present its own challenges.

Lovett ended our discussion with some inspiring (and comforting) words of advice, saying,

“The most challenging part is always getting started. I’ve done something like fifteen features now yet still get convinced at the beginning of each one that I have no idea what I’m doing. Fortunately I’ve been told even composers who have done one hundred of them feel the same way. Hopefully that’s true. I guess if you’re reading this and that happens to you ‐ know at least that you are not alone. You have to just start scribbling notes or pushing buttons or whatever it is you do. I’ve never found that I solved a creative problem by any other means than just sitting down and working at it. No matter how small the hammer, just keep swinging it at the wall until it comes down. It usually does, but never at first.”

Sun Don’t Shine is currently available on iTunes and Amazon Video and Black Rock is available on iTunes and Vudu. The soundtracks for both Sun Don’t Shine and Black Rock are also available on iTunes.