How Does One Compose for a Film Adapted from a Play?

By  · Published on June 13th, 2013

It is a challenge to take a story originally intended to be performed on stage in front of a live audience and adapt it for the very different environment of the big screen. A compelling story is a compelling story, but sometimes the moment the restrictions of the stage are taken away through “movie magic,” an important element is lost rather than gained. On stage it comes down to the actors and their performances and while that can be an immersive experience when watching live, it does not always translate to film. Movies are about being shown rather than told and plays are more about the dialogue and subtle performances of the actors.

There is a connective tissue that does not always exist on stage, but does in film, and can help bridge this gap – music. Films need music to help round out emotion, especially when the actor is not standing right in front of you. But creating the music for a film adapted from a play is a very specific, and not always simple, undertaking. Composer Alexandre Desplat seemed to have cornered this market, having composed for Carnage based on the stage play of the same name and The Ides of March based on the stage play Farragut North, but two new composers, H. Scott Salinas and Tobias Enhus, have thrown their hats into the proverbial ring with their score and sound design for Between Us.

I spoke with Salinas and Enhus to get a better idea of what this process is like from their perspective as composers dealing with only the music and sound rather than the performances, scenery, or adaptation of the story. With Between Us, Salinas and Enhus turned to the play itself to see how music and sound could be incorporated into that environment and in doing so, it became clear that the focus should be on the dialogue more so than the music. The two explained,

“One clear theater influence is the fact that characters talk on top of each other at the same time. We see this from time to time in films, but it’s not that common and it harkens back to a time in early in cinema when theater had such an influence – for instance Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane comes to mind. This overlapping presented a bit of a challenge when mixing the dialogue and we definitely spent a good amount of time making sure the right characters were being featured at the right moments.”

Composers usually focus on the music in a film, but with the dialogue becoming the clear focus in Between Us, the sound mix started to become more paramount. While Salinas and Enhus usually focus on the music, it became clear the sound in Between Us would be just as important, if not more so, saying,

“We worked on both the music and sound simultaneously, which was the main intention of our being involved in the sound part of the process. Normally, we focus primarily on musical scores, however when the occasional project demands perfect synchronicity between music and sound, we tend to want to control everything that’s going to come out of the speakers. When we first saw the film, and after talking to Dan creatively, it became apparent that the sonic world of the film would need to be very consistent and also constantly, subtly varied. So we knew that even the music would need to emanate from within the sonic language of the film and in order for that to be convincing we would have to control every aspect of sound.”

Because plays are stuck on a single stage, the stories do not jump between various locations, and Between Us is no different, focusing on two distinct locations. Clever set pieces are usually used on stage to differentiate between locations, but film allows the added medium of sound to elevate the raw feeling of live theater and bring these locations to life. Salinas and Enhus saw the different locations of Between Us as an opportunity to showcase exactly what distinct sound design can do, even if it is something the audience only absorbs subconsciously, explaining,

“Because the the locations were fairly static, we put a tremendous amount of energy into constantly varying the ambient sounds within each location and emphasizing the stark contrast between New York and Omaha. There are moments in New York where you can hear what the neighbor next door is watching on TV through the wall, when doors open and close, when traffic increases or decreases. All of that became extremely important in making the film as dynamic as possible given such a small ensemble cast in limited settings.”

Another benefit of the big screen is the ability to make quick cuts and utilize flashbacks, things one is limited or unable to do in a live theater setting. The director of Between Us, Dan Mirvish, saw the process of making the play into a film as a chance to restructure the play’s original narrative. Salinas and Enhus saw this new narrative structure as the perfect opportunity to feature the sound design and music, saying,

“One of the things that Dan did to make the film more cinematic is he modified the time structure of the play which was originally linear and created a timeline that skipped around with flashbacks between New York and Omaha. Because of that adaptation, the music and sound had to play a central role in every one of those transitions as well. So in the film, you see things like a crème brûlée torch in Omaha being used as a sound transition into a car driving by in New York City. Sometimes just music was used to bridge these transitions. Sometimes we pre-lapped the ambient sound of the next setting super early. You see that in the scene towards the end of the movie in Omaha, when we go back to New York City, we actually hear city sounds about fifteen seconds before the transition.”

Since the actor’s performances and sound design became the focal point of Between Us, when the music was used, it was placed throughout the film sparsely. The question of where music should be placed is one of the biggest challenges a composer faces, but when the music is something that could be considered an obtrusive element, that question becomes even harder to answer. Salinas and Enhus credited the outstanding performances in the film when making these decisions and said,

“We knew we wouldn’t need to use music and sound to “help” moments that weren’t working. We knew the best thing we could do was to stay out of the way when a moment was working. We approached the sound as a bed that the performances could lie on and be supported but not enveloped, and we mostly used music for transitional purposes, montages, and subtle underscore, always asking ourselves, “Have we added something of value here?” One of the main goals of the music was to brand the style of the film and give a sense of tone we hardly ever needed to add a lot of drama or intensity to a scene, except perhaps the car scene.”

When the music did seep in, it was not easily identifiable instrumentation. Between Us is not your standard film and the focus and emphasis on the actor’s dialogue and the sound design certainly reflects this, but the unidentifiable music also added to this off-kilter feel with Enhus explaining,

“We used an electric cello that was then processed through my super computer KYMA system to give it an other worldly quality. There were guitars as well which Scott played for the most part and those were designed to ground the music in something a bit more tangible or universal. And then surrounding that were a bed of sounds that had organic or acoustic sources, but were heavily processed to be less immediately recognizable. The goal of that was to create a complex, but distinct identity for the film and since one of the main themes of the film is characters struggling with their own identity, we wanted to obscure the identity of our own instrumentation as much as possible while still achieving a memorable sound.”

The sound in a film is certainly important, but when it comes to the process of bringing a stage play to the screen, it can become a paramount focus and change a composers job from focusing on the music to crafting a specific sound design. When the focus is on the music, as it is in most films and as Desplat did in his score for The Ides of March, it gives the play-turned-film a more cinematic feeling. But when the layered dialogue and specific sound design become the focus, as was the case in Carnage and in Between Us, the result reflects more of the stage experience. Each element is necessary in a film, but it is interesting to see how music and sound truly affect and influence the cinematic experience depending on which is focused on and highlighted.

Do you prefer a play get the more standard cinematic treatment with the addition of music? Or reflect the original stage performance by putting the focus on the dialogue and sound?