Interview: Miriam Cutler Sheds Light On Working in the Boys Club of Film Composing and How the Industry is Changing
After exploring the lack of ladies when it comes to the world of composing, I decided to go directly to the source and ask a composer who is currently (and actively) working in the business, and who also happens to be a woman. Miriam Cutler is best known for her work in documentaries such as Thin, Lost in La Mancha and Ethel (which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January.)
I spoke with Cutler not just about her background in music and composing (which is both impressive and extensive), but also about her perspective on the industry as a whole and as a woman working in it. While there may not be many well-known female composers at the moment, they are certainly on the rise. With veterans like Cutler paving the way, it sounds like many composers coming into the industry now are not just men, and it will be interesting to see how this change affects and influences future film scores.
How did you get started in composing?
I’ve been a working musician most of my adult life. I started out performing vocals and clarinet in ethnic music ensembles, graduated to ragtime, early jazz, swing, rock, and began composing and arranging for my bands. I was a horn player, a front person, and wrote songs for these fringey guerrilla theater/novelty bands. I always loved street performing – improvisation under fire! I spent three years in the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, seven years in The New Miss Alice Stone Ladies Society Orchestra, a couple of years in Angel and the Reruns, ten years in Swingstreet, and there were a few other performing groups in there as well.
I also was a session singer for a while. But my actual start in scoring films happened one night when someone approached me at a gig I was doing at the Vine St. Bar and Grill in Hollywood – she wanted me to score a little documentary. I had a songwriting demo studio set up for recording, and as soon as I put music to that movie I was hooked! Soon after that, a friend of mine asked me to score a series of low-budget horror films, and I worked with that company for the next several years. That was my film school!
Who were some composers you looked up to/admired when you were first starting out? Who do you look up to/admire now that you are a part of that world?
There are so many great composers to admire: Nino Rota, George Gershwin, Bernard Hermann, Elmer Bernstein, Scott Joplin, Leonard Bernstein, Lalo Shifrin, Ravel, Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Prokofiev, Vaughn Williams, Debussey, Satie.
Some of the contemporary film composers I really admire are Jerry Goldsmith, Alexander Desplat, Thomas Newman, Rachel Portman, George Fenton, Alberto Iglesias, Mark Isham, and many more.
Do you prefer composing for film or television? What are the differences between creating music for these two different mediums?
Film is generally a longer form than television, and of course there are no commercial breaks, so you can really get a flow going with the score. I like films I can sink my teeth into – to work with filmmakers who are as dedicated to creating their best work as I am. Film composing is so labor-intensive and time-consuming that it ultimately becomes my whole life. So I want it to mean something to me.
What is it like going to film festivals (like Sundance and the LA Film Festival)? What is it like watching the final film with an audience for the first time?
There is no better reward for me than to sit in a dark, packed theater, with excellent projection and sound, and experience the film with an audience. I was at Sundance in January for the premiere of a film I scored, Ethel, in one of the largest Park City venues. The filmmaker was Rory Kennedy, daughter of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy, and there was a huge anticipation for this intimate portrait of the Kennedy family over the past 50 years.
People were so excited by the film that they were jumping out of their seats as soon as the end credits started rolling, and they clapped all the way until the last note of the music. It was unbelievably wonderful. I almost forgot all the hard work that had brought me there – sixty-seven minutes of live music!
One of my other top experiences of seeing a film premiere was for a film I scored and co-produced, One Luck Elephant. We premiered at the LA Film Festival in 2010 – the theater was packed, the sound was PERFECT, and this ten-year labor of love came to fruition right then and there. It was joy I will never forget, especially to hear the audience clap for a long, long time. As one of the producers, I traveled with the film to various festivals and got to enjoy presenting it to all kinds of audiences. The butterflies I often felt before a screening reminded me of my performing days.
Obviously music is music at the end of the day, but why do you think male composers are more well known that female composers (at least at this point in time)?
Well, at this point in time, male composers are definitely more well-known than female composers. How many women can you name? Let’s just say I’m really used to being either the only woman in the room, or one of a very few, at many composer functions. I can only think of a handful of working women composers. But nowadays, there certainly are more women aspiring to the profession, and the younger gals don’t seem to have any uncertainty about their abilities or ambitions. I’d say they have grown up in more progressive times.
Do you find that it is more difficult for female composers to get work than male composers?
I can only speak for myself – I am always busy with work and have been for many years. But I also am not in the mainstream of Hollywood; I live in the indie world.
What is your advice for someone looking to have a career as a composer? Would you give different advice to a man or a woman or would it matter?
My best advice to any aspiring composer is to create your own career – don’t try to copy someone else’s. This work takes over your life, so it had better be satisfying to you or you will never be happy. There are many, many ways to work as a composer – as many as your imagination can come up with, so create your career around your own individuality. Find what inspires you and go for it. Don’t sit around and wait for the phone to ring. This is a field built on community – so get out there and develop relationships. There are so many outlets for our work, and the playing field is more level than it’s ever been in terms of opportunities.
But the paradigms are shifting and it’s anyone’s guess how our business will adapt to new technologies. I’ve always approached my work as a freelance artist, balancing my creative drive with commerce. As for being a woman composer, for the most part, I have found it to be an advantage. Sometimes being the only woman in the room brings balance and alternate energy to a situation. Men often seem to appreciate my being there. On the other hand, I can really only name one woman composer who works on big films – Rachel Portman, and she’s British.
What are some of your favorite scores?
Off the top of my head: An American In Paris, Taxi Driver, Vertigo, Psycho, To Kill A Mockingbird, La Dolce Vita, Amarcord, The Wild Bunch, Gone With The Wind, The Mission, Shadowlands, The Constant Gardner, Braveheart, Snow Falling on Cedars, Out Of Africa, In The Valley of Elah, Brazil, American Beauty, Syriana, Milk, Beetlejuice, Dr. Zhivago, Man With The Golden Arm. To name a few…
With women starting to make their impression in the field and electronic artists like Trent Reznor, Draft Punk and The Chemical Brothers trying their hand at composing, where do you think the craft and world of composing is headed? Where do you hope it is headed?
I really hope that the art and craft of film music composition is preserved and cherished. There is such a legacy of brilliant work in film classics, and it would be a shame if there were not enough interest in preserving this great art form. There are many examples of films where contemporary trends in music have been the focus of a score rather than composition and development of themes, and that film ultimately feels dated not long after.
A great film score can make the movie timeless and classic. And even make a movie that isn’t really that great, seem better. But these skills must be encouraged and developed if we are to have film composers in the future to write great music for the movies.