Meet the Experts: Composers on capturing ‘feelings and emotion,’ and the weirdest place they’ve written a cue [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

How do you express emotion through music? For Mychael Danna (“On the Basis of Sex”), Michael Giacchino (“Incredibles 2”), Nicholas Britell (“If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Vice”) and Justin Hurwitz (“First Man”), it’s hard to put into words how they begin putting music to picture.

“For me, I will watch the movie for the first time and immediately go to the piano and start to reflect on how the movie made me feel,” Giacchino said at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Composers panel, moderated by this author (watch the exclusive video above). “When I watch the movie, I really just pay attention to how it makes me feel and then it’s all about finding that on the piano. What’s the reflection of those feelings? How do you put that into music? And I don’t have an answer as to how exactly that happens. I just know it’s about feelings and emotion.”

Danna agrees that the first viewing of a film is “so valuable” for inspiration, and he particularly likes it if he’s able to watch the film in his studio so he could start writing immediately when lightning strikes. “Remembering what that made you feel for the first time is what we try to do for the next four months and go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s how I felt. I was surprised at this,’” he said. “A lot of times you do get that inspired thing right from the beginning.”

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The film is a “truth-teller” for composers, Britell said, because the music composed during production off of the script might not actually work when it’s married to the picture.

“I’ve had that experience from reading the script and what’s always amazing is how when you do actually see the picture for the first time, you’re like, ‘Whoa! That was wrong,’” he shared. “Sometimes your imaginings, your first instinct, your first idea, maybe it’s saying something about the ideas in the movie, but when you watch it, it is that different mysterious emotional cauldron of whatever that is. Sometime there’s some other feeling than the actual feeling. So I’m always fascinated by that mystery of where it comes from, but also how different it could be from reading it.”

For Hurwitz, who’s scored all of Damien Chazelle’s films, his jumping-off point is from conversations with the director, who always has a sound in mind. Then Hurwitz feels his way around the piano to write. “I’ve never ever heard anything just walking down the street,” he said. “I have to actually be at the piano and I have to have that physical connection with the piano. It’s almost like shapes and a tactile thing a lot of the time. There’s something about making those shapes with the keys and syncing with the keybed that that is where I guess the ideas really start to happen.”

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He did, however, have to write on the fly one time. Asked where the strangest place he ever thought of a cue was, Hurwitz revealed he had to write the whistling melody of “City of Stars” from “La La Land” while his parents were driving him to the airport in Wisconsin.

“We were in the car and I kept asking my parents to pull over the car because there was too much wind noise going past. They pulled over the car, I’d record a whistling idea into my laptop, just a little built-in speaker. Then I had to tether my laptop to my phone to get some weak 4G or whatever to send to send off the demo,” he said. “I think we had to pull over four times.”

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