2018 Jury Member +

Film Composer


February 2018

Aaron Zigman is the ultimate modern film composer. As a classically trained musician, conductor and composer, he has a degree of versatility rarely seen amongst even today’s top talent. His deep classical roots combined with his ability to read the pulse of pop culture, has enabled him to write, co-write and produce songs for some of music’s all-time greatest performers (Aretha Franklin, John Legend, Christina Aguilera, Seal, Phil Collins and more) and gives him the ability to traverse styles of music to develop some of what have been the industry’s most memorable film scores across diverse genres. In fact, award-winning Zigman has successfully composed over 50 films scores, including The Notebook, Wakefield, Bridge to Terabithia, The Proposal, For Colored Girls, Flash of Genius, Sex & the City I & II, Escape from Planet Earth, Mr. Right, The Company Men, The Jane Austen Book Club, John Q, Alpha Dog…


Can you give us a rundown of your musical background prior to working as a film composer?

I began training as a classical pianist at age five, and had many private teachers (theory, Jazz, etc.) until I moved to UCLA to go to college.  At age 19 I began studying with my cousin, George Bassman, a noted MGM composer who orchestrated for The Wizard of Oz and wrote the scores for the films Marty and The Postman Always Rings Twice.  When I was 21 I signed a song-writing contract with Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert’s behemoth publishing company, Almo Irving, and began writing, producing songs, and eventually I took on the task of arranging and orchestrating for many of the top major artists in the record industry.

My first big hit in pop music was “Crush On You,” which earned top-chart status for a group called The Jets with my co-writing and producing partner at that time, Jerry Knight.  I then worked for Clive Davis and produced and arranged songs for Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole, among others.  I also wrote, arranged or produced over 50 hit albums and/or co-wrote songs with legendary and contemporary artists including John Legend, Phil Collins, Christina Aguilera, Dionne Warwick, Carly Simon, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, The Four Tops, Seal, and many others.

How did you break into the film industry? And has your pop background influenced your approach to film composition at all?

In 2000 I got my break into film when director Nick Cassavetes heard my classical symphonic tone poem, “Rabin”, being performed by the L. A. Jewish Symphony in memory of Yitzhak Rabin.  So moved, Cassavetes asked me to score his movie John Q starring Denzel Washington.  My pop music experience helped me know how to write good hooks. The only difference between pop music and writing music for film is that the chorus, which helps convey the theme, for pop music typically comes 30 or 40 seconds into the song; in film it has to come within 7 to 15 seconds.  In film music you have less time to draw the audience in depending on the genre of the film. 

Critics highly praised your 2016 score for the dramatic film Wakefield, directed by Oscar-nominated Robin Swicord, featuring Academy Award nominee and Emmy-winning Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Garner. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences working on it?

The reason why I think the score was so successful is that it was a similar work situation to my experience on The Notebook with Nick Cassavetes.  I was brought in early and had the scripts early and knew what the director, Robin Swicord, wanted, in fact 2 years before production.  Because of Robin's skillful writing and direction, I connected with Bryan Cranston's character immediately.  Like Bryan's character, I, too, have had to abandon old thinking to try and better myself.  Many of the demos I wrote actually made it into the film.

Is there a film you’ve worked on that has stood out as being one of the most challenging?   

Sex And The City 2 was challenging because it was temped with music for Sex and the City I when the characters' lives revolved around NYC; but in the sequel they went to Abu Dhabi, so I had to create something fresh yet based on the temped music. Director Michael Patrick King's vision for the scenes in Abu Dhabi was really specific and based on the setting change in the film. T he challenge was to create an original language fused with the old style glamous films of the days of old, which ended up being almost a throwback to Lawrence of Arabia but with modern beats and pulses underneath the orchestra.


What does your working process usually look like? And how’s your studio set up?

I always start at the piano. It doesn't mean piano will necessarily be in the score, it's just the first thing I go to in my living room when I start improvising and honing until things take form, before I start messing around in my studio with all the great technological software that is available to us.


What projects do you have coming up?

I recently just finished my concerto for cello and piano and I am writing the score for an upcoming film directed by critically-acclaimed director/actor Jiang Wen.

And lastly... your studio is on fire, what do you grab first?!

I grab anyone who is working in there with me. If I'm alone, I grab the hard drives and get out!


Find more out about Aaron at www.aaronzigman.com