MUSIC+SOUND AWARDS TALK TO...
MARCELLO DE FRANCISCI
2017 JURY MEMBER + FILM COMPOSER
With an Italian-Argentinean background and a childhood spent living in countries all around the world, film composer, Marcello De Francisci, has a truly extensive musical palette. He settled in Los Angeles over two decades ago and with creative partner, Australian singer and film composer, Lisa Gerrard, has worked on features like ‘Oranges & Sunshine’ starring Emily Watson and Hugo Weaving, ‘Burning Man’ starring Rachel Griffiths and Matthew Goode and his latest project, ‘Jane Got a Gun’, a Weinstein Company twenty five million dollar film starring Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor.
Here, he discusses the importance of perseverance, keeping your ears open to other composer’s work and the ins and outs of working on 'Jane Got a Gun'. We hear how he got to where he is today…
Can you tell us about your journey through the film industry?
It’s a bit of a long story… After residing in Marbella, Spain for some time back in the early nineties, it felt necessary for me to settle in Los Angeles and pursue a career as a film composer. At the time I had formed an electronic band with two other members known as “Alma Tadema”. We produced an album titled “Blinded By Passion”, and shortly after received word that some of the tracks had been awarded placement in Spanish TV spots covering the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. I had studied classical painting during this period and was pursuing a career as visual artist. Music was really a hobby, as I have no formal training. My desire to create music was simply an asset to inspire me while I painted. The creation of this album however was the breaking point that pushed me to consider film music as a serious endeavor. Knowing there was not much opportunity in Spain I basically packed up one day and left everything and everyone I cherished behind. After landing in Venice Beach it took about a year and a half to attain my first experience in the film industry during an internship at Media Ventures, now better known as Remote Control Productions. There I received first hand experience of the intricate film scoring process, which frankly kicked my butt quite a bit… It served, however, as a valuable resource of information that I am quite grateful for and take advantage of until this very day.
After a few years of working odd jobs in the field for free, including multiple failed attempts at finding full time staff writer positions with established composers and music houses, I took it upon myself to forge my own path. There was no alternative. It was a scary time and the years kept passing me by. It took a while but in 2003 I finally found the financial means to set up shop in a tiny little office space in “Korea Town”, near downtown Los Angeles. I recall how the entire building, once a hospital, now reeked of garlic Kimchi. Next to my space was a dental office that housed its operation room directly adjacent to my writing booth. On occasion I would hear a kid screaming next door during some dental procedure, meanwhile I’d be writing a score to a low budget horror film. I cannot imagine what that poor soul experienced listening to horror music emanating through the walls while getting some wisdom tooth pulled out. Here I was, having left a high paying nine to five job to take this leap of faith, now writing music to ridiculously low budget films after having jumped cold turkey into the film “Business” side of things with no real contacts.
Prior to leaving my job I had done a lot of research online and downloaded just about every industry contact resource available to man, listing every professional in my field… Slowly but surely I started calling everybody and anybody to get work and somehow the gigs started to come in. I have kept going ever since and every project has been a journey in itself and a stepping-stone toward refining my skills… I like this field because it is a path to knowledge. The more you know and experience, the more it reflects on your work and one as a professional. The challenge is to stay humble. I also encourage my peers to keep their ears open, especially when it comes to listening to other composers. It is how one grows and keeps moving forward, furthermore better services the client in the end.
Your career history is laden with outstanding work, do you have any favorites?
It is hard to say. It’s most likely I have yet to compose my favorite…
What industry changes have you seen since you began?
When I started out it used to cost a fortune to get a rig to write music. Back then the sounds one had access to were hardly the libraries available today. With the advent of powerful, multitasking and affordable personal computing systems, the playing field has evened out quite a bit, permitting talented individuals to showcase their work. Gear is no longer a major financial obstacle for a creative to write music, which is great!
How do you think a competition like The Music+Sound Awards impacts the industry?
These awards are a valuable asset and provide a great service for discovering, supporting, launching and enriching up-and-coming talent. Most composers hardly ever leave their studios so it’s a nice opportunity to go online to the MASA site and be exposed to, moreover celebrate, the work of other artists.
Last year, you and your creative partner, Lisa Gerrard, composed the score on the Weinstein Co. movie, ‘Jane Got a Gun’, starring Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor. It would be great to hear a bit about it…
“Jane Got A Gun” was a particularly interesting, inspiring and quite challenging score to be involved in. We dealt mainly with director Gavin O’Connor and the post-production staff rather than The Weinstein Co. or head of music, Richard Glasser. The film had quite a few setbacks from the very beginning, with the original director, Lynne Ramsay, walking off set on the first day, taking Jude Law with her. Gavin O’Connor assumed the position of director and in my opinion produced quite a stellar result. I am not saying this because I was involved but I genuinely love this film and feel it’s a classic Hollywood Western.
Throughout the whole process Gavin kept mentioning that he did not want a conventional “Sergio Leone” score at all, which threw us for a loop at times. Life works in mysterious ways and the serendipity of how you can end up landing a film in this business is still a mystery to me.
It all began when Lisa received an email from her agent enquiring if her band, Dead Can Dance, would be interested in scoring “Jane”. The story goes that Pete Snell, the initial music supervisor they hired, was temping the ending (now cut from the film) with a track titled “Return of the She-King” from Dead Can Dance’s latest album, 'Anastasis'. His office was adjacent to Gavin’s, which was part of a creative space located in Burbank that the Weinstein Co. had leased for the editorial process of the film. Gavin was in the hall, overheard the track and with great excitement stated, “That’s my movie!!!". This was a comment he often used when hearing something that depicted the film’s essential character.
Very shortly after I received an email from Lisa asking me if I would work with her on a Natalie Portman film. She’d explained to Gavin that Dead Can Dance didn’t score films, per se, but that she collaborated with me, and a team on the ground, for this sort of work. She was touring at the time and insisted she wouldn’t take the film unless I helped her. What could I possibly say? A week later I found myself sitting in an editing bay with Gavin O’Connor, Pete Snell, and Alan Cody (editor) watching “Jane Got A Gun” while listening back to how they’d temped part of the “The Food Chain” sequence cue we scored for the film “Samsara” on one of the areas of the film. It was a bit surreal. Lisa was in Australia at the time so we Skyped her from Burbank and the process began.
I have a house/studio set up in Pasadena with guest accommodation, quite close to where they were editing the film. Lisa lodges here when we work on projects. Years ago, due to being a big fan of scoring mixer, Alan Meyerson, I took it upon myself to supplement my composition skills by studying and learning the intricate process of Scoring Engineering. All my scores, including the one you hear on Itunes for the “Jane Got A Gun” score album release, are mixed and later mastered by me, here in the studio. In addition to composing/writing, Lisa loves what I bring to a score on the production end and to her voice on the mix side of things, so naturally she came here to collaborate with me on the film.
It was great fun to be able to take advantage of my playing skills as a musician on the project by performing Spanish and electric guitar, banjo, viola, cello, charango, ocarina, and a number of ethnic percussion instruments you hear on tracks like “Bedtime Story”, “Katie Safe”, “Crow, Bishop Gang”, “Brothel”, “Siege” etc. I hired a fiddle player to play on “Bedtime Story” and a cellist to play on “Cattails” and “Balloon Ride”, which I wrote, inspired by music of that time period.
This score was quite diverse as it demanded conventional score, sound design and western style music. For example, I felt the “Balloon Ride” sequence of the film was somewhat reminiscent of Italian cinema, visually and sentimentally, so I decided to dig into my cultural background and conjure up a romantic piece you would have heard in the late nineteenth century. That cue resonated quite well with Gavin, establishing the “Love Theme” of the film.
Other areas like the “Garrote” scene demanded a sound design style tone so I played around with morphing all kinds of naturally recorded acoustic / electric instruments to create tension. The bell you hear right after the scene when Jane walks into town is a Japanese Wok I purchased at Ikea that I ran through some analog EQ’s and reverbs. Some of the other guitar work I did on this film was inspired by influences from my time in Spain and Argentinean background, which came in handy.
We later brought on board the quite renowned, and crazily talented, Scott Smalley, to orchestrate an orchestra we recorded in Budapest. Scott was a genuine thrill to work with and we have become close friends since. We are both crazy so we understand each other quite well, not to mention that Lisa would not have it any other way as I think she gets bored working with generic, mild mannered composers! We live confined by studio walls for weeks on end, so my sense of humor, candid demeanor and theatrics keep her on her toes. Things do get quite dramatic at times though… But hey, that’s art!
In retrospect, I would have to say that the most challenging part of this score was communicating with Gavin through second hand information provided by the music supervisor they hired after Pete Snell left to go work on a Michael Mann film. Some directors are quite intimidated by the music process and therefore choose to have a liaison between themselves and the composer, which is totally fine. It can present its issues, however.
One evening, while Gavin was here in the studio, he shared that he didn’t feel comfortable expressing himself in musical terms. I assured him that it didn’t matter because, as I always say, this work is subjective and no one really knows anything about music. I encourage all my clients to speak in emotional terms and express what they want the audience to feel in any particular area of the film. Music is a language that anyone can speak. Some individuals are eloquent; some are not. I do everything I can to understand and provide what they want my compositions to bring to their film. I have often discovered that those directors who say they don’t know anything about music, end up surprising me with suggestions that take my work to a whole new level.
I encourage every director I work with to come and sit with me during the scoring process once I have the initial clay to mold and shape. It is an invitation to create a language as a collaborative team, that addresses the film and story emotionally, making it a beautiful experience. For that you need to be open, courageous and willing to let the creative journey takes its course, no matter how scary, crazy or off-kilter it may be or sound, compared to what you originally intended for the film as a composer.
As “creatives” we all experience frustration at times, but I always remind myself that this is a “Work for Hire”. If I want to write tracks I like, with no notes involved, I can always do music for a trailer album release or any other endeavor on my own time. While I am on the clock I am there to serve the vision of those who hire me the best I can. Many weeks after delivering a score, with great trepidation, and sometimes fear, I allow myself the mental space to listen back to my work when the dust has settled. With great surprise, occasional awe, and quite happily so, I have often wondered how it all came about.
Find out more at www.marcellodefrancisci.com