Courtney Han is a summer 2016 intern with America ReFramed.
Tyler Strickland scored his first documentary in 2012 with The Genius of Marian (POV 2014), a highly acclaimed film about the devastating affects of Alzheimer’s. Since then, he has worked on a number of award-winning documentaries, including the Emmy-nominated Netflix documentary Hot Girls Wanted and The Return (POV 2016), which won the audience award at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. POV had a chance to speak with Strickland about scoring documentaries versus narratives, dream projects and staying inspired.
Courtney Han: When did you start scoring for documentaries?
Tyler Strickland: I was mixing a film at the Skywalker Ranch in San Francisco and while I was in town I met a filmmaker [Banker White] who was making a documentary about his mom [which became The Genius of Marian]. We hit it off and he asked me to score his film. Before that, I had always thought I’d work on narratives.
Han: What made you to want to do more documentaries?
Strickland: I love the process. The process on working on a documentary with these guys that have been working on it for years — there is just so much passion behind it. I found that I could build a long term friendship with these directors.
Han: How do you score a film?
Strickland: When I hear from the director, we talk for a little while about the film and the process he or she has been going through. Then I get a rough cut and we talk about the film and their hopes for music. I might send over some music for them to work on in the edit room as they are finalizing the cut. Generally I dive in once the film is in a fine cut stage and we work back and forth together until it’s done.
Han: Do you ever run into challenges, like writing something that the filmmaker dislikes?
Strickland: That happens sometimes, but I think a good amount of conversation beforehand, creatively, can help avoid those kinds of situations. There’s also some music to go by and part of that conversation is whether the director is liking the music that they are temping with. But generally speaking it doesn’t happen too often that it’s a total shut out of the piece of music. We just work together really closely to make sure that it’s right for what they’re looking for. Generally, I think that I’ve been very lucky that I’ve had great experiences with all my directors. I’m about to work on a second film with Banker White.
Han: What suggestions do you have for a filmmaker that is deciding to work with a composer for the first time?
Strickland: Many filmmakers are eager to dive into the scoring process, but some are actually worried that because they don’t know how to communicate musically, it can be discouraging. First of all, working music into your film should be inspiring, exciting and fun. Find music you like from other film scores or instrumental records, and throw some of it around in your edit as temp music. Once you feel confident that it’s the right approach, reach out to a composer, but definitely keep an open mind.
In your search for a composer, you may hear a reel of work that you think is great but not quite right for your film. It’s still likely worthwhile to meet with the composer, as you may connect on a personal level. Also after sharing more insight on your film, he or she may realize there is more appropriate music to share.
Always remember that it’s a collaboration, and be transparent about things like the style of score you’ve been dreaming of in your film, your schedule, and last but definitely not least, your budget. Composing 50 minutes of music for a 90 minute film can often be an expensive process. Make sure this is at the forefront of your conversation, but don’t get discouraged too quickly if it’s out of range. A savvy composer will be able to suggest more affordable scenarios if you can’t reach for the orchestra you’ve been imagining.
Another more specific thought would be to not depend on the score to make your film a success. This is really important. Let all of your hard work in the editing room speak for itself and allow the film to stand on it’s own, then bring in an amazing score to support it and enhance the power of your film. Trust your instinct on who you hire as your composer, and certainly don’t base your decision purely on his or her credits. Once you find someone who shines to you, get to know them more. Is this someone who is not only talented, but passionate about the subject and inspires you to collaborate on new ideas together? Someone who you feel will truly put their heart into the film?
Han: Do you ever have challenges composing new and different music?
Strickland: I have phases where I work on films every single day for six months and completely avoid my normal life. It’s pretty easy to get burned out working like that so I recently took about a month off to spend some time working instead on my latest studio album. I’m always looking for new projects to work on, different styles: foreign documentaries, really dark documentaries, uplifting documentaries. I’m particularly really excited right now about short documentaries, I think that it’s a great platform and there is a lot of really great work coming out right now.
Han: Since documentaries are about real people and real emotions, what do you do differently when you score a documentary versus a narrative?
Strickland: I predominantly work on documentaries now, character-driven documentaries specifically, with pretty gut-wrenching topics. Often the main challenge in writing a score is writing a score that does not manipulate the subject’s honest emotions because these are real people. You don’t want to support it in a way that leads the audience in forming an opinion based on what the score is telling them to feel. I’d say that in my experience working on narrative films this is also the case but it’s at the foreground with working on documentaries.
Han: Is there a film or topic that you would like to work with?
Strickland: I would love to do some big documentary work on climate change, space and all of these big grand things that would be a kid’s dream to write music for. So I’m always keeping an eye out for those projects.