Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Award Eligibility

Los Angeles, CA.  December 29, 2010.

      Los Angeles has emptied out for the holidays, as it does every year.  There are more Angelinos from the film industry in Hawaii right now than there are in town.  So it’s fun to be here.  Traffic -- on the roads, in restaurants and at movie theatres  -- is almost non-existent. I’ve been watching movies the studios are pushing for awards free of charge, at home with dvd “screeners” they’ve sent, or using my Academy and Guild cards at commercial cinemas and plush screening rooms.

     And I talk about films with friends and colleagues non-stop, via email, text, Facebook and phone.  A big topic of conversation, today, is last week’s announcement that Carter Burwell’s music for the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” is ineligible for an Oscar.  Because the composer based his work on Protestant hymns, notably “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” it’ cannot be considered for the best original l score award.  But this isn’t the first time Mr. Burwell derived his compositions for the Coens from existing themes.  I worked with the brilliant composer on “Raising Arizona” and “Miller’s Crossing,” the underscores of which  shed light on the current flap.

     Perhaps as early as the screenwriting stage, Joel and Ethan Coen heard the score of “Raising Arizona” in their heads.  It would be a variation on Pete Seeger’s “Goofin’ Off Suite,” itself a banjo and yodeling arrangement of the “Ode to Joy” from Beethven’s Ninth.  Mr. Burwell delivered what the filmmakers had imagined and then some.  Yes, and then some.   Not  only was the warbling Alpine rather than the Appalachian or folksy Americana flavor we expected, the score for much of the movie had nothing to do with Pete Seeger or Beethoven at all .  Mr. Burwell’s biker theme, his Snopes theme and his underscore for Hi’s fight with Gale Snopes were completely original.  

     Like “Raising Arizona,” “Miller’s Crossing” had a soundtrack the Coen Brothers imagined before the film was shot.  They heard, in their heads, variations on “Danny Boy” -- Hibernian music for their Irish-American characters’ Tom and Leo -- transformed into a movie score.   And their composer delivered that, but with brilliant orchestrations that enhanced the emotional experience of the movie without leading viewers to hum the actual song.

     What’s remarkable to my colleagues and me is that most  motion picture scoundtracks entail adaptation.  And members of the Academy’s music branch know this.  When directors with whom I work turn their films over to a composer for scoring, it’s normal to include a “temp” track.  Playing music from other movies as accompaniment for scenes in their rough cuts, directors and editors learn what works and what doesn’t, and and use what they’ve learned to guide the composer toward the final soundtrack.  Often composers’ music editors participate in the process, offering pieces of music from their employers earlier work that might be appropriate to the current project.

      Some underscore writers resist using the “temp” track as a starting point.  A few even refuse to listen to it.  But many, especially when they know their directors' tastes well, embrace it fully.  The amazing David Newman, when I worked with him on Herbert Ross’s “Boys on the Side,” actually encouraged Mr. Ross to license a piece of temporary music which seemed to work perfectly in a dialogue scene between Whoopi Goldberg and Mary Louise Parker. 

     Ironically, when I edited with the Coen Brothers, they didn’t  use “temp” underscore.  I don’t think they do now.  Carter Burwell’s work is based on extensive dialogue about what will be most effective, not actual music.  Thus even his “adaptations” are completely original.  

     And this is highly unusual.  Every other director with whom I’ve worked, from Woody Allen on “Manahattan” (1979) to Josh Radnor on “Happythankyoumoreplease” (2011), has attached temporary music to his rough cut.  I will never forget how surprised (and I suspect chagrined) Zubin Mehta was to learn he was expected to conduct “Rhapsody in Blue” for Mr. Allen’s “Mannhattan” soundtrack at the austere tempo of the Leonard Bernstein recording the director had chosen as “temp.”

     Something that keeps coming up in my discussions of Mr. Burwell’s ineligibility for Oscar consideration for “True Grit” is the Academy music branch’s last-minute decision, in 1973, to disqualify Nino Rota’s music for “The Godfather.”  Part of Mr. Rota’s underscore, appparently, was a variation on a theme from an 1958 Italian movie.  Here, as well, there is irony.  Two years later, Mr. Rota received an Academy Award for Best Original Score for “The Godfather Part II,” which used the same theme.

     My colleagues and musician friends also point out that “variations on themes” are an esteemed mainstay of classical music.  Bartok’s string quartets, felt by many to be the greatest compositions ever written in that genre, were inspired by Hungarian, Slovakian and Romanian folk music.  Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” was, in part, based on Russian folk melodies.  Brahms wrote the highly acclaimed “Variations on a Theme of Paganini.”  And on and on and on.

     Also, Academy nay-sayers argue, oodles of film scores are “inspired” by other works.  The great Bernard Herrmann paid obvious homage, in his Hitchcock scores, to Beethoven, Stravinsky and others.  Many fans of Bill Conti’s theme for the “Rocky” films feel it owes its spirit to Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”  And to my ear, Nino Rota’s “Godfather Part II” music  owes as much to Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio for Strings in G Minor” as it does to any earlier motion picture soundtrack. 

     At any rate, even editors who are out of town for the holidays have spent a good part of the day talking movie talk, as usual.  It’s been said that if there are two film editors in a room (or on line), there will be three opinions.  

     After the weekend, Los Angeles will once again be filled with filmmakers.  But January is always a slow month for work.  So we’ll continue to attend screenings and argue (good-naturedly) about the upcoming awards, and we’ll start to look for work, hoping there’ll be more of it to go around than there was in 2010.  



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