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How Independent Filmmakers Choose and Use Music, Part 2 With Producer, Bernie Stern

Bernie Stern is a Los Angeles-based independent film producer who has successfully used TAXI as a resource to find music for several films he’s recently produced. The first two paragraphs are repeated from Part One of this interview to give context. -Ed.

Bernie Stern: My director on my last film was absolutely over the moon with what we got from TAXI. He has a couple of very specific old-timey songs that he knew he was going to use, that he knew he had deals for. So, we were able to place those, and then it was like, “OK, but there are 25 other drops in this film; what are we gonna do?” And I was fortunate enough to be able to bring him to y’all, and I want to say that we booked something like eight or nine songs [from TAXI members] on the last film, and it sounds amazing. That movie sounds awesome.

Michael Laskow: I would imagine that our members were tickled pink when they got the email or phone call from you, “We’d like to put your song in an indie film.”

Again, not for nothing, the quality of [the music we got from TAXI] is a lot better. It was really easy to find what we needed, so that was great. I mean, this is not a pitch for TAXI; I’m not paid to say this. But I really enjoyed the process, and we were really grateful that it worked out on my last film. I bring [TAXI] up to every filmmaker I work with now as a resource.

Great, thank you for that! I really appreciate it. Have you ever had any problems when reaching out to the TAXI members whose music you wanted? Did you have to ask them to remix something or change the lyric, or were you able to use everything you got just bing-bang-boom?
Yes. Yeah, so far, it’s been great. We haven’t had any issues. I think the largest issue that we had was for some reason my director’s email wouldn’t go [through] to an artist. I think he was in Ireland, maybe. I could email with him just fine. I would copy my director, my director would email him, no response. That was an email glitch and has nothing to do with anything. Outside of that very random issue, no, it has been great. Everybody that we reached out to say, “OK, we would like to book your song, and do you want to sign this contract?” We didn’t have anything that we had to circle back on. Nobody came back at us and was like, “Actually, that’s gonna be $10k.” There were no issues like that, it was a very seamless process.

Let’s talk about scoring indie films. Obviously, we just finished watching a video from Vienna Symphonic Library, where they’ve got this beautiful scoring stage in Vienna with just world-class players, of course. One of our TAXI members is actually the marketing guy for Vienna Symphonic Library. So, he went and shot video of himself in this beautiful, breathtaking scoring stage, and then they did a demo of the new product they have called Big Bang Orchestra. Huge film scores are done on that stage.

Obviously, an indie film is getting made for $300k can’t afford to hire real players on a scoring stage like that. So, they’re gonna reach out to somebody who can do the whole thing in-the-box. If you saw that demo from the Vienna Symphonic Library, it’s like just breathtakingly world-class sounding. So, my point is that if a composer can do it in the box and score a whole film like that, what kind of money can the composer expect to earn scoring a film with a total budget of $200k, $300k film.
Well, you’re putting me on the spot. But I want to tell you as a musician myself also that I understand that this is… Everybody’s rates are low on an indie film of this size. And in fact, I regularly call people to work on my films, and they are like, “I don’t work for that rate anymore.”

“I’ve worked with Ego Plum and Danny Elfman and some major composers on a couple of these films.”

The last few films that I had where we had scores, it’s been somewhere in the realm of $5k to $10k, as high as $20k on some of the midlevel movies, all-in. A lot of the composers will retain [all their composition and master] rights, so it’s usually like a licensing deal that we’ll do, as opposed to just outright ownership for that level. So, if we do a soundtrack, they would get some benefit from that, but it’s in that realm. And as far as the in-the-box thing goes, I haven’t done a film that had live orchestration on it yet, and I’ve worked with Ego Plum and Danny Elfman and some major composers on a couple of these films. We were lucky enough to have them, but they did everything with samples and tiny supplementation of real instrumentation, and they sound incredible.

So, I’m not saying that there’s not a need for live musicianship and that the orchestra shouldn’t happen, but you can get really amazing things at a budget level. But, yeah, somewhere between $5k and $20k is where you might land to score an indie film.

I’ve got a couple friends that are not involved in the TAXI universe that are scoring composers on indie films, and that’s typically the range that they work in.

Let’s talk about the whole process. Actually, the name of this is “How Indie Film Producers Choose and Use Music.” So, you get hired as the producer on the film. Is the director on board before you’re brought in?
In the films that I have made as a hired producer, the director is usually already onboard. And in fact, it’s usually the director who is bringing the project to me. That’s kind of where I get involved. I have plenty of projects in development with writers and projects where we are trying to attach a director and then take it to a studio. But on the indie-film side, the money and the director are usually somehow related, and so the director is on board first, and so are the scripts. So, script, money, and the director kind of happen all at the same time. It’s rare that I would be brought on before the director.

Let’s stick with scoring for a minute. When does the first music conversation take place, and how does that go?
Well, it does vary a little bit. I mean, we definitely try to have conversations in pre-production. Because we look at our budget and we go, “OK, we already know that we don’t have this kind of money for this, so let’s lock it in now and make sure that we’re good for later.” A lot of times, if there is music that plays in the movie—like if someone dances to it or sings along—we definitely have to get that involved in pre-production to make sure that we can clear a song before it’s being sung on camera. But with scoring, it’s kind of a cursory call. I just signed a composer for the film that I’m about to do, and then I won’t speak to him for two months. Because we’ve made our deal and we’ve signed, you won’t even need to speak to them until the edit is done. But the conversation starts early, but it doesn’t become a creative conversation until the film is made, until it’s seen.

Well, some form of creative conversation has taken place because you have to choose the composer, so you’re not gonna get somebody who scores like hybrid electronic stuff versus somebody who does orchestral.
For sure. We read the scripts. I don’t mean that there is no conversation; I just mean as far as dialing it in or saying that this is what we need. But, yes, of course, if you’re going to pick a composer that early, you absolutely pick somebody who can do what you want them to be able to do. I will say I have had a couple of seemingly different experiences with composers that I feel like would be normal, because in general it seems like I wouldn’t have the conversation with a composer until I could show them the film, and then say, “Make a sample for this.” But, like I said, when I worked with Danny Elfman, his brother was the filmmaker, and so we knew from the get-go that he is going to make the music perfect for it. He’s gonna do it; he’s helping his brother out—and that led us to Ego.

I’ve had certain conversations like that. The other thing that you have to factor in, too, is that on budget levels like this, it’s about networking and having connections to individuals that you want to work with. So, there is a little bit of, “I know this guy or this woman will compose for us because we worked on something before, or we’re trying to work on a bigger thing, but let’s do this together.” There’s a little bit of that that goes on to get it done.

But, yes, you are absolutely right. They read the script, we know what the script is and we try to pick somebody that can do the right style. And then, once we edit it, then we can really dial it in.

“Movies without music are awful!”

And do the editors put a temp score in to give some sort of guidance to the scoring composer eventually? Or is that more to just to make it more palatable as they are watching the film come together, and it doesn’t really give guidance as to the type of score, is my guess?
I would say it’s absolutely both. You have put some music in. I mean, movies without music are awful. There has to be music, and so even with just the editor to be able to stand their job cutting the film, you’ll add music in. You want to try and capture a feel. Again, it’s a little tricky, because let’s say you’ve a huge suspenseful track and you’re taking songs from like Batman or something like that. You will fall in love with it and then [you can’t afford something on that level, it’s a letdown]. It’s tricky, you have to be careful with that music not to put in something that is so good or so recognizable that it becomes an earworm. But, absolutely, you put something in so that you can stand it, and then you put something in so that you can show the composer that this is the feeling that we are looking for. Because, you know, there is full orchestration or there is a single cello and a tuba. You want to be able to indicate the feeling of it, so you have to use music in that way.

Again, it’s great if you’re working with a composer and they just compose some kind of raw-form stuff and you can play around with it, all the better. But in my experience at the indie film budget level, you’re not going to get months and months and 50 versions of a score. So you want to be able to be as specific as possible when you send it to the composer so you’re not wasting anyone’s time.

“It’s also really important in the spotting sessions to outline what’s happening in the scene.”

Describe what spotting is, and what a spotting session is like, and like who is there.
Well, it should definitely be director and producer and music supervisor all be in there, along with the editor. They should all be involved in that conversation, depending on whether people are wearing multiple hats that can be a singular job for one person. But you definitely want a music supervisor involved whenever possible so that they can figure it out. But spotting itself is just going through the movie and you count all of the times that the editor and director have put in temp music and you figure out, “OK, at this minute, we need this song and it’s gonna last this period of time.” It’s also really important in the spotting sessions to outline what’s happening in the scene. You’ll get that question a lot when you are trying to license music—“OK, what’s going on?” Like some companies won’t license if there’s like illicit drug use, or if there is something untoward, I guess you could say. It’s not always an issue, and if that’s what your movie is about—drug abuse—you’re gonna have to get some song at some point. But they will ask you what is happening in the scene, so you have to know that.

But, yeah, knowing how often that the song comes up, how long you need it, and what’s happening in the scene is very important. And so that conversation is through that group, a music supervisor will then create a document that has all that information in it, and then we will start seeking songs to fill.

This might be a tough question to answer, but it rattles around in my own brain sometimes. Those of us on our end of the industry tend to operate on genres, or on maybe a song reference. It makes life easier for musicians, it makes life easier to write a brief, all that sort of stuff. I have a feeling—and I could be wrong about this—that a director might say, “I need something that… Coming home from the funeral, the family is in the back of the limo. I need something sad. I need something really sad.” Well, that’s great, but do you need a score that’s really sad? Do you need a piano/vocal that’s really sad? Do you want to juxtapose something completely unexpected, like put a punk rock song in there about death and dying? What kind of stuff do you hear in these spotting meetings when a director goes, “Yeah, man, I need something sad there”? How do you guys steer it to get more out of it so that you can write a brief and come to us, and everybody in the chain can get closer to what the director wants.
Yeah, for sure. I have been lucky enough to work with directors who were extremely opinionated, for better or worse. So, these conversations can get extremely specific. Like they generally have known, “I want a Western-sounding, plodding, slow-tempo song here.” And then, the first thing I ask is, “Give me a reference. Play the song that you hear in your head, or the soundtrack that you hear in your head.” And it may at that point already be in the edit, because they have told the editor, “I want this song here.”

But I’ve been lucky, I have yet to meet a director who got a film made who couldn’t articulate exactly what they want, ad nauseum. Because it’s kind of like they are seeing it—I’m sure there are plenty of bad directors who are like, “Well, whatever.” And not to say that there’s not a collaborative process where like an editor might suggest, or a music supervisor might suggest, “Hey, what about this punk rock song here?” You get some stuff like that. Like playing a punk-rock song super-slow and instrumentally could be an amazing piece for that. But as a producer, my job is to facilitate a director’s vision, and my job is to fit in and spend money to that end. And it’s a much harder process for me if they don’t know what they want. And like I said, most directors will talk all day about the things they want.

I find it a little fascinating. I don’t know a lot of directors, but the bigger percentage of the ones that I do know are musicians, and they grew up being fans of music, so they do have a pretty clear vision— that tends to be an inappropriately large budget vision [chuckles]—but they do have a vision.
But again, the easiest way to get inside a director’s head, in my experience so far, has been just to play the song that you’re hearing, and then we’ll go find it, if it’s not that song.

Don’t miss the final installment of this interview in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!