Miriam Cutler is an Emmy nominated composer and has an extensive background in scoring for independent film & TV projects, as well as two circuses. She is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Documentary Branch. Her extensive film and television credits include Ethel, Lost in La Mancha, and the Oscar-nominated Poster Girl. She has served as lab advisor for the Sundance Institute Documentary Composers Lab, as well as on documentary juries for the Sundance Film Festival, Independent Spirit Awards, International Documentary Association Awards, and American Film Institute’s Film Festival Awards and is a long-time Society of Composers and Lyricists Board member. She has also co-produced two Grammy-nominated live jazz albums.
Each person’s individual style will dictate how they build their team, but the best team building happens by word of mouth. When I'm looking for people I always go through other people I know, often other composers. We composers talk to each other and we share a lot of musicians. You need to be part of the community, I highly recommend that. That’s what’s so great about the Society of Composers and Lyricists. It creates a space where composers can meet other people at all phases of their career and interact, giving you access to a wealth of resources. It’s very important.
For any education to be successful, the student needs to be motivated. I always played in bands. I come from a musical family but no one ever took music seriously to be a profession. It was never even a possibility. I only got really serious about studying music when I was in the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. I was in a band with really great players, and I realized I needed to supplement my experience with knowledge. That's when I went back to school.
It’s always scary the first time you show a mockup. You don’t know what they’re going to react to, and whether they’re going to hear past the MIDI. I give them my disclaimers and I say these are the ideas, these are the concepts. We can discuss the sounds, but understand this is about the composition and the tone and the music and how it plays for that scene. Don’t worry about it being beautiful. When musicians play it, it will be beautiful.
I’m very frustrated by programming MIDI. If I’m going to spend that much time on something, I want it to be real music from a real instrument. It’s much easier to have somebody play something than to get a MIDI thing to sound right. I try to avoid spending too much time programming because I think it’s just a big waste of time.
You have to think about your life and what kind of life you want. This absorbs your entire life. I have years that I never really left this room, and people just stopped inviting me to things, and it wreaks havoc on relationships, and families. You better love it or you’re going to wake up when you’re 50 or 60 and go "What did I do with my life?"
You have to be an endless fountain of ideas, and the best way to be an endless fountain of ideas is to learn to let go of things very quickly. You can’t be attached. You have to believe you’re going to have more ideas. If you think a rejected piece of music is great, then put it aside and use it for something else. Throw it in a bin and let go of it.
I think it’s part of each person’s individual style that dictates how they build their team. It’s very important to have a community of composer friends and other music people. They're not necessarily your competition - you need their support too. The industry tends to foster a fluid community of people who have different skills and are available to each other. You pull people in for one project and then you let them go when it’s done, and you hope that they’re available the next time that you need them.
A lot of what I record I do overdubbing one player at a time in my studio, but it takes a lot more time that way. I’ve always been willing to invest myself into the process, and that’s the only corner I can really cut. I would never cheap out on the musicians. I have to pay my music prep people fairly. I have a really good mixing engineer that I work with. The only place I can really cut corners is myself, so I invest the time and I hope that I’m making an investment in something worthwhile.
The way to get moving quickly is to engage with the filmmaker as quickly as possible and find out if you’re on the right path. There has to be a really solid communication. I need to get into their heads as quickly as possible to make this financially feasible, and also to deliver on time. I don’t care how I get that information. If the director and I get together and drink a bottle of wine and get schnockered, I’ll get to know that person and get to know their likes. Some people will bring in lots of music, we’ll go through it all, and they’ll explain everything they like and don’t like. Sometimes I get very little information from the director and I actually get more information from the editor.
When trying to contain a budget, I’d say my biggest problem is always music prep. It's expensive to get really good music prep with experienced people, but it's worth it. That has always been the part of my process that’s the most difficult to control, because it’s hard to pull it off if you have 67 minutes of music and only a week or two to get it together. It’s really difficult to get all the information you need onto the page perfectly.
When at a film scoring recording session, part of my job as a music producer is to keep things completely focused on the task at hand. We need to actualize the music so that it works perfectly with the picture. The filmmaker and I have worked for months together to make it perfect. The recording can't go off track from that, and it has to be an actualization of our particular creation. There are an infinite number of decisions so you have to be assertive, let go of things, and move on as soon as you hit your goal.
I learned over the years to make time between recording sessions to prepare for my next one. I don’t like surprises at my sessions. Half my music budget is in the studio that day, so that's it. The scariest part is that if it fails then I fail, so good preparation is essential. Film scoring is not for the meek, I have to tell you. We all have horror stories in which things go horribly wrong, and yet we still have to pull everything off on our own guerrilla style. There have been times when I thought "I've got to stop doing this. I can't take it any more. I'm going to die. I'm destroying myself physically, and I haven't achieved my goals." But my career has really come together. I can't explain it, but it's been really wonderful. It coalesced over time and my career has been very satisfying.
Mainstream Hollywood isn't for everybody. From what I hear from my colleagues who do more mainstream work on tight deadlines, it's brutal. I know that I couldn’t live in such a harsh reality. I just couldn’t. It would kill me. I would just shrivel up.
If a director isn't convinced by your demos, don't try to convince them. I learned a long time ago to never argue with the director. You might win that argument and get the cue you want, but then for the next 1,000 times they watch that film in festivals they’re going to hate your guts because they’re never going to like it. Every once in a while they may decide "Oh, she was right." Most of the time, because we’re all working off our gut instincts, if their gut instinct is saying no, I’d rather just go with that.