From the beginning to Apollo 11 – Interview with Edmund Choi

We often try to make contact with composers related to our recent reviews, to get as much information about the music as we can. We did the same with an Australian comedy entitled, The Dish, and asked the composer of that film, Edmund Choi, some questions about the process. His answers were very informative and detailed, so we decided to release the interview in its entirety. We asked him about M. Night Shyamalan's earlier movies (Praying with Anger, Wide Awake), as well as his working relationship with Carter Burwell. He also shares his thoughts about the creative difficulties of dealing with temp scores as well as his passion for composing film music.

Could you tell me a little about how your career started? What made you turn to symphonic composition?

I studied piano and violin as a child. One of the results of being an unremarkable student violinist is that you are often assigned to the second violin section. While it might be less flashy than sitting up front, working 'inside the orchestra' gave me a deeper insight into what makes an orchestral piece work. Having to fit in... listening rather than standing out, allowed my ear to further appreciate the nuances of orchestration, harmonic structure, melody, tempo and rhythm.

Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, it was impossible not to be influenced by certain pop culture. In my case, Star Wars became a personal fascination. Not only did I love and appreciate the characters, the action, and the special effects, I was most affected by the music. While I couldn't elicit it at the time, looking back I realize that much of what I fell in love with were the ‘emotions' that the music brought forth from within me.

At age 15, I attended a summer session at The Berklee School of Music in Boston. It was there that I studied jazz theory for the first time, something that, to me, was akin to learning about the skeleton of music. Having studied traditional harmony, music theory and conducting later on, I can say, assuredly, that jazz theory and conducting have impacted my composing life most significantly. Private jazz theory lessons followed, and soon I would be attending New York University.

My original plan was to major in Music Engineering, as I thought it might be more practical in terms of getting a job later on, but on the first day of class, my instructor walked into the room and immediately told all of us, "NYU is not a place to learn how to be a recording engineer." The room went silent. He said it just like that. Imagine him just dropping the mic afterward. So, taking his word seriously, the rest of my first semester became about finding out what else I could major in that was related to music. It was then that I discovered that NYU was one of the biggest and most prestigious film schools in the country.

By second semester I had decided on Music Composition, with a focus on Film Scoring. So much for ‘practical'. I took private composition lessons at NYU along with my other musical studies, continuing to cultivate my lifelong appreciation of classical and orchestral music. But how was I going to learn about ‘film scoring' when NYU did not even offer it as a major? As it turns out, there was a growing need for film composers amongst the undergraduate and graduate film students at NYU. And since I was in such close proximity to that need, I soon took advantage of it by offering my composing services for free in return for experience, proper screen credit, and video copies of the final film. I essentially gave myself an education in film scoring, by working on student films. There were a lot of them to score, and thus a lot of on-the-job-training.

How did your work with Carter Burwell start?

During my junior year at NYU, I was introduced to a young graduate filmmaker at a screening of a short film I had scored. She happened to be the girlfriend, at the time, of an up and coming film composer named Carter Burwell. Our introduction and ensuing conversation eventually led me to ask, "Do you think he might need an assistant?" And sure enough she replied, "Why yes... he actually needs one right now." And so I traded phone numbers with her, and within two days I was at Carter's front door.

He was scoring a picture called Scorchers at the time and I was immediately put to work making photocopies of scores, taping them together, setting up microphones, taking session notes, rewiring and labelling patch bays – all things that I had never done before but that taught me a lot about the process of modern film scoring. I learned the importance of organization and planning by working on spreadsheets of film music data involving timing and tempos, and realized how much time and effort can be saved by simply labeling things correctly and putting things like microphones and cables back in their correct drawers!.

But what about the music? Yes, music was an important part of my working relationship with Carter, but not in the way one might think. What many people may not realize about Carter is how ‘independent' he is. He is perhaps one of the most self-sufficient composers I have ever known. To this day, he only hires a part-time assistant, and that person is never involved with any ghost-writing or orchestration. Carter, a technical and creative genius, was able to score films in a way that was as much singular as it was personal. Working as his assistant made me realize that I still had a lot to learn, but gave me the confidence to believe that, one day, I too could become a professional film composer.

It is often said that ‘nothing beats experience', and I can tell you from experience how true this really is. In the breaks between folding cables, dealing with malfunctioning pieces of equipment and cleaning up the studio, I would watch and listen as Carter crafted his music on a deadline. Observing his ability to artfully and efficiently solve problems was an education unto itself. While I had not yet scored a feature film, I was given unique insight into the process of professional film scoring simply by being around it.

A lot of my growth as a student and as a person has been due to an ongoing process of demystification. It's as simple as not knowing...until you know... and then believing that you can do something with that knowledge once you have it. Working with Carter involved a lot of learning by example. Watching and learning from his process is something that remains with me to this day.

Why did you end your working relationship?

My job as Carter's assistant did not end abruptly, but rather ‘faded out' as I transitioned into scoring my own feature films and exploring other composing opportunities. I am eternally grateful for Carter's patience and honesty when it came to answering my many questions about film scoring and Hollywood. His dedication to his craft and to his art is something I deeply admire. The quality and impact of his music is a reflection of this. The greatest thing Carter ever taught me is... "You have to have your own voice."

He was speaking to me not just as a fellow composer, but as an artist and a human being. At some point in your life you have to stop competing... stop comparing... and just accept who you are and the voice that is your own. Only then will you have achieved true success.

How did you get The Dish movie assignment?

I had scored, or rather re-scored, a picture in 1998 entitled The Castle, a very successful independent comedy produced and released in Australia. When The Castle was shown at Sundance in 1997, Harvey Weinstein and Miramax immediately picked it up for international distribution. The timing couldn't have been better. I was recently signed to a composing deal with Miramax to write music for upcoming films in production. Harvey had decided that the score to The Castle needed to be replaced for the international release. My future collaborator, Jane Kennedy (producer), was given several composer suggestions from Miramax. After listening to my work from Wide Awake, Jane decided I was the right guy for the job.

Shortly thereafter I would be working with Jane long-distance over the phone, and using this new-fangled thing called ‘the internet'. We collaborated over several months by discussing what worked in the original score and what could be improved upon. As the music was being written, I would convert my working mixes to .mp3 and email them to Jane in Melbourne, Australia for approval. Unlike today, it took almost a full-hour to email a single 7 mb file! We can laugh about it now, but it was literally cutting-edge at the time for both of us. Once the music was approved by Jane and Rob Sitch (Director), Jane flew to New York to oversee the recording sessions which took place at The Manhattan Center Studios and Avatar Studios over several days with Lawrence Manchester engineering. I remember the experience as being an exceptionally happy one, and was hopeful that Jane, Rob and Working Dog might consider me for a future project. And luckily for me, that is exactly what happened.

How did you start working on the score? How did you decide on the instrumentation and the mood?

Several months after The Castle sessions, Jane would phone me from time to time asking some rather cryptic questions. She'd ask something like, "Do you know anything about cows jumping over the moon?" And I'd answer something like, "You mean like ‘Buffalo Gals' from It's a Wonderful Life? There would be all these ‘moon- related' questions that I thought were a bit odd, but my curiosity grew. Eventually, Jane let me in on the secret. Working Dog was in production on their next feature film entitled The Dish. It was a comedy/drama based on real events surrounding the Apollo 11 moon landing. To say I was ecstatic to be offered the job is an understatement. I was going to be composing music for a ‘space movie' – YES!

As it turns out, the film was mostly about the dedicated, earth-bound humans working in Australia who carried the responsibility of delivering live video footage of the moon landing to the world. So no big, brassy or epic instrumentation this time. The orchestration would eventually reflect more the warmth and goodness of the characters and their mission, rather than the coldness of space.

The final act of the film, which includes the moon landing itself, would feature The Australian Boys Choir and Tina Arena. Having worked previously with The American Boychoir on Wide Awake, I was fully aware of the impact of their presence in the film. If the boys choir represented mankind, then Tina was our muse thanking us with praise. What better way to express the wonder of such a moment than with the sound of youth, promise and gratitude?

Jane and Rob were fond of the idea of using live orchestra, as we had done previously for The Castle, but the focus this time around was decidedly on the key theme of the film which was one of ‘taking risks'. As you watch The Dish, you may notice how almost every character is confronted in one way or another with risks of varying proportions. It was up to me to encapsulate this idea through music.

On my first visit to Melbourne I spent a good deal of time talking with Rob and Jane about the theme. Rob even loaned me his personal copy of a photo-book commemorating the Apollo 11 moon landing. Back in my hotel room, I slowly leafed through the book which reaffirmed to me just how much collaborative effort, brain power and inspiration it took to pull off such an incredible achievement. I recall the next day asking The Hotel Como management for permission to use the grand piano in the hotel lounge. I spent a few hours just sketching ideas on staff paper. The theme had to be a simple one. To my mind, it had to encompass the shared efforts of mankind attempting the impossible, a sense of reaching to the stars – and the hard, honest, collaborative work it took to accomplish that task.. 

It occurred to me that climbing a mountain was a very good a metaphor for landing on the moon. Climbing a mountain is not always a straight climb to the top. There are times when a climber might have to retreat or regroup at a lower altitude before continuing higher. Space travel also involves this sort of ‘staging'. With this in mind, I envisioned the melody progressing in an ‘up-down' pattern while moving ‘upward as a whole', tracing a route to the summit. Approaching the writing in this way, a theme emerged that was simple, uplifting, and a celebration of our basic humanity. The music was to represent the essential goodness in mankind's endeavor to land on the moon. 

The score on The Dish soundtrack is 25 min. How much did you compose for the film altogether?

Yes, the score is not very long, and this was by design. Jane and Rob specifically wanted a parallel soundtrack of songs from the era, so as to make the audience feel as if they were there ‘in the moment'. It was an inspired choice. While it might have been nice to have had more opportunities to be heard throughout the film, in the end it was the absolute best decision. The variety in the music soundtrack not only added to the overall impact of the film; it also made my contribution even more significant when the score was front and center. 

I recall there being a good deal of re-writing going on throughout the composing process, with lots of ideas being tried out, and so the entire project felt a bit more like working on a 60 minute score. As a matter of fact, the final cue of the film was completed just minutes before I had to catch a flight to Melbourne to conduct and record the score. Luckily for me, I was young and eager to please as well as inspired by our growing collaboration.

The Dish made me realize that a film can be scored in a million different ways. Part of being a professional involves the ability to set aside any fears that might come from having to do extra work in order to get things just right. In the end it is not extra work at all. It is just one step toward the ultimate goal of satisfying the filmmaker and the needs of the film. If you accept that there are possibilities, you then have a choice. Do I marry myself to just one, going down with the ship if it is rejected? Or do I let go of any sense of preciousness in order to move on to exploring other possibilities? The less I hold on, the more sane and productive I have become. There are many opportunities in a film to shine as a composer. But they won't always be your first choice.

What's your favorite moment of the birth of this music?

Coming up with the basic theme in the lounge of The Hotel Como is probably my favorite. Having been so inspired by Rob's love of the Apollo program and his desire to share that feeling with the audience, the ideas came very quickly. There are times when inspiration feels a lot like spotting a 0 bill on the ground. You know you didn't drop it, and you're instantly at attention when you see it. But is it your destiny to pick it up and ‘own it'? I try not to let a good bill go lonely. [laught]

Successful film composing is mostly about listening to your emotions while imagining yourself as the audience. You know it when you hear it. It is basically about surprising oneself. Call it a higher power, or just a profound respect for the needs of the audience; coming up with that theme, in that lounge, certainly made the 21 hour flight back home a lot easier. I would soon find myself making that trip once again in about 6 weeks to record the score with The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Did you have a say in how the soundtrack was put together?

Jane Kennedy, my collaborator and friend, was the mind in charge of music selection for The Dish. She has an excellent ear for music and was responsible for selecting pieces that were not only historically accurate, but emotionally well suited for a variety of scenes throughout the film. The late 1960s was filled with amazing music, and Jane had the job of culling, from many sources, the perfect pieces for each scene. I was already a huge fan of ‘Classical Gas', as composed and written by Mason Williams. It was just a single instance out of many that worked perfectly for the film. Another selection that stands out to me was ‘Lorsque Vous N'Aurez Rien A Faire' from Cherubin, as performed by my favorite soprano Dawn Upshaw, which played over a nighttime shot of the the majestic Parkes Radio Telescope – a magnificent choice. The final song, ‘The Wings of an Eagle' by Russell Morris, was particularly significant for the fact that Morris was, and is, a beloved Australian, singer-songwriter. The poignancy and uplifting nature of the song I am sure brought the people of Australia much pride and fond memories of the era.

I have read some critics writings that talk about how The Dish's score reminds them of James Horner's style. Is this insulting to be compared to other's work, or in Horner's case is this more an honor?

James Horner was one of cinema's greatest composers. It was not always easy to be a composer back in the 1990s when he, and and composers such as Hans Zimmer, John Williams and Thomas Newman were setting the bar. To feel insulted is only painful to the extent that some critics are not fully aware, or sympathetic to, some of the realities of modern film scoring. First off, we don't live in a vacuum. Composing for film these days involves a great deal of collaboration that in decades past was simply not possible. There are many more people involved with the final decisions regarding a score than there have ever been. A composer that disregards the needs of the producer and/or the director is ignoring the reality of today's film as a ‘team effort'. While pure self-expression and artistry are things many composers desire and aim for, they are not always going to be the things that work best for a film score.

I learned a lot about the craft of film scoring while working on The Dish. One of the things I discovered was that it pays to listen to the temp music, at least once, in order to grasp what the filmmaker is hoping to achieve. To make temp music your enemy ignores the very reason the temp exists. This ties into what I said earlier about ‘extra work'. Being proud of ‘defying the temp' does not necessarily mean you have met the needs of the film. Put another way, the composer might decide to go against the temp by purposely slowing down or speeding up the tempo in a very noticeable way. But what if the filmmaker thinks that the temp music's tempo is ‘just right'? Should a composer just ignore this? Once again, being overly-precious about one's work in this business, more often than not, causes a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering all around. Sometimes re-inventing the wheel is just that, a pointless exercise. 

If you can accept the fact that there are a ‘million different ways' to score a picture, you can rest assured that there is a way to compose something, with your own voice, that is just right for the film and the filmmakers. And as stated earlier, getting to that point may take ‘extra work'. If at all possible, when approaching a music cue for the first time, I like to let my mind just ‘go for it' by writing from pure inspiration, not from instruction or by committee – but with an emotional goal in mind. Doing this allows my creative mind to ‘voice itself' without feeling stifled. And sometimes that is the music that ends up in the film – sometimes not. A composer also ‘takes risks' in order to figure out what works or does not work. It pays to remain open-minded to other possibilities and viewpoints. To close oneself off from this is a disservice to oneself as a composer as well as the film itselfs.

During your career you have very few film scores and have almost completely backed away from the world of film. What is the reason for this?

I wish I had a more interesting answer for you, but the truth is that I was not offered many film scoring opportunities after The Dish, and I came to a point in my life where I had to decide if waiting year after year for jobs to come in was something I was willing to do. Eventually I decided to become a teacher at The Apple Store Fifth Avenue. I have always had a passion for teaching, and a fondness for all things Apple, that allowed me to transition for several years into an entirely new line of work. While I am no longer a teacher there, I treasure my time at Apple as the greatest opportunity to learn about human nature that I've ever experienced. You would be surprised at how much anxiety and shame exists for some people when it comes to using computers. I am not only a better teacher having worked at Apple, I am a better human being. Helping people day to day with their problems allowed me to see that the world is not entirely about ‘me', a way of thinking that one risks falling into as a composer's life is so often filled with periods of solitude and perhaps even loneliness.

As far as a comeback goes, my schedule is currently open. No need for any of you directors out there to be shy! But seriously, my goal has always been to be involved with projects that inspire me personally as well as bring some spiritual value to the audience. If that involves box office success and a bigger paycheck, great. If not, I can always say that I wrote music because I really wanted to and that I did my best to entertain as well as to move people.

A lot of music composing is about manipulation. What I mean by that is not that writing music is evil or conniving, but rather that it involves specific and focused effort to make people feel a certain way. A successful composer does not rely on inspiration and happy accidents alone. One must have certain goals in mind in order to achieve an effect. There is nothing so satisfying as the feeling of getting a scene ‘right'. It is hard to describe in words, but it has to do with a sense of inevitability, and yet surprise, that is the music's ability to bring out subtext and deeper meaning from within a film.

Have you thought about what would have happened if the studio had not wanted James Newton Howard for The Sixth Sense, but you would have remained M. Night Shyamalan's resident composer?

I've been asked this a few times in the past. As I move through life, one thing I realize more and more is that we have zero-control over the past and no-guarantees for the future. I am very fortunate to have worked with Night on our first two feature films. We were very young, inexperienced, and learned a lot from each other. There is nothing quite as exhilarating as working on your first film.

The reality of the film music business is that not every composer will work with one director on each and every one of his or her films. The reasons are many. Sometimes, as you say, the ‘studio' plays a role in the choice of composer. Other times the director will want a change in, well... 'direction' in terms of the music. And then there are instances in which it becomes apparent that, despite friendship and shared struggle, the composer and director simply do not share the same and/or complimentary values, both artistically and personally. I am not sure what would have happened had Night and I continued working together. I ‘am' certain both of our lives would be different. But better or worse? Who's to say? It's safe to say that we both have an enduring love for cinema. I hope for Night and myself many more years of creating, sharing and moving audiences through our work.

Do you listen to film score CDs or pay attention to other composers' work?

I do listen to film score CDs, mostly of older films, but I try to keep my mind open to new music, or music that is not inherently like-minded. Turning ‘shuffle' on while listening to music can be very rewarding. I have a very large music collection, and shuffling from Boards of Canada to Rachmaninov to Rush, to Depeche Mode, to Bill Evans can be quite an experience! I have learned a lot from being surprised by iTunes. Sometimes the juxtaposition is jarring and almost enough to make you stop listening altogether. But other times a combination will occur so randomly, so serendipitously with the ability to affect your present moment, that it almost seems as if what you are listening to is the soundtrack of your life.

The one composer I listen to faithfully is John Williams. I do so not only as a fan, but as a student. There is perhaps no one living, or that has ever lived, that better understands the power and responsibility inherent in film music. My respect and admiration for him knows no bounds.

What have you been working on nowadays?

My latest film score is for a film entitled Altered Minds, directed by Michael Wechsler and starring Judd Hirsch, Ryan O'Nan, Caroline Lagerfelt, Jaime Ray Newman and C.S. Lee. The film is a psychological thriller about a dying psychiatrist, his unusual family and a secret that affects them all. It was very satisfying to work in this genre, and I am most proud of the score as well as the film. I do compose for myself, but my mind and spirit are first and foremost committed to film scoring. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you and your readership!

To know more about Edmund Choi's work, please visit the composer's official website.


April 14th, 2016
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