Directors: 12 Tips for a Successful Score by @CathGrealish



Being a film composer is a very fun gig. I love my job! Every project is unique, and presents its own share of challenges. However, it can also be a miserable experience. I have been blessed to have worked on some great films with a fantastic cast and crew, well-crafted script and amazing leadership team. One of these films was All Things Hidden, written and co-directed by Persephone Vandegrift. I have also had the opposite of this experience and it has taught me a thing or two about what I am looking for in a director when I take on a film. I wanted to share my thoughts with you because at the end of the day, we all just want to be set up for success and deliver our best. Here are some pointers I have come up with for directors to help ensure they bring the best possible score out of their composer.

1. Have a good relationship with your composer

Finding a composer with a great skill set is important. Liking the music they have done before and seeing that they can indeed deliver on the the type of music you want for your film is, of course, handy. However, I would argue what is most important is finding a composer you enjoy being around and who really “gets” you. If they are fantastic at writing music but don’t understand you or your vision for the film, it doesn’t matter how talented they are. You are both set up to fail. There are classic examples of directors hating the composer’s previous music, but hiring them simply because they got along really well. When Richard Gibbs asked Carl Reiner why he was hired to score Fatal Instinct, Reiner responded “Well frankly, I hated your tape. I didn’t like your music at all…..But your ideas were great, and I somehow thought it would be fun.” You need to find a composer you can be honest with, who can deal with you in the stresses of post-production and who can understand what you are trying to communicate. Someone who you will enjoy being with on this crazy journey! These skills are much more important than having a fancy demo or an impressive list of credits.

Catherine Grealish and Persephone Vandegrift

“Music should not be an afterthought because it is essential to the impact of your film. If you don’t have money for the score, then expect to have someone on board that is still at the beginning of their career and won’t do as good a job as someone who is great, but needs to be paid in order to, you know, pay bills, make a living and feed their family. Many film composers will be open to a payment plan or whatever other options you come up with to make it work. The creation of your score takes a lot of hard work and hours of time. It is not quick or easy. It is a labor of love, just like the other complex aspects in the art of filmmaking.”


2. You are not a musician? Great!

Not being a musician is fine. In fact, often it is the best possible scenario. Composers don’t need to be told what instruments to use, or what chord progression to execute. That is precisely what you are hiring them to figure out. What they need to is:

– where you want music
– how the scene should feel
– whose point of view is most important
– emotion
– anything else that occurs to you – Anything At All!

What composers need from their director is, very simply, direction, just like the actors and the rest of the crew. They will then interpret that information into music. You don’t need to do that for them. Are you feeling a color in this scene? Just let us know! It may seem weird and arbitrary to you but for us it is valuable insight.

The point at which many of these insights come about is when you are sitting down and doing the spotting session with your composer, and your music supervisor if you have one. Even if you are unsure of when music should occur, scheduling that spotting session is very important. This is when you figure out where music comes in and goes out. It is such a key meeting and can set you on a great path together, solidifying your communication and relationship. I have experienced some Indie directors who skip this step, with the caveat of “I am not sure where music is needed and I trust you to figure it out”. While that is very flattering, a massive opportunity and time-tested aspect of the process is being missed. Do the spotting session, every time. Trust me, it will only benefit the production.

3. You are a musician? That’s nice.

Your job in this situation is to direct, not put on your musician hat. Please don’t ask to play on the score, pretty please! If you are that good, we will ask you, but we want the best musicians to represent the music and capture your vision, and you may not be the right person for the gig! Stick to directing and don’t try to be a musician in this particular scenario, unless it truly seems completely natural. Having the director say “I am hearing a G minor chord here” is truly unhelpful. The composer needs a director, not another composer. Am I being redundant? Maybe, but this point is key!

4. Pay your composer.

Perhaps this should have been point 1. Do you want a good score? Then find the budget. If you have found money for your DP, your editor, your actors and your crew, then you also need to find money for an appropriate composer. Music should not be an afterthought because it is essential to the impact of your film. If you don’t have money for the score, then expect to have someone on board that is still at the beginning of their career and won’t do as good a job as someone who is great, but needs to be paid in order to, you know, pay bills, make a living and feed their family. Many film composers will be open to a payment plan or whatever other options you come up with to make it work. The creation of your score takes a lot of hard work and hours of time. It is not quick or easy. It is a labor of love, just like the other complex aspects in the art of filmmaking. Showing them that you value what they bring to your production is going to result in a better product: guaranteed!

You should also take into consideration that a good score incorporates live musicians who also need to be paid. If you are on a micro budget, find the money for even one musician. Just one live instrument can elevate an otherwise electronic (or MIDI, as we composers say) score.

However, don’t pay all the money up front. Ever. Money is a great motivator and composers are human. Half up front and half on delivery is a great standard. Or in thirds: third up front, third on delivery of mock ups (the MIDI score without using the live instruments that will be incorporated in the final product) and the final third on delivery of the master recording.

Also, if you cannot pay them what they are worth, which is common in the Indie field, then give them their full publisher’s share, as opposed to them receiving just the writer’s royalties. Also allow them to receive the full profits of a soundtrack release. There are many creative ways to financially make it up to your composer and, most importantly, make it clear that what they are adding to your film is of great value. This is a perfectly viable way to inspire them to bring their best work to the table.

5. Music is no magic wand.

Bernard Herrmann once said “I can dress up a corpse but I can’t bring it back to life”. If you have bad acting, shooting, production sound or other issues that you are relying on post to handle, music will help, but will not fix everything and magically transform a stinker into an A movie. Being honest with your composer will help them finesse certain areas of the film that need help. But everyone will be unhappy if you do not give problems the full attention they need when they can actually be fixed and before you launch into post-production. Cast well. Record the best sound possible on set. Let the music simply do it’s job and not also have to fulfill the role of a super-bandaid. It’s just not going to happen, people.

6. Meet In Person.

Today so much work is done over the web. Endless emails back and forth, text messages and phone conversations. None of this replaces an in-person meeting. If you and your composer are repeatedly missing the mark on a scene, then an in-person meeting just might be the fix you need. Sitting down and watching a scene together, discussing how you both feel about what is happening, what you hear should be accompanying the action, can well solve any miscommunication you have been having.
These days the director may be on the other side of the world to the composer. Set up a skype meeting and a good amount of time so you don’t have to be rushed. Try to make it as personal as possible. Simply talk, watch the scene(s) and talk some more. Give the relationship the time it needs to calibrate.

Also, remember that even with personal meetings and great relationships, it still often takes a composer – no matter how kick-arse they are – to nail that scene for you. Don’t give up even if there have been a few real doozies come through the pipeline that seem way off. Some of the best composers I know have had to do up to 35 revisions. I am talking seasoned professionals who get paid the big bucks! Post-production is always in a rush and involves working against a deadline, but you need to give your composer time to miss it before they nail it. No matter how good they are, this will invariably occur.

7. Let us know what you don’t want.

Sometimes knowing what doesn’t work is as valuable as what does. If you would hate to hear something in a scene, let your composer know! All information is good information. And please don’t sugar coat. By all means, be respectful, but we just want the brass tacks of what you have to offer. “I hate this but I’d love this”. Brilliant! Clear information is Fantastic Information.

8. Your temp track is, as it’s name suggests, temporary.

The worst thing a composer deals with is a director stuck on what we call “Temp Love”. This is when you are SO attached to the temp track that you are no longer open to any other options. Please understand that we are trying to make your film special and honor the story you are portraying. If you have a score that sounds just like John Williams’ score for Star Wars then that is precisely what everyone will hear if we try to emulate it to a tee. It will detract from the unique story you are trying to tell!

Some composers will refuse to listen to your temp at all. For me, I listen once, take notes on things like tempo, role and feel, and then I put it away. You have hired me to write New music and that is indeed what I will attempt to do. Please, let us do our job. Open your mind and ears to some new sounds and let us embark on this adventure with open hearts. In other news: no one can be John Williams. He is pretty much perfection so please don’t make us try! We may well end up in an asylum.

9. If you change anything, let us know.

Once we have finished your score, gotten your approvals, and everything has been mixed, we hand everything to you and our job is done. At that point something may happen and music may be changed. We don’t want it to happen but if you make that call, so be it.

Please Tell Us Before The Premiere!

There is that horrible but oh so true story of Alex North attending the premiere of 2001 Space Odyssey with his wife and children, only to find that all his music had been replaced with classical music by the likes of Richard and Johann Strauss. No composer should be given the absolute disrespect of finding out that changes have been made when watching the public premiere – or even a cast and crew screening. North could not even speak of this experience without needing to lie down afterwards. It was awful. Traumatic. Devastating. Just like you put your soul into directing this film, we do the same with the score. If you change anything, have the balls to tell your composer before they see the film at the premiere. If you have a good working relationship, by all means involve them in the change and use their expertise. Most of all, be respectful and treat your composer how you would want to be treated were the roles reversed.

10. The benefits of a locked picture.

Asking your composer to work with an unlocked picture means that they will have to re-do or tweak a lot of the work they have already done. What is just a few frames can result in a lot of extra time in the studio. Composers are trying to create music that makes sense to the viewer and doesn’t sound awkward. When small changes are made, we often have to do a lot of reworking to make the music sound smooth and effortless instead of stumbling and interrupted.

If you have a limited budget for the composer, they are already working against the clock to make it financially worthwhile. When the edit keeps changing they can end up losing money on the gig after comparing hours to dollars made. Trying to limit editing changes to picture after the composer has started can really streamline the process. However, If you want them to be in there, working away as you edit (which can be a really interesting way to create the score with fantastic results) then budget accordingly for their time.

11. Find your composer long before you need them.

We see postings all the time for composers needed immediately for a project which needs a score right now! Why are you waiting until the last minute? The composers who are great at their jobs are very likely to be busy so find them early. It is important to remember that your composer is not only writing the music, they are most probably also programming, producing, recording and, if the budget is micro, mixing and mastering the score. This takes a lot of time. If you cannot afford a music department, then you need to give your one-person composing team the time to do their thing.
To quote one of my favorite fellow composers, Eric Goetz, “You wouldn’t hire a writer to write your script two weeks before shooting, so why on earth would you hire a composer two weeks before your festival submission deadline?” That is not setting your composer or your film up for success. Plan ahead! This leads us to our final point……

12. Make your composer part of the team.

A composer doesn’t just have to live in post-production. You can bring them in when the script is first being read by the cast, or earlier when the crowd-funding or investor meetings are happening. You can have them score the trailer which you use for promotion and marketing. Bring them onto the set so they get a feel for what you want even before they see the rough cut. I believe this can only help your relationship and the final product.

Also, if you have any music that is going to be performed on screen your composer needs to be a part of that process. Having an actor sing on camera, or even dance to a piece of music that you cannot actually use in the final product, and then asking your composer to fill in the music after the fact is a recipe for disaster. Most composers worth their salt won’t be interested in taking on that challenge.

As a composer I have been referred to as “The Ghost in Post” by fellow crew members. While this is catchy (and kinda cool, I have to admit) it really doesn’t have to be the case. We like to be part of the team, instead of the person no one recognizes at the after-party of the premiere. If your composer truly feels like part of the team, it is likely that they will have more of a connection with the people, the vision and the film itself.



Catherine Grealish is an LA-based composer for film, media and live performance. Originally from Tasmania, Australia she moved to the States to pursue a career in music. A multi-instrumentalist, she is a classical and jazz singer, and plays violin, piano, and guitar. Her most recent films are The Last Buck Hunt (feature), All Things Hidden and The Last Light (shorts) – look for them in a festival near you! Check out more of her music and films at The soundtrack for All Things Hidden is now available on iTunes, Amazon and most places digital music is sold. You can also check out the music video of the finale track for free on the All Things Hidden website here.