In November 1985 I got my first opportunity to do a film soundtrack. I saw an intriguing ad with a sinister pair of eyes on it, up on the notice board in the USC Music Department, for a film called “Prophecies…” I sensed that this would be right up my alley. I didn’t know the first thing about scoring, but I answered the call anyway. The director was Brett Keenan, who described himself as “the tall man who would be wearing the beard” when I would meet him in the film school lobby the next day.
I gave him a crudely assembled tape of my instrumentals, including Snowbound, Through An Ivy Tunnel, Alone On a Hill, Land’s End, and Stalking the Man. Running out of cassettes, and purely out of haste, I had to put it on the B-side of a New Order tape of mine, but explained to him that my music was cued up on the side which did not say “New Order Remixes.”
I then viewed a work print of the film, sitting in a screening room with the other composer who had contacted Brett, a fellow named Chris Smith. Chris was a very prolific USC composer and had keyboardist credits going up his arm. I had brought my guitar, which I played unplugged where I sat, about five rows in front of Mr. Smith. Brett and his film partner, Jerry Rapp, sat in the back of the room, observing us as we watched their film.
Three days later, I got a call from Brett, congratulating me on having gotten the gig. I asked him if he liked anything in particular on that tape, and he said he had made his decision almost instantly after hearing the remix of “Confusion”. After gasping, I apologized to him and told him to withhold his decision until he’d played the other side once again… (Oh. I was sure I had cued it up properly…) There were more apologies exchanged, where he told me that I really had gotten the job anyway, but I insisted that he listen to the tape again before he make any more promises to me.
When he called back the next day, he told me I still had the job; that he had given it to me because I had displayed a professional frame of mind at our first meeting; that by having brought my instrument with me, I had given him a lot more confidence than the other guy, who had cast an air of indifference at the screening. I was thrilled about this.
I got a copy of the film on tape and started to work. I only had two days to do this. I remember wanting to do this Phil Collins-esque drum cascade as the film’s evil linchpin took a tumble down the stairs at the end. I created a synth patch which emulated a faint heartbeat. Then I got word that Brett wanted a full eight minutes of continuous music, as the dialogue was going to be limited to a few voice overs. The night the score was due, Brett came over and hung out till two, as I pretty much scored it in front of him. I remember syncing up the video and the music by hand; needless to say, there was a chance that the music and picture could drift over a period of 8 minutes, but there was no choice. I kept it in sync, and Brett seemed very happy with the results.
The day of the screening, I ran into Brett on campus, who told me that the music transfer had gone fine, except for a slight sync problem. He assured me it was going to be fine.
I came the screening alone, and reacted to a largely conventional series of films and film scores. I noticed a predominance of orchestral arrangements, and kept thinking, “What am I doing here?” and “What if they all laugh and don’t understand what I’m trying to do?” And… “Is USC truly a revolutionary institution…?” and so on. When Prophecies began to roll, I held my breath; the room was packed with people.
The loss of sync was appreciable. It was actually mortifying for me, as the composer, to get six minutes into the film, watching the synchronization drift slowly over time, and know that all of my intended musical cues were at least one or two seconds off the mark.
The absolute worst moment for me was when the body fell down the stairs and then this drum fill came out of nowhere about five seconds afterwards.
The post-screening party was interesting. I was approached by a lot of people, most notably a middle Eastern music student who cornered me and preached to me for nearly twenty minutes about film scoring, though in a way that appeared to be kind by intention. He pointed out, as a conversation starter, that the three most important qualities to a good score were, in this order, rhythm, volume, and timbre.
Although I sensed a vague tone of reprimand in his tone (not his words), which implied that he had suffered through the whole thing, I knew that wasn’t about to stop me from continuing, and before I left USC I scored another 10 films, and it is now something I do in my professional work.