Enter your username and password

Forgotten your username or password?

Your Shopping Cart

There are no items in your shopping cart.

11 October 2012

Screen composer Leah Curtis: 'Be open and take risks'

Leah Curtis Image: Leah Curtis  
© Stephanie Neal Photography

This interview with screen composer Leah Curtis was originally published on Australian Film Institute's AFI Blog and is republished on Resonate in a slightly shorter version. In addition to being one of the Australian Music Centre's represented artists, Curtis is a member of the Composers chapter of the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. (More information about AACTA and AFI | AACTA membership.)

Curtis is currently working a new choral work for St Paul's Cathedral Choir as well as a solo violin work to be premiered by Savannah Jo Lack. Her work Clarity (2004) for flute and cello was recently performed in Brisbane by Kathleen Gallagher and John Addison.

Leah Curtis grew up in Australia's capital city, Canberra, listening to the lilting scales of piano lessons conducted by her mother in the next room. At sixteen, she entered and won the Young Shakespearean Artist of the Year in a national competition run by Shakespeare's Globe Centre of Australia. After claiming her tremendous prize - a two-week study tour through England, and a commission to compose for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra - Curtis turned her ear to film and television music composition.

Over the years, Curtis has worked in various music roles on everything from romantic comedy (Something Borrowed), horror films (One Missed Call and The Cave) to dramas (Swimming Upstream and Sophie Scholl: The Final days), as well as scored a number of short films. Now based on the West Coast of the United States, Curtis composes and produces original music soundtracks and scores for film and television, as well as for orchestras, choirs, choreographers, solo artists and game developers.

Lia McCrae-Moore (AFI | AACTA): Can you tell us about your formative years?

Leah Curtis: I was born in Canberra and had two older sisters. Dad was from a farm in the Monaro country and Mum, a piano teacher, was originally from Melbourne. Our adventures growing up ranged from exploring Namadgi in the bush, to visiting national treasures in the city. Seeing the handwritten scores of Mozart and Beethoven up close at the National Library is one memory that's stayed with me.I moved to Sydney when I was 18, [then] trained for six months in composing and conducting in the US before moving back to Sydney and graduating in music from UNSW and in screen composing from AFTRS.

Where are you living now?

I divide my time between recording, mixing and collaborative meetings in LA and composing in a 1920s craftsman bungalow outside the city, surrounded by towering eucalypts that connect me with home.

What do you remember most about your childhood?

Growing up, life was filled with a rigorous routine of orchestra rehearsals and music lessons, with the occasional wild runs, with eyes shut, through Nakaya's beautiful Fog sculpture at the National Gallery with my friends. For true escape, the family would set up camp in the bush fishing, or helping my aunts and uncles sheep shearing in the spring. There was a daily soundtrack of piano music at home with Mum's teaching; a comforting cycle of music every half an hour, starting with scales.

When did you realise that you wanted to be a composer?

I was 16. I was drawn to a competition being run by Shakespeare's Globe Centre of Australia. There were categories for acting, directing, production design and music composition. With music being central to everything I was, I thought composing would be a lot of fun. I spent my evenings at the piano with manuscript and pencil in hand. I dived into composing straight after Mum's last piano student had left, creating music that swept through the drama of Shakespeare's Tempest and Much Ado About Nothing. I harnessed the energy of my friends to perform my new works and entered the competition.

The result of my first composition was a two-week study tour of England as Young Shakespearean Artist of the Year, and a commission to compose for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. It was more than my 16-year-old self could have imagined.

England was a brilliant, adventurous and rewarding experience. I travelled with four equally excited Australian teenagers taking in nightly theatre in London and Stratford-Upon-Avon. Too excited to sleep en route, we were led up to the cockpit to talk with the pilots and see the lights of India below.

For me, at 16, composing meant hours at the piano lost in the music, the challenge of bringing stories to life through music, sifting through whatever books I could find on instrument ranges and techniques, working with incredible musicians, and adventurous international travel. I needed to take a chance on this.

What project did you cut your teeth on, metaphorically speaking?

I think the teeth cutting continues. Every project teaches me something new. Every film needs its sound uncovered from nothing.

Curtis with scoring team at Capitol Studios, recording the music for To Rest in Peace
Curtis with scoring team at Capitol Studios, Hollywood, recording the score for To Rest in Peace.

To Rest in Peace, an American Kuwaiti war film by director Fawaz Al-Matrouk, was the first recording session I conducted at Capitol Studios. It was also the first time that I felt truly confident and relaxed leading and conducting everyone through the complexities of the score, while still being completely immersed in and focused on leading the recording. It was exhilarating and honestly, for me, the most incredible part of the whole process. Both the score and the film have gone on to do well at Dubai, the Cannes American Pavilion, and won the HMMA for Best Song. It was also a very rewarding creative composer-director collaboration. The director and I were both aware of our creative process as the score developed and as the film took shape.

When I first arrived in LA, I took on an internship with composer Alf Clausen on The Simpsons. Being involved in the weekly spotting and scoring sessions at Fox's Newman Scoring Stage was an invaluable insight into the protocol and the complexities of the specific roles that exist across large film music teams. This was in direct contrast to my Australian experience, where smaller teams need to be more flexible, multitasking across the board. I gained a deep respect for the psychology behind conducting and rehearsing an orchestra through the recording process, and the leadership choices involved. This experience has greatly impacted and informed the way I now approach conducting and leading recording sessions.

Over the years, I've orchestrated for some exceptional international composers, requiring me to delve into the intricacies of their music, including Alex Wurman (composer of Anchorman, Something Borrowed and March of the Penguins) Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil (composers of Sophie Scholl, The International and Run Lola Run).

What does a typical working day entail for you?

When I'm in full composing mode, I have long days of writing. It is intensive and focused and I'm fully absorbed by the music. The success of this time is largely determined by the depth of research and immersion that has come before it.

By this stage, I have already developed a core musical language for the film consisting of authentic musical resonances (these might be rhythms, harmonic progressions, textures, tonal qualities, or sonic spaces) that have come from intense sketching, research, immersion in the screenplay and time exploring the vision with the director.

From here, I endeavour to take creative risks to make a score truly unique, and an authentic part of the film. I keep referring back to our original ideas as I approach major scoring decisions.

My long days composing are sustained with some yoga or a dance class so I can completely disconnect and recharge. I upload progressive drafts for the director and editor, and we check in with each other. Otherwise I'm in meetings, researching, sketching and working with the music contractor and making sure all of the details that go into preparing an original score come together.

Where do you find inspiration for your compositions?

Curtis on the set of Exitus Roma
Curtis supervising her music on an overnight set of Exitus Roma.

Inspiration can come from anywhere - a memory, a fabric, the rhythm of a character's dialogue, the visual rhythms of the film, the quality of light, a vivid colour, a facial expression, or simply delving into the subtext of a scene that might not yet be fully present. Anything can spark an idea. I rely on my own strong internal criticism and judgment to determine if an idea resonates.

For the short film Exitus Roma, the director shared rich historical accounts of the fall of Rome in 410AD. These intense, beautiful and sometimes poetic descriptions sparked musical approaches. I sought out specific ancient Roman instruments for the score and was informed by the gravitas of the epic time.

For the war drama To Rest in Peace I discovered an American ethnomusicologist, who is a fellow Fulbright scholar based in Kuwait. She documents, researches and collects local music - such incredibly detailed work. She opened up a rich and authentic window into the world of Kuwaiti and Arabic music. Reaching out and connecting with colleagues such as this is a treasured part of my role as composer.

I often write specifically for the musicians I contract and their own unique abilities. Each player brings inspiration as I write with them in mind.

Can you describe your creative process?

I'm very aware of the creative process. Over time, I've come to recognise specific moments as key milestones, and feel that I can sense when to forge ahead or when we need to dig deeper or look further before moving onto the next step.

The overarching stages for a score are: research and immersion; core musical idea development; spotting with the director and sound team; composing; rewriting; orchestration; and preparing for recording; scoring session; conducting; and mixing.

On some films, such as Damien Power's A Burning Thing and Sophia Savage's Empyrean, I've continued to compose the music after having specific isolated instrumental recording sessions. I adapted this process to achieve the separation of sounds and a level of control to finely craft these scores. Some projects go straight from recording to mixing, so this is quite a different approach adapting to the needs of the film and the collaboration.

The first part of the composing process is being quite precious about the very first read-through of the screenplay and capturing those immediate instinctual reactions, as this is the only time you experience the story without knowing what will happen next.

From here, I delve into research, historical and musical references and begin to develop a deeper understanding of the intricacies of the story and its subtext.

One of the key moments in developing the score is unlocking the sound of the film. From this point onwards, everything makes sense and starts to flow. That is why the research and immersion prior to this point is so essential.

I find that leaving some space at the end of the research phase helps everything I've explored and absorbed make sense in a new way. It now resonates closely with me and in the context of the film. This is probably the most difficult part of the process. You trust that this balance of immersion and distance will lead to the right material. To do it well you remain open and somewhat vulnerable. It's often in those moments when I have some distance from the work that core ideas arrive.

When do you know you've got it right? Do mood and momentum play a big part in your final pieces?

There's a pivotal moment in scoring when the relationship between the film and music transforms. It is when you take a deep breath, lean back, and spontaneously respond to the film. It's when you're brought fully into the picture. This connection might be through laughter or awe or tears, but you can sense it deeply. Even though you've seen the same scene many times, this time for some reason it is different. It's when it no longer feels as though the images are separate but that they are part of a whole and you are now somehow within it.

What is it like, working across film, television and shorts? Do you find yourself adapting your work processes to suit the different mediums?

Television production operates in fast weekly cycles and the musical language is something that is developed ahead of time. Film tends to have a longer creative arc in process, often starting with musical considerations and sketches in pre-production. Every project has a similar sequence in development that is adapted and tweaked to suit the creative and technical demands of the project. My roles on these projects have ranged from music preparation, orchestrator, and assisting the composer through to scoring and conducting. It has been terrific to work my way up through all of these key roles to the composer/conductor chair.

Is there a significant difference in the way that you work when you are working on an Australian independent feature compared to a more commercial Hollywood blockbuster?

I approach every film with the same two questions. Firstly, what would be the best possible creative solution for this film (without any budget or logistical considerations)? Then, and only then, what are our resources and constraints and how can we produce this score as close as possible to our vision? Creativity first in concept, then in execution.

My work on large Hollywood productions has so far been as orchestrator. The challenges for this role include dealing with large orchestral recording sessions and extensive scores, and making sure the music perfectly represents the composer's vision. It's an incredible thrill helping to bring it all together.

When I approach Australian independent projects, I'm encouraged and inspired to bring a sense of stylistic freedom to the music that mirrors the essence of the other film-making elements. As composers, we can bring this same level of originality and diversity to the score as other departments do with their own contributions. The greatest challenge and most brilliant opportunity here is working without a prescriptive sound. Unlike Hollywood projects, which can sometimes expect certain genres to conform to pre-existing musical conventions, independent Australian films offer the opportunity to be original and pioneer approaches in developing a score that parallels the originality and thoughtfulness of an independent cinema that is unburdened by a large studio system. I think Australian composers are finding more strength and courage in their stylistic approaches to soundtracks. With active scoring stages and more frequent sessions occurring across the country, we no longer have to reinvent the process every time a film score is produced. The momentum behind local talent, support and experience is building.

Composing the score for Damien Power's A Burning Thing led us to this somewhat unbridled approach, exploring Australian 1980s rock and Indie-folk music and working out how these particular sounds could permeate the film and help carry the narrative.

What are some of the ways you have refined your skills and changed your working methods over the course of your career?

I now have a greater awareness of the musical possibilities that are available at different stages of the scoring and filming process. I love guiding directors through the music process and working with them to find an approach that will work perfectly for the film. I relish conducting musicians on the scoring stage and having to think on my feet. I also feel like I now have a sense of how to execute and when a break is needed and how to offer my collaborators enough direction, space and trust for them to produce their own best work.

I love that I'm thrown new musical challenges regularly. Recently, for Exitus Roma, I wrote a song based on a stunning classical Latin poem by the Emperor Hadrian from the end of his life. I coached Teri Reeves (from NBC's Chicago Fire) to sing on camera, in a boat in a massive water tank for our overnight shoot. It was freezing and exhilarating bringing the music to life under the stars, and wonderfully unique to be a part of production.

Is the craft of screen composing becoming more difficult with the cheapness and prevalence of electronic sound banks and pre-recorded music? Are composers often considered an unnecessary expense for low budget projects?

Music can bring so much to a film. For lower budget projects, and any film really, music can be the element that ties the film together, creating unity. Music connects the audience with the story in a way that is unique and direct, you feel and sense it but don't necessarily hear it. It's almost subliminal.

For me, authentic instrumentation is critical at every budget range. I don't believe you can essentially emulate everything a live player can bring electronically, and working with live players who've invested themselves fully in that instrument will always create a more direct human connection and add to the production value of the film, even at the lowest budgets and with a single player. I'll absolutely use electronic instruments for their own sake and make creative choices that embody the right sound for the world of the film as a whole.

The cinematic combination of music and image is powerful. That is why temp music (temporary music that is used in editing or as a stylistic placeholder in the edit) is something that needs to be carefully considered in its use, and particularly in exposing the composer to it while they are developing their own ideas, as it can [detrimentally] influence creative outcomes and possibilities.

Can you talk about the qualities a screen composer can bring to a project - apart from original music?

The composer/director relationship is unique in film. There are many parallels between our roles. The director leads the actors on set, while we lead musicians on the scoring stage. It's a very similar process, a different expression of the same story. I've often found that the language and vision the director shares with the actors effectively connects and resonates with the musicians.

The composer opens up another, potentially very powerful avenue with which to tell the story. A truly great score is able to evoke the essence of the film and reveal the subtleties of its message, even when it is experienced without picture.

Are there particular directors, producers and editors that you like working with?

I've loved working with directors and producers from vastly different backgrounds. These include Australian (recently Damien Power and producer Joe Weatherstone), Indian, American and Kuwaiti (multiple projects with Fawaz Al-Matrouk) directors. LA draws directors from all over the world. It has been an enriching and diverse experience working here, yet I am excited by the possibilities inherent in creating independent Australian film and the demands that are unique to home. I hope that the international demands I've been exposed to will give me an awareness and openness with which to approach productions from home.

My musical collaborations have been significant and are a major reward for the work I do. Recently, I worked with Lisbeth Scott who is the featured vocalist for two title tracks of my film projects, one in Latin, the other in Arabic. Lisbeth is the voice on Narnia, Munich, Avatar, Iron Man 2, and so many other stand-out films.

Over the years you've won the Fulbright Fellowship, the Queen Elizabeth II Trust Award, the Reg Waite Award, a Composition Fellowship at the Aspen Music Festival and a Hollywood Music Award. How does it feel to receive such widespread recognition for your craft?

Each of these awards has helped me significantly at different stages along the way. They've enabled me to spend precious time at USC's film music department, being part of the Aspen Music Festival and mentored by leading figures in film music. Each one has also helped me connect with similarly aligned colleagues, or be reached and challenged by new collaborators. They have also provided me with the encouragement required to keep moving forward in what is an unpredictable and challenging industry. My role requires the synthesis of so many different skills (musical, creative, technical, diplomatic and dramatic).

Do you think this recognition has assisted you in obtaining new projects?

The recognition from my peers in the US and Australia has encouraged me to keep taking creative risks in my work. It has given me a sense of passing through the different milestones along the way and allowed my work to reach new audiences and filmmakers for which I'm grateful. When conducting the last note on the scoring stage, particularly after you've existed inside the world of the project for so long, it is often hard to gain perspective on what you've created. This external response can shed light, a different perspective, on what it is that you've created and how people connect with it. Frequently, this connection is with filmmakers who then become my next collaborators.

What have been some of the biggest hurdles you've faced during your career? What have been the highlights?

To write film music you need an incredibly vast skill set - to be able to compose, conduct and produce scoring sessions. You also need to be able to collaborate and align your vision with that of the director's while still taking creative musical risks. You need to be able to intelligently break down the story's drama and subtext and do all of this within a set deadline and budget. There are many things to master. Identifying all of these and tackling each hurdle has been a challenging and exhilarating ride. I know that if something scares or intimidates me, then it's a good indication that I need to get in there and try it or learn it. So far, I've come out relatively unscathed.

The biggest highlights thus far would have to be conducting my debut scoring session at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, studying with John Corigliano in Aspen and all the challenging work and creative collaborations with different directors. The biggest thrill for each project is often the scoring session, being able to work with world-class musicians whom I've admired growing up, and working with the director through this as it all comes together.

One of my biggest highlights and milestones was receiving the Fulbright Scholarship, as so much has come from this: Aspen, USC, presenting at Screen in Scotland and at Music and the Moving Image in New York. I'm very grateful for all of the wonderful opportunities that it has provided.

Can you name three mentors or people who have inspired and nurtured your creativity over the years?

I've long admired the Oscar and Pultizer prize winner John Corigliano for his music style and approach. I strongly identify with his fluid integration of contemporary classical and film music (The Red Violin, Altered States). My first Fulbright goal was answered when I was accepted to study with him at the Aspen Music Festival. By watching his films with him, and having him critique my own scores he has greatly influenced my work.

I am also very grateful to the Australian composer Christopher Gordon (Master and Commander, Mao's Last Dancer) for giving me my very first film music department role in On The Beach. He has been an open and generous trailblazer, helping lead the way for film scoring in Australia, and has taught me so much over the years by inviting me to scoring sessions in Sydney and Los Angeles.

Gary McPherson, now Director of the Melbourne Conservatorium, sat next to me when I had my piece performed by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra at 16. He encouraged me to study music and has been a terrific mentor guiding from a distance over many years.

Two of my high school teachers, Manette Johnson and Muriel Hilson, who were fiercely intelligent and visionary, were also critical in informing my early experiences of literature and art. Every musician who plays one of my scores offers me something new in their playing and helps guide how I write. Of particular mention is the contemporary flautist Kathleen Gallagher.

What advice would you give upcoming Australian musicians and composers wanting to break into the industry?

Be open and easy to get along with. Take creative risks, be willing to learn and be challenged. One piece of specific advice would be to really understand the possibilities inherent in every recording. This is a critical step in the overall process. It requires a strong vision and a smart use of resources to create the best possible score. This is where creative ideas really manifest. Enter the session prepared, be confident and open, and leave with a score that is perfect for that film.

AMC resources

Leah Curtis - AMC profile

Further links

Leah Curtis (www.leahcurtis.com/)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Lia McCrae-Moore is an avid cinema-goer and Australian film enthusiast. Lia completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Cinema Studies and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne in 2009 and now works as the Membership Co-ordinator at AFI | AACTA. She loves to engage in vigorous and heated discussions about life, cinema and politics.


Be the first to share add your thoughts and opinions in response to this article.

You must login to post a comment.