Temp Scores (and why they suck)

When I was at film school it was pounded into me that music and subject matter are forever enmeshed and therefore the holy grail of a good choice. It never sat right with me. Time and time again this stodgy theory is challenged with countless exceptions to the ‘rule’. When a piece of music works in a scene, it works, pure and simple. You can’t put your finger on why, and therein layeth the mysteries of music. 

There are some directors who push a score way down on the priority list. This regularly results in a cookie-cutter style of last minute ambience (see almost all crime dramas for examples of this) or, conversely, a cookie-cutter style over zealous orchestra (see almost all holiday blockbusters for examples of this). 

But cliches are cliches because they work. Sometimes cliched orchestra excitement, or gloomy ambience, is the perfect blend and all a scene needs to be the best it can be. Other times, however, it’s lazy composing and we’ve heard it all before.  

Thomas Newman, aka the American Beauty plastic bag guy, is one of the best. The downside of the plastic bag theme was the slew of eerily similar scores proceeding it. No doubt a result of directors everywhere using Newman’s bag theme as a temp score, then losing perspective, then hiring someone to compose ‘something similar’. 

But why did plastic bag theme strike a chord in the first place? Because Newman tastefully followed the queues from the brilliant dialogue, performances and pace of the scene. Something that would never have happened had the director been preoccupied with some temp music. 

Sometimes getting too attached to a temp score can lead to editing around that music rather than focusing on the performances from the actors and natural pace in the scene. These days actors performances are often unduly culled by a strange need in some modern directors to over polish (and edit) everything. Add to this complications from an emotional attachment to temp music and it’s a wonder the actors get any screen time at all.  

The best film score composers know when to shut up. When the Coen brothers asked their long time collaborator Carter Burwell to score No Country For Old Men Carter felt their film was complete without music and that any score would ruin the mood. He encouraged them to release it without music. Thankfully the Coens listened and that’s what they did. 

Carter did, however, compose something wonderful for the end credits. 

As a big Carter Burwell fan, strange as it sounds, I find his no score input on No Country some of his best work. Definitely no temps required. 


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