Interview with John Beal
Excerpts from
"The Modern Hollywood Composer"

Simon Barber, The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts

Interview with Composer John Beal


John Beal, President and Senior Composer of Reeltime Music Inc. started his career with musical acts such as Olivia Newton-John, Gladys Knight and Johnny Mathis. He has scored numerous films and hit television shows, including Eight Is Enough, Vegas, Chicago Story, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Goodtime Girls. Also specializing in composition for theatrical marketing with over 500 trailers and 2,000 film ads on television, John’s trailer music has been heard by more moviegoers than most feature film composers. He is trusted by virtually every major director and studio to write original scores to help sell their films. His list of credits includes campaigns for 30 of the top grossing films of all time, such as JFK, Hunt for Red October, True Lies, In The Line of Fire, Forrest Gump, Patriot Games, Aladdin, Mask of Zorro, Black Rain, Ghost, The Matrix, and hundreds more. The success of films to which he has contributed marketing music is literally measured in billions of dollars. Website is

> 1. What do you feel are the most important pre-requisite tools for the film composer in contemporary Hollywood?  i.e: Music education, flexibility, orchestration, thematic skill, business acumen, contacts? 

While it is fairly easy to impress with the first burst of enthusiastic and passionate composition, the continually compressing schedules of Hollywood film and television post production require a composer to have all possible education in theme and variation, counterpoint and canon forms.  A good sense of serial composition can also be helpful. These alone though, assuming the gift of compositional talent, are not going to brace a composer for the incredible and daunting task of networking with directors and understanding every possible level of the business of music. 

> 2. How important is the understanding and implementation of new technology in your art? And has it been a catalyst in developing your sound over the years? 

The shift from using a pencil for writing and a hand calculator for figuring synchronization to full blown midi sequencer with audio editing has been explosive. It is essential for a film composer to have a working knowledge of every tool possible. Especially those which can save time in the process. The ability to create and manipulate sounds to be featured or composited within other acoustic sounds has broadened the palette of colors for a composer in a very exciting manner.  The challenge is to do this with the  same respect for music and its integration with film as before. 

> 3.  Do you utilize certain musical conventions in your work which you know that the audience will already have in their 'emotional vocabulary?'  Do you consciously represent more abstract elements of the picture such as place or time? 

Those of us not at the top of the hiring list are often called upon to write in less time than it takes to conceive, so the use of common devices to elicit emotional response can be a requirement, not an option. One has to write that which will work with the broadest audience.  It is not a bad thing.  The challenge is to use the device, but write it in a fresh manner.  Elements such as place and time are critical to me, but the ultimate decision whether or not to reference these elements lies with the director or producer. Many composers ignore all sense of time and place and merely write from the same palette, using a standard "bag of tricks." It works for them and often works for the film in a manner which soars above the more "on the nose" approach. 

> 4. Have you ever heard a score and known that you could have gotten more from the film? 

Often.  And then I reflect on all the extraneous things which could have pulled the composer away from their original objective: too many bosses, too little time and - always - too little budget.  There are, admittedly, many films scored by people who have no clue about film, story arcs or subtext.  They would never understand the term "neurosis provoking moment" in an actor's vocabulary and have no concept of seamlessly integrating score with film. 

> 5. Have you ever been asked to save a film? 

Yes.  But then I don't get to work on A-budget films!  And I fear attempts at resuscitation often fail.  However, there are scenes in nearly every movie which contain a performance poorly rendered, or are missing a critical angle in editing, or with production noise distractions which cannot be removed.  Most often, the scene is one which makes tremendous sense on paper, but doesn't translate to the camera. 

> 6. How much influence do other people have over your score? i.e: producers, directors, music supervisors, the dubbing mixer!! etc... 

We start with a completely "temped" film, thus boxing in all original thought. Then every person you named, plus their girlfriends and secretaries seem to have some need to input their desires.  I admire those composers who can remain true to their sense of that which the film needs, rather than that which is being asked. IF we can retain a professional standard, guiding all those random ideas toward what ultimately serves the film, all are better off. 

> 7. Are there noticeable trends in the Industry concerning 'how' and 'where' music is used in a film? 

Aside from the action/adventure category, I am seeing more films with space where there used to be underscore. A well edited film with good performances should work on its own, without music. Music can then enhance that magic with another dimension. But I do see many films with awkward moments or unclear emotive close-ups which could benefit from a thoughtfully created underscore. Then there is the SOUNDTRACK - a term previously used to describe all the music, but now pertaining primarily to SONGS.  I love a good pop film with great contemporary songs. I also laugh tremendously at older films which used this approach.  Songs are a great way to cross market and cross-collateralize the cost of a film.  They are also a great way to kill its universal appeal over many decades. 

> 8. Do you feel that there are any detrimental effects on the art of Film Scoring in terms of how the Industry operates today? 

Who can write an hour of music in days with the same quality as one who takes weeks or months?  While executive salaries and actor fees are escalating, music budgets are declining. With the advent of digital film editing, films are placed in post production closer to the release date, allowing less time for creative writing. These are not healthy trends for the craft or the art form. 

> 9. Do you feel that there is a current trend in Hollywood towards composers having 'signature sounds' ? Do you feel that this approach encourages the 'serviceable' film score? 

When I was studying film scoring, it was considered mandatory that a composer learn to write well in virtually any style which came in the door. No one could feel comfortable writing in just one manner, with one palette.  It is one of the reasons I enjoy opportunities to write for movie previews:  One week it could be ballet, the next a zydeco piece.  One week synthesizers, the next a huge orchestra.  Now, essentially because creativity has become subservient to time, money and marketing, film makers want to grab a "sound" off the shelf and know exactly what they're going to have.  This is a result of marketing requirements for "temp" tracks in every film. It is also a result of sadly inadequate training in the film schools of our universities and, forgive me, lack of imagination.  Yes, this creates a homogenous style of film music, especially in the orchestration of large ensemble scores. 

On the other hand, each of us will eventually find that particular style or form which we do the most effectively. It would be nice to then be able to explore its greatest possibilities. 

> 10. Why do some composers get all the jobs? 

There are many reasons, some tangible, some not. First there is the obvious quality and grace of their writing, followed by the ability to put all principal players at complete and total ease in an area of great concern and mystery.  Then there is an industry wide theory that anyone connected with one hit film will cause the next film to be a hit; what some derisively call the "bean counter" mentality.  Also, there is a very small group of composers represented by two agencies which are "plugged in" to the  development of films and sew up deals before others know of their existence.  But it is a truism that nearly every film director or producer begins with "Get me John Williams" or James Horner or Jerry Goldsmith or Danny Elfman.  The sad thing is that many of these same directors and producers think composers are interchangeable.  "Can't get me John Williams?  Then get me Randy Newman."  Both are amazing musical geniuses, with completely different musical voices.

> 11. In your opinion, what makes a great score? And can you give me an example? 

I am one who believes a score should be integrated with the same grace as lighting and depth of focus by a camera, and often as unnoticeable.  Unless it is providing a required signal or fanfare, we should feel the music, perhaps noticing it as a part of the visual and aural dialogue itself, but never being quite sure when it started or how it developed.   By the end, we should have been carried along with the music just as effectively as with the other ingredients, not walking away saying "WOW, WHAT A SCORE!" any more than remembering a film because it had great explosions. 

The intimate films scored by James Newton Howard, the older treasures from Jerry Goldsmith, the little ensemble breathing scores from John Williams all fascinate me.  To write so little, yet do it so effectively is the challenge. 

> 12. What do you see as the future of the Hollywood Film Composer? 

My fear is that it will become a rich man's business.  Royalties are under attack and the cost of living and doing business in the film community is escalating faster than the potential to earn.  Many arrive, work for little or nothing and leave in defeat when they cannot amortize their careers.  Unfortunately, they lower the bar for fee structure and work under time conditions no one would previously attempt. This snowballs as more filmmakers attempt to find more "fresh meat" among the under employed and, in many cases, under qualified. 

So.. like many societies, we arrive at a class system which has eliminated the middle. 

On the other hand, there is incredible talent and skill in some of these young composers.  They are also better educated in the area of business.  This may end up serving the entire film composing community well. 

I remain optimistic. 


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