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A Word With Film Composer Miriam Cutler

A Word With Film Composer Miriam Cutler

Miriam Cutler is an Emmy nominated Los Angeles based musician. Although her name may not sound immediately familiar, Miram has made the scores to many well known films. These are projects like like Lost In La Mancha, Chris & Don, Ghosts Of Abu Ghraib, , and more, films and documentaries that are lauded for their investigating and analysis of everything from botched filmmaking to an AIDs activist’s struggle. Her most recent work was on the Rory Kennedy’s HBO documentary Ethel, which was released in late October. Curious about the process of film scoring and what the landscape of the industry is like, we spoke with Miriam to hear about her rich history in the Los Angeles music landscape, how she arrived to film scoring, and what it is like being a woman in the film industry.

The work of a film composer is absolutely integral to the completion of a film and is one of those elements in the medium that is so rich and tied to various musical practices. What was your entree into film composition? What drew you to the subject?

I started out as a songwriter, arranging and performing my own material in various bands. The 1970s was an amazing time in Los Angeles––street theater was happening everywhere, with actors, acrobats, musicians, clowns, and activists collaborating and finding new ways to enlighten and entertain. The Women’s Movement was picking up steam, antiwar protesters were on the march, justice workers were taking on civil rights issues. Political theater was igniting college campuses. It was in this context that my first band emerged, a birthday song performed by a stripping Meter Maid while giving you a ticket, gangsters arriving in vintage cars, etc. For several years, these kinds of “hits”–performers storming a restaurant or other public place, presenting an original production numberand then leaving–almost became commonplace in LA.

During that time I helped create a swing band to promote a film script at the Vine St. Bar and Grill near Hollywood and Vine. The show we started evolved into the working band Swingstreet, performing at Vine St. four nights a week for two years. We were directly across the street from the Huntington Hartford Theater, and I used to play clarinet on the roof during intermissions to attract customers. Then I began booking other performers, starting with Etta James and Mose Allison, and Vine St. was on its way to becoming a premier jazz supper club in LA. Over the next ten years we presented jazz and blues luminaries including George Shearing, Joe Williams, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, John Hendricks, Linda Hopkins, Johnny Otis, Phil Woods, Eartha Kit, Big Joe Turner, Anita Oday, Etta Jones and Houston Persons, Odetta, Esther Phillips, Annie Ross, Richie Cole, Paquito de Rivera, Astrid Gilberto, Billy Eckstein, Alan Broadbent, Nina Simone, Shirley Horn, Marlena Shaw and many more.  We eventually recorded several live albums for Polygram Verve at the club released, which I co-produced, under the title Live At The Vine Street. During this time I also continued to perform and write songs, developing a recording studio and honing my producing skills.

Finally I get to answer your question: one night when I was performing at Vine St. someone approached me to do music for a small film. I was immediately intrigued–I had the studio and was eager to give it a try. The instant I put music to picture, I was hooked. It was as if all the twists and turns in my life were to prepare me for this.

The process of making music for film is one that requires you getting very much involved with not only the film itself but the world surrounding it, the feelings they convey, and the people involved in completing it. What is your process like? Is it fairly consistent or is each project a new creature?

When I first started scoring, I worked on any project that came my way–from ultra-low-budget horror flicks to corporate videos to indie films to some commercials. A few years into my scoring career, I had the opportunity to work on the seminal documentary film Licensed to Kill by Arthur Dong. Arthur researched the crimes of various men who had murdered gay men, going into prisons to interview these murderers about what had motivated them to kill. The result was a most compelling and illuminating portrait, which garnered a lot of attention. The process of collaborating with this director, immersing myself in the material even while he was still editing, was exciting, and I realized that I wanted to be more involved in the filmmaking process and the larger goals of the project. I was very encouraged and began to focus on working with documentary filmmakers who shared my passion for doing meaningful work. Since then, I’ve become part of the documentary community and continued this work, which fulfills my artistic goals and feeds my soul. Every film has its own musical language, a result of my collaboration with the filmmaker. I try to start each project with a completely open mind and prefer to be involved as early as possible so that I can be part of the editing and evolution of the film. I believe this is the most productive way to integrate the music into the storytelling. So I would say that my process is fairly consistent, but is informed by the collaboration and material of each individual film.

Your work has recently been showcased on HBO and Outfest opener Vito in addition to the recently premiered Ethel Kennedy documentary, Ethel. What did you bring to these projects? What was the goal with each of their film compositions? Do you see any similarities between the two?

Vito premiered at the prestigious NY Film Festival and was also featured at the Berlin Film Festival, as well as at all the major gay film festivals, including Frameline and Outfest. Vito Russo was a pioneer in gay rights, an AIDS activist, and the author of The Celluloid Closet, which was revolutionary in its analysis of gay characters in film and society. Jeffrey Schwarz, Vito’s director, wanted a high-energy score that would propel the audience through Vito’s rich and complex story. We developed a strong cinematic theme for Vito’s larger-than-life character, and mashed it up with some really fun era-specific music: soul jazz, disco, doowop, gay porn, blacksploitation, and even some action-type elements. I also had a blast scoring long montages of clips from classic movies that were pulled together into sequences by my music.

Ethel came about because of my longstanding working relationship with Rory Kennedy, daughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy–this being the 6th film I have scored with her. I felt so honored to be asked to work on such a personal story. Having lived through the 1960’s, I felt a tremendous connection to the material in the film and often was in tears while working on the score. For this tender homage to Rory’s mother, I was encouraged to compose a sweeping, romantic score with some fun elements of 1960’s nostalgia, including pieces inspired by shows like The Donna Reed Show or Father Knows Best.

I think what I bring to these films is a deep admiration and respect for story and characters, the filmmakers, and the process. I tend to fall in love with every project, and push myself to give with all my heart and all the musical skill I can muster. I have a long and varied musical background, having played ethnic music, ragtime, early jazz, folk and blues, swing and jazz, rock and roll. If I’m not familiar with a genre, musically or cinematically, I will make it my business to learn about it, so I’m pretty comfortable writing in almost any style.  And I love movies.

As a female artist in film composition, we imagine that you are one of a handful in your profession. Where do you see your work and the position of female composers within the greater landscape of film composers?

It’s true that there are not a lot of high-visibility women composers. Rachel Portman from England won the Oscar, but that was back in 1997. Nowadays, there certainly are more women aspiring to the profession than when I started out, and the younger ones don’t seem to have any insecurity about their abilities or ambitions. Perhaps they have grown up in more progressive times and aren’t aware of any limits. That said, I think women composers face the same kinds of challenges that women directors, cinematographers, and others in the traditionally male-dominated film professions are dealing with. Our percentages are woefully low in the mainstream Hollylwood industry. But I think this is merely a reflection of what’s going on in the greater society. I recently saw a quote attributed to the Dalai Lama: “The world will be saved by Western women.” Leaving out our contributions is a waste of tremendous resources.

Los Angeles is obviously an “industry” town. Aside from the culture of film, does the city itself have an influence on you and your work? Do you find that Los Angeles makes its way into your compositions?

I think my earlier discussion about becoming a musician in LA speaks to this question. Plus, L.A. has a real Hollywood zeitgeist. You can’t help but be affected if you grew up here as I did. Movie, TV, and rock stars are everywhere. It’s common to come upon a film or TV show being shot in the streets and neighborhoods. And because of the high concentration of major talent in LA, even small and indie projects have access to amazing talent. I feel so lucky to work with some of the finest filmmakers, editors, mixers, musicians, engineers and orchestrators in the world.

Looking into the future, what can we see from you next? Are there any particularly exciting projects we should be on the lookout for?

I’m just at the beginnings of several film and TV projects that I am very excited about. Another short documentary I scored, Kings Point has been shortlisted by the Motion Picture Academy for an Oscar. And I just came back today from a week being an advisor at the Sundance Institute Documentary Composers Lab. It doesn’t get that much better than that!

Miriam is an absolutely fantastic local talent and we are so delighted to be able to share her rich history and how it relates to Los Angeles music history. What a great story! Miriam has lots of great projects coming up and you can catch Ethel On Demand through November 18 and on HBO GO through December 31. If you’d like to hear more of Miriam’s music, you definitely need to go to her website and stream her scores to various projects.

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