Composer/Director Collaborations: How Collaboration Establishes Film Composers as 'Authors'

Tuesday 25 March 2014
Composer/Director Collaborations

Danny Elfman and Tim BurtonTim Burton and Danny Elfman

Long-term collaborations between composers and directors have produced many fruitful partnerships, with the same pairings continuing on for decades, suggesting that both parties find great value in working with someone familiar rather than unfamiliar. John Williams describes a good collaboration: '...some directors are very disposed to listen to a composer if they like him, if they respect him, if they've had good luck and good fortunes with him before and they trust him.'[1] As such, the director gets to work with a known entity that they can trust to produce a high calibre score and the composer gains a safe environment in which to stretch his/her creativity. In considering the establishment of authorship we must examine the relationship between a composer and director and seek a definition that reveals how a composer can be an 'author' in film.

Faulkner summarises the fundamental relationship between the composer, the score and the director:

While the composer and filmmaker theoretically agree on the end product of their work - a good film score - their definitions of that may vary and, when that is the case, the filmmakers' terms will predominante [sic]. Composers cannot forget that once the score is completed, the filmmaker has the final say in how to use it.[2]

He quotes an anonymous composer's experience: ' have an obligation to the film, to the man who hires you, and to your craft. ... [Y]ou don't function as an artist at all times, that's impossible.'[3] Film, on a scale unseen in any other field of art (with the possible exception of opera), is a collection of work by a large number of people - often running into the hundreds - each of whom has placed their own artistic footprint on the work. Overlapping areas of work and responsibilities to the filmmakers mean that no-one can function as a truly independent author. It is true that some composers have been reported to have little to no interaction with the director once scoring has begun, but even then their control will end at the dubbing. Examples of eminent composers coming into conflict with this collaborative world include Schoenberg's demands for The Good Earth[4] and Stravinsky's denigration of film music as 'monkey business'[5], highlighting a difficulty in relinquishing authorship and control (to people who might not even be musically literate) in a way that would be unthinkable in an opera or ballet Gesamtkunstwerk.

Bernard Herrmann and Alfred HitchcockAlfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann

In film the composer is not functioning exclusively as a writer of music but as a dramatist who uses music as his toolbox. Although it is impossible to deny the power of music in eliciting an emotional response, to shape a narrative, and that leitmotivs can provide an internal structure that can allow a score to become an art work in its own right, ultimately the music is conceived as part of and for the purposes of supporting the film. The idea of authorship in film music is more than just the score but must consider to what extent the composer influenced the entire work.

Prokofiev's collaboration with Eisenstein on Alexander Nevsky was groundbreaking, as Egorova describes: 'The film broke down all established stereotypes and notions of the ways in which music and representation should interact, and it was built as a complex polyphonic composition.'[6] Prokofiev wrote that 'the director's respect for music was so great that in some cases he was ready to "pull" the visual representation of the film forward or backward, if it would help to preserve the integrity of the musical fragment'[7]. Although this was the first collaboration between them, it demonstrates how the composer could exercise a degree of authorship over the entire film rather than simply writing the score.

Auteur theory considers the director as the visionary with overall influence on the entire creative process whereby his/her voice shines all the way through to the final film[8]. Many auteur directors have had strong opinions on music in their films. Chaplin liked to have control over all aspects of production including composition, claiming the music credit for all his sound features for United Artists, and the events surrounding Kubrick's rejection of Alex North's 2001 score are legendary. Herrmann remarked that, when asked to compose for Kubrick, the director insisted on equal billing for the music[9]. In such situations it is difficult to see how a composer could emerge as an 'author' against the overwhelming influence of the director. However, Cooke remarks:

As Mitry pointed out ... the perceived auteur of a film need not be the director when the writer ... has a stronger personality to exert, and this comment has equal relevance [to] music. ... The idea of the film composer as auteur was most likely to arise in the case of musicians who, like Herrmann, were highly trained and acclaimed for their work in the concert hall...[10]

It would seem that an 'author' composer requires an existent reputation and a musical voice that can rise above the film and the creative personality of the other filmmakers. There are many composers whose work does stand out - Morricone, Nyman, Vangelis and Thomas Newman, for instance - and the uniqueness of their styles serves as a stamp of authorship. Similarly, the prominence of music within a film and the creative freedom extended to a composer can also appear as a sign of authorship: more leeway allowing the composer to craft a score that is more personal and which speaks their mind rather than simply echoing the director's.

Dario Marianelli and Joe WrightDario Marianelli and Joe Wright

The crucial question is whether it requires a long-term collaboration to reach this ideal. It is a fact of life that people generally do not choose to work with those with whom they have a poor relationship, for a good relationship maximises creative potential and compatibility. Elmer Bernstein identifies Scorsese as his favourite collaborator simply because: 'He has respect for other artists'[11]. That said, although a long-term relationship presupposes a good relationship, a good relationship does not necessarily have to be long-term - as mentioned earlier, Alexander Nevsky was the first collaboration between Prokofiev and Eisenstein. Additionally, Williams has always been given considerable space by Spielberg, and Dario Marianelli was involved relatively early on his first collaboration with Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice) so that his ideas could be incorporated into the script and was ultimately given free-rein on several scenes.

There can be a certain comfort in working with someone with whom you already have an established means of communication. Teddy Castellucci points out: 'a great relationship with a filmmaker seems to be very productive, because it allows the composer to free up the "what ifs"'[12] and Maurice Jarre remarks: 'after you've worked with a director, you can talk a lot more easily.'[13] Working with the same composer can allow a director to forego the use of a temp track and a continuing friendship makes it easier for the composer to be involved earlier in the production, thereby maximising the possibility of matching the director's wishes and allowing for a more holistic incorporation of the music and a more integrated and organic film.

Such early involvement also allows for the music to influence the filming process - Zimmer's The Thin Red Line score was played on the set to help the actors get into the right mood, as was Jarre's for The Mosquito Coast - and an ongoing collaboration can bring the composer and director closer together artistically, whether it is the result of equivalent dramatic approaches (such as Williams with both Spielberg and Lucas in their tendencies towards homage, pastiche and reprise of past Hollywood practices) or one party encouraging the other to excel - for instance with David Newman and DeVito, as Newman explains: 'Some directors are really good to collaborate with ... [they] tend to push you in a way that you end up with something better than you would have.'[14]

Howard Shore and David CronenbergHoward Shore and David Cronenberg

A curious side-issue is in knowing where authorship lies as the use of assistants, orchestrators and ghost writers make it impossible to determine who wrote what, and the collaboration with filmmakers can have a physical influence on the music - for instance, the typewriter in the Atonement score was the idea of Wright and not Marianelli; similarly Elmer Bernstein credits Francis Ford Coppola with the 6/8 jazz idea in The Rainmaker[15].

With the supposition that a long-term collaboration is born of an existing good relationship, one can consider to what extent this allows the composer to express themselves as an 'author'. Howard Shore describes his relationship with David Cronenberg: 'David's never given much input. We've kind of had an intuition about each other. And so we leave each other alone: I don't analyze his stuff, and he doesn't analyze mine'[16] and also the artistic benefit of continuing to work with the same director:

Because we've [Cronenberg's team] all continued to work together, it drives everybody harder. Of course, quite often I'll be asked to do a movie because they've seen Dead Ringers, and they like that sound ... But that's somewhat deceptive, because they don't want you to go further, they like Dead Ringers! With David, in each movie you must go further.[17]

Similarly, Danny Elfman has stated that Tim Burton is one of three directors that he would be happy to work with again because of the relative compositional freedom[18] and Hassler-Forest remarks on the consideration that Burton films are seen to represent the vision of more than just the auteur:

One might say that the name [Burton] stands equally for the work of the people who have made considerable contributions to what is associated with his name. People like ... composer Danny Elfman ... have been of huge importance to the final product and the Burton concept that has grown from there.[19]

Bernard Herrmann indicates the complete freedom within which he could compose, but it is admittedly difficult to ascertain whether this is simply due to his reputation:

Orson [Welles] is the only [director] who has any musical, cultural background. All the other directors I worked with haven't had the temerity to tell me anything about music. Hitchcock left it completely to me.[20]

Gabriel Yared and Anthony MinghellaGabriel Yared and Anthony Minghella

He also explains how his collaborations with Hitchcock ended when the director started working in genres that were of no interest to the composer, suggesting a necessity for aligned artistic aspirations: 'He just wanted pop stuff, and I said, "No, I'm not interested." I told him, "Hitch, what's the use of my doing more with you?"'[21]

Gabriel Yared's approach to film scoring requires him to be involved as early as the scripting stage, so that the music can grow with the characters, themes and overall narrative while the drama itself is still being developed[22] and he has suggested that it was through his work with Minghella that allowed him to develop his musical technique and mature fully as a film composer.[23] Laing attributes much to the collaborations in The English Patient:

Before he had seen anything of the film, [Yared] delivered several recordings of his themes to Murch. Minghella and Murch cut these themes into the film in rough form and returned the relevant scenes to Yared ... As a result, he maintains that he wrote the score as music rather than as film music, with the process of making it into a score being led primarily by Minghella and Murch.[24]

John Williams occupies an enviable and curious position in film music whereby he has managed to maintain a markedly traditional style - reminiscent of the Golden Age - and shaped it into his own musical voice, coloured with influences of late 19th-century Romanticism and 20th-century Americana. More of his themes have entered popular culture than any other composer and he has become a household name like no other.

Williams' most significant works have come from his collaborations with Columbus, Lucas and Spielberg, and his forty-year partnership with the latter has provided him with some of the most diverse and exciting projects of his career, which have resulted in some of his most imaginative scores. Spielberg gives Williams an exceptionally high level of creative freedom, independence and authority, leading to a degree of musical expression and autonomy that is rare indeed and it is arguably through Spielberg's films that Williams has had his most enduring successes. Throughout their relationship Williams has always been involved early in the process (he prepared a plethora of different five-note motifs for selection before shooting began for Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and has enjoyed liberties of which most composers would dream (when he could not synchronise the music in E.T. Spielberg offered to re-edit the film to fit the music instead).

As Spielberg puts it:

Johnny Williams I have very little control over, except we listen to music together and I'll show him my film and try to talk it through and give him a sense of my taste in musical atmosphere. But once Johnny sits down at the piano, it's his movie, it's his score. It's his original overdraft, a super-imposition.[25]

Williams' scores for Spielberg are undeniably prominent and expressive to the point that they take on characters of their own and live lives outside the films they serve. The scores transform the films and elevate them to a higher plane, and in turn provide Williams with a level of recognition to which most other composers can only aspire. As such, Williams is the epitome of a film music 'author'.

John Williams and Steven SpielbergJohn Williams and Steven Spielberg

Most film composers only ever work on a single film, and many work with filmmakers who consider music as an after-thought. Collaborating with the same filmmaker time and again would be dream come true - someone with whom they already have an established means of communication, who understands their process, has an appreciation for their music and has trusted them not only to complete one project but now a second - as both composers and directors value the importance of positive collaborations in creating good art. Herrmann and Williams show that trust and creative freedom can allow art to flourish, but the crucial quality in the relationship is not so much the length but the quality - the length of a partnership is a product of the positive nature of the relationship in the first place.

The ongoing collaboration of a composer with a director enables a greater appreciation of the other's role in the film process as it is freedom of expression, autonomy and independence that allows composers to be established as authors, and long-lasting partnerships allow for a shared vision of music in film which elevates both the score and the film itself. Although there are many cases where a composer did not need a pre-existing relationship in order to be considered a co-author of a film, it also holds that a long-lasting collaboration allows a composer ongoing opportunities to be established as an 'author' time and again with a director he can trust to give him maximum creative freedom. Toru Takemitsu summarises: 'Scoring for the movies is like getting a passport to freedom. It's a cooperative effort that counters the self absorption that can occur when one creates alone.'[26]


  1. I. Bazelon, Knowing the Score: Notes on Film Music (New York, 1975), 201
  2. R. Faulkner, Music on Demand: Composer and Careers in the Hollywood Film Industry (New Brunswick, 2003), 98
  3. loc. cit.
  4. Schoenberg reportedly asked for a fee of $50,000 and total control over the actors and soundtrack dubbing.
  5. Quoted in A. Franklin, 'Stravinsky in Beverly Hills', Modern Music, 19, No. 3, 178ff
  6. T. Egorova, Soviet Film Music: An Historical Survey (Amsterdam, 1997), 60
  7. ibid., 67
  8. Under EU law the director is considered to be the author (or one of the authors) of a film largely due to auteur theory.
  9. R. Brown, Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music (Berklee, 1994), 291
  10. M. Cooke, A History of Film Music (Cambridge, 2008), 202-3
  11. R. Davis, Complete Guide to Film Scoring (2nd edn., Berklee, 2010), 267
  12. C. DesJardins, Inside Film Music: Composers Speak (Silman-James Press, 2006), 40
  13. Brown, op. cit., 309
  14. Davis, op. cit., 335
  15. ibid., 268
  16. Brown, op. cit., 337
  17. ibid., 338
  18. J. Halfyard, Danny Elfman's 'Batman': A Film Score Guide (Oxford, 2004), 9
  19. Quoted in loc. cit.
  20. Bazelon, op. cit., 234
  21. Brown, op. cit., 290
  22. H. Laing, Gabriel Yared's 'The English Patient': A Film Score Guide (Oxford, 2004), 15
  23. ibid., 40
  24. ibid., 90
  25. M. Tuchman, 'Close Encounter with Steven Spielberg', Steven Spielberg: Interviews, ed. L. Friedman & B. Notbohm (Mississippi, 2000), 50
  26. B. Hershon, 'Off the Beaten Track: Harmonious Composer/Director Teams', Cinéaste, 23 (1998), No. 4, 41


  • I. Bazelon, Knowing the Score: Notes on Film Music (New York, 1975).
  • R. Brown, Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music (Berklee, 1994).
  • M. Cooke, A History of Film Music (Cambridge, 2008).
  • R. Davis, Complete Guide to Film Scoring (2nd edn., Berklee, 2010).
  • C. DesJardins, Inside Film Music: Composers Speak (Silman-James Press, 2006).
  • T. Egorova, Soviet Film Music: An Historical Survey (Amsterdam, 1997).
  • R. Faulkner, Music on Demand: Composer and Careers in the Hollywood Film Industry (New Brunswick, 2003).
  • A. Franklin, 'Stravinsky in Beverly Hills', Modern Music, 19, No. 3, 178ff
  • J. Halfyard, Danny Elfman's 'Batman': A Film Score Guide (Oxford, 2004).
  • B. Hershon, 'Off the Beaten Track: Harmonious Composer/Director Teams', Cinéaste, 23 (1998), No. 4, 38-41.
  • C. Hodge, 'Film Collaboration and Creative Conflict', Journal of Film and Video, 61 (2009), 1, 18-30.
  • H. Laing, Gabriel Yared's 'The English Patient': A Film Score Guide (Oxford, 2004).
  • M. Tuchman, 'Close Encounter with Steven Spielberg', Steven Spielberg: Interviews, ed. L. Friedman & B. Notbohm (Mississippi, 2000).