How to Approach Scoring a Horrible Project


It’s Halloween so I thought I’d have some fun and discuss a horrific topic we all deal with, especially early in our careers. How to score a horrible movie & deal with horrible situations.

So you’ve been contacted to score a movie. Congratulations, how exciting. You read the script and you connected to it. You met with the filmmakers and the meeting went well. The money is great/sucks/anywhere in between and you worked out a deal and said yes. Good for you, you’re doing better than most, this is so very exciting!! You finally get the film to start working on it and to your great horror, it sucks. It’s really quite terrible. The actors can’t act, the director clearly doesn’t know what s/he’s doing, the cinematography looks like your 4 year old nephew shot it, the editing is clunky, the production sound is practically inaudible. This is one of the worst things you’ve ever seen. The panic sets in, what have you gotten yourself into? How could this happen? The meetings went so well; the script was fine, it all sounded like it’s going to be good. Now what?

As I see it you have two choices. Choice A back out of the project. Choice B embrace the challenge and figure out how to make it work. I seem to be a glutton for punishment because I always choose option B. I view difficult situations as an opportunity to expand my level of experience and ability to deal with varying challenges, which I believe ultimately makes me better at what I do.

Still with me? You’re going to do it? Good for you! Here are some things to keep in mind that might help. Making a movie is incredibly difficult. From writing a script to revising it to raising the money to development to casting & staffing to shooting and through post so many things need to go right just to get a movie made that it’s an impressive feat just to get it done. I don’t think anyone sets out to make a bad movie, it’s just so difficult to make a movie in the first place that making a good one is a small (or not so small) miracle. Keep that in mind – these filmmakers, good or bad, did not set out to make a bad film. This is the best they were able to muster and they’ve poured months or longer into getting this far. Respect that effort and commitment and always keep it in mind when working on the film.

Now that you respect the film and filmmakers, it’s a lot easier to care about the film even if it’s not great. It’s just an attitude adjustment but it makes a huge difference both in your approach to the movie and generally how you feel about the situation. And now that you have a positive attitude again, approach the film as you would a masterpiece.

Treat the filmmakers and every scene as if they are gold. Write the best music you know how to write for the scene. If the acting is wooden during a tender scene this is your chance to soften it. If an action scene just doesn’t put you on the edge of your seat here’s your change to have the music elevate it and engage the audience. Not scary enough or tense enough or funny enough or sad enough or whatever the case may be, here’s your chance to bring it with the music. I think writing music for a great movie is pretty easy, all you have to do is not suck and it’ll be great because the movie is already great. Writing music for a bad movie is harder, but also offers you an opportunity to shine and really elevate it. Embrace that opportunity and write the best damn music you can.

Don’t ever make the mistake of saving your better cues for something else. You’ll never get discovered or noticed by writing bad or mediocre music for bad films. The reality is that most people will never see the film, but if those are the tracks on your demo reel they won’t be interested. But if you write great music for bad films, you will get noticed because you’ll be creating an incredible reel for yourself.

Another possible outcome is that you’ll start winning awards for you music as the film goes to film festivals, which never hurts. There are countless festivals and a lot of mediocre or even bad films out there in the film festival circuit. Many of them have bad or mediocre music. If your bad film has great music people might not think it’s so bad, and they’ll definitely notice the music is a notch or two above the rest. Most festivals don’t have music awards, but if your music stands out you’ll earn the accolades in those who do. I’ve seen great scores to short films win best score over feature film scores at some festivals.

Another issue that often comes up when working on bad films is that you’re working with inexperienced filmmakers and they’re making mistakes and learning as they go. This can lead to all sorts of frustrations. It’s easy to feel like you’re the pro and they’re a bunch of hacks. But if that’s how you feel then I hate to break it to you, there’s a good chance you’re not a real pro yet. A real pro understands that we work with people of varying degrees of experience, knowledge and depth of understanding of the process. A real pro respects the filmmaker regardless of his/her level of experience and ability and helps guide them through the process. Remember sometimes you have to suck at something for a while before you get good at it.

When you started playing your instrument as a child you probably produced some awful noise before you got good. But you most likely had teachers to guide you and help you get better. And you practiced and learned from your mistakes in order to get better. I would imagine your first composition was no masterpiece either, nor your second or third. It’s the same for filmmakers, especially new ones. They’re practicing, they’re making mistakes and they’re learning. Some of them may go on to great things, and some won’t. The same is true in any craft. But treat them with respect and support their efforts regardless of where they are in their careers or level of talent. At the end of the day how you behave in any situation is a reflection of who you are, not of the situation. Your job is to help guide the filmmaker to make the best possible musical choices, and you won’t always agree, but you need to figure out how to do the best possible job within the given situation. Having worked on everything from masterpieces to amateur films I can tell you disagreements happen at all levels.

So remember when scoring a bad film – nobody sets out to make a bad film, it’s incredibly hard to get a film made in the first place and just having a finished film is quite an achievement. Poorly made films offer a great opportunity for the music to make a huge impact and truly shine. Bad music makes for bad demo reels and great music makes for great demo reels. Treat the film and filmmakers with respect and if you don’t like it pretend it’s great. See in it what they were trying to achieve rather than what they actually achieved and then score that.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.