While finishing work on A Serious Man Joel Coen told me our next project would be "True Grit." Joel and Ethan had been looking forward to making a Western for some time, and this was it. Their idea, simply, was to be true to the book and place the book's narrator, Mattie Ross, back at the center of the story.
They didn't have a finished script yet, so I read the book and began cogitating on the role of music in the story. The "plot" as such is quite simple - Mattie chases, finds, and kills the man who murdered her father - and it hardly needs music to explicate it. What then would the score say?
Many Hollywood Westerns sanctify myths about the origins of the United States. A typical example is to turn a cattle drive into a crusade. Brass, strings and timpani magnify the act of herding livestock across a river until it has the gravitas of crossing the Red Sea. Mattie is both part of this tradition and a parody of it, treating her quest and all its participants with a piety that blinds her to the absurdities around her. This is the source of much of the book's considerable humor.
The story takes place in the 1870's and Mattie has never seen a Hollywood Western, nor read a Western novel. Her pieties come from her knowledge of the Bible, and her courage is really a Presbyterian self-righteousness, wedded to a passion for balancing accounts. The book is narrated by Mattie and you never forget her church background because it's present in her voice on every page. She doesn't narrate the body of the film, however, and I came to think that a score based on church music would put her quest in context and make her unbelievable story believable.
I met with the Coens just before they headed West to begin shooting, to pitch this idea. It turned out that Ethan had the same inkling - the music should be based on hymns of the period. We tried to get more specific - Protestant hymns certainly - Presbyterian most likely. The one the Coens referenced was "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," known to us by its use in the film "The Night of the Hunter." My preference was for hymns that leant themselves to a call-and-response structure. I thought this would nicely mirror Mattie's lone voice echoing in the wilderness. I was also disinclined to use a hymn well-known for its use in a previous film.
While they were shooting I was going through hymn books. I found listening to contemporary recordings distinctly uninspiring. They are arranged to be warm, comforting, uplifting. These were not the adjectives I was looking for, so I went back to the original texts. By the time the Coens had finished shooting I had a number of hymns I thought were useful. (The ones that made it into the film are "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms" by Anthony Showalter, 1888; "The Glory-Land Way" by J. S. Torbett, date unknown; "Hold To God's Unchanging Hand" by Franklin Eiland, 1905;, "What A Friend We Have In Jesus" by Charles Converse, 1868; and "Talk About Suffering", author and date unknown).
Most feature films are edited while they are shot, by an editor who assembles dailies into scenes. A rough assembly of the entire film is complete soon after the shooting wraps. The Coens edit their own films (under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) and so the editing doesn't generally begin until they've finished shooting, which in this case was early July, 2010. Because Paramount wanted to release the film before the end of the year this meant a very tight post-production schedule, at least by our standards.
Typically a composer starts working sometime after there's an edit of the entire film. In this case I started before there was anything to see. As soon as they had a cut of the opening scene I started sending them musical ideas. We eliminated several, collected what was left, and tried those over other scenes as they appeared. Contrary to our usual way of working, in which they give me complete reels and I give them fairly complete sketches of the score, here we were giving each other very rough incomplete material. The good news, from my point of view, was that they were able to make changes to the picture if music required it. The bad news was that I also had to make changes as the picture evolved, so that most of the music was rewritten many times, and there was no way to know when anything was "finished."
Knowing that we wanted to incorporate church music into the score did not help define the instrumentation. Scores for Western films have several well-worn traditions and I tried them all - while hoping to avoid them. I tried idiomatic country instruments - fiddle, guitar, bass harmonica - I tried large orchestra, a là Dmitri Tiomkin - I tried small marching band - solo piano - pump organ. The choices that seemed to fit the picture without conjuring up previous films were piano, clarinet and orchestra. Solo piano suggested the church, clarinet had a cool plaintive quality that matched the look of the picture, and the orchestra allowed the scale of the story to expand as Mattie moved away from civilization into the wilderness. And yes, there was a Dmitri Tiomkin moment when Mattie crosses a river accompanied by brass, strings and timpani.
Despite my ill ease about the familiarity of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," it remained the top choice for the opening and closing of the film. It's hard to know how much of the Coens' feelings were based on its reference to "The Night of the Hunter," but I know that they do love reference. It gives something as semantically amorphous as music a depth of meaning and purpose. It's not unlike Tarantino's use of pre-existing music in his films.
I've often written original scores for the Coens' films that have no musical reference, and just as often done the opposite. There's no great difference, really. All musical traditions - classical, folk, jazz, pop - involve the reworking of previous material, and if it's well done the transformation is as original in its intent and execution as an "original" work.
Normally I prefer to see a film in its entirety before composing anything. I need to see where the film and music will end and develop some map of how to get there, before starting the journey. In the case of "True Grit" I was writing well before I'd seen the end of the film, since it did not exist yet. I had read the book and script so I had some idea of the overall structure. But as I got near the end of the film there was a problem.
The music is non-stop from the time Mattie sees Chaney, her father's killer, until the end of the film. The section in which Rooster Cogburn struggles to get her to a doctor raised many questions. Joel and Ethan had shot it so as to emphasize the loneliness of these two people in an empty world, but also to suggest Mattie's hallucinatory daze. We began by reprising the "Leaning" piano from the start of the film, which is similarly dreamlike. Then, as Rooster carries her past the point that seems physically possible, we had difficulty finding a theme that worked. What was the music to say?
Almost all the music in the film is about Mattie, but here she's passive for once and Rooster is the focus. But there was no "Rooster" musical theme. When I tried playing his effort, or his mortality, it didn't seem quite right either. Finally I came to believe the scene was about their relationship. Here we were at the end of the film, and we needed music to play the bond between them, but no such theme had ever been established. For similar reasons, the Coens were about to shoot some new footage for Mattie and Rooster in the snake pit. I chose a new hymn, "Hold To God's Unchanging Hand", which is warm and strong and hopeful, to be theirs.
I started going backwards through the film to find scenes where I could play it against Mattie and Rooster. In the process I had to throw out the only "hymn" that was entirely my own composition rather than based on historical texts. You have to be willing to kill your children in this business.
The last recording session was on November 8, only six weeks before the film opened in the U.S. The intervening time was spent preparing the soundtrack album and doing the requisite publicity. I wrote some brief liner notes for the album, explaining why the hymns had been chosen and acknowledging their authors.
I got a surprising response from Paramount Pictures - they wanted me to remove any reference to the hymns. They had many reasons - they didn't want the descendants of the hymns' authors to come looking for money (despite the fact that these compositions are in the public domain), they didn't want the Academy Awards Music Branch to disallow the score because of its use of pre-existing themes, and they didn't want to dilute their ownership, as publishers, of the score.
There is a long, checkered history to the appropriation of musical sources without acknowledgement. So many rock bands made millions off the blues without giving the original authors their due. So many film scores are based on pre-existing themes without acknowledging as much. I don't want to be part of this tradition, to the extent that I can avoid it. So I insisted. In the end Paramount and I fought over one word in the liner notes - was the score "based" on these hymns? "Influenced" by them? In the end we decided they were "rooted" in them. But the cat was out of the bag, and Paramount had to acknowledge the hymns in their promotional materials.
The Academy Awards
When Paramount originally scheduled the film's release for late-December, it was because they hoped it would win some of the awards that are given out at the start of each year, the Oscar being the most important. Studios like to release their "Academy Award" films at the end of the year, so they're fresh in the minds of the Academy's members when they vote in January. They clearly wanted the score to be considered for an Oscar as well.
The Music Branch of the Academy has a set of rules about what constitutes an eligible film score. I know some of these rules because I've run afoul of them before. The score must constitute a substantial body of work (which is why No Country For Old Men was not eligible), must not be overwhelmed by the prominent use of songs (which is why The Kids Are All Right and Where The Wild Things Are were ineligible), and must not be based on pre-existing material. A score must be the work of one (or perhaps two) composers - one of the only rules I haven't violated. Yet. These rules are enforced by the three members of the Executive Committee - honorable folk who take their jobs very seriously. Each rule exists because at some point in the past the Oscar was given to a score that the committee felt was unworthy, and they sought to avoid such scores being lauded in the future.
And indeed, Paramount was correct - the Music Branch Executive Committee did deem the score to "True Grit" ineligible because of its reliance on pre-existing themes. While I feel the score sounds like "me" despite its use of hymns, I didn't want to fight about it - there's no denying its reliance on 19th-century hymns. There were others who did want to fight, but that's because of the ridiculous importance marketers give the Oscars. How many people go to a film because its score won an award?
A number of reporters asked me how I felt about the Academy's ruling. My feelings are two-fold.
Each composer submits his or her score for Academy consideration, and by doing so accepts the rules of the game. If you choose to enter the race, you choose to abide by its rules. It's not a court - there's no pretense of justice. It's a popularity contest, and the Academy can make whatever rules it likes. However, the voluntary nature of the competition is a half-truth. Studios cajole and prod composers to submit every score to the Academy in the hope that a nomination might drop out of the sky. I recall being pushed to submit "Wayne's World 2", surely a strong contender. Not.
As a member of the Academy, I wish it would make the awards more inclusive. Instituting a new rule every time some members think there's been an undeserved award does not make the system more objective or fair, but it does make it more closed and backward-looking. I was told by a former member of the Executive Committee that they understood these rules would make some important and valid scores ineligible, but this was a tradeoff they were willing to make. His words brought to mind a dismal image: they would let innocent scores die so that no guilty score should live.
My personal suggestion is to stop ruling scores ineligible because they have strayed over an ill-defined line. If the best score of the year is in a film filled with songs, honor the score! Academy Award nominations are voted by each branch alone, which means that scores are nominated by composers and songwriters, and the Academy should trust the members to discern a score from a song. If they don't trust the members' judgement, why let them vote at all?
Perhaps the scores under consideration should be categorized - first those that fully satisfy the Committee's definition of an original score, then, separated by a thick black line, those that don't. In this way voting members will be forewarned that a score may be improperly seducing them with 19th-century Presbyterian hymns.