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Frame By Frame: Film Composer Kathryn Bostic Talks 'The New Black,' 'Dear White People,' More (Part 1)

Shadow and Act By Kathryn Bostic | Shadow and Act June 10, 2014 at 3:10PM

I think the biggest thing that directors have to have in their relationship with a composer is trust; they have to know that you can translate what's in their mind to a musical language that works for their film and for this reason, communication is extremely important.
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Here's our next installment of the new S&A series Frame By Frame, featuring guest posts and in-depth conversations with film and television professionals. Find the first piece in the series, with cinematographer Daniel Patterson, HERE. We'll next hear from film composer Kathryn Bostic.

Kathryn is a composer, singer, songwriter and musician who has scored several independent features we've written about on this site, including Ava DuVernay's "Middle of Nowhere" and "I Will Follow," Yoruba Richen's "Promised Land" and "The New Black," "Dear White People," "Soul Food Junkies," and the forthcoming August Wilson documentary "The Ground on Which I Stand." She has also scored for theater, working on the Broadway productions of "Gem of the Ocean" and "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" and the Mark Taper Forum production of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," directed by Phylicia Rashad.

In her first post for "Frame By Frame," she discusses her career and the basics of film scoring.

Kathryn Bostic
Kathryn Bostic

Beginnings in Music


I started writing music at a very young age. I was three when I started to play the piano and took to it right away. I used to sing and make up these little songs and melodies that left me feeling so happy and it's been that way ever since. Storytelling through music is something I've always enjoyed and appreciated. I studied music composition and piano in college and would write for various theater and dance productions. I'd also sing with various artists worldwide discovering different styles of music and genre. These experiences later translated into an interest in film scoring. I've always appreciated how a good film score can really take a film to a place sonically irresistible and memorable.

Getting a Project Started

When I first start working on a film I have a spotting session with the director and we go over where the music should be placed. I then like to sit with it on my own and feel how it's hitting me emotionally and feel how the story is unfolding. I like to get a cut of the film with the temp music in and without (temp music is already put in by the director and editor prior to the original score.) This way the film itself reveals its own voice as well. The director already has ideas in place and the temp music indicates the tone of what they are looking for… or not! Sometimes the music is there solely as a point of departure, a point of reference. Other times it's in and it's already working quite well! That's the challenge, how can I take that and make it something fresh and authentic. Temp music can be the director's "Svengali" for the composer. They've lived with this music a long time and have become used to the way it resonates with them. However, I find there's always an opening for fresh creativity regardless of this, and that's what I look for.

On the Director/Composer Relationship

When I worked with director Ava DuVernay on "I Will Follow," "Middle of Nowhere" and "Venus Vs.," these films had been cut to temp music that more or less worked. Ava is very generous about hearing new ideas and new approaches so I never felt like I had to replicate the temp. I never felt constrained by this. The temp was more of a "menu" of textures and instrumentation that I could draw from. I also worked with director Justin Simien on "Dear White People," and he too had specific ideas that were already in place and temped in, but he was very open to what I could create within that point of reference.

"The biggest thing that directors have to have in their relationship with a composer is trust; they have to know that you can translate what's in their mind to a musical language that works..."

I think the biggest thing that directors have to have in their relationship with a composer is trust; they have to know that you can translate what's in their mind to a musical language that works for their film and for this reason, communication is extremely important. I like to get a dialogue going right away. I'll present sketches early on to know if I'm heading in the right direction. Yes, it can be really daunting and nail biting to do this but the worst thing you can is wait until you think it's right before you share your ideas; this is really hard if you're a perfectionist. Often you have the clock working against you and you have to show some ideas "yesterday!" Let the muse take over, which for me is always the best. I try and strike a balance between being aware of deadlines but also being present enough to compose something effective and evocative. 

Conversation about the film between the director and composer is ongoing until the very final stages of post-production and for new directors, I want to stress the importance of realizing that collaboration is a process and takes time. The score can be one of the most intimidating elements of filmmaking because it is one of the last things to bring in and it is also one of the most intangible to express. It's important for the director to speak in terms of the emotional intent they are looking for, there is no need to try and speak in musical terms that may or may not be correct.

Scoring for Documentary

I recently worked with director Yoruba Richen on her documentary "The New Black" and the music for this was quite different in terms of approach. Music in documentaries is often laid in more extensively to not only highlight emotional intention, but to move the story forward. It often runs parallel to the dialogue. I had worked with Yoruba on her documentary "Promised Land" and this time around with "The New Black," the music was also a combination of soundtrack material from the artist Tonex, which was great because his own personal story was a part of the documentary.

The score in a film is the spine of the film. Its themes and presence hold the movie together in ways that are vital to enhancing the story and without a good score the movie can be disjointed and lack dimension. I am fortunate to have worked with some amazing directors who know how to weave music masterfully in their cinematic stories.

In my next article, I will talk more extensively about scoring on a budget as well as scoring around pre-existing music and source cues. I'll also share some of my collaboration process in working with director Sam Pollard for the American Masters Series "August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand", coming soon to PBS.

This article is related to: Kathryn Bostic, Frame By Frame, Yoruba Richen, Sam Pollard, Justin Simien, Ava DuVernay


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