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Guest Post: One Woman's View of Composing In/Out of Hollywood

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by Miriam Cutler
May 30, 2012 10:02 AM
1 Comment
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Writing a blog for a website called Women & Hollywood presents an interesting opportunity for this film composer who dwells primarily in the world of independent documentaries.  While not really being part of Hollywood’s entertainment mainstream, I’ve had many of the same experiences as my Hollywood counterparts, albeit on a smaller scale, and as part of a different kind of film business model/culture.  But in the end, scoring is scoring and we are faced with the same challenges: getting the gigs, working with directors, editors, producers, providing endless streams of creative ideas, meeting deadlines, staying within budget in the face of unending changes, inspiring musicians, planning and organizing sessions, music preparation and mixing.

As most young composers with a passion for film, I started out with fantasies of scoring big action films and wildly entertaining hits.  I had spent many years performing with and writing songs for popular local bands.  Once I discovered the magic of putting music to picture, I was ready to pursue a film composing career with the same fervor.   While I noticed that there weren’t very many (or actually any) women credited as composer on those big films, it didn’t really occur to me that there was any reason I couldn’t achieve this if I set it as my goal.  I spent the next 5-10 years paying my dues, scoring anything I could get my hands on from low budget horror, action, and comedy films to corporate videos, student films, a circus, and finally some documentaries.  It wasn’t long before I had built a career and was able to earn a living in my chosen field.

In those early years, I only came to know about 2 or 3 other working women composers in LA.  Of course, the amazing Shirley Walker was like a shining beacon out there.  She already worked for many big name Hollywood composers as conductor, orchestrator, and writing cues.  Everyone recognized her abilities and she did finally become a lead composer.  Unfortunately, she died too soon and we’ll never know what might have been.  A few years after that, the fine British composer, Rachel Portman, snagged an Oscar and has been arguably the most visibly successful female composer in Hollywood since. Now there are more young women composers with Hollywood ambitions and less baggage from old fashioned notions of a woman’s role. It will be interesting to see how they fare in the high stakes Hollywood scene as we move further into the 21st century.  Given the slew of female action heroes we’re seeing kicking butt in blockbuster movies these days, the signs are encouraging.

As for me, the more involved I became in the world of indie docs, the more I realized it was a better fit with my own talents, ambitions, and interests.  Hollywood no longer beckoned and I directed my efforts towards becoming part of that community.  Filmmaking is so collaborative – and when it comes to documentaries, it’s a life style.  I am passionate about the content of these films, as much as I am artistically driven to create music for them.  I continue to be inspired by dedicated filmmakers who are deeply committed to characters and issues.  In fact, I was so moved by the story of the elephant in my circus, that I became a producer to get One Lucky Elephant  made, in addition to scoring it.

Within the documentary genre, I work on a huge variety of subjects, in many styles and  covering a full range of emotions.  For Lost in La Mancha, a raucous look at Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated “WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE”, I composed what I think of as a Nino Rota inspired Spanish flavored score full of nylon guitars and pasa doble brass bands.   For Ethel (HBO), Rory Kennedy’s private look inside the highly public life of her parents, Ethel and Bobby Kennedy, I created a more romantic, sweeping, cinematic score.  On Vito (HBO), another view of recent American events through the lens of the life of gay rights and aids activist, Vito Russo, the score ranges from string driven chamber group, to 60’s soul jazz and rock, to 70’s and 80’s disco.  Academy Award Nominated Poster Girl (HBO)  has a more intimate minimal score as the backdrop for struggles of a female Iraqi war vet battling PSTD while processing her combat experience.  Though I rarely leave my studio, through these films I am privy to some of the most amazing people and stories ever captured on film.

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In addition to scoring films, BMI Composer Miriam Cutler also has served as  Lab advisor for Sundance Documentary Composers Lab, documentary juries for the Sundance, Independent Spirit Awards, IDA and AFI Awards, and is a longtime  Board member of The Society of Composers and Lyricists. 

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1 Comment

  • Makenzie Caine | May 30, 2012 3:42 PMReply

    I really enjoyed this article Miriam and I'm now going to Netflix to see if I can add these to my queue to hear your work! Having been an actor for several years and just put together my first album of original music, I have a deep curiosity in your world and new found appreciation. Thanks for sharing!

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