The following is an interview I originally conducted for the horror website Terrortube
Unless you were born in the same era as movies themselves you probably prefer your movies to have sound. Aside from special effects and your favorite actors rambling for an Oscar, music is an important part of the film. In the horror genre especially, music can build tension and set the overall atmosphere. Therefore, when it is time for the beautiful orchestra tracks to kick in or for someone to lay down the boogey-woogey it is vital to have a great film composer; enter: James Guymon.
I caught up with James after he was working on a project called “Two Front Teeth”, a horror film by the extra-fabulous screenwriter Jamie Nash. James was kind enough to relieve me of curiosity involving the inner workings of film composing and his top-notch approaches by answering some questions. Here at the start I would like give him a huge Thank You for his time and point out that every one should give him a visit at www.myspace.com/guymonjames and www.jamesguymon.com
Q. How did you end up getting into your career and what originally interested you in this path?
“Its hard to say exactly when I knew I wanted to score films. I remember having this desire reinforced deeply the first time I saw “Braveheart.” That score affected me – I didn’t care that it was more or less a famous classical piece of music dressed up like a Scot, with highland pipes and all. It was magical to me, the way it worked, the way it sounded. I believe that movie came out in 1995 – the same year I graduated from high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At that time, in that place, there was no visible path to scoring films and so I simply pursued music the only way I knew how with hope that in the future I would find a way to make the transition. Fast-forward a few years of music school and a 2 year stint in Mongolia teaching English – I was now in Salt Lake City. I was introduced to a financially successful commercial composer when I was about 22. I had been involved with music my whole life and wrote music myself at that point, but I knew nothing about how to get involved with the people who would pay a composer enough to make a living at it and I was clueless when it came to the technological means by which a composer syncs his work to picture, records music, and so on. At this meeting I asked the guy if I could be his minion, and he reluctantly said ‘yes.’ But if I was a flake, he had warned, it would be over. And there would be no pay, of course. So from there I started out building furniture for him (the kind that doesn’t come pre-assembled), cleaning out his garage, detailing his car, and the like all while I was in college. I eventually got to the point where he trusted me with other things, like getting him a special blend of diet and regular Coke from the local gas station/food mart. This was stage 2. I was now going with him to sessions and meeting people and I was watching him work. I worked obsessively and am lucky I didn’t completely fail all my university classes during this time because I was easily working for this composer more than 40 hours a week while I was a teacher’s assistant for a few philosophy classes and going to school full time. At this point I was doing his copywork (publishing his scores and parts for recording sessions) and his music editing, in addition, of course, to whatever he wanted that week. I put together my own humble workstation in his basement, which I was allowed to play around with so long as all my other work was done, and when I had something I thought was finished the composer would come listen and tell me that perhaps composing was not for me and I would go back and try again. So this was my training ground. I eventually got him to mumble the work was passable, landed my own projects, my own clients, and ended the period of servitude. I moved to the Los Angeles area and things progressed naturally. I soon met Christopher Young, who liked my work and was extremely encouraging and helpful. I worked with him on my writing for about a year with an emphasis on scoring horror films and, in time, finding my unique voice. He helped with the Two Front Teeth Soundtrack by donating the use of his studio for some of the recording, and by giving me some great feedback regarding the main titles sequence. Since then things have been moving forward – the game is afoot.”
Q. Can you explain for us the process of “scoring” a film? And, if yes, will you explain for us the process of scoring a film?
“In general, I start on a film at the very end of the process. The film has been shot, and the edit is getting very close to locked. Much of the sound is still rough, but visually the film is very close. Most importantly, the film has not yet come together in a way to make the director and producers feel comfortable. Inevitably, they are worried at some level. It is the composer’s job to be sensitive to this and try to determine what it is about the film that worries them and look for ways to help. This is generally accomplished in the spotting session, where the director and the composer meet (often with other people present also) to watch the film and discuss where music should enter and leave, what its function should be, and what it should sound like. At this point the director is setting out what constitutes a successful score; what the film needs from the music. After the spotting session, I start writing. The guidance from the spotting session is nothing short of canonized at this point, but I also look for ways to go above and beyond what was asked for. I look for ways to relieve the director’s stresses – especially the ones he didn’t mention. The key is to create a situation where the director sees his film coming together the way he envisioned it as your piece of the puzzle is put in – that’s how you get a pass-off for a cue. Otherwise it will get bounced back to you with or without coherent reasons for what is lacking. So the process of scoring a film should be the process of breathing life into it.”
Q. Do you watch the footage for a movie and then feel inspired to write the music?
“Absolutely. So much of what I need to do is establish a sonic world where the story takes place – a world where the audience will be willing to believe the storyteller. I like to think that this is the same thing Bach was doing with his religious choral works; establish a collective frame of mind that was open to religious ideas before the sermon was given, using this technique to establish an environment where it was possible to believe in the impossible. The architects of the cathedrals provided the other-worldly location, and the music (not just Bach’s – even going back to Gregorian Chant) made you believe that you were in a place where magic was possible. So when I see footage from a film I get an idea of what this world looks like – its much like the cathedral. To the extent that the lighting and framing are artistic I get a hint of what the world feels like, as well as an idea of the nature of the storyteller. From there I need to dive into that imaginary place and really flesh it out in my mind. Its more about what the world feels like than sounds like; I need to understand where this story takes place in preparation to taking the audience there during the opening credits. But it is very difficult to do this without footage, if only in the sense that I cannot be sure that the world I might take the audience to would be one in which the story should be told.”
Q. What sort of music do you listen to in your free time?
“I honestly try to listen to anything and everything I can. I obviously listen to a lot of film music. I also listen to a lot of music written by concert composers living today, most of which are on the ERM Media label (a company that releases only award-winning music written by living composers.) But it is important to me to fill my mind with as diverse a collection as possible because I can never know what I may be asked to write on the next project, and when I’m called upon to do so, I have to be able to write convincingly.”
Q. You did the score for Jamie Nash’s horror film “Two Front Teeth”, how did you get that gig?
“I saw a post on the net that there was a chance to score the film. I contacted Jamie and let him know I was interested. It turned out that whoever was to be deemed to have done the best job with the trailer would be given a shot at scoring the feature. So I scored the trailer and was lucky that Jamie and David liked it the best.”
Q. Do you meet the filmmakers in person and do they give a lot of input as to what sounds they want exactly or how free are you to get creative?
“I don’t always meet the filmmakers in person, although I always prefer to. But it is always the case that this is their movie and their score – even in situations where they give me “creative freedom.” Regardless of what is said, this is always someone else’s film and I never forget that. I would say, however, that I have a unique way of solving the problems that are presented in a film and that my personality comes through in all my work. So in this sense I always feel like the score bears my stamp, and turns out differently than if someone else had done it. So I guess I would rephrase by saying that I am given, on every film, a sphere within which I am allowed to be creative, where every film’s sphere is a different size, and that my creativity comes within the confines of that bubble as a function of the unique ways I go about identifying and solving problems that are posed to me.”
Q. Please tells us about other experiences you’ve had scoring films and some upcoming projects.
“I’m currently scheduled or in negotiations on several films, but unfortunately cannot comment on most of them. I can mention that I have begun work on “Shadows,” a suspense/thriller/horror film by FEAR FILM Independent Productions, directed by Robert Massetti. This is a case where I am involved well before I normally would be. I have already written some sketches and the casting isn’t even done. But this will be a good film to watch for – I can’t give away anything, but the script looks very promising and the problems posed of me are intriguing. I expect the score will turn out very well and am excited to see how it unfolds.”
Q. What would be your dream job to nab in the film scoring industry, or are there any jobs you would turn down?
“Its hard to know what films I would really want to do in the future, but it is easy to mention the ones I wish I had been able to do. For example, I wish I could have scored all the Underworld films and given them a consistent depth. I also would have loved to have scored Running With Scissors and Momento; I think I would have done a great job with those films. In general I love scoring anything with suspense and an intensely engaging atmosphere, which I why I love writing for horror movies. I also like quirky films with an indie feel, and anything that poses interesting puzzles for me to solve. I am extremely impressed by almost every film that is made by Focus Features, and would love to write for them.
There are dozens of jobs I would turn down, but in general I have found that people who know my music and are interested in hiring me are the kind of people I would love to work with. There is something intriguing about the phenomenon that if someone listens to my music and is moved by it that we have some point of contact, some place where we can come together and produce a work that is authentic and good. But this industry is so competitive that any legitimate project that comes to you without solicitation already knows that you would be a great fit – they’ve very likely already temp-ed up the film with your music, and so on, so it unlikely that there would be any reason to turn it down.”
Q. What do you think of Hollywood and LA?
“I love LA. The weather is great, the food is wonderful, and its where a composer has to be in order to get film work (aside from New York, of course.) Of course, it has got its drawbacks, such as out of control property costs and pollution. But so far it has been a great place for me to meet people and do some good work.”
Q. Any other hobbies or talents?
“I am an avid chess player, although I go through long periods where I don’t have the time to play. I am an honorary life member of the Los Angeles Chess Club and play there when I can. I am a member of the USCF (United States Chess Federation), and have had a game published. But don’t let this fool anyone – I am not a particularly good player. I simply love the game and enjoy the fantasy that one day I’ll get good at it.”
Q. What’s your favorite scary movie?
“I am a big fan of “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.”