Lee Curreri 2009 FIND Interview

June 9th, 2009

Lee Curreri started his career early as the passionate music genius Bruno on Fame (the film and TV show), and it turns out the role was not far from reality. Curreri is now a successful song producer and film composer and he was kind enough to speak to FIND about scoring movies and collaborating with directors.

By Eli Kaufman

How did you get your start as a composer?

As a kid, I used to watch the TV show "Mission Impossible." I was entranced by Lalo Schifrin's underscore. I thought, "How cool would it be to write music that created those feelings - feelings of suspense and adventure, as a job?" I ended up studying composition with Neil Waltzer at the Manhattan School of Music, and then Charles Jones at the Mannes College in New York. My lessons with Charles were at his house in New York City, which had been Igor Stravinsky's house. It actually had a white picket fence and a tree in the front yard - in midtown Manhattan! When I came out to Los Angeles to reprise my film role as Bruno in the TV series "Fame," I met Valerie Landsburg, whose stepmom gave me a job scoring the music for a documentary on teen suicide. I had to write all these poignant cues. I realized at that point that this was as cool as I thought it would be, and I was hooked. I also really enjoyed song form, and I had a knack for arranging and producing. I started producing artists such as Natalie Cole, Phil Perry, Kid Creole, and Nicolette Larson.

How does your process for producing music differ from your approach producing scores for film?

The timetable is different - song producing focuses all energies on a 3 or 4 minute self-contained piece of music. That's a very concentrated arc. There's no visual - the music exists for its own sake, but it still has to accomplish something - it still needs a raison d’être. Scoring starts out with a visual, and the music has to serve the vision of the filmmaker. There already is a very definable function. At its core, though, the processes are more similar than not - I immerse myself in the film, or the artist, and I find out why they exist, and what they are saying. Then I figure out ways I can help bring those qualities out.

Who are some of your favorite composers? Please name some their scores and how they have inspired you.

I love all the Thomas Newman scores: "Shawshank Redemption," "American Beauty," "The Player," the theme to "Six Feet Under." He knows how to evoke multiple emotions with such beauty and economy. I also love Dave Grusin - he comes from the song producing world - his score for "And Justice For All" was jazzy and sophisticated, yet not in any way too cerebral to evoke emotion. Nino Rota's scores for the "Godfather" movies were so perfect, such an amazing use of motif. Bernard Hermann's scores for "Taxi Driver," and "Psycho," are just classic. I'm also a fan of Jon Brion - his scores for "Punch-Drunk Love," "Eternal Sunshine," and "Magnolia" help keep me riveted to the movies.

What are your favorite scores you've composed and why?

One of my favorite scores is for a short film entitled California King.  The film is so understated, so gentle, that the music becomes somewhat of a character in the piece. The relationship that I have with the director is truly collaborative, so we end up with a very cohesive piece that possesses a truly unique voice.

What advice would you give filmmakers about how to prepare for working with you on their score?

Know what you are trying to say in the film, and where you want to take your audience, and I will be there to help in every musical way possible. It helps to have a music-brainstorming session where the director, the producer, the composer, the editor, and the music supervisor get together with laptops and their music collections, and watch the film. At different points, people play what they think might work against the film. That way, everyone gets to have a preliminary trial and error creative time where no idea is too crazy. At the end of a meeting like that, there is usually a consensus, and it makes the whole process run more smoothly. On big films, this usually happens without the composer. Why not include the composer on this kind of a thing? It would probably prevent the horrible wasteful practice of hiring and firing, paying fees and throwing out scores.

Any tips for how directors can best communicate their ideas to their composer?

Speak from the heart, let the composer know how you want people to feel. There are composers who have an irrational fear of feedback notes - this usually translates into more work. I tend to embrace feedback - I want the director to be happy. For those situations where the composer has a fear of feedback, make your notes constructive e.g. instead of "No, that's wrong," you could say, "Is there any way we could accentuate this particular feeling?"

How can filmmakers check out your work?

By July of 2009, I should have my website updated with more current samples of my work. Go to leecurreri.com

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