Poster Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy
Marvel Pictures

Which comes first, the movie or the music?

In an interview with The Treatment, director James Gunn addressed having music by composer Tyler Bates prepared for scenes prior to filming the first Guardians of the Galaxy — rather than the other way around, where music is written "to picture" after filming and editing are complete.

Starting with music can create an overall rhythm for a film that's understood well before the cameras start rolling. Additionally, editing scenes can be easier since there's no need to edit to a temporary track: the track used is the actual finished music. Still, starting with a score and editing a film to fit is a tricky accomplishment, even with today's digital editing technology.

Gunn points to Ennio Morricone's collaboration with Sergio Leone on Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) as an inspiration. At the time, pre-digital, it enabled a rhythm to be established during production, resulting in wondrous shots of Henry Fonda walking across a desert landscape in time with the music. There's a relationship forged between the film and the music; not simply supporting, but engaging and at times antagonizing the frame and narrative.

(Literal trigger warning: the sequence below is illustrative but violent.)

Leone and Morricone repeated this type of collaboration with Once Upon a Time in America (1984). As described by Robert Ito in the New York Times in 2015,

The film was in production for so long that Mr. Morricone ended up writing most of the music before a single scene was shot. In some cases, Leone played the music for the actors on the set to help them get into character. By the time the film made it to American screens (about 2 hours 10 minutes shorter than the original, uncut version), Leone had been plotting and preparing the film for nearly two decades.

Matching music to scenes is much simpler to achieve with today's technology. Composers often deliver "stems" of their score, allowing significant reworking and manipulation as is called for in the editing process. However, in that situation it is rare for the music to play anything other than a supporting role. Composers are typically brought in with only a few weeks to turn something around, so true integration and conversation are streamlined for accessibility and speed, often dependent on temp tracks that limit composers' flexibility.

Stanley Kubrick understood this all too well as he completed his classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Kubrick had hired Alex North to score the film, but ultimately discarded North's original score in favor of licensing the temp tracks that had become integral to the film he was making — Johann Strauss's Blue Danube waltz; avant-garde music by Gyorgi Ligeti and Aram Khachaturian; and most famously, Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Having the composer brought in from the beginning is an increasingly desirable creative choice, almost reactively against the predominant method purported by Hollywood. Composer Gustavo Santaolalla has frequently discussed his work on Brokeback Mountain (2005):

I always liked to work from the script and I talk to directors much more so, than just watching footage. So the biggest example for that is Brokeback Mountain, which I did the whole score before one frame was shot. I mean it was the genius of Ang Lee to sort of place in the music in this part of the movie, or this part will go here or there. And then obviously we edited and recorded the orchestra for real, but all the themes and my guitar, all that was done prior to any filming.

Ryan Amon was tasked with composing before filming for his first feature Elysium (2013). Since Amon came from a world of film trailers that often utilize existing music, noted the Hollywood Reporter,

the director had him compose much of the music before seeing the film — replicating Amon's process for scoring trailers, which are usually not prepared for composers beforehand. "He didn't want me to know what was going on. He wanted me to use my imagination," Amon said. He found the process both daunting and liberating. "I could have scored this movie 100 ways." [...] The result is a "hybrid score" that fuses synthesizers with classical orchestration by London's Philharmonia.

Recently, Jim Jarmusch employed this technique with Jozef van Wissem, a frequent collaborator, whose music for the film Only Lovers Left Alive was predominantly completed prior to the film's shooting. In an interview with the Credits, van Wissem explained:

I started writing some pieces last summer, without thinking about the film. I hadn't seen anything yet, so I just wrote a group of pieces that I thought would fit well together, and I gave those to Jim. Most of them ended up in the film. Then we went into the studio and added drums and's not like I composed the pieces having seen any images at all. Jim first had the music, and then later he made the film. The tone of the film was set with these musical pieces.

It's similar to having a pre-existing track come to define a scene — as in the Pulp Fiction dance number. It's understandable, disappointing as it must have been for North, that Stanley Kubrick made the choices he did. In an interview with Michel Ciment, Kubrick said, "When you are editing a film, it's very helpful to be able to try out different pieces of music to see how they work with the scene...Well, with a little more care and thought, these temporary tracks can become the final score."

There's a reason these films have stood the test of time, making a splash amidst the plethora of films and film scores released every year. Positioning a composer at the front end of a production uniquely empowers him or her to collaborate and create the film with the writers, cinematographers, actors, directors, etc. The music informs the film's rhythm — indeed, its soul — from the beginning.

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.

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