After more than two decades of working as a film score composer, Los Angeles-based musician Miriam Cutler understands her job perfectly well: “I have really learned,” she says, “that I am just a vessel for the director.”
It would be easy for any artist in this situation to view herself simply as a hired gun. In Cutler’s case, the opposite has proven true. As the person responsible for helping to create a cohesive sound world in documentaries such as Rory Kennedy’s The Fence and Chico Colvard’s Family Affair — both of which were official selections at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — the Los Angeles-based musician feels a deep sense of engagement with her work. More than functioning as a sonic backdrop, her scores play an integral role in helping viewers come to terms with the real-life stories unfolding onscreen.
“Working in documentaries, it feels like I get to be an artist a lot more,” she says. “Because you don’t have a big studio involved, the stakes are lower, and there’s a more direct connection between the filmmaker and me. We’re not just cranking the thing out; we’re trying to make something together. There’s a responsibility to show the utmost respect for the people in the story.”
Even with the shared sense of conviction that comes from working on projects that address subjects ranging from illegal immigration to the First Amendment to gender issues, Cutler admits that there are some real challenges involved in working with documentary filmmakers. “When we start collaborating, it’s like a puzzle, trying to figure out what they’re imagining. Often, they can’t communicate it in musical terms, so it’s an interesting and sometimes difficult and time-consuming process. As they respond to the music I’m creating, I have to figure out what they’re liking and not liking.
“For instance, with Chico Colvard, when we started working on Family Affair” — a gripping account of childhood abuse and family secrets that was recently picked up by OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network — “I thought I understood what he wanted, but it turned out that it wasn’t at all what he wanted. We really had to deconstruct the music to figure it out, and when we took more elements out, the better the music worked in the film.”
With such challenges, though, also come rewards. “I never repeat myself, and I pretty much fall in love with every project I work on,” Cutler admits. “It’s a labor-intensive way to do this career, but it keeps me passionate about it. I’m discovering that once I understand what a filmmaker is trying to achieve, I can do whatever they want, and together we can create something larger than we would have done on our own.”
For her latest project, One Lucky Elephant, which is currently in post-production, Cutler isn’t just scoring the film — she’s also co-producing. The documentary grew out of her involvement with the St. Louis-based Circus Flora, for whom she has served as a resident composer since 1988. The film follows circus producer Ivor David Balding as he tries to find a home for Flora, the aging African elephant who served for many years as the circus’ star attraction.
“The story turned out very differently than expected,” Cutler explains. “It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when we project onto animals how cute we think they are. I thought it was going to be a fun film, an adventure, but it turned out to be much more serious. And as a composer, it was an interesting project, because I’d already been writing music for Circus Flora. So I came up with my idealized version of circus music for the film, but of course, that’s all gone now.
“I’ve scored the opening five different ways. Each is valid, but it sets a different tone, and setting the right tone becomes critical in a documentary. The music can really change the meaning of what’s going on in a scene. It can signal to the audience that it’s OK to laugh, and it can also signal to the audience what we’re seeing isn’t all right. It’s a big responsibility.”
Jonathan Marx is a writer and editor living in Nashville.