Interview with DANNY BRAMSON, President of Soundtracks at Warner Bros. Records - Mar 21, 2002
"If you have your music out there, and if itís great, somebody, somewhere is going to grab it..."
Danny Bramson is President of Soundtracks at Warner Bros. Records, handling all soundtracks for Warner Films and New Line Cinema. As a music supervisor, his credits include Vanilla Sky, Practical Magic, City Of Angels, Batman & Robin, Jerry Maguire, The Nutty Professor and The Getaway, to name but a few.
How did you get started in the film and music business, and how did you become a music supervisor?
I went to UCLA Film School, and when I graduated, at 21, I was given a job running what eventually became the Universal Amphitheater, which I did for five years. I handled a lot of concerts, from Bowie to Sinatra. At the age of 25, I started a record company called Back Street in co-operation with MCA. My first artist was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and the first album we released was Damn The Torpedoes, in 1979, which was a tremendous success. I was very enthusiastic about the label, and part of the reason was a burning desire to marry music with film, so I started doing soundtracks. A landmark in my youth was David Lean's movie Lawrence of Arabia, for which Maurice Jarre scored the music - its combination of music and visuals was like magic to me.
With the success of Back Street, I took my newly-found financial leverage and did an eclectic soundtrack for the movie Where the Buffalo Roam, for which Neil Young composed the music; and later on, I was proud to release what has become a classic, the soundtrack to the movie The Border, starring Jack Nicholson and featuring the music of Ry Cooder. I went on to do soundtracks for the Dan Aykroyd movie Doctor Detroit, with music by James Brown and Devo, for Paul Schraderís version of Cat People starring Natasha Kinski, to which Giorgio Moroder wrote the music and David Bowie provided the hit song Cat People.
Then, at 31, I took my first real break, walking away from the record business. I wanted to work with film instead of running a company. At that time there were only two or three people working as music supervisors, and the idea of producing music for film was very inspiring to me. So I chose to make that my career, and, in 1988, I supervised my first two movies, Bull Durham, starring Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon, and Tequila Sunrise, with Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer. But it was when working on the movie Say Anything, the directorial debut of my dearest and oldest friend Cameron Crowe, that I truly got an appetite for the romantic idea of producing a soundtrack that sounds exactly as it should. That kind of director and writer allows you to experiment and to use music with such confidence.
Our next movie was called Singles and the music featured Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Smashing Pumpkins' debut. Cameron, who was living in Seattle, had turned me on to the whole burgeoning Seattle grunge scene. After Singles, we made Jerry Maguire, where we used the incomparable Nancy Wilson as composer. That movie had over thirty-five songs, and her score between those songs is really beautiful. Then came Almost FamousÖ the greatest love letter to music. We made it last year and won the Golden Globe for the film, and Cameron won the award for Best Original Screenplay. I won a Grammy for my production of the soundtrack. Immediately after finishing Almost Famous we started work on Vanilla Sky, which I also executive produced. Of course, in between the movies Iíve done with Cameron, Iíve had great fortune and success with movies like Batman & Robin, City of Angels, Magnolia and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
What qualities are needed to be a successful music supervisor?
Talent, luck, tenacity, diplomacy with a capital D, psychology, and above all, passion.
What experiences have been important to you in developing your skills as a music supervisor?
Being on the playing field, in the editing room, on the dubbing stage, processing and then processing again. The hours can create such physical hardship and dread because in both the movie and the record business, time and schedule are absolute king. On major films you know that the release date is ingrained into the social fabric months in advance, without even considering the business of merchandising and marketing. Itís about the strategic pinpointing of the right song, in the right movie, in the right scene, and with the right timing.
At the same time, itís something youíve just got to experience from the first cup of coffee in the morning until you pour the last cup. You've got to be there and thatís the only way you can learn. Everybody has an opinion, or a better idea, even that guy sitting in the last row with popcorn and a Coke. What it takes to get to that level is as much a process of networking as anything else. Itís such a landmark when you get all the elements to work together, from a vision that starts out on a writer's page and then onto a director, and then thereís all the people who jump on to realise that vision. Film music has become much more than just an excuse for companies to make more money. Lots of writers have grown up with and are inspired by music, so it becomes part of the fabric of film.
What goals motivate you as a music supervisor?
To do good work. What it really comes down to is not that one big splash, but the body of work. When you can sit back and look back at everything youíve made and itís all good, now thatís something to be proud of.
What are you currently working on?
Iím currently working on the third Austin Powers movie. We also just put out the Lord Of The Rings soundtrack, featuring a lovely song by Enya, which was nominated for an Academy Award. I will be involved with the next Lord Of The Rings, as well as a variety of other films.
How are you approached to work on projects?
When I was an independent music supervisor, it was a chicken and egg thing. You want to get your foot in the door, but then of course you have to have a movie that youíve done. I went through all that and established my career independently. Reputation is important, and if you also have the good fortune of having a great agent, people come to you. Itís a pretty small community when it comes down to it. Now Iím working in an executive capacity as well as supervising certain films. As an executive for Warner Brothers, I now broadly supervise or advise on all Warner Films and New Line Cinema projects.
What creative challenges do you face when starting work on a movie?
All movies are different universes requiring a different touch. The one thing they all have in common is that they start with the script. You go through the script and try to get an idea of the colour and shape, and then you discuss it with the director, the producer, the studio execs, the actors, the writers, and a variety of such key contributors.
Then it really comes down to taking music and putting it up against the picture. Usually that includes working with a music editor. The music editor is key to the shape, design and result of any movie, and I think music editing is one of the more unheralded positions in movie-making. Thereís a lot of work behind it, but people often think itís just about taking a song and putting it in a film, when it's really about the presentation of that particular piece of music. For example, a twenty-second instrumental bridge can give you a beautiful, seamless transition into a sequence, and then cut to the chase with a great verse or chorus. Music editors are essential to the career and success of any music supervisor.
Do you have a particular music editor whom you work with?
I have the absolute pleasure of having done some of my best and most famous work with someone whom I consider one of the greats: Carl Kaller. Heís extraordinary, and extremely talented.
Are there any side-tracks for publishers, record labels, etc., to get their music placed in movies?
Probably the great trick is to send it to the directorís wife! I wonít tell you the ultimate trick, but I think I've just given you a big hint! In the end, itís about being there at the right time, in the right place, and having a great song.
Is it possible for an unsigned artist/act to get their song featured in a movie?
When we did Singles, The Smashing Pumpkins were a local band from Chicago on a minor label called Caroline. They had an EP out, which sold about 2.000 copies, so I would consider them as relatively unsigned at the time. There was also this amazing artist named Josh Rouse, an amazing folk rocker from Nebraska who was on a mix-tape Cameron was given. We ended up using his music in a soundtrack, and the next thing you know, Josh Rouse is sitting between Radiohead and Paul McCartney! Sigur Ros were basically an unsigned band, coming from a small label in Europe.
If you have your music out there, and if itís great, somebody, somewhere is going to grab it. Someoneís assistant, friend or daughter is going to take it and turn someone like me onto it.
What are the odds?
Relatively slim. But there are so many movies that donít have any money, but they still want a soundtrack. There used to be five to ten movies a year that had a really unique song or soundtrack. Now there are five to ten soundtracks every month!
Nevertheless, for me itís about making the right choices for the films that really deserve or warrant a soundtrack, as opposed to those that want a soundtrack because everyone else has one. I think youíre now going to see a high overall quality with relation to music and film.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
No, but let me put it this way; itís obscene to me to say the word no. The litigious nature of the world that we live in is such that it creates a certain process with respect to copyright and legal exposures. It becomes a whole thing. Still, I refuse to believe in a world where you need a lawyer, an agent, a record label or a publisher to be able to play your song. I would never want to take away the charm or the magic of discovery. As long as itís officially copyrighted or published, then yeah, I've got to believe that I would listen to something unsolicited. Yet at the same time, being asked that question is a bit alarming. In terms of solicitation, I would say, put your best foot forward and use your judgement. Think of it as the moment you have to plead your case. Itís three to five minutes, so take your two or three very best songs, edit them yourself and youíll have that moment.
Is the Internet something you use, or will use, when it comes to finding artists and music?
Iíve started to use it more and more over the last couple of years. You have the greatest research library right in your little box and the Internet provides it all. I donít visit any site in particular, because Iím usually looking for something specific.
How do you think that DVD will change the relationship between music and movies?
DVD is a master; itís pristine quality. To be able to have a record of your work on a little disc is just extraordinary. The packaging is attractive too; I think they make really great collectibles. Obviously everyone is starting to get really creative and ambitious, thinking about the DVD even as theyíre making the movie, thinking about the extras they could put on to entertain. Obviously when itís a music-themed movie, it would really call for some sort of creative embellishment and additional stuff.
Will the complete soundtrack also be featured in the DVD release?
That would be very interesting. Itís bound to happen.
How important is it to consider the sales of the soundtrack when putting together the music for a movie?
The movie is king, so the music always has to support the images. Still, you have the responsibility not to lose anybodyís money - the commercial aspect of the equation is obviously important. You want the film and the music to resonate enough for the viewer to be inspired to buy the record.
Interviewed by Jean-Francois Mean
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