Composer Series,  Interviews,  Movies/Entertainment

Interview…Film Composer Mark Adler on Robert Kenner’s ‘Merchants of Doubt’

MarkAdler_InterviewMark Adler brings to his work as a composer a broad background in both film and music. At 16 he created an award-winning animated short which the New York Museum of Modern Art acquired for its permanent archive collection. A year later, he was the recipient of an American Film Institute grant for his original screenplay. He studied piano privately for fifteen years, and was initially a music major. His return to music followed graduation from film school at UCLA, where he studied film scoring with David Raksin.

The 1980s were a renaissance for documentary film in the San Francisco Bay Area and Mark was soon scoring many of those projects. During this time, he also worked briefly as a music editor for such directors as Milos Forman, David Lynch, and Francis Ford Coppola and his music editing credits include AmadeusBlue Velvet, and Godfather III.

Mark’s feature film scores include the Oscar-nominated Food, Inc., directed by Robert Kenner, and Bottle Shock, starring Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, and Bill Pullman. He has been a regular at the Sundance Film Festival, having scored ten Sundance films over the years. These include the Audience Award-winning Miramax film Picture Bride. He won a Primetime Emmy for his work on HBO’s The Rat Pack, which featured Ray Liotta, Joe Mantegna and Don Cheadle.

Adler’s recent projects include Robert Kenner’s documentary Merchants of Doubt for which his score was named Best Score – Documentary Feature at the 2014 Hollywood Music in Media Awards and Arthur Dong’s The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor. Enjoy the highlights from our time speaking with Mark Adler.

​GoSeeTalk: The documentary world has been pretty good to you, so what do you think is the current state of documentaries since you’ve done so many and seen them progress over the years?

Mark Adler: *laughs* Wow, this is supposed to be a 10 minute interview right? *laughs*

*laughs* Well I can give something breezier to answer for the first one. More of a grapefruit, so to speak. *laughs*

*laughs* Not at all, that’s a great one to start with. You know, I don’t talk about this a lot, but I actually have a background in filmmaking as well as music. When I was in film school, Cinéma vérité was very Mark+Adler_stillmuch in style. This is where the approach was to be as cinematically “pure” as possible – like a fly on the wall. Back then, there was a guy named Fredrick Wiseman who was making a lot of very interesting, very long films that had no narration, no music, no visual effects. They were about as purely vérité as you can get –he’d start the camera rolling and things would happen. Over the years, particularly in the last 10 or 15, things changed.

The same techniques used in fiction filmmaking – graphics, music, sound design – are now very often there in the documentary world as well. As a result, the approach to scoring docs has become not so different from the approach used in dramatic films. I think having grown up with a very different style of doc filmmaking means that I try to be respectful of the unadorned picture in front of me, so to speak—so, what I strive for as composer is to be very cognizant of what the picture is saying and how the music will color or shade it.

One of the most important things you can do as a film composer, in collaborating with documentary filmmakers, is to understand what your own personal prejudices are. When I was scoring this film, the director Robert Kenner would say occasionally, “I can tell how you’re feeling about the people in this scene, but that’s not what we’re trying to do here!” And I really appreciated his sensitivity, and I have to kind of laugh, because he definitely would hear that in the music and was absolutely right. So I would make another pass at the cue and it would end up working out.

The one thing I ‘ve noticed with documentaries is that there’s almost more of an opportunity for a diversity of sounds. Your theme “Plaza Hotel” is kind of bouncy and comical to a point. These kinds of films give you an opportunity to play things more cartoonish, so when you hit the serious notes it puts more emphasis on the dramatic arc.

Robert Kenner
Director Robert Kenner

You’re right, and that’s actually a conscious decision that you make for films like this. The subject of Merchants of Doubt is such a heavy one that if you didn’t find a way to find some humor and irony, it could easily become much too dark and depressing. There are other documentaries I’ve scored where the music was much more somber in tone. The very first project I did with Robby Kenner was The Lost Fleet of Guadalcanal, which is about the famous World War II battle in the Pacific. It was told from viewpoints of both the Japanese and American sides, with the surviving soldiers recalling their experiences of battle. Clearly, there was no humor in that music, but, at the same time, it wasn’t depressing either.

It was really an elegiac score that had moments of uplift. It would be as if, in relieving these memories, there was something cathartic for the soldiers. I’m not very interested in writing music that is mono-dimensional in the sense that it’s either sad, or happy, or it’s snarky or ironic. I’m much more interested in expressing something that has at least a couple different qualities, like bittersweet, or darkly comedic. Life is more like that, and I think it makes for more interesting music and movie making. So even when we were a little comedic in Merchants, I tried to shade it with a slightly darker underbelly, which says “all is not right in this crazy carnival.”

Would you say that documentaries, more or less, are simply about mood music and not theme music? And that you and other documentary composers go about it by setting these little mood pockets as opposed to say, a Dimitri Tiomkin sort of sweeping score?

Merchants of Doubt TheatricalWell, using Tiomkin as an example of that sort of a very broad way of playing things, I would say, even in large tent-pole dramatic feature films, that alternative is not always the one that’s taken these days. I think that we’re in a more melodically understated world of film music now than we were a couple of decades ago. Having said that, there were definitely themes in Merchants of Doubt.

I am a “tune writer” – I like ostinatos and loops as much as the next guy or gal– I think they can have tremendous value, and can be used in really interesting ways.

But, when I have the chance, I will definitely write a tune. The last film I did with Robby Kenner was Food, Inc. and there were one or two recognizable themes in that–but I think this film is even more forward, in terms of thematic stuff. When you are doing a score involving ironic musical parody, which some of this score is, that opens the door to be able to write more melodically.

Your recent influx of documentary work, especially working with Robby so much, has found you working on films with tough topics. At this point, do these projects find you or do you seek them out?

It’s funny, one of my friends said to me the other day, “hey I’m in your world now” (he was scoring a documentary). In reality, in the last few years I have scored a number of them, and I guess they find me. I’ve been very lucky, in that I haven’t worked on a documentary where I didn’t feel really strongly about the issues that were being addressed. It’s not that I didn’t love scoring dramatic films such as Bottle Shock, or The Rat Pack (which allowed me to do a real jazz score – that’s something you don’t hear a lot of these days) – but I feel fortunate because I do have a social conscience. You don’t always get to express that in a dramatic film, but you almost always get to express it in a documentary, and that is a real upside for me.

Do you see a correlation between the size of a production and the size of the expected music score? It’s something I touched on when I talked to J. Ralph recently about his documentary scores. Even Patrick Doyle told me about not letting the size of the budget show in music you create. As he says, “you have to cut your cloth to suit your suit“.

I would agree, you have to look at your resources and use them to try to express what is musically right for the film. On this one, we Mark-Adler-studioactually had a chamber orchestra. We stretched things a little bit to be able to make that happen, and I feel really great about that decision, because doing it this way did add something that was really beneficial to this particular project. But not every project requires that.

I think the other thing is you allocate monetary resources the same way as you allocate time. If you have a month to score, you might come up with a theme rather quickly and just go with it.

If you have six months, on the other hand, you might experiment with a number of different themes. So it definitely all plays into the process. The next project for Robby is a film about an accident that occurred in a missile silo in the 1980s. There was a nuclear warhead on the missile that probably came very close to detonating. That is going to be a primarily electronic score and I may not hire any players at all. We’ll just have to see.

Does that documentary have a title yet?

Its called Command and Control.

Since documentaries are, at this point, produced like a film, how was your approach to Merchants of Doubt? Were you given all the footage at one time and then told the score to that, or did you get things in pieces and have to adjust as footage came in?

Mark Adler and Robert Kenner

On this one, more than any other film I’ve worked on, I was brought in at the very beginning–which is to say, they were just starting to shoot and there was almost nothing to look at. So I would just see little bits of the sequences. Robby Kenner really wanted to avoid becoming attached to temp music, which can be a problem, so he wanted to get my music in there as early as possible. Robby and I would have conversations about the tone of the film. Even before seeing any footage, he would describe to me the feeling he was going for and then I would just write some little sketches based solely on our conversation. Then I would send those pieces over, the editor would put them in the cut, and then send that back to me so I could work on it further.

While the entire film was not done that way, it is interesting that a couple of those very early pieces ended up in the final cut. I do have to say, though, my favorite stuff is what I do to picture. I enjoy responding musically to what’s there visually, and, of course *laughs* without picture there’s not a whole lot to respond to – so, that becomes a different kind of challenge. When we were finished, Kim Roberts, the editor, said something really nice to me: “Because you came on so early your music actually helped us find the tone for the film.” That was great to hear, because composers generally come in near the end of a film, and don’t have that kind of opportunity.

You mentioned earlier that you’re in architecture, Marc. I have to say that I think of composing in terms of three-dimensional space, particularly composing for picture. It helps me to visualize a structure in understanding, for example, how setting something up early will pay off later. Of course, when you’re scoring a film that’s still being edited, it’s not so easy to do that. In that case, your understanding of the architecture evolves as the film itself evolves.

Listen to samples from the Merchants of Doubt score below…

Thanks to Mark for his time. Merchants of Doubt was released in the U.S. on March 6. It is in theaters now and you can learn more about Mark at his official website: