The Life of a Mizzou Alum in the Los Angeles Film Industry

Julia Gaines

Grant Fonda, MM (2012) has spent the past couple of years writing for movies.  After recently graduating from USC's Scoring for Motion Picture and Television program, he has kept busy working in Los Angeles.  His recent film scoring collaborations include My Dear Americans (2013) (winner of the PBS People's Choice Award, 2014), the internationally distributed short film The Story (2015) with Spread Truth Ministries, and been a member of the music teams for Minions (2015), Finding Dory (2016), Walt Disney’s The World of Color: Celebrate (2015), and the acclaimed production of Titanic: Live (2015).

Through email, I was able to “interview” Grant about his experience writing for film since graduating from our School of Music.

 

JG:  You’ve been busy this year!  What has been your most challenging project?

GF:  Yes! I’m very thankful for the work! Each project is challenging to start on, and has its own host of ups and downs throughout, but I think the most challenging was a documentary called The Dating Project (it releases later this year). Don’t get me wrong, “Challenging” doesn’t necessarily mean difficult, but simply the most challenging to me creatively. The film follows four “dateables” (people who are well, date-able…) who vary in age from late teen to 40-something over the course of a couple of years. Because of the age gap, it was tricky to find the right sound for the film and then to write almost an hours worth of music in said palette in very short “cues”, or pieces of score. Because of the fast-paced nature of the documentary, a majority of the cues I wrote ended up being between 20 and 30 seconds long, so it was tricky to create pieces that were compositionally sound in such a short time. I finally decided on an ensemble that was a whole mess of guitars (acoustic, electric, folk), electric bass, piano, drums, recorders, a solo cello, and some toy percussion, and wove the entire film together with what we’d call “leitmotifs” in the academic world… themes for each of our main dateables. All in all, the whole score became kind of a big set of theme and variations and an exercise in colorful orchestration for a modern ensemble. Definitely one of the most challenging but most ultimately rewarding projects I’ve been a part of.

 

JG:  What is it like working for Disney?  Who exactly did you work with?

GF: Honestly, it’s like working for anyone else. I work the gig (no matter the scale or client) with a mindset of serving the client and doing so with excellence. That way, a smaller client is going to be getting the same level of work that I’d deliver to a larger client. My experience with Disney has been working indirectly as a sub-contractor for two people. On Finding Dory, I was part of the music team working for JAC Redford, Thomas Newman’s (Bridge of Spies, American Beauty, Road to Perdition) master orchestrator. He’s an incredible guy with ears that are unmatched and humility to accompany, which makes working for him a joy and great musical experience (JAC is also my connection to Titanic, in which we did a whole bunch of transcription and orchestration for James Horner to prep the film score for the concert stage). On World of Color (the re-vamped water and light show in Disney’s California Adventure), I answered directly to the show’s composer, John Debney, who is one of the most gracious and versatile writers I’ve ever met and listened to.

 

JG:  How do you make your connections in the world of film music?

GF:  As one of my professors said, “Work hard, be nice, and get lucky.” The easy answer is networking, but if you’re working hard and being nice in the process, then often times, the connections will come as a result (the get-lucky/providence part). For the first year of my career out of USC, every single gig was a result of ONE project that I did that connected me with a bunch of other directors who happened to know each other. Since then, my gigs have started to come as a result of second and third hand referrals, but almost exclusively referrals. I’ll still do a little bit of “cold-calling,” but most of that is for orchestration and arranging if I know I have some down time coming up on the calendar (which seems to be getting more rare!).

 

JG:  As your percussion teacher, I have to ask.  Do you get to play any percussion??

GF:  Ha ha! I do, on occasion. Honestly, it usually depends on the project budget. The post-production world turnaround time is pretty tight most of the time, so I’ll usually write and orchestrate and then hire other musicians to play so that I can focus on the music production side of the score at the end. If the budget is tight for live musicians, then I’ll usually end up wearing the hat of composer/orchestrator/performer/meal-maker, etc. More often than not, I’m playing piano on my scores, but I did get to play kit on a project (which is now featured on my website, actually), some hand percussion on several, and vibes on a jazz score that I wrote. One of the other reasons I prefer to bring someone in to play is that they offer an objective musical perspective as a performer that usually ends up serving the film in a really neat way. I often tell directors, “Let’s bring musicians in on this one. It’s more humans to help play music written by a human to tell a story about humans for humans.” In short, more musicians on a project = more heart in the score.

 

JG:  What classes in particular from your MU degree has helped you in the real world of writing music for film?

GF:  The two that immediately come to mind are the New Music Ensemble (NME) and Dr. Neil Minturn’s Rhythmic Analysis of Tonal Music. The NME was absolutely instrumental in who I am as a composer right now… in film, often times we’re having to make last-minute changes to serve the picture, sometimes even on the stand in the recording studio. Making split-second orchestration changes requires some quick footwork and know-how to make the change in such a way that’ll be successful for the player and still work musically. I remember trying just about everything under the sun for the NME (Ryan Borden, if you’re reading this, God bless you!) because I knew that work in the film industry was a possibility. I wanted to have an arsenal of things that I knew would be instantly successful and also instantly horrendous. Turns out, I’ve used a TON of these techniques, going back and referencing old scores and parts with notes/bowings/fingerings/stickings from old friends. The other advantage to working with this group was its small ensemble size (I think it was 6 players when I was at MU). It forced me to think about what would work well in a small group, which has proven invaluable… often times, music budgets for films only allow for small ensembles, so knowing how to write good chamber music has been worth its weight in gold.

Rhythmic Analysis was instrumental in my thinking about music as a greater whole. Often times as academics, we get bogged down in the nitty gritty of each bar and beat (which is not all wrong), but we lose sight of the greater picture of what’s happening. In film, every single note serves the scene it’s in, but it also points to a greater whole of a film. Concepts of hypermeter and tonal accents have been tools that I’ve used a LOT when I’ve been writing. If I can’t see how a moment works musically in the context of the greater whole, I’ll almost always dump it because it’s not as effective as if it’s related to everything else in a somewhat obvious way (thank God for Schubert!).

 

JG:  Anything else you would like to add?  Can’t wait to hear your work!

GF: I can’t thank my former professors at MU enough for their investment in me. Honestly, the encouragement and the challenges to think and re-think some of my writing were hugely instrumental in where I’m at as a creative person today. For any composers reading this, I’d encourage you to never give up (because the going WILL get tough… sometimes really tough), be willing to critique and throw out your own work, surround yourself with people who are better than you at what you do and know more about what you do than you do (because you’ll be better as a result). Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help, and don’t ever lose sight of the importance of your faith and family. As wonderful and rewarding as the arts may be, the rewards they reap will be far less sweet if you compromise your core values and forsake the things that are most important and lasting.

If you’re interested in hearing my work or watching some of what I’ve scored, check out my website at www.grantfonda.com, and be sure to “subscribe” on the contact page for more news and updates!