Industry Pro: Film and Television Composer Rick Marvin
In addition to taking us through his career path, Composer Rick Marvin, whose large and diverse body of work includes “Six Feet Under” and the film U-571, provides some real nuggets aspiring composers and others with industry ambitions can apply to their own careers. This is someone who not only comes to the table with composing chops, but understands and relishes his role in the collaborative process of scoring a film or television show. And talent plus a good fit is a great recipe for thriving in any position in the industry.
Current position: I’m the composer on “Grimm.” We’re just going into our third season. We’ve done, I think, 44 episodes to this point.
Hometown: We moved around a lot originally, but I grew up in Philadelphia from fourth grade on.
So did you play music from a young age? I played drums and piano from an early age, about 5 or 6 years old. I played in a lot of bands. I studied classical music at Settlement School in Philadelphia and studied with private teachers.
College and degree: I attended Indiana University in Bloomington and majored in jazz studies. At that point, I really concentrated on practicing piano more than anything else, both classical and jazz.
Did you have an internship at school? No, but I was a great short-order cook!
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Did you work at a studio or play around when you were at school? Yes, we played every weekend at the local jazz clubs.
So what did you do after you graduated? Being a jazz piano player, I thought there were two choices: move to L.A. or New York. I wasn’t real sure I wanted to pursue the jazz lifestyle, which was being on the road all the time. I was much more interested at that point in being a recording musician. I moved to LA and worked with all kinds of rehearsal bands and pickup bands, playing gigs and just trying to make a living at first. My first “gig” in LA was working for a landscaper! And then I started getting work as a jazz player around town. That led to getting jobs traveling with Las Vegas-type acts, like Andy Williams, Shirley MacLaine, and Ann Margaret. After I did that for three or four years, I met Mike Post, who was and is a hugely successful television composer.
I’ll say. I know who he is. Yeah. He’s one of my best friends now. He’s been my mentor and friend for 30 years. He was very busy at the time. He had four or five TV shows a week that he would score with a 45-piece orchestra. I played synthesizer and piano for him for almost a decade.
During this time, I got to be more known around L.A. as an electronics specialist. I had studied electronic music and synthesizers in college and it was the time when electronic music was very popular in film scores. I worked on FATAL ATTRACTION, GHOST, JACOB’S LADDER, and many other electronic oriented film scores. So it was good timing. I worked for Maurice Jarre, Thomas Newman, David Newman, John Williams, John Debney, Trevor Jones, among others. All of the biggies. It was a great experience, seeing how all these composers wrote music for film.
In the early ‘90s, the whole synthesizer world changed. The budgets started shrinking. TV budgets, in particular, started shrinking, so recording sessions with live orchestras became much less prevalent. We were left with what we have now, small, private studios where you can do everything in a box, in a computer. At that time, Mike Post said to me, “You need to stop being a player and you need to be a composer.”
You were kind of nudged into composing. Yeah, the business was changing. I started writing for Mike. I wrote on some of the shows he was doing at the time, like “A‑Team” and “Magnum PI.” That’s where I made the last transition that I’m still in, getting work on my own as a composer.
Talk a little bit about your early opportunities and then sort of what you consider your big break for that phase? Well, the first break was Mike asking me to be one of the writers on his staff. Under his guidance, we all produced a lot of music fast for the multiple TV shows he was doing. And then a friend of mine was an art director on a movie called FLIGHT OF BLACK ANGEL and introduced me to the director, Jonathan Mostow. It was his first or second movie, a straight-to-video feature. That was my first scoring job. I ended up working on several movies for Jonathan. We worked together on BREAKDOWN, U‑571, and SURROGATES. He’s come back to me almost every time he works, which has been great.
During the ’90s, I did dozens of TV movies and direct-to-video movies, but my next big break was when I got “Six Feet Under.” I was able to work with Alan Ball right after he had been so successful with AMERICAN BEAUTY. I did that for five years. That was a big break for me because it gave me a lot of credibility and a cool factor, because it was one of the breakout shows of the early 2000s. Not only the way it dealt with life and death, but the way in which it handled David being gay and everything around that. The issue hadn’t been dealt with as openly and honestly as it was in that show.
Then I got into more mainstream network TV, with “The OC,” which led to a bunch of other shows: “Without a Trace,” “In Treatment,” “Wanted,” and “Thief.” By ’08 or ’09, even though I did that Bruce Willis movie, SURROGATES, I was really thought of as a TV composer. That’s where I am now. It’s been a really great experience for me because I think I’m really sort of suited for that fast turnover of doing an episode a week.
I have to say, I can’t think of “Six Feet Under” without thinking of the music so consider me a huge fan. Oh, thanks. Yeah, it was a huge, huge learning experience. The biggest thing I learned from Alan was the less can be more, in regards to a score. Not only in the amount of music in a show, but in the density of the music. I’m working now with a wonderful group of people on “Grimm.” These projects, and working with Jonathan Mostow, are up at the top of the list, as far as wonderful collaborative working environments.
You did all of “Six Feet Under,” right? I did all the score, except for the main title theme, which Thomas Newman composed. Of course, there were a lot of great songs in SFU, too.
Okay. What’s the best career advice you ever got? “Become a composer.” That was from Mike Post.
I’m looking for a eureka moment. When you realized that you did or did not want to do something or that you should do something differently. I had one when I was really young. When I went to college, I applied to the music school. I got into Indiana University but I was not accepted into the music school. It was a huge shock to me. I was sort of searching for what I wanted to do. I was really athletic and thought I might do that in college. But I changed my mind and said, “Maybe I’ll just go play piano.” By that time, however, I had not practiced enough to get into the music school, but I became reinvigorated and practiced my fingers off for the first five months at IU, and reapplied and got into the music school. I had made a commitment. I don’t know if it was eureka, but it was a big moment.
That definitely qualifies. Describe a typical workday in your current position. I like to work early so I get up early. I’m at work usually by 8:00 in the morning. I have a studio on my property in Studio City so I commute about 50 feet. By 4:00 or 5:00, maybe 6:00 at night, I am done for the day. I know a lot of composers do it differently and work all night, but I’m just not good at night. My best creative time is the first four or five hours of the day. Then I will take a lunch. Then I will come back and work on things that I’ve worked on in the morning and add to them, and edit and mix. So that’s sort of my daily schedule. I do that seven days a week during the TV season. For “Grimm,” I compose 35-40 minutes of music a week, which is a lot. I’ve got to crank out five or six minutes a day, which is a lot of this kind of music – orchestral simulation. There is a lot of it and a lot of individual points to hit, like for people changing into monsters or hits or morphs or stabs, those kinds of things.
So what was your worst job or worst day in the entertainment industry? The worst possible thing that happens to a composer is when you’ve worked for two weeks on a particular cue and you’ve put your heart and soul into it and then the director comes into the studio and listens for ten minutes, saying, “I don’t get it. I hate this.” I don’t generally receive those kinds of comments, but when I do, it just tears me apart. Not only did I think I’d done something really well and appropriate, but I also just wasted two weeks going in a direction I thought I was supposed to be going in, but which obviously I was not.
The other thing is the committee approach to approving music. Having six people tell you what they think you should do, and not being able to agree on what that is, and then arguing about it, and then individually calling the composer and saying, “Don’t listen to that guy. Don’t listen to that guy.” In motion pictures, it’s really bad. Sometimes the studio calls and says, “Don’t listen to the director” and the director says, “Don’t play any music for the studio because I don’t want them to know what we’re doing yet.” Those kinds of politics are really trying.
On a better note, best job or best day in the entertainment industry? Well, sort of in conjunction with that last one, for me, it was on a movie called U‑571. There was a change of direction in the middle of the scoring process, a point where they were considering hiring a different composer. They gave me a week as sort of a trial to see if I understood and could deliver what they were asking for. It was one of those man-in-the-mirror moments. Look at yourself in the mirror and say, “Can you do this?” I did, fortunately. We brought in an 80-piece orchestra at Todd A-O on Radford. The director came up to me after the session, and was just gushing with how wonderful the music was. That was one of the biggest challenges, and the biggest successes, that I’ve ever had. I still think it’s one of my best scores.
That’s great. What’s the best thing about what you do? The best thing for me is the collaborative process, like working with the “Grimm” group. They are all friends of mine. We’ve all known each other for 15 years. We basically have a party once a week where they come to my studio and listen to what I’ve written for the current episode. They have things to say about it and suggestions but, in general, it’s just exciting for them to finally hear music with what they’ve been working on for weeks; makes it come alive. I love that whole collaborative process, from spotting a show to writing it to recording it and mixing it, and then to have someone come in and sit there and say, “Yeah. Yeah. That’s what we’re talking about.”
What’s the worst thing about your current job? Dealing with the committee approach to approving music. It seems to be evident in every aspect of making a TV show or a movie. The committee approach to everything is not a good thing.
Now I’m looking for a brush with greatness. It can be a celebrity encounter or just being exposed to someone being brilliant at what they do. My long-standing relationship with Mike Post. Also, working with Alan Ball — a brilliant guy.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you started in the business? I don’t know. I’ve been doing it so long, I can’t imagine. Maybe I wish that I were more of a self-promoter; better at that. There are a lot of film composers who have charismatic, big personalities, which I don’t have. That would have been nice to know: How you relate to people is a lot of times as important as the product.
What is the secret of your success and/or what advice would you give to somebody new starting out in the business? The secret to anybody’s success in business is getting along with people, and being able to be flexible, especially as a composer. I have known many composers who get so frustrated and actually get out of the business because somebody criticizes their work. I always tell everybody I work with that there’s no one way to do this. There are probably dozens of ways to do this music for your movie. My job is to find which one is your vision. As much as we love what we write, if you don’t like it, that’s fine. I have so many ideas it’s just a matter of figuring out what your vision is of the project. I think that’s the aspect of my work process that has lead to my longevity, even as a player. And I like that whole process of trying to get to what that “thing” is, to what the filmmaker or TV producer has in mind.
What is your next move or where do you see yourself going from here? That’s really clear to me. I’d like to do more long form. I’d like to do more films, whether they are independent or from a studio. I’d also like to continue working as a TV composer on interesting projects. As I said, I think it suits my work style. But I also would like to get back to spending more than a week on a score, and working on projects that have schedules that would enable me to experiment a little bit with different approaches.
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