A Q&A with Emmy-Nominated Composer Cindy O’Connor

  1. Your soundtrack album for Deany Bean Is Dead will be released on Feb 23rd. Congratulations! Could you tell us about the score and your collaboration with Joy Music House?

    This indie black comedy was a lot of fun to score. There’s a clever device where the main character listens to a podcast called Murder Macabre, and it sort of narrates her thoughts, so I wrote some film-noir flavored music for these scenes. That’s the cool side of the score, and then there’s a more zany side as the story gets going. I also wrote a couple of melodramatic songs in Spanish for a Mexican band, and the way the songs play in the film is pretty funny.

    We recorded a string quartet, trumpet, and a couple of woodwinds here in L.A. for the score. I had been doing TV for several years and it had been awhile since I had done one of these indie features where I do everything myself (music editing, orchestration, music prep, Pro Tools session prep, etc). And as the session date was approaching and I was still writing, I realized there was no way I was going to get all my scores and parts done in time. After a moment of panic, I called Catherine Joy, and she and her team handled all the music prep with ease. I sent them my Logic sessions and they made scores and parts while I was writing the last few cues and prepping to record. I also hired Catherine to come be another pair of ears in the booth, which is essential when you’re working fast and trying to get a lot of music done.

    I first envisioned this score as super low-budget, and I was only going to have a couple of remote soloists – violin, cello, and a woodwind doubler. But I started to really want a live string quartet for the film noir stuff, and a trumpet would really give it a nice vibe, and so I found myself asking the filmmakers for more money to record a group of players in a room together. Mark Robertson was already on board to play violin, so I had him put a group together and we recorded them at Hollywood Scoring with Adam Michalak engineering. The director, Mikael Kreuzriegler, loved being at the session and watching the score come together. The filmmakers all agreed that live musicians really added to the emotional quality of the music.

  2. What similarities and/or differences do your scoring & songwriting techniques have? 

    Songwriting and coming up with melodies have always felt so natural for me. I was a songwriter first, so when I started composing for film, my first instinct was always to write something melodic, to tell the story that way. It took me a little more work to find a way in to score a scene that was more textural or ambient or rhythmic, to start from a specific sound element that wasn’t a melodic theme and build a cue from there. I did a lot of listening and experimentation. When writing for picture with both songs and score, I’m always thinking about the shape of the scene and where the music is taking us. Is the score playing against what we see onscreen, revealing subtext? Is it building tension, or heightening the emotion? Songs usually follow a certain structure, whether it’s AABA, verse-chorus, or a more elaborate form of one of those two. But score can be much more free-form, guided by the dramatic shape of the scene.

  3. How do you successfully manage your time between your own projects and the additional music gigs?

    It has been a balancing act over the years! The craziest example was when, about 10 years ago, I was working out of Mark Isham’s studio doing additional music for two films, Warrior and Dolphin Tale, and at the same time I was music directing my own musical at the NoHo Arts center. I worked a schedule out so I could rehearse my show during the day from 10 to 5, grab some dinner on the way to Mark’s, and write there until about 2 am. Then when my show opened, I had to flip it, working at Mark’s during the day and playing performances 4 nights a week plus a matinee. Luckily, he was willing to go along with this schedule! I was exhausted, but it was also a thrilling time getting to write for two films and seeing one of my musicals come to life. Fortunately, I was single and childless at the time. Now I’m married and have four step kids, and I can’t imagine working that kind of schedule.

    When I was writing for Once Upon a Time, I had transitioned to working from my own studio, and it was pretty much a full-time gig, with an episode due every week or two. I was able to squeeze in some of my own projects during the summer and holiday breaks, which felt like a nice balance.

  4. You had an amazing mentor / mentee relationship with Mark Isham, which then became an incredible collaboration. What advice can you give to other mentees who are pursuing film scoring?


    When I took the job working for Mark, it wasn’t my intention to pursue film scoring. I just needed a job and it sounded interesting. I had taken film scoring classes at UCLA, but it was more of a fun thing to try rather than a serious career pursuit. I still thought of myself as a theater songwriter trying to create my first Broadway hit.

    I was eager to learn, and I enjoyed staying late to watch Mark write and orchestrate, and he was happy to explain his process. My job started as basic office work, but soon I was organizing sample libraries, conforming cues, helping with tech chores, and finally arranging, orchestrating, and writing. No matter what you learn in school, there are so many practical skills to be learned from a working composer on big-budget projects. Mark played such an important part in my musical and personal growth. I got to sit in on meetings with incredible filmmakers from Robert Redford to Brian DePalma, and I learned about the dynamics of these meetings, dealing with notes and revisions, and communicating with different personality types. I traveled with Mark to London to score at Abbey Road and Air Lyndhurst, and I even played keys in his band at the North Sea Jazz Festival. I highly recommend getting some kind of job with an inside view of the business, where you get to experience the high stakes aspects of the job but it’s not your own career on the line.

  5. What was the most magical thing about working on Once Upon A Time? 

    There’s something so special about that show. I’m not surprised that it drew in such a huge fan base. When they first sent the pilot script to Mark, I thought it was one of the best scripts I had ever read. The way the writers put clever twists on all the classic fairy tales and intertwined the stories was intriguing, and the cast was fantastic.

    Mark’s themes for the show were so magical, and it was great fun to be able to build on that musical language and bring some of my own ideas to the score. Our music team was made up of the best people in our business, yet everyone was humble and kind, and many of us became good friends over the years. I’ve learned that I love collaboration and being part of an excellent team as much as I love being the sole composer. Each job brings a different challenge, and I love the variety.

    Interview by Esin Aydingoz

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