A Conversation with Film Composer Greg Sgammato
Cup of Tea Critiques chats with Greg Sgammato, film composer and member of the Society of Composers and Lyricists
Few professions stand at the dividing line of two different industries quite like film composing does. Though many moviegoers love film scores and would readily acknowledge how much they enhance stories, most lack familiarity with the biggest names, faces, and details of the job. Greg Sgammato, film composer and former stand-up comedian, sat down with Cup of Tea Critiques to provide insight into how composers find work, manage around budget limitations, and foster a good working relationship with the film’s director.
With so many aspiring musicians having to market themselves, the world of film composing is quite competitive. Greg spoke on how composers clamor for work opportunities.
I'll have to do the pitch first. Usually, I'll find a project that's in production or pre-production. And I will usually pitch myself for projects that I find.
We have a phrase that has come up in Internet communities called, “Do you need a composer?” We say DYNAC, for short. Anytime you see someone say, “I'm really proud of my short film,” or “I've written a script.” It's very likely you'll see under there, “Do you need a composer?” It's a weird field.
Greg also revealed how he and others choose to rub elbows with their colleagues.
What I normally find is we all spend time in the same spaces. It's a pretty active scene of networking with composers. But it's also, in my experience, been a little bit segmented. The more high-profile composers stick to themselves because they're doing the job at such a high level, and they want to talk shop, basically. Then you have the [other] composers talking about the feature film they just scored, or what two-hour deadline they had. There's not a lot of crossover. There's always that idea of, “Does this person want something from me?”
My networking has been very passive. I just do what I like to do in my free time. I have collaborators now who I met playing soccer. I have collaborators now who came upon a funny thing I did on Instagram when I was into comedy. It's kind of that thing where it's a little bit more organic.
Even from the start, I got into this accidentally. I was playing in a modern dance class. I was playing piano and drums to accompany the dancers. And one of my friends knew that I was doing that. He said, “Well, I have a short film I need to film before the final presentation; would you score it?” I'd never done that before. But early on, I just said, “Yeah, of course. I'll do that.” Then from that, I got referrals. And from there I scored more short films, and I decided, “I'll move to Los Angeles.” It wasn't well planned out. It's always these little snowball things. Push a domino over and see if any others fall.
Artists are often unsure of how to forge their own career paths. Greg shared his thoughts on the best way to gain exposure for your work.
Something that I learned while I was doing stand-up, especially at the open mic scene, was you can't wait for anyone to think that you're the person for them. You can't wait for someone to hire you. You always have to be thinking, “What can I make?” Just like with actors, if you want to get cast, write your own thing. Cast yourself. And for me, if I want to write music, just write music, write songs, write main titles and do podcast music. I did a bunch of that stuff and I just kept busy. Since around that time, I've always had something to do, whether it paid me or whether it was just fulfilling. I've always been busy.
That’s been my experience networking, because I haven't done it in a business sense. I definitely think that's because sometimes the practice of networking can come off as inauthentic if you're not meeting in a way that’s [natural]. I found just being around people who enjoy doing what I do: in my acapella group, my soccer teams, my day jobs. If you're not all agreeing to be there for the same reason, it can feel a little bit unnatural.
Some creatives choose to take on any project that they are offered while others aim to be known for one specific genre. Greg divulged his philosophy, why it works for him, and what his own preference for projects is.
I don't say no to anything, and I haven't since I started doing this. I've written some things that I never thought I could write and some of it came off really well. I listened to a lot of music too. It's weird to try and distill yourself into an elevator pitch, especially in a social setting where you just want to get to know someone.
I really want to work in the field of animation. Mostly, in family entertainment. But I also have a lot of friends and connections with comedy that are comedic writers. So that's the path I'm forging. I didn't really figure that out until I worked on an animated short film. And from there, it came so easy.
I found that with animation, I was untethered from reality. I felt like there was nothing holding me back from taking chances or making weird things. I need a lot of variety in my writing. So especially with kids’ media being so dynamic, it always has to change, and quickly. You got to catch attention, but you also have to cater to sensibilities as well as if a parent is watching. You're entertaining all of these people, and you got to keep it moving.
I've done a feature film, and fortunately, it was asking the same thing that's off the walls. It required me to sit down and write these same four themes in a ton of different ways for weeks. That's really taxing creatively, but it is really great because you get to develop and really think of it academically.
I don't do a great job when people say, "Oh, you write music?” What do you do?" It's not quite like, "Oh, you do stand up? Tell me a joke.” But it is very similar in that you have to listen to it. I've also found that I have this great strength in writing super heartbreaking, ambient music, that really pushes and pulls and has this really natural quality. I have a bunch of film scores that I've done that I've been able to feature just because it's what the story needed. And those are my influences, that's what I like listening to, and that's what I like trying to recreate.
Since many composers are not household names, Greg shared one of his sources of inspiration.
There's a composer named Alex Summers, who writes really brilliant electronic and acoustic music, and I was just trying to emulate his stuff. I ended up writing something that I'm really proud of to this day for a documentary about stand-up comedy [Laugh Now, Cry Later] a few years ago. One of my friends made a documentary highlighting some female comedians in L.A. in 2020. I just remember writing it and I didn't ever think that I could write something that sounded this intentional, this beautiful, this reflective.
When you think of film scores, you think of epic music or orchestral, giant, bombastic [music]. That's not my thing. It's never appealed to me. And it's something I can’t fake. If it’s satirical, I can absolutely do that. But it's not something that I was ever drawn to.
A lot of people get into film music because they love film music. I got into film music because I was available and I said yes. I only knew John Williams and Hans Zimmer. I didn't know there was a whole history of people who had all these different takes on what it is. Now, I usually tell people, “I like to write music and songs for children's media and I work in animation.” That's kind of the shortest thing. Whether it's true or not, we'll see.
Art can be all-consuming. Writers and performers find themselves thinking about their art non-stop and even being too “on” in social situations. Greg weighed in on whether his passion for film composing gets in the way of his down time.
I’m definitely not thinking about it all the time. What I am thinking about is, “What am I going to do next?” I have to think about what's coming next. Because I feel if I just do this thing, and then call it a day, then it's going to end and I'm not going to be able to sustain this career. Sometimes I'm thinking, “Okay, I have a chance to slow down now and take a methodical approach at film scoring.”
It's more logistical, more existential and not so much creative. I record something if I have a cool idea. I'll write something down if I have a song lyric. But it's definitely not something that I'm thinking about all the time, for which I'm very thankful because it's great to have work/life balance in my brain.
Many in and outside the film industry are unfamiliar with the collaborative protocol between a film composer and the director who hired them. Greg answered whether or not there is typically a consistent back-and-forth involving several revisions on the soundtrack or if the process is more segmented.
The biggest job of a composer, songwriter, or anyone in post-production of TV and film, is to take everything [the director] says, and that is your job. You remove ego and what you think is best. You can have some input, and you can creatively mix that in with their vision. But most importantly, everything is up to them.
It depends on the person. Some [directors] want to be very involved. To the point where they're really directing the music, specifically, instead of directing the whole picture. And that can be troubling sometimes if they're thinking of melodic ideas, specifically, or if they're listing instruments, and maybe they don't know what they really want. I don't mind a back-and-forth. I love an in-person conversation, because we can get amped up about stuff. It's important for me to know which questions to ask. Sometimes I'm in a situation in which the director wants to take a lot of charge, and maybe start singing something, and I have to have some level of control over this. If not, they wouldn't have reached out to me in the first place. So, it's striking a balance between [not being] micromanaged, but also knowing that they're in charge.
Sometimes people struggle with directors not knowing enough about music. I can't say I prefer it that way. But I think it's easiest, whenever a director or producer is thinking about their projects that they've been spending all this time with and just thinking about it, distilling it into words, distilling it into feelings. I think that's way easier to work with than them citing specific tempo, keys or chords.
This is something I find working with some younger people. They don't want to hurt my feelings… it's not about hurting my feelings. I don't take this stuff personally. Let's get the best result for your film. And I always commend people when they say, “Hey, can you change this?” Even if it's a whole overhaul, I got to know. It's got to be your thing. And I'm just here to help you. Give me something I can go away and tweak for you. People will say, “Well, should I limit revisions on anything?” Don't do that. Don't put up walls… I want to get to where [me] and the director are comfortable working together, comfortable enough that I can assert my professionalism as a composer. And they can assert their vision and their leadership as a director. That’s where the ideal would be.
Greg confessed his biggest hang-up when being hired to compose for a project.
For me, it's nothing artistic. It is strictly business, strictly logistical.
My biggest pet peeve is your budget as a filmmaker being some sort of secret. It really bothers me. It bothers me more than me not being paid. I've done so much free work this past year. I understand. I have a good gig. I'm very privileged in that [way]; I have a day job that I work remotely. I also work with a bunch of composers and songwriters. So I'm not worried about money like that. I just want to do good work with good people. I'm not bothered because my first thought is not being paid. I understand that people can't pay professionals. What I don't like is when people who are asking for your rate aren't very upfront about what they have to spend.
My actual rate as of right now is $400 for a minute of music. Now that doesn't work well, in some cases, like a feature film, if I'm writing 50 minutes of music. I can't charge you that because I've never accepted a payment that large; I wouldn't know what to do with it. But I think if you want to know my rate, I need to know how much you're willing to spend. I just want to know how much you've spent on everything else so far.
The feature film I did last year had an entire budget of $3,000. And they said, “We can offer you nothing.” And I took the gig, because they were very upfront about that. They spent $3,000 on locations. All their actors were doing it for free. And they got some big names. I trusted the vision. The director and I have a great rapport. He's trusted me with a lot of stuff before and he's paid me well before. So I didn't mind because it was very transparent. There wasn't a big demo for it, I didn't have to audition for it, which I do appreciate. Because sometimes you should be paid for that too.
That's my biggest thing, tell me how much you have to spend on the film. It doesn't have to be your music budget, it doesn't have to be how much you're willing to pay me. But if you have $1,000, just for music, I'd say, “Okay, for my job, let's make something really cool with the rest of it. Let's get artists to come in and record. Let's get a string orchestra or something. Let's figure this out to make your film the best that it can be.” Be very clear about what you're willing to do and to spend. It will make the whole thing a lot better, because people will understand that they are valued and you have a clear vision.
The subject of film composition brings to mind the presence of large orchestras and fancy rehearsal halls where artists do elaborate recordings. But Greg talked about the limitations and modest budget that the majority of film composers work with.
I wish I could [routinely] hire a group of musicians. When I do work with live musicians, it's usually live vocalists. I hire a session vocalist if I'm doing a kid’s show demo, or a main title theme song. I'll hire someone and pay them the [Screen Actors Guild] rate. They have a special demo rate too. We have an agreement where if it does get picked up and shown on television, they’ll get X amount of royalties. [Screen Actors Guild] makes it both very clear and very complicated. Complicated in a good way, though, because they're taking care of their people. But clear in a way that I know what to expect if I'm hiring my friend who is a talented session singer. I will have to pay her $350 or whatever the rate is now. I can usually only hire one or two people if I really need it.
The last time I hired musicians was last year [when] I worked on a short film, and I hired because it was a really tender, transparent score. There was really no hiding behind anything, and the samples that I was using were fine, but to me they weren't sounding as good as I wanted them to. So I hired two friends I knew from school who were professionals; one’s a professional cellist, and one's a violist. I just paid them and gave them a ‘special thanks’ in the credits. It was totally remote. I just sent them sheet music and gave them a click track. They sent me a couple of takes. And then I just laid it in my project, and it turned out really well.
It's so rare. We have to get so good as composers at making a fake orchestra or a fake rock band sound like the real thing. And I've gotten ashamedly good at it, which is wild, but it's such a useful skill. It's also a lot easier to do now than it was to do 10, 20, 30 years ago.
Every professional has their own communication style. Greg gave us a sense of the approach that works best for him - both from the director’s side and his own.
What actually works best for me is when [the directors] talk about the characters, the color, the vibe. That stuff is really helpful for me. Usually, if I can see a solid logline or synopsis, that kind of stuff is really impressive for me. Because I know how hard it is to take this giant idea you’ve been working on and distill it down. That kind of stuff can be so difficult. So, I think talking about the characters and intention is a lot better.
The weirdest thing I've had was a project that my name is not on. But it was one of the earliest things that I did in L.A. Actually, I’m proud of the music I wrote, but it was for an erotic ASMR [Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response]… This is before ASMR was a big thing. But it was a paying gig. And the director just said, I want it to sound like they're in a spa. And so I just wrote some Enya-sounding thing. That stuff that dominated the 90s when Enya was the flagbearer. I wrote something like that. I listen to it now and it was exactly what the director needed. It wasn't super high quality and I definitely could do it better now. And I would still take that gig today if they offered it. It's weird because it was ASMR, so it was audio only. I had to mirror that, how it ebbs and flows.
As long as you have that vision as a director and you can say, “This is where this goes, this is how the story transforms. And this is how I want you to complement that or maybe work with it or work against it.” I think a good and experienced director would be able to succinctly say, “This is the story. These are the characters. This is where you fit in.”