Today's interview is with Andrew Markus, who is a talented movie composer, and recently launched a VBlog.
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Andrew Markus, has created music for hundreds of motion pictures including feature films, television specials, themes, series, documentaries, short films, commercials, content pieces, pilots and proofs of concept.
Andrew is one of the most diverse composers working in media today. His scores incorporate a massive range of styles pulling from all genres. His innate gift for melody and keen dramatic sensibility has earned him 17 awards for his music.
Andrew is the creative force behind Film Music Mentor, a Vlog that educates film makers, television producers, content creators and media professionals on how to avoid the many mistakes, misconceptions and myths that plague them when using music for motion pictures.
My questions are in bold, and Andrew's answers follow.
How Did You Get Started Composing?
I started out when I was a little kid, and before I even knew how to play the piano, I would make up songs about whatever would come to my mind, firetrucks, leaves, whatever.
I started piano lessons. My mother forced me to start lessons at 11, but I wanted to anyway so that was fine. Then I went through a long period of wanting to be Billy Joel, because I grew up in Long Island, and if you play the piano and you grew up in Long Island, that's what you want to be. At some point, around high school, 11th, 12th grade, I think I saw Star Wars again.
I had seen it when it came out, I was maybe six or seven, but I saw it again, and I remembered how much impact the music had on the film, on me and how it fit to the movie.
I went to college, studied music composition, and I had the idea of becoming a film composer. In college I learned all about classical music. Before that I was into pop and jazz, but in there I learned what was so great about classical music and started to compose using classical techniques.
When I graduated, I did a some teaching and some waitering, Eventually I would do a project here, a project there until it clicked where it became my job. In 2005 I started 4 Score And 7 Music where I score films, TV shows and content as well as licensing my catalog of thousands of pieces of music to hundreds of television episodes. I also do a lot of audio post production for all kinds of projects.
What does your average day look like?
Like any other business, a lot of it has to do with meetings and getting proposals and obtaining new clients like everyone does in every industry. But when I get the job and I do the job, that's the fun part, it's very fascinating to me.
You sit in front of this film, and it doesn't have any music or it has temp music. I have to find some way to bring this to life and give it an extra layer of meaning, give it an extra layer of … find the kinetic feel to it, find the rhythms, the internal rhythms of the film. Then accentuate that with music while subtly keeping the story intact.
So, it's a lot of fun. It's a little scary at first, like any kind of writing where you look at a blank page, or in my case, a computer screen and piano keys. Most of the time something comes in and something clicks and I get a sense of what the film might be lacking and what music can do to enhance that. For instance, maybe someone's talking very slowly and I put some kind of music that's subtly fast so you feel like they're speaking faster.
Or maybe a character's not empathetic enough and I'll put some sort of music that makes you feel a little closer to them. Maybe we want to enhance the setting if it's a historical picture or if it's modern or futuristic. There are a lot of possible things on which to focus.
There's always a plan, there's always a game plan that I come up with where the music takes a certain perspective, and I stick with that. Which is what I think all the really good film composers do.
This perspective helps when you have to write a lot of music, I've had to compose and produce between 40 and 85 minutes of music in feature films that had to be written very quickly.
So, you always need a game plan, score this film from the perspective of the main character, from the antagonist, as a spectator. whatever feels right. If it's a comedy, I have to make sure that the audience knows that they can laugh. Because if a guy slips on a banana peel, you know that's funny, but if he slips on a banana peel, and he breaks his back and you really like the guy, well then it's tragic.
I find out what the filmmaker's trying to say ultimately, and how can I help them with that vision sonically, emotionally and focus that through music.
How much leeway do they give you?
It depends on the client and on the film. I've had a lot of films where people said, do your thing, and then I present it to them and they go, great or can we change just one or two things. Then there are others who want something right here that starts here and ends here. So it really depends on the individual.
Is their a movie or movies you composed for that stand out?
Everything I do is my favorite thing while I'm doing it.
So I always take everything very seriously, not in a morose way, in a fun way, but everything is my big shot. Everything's the golden ring, no matter what it is. It's more fun that way, and I never like to take for granted that I'm doing something I love. There are a few films that stood out.
There's a movie I did in 2011 called Video Girl, with Meagan Good, who's well known. So that was great, they pretty much said do your thing, I wrote a score that I was very proud of, it was on BET for years. There's another film running on Showtime right now called Lost Cat Corona, which has Ralph Macchio and David Zayas, who lots of people know from Dexter, and some other great actors like Paul Sorvino, Gina Gershon.
It was directed by Anthony Tarsitano and produced by the talented Tony Glazer (also a fantastic director) and Summer Crockett Moore (also a wonderful actress who appears in the film) It’s a dark comedy, and once we found the sound of the movie, it was very effective.
There's another one that's on-demand called Another Soul. It's an indie horror movie by director Paul Chau. Paul showed me the film with temp music and said, this is kind of what we're looking for, then I just wrote the score. It's about 85 pieces of wall to wall music. When I license music for television shows they choose what they want to use and how they want to use it.
There are two more really fantastic projects. I just finished this documentary called Ring of Faith directed by Craig Syracusa and I’ve scored and mixed dozens of projects including Shelter in The City, a documentary he produced that was nominated for a New York EMMY last year directed by Terence Donnellan. Ring of Faith is a documentary posing the question; “Is boxing a sin or a gift from God”? The boxers, obviously don't feel it's a sin and when they're interviewed they're full of faith and gratitude.
The music didn't need to explore the idea or feeling of faith. It was constantly on screen from the fighters, clergy and boxing enthusiasts. So I created beats using boxing sounds, punching bags, speed bags, regular punches and several musical themes to craft the score.
There’s this wonderful sense of rhythm throughout the whole thing, even when there are talking heads. The momentum of boxing happens in the music throughout the whole film, but it doesn't get in the way of people's interviews. It’s a really effective score and that was completed in the last few weeks.
The other, also a documentary, is being assembled it’s called “The Last Old Master”, directed by Benjamin Kanes of SightSense Productions. The story of Ralph Wolfe Cowan (RC) is about a painter known for his portraits of celebrities and monarchs all over the world. Benjamin was introduced to me by frequent collaborators of mine, New York film makers Robin Rose Singer, Tyler Hollinger,and Ruya Koman. Benjamin and I have worked on dozens of small projects in the last year, many for Birch Coffee, for whom Benjamin makes incredibly entertaining content.
I’m also very excited about an appearance on the show Living It Up with Donna Drake. Donna Drake is an incredible producer, entrepreneur and talk show host. I’ll be doing an interview next month which airs on CBS affiliates. I also wrote the theme for the show.
Is there a certain genre of music that is more fun to compose for, or a genre that’s more difficult?
Yes. I'll say anything that's got some sort of suspense or action, that's fun. You get to write really fun driving music that can be unusual. I did a film called Speed Demons which didn’t do well but gave me the chance to compose a unique score. The music was later used in many television shows and became a soundtrack album release called Vampires.
In terms of what's the most difficult is comedy. Because with comedy, you have to really approach every beat and every moment of the film and decide whether you're going to musicalize it. A great example of this was the award winning score to Walk A Mile in My Pradas written and produced by Rick Sudi Karatas and Tom Archdeacon, starring Tom Arnold.
The audience has to know that they can laugh, like the banana peel example.
You also don't want the characters to come off as silly. So, there's this fine line to find the right voice of the film. Every film needs its own voice, its own sound. But I would say comedy is the most difficult, and action suspense is probably the most fun.
That's interesting, I didn't realize that about comedy.
Yeah, if you think about a standup comic, I like to watch interviews with comedians and hear them talk to each other about their craft, because they have to plot everything. It seems effortless, it seems like they go up there and they just make things up. But it's really carefully planned and timed, even the little subtle gestures. I’m working on a Pilot called “How Am I Doing” written by Ken Perlstein about an actor/comic and the challenges of that life choice.
So comedy, it looks easy, but it's very hard. You have to constantly go back to the beginning and see how does this flow, how does this affect the overall structure, and how does it affect the moment that we're in right now.
That's interesting. Looking back on your career, is there one thing that either really surprised you about the industry?
Not many things in life are universally true. But I think this is: when you're an artist of some kind, performer, musician, any kind of artist, and you're young, you think that you're talented and that someone will discover you and there will be this moment where your life changes and everything will be great.
That's not true. The truth is, that you go out there and it's not that the world is hostile; they just don't care. Nobody really cares. Once you get that, there's this tremendous freedom where you go, wait a minute, I have to make people care. I have to give something of value so that people care, and there's an ego switch, and the realization that you do this because you love to do it and not for any kind of superficial reason. I think when that turned, that was a wonderful moment.
Because I always thought if I could get to this level, then the rest would be easy. But you always prove yourself, you always have to give value, and you work harder to keep what you have than you did to get it.
What advice would you give to somebody starting out?
Starting out, I would say get to know as many people as possible. Work with as many people as possible. If you're young and you're single and have to do things for free, do them. Make alliances, money is a currency, but alliances are a big currency too. I believe to this day that you invest in people. Some will be good investments and some won't be, but as just a direction in which to move, I invest in people, and some of these investments have real good unbelievable fruit, some not. But I stick by it.
Here's a great example, I had an office in Tribeca about 10 years ago, and David Hausen who had the office next to me one day said, “I have this voice over artist coming in, can you record her? I'm at a doctor's appointment and running late. Could you do me a solid”, He asked. “There's no money in it, but would you mind”? I said, “tell me what you need, and I'll take care of it”. He said, “thank you so much.”
This opportunity came along where David had one of his editors working on a movie, a feature film called Chatterbox, directed by Jane Lawalata and the producers didn't like the music. David introduced me to the producer to possibly score it. I got the job and won an award for the music. I met a producer, Deidre LaCasse, who then hired me for I think for five or six other movies and has been a dear friend ever since.
Wow, that’s great.
And then in one of those other movies, I met a sound guy that introduced me to someone that got me a television series. It was just this whole cascade of good fortune from one small effort. That’s happened a few times.
That's great, that's really kind of like the abundance mindset where you can't say no.
Yeah, you can’t give what you don’t have. That’s what I would say to anybody starting out, say yes. I think at some point you need to become a maybe or a no person in certain situation, but starting out, say yes.
You launched a YouTube channel, right?
Film Music Mentor started out when a friend of mine, John Colasante, who has a company called Responsive NY and they do web design and web maintenance. You talk about geeking out, John is a very, very technologically-minded individual and a great friend. He said to me, you have all this knowledge, you should do a YouTube channel or a course on film composing. I said I don't want to get in front of the camera.
He brought it up for months and months, then I thought, what if I didn't do it for composers, but I did it for filmmakers. Because there's so much that filmmakers don't know about music, and they make so many mistakes that cost them time, money, momentum, and even enthusiasm in their own project. So many projects take so much more effort than you think they will.
So John encouraged me, and he said, don't post anything, just send me videos. So I'd do some practice videos and he'd say, you know you were a little stiff, you're a little of this, you're a little of that. At one point, not too long after, he said, this is good, your content is good. You know, create the channel. So this is just recently, I just started telling people about it a week or two ago.
I wanted to create a platform where filmmakers could get out of their own way and learn. There's silly mistakes, like I scored a film a couple years ago, and there's a scene in a bar where these guys are performing, and there was no song for them to perform. I had to write the song in post to them acting. I had to write to the picture of these three guys playing an unusual combination of instruments.
It was a fun challenge, but it's something that you need to think about ahead of time. To think about if you can license music, to think about a lot of filmmakers, sometimes there's a group of them, and they don't really agree on what the story is about. If they don't agree on what the story is about, they won't agree on what the music should sound like.
So the Film Music Mentor website has a couple of questionnaires that filmmakers can download and act so that they have a better idea in their own mind what they want from their music score.
That's helpful, because of the drop in the price of technology people are making movies with phones.
Technology has allowed more and more people access to create and we have all these great platforms to share content, movies, videos and shorts. They're becoming really popular.
There's this level where people want to hear information, and they're not that concerned with how polished the content is. But as soon as they want to be entertained, then they need a lot more polish in the production value.
That makes a lot of sense.
One of the things I have tried to communicate to filmmakers repeatedly, especially content creators, is that if their music and sound doesn't flow right, people lose interest very quickly. All it takes is a text message or a ping or something for people to lose interest and look away. These are the kind of issues I discuss on Film Music Mentor. Like Top 4 Music Mistakes in Content, How To Avoid a Law Suit, Top 7 Reasons Film Scores Fail and many other topics.
I also started Film Music Mentor Minute which are 60 second summaries of the vlog for Instagram and other social media platforms.
I've created this algorithmic system, called “Audio Kinetics”, where when there's an event on the screen matched by a change in the music or a sound effect that occurs naturally or synthetically every 3-8 seconds at most, the mind will be far more likely to stay engaged. When the eyes and the ears connect, the mind focuses on what it's looking at. So applying this technique to content or having music that evolves with the visual rather than merely staying static, makes content a lot more engaging to the viewer.
Most of the time a music bed is added and the music loses effectiveness in 5-10 seconds. It’s the difference between tuning out and the viewer constantly thinking over and over, “hey, I’m going to watch for a few more seconds”.
That sounds like something that would appeal to aspiring filmmakers, or really anybody that's making YouTube videos, putting presentations online, or making instructional videos.
Yeah, absolutely. I think it's important to engage people. The downside of everybody being involved, with the technology being the way it is, is that there's so much content, it's hard to stand out. So tricks like that or just tips like that, that's what I'm trying to help because even though there's this booming renaissance of wonderful projects, there're so many. Jim Thalman’s project, West of the City, which we worked on three years ago, is a wonderful series idea. It was on Amazon's top list for development, and I think it's going to go someplace soon.
Jim is a fantastic actor and his mind is very focused on the business through producing and using a valid skill set. I think that his time is here, so I'm excited about that. Jim was introduced to me by my very long time friend Spero Stamboulis an actor/producer like Jim and another frequent collaborator Josh Friedman.
Are you on other social media platforms?
That's something I'm working on with Rob Monroe of 3rdEdge. We're looking into that this fall and expanding my presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn I have about 2,000 connections on Linkedin.
So you're composing, you're creating YouTube videos, you're about to launch on other social media. You have a lot going on, how do you manage time?
That's a good question. I try my best to be an early riser. I try to get up by six, I've taken up meditation in the last couple of years, which is helpful. It reduces stress, it doesn't take it away completely, but when I do it, I'm a lot more clear. Walking is something that clears my mind too. I'm the father of seven-year-old twins, so there's a lot of activity in the morning.
You know one thing I found that is really helpful with managing time is writing a simple to do list by hand and crossing things off.
A lot of people underestimate the simple to do list
Yeah, I take a piece of paper, I write down the top five or six or seven things to do that day, and I enjoy crossing them off. Sometimes, I see that there's an undone item, and I'll call my wife and say, “know what honey, I've got to stay another hour, and I get it done”.
It keeps me acutely aware of what's going on. Because there's so much going on in everyone's lives, I think it's very easy to get lost and not do anything.
If someone was having a hard time managing projects, is there a book that you would recommend?
Yes. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Although the book is about writing, it's really about everything. What Pressfield does in this book, he labels procrastination. He personifies it as an enemy called resistance.
He says, if you're doing some kind of entrepreneurial thing, if you're writing, creating a work of art or trying to get better abs, any kind of thing like this where you're trying to reach a higher version of yourself, there will be this thing called resistance, which is procrastination. He talks about all the different forms it shows up as. He's probably most famous for this book, but he wrote the novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, which became a movie.
It's an incredible book, I'd recommend it to anybody, The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield. He's out there on YouTube, and you can hear him speak about them, but this book is very concise and easy to read but also very dense and worth reading over.
Great, that sounds like a good recommendation.
Yeah, for anybody doing anything.
So, you mentioned you go for walks, are you involved in fitness other ways?
Not as much as I'd like to. I enjoy the elliptical machine a lot. I like that it's not so hard on your body, but it also moves a lot of different muscles, so I try to hit that a few times a week for 20 or 30 minutes depending on I guess the mood that day. I usually say to myself, all right, you have to move at least 20 minutes, and then if I'm in there and I still, you know what, I want to go another five, I want to go another ten, and I keep going.
Do you have any advice for people who may be having trouble getting motivated?
So I have this motto, which is “Lift others up and look to the light”. So I think it's hard for one to be down if they're thinking positive thoughts. It takes a lot of effort to think positive thoughts. So if I’m having trouble getting motivated, I might say, okay, time to go for a walk.
That's great advice.
I generally talk to myself a little bit. Come on Andrew, let's put this together, go film another Film Music Mentor, you're putting it off, come on let's do it, it'll be great. You know, talk to myself and think about the personal world that I wanna live in and try to create that.
Is there any question that I should ask that I haven't?
I think that maybe what's the most important thing, which I would say is family. Family's the most important thing, my wife and kids. When you're a father, the mathematical equation is you'll have half as much time and twice as much expense as you used to.
I like that.
They provide you with a motivation that's like nothing else. So even when I have to say, I'm not going to put you to bed tonight, or I'm not going to be home till late, they don't understand it yet, but it is for them, and they drive me. They drive me to succeed and to reach higher and higher.
That's great. What's one thing that you wish everybody knew?
The thing that I wish everybody knew including myself is that when you relax, take a break, take a breath it's not so bad. At least here where we are. I know there are countries that don't have the freedoms and liberties we have, but I think if we take a little breath, the problems, they shrink. They get into proportion.
Sometimes we just need a little second for a little perspective.
Yeah, and I would say ask another person. Ask someone who loves you, that'll help you when you're down. Your friends, your family, your kids. Look, there are people with really big problems, I'm not going to deny that, but I think for most of us in the middle, sometimes a little attitude adjustment in the moment can help.
Is there a popular pop culture movie that, if you had the opportunity, you'd want to compose for?
Oh wow. That's a good question.
There's a genre that I think is a lot of fun which is, the heist movie. It's like the Ocean's 8 recently, and 11, 12, 13. There's a stylized music where it's just fun. There was one called Tower Heist with Ben Stiller. I'd love to do one like that.
I'd love to do something like Rocky. I think Rocky is one of the greatest film scores. It has this theme that it's so good and so in the consciousness of pop culture and film culture, that you can use it to make a joke. There's like six or seven movies with it.
This film score created a hit song in the 70s. If I could do that, but I wouldn't want to replace what Bill Conti did because it was brilliant. But something like that, that's what I would love to do.
Thank you, Andrew, for your insights and sharing your life's work with us. I look forward to hearing about your next adventures!
Michael launched Your Money Geek to make personal finance fun. He has worked in personal finance for over 20 years, helping families reduce taxes, increase their income, and save for retirement. Michael is passionate about personal finance, side hustles, and all things geeky.