Series Blog

Documentary Craft: Interview with Composer Joel Goodman


Acclaimed by The Hollywood Reporter as an "Indie Composer to Watch," Joel Goodman is a multi-talented, award-winning composer.  His original composition credits include work on Oscar and Emmy Award-winning films, including Sister Rose's Passion; The Collector of Bedford Street and Children Underground.

Joel recently scored the American Experience film My Laiproduced and directed by Barak Goodman. You can listen to three tracks from the film on his website, joelgoodman.com.

What is your background in music?  How did you end up composing for film & television?
My dad was an audiophile and always had a great stereo system. I grew up hearing records on a system that rivaled recording studios. He also liked jazz, rock and roll, and soul music. I went to the High School of Music and Art in New York. As a teenager I studied harmony, counterpoint and music history. I played bass in the high school jazz band and trumpet in the orchestra. It was a very well rounded education. 

I graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston when I was 21 majoring in composition and arranging. I was very fortunate to study with great teachers and to perform with various bands all around the country. By then I was well exposed to everything from classical to world music and everything in between. This sounds kind of funny to say, but I'm fluent in most styles of music.

I moved back to NY after college and immediately started performing and doing studio work as a bassist. I was also doing some producing and always writing music. I was producing a record for a friend and as a thank you for bringing the project to his studio the owner gave me a full day of studio time for free. So I did a recording of my compositions. A television commercial music producer heard my music and offered me a job. I spent the next 4 years writing music for TV commercials. This proved to be a great experience for learning how to write to picture and say it all in 30 seconds, as well as learning how to speak to producers about music. The experience was invaluable - better than grad school.

A friend of mine was making a documentary and her composer was going on tour just when she wanted to do the music. So she offered me the job. That film, My Knees Were Jumping, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. And like 6 degrees of separation, I can somehow reference every job I have done since then back to that film.

I have scored over 75 documentaries and feature films. Several have received Oscar nominations and many have won Emmy awards. I consider myself very fortunate to be working with the people I work with.

When Barak Goodman approached you about composing the music for My Lai were you familiar with the topic?
No. I had heard of My Lai, but I didn't know the story. He told me about the project months before work began, which I really like. I like to live with the subject, not just read about it, but having it in my consciousness for a while before composing... if time allows. This way you can be influenced on a subconscious level. I think that when a creative idea comes forward, it's always from a subconscious place.

How does the collaboration work with a director?  Are those early conversations all about mood and tone?
Every director, and every project is different. The director has been living with the project for a long time, usually years before I come in. So my first job is to get up to speed and understand the film as the director understands it. Then we can have very productive dialog.

Most of the time the director and editor will have some music already in mind and they may even be using it in their editing process. This will often work as a good reference point in understanding the mood, pacing and sound the director is after.

I usually start with 1 or 2 themes. If that goes well, then we know what the overall feeling and sound of the film and score will be. And from there, everything will flow.

When you start composing, are you working with rough sequences or do you begin closer to the film's completion?
Again - every project is different. I may start against a rough sequence just to find the right tone of the score or to work on a theme. But the real composing doesn't start until there's a rough cut. At that point we all have a good sense of the overall arc of the film and how it will be presented. This is usually 4-8 weeks before the editing of the film is completed.

The opening theme to My Lai has a foreboding, circular structure to it that pulls you into the story.  How do you come up with your ideas? (Listen here)
I'm glad you mention this piece and thanks for noticing the desired effect. This is the first piece I wrote for the film. After living with the story for a while and just viewing some of the footage, I wrote this away from the picture and the computer, something I don't often do. Just sitting at the piano with manuscript paper and pencil. (I know--how old fashioned).

But in this sense, I was trying to get to the overall feeling of the film. Encompassing the arc and various twists and turns the film would make in telling the story. There's something desperate, disturbing and twisted to me in this theme, and in the My Lai story in general. There also needed to be some foreboding in the theme as this became the sound for Charlie company - our main characters.

Many documentaries have wall-to-wall music these days. I love the decision to let the film breath in many places. What goes into deciding where to place music in a film?
The director (laughing). Seriously... it's my view that music is best used when it's providing sub-text. If you are continually providing sub-text, then there is no sub-text. The best uses of music make the viewer feel the emotion of the scene. The viewer doesn't need to hear the music, as much as feel it. Therefore, the music needs to go in just the right spot. Keep in mind that filmmaking is a collaborative process in which we all do our best during the scoring process to achieve this. But sometimes, things change when the film goes into its final mix and new decisions are made. If you have a well constructed story, with a good edit, it will be obvious where the music should go.

I like the acoustic guitar piece that is introduced when we first meet Charlie company.  What is your process deciding which instruments to use?
 In this scene we wanted to give the sense of how young and innocent these kids were. And they were just that - kids. What better instrument to use to convey easy going teenagers on the beach?

For other scenes though, especially where the story turns dark, more serious instrument choices were made. The deep haunting timbre of the bassoon and very high and edgy violin harmonics are used to play the melody of the main theme. For the scenes where we speak with the surviving Vietnamese I didn't want to do Asian music. Instead I tried to capture their feeling, looking back on what had happened to them.

For me, getting a good feel for the scene also gives me a sense of what the instrumentation should, and shouldn't be. Of course, there will also be input from the director, editor and maybe the temp track too.

Do you record first on your own and then hire musicians once the cues are worked out?
I have a full featured recording studio. My composing computer is equipped with all the latest software & samples so I'm able to mock up a score to a very high degree. I will also play some instruments for the demos if need be. Once all of the music is approved, then I hire musicians to record.

Another interesting part of the process is that I now live near Los Angeles (I'm from NY) and do most of my work with the director remotely. I will send the demos via internet on a daily basis. I record the musicians and mix the music here at my studio. Then send the final mixes via internet to the producers. It's a very green way of working - which I like.

What's on the horizon for you?   What kind of projects are you excited about?
Thankfully, doing more American Experience shows. A show about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and another about Robert E. Lee. The exciting thing is to be working with filmmakers and subjects that inspire me. I've always had good fortune in this area and hope that continues.

Interviewer Greg Shea is post-production manager for American Experience.


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