Andrew Scott Bell has been writing original music for films and commercial media since 2009. His music has brought life to more than 50 productions, and has premiered in nine different countries across the world.
Was music always something that attracted you to do as a career, and do you come from a musical family background?
I’ve really always had a love for music. When I was very young, I was obsessed with Elvis Presley. So much so that people even called me Andy Elvis. I didn’t always want to work in music though, but I’ve always been attracted to storytelling. The first career I was interested in at a young age was being a comic strip artist. I wanted to have a weekly or daily comic strip in the funny pages. The problem with that ultimately is to be in the funny pages, you have to be funny. I also at one point wanted to be a director, making home video short films with my friends around the neighbourhood.
But when I was about seven or eight years old, Forrest Gump came out in theatres. Alan Silvestri’s score for that film really changed my life. My parents had the VHS tape and a two disc soundtrack album from the movie, most of which were popular songs from the 60’s and 70’s. The last track on the second disc was a suite of themes from the film’s score. I was entranced by the music. I learned to play the suite on the piano by ear. I remember I’d come home from school and head straight to the piano where I had set-up my bedroom CD player on the back of the upright. Having that kind of playful connection with music at that young age was the spark that grew overtime and led me to pursuing this career.
Witness Infection is a recent score of yours, it’s a great listen, and I can hear within it lots of nods to various composers and it contains so many styles, but at the same time there is an originality about it. How did you become involved on the movie, and did the director have specific ideas about what type of music should be written for the movie?
Thank you so much! Witness Infection was such a fun film to work on and I appreciate your kind words about the score. I believe it was after hearing my work on The Springfield Three that director Andy Palmer reached out to me to score Witness Infection. Andy called me up and after a great conversation about the film, he asked if I was interested in scoring it. Of course, I said yes! One of the things I enjoy most about this job is that each time I work with a director, it’s a completely different process. Andy took a more hands off approach to the score than I’m used to, but that felt freeing and empowering. I think a lot of what people are reacting to when they hear that score has to do with Andy’s leadership and the trust he allowed in our process. It was really fun!
We did talk a lot about the sound we were looking for before I started writing. I like to spend a lot of time talking and asking questions so the director and I can really get on the same page before I write a single note of music.
Witness Infection, is a score that sounds to me like a fusion of both symphonic and synthetic, how many live players did you have for the score, and do you conduct all your own music if possible?
I think one of the largest challenge’s composers face right now is shrinking music budgets and the amount of time we’re given to write our scores. We must find creative ways to go around those obstacles in our industry. We did not really have the budget or time to contract an orchestra for Witness Infection, so everything you hear in the score are instruments I played in my studio layered with synthesized orchestral instruments from my computer.
Sampling technology has really made leaps and bounds in recent years and the instruments these companies are selling sound more and more realistic with each new release. Still, I will always prefer the emotional intention behind a human performing on my scores. So out of budget necessity, I often end up playing my own violin, cello, and other instruments on a lot of my scores. I have conducted a few of my scores in the past, but it’s not one of my strengths (I’m out of practice, really) so I think I’m more comfortable sitting with my director listening and giving feedback to the orchestra from inside the booth.
How much time did you have to score Witness Infection, from start to finish?
Witness Infection had a fast turnaround. I had about four weeks to write and deliver the music for the film. “The composer would like to thank the gallons upon gallons of coffee he consumed while writing the score.”
Staying with Witness Infection, how many times did you watch the movie before you began to get any fixed notions about the music and where it should be placed for maximum effect?
The first time I watch a movie I’m working on, I make a small event out of it. I like to experience it first as an audience member; just sit down and enjoy the movie. So for Witness Infection, I decided to order some lunch, black out the windows in my studio, and treat it like a mini cinema.
I knew the film was about an Italian American family from New Jersey, so I ordered an Italian sub from Jersey Mike’s. What I didn’t know is that the cause of the zombie outbreak in the film is bad Italian sausages from a food truck. If you have seen the film, the movie starts out immediately with two hunters in a tent. One of them is eating an Italian sausage that’s causing quite a bit of… intestinal disruption. So, as it turns out I didn’t end up feeling very hungry for lunch, especially not for Italian food.
I typically watch a film I am scoring four times before starting the music. The first time, as I said, I just watch the movie. The second time, I take loose and general notes as I watch. The third time, I go scene by scene and make more detailed notes about where music should be and what the music should achieve. Then I watch the movie a fourth time during the spotting session with the director, which is when I take the most detailed notes.
What musical education did you have, and were there any areas of music or a particular instrument that you focused upon while studying?
I received a bachelor’s in music composition and theory with a minor in film studies from Christopher Newport University, a school in south eastern Virginia. CNU does not offer a film scoring program, so my education was more focused on classical composition than writing for film. I feel fortunate I was able to really focus on learning orchestration and to develop my compositional style free from the restrictions one has while writing for film. I took piano lessons as a child and in middle and high school I studied trumpet, but when I started under-grad I decided I wanted to learn more about choral writing so I switched my primary instrument to voice and sang in choirs throughout college. Composers in our music department also had to take what was called techniques courses, one for each instrument group – woodwinds, brass, voice, and percussion. The courses were designed for music education majors, something I was grumpy about at the time, but in the classes’ we learned how to play so many instruments at a fifth-grade level. I didn’t realize it at the time but getting my hands on those instruments and feeling how to play each of them was an invaluable part of my musical development. It’s something I still think about now when I write for those instruments.
I love the little nod to The Godfather in Witness Infection, are there any composers or artists that you would say have influenced you in the way that score a project, or indeed have inspired you to write certain themes?
Since the film is a comedy, we chose to play the music big and serious – leaning into the overly dramatic styles prevalent in horror scores from the early to mid-20th century. I think if we had tried to write “funny” music, the score might not have worked as well in the film. So Andy and I talked a lot about classic monster movie scores by composers like Frank Skinner, Max Steiner, and Franz Waxman, and how playing it big and leaning hard on that sound could really add to the comedy. We also often said “Godfather but make it horror” in reference to the mob family element in the characters. I think the real challenge was writing motifs that could work in both of those musical landscapes. I tried to write with a harmonic language that would sound natural played on a mandolin as well as an enormous low brass section. I think what we ended up with is kind of an odd combination of flavours, but it’s an Italian American mob comedy with flesh eating zombies so… buon appetito!
In 2016, you scored a short, entitled Rocket about dirt track racing, the movie was just 29 mins in duration, but your score was in my opinion so supportive and became the movies heart, when you are scoring a short, is it more difficult to establish themes and a musical identity, because of the briefness of the project. And does the scoring process alter a great deal between working on a short, a TV project and a feature film?
Well thank you so much for saying so. I loved working with director Brenna Malloy on Rocket. That was really a wonderful experience from scoring the film all the way up to it winning a Student Academy Award in 2016. I have such a fondness for the film and my experience working on it. I’m very proud of that music, so thank you for your kind words.
I often think composition is similar to painting in that there is so much work that goes into the preparation so that the creativity can be as fluid and natural as possible. Before I start writing music, I’m choosing a sound palette for the score, thinking about textures I’d like to use in my orchestration, and planning the harmonic language for the piece. It feels very much like a painter gathering paint and brushes or choosing between types of canvas.
That part of the process is the same regardless of whether it’s a short or a feature film, so in that regard the work is very similar. The obvious difference is in the amount of music written and the extent to which we get to develop those themes throughout the film. Structurally, a feature really allows the music we write to grow and bloom with the story. There is so much more room for the work to breathe and expand. I find that really rewarding.
Have you encountered a temp track on any of your projects, and do you think that this process is helpful or maybe distracting?
Films I score almost always have a temp music track in them before I come onboard. I think temp scores can be both helpful and distracting. It really depends on how attached a director is to the sound and feel of their temp. It can be quite a challenge if they have what I call “temp fever.”
I personally will only watch a movie once with its temp score. Each time I watch it after, I prefer to do so with no music so I can formulate my own ideas. It’s not all bad, though. I do think temp scores can be helpful as a jumping off point in a conversation. I see temp music more as a challenge than a problem and I tackle that challenge by just asking a lot of questions. What is it about the temp that you think is working here? How does the temp make you feel? What other pieces of music that you’ve heard make you feel a similar way? Etc.
The more questions I ask, the more I can dig down to the centre of what it is about the temp the director really loves. Once I find that, it can be quite freeing and often opens new possibilities for me to surprise them with something new they love but weren’t expecting!
When recording a score for a movie or other projects, do you have a preference as to where you record, or is this not up to you?
Well, I haven’t really made it to the point in my career where I’m regularly recording full orchestras. I’ve only recorded scores with full, live orchestras a few times, and each time the choice as to where we record was narrowed down by budget and timeframe restrictions. Apart from those few times, most of my scores are recorded here in my studio.
I have worked on the Newman Scoring Stage at Fox, though not for my own project. I’m looking forward to the day I have the chance to record one of my scores in that iconic space. I’d also love to record at Abbey Roads, but I think every musician dreams of that opportunity.
The Springfield Three is based upon a true story, your score is sensitive as well as dramatic, the film runs for approx. 30 mins, and your score is 22 mins in duration, and I think it is mostly due to the music that the audience become affected by the story that is unfolding. I was thankful it was issued on to digital platforms, do you have any input regarding what scores of yours are released and indeed what cues are selected for the release?
Thank you for saying so. It means a lot. Working on that film was emotionally taxing for me. Since The Springfield Three is based on a true story, I felt an enormous weight on my shoulders to give justice to those three missing women. Their case is still unsolved, so my hope is the film inspires someone to come forward with new information about the case. In regards to the release of my music, so far I’ve self-published all my music. I have my own publishing company and pay for my music to be distributed on digital platforms. I’m certain eventually that will change as I move to larger productions, and I look forward to that day, but for now I do it myself so I can get my music out for people to listen to and hopefully enjoy.
Do you regard orchestration as an important part of the composing process, and do you work on all your own orchestrations when possible?
I personally do, yes. It’s an important part of my process and I often do my own orchestrations. I did recently work with orchestrator Òscar Senén (No Time to Die, Hacksaw Ridge, Geostorm) on my score to Deathcember. I had such a wonderful time working with him. His incredible talents only made my music stronger, and I look forward to us working together again soon!
I noticed that your scores are very thematic, do you think that the current trend of utilizing soundscapes and drone like passages in movie scores is here to stay, or do you believe that the theme laden score will return?
I not only believe that theme driven scores will return, I think they’re already coming back now! I personally think that has mostly to do with changing personal tastes of directors. As younger directors who grew up on films from the 80’s and 90’s come into their own careers, they’re seeking out those types of scores. I also think audience preference seems to be leaning back toward melodic and thematic music for a similar reason. There are so many wonderful, thematically vibrant scores coming out right now. I think it’s an exciting time to be scoring film!
Do you perform on any of your scores?
Yes, I do. On my horror scores I play a lot of my own string effects and textures. I have a violin and a cello and I layer multiple takes together to create the sound of a larger ensemble. On Witness Infection, I also played the trumpet parts. There’s one instrument I really enjoy playing on my scores when it’s called for. I have the insides of an old upright piano (just the sound board and harp) I found on the sidewalk in Glendale. I’ve placed it on its side and added casters so I can wheel it in and out of my studio when needed. It’s incredibly eerie and creates a depth of textures.
I also play a lot of less traditional sounds on my scores from time to time. I was working on a film a few weeks ago and I literally played pots and pans in the score. I felt like a kid again, and I think that joy comes through in the music.
What is next for you?
I just finished a featurette by director Samuel Gonzalez Jr. titled, That Night. The film is based on an emotionally powerful anonymous craigslist “missed connection” post that went viral about five years ago. It’s a really wonderful piece and I’m certain people will be moved by the story.
I’m set to score Shudder’s upcoming and still untitled queer horror documentary directed by Sam Wineman and I’m currently scoring a super fun feature film titled Psycho Storm Chaser by Buz Wallick which is an edge of your seat adventure slasher set during a hurricane. I can’t wait for people to see it.
During the pandemic, I was also commissioned to write an opera based on a play The Trial of God by Nobel Peace Prize winning author Elie Wiesel. That has been a colossal undertaking but is such a rich and rewarding experience and I’m honoured to adapt his incredible and profoundly enriching play into music. That work will premiere in November 2021.
My thanks to the compose for taking time to answer my questions.