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Duncan Sheik and Slash discuss the art of composing film scores

Duncan Sheik and Slash at First Time Fest in New York City, on April 6, 2014
Duncan Sheik and Slash at First Time Fest in New York City, on April 6, 2014
Carla Hay

Slash and Duncan Sheik don’t have much in common musically, except they both have ventured into the art and business of writing musical scores. Slash rose to fame in the late ‘80s as a founding member/lead guitarist of the hard rock band Guns N’ Roses. Sheik is a former pop/rock singer who hit it big in the mid-'90s and then reinvented himself in the 21st century as an award-winning composer, most notably for the stage musical “Spring Awakening.”

On April 6, 2014, at the second annual First Time Fest (a festival showcasing the work of first-time filmmakers) in New York City, Slash and Sheik sat down together for a Q&A session called “From Rock to Score” to discuss their work as composers in film. The previous night before the Q&A, Slash’s horror movie “Nothing Left to Fear” (he is one of the film’s producers, and he composer the film score) screened at the festival. Here is what Slash and Sheik said during the Q&A for “From Rock to Score”

How was the screening for “Nothing Left to Fear” last night?

Slash: It was nice. We screened the movie for a bunch of people. It’s as simple as that.

Where can people find “Nothing Left to Fear”?

Slash: It’s on DVD and VOD and Blu-ray. At this point, people can pretty much go anywhere and pick it up.

Duncan, you're back from London. You've been working on the score for the "American Psycho" stage musical, right?

Sheik: Right.

What rhymes with Huey Lewis?

Sheik: We had to put the Huey Lewis song in the show. We’re looking at a run in the West End in the fall and bringing it to New York in the beginning of 2015.

Can you remember a time when you were young when you were watching a film or seeing a show, and the music had a powerful impact on you?

Slash: I was always into music. Whenever I would see a movie, the score was the integral part of the experience. I started recognizing great music in movies from as soon as I started watching movies and TV and all that kind of stuff. There have been way more than I can count really effective scores that influence me, growing up.

Sheik: For me, I was always such an Anglophile. So, for me, it’s all about James Bond movies. That’s where you have the great connection between an amazing composer like John Barry, and then also these incredible singers and songwriters who would do the featured songs in the films. That was really cool to see that relationship progress.

Slash: Since you went there, I was born in England, so James Bond was huge. Since you went back into the old days, it was Disney that had the biggest effect from a music-to-visual standpoint.

Are you talking about Disney songs?

Slash: It would be more of the music. Actually, I hate the [Disney] songs. I like more of the thematic music. The songs were a little cheesy for me.

Did you see “Fantasia” when you were young?

Slash: I was going to mention that, because it was all instrumental and really, really powerful. I remember I saw that in England when I was a kid. And at that point, I really wasn’t that familiar with the composers. It was just this sort of great wash of emotion and auditory texture. “When You Wish Upon a Star.” I’m kidding, I’m kidding! That was a little too literal.

In music videos, the visuals are made after the music is completed. Did working on music videos help you prepare to become a film composer?

Slash: That’s a good question. What happens is, being in rock and roll, you have prepared music, and they tend to base stuff around that. It’s different when you’re actually composing for something and trying a vibe that fits something.

I don’t know if it prepared me or not. It’s great having those rock songs in place so you can actually see how they work and how it affects the visual or the game. So yeah, it definitely helps.

Sheik: To me, it was an endlessly frustrating nightmare, the process of making music videos with a major label like Atlantic. You’d be sent 15 treatments for music videos, and they would be unreadable, like, horrible! There’d be nothing good about any of them.

And then there’d be like one that had some kind of narrative and cool take on it, and you’d be like, “I like this one,” and they would say, “We would never make that video in a million years.” So, to me, I found it very frustrating and not very helpful. It was a bummer. It was the ‘90s. What can I say?

Duncan, can you talk about the movie scores that you composed?

Sheik: I scored a movie called “A Home at the End of the World,” starring Colin Farrell and Sissy Spacek and Robin Wright. I’ve done four or five independent films. But to be honest, my work with larger narrative arcs has been more in theater.

What is the job of the composer when you’re doing incidental music that is not part of the overall musical theme?

Sheik: I think there are people like Cliff Martinez — like in his work with Steven Soderbergh — he does incredibly, subtle, cool stuff that adds a slightest little bit of mood to a scene. That’s really an art unto itself. I respect that enormously.

Or Carter Burwell — in “No Country for Old Men,” there are maybe three cues in the whole movie, and they’re really subtle, and they’re really great. I think it’s amazing to be able to do that and do that well — as opposed to making a huge, honking, John Williams-esque melodic thing. I think that’s great too, but I’m more interested in the subtle stuff.

Slash, can you talk about your work in “This Is Not a Movie”?

Slash: It was the first film I scored from top to bottom. Obviously, I don’t have that much experience in the film business. I don’t read music. I’m not good with doing the counter and so on and so forth. So it’s actually a lot of fun. I come at it from a totally inspired, just “make up what it feels like” kind of vibe. I wrote about the music from the actual script.

I sent the music to the director, who was shooting in Mexico, and he actually started filming to the music. And so, it was an interesting way to learn. I’ll probably never get to use that experience again. It was a lot of fun. Unorthodox.

Making movies is such a collaborative art. Can you compare and contrast it to making music with a band?

Slash: I’ve had a lot of different experiences thus far. I wrote some stuff for Quentin Tarantino, and he just placed it where he wanted to place it, which is very easy.

And then, I worked on a movie called “The Wrestler,” and [director] Darren Aronofsky had me come in and play something in its entirety from the beginning and the end of the film that was already written and just transpose it on guitar. And that was a great experience. It was such a minimalistic score. It was great for me to learn how that works.

And then, doing “Nothing Left to Fear” was a traditional score in working with an orchestral template. The one thing I don’t want to do is sit at a table and write to the visual without having earlier played so I can feel what the vibe is supposed to be like or should be like.

Sheik: I totally agree. One movie I scored, I basically wrote a set of 30 pieces of music. And I just handed it to the director and said, “Here. Do with it what you want.” And that was much easier than sitting there, trying to score specifically, scene by scene. It can be a total nightmare if it’s not used to what you’re doing.

Slash: Because I’m around it a lot now, I can see how people have a knack for it. I can also see how tedious it can be. I’m someone who moves and works quickly. And so I kind of go through the cut and present it as quickly as possible. So far, it’s been working.

For more info: First Time Fest website