Music is in danger of being taken for granted – screen composer Amanda Brown

The former Go Betweens violinist and longtime screen composer talks AACTA wins for Brazen Hussies and Babyteeth, juggling jobs, facing fears and why she wishes LESS music was used in film and TV.

Composer Amanda Brown is on a winning streak. In the space of a single week in December she won three major awards for her work in film and television: the AACTA Award for Best Original Score for the feature film Babyteeth; the AACTA Award for Best Original Score for documentary Brazen Hussies; and the APRA AGSC Screen Music Award for Best Music for TV Series or Serial for The Secrets She Keeps (Lingo Pictures/Ten). That’s a wonderful result for a weird year, but without the usual parties and shmoozing of awards season.

‘It was a bit of a bummer that I couldn’t really celebrate in the usual ways,’ says Brown on the phone to Screenhub. ‘But I’m not complaining, especially given the fact I started the year expecting to be unemployed!’

The classically trained musician, singer and songwriter, best known for her role as the violinist of the band The Go-Betweens in the 1980s, has had one of the most successful periods in her 20-year career since graduating from the first composing intake at AFTRS in 1999. She scored Christiaan van Vuuren’s debut feature A Sunburnt Christmas (in collaboration with Damien Lane), now streaming on Stan; the Endemol Shine/Seven TV series RFDS, which will air later in the year on the Seven Network; and is working on anthology feature film Here Out West, from Co-Curious and Emerald Productions, which brings together eight stories from different writers in Western Sydney in 2021.

In this wide-ranging interview we talk to Brown about her evolving process, the struggles of freelance life, and her worries for the industry with the streamers coming in and an increasing expectation that music is free and easy to make. She’s also got some great advice for young directors preparing for their first conversation with a composer.

Screenhub: You’re just the second female to win the AACTA Award for Best Original Score for a Feature film in the Awards’ 40 year history, and the first in more than 15 years. What’s going on there?

Amanda Brown: What’s going on is a great question. Yes, Elizabeth Drake blazed that trail, winning for Japanese Story in 2003. And since then there’s been nobody else. What’s going on? Well, women composers are very under-represented. In the film industry we comprise around 13% of film composers or screen composers, which is pretty low. Some suggest it’s even lower. And I I would hazard a guess that out of that 13% there’s really only a handful that do the high end productions. Both the films that I won awards for, Babyteeth and Brazen Hussies, are quite low budget Indie films in many respects, and they’re also female-led projects.

Has it been difficult to make a living composing for screen in the 21 years since graduating from AFTRS?

Yes. I was in the very first year they offered screen composition, with Geoff Russell and Antonio Gambale, who’s just composed the score for Netflix series Unorthodox. For me personally, it’s just taken a long, long time to build things up and I would say that it’s really only in the last four or five years that I’ve made a consistent and respectable living from screen composition. Before that I often supplemented it with other jobs, as many people in the screen industry do.

Read: An interview with Australian Composer Antonio Gambale

What other kinds of jobs have you had?

I worked for years, both as a library assistant and in teaching composition. I actually really want to thank the librarians that I’ve worked for. I sincerely like librarians. They are the undisputed unrecognised heroines of the the literary world! I was fortunate to have bosses who were all very understanding about letting me have time off to work on songs or go on tour and do gigs. And and I’ll always be grateful to them. 

I’m interested… what kinds of things would you do in a library?

Often just the most menial jobs. I mainly worked in children’s libraries. Everything from book covering and shelving to reading stories to kids and making holiday programs, which sometimes involved music. But also sometimes just being able to do a job that you you clock on and off and then you still have that time to think about creative things while you’re at work. That’s not to be underestimated. 

How do you maintain creative focus when you’re trying to make a living in lots of different ways?

Many people in our industry in this country are very versatile and don’t just do one thing. Even within the world of screen composing, you get composers who work in advertising, or teach, or perform live. And I think all those things, even something like working in a library, can be strangely compatible with the creative life, as long as they’re all sort of related disciplines that inform each other. And they can really elevate your craft in unexpected ways sometimes. Having had the privilege of now working for 20 years or so in screen music, I can quite confidently say that every job informs the next job. You’ll learn something from each job. And, again, because our industry is so small, we’re all obliged to be so versatile. So we all not only work within different musical disciplines, but also genres. So we’re always learning and in addition to that, there’s always the technical aspect to get on top of to which is ever evolving with new developments in tech.

Do you enjoy that learning process of staying on top of the new technical developments?

Look, I think it’s painful sometimes. But it’s ultimately rewarding and beneficial. You gather all those skills with you as you go along. There’s a lot to be said for the experienced professionals who never stop learning and never stop being curious.

Babyteeth is an extraordinarily moving film, with music at the heart of the narrative. What was it like to score director Shannon Murphy’s first feature?

I really got lucky working on that film. It wasn’t my first time working with Shannon because we’d worked together on a drama series called On the Ropes for SBS, so we already had a creative shorthand. But Babyteeth was such an assured and superbly directed debut feature because Shannon had all these years of experience working in the theatre, and working with actors and directing. She may not have had all the technical and post production aspects completely under her belt at first, but the great thing about her as a director is she’s a very trusting and generous collaborator. She’s very happy to let Heads of Department do their thing, while of course weighing in with her opinions when it’s necessary. But she’s a really great talent and she does things in a very unconventional way sometimes, which is what that particular story really required.

What do you mean by ‘unconventional’?

Well, in regards to music in Babyteeth, for a start, there’s not a lot of score in the film. And the score that there is, with the exception of the final cue – which is a six and a half minute cue, which is a very long film queue – all the other music cues are diegetic. So that means it’s music within the world of the film that the characters can hear. In this case, the mother and daughter characters played piano and violin, so music needed to be written for them to learn so the actors could practise miming convincingly.

A lot of the music that you hear, it would normally be licensed music, for example, like the cue in the nightclub scene, or the warehouse party where Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is dancing. There was a bit of licensed music in there too. But there’s also score functioning there in that space that all the characters are interacting with.

That’s the piece in the track called ‘Dance Odyssey’? It’s very tense and exciting.

Thanks! Even that is unconventional in that Shannon was very adamant that there would be no ‘four on the floor kickdrum beat’, which is the standard thing in the dance genre because it gets people moving, and it’s all about dancing. But again, she was like, ‘No, no, I don’t want that.’ And she was right, because what we ended up with just married so beautifully with the lights and the pace of the edits and everything.

So usually as a composer, you would be brought in much later?

Yeah, that’s right. I was on board with Babyteeth from very early in the process, which is also very unusual, because composers often don’t get hired until the edit is locked. And in this case I was hired at pretty much casting stage. In fact, I was even privy to some of the casting auditions and and that’s really unusual. That’s never happened before, and it was really nice to be able to see how the script developed further, and just start thinking about the type of music that would be required and that did evolve and change quite a bit.

How did you come on board to score Catherine Dwyer’s feminist history documentary Brazen Hussies?

That was almost the opposite process. I came in very late in the piece because the original composers didn’t work out. They got me on board with really only about a month from getting an edit to delivery. And it was sort of at the beginning of COVID and lockdown, and the rest of the whole Brazen Hussies crew were all in Melbourne, and I’m in Sydney. I had a relationship already with Rosie Jones, the editor, so we already had a good mutual trust. It actually worked really well and was a smooth process.

Actually that was a really interesting film to work on. Because even though I’m the daughter of a First Wave feminist, and was raised with reading Germaine Greer, there was still a lot that I learned from the film. It’s really amazing to see what was accomplished by a small group of people in such a short amount of time. It was incredible, particularly what Elizabeth Reid [Whitlam’s first advisor for women’s affairs] did. I didn’t know about her at all, and yet that directly impacted my own life. I am the daughter of a single mother, and those reforms, like benefits to single mothers and no fault divorce and all of those things just made an immediate impact on people’s lives.

What was the brief that you were given for the score on Brazen Hussies?

Well, because they were already pretty far into the edit when I came on board, they had laid in quite a lot of licensed music. A lot of that music stayed in the film, and that was all those 70s female punk bands. Bands like X-ray Specs and Toxic Shock and The Stray Dags. Again, like quite a fantastic, vibrant but semi forgotten group of women musicians. All that licensed music had a really great, rebellious, anarchic energy. But I felt like because the film is actually set from 1965 to 75, and the dismissal of the Whitlam government, I felt like the score needed to represent the period a little bit more. So I tried to do that and incorporate elements of popular music at that time. So I listened to a lot of things like The Doors and Steppenwolf and Cream, and also some more of the folkier stuff like Donovan and Dylan, and even Nico and the Velvet Underground. I like to think that that sort of all those things made their way into the score in various idiosyncratic ways.

Do you enjoy that research process?

Yeah, I really enjoy it. I think it’s important that every film has its own signature music, and finding and discovering what that might be can sometimes be a convoluted process, but in the end, you always get there and and it’s nice to think that you end up with something that is integral and complementary to the film and helps with the storytelling, and you’d miss it if it wasn’t there.

So often with a good score it just blends in, and the viewer don’t overtly notice it.

Yes that’s true, and when it’s good storytelling, you’re just really caught up with what’s happening on screen. I’ve just read somebody writing recently about the Hollywood obsession with superhero films, and how the sound world in those films is basically everything going hell for leather 100% of the time. It’s like there’s this sensory bombardment of over-the-top music and over-the-top sound design and effects, and after a while you just become a bit numbed by it. If the story is good you don’t need all of that. You can choose your moments more selectively.

How has your process changed, if at all, since you began composing the screen?

Well, in the beginning, I had, like most people, very low budget projects. The the upside of that was that they often had a very long lead time. So there was a long time to sit with the film and develop ideas. And now it seems like deadlines are getting shorter and shorter. I just worked on a film before Christmas that I had to do in two weeks. That’s not unusual, either. I think it’s not unusual in in the Hollywood machine, either, it’s just that they have teams of anonymous ghost writers and music editors and assistance. And we don’t have any of that. I’d love to have a team!

So I think with my process I’ve definitely learned to speed things up and write more economically. And I like to think that my craft is evolving all the time with everything that I learn and, and creatively take on board. So, in an ideal world, you hope that you’re getting better and better with each project.

Do you ever get anxiety about whether you’re going to be able to come up with the goods in time? Or do you just trust that it’s always going to happen?

In a word, Yes. I do get anxiety. And I’ve spoken to a few people in the industry about this. I’m comforted to learn that people, even at the highest echelons of their profession, also feel the same way.  A big moment for me was when I used to play in a band with Toni Collette. And she said something along those lines to me at that time: that she got really nervous before a role and she didn’t know whether she could pull it off. And this was after she’d already given incredible performances in films like The Sixth Sense, and not to mention the iconic Muriel’s Wedding and everything else. And I took great comfort from hearing that. It’s normal. And other people I’ve spoken to say that a little bit of fear is a good thing in a way because it keeps you on the edge and keeps you always being prepared for the challenge. With film music, screen composers get asked to do things outside of their comfort zone quite frequently. So we get a bit used to it, but you still never completely feel 100% confident.

‘I used to play in a band with Toni Collette. And she said something along those lines to me at that time that she got really nervous before a role and she didn’t know whether she could pull it off. And this was after she’d already given incredible performances in films like The Sixth Sense, and not to mention the iconic Muriel’s Wedding and everything else.’

If there was something about your job that you wished the rest of the industry understood, what would it be?

I was just talking about this actually with Jeremy Sims today, because he’s directing Royal Flying Doctors that I’m working on. There’s a definite disconnect between the language that musicians and composers use, and that which directors and producers use. You can’t expect them to be fully across musical terminology. And I’m not across their vernacular, in many respects. But it’s often tricky finding the way to communicate what’s required musically, because music at the end of the day is such an abstract and an intangible thing in many respects. It can be quite hard to describe, and it can be hard to describe the aesthetics of it, as to why you like a piece of music or why you don’t. I think composers have to be part psychologist and interpreter in some ways trying to narrow down what’s expected of them.

I also think technology has played a part in this in that sometimes people don’t realise what goes into creating a piece of music and and how time-consuming it is, and just what’s required to to deliver the music. I think there could be greater understanding and that would be a good a positive thing for everyone.

How would a person go about getting a greater understanding of the composer’s process?

We have all these Guilds in our industry and maybe it could be nice if there was a little bit more cross-pollination and exchange of ideas between the Guilds. It could be in forums, panel discussions, lectures, workshops. Those sorts of things would be of great benefit to our industry.

What guilds or industry organisations are you part of?

I’m a member of the Australian Screen Composers Guild [ASCG], and I am on the board of APRA AMCOS, which is the music royalty collection society for composers and songwriters. So that’s a much broader remit than just screen composers. It’s all creators of music in this territory. And that’s really interesting, too, given that it’s such a rapidly ever-evolving world of how people consume their music, which is now applicable to the visual medium as well.

Advice for newcomers? If there was a very inexperienced film director who was looking to work with a composer for the first time, what tips would you have for them about what to bring to that conversation?

I guess at the early stage, first of all I would start by asking them if they have a particular style of music in mind for their film, and just talk very generally about genres and palettes and things like that. Any references are always useful. And then I would ask them, before we spot the film, to think about where they’re putting music, and why they’re putting music in their film. What’s the function of each music cue? Does the film stand up without music?

I believe quite strongly that music brings something that nothing else can, but it can be a bit over-utilised as well. I think partly that’s come from the rise of reality programming. Reality and unscripted shows really need dramatic music to move things along because what’s actually happening on screen is often very slow, so music has become very vital. And that’s seeped into other forms of longform filmmaking.

‘I would urge people to really think about the reason and the rationale for music because it can be so powerful and bring so much to a film if it’s used properly.’

I would ask people to really think about whether they need music. Which sounds strange for a composer to say, but I always remember there’s a great composer, Christopher Gordon, who I was talking to years ago when The Wire was on television. And there’s no score in that series. There’s a bit of licensed music but no actual score. And you don’t miss it! And Chris was saying this was his favourite show and it was so brave to make the decision not to have music. I hope I’m not writing myself out of a job here! But no, I don’t think there’s any chance of that. I would urge people to really think about the reason and the rationale for music because it can be so powerful and bring so much to a film if it’s used properly.

Finally, are there any last issues you’d like to raise about music and composing and the state of the industry right now?

I think the main issue in our industry, not just for composers, but everybody in the screen industry, is the rise of the streamers and how we work with that contractually to make sure we retain our rights.

As far as music is concerned, I think there’s a danger of music being really taken for granted because it’s become so cheap and easily accessible. We all enjoy music in our lives, and our lives would be absolutely the poorer without it. I’m probably preaching to the converted here, but music should be a thing that people are happy to pay for and, and appreciate and not just expect it to happen for free. There needs to be a fair model worked out in respect to streaming royalties and the whole business model, because it’s just a constant irony that the creators are at the bottom of the food chain, yet without the creators, there would be no food chain. In some ways we’ve gone back to those bad old days of really heinous, exploitative, recording contracts. And we don’t want to go back there. We want to evolve.

To listen to the original score for Babyteeth click hereAmanda Brown’s website is here.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram