US - Massachusetts - Luna Kafé - Full Moon 20 - 06/10/98
Though Mason Daring's extensive work on almost forty films, including the
Oscar-nominated Lone Star, TV's acclaimed miniseries From The Earth To The
Moon and the highly anticipated The Opposite Of Sex, would make anyone
think of him as a cinematic veteran, not a ripple of recognition floats
through the crowd at a Boston-area cafe on a particularly busy night.
Indeed, the role he plays in film is not that of weather-beaten leading
man, but in a role behind the camera you're supposed to notice only as you
would notice underlined text. His particular talent is that of music,
helping compose and select the music that best fleshes out the action on
Daring's talents and melodic abilites weren't always used in such a manner.
His "checkered background" includes stints as an entertainment lawyer and a
director of commercials, and some time paying dues as one-half of a folk
duo. "I worked my way through college and law school playing guitar. And I
started playing with Jeannie Stahl, and we did fairly well. We played all
around the Eastern Seaboard, Chicago, the midwest, and we got fairly
well-known...but we were never pop enough to break through the pop barrier,
and I was too pop to be comfortable with traditional folk."
The narrative structure of folk music and lyrics informed his work as a
film composer, to an extent. "Folk music is story telling, but it doesn't
always work combined with movies. The problem with music videos is, when
you have a video, that's what you're hearing. Pretty boring! Sometimes you
want what you're hearing to be an abstract ... But to have a realistic song
and seeing what's happening in front of you as what you're hearing. And a
lot of times, folk music doesn't work well in a movie. That's what the
movie's doing, and you don't need the words. It is a narrative, and that's
the magic. People go to concerts, as they have all around the world for
centuries, to hear someone sing a song about something because they want to
see the movie in their head while they hear it. They go to movies beacuse
it's not their mind's eye any more -- they can use their eyes and see
somebody else's mind's eye. They're two sides of the same coin."
Daring's best-known work has been with director John Sayles, with whom he's
collaborated since Sayles' first film, Return Of The Seacaucus Seven.
Interestingly, Sayles provided Daring with his ticket out of practicing
law. "I was his lawyer for the first film, Return of the Seacaucus Seven.
We ended up getting along very well, and he really enjoyed a few albums I
had out. He went really slowly because he hadn't earned the money to finish
it, and a year after cutting it, he called me and asked me if I would score
it. It was a $700 music budget. The movie did fairly well, and when his
second movie came out, he asked me if I'd do the music and be his lawyer. I
said, 'well, no, I don't want to be a lawyer any more, but I'll do the
How does working with a director like Sayles inform the music
created for a film? "The reason you really want to develop a long-term
relationship is because it's easier. You don't have to figure out what
people mean. You just get a sense of what they're looking for, you know
what they want music to do in their film and it makes your job a lot
easier. Takes a lot of the stress out, because you have a common ground
you've established. ... You really understand how they work, and that's
what it's all about."
The creative process involved in scoring a film starts, obviously, with
choosing the film.
"I wish I could be that sanguine about it!" Daring laughs when asked how he
decides which films to score. "Generally it's a business of relationships,
and ... the people you work with. Did you meet the director? Did you like
them? Do they like you? If you hit it off it's probably going to be a fine
job. Every now and then it might go south, but I've had very few bad
experiences. It's the people you work with more than the product, because
you don't really know what it's going to turn out like."
After that comes the work. "You get the film, you spot it, you figure where
the music is going to stop and start exactly, to the frame. Once you know
what kind of music it's going to be, then you'll try to temp it, try to
write a sketch at least to the director. And you go through several of
those - it depends on the director, it depends on how attuned you are. ...
You temp everything and you really try to do it according to that.
Sometimes you don't have quite as much time. I did an ABC-TV movie last
October and I can't tell you how brutal that was. It was a tough one. Two
weeks. When you're working for two weeks, you're working at a speed you
just can't believe. Try to do forty cues in two weeks -- you'll get pretty
ruined. You use the computer a lot, you use that to find your tempo maps.
(Those) are an important part of finding a cue, where you decide how much
you're going to hit in terms of cues. Let's say you've got a two-minute cue
where somebody gets off a bus, they walk through a door, they see somebody
they love, the kiss them, then they have an argument, and then they walk
away. All inside two minutes. What things are you going to do around that?
Are you going to change the music? You better, it doesn't sound like you're
going to get away with one piece of music for that. ... You have to change
your music at certain moments. So a tempo map will tell you how to do that.
How many beats you're going to play at what tempo, then you change your
beats, you go into 4/4, you go into 3/4 -- it's very involved. ..."
"Eventually you have to get around to the real recording, you actually have
to work, and you make it work perfectly. And when that's done, you mix it.
And then you submit it. And then it gets mixed into the movie, and you go
in for the dubbing. Go to the last day of the mix, talk about any changes
you have to make, and make last-minute changes. Really try to refine it and
refine it, and get to be as good as you can. Don't forget, once it's in the
movie, it's there forever."
Proving to be as savvy a businessman as he is a composer, Daring started a
record label to produce and distribute his soundtracks. "I started [Daring
Records] ... because I was playing folk music with Jeannie Stahl and I
wanted to put out our own record. At the same time I wanted to release
Lianna and Brother From Another Planet. ... I started it for my own
soundtracks, and then I became interested in some of the artists who were
playing on my soundtracks. There's Billy Novick, who's a great clarinet
player, plays with Guy Van Dusen, who was a slide guitarist. Guys like
Butch Thompson, who was on the Prarie Home Companion show, he was the
bandleader for years and years. He's one of the foremost Jelly Roll Morton
stylist, a great stride pianist. I started with Butch and I started with
Billy, and then I went on to Duke Levine, and he's a great guitar player,
done three allbums with me. He plays with Mary-Chapin Carpenter. And he
plays all over my stuff - he's the lead guitarist on Lone Star and Passion
Fish. I use this as an outlet for some of my scores as well, and then it
just got out of control. One of my jazz artists was doing ten albums a
year! It caught up with me eventually and I found I couldn't sell as many
albums as I needed to, and I really slowed down. That's because the record
situation has changed in America. Now I'm going online and sell (the
records) on the net, and see if I'll increase my artists or not. I've
released thirty or forty titles out, and three years ago I put out an album
called It's What We Do, it's a sampler, one cut from every kind of music. I
sell the sampler for $5, and people buy that, and then they call back and
get lots of stuff. There's a guy named Frankie, who's a cool singer, who
sells a lot on the web, and then there's Jeannie Stahl, who's a great
singer. ... It became the tail wagging the dog. I never set out to run a
record company, I don't care for that. And I'm not all that interested in
producing records - I've produced a lot of records in my day. I used to
really be into pop production, and I own a recording studio, but the
studio's really just for me. And I find producing records sometimes a bit
precoius now. The thrill is is gone for me. I would rather just write
music. The record company is something that's run by a few guys who work
for me, and we'll see what happens in a couple of weeks."
The conversation with Daring is peppered with anecdotes about the films
he's worked on and the great people he's worked with. While he might come
off as someone who thinks highly of himself, he's quick to praise those
talents he's worked with, and to note his luck in the field of music
composition - a vocation of which there are few success stories. "Most
people that have written music have done so by benevolence of some sort.
Bach, Beethoven -- they by and large wrote music because they got grants
from royalty. They got a comission. If you're a modern composer, you
(still) get a comission, you get it from the NEA, or the NEH ... with me,
it's a little different. I get a job. They give me a film and say, 'write
this'. I get paid money to write music. Now I have to make some compromises
and I have to write music to fit the film. There's a lot of business
problems and a lot of stress, but it's really me. I get paid to write
music. Nobody does. That's a bizarre profession. It's really silly
sometimes, but it's great, great fun, and I enjoy it. Writing this past
winter for From the Earth to the Moon and The Blouseman was the most fun
I've ever had."
Where might you next hear Daring's film scores? Two films for which he has
provided music, The Opposite of Sex and The Blouseman, are set for American
release this summer, and he's headed off to Alaska to work on John Sayles'
next film, Limbo. While Daring has an obvious passion for his job, some of
his greatest loves are off-set. "I'm forty-eight, and I'm not sure I want
to spend all my time (working on movies). I work a lot, and I want to work
a little less. You spend all your time trying to have a name, and I'm not
famous, but I find it a bit easier to get work than I used to. I'm not sure
I want to walk away from that, but part of me would like to ride
motorcycles and go fishing for a living."
Copyright © 1998 Chelsea