Waffling With Soundtrack Composer Megan Cavallari

We spoke to composer Megan Cavallari about her diverse career.






Interview by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)


Hey Megan, can you tell us how you first became interested in music?

As long as I can remember I have loved music. In the second grade Ms. Mengenie had us sit in a circle and go around and say what we wanted to be when we grew up. The boys said "rich or a fireman," all the girls said "a mommy," but I said "I am going to be Leonard Bernstein". Everyone laughed at me so I walked out of the classroom angry and walked home. My parents were very proud. They too were huge Bernstein fans.



How did you develop a love of music into a career?

Before I even had a piano I wrote songs in a binder. Once my grandmom brought me a piano, for $150, I could not get off of it.  My parents would try to get me to go to a school dance but I was too busy composing. I had radar focus even as a teenager. My first real composing job was when I was 15 where half the adults running the theatre wanted me to compose and write the lyrics to the big spring musical and the other half did not. I was in the room and people were arguing about my talent or lack or talent. They went with me and I got paid $75. I realized I could get paid for doing what I loved and not every one was into my work - two very important lessons. The trick was just to find my people.



You've worked alongside soundtrack titans Danny Elfman and Jerry Goldsmith. What did you learn from those experiences?

My first job was working working with Danny Elfman on Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. I had a musical reading at the Mark Taper Forum at the time. I worked with him until Dolores Claiborne. Working and watching Danny taught me how to score. He loved to work with the same people many times so there was a shorthand with the directors. He is a lot more versatile than people think. He has a mischievous quality to many of his scores and his own unique voice. Also my mentor Richard Kraft knows everything under the sun about film scoring; we would listen to all kinds of scores together. Jerry Goldsmith's technique to writing music was different, extremely focused. He could work with anyone. Both Elfman and Goldsmith thought in terms of the characters' point of view and creating the tone of the movie. Danny is a genius and Jerry was one too. I am the luckiest person in the planet to have worked for them and learned from them. That was my film score college. I also worked with Ed Shearmur who is an amazing talent.



We're told that less than 1% of composers are women. Why do you think that is?

I don't worry about the 1% of women working as composers in my field because to me it's about how Hollywood has the best composers on the planet. Competition is the name of the game and you will be rejected a lot, so don't dwell. Just meet people and follow up. A lot of directors like to work with their composer, who is a man. I have plenty of directors, music supervisors, producers, show runners and Kraft-Engel on my side. When it comes down to it: you sell you. People are going to be spending a lot of time with you. They need to trust you and know you will deliver the score they envision - even better. Your demos have to be exactly right. I am humble and thankful that I have made my living writing music for television and features and anything else that gets thrown my way. Being a woman means nothing to me. I play on a men's ice hockey team. Maybe I just like guy things.



What do you think makes a good soundtrack composer?

A great film score takes the film to another level. You can't watch Jaws and not think of the low haunting strings which begin slow and become fasters, just like your heart beat. The solo trumpet in Chinatown, by Jerry, besides being an exquisite melody, it has a loneliness to it. You can't watch Pee Wee's Great Adventure without Danny's score. The Shawshank Redemption's score by Thomas Newman is chilling and hits every dramatic beat with heartache and grace.



Are there any composers you look up to in particular?

I look up up to so many composers, there is not enough time to name them all. I love TV composers too. Nathan Barr, Michael Skloff, Sam KS, Jimmy Levine and John Swilhart are some of my favourites but there are many more. I will watch a movie that has a one star rating if I love the composer. I listen to it all and learn from it.



You've scored a lot of kids' shows. Does this require a different approach to scoring more adult oriented drama?

I have scored family entertainment but also films like Sex, Drugs and Guns. It is the same process. You get a script, you spot the movie with the director (feature) or show runner (TV, execs), deliver a first draft of ideas, re-write, record, mix deliver to post. TV can be faster than post but in TV you can use cues from before and adjust them. The most important thing is collaboration. Are you enhancing the director's vision? Is he/she excited about the score or song. Have you set the tone? Are there character themes working or are there no character themes. Are you making the funny parts funnier? Have you created the right emotion for the audience? That is what you strive for - all of it.



You've been the official composer for the LA kings Ice Hockey team for 10 years now. What does this role involve?

As the LA Kings composer I have done everything from ads at Staples with the players, Bailey (mascot), opening music, anything they ask for. I also have written for the Washington Caps minor league. I grew up in Philly so ice hockey is in my gene pool.



You're set to write the songs and score for the upcoming animated feature Jacob Marley. What can you tell us about this project?

I am thrilled to be writing the songs for the animated feature Jacob Marley with the director Russ Francis. We will write the songs this year and I will score the feature next year. It will be released in 2017. Jacob Marley was Scrooge's partner, so it is a lot like the musical Wicked, a famous story told from another character's point of view. The team is fantastic. Russ is the visionary. I am fortunate to be on such a great team. We are also using a nice size Los Angeles orchestra and recording at my favorite studio, Capital. Everything is first rate. All I need to do is deliver an Oscar winning score and song and then look for my next gig. You have to dream big!



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