How to Get into Film Music – A Hollywood Film Composer Interviewed

American composer Matthew Margeson has written and arranged scores for some of the movie industry’s most memorable recent productions, including the X-Men series, Kick-Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Service. We chat to him about his career and the route to the Hollywood big time…

Margeson studied Film Music at Berklee College Of Music and then moved to Los Angeles and began an unpaid internship at Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions studios, where he worked under the tutelage of seminal film composers Klaus Badelt, Henry Jackman and Jim Dooley.

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Margeson knuckled down, proved his worth and in 2010, was invited to score the alien-invasion movie Skyline. Since then, he’s never looked back.

The versatile composer has supplied music for TV shows and video games, and he recently composed the score for Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, as well as working on the soundtrack for Rings, the horror prequel to The Ring franchise.

MusicTech: How did you become interested in film music?

Matthew Margeson: A big part of it was working in a video-rental store as a teenager. It was a very small, hole-in-the wall shop and I was not only watching the movies that were coming out at the time, but diving into some of the old Spaghetti Westerns and film noirs, listening and learning about the different film-music techniques that were going on and being curious about them.

MT: But it was the college route where you started considering it as a profession…

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MM: I went to Berklee College Of Music up in Boston and studied Film Music. I did a Dual Major – one of them was Film Music, which involved a lot of analysis, listening to and dissecting scores and having conversations about scores and the different techniques that people used; and composition, which was more focused on the instruments themselves and different composition techniques.

At 22 or 23, I realised that I needed to move to Los Angeles if I really wanted to give this film music thing a shot, so I literally threw everything I could fit into a truck, bought a map and hit the road.

MT: How did you get your first job in the industry?

MM: I found an internship on Craigslist for a composer based in Santa Monica. It was an unpaid internship where I could hang and learn if I wanted to. After a couple of months, I think I created some value for myself just by being the guy behind the guy helping to get things done around the studio and was offered a paid position.

I was just helping to maintain the studios and doing software updates. When there was a new piece of gear, I’d learn it, hook it up and start figuring out the tech side of things. 13 years later, I’m still at the same studio, just in a slightly different role!

MT: How did your first big project come about?

MM: I wasn’t actually scoring Ultraviolet, but the composer needed guitar and synth sounds, so it was more about programming different synthesisers and samplers and making sounds and software instruments for the people writing the score to use.

Sometimes, we’d have a guitar player come in and just jam and I’d record the sounds, chop them up, manipulate them and make them into playable instruments that we could put into the studios for the composers to utilise.

MT: How did you work your way up the ladder?

MM: I was working for Jim Dooley and I’d get to do the odd night where I would write percussion for a piece that he’d done, or he’d write a piece and leave out the brass and I’d work on that. It became an apprenticeship position, which was really valuable because I was getting to be creative and getting a taste of how things worked. It was just a natural progression from then, flushing or orchestrating sketches out that would turn into pieces of music for films or games.

After that, it’s just a relationship game; forming relationships with different clients, producers or directors and maintaining those when you’re not working for them. There are lots of people in the world that can write fantastic music, but that’s only a part of getting work and being successful at it.

MT: What was your breakthrough piece of work as ‘full’ composer?

MM: I did a movie in 2010 called Skyline. I’d been working with the composer Brian Tyler on a couple of films, helping him doing arrangements and orchestrations. He had a full plate at the time and the movie was offered to him, but for scheduling reasons he wasn’t able to do it. Because I’d being working so closely with him, he suggested to the film company that I do it.

It was a little bit of a leap of faith on their part, but I was able to get it done on time and everybody was happy with it. It’s a lot of weight on your shoulders, especially with the time-crunch demands.

film music studio shots

When you’re given a score that’s 80 minutes of music and you only have one or two months to do it, it’s a tall order, especially if it’s fully orchestral or a hybrid of synthetic and orchestral music. It’s not only the writing of the music, but just keeping track of everything, because you have people helping you make sounds.

MT: How much does the size of the budget impact?

MM: Sometimes, it can affect the sound of the score. If I can’t afford a big orchestra, I might rely on something less traditional or have to spend a little bit more time programming a sampled orchestra to sound a real as it can be.

If you’re doing an indie film with a very low budget, you might have a director over your shoulder listening to the music and giving you directions; but on massive studio films, you might have three music executives from Fox, the head of production, the production team itself, the director, editor and associate producers all wanting to give their two cents. Most of the time, as the budget increases, so does the pressure.

MT: What’s the biggest film you’ve worked on?

MM: Kingsman: The Secret Service. At the time, no one knew how big it was going to be or how audiences would react, but it turned out to have a very positive reaction from the general public. This past year, I’ve worked on Tim Burton’s latest film Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, and that was a pretty massive production – a beautiful movie with a lot of very expensive set pieces.

MT: How much of the Final Cut do you get to see in a typical project?

MM: Usually, I’ll get a copy of the entire film, but I’ll start working on it before it’s a finished product. There may be a green screen floating around for different special effects or opportunities to score a scene and three weeks later, they’ll recut it and move some dialogue so I have to adjust the music accordingly, because it might not fit anymore. It’s a very fluid process: you’re continually writing new music for scenes you haven’t scored yet, but you’re also chasing your tail as things change earlier in the film.

MT: Being in the industry, do you get the chance to chat to other composers and hear their perspective on things?

MM: Absolutely. I’d say most of my social circle in LA is music editors or other composers. It’s a very small world and a tight-knit family, so we do lean on each other’s shoulders most of the time.

The industry changes every decade and you have people now like Jonny Greenwood, Trent Reznor and a whole lot of pop and rock musicians getting into it and bringing something to the table that traditional composers might not. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to collaborate with these people and throw around musical ideas that we might not traditionally think of.

MT: Are there any movie franchises or films you’d love to score?

MM: It’s funny you mention that, because a couple of years ago I was asked a very similar question and my answer was that I’d love to score a James Bond film, because it has really classy action and sexy 1960s jazz chords played by an orchestra you rarely hear in scores anymore.

film music studio

But ironically, I was hired to write the score for Kingsman and was able to make a really strong nod to those genre spy films of the 60s and 70s. So I was able to cross that off my bucketlist. I haven’t done much work in animation, which is something I’d love to explore in the future.

MT: What software DAW do you use to score?

MM: I primarily write in Cubase, but there’s a whole lot of other pieces of software floating around. All the samplers and sounds from Cubase are outputted into Pro Tools, which is like a big tape machine for me, and that’s where I do a lot of the mixing.

When I was in college, I wrote on Digital Performer and when I first moved to LA, started writing on Logic, but when I started writing for Jim Dooley I switched to Cubase, fell in love with it and never turned back.

MT: What about plug-ins?

MM: I think the frontrunner right now is Kontakt. Nearly all of the libraries that come up, both by Native Instruments and third-party, are making them for Kontakt. For the most part, it’s a very intuitive sampler.

Not only can you open many great instruments but, in terms of advice, I’d suggest that anyone looking to get into this industry learns Kontakt.

MT: You have some vintage synths that were used on a very 80s soundtrack…

MM: They absolutely were. When I started working on Eddie The Eagle, we weren’t quite sure if it was going to be a traditional orchestral score or something a little bit more ‘genre’.

When we decided to commit to the 80s thing, I went out and got a bunch of these old digital 80s synths that were all sitting in people’s garages covered in dust. I also used an old Roland Jupiter, and one of the newer synths that came in quite handy for a lot of the bass sounds was the Moog Sub 37.

MT: You have four screens set up – how do you employ them?

MM: I have three 30-inch screens. The one in the middle and the one on the right are both Cubase screens. I have my main arrange windows in the centre and all sorts of things on the right screen, such as tempo maps, mixers and different plug-ins I can pop up on the touchscreen.

On the left screen is my Pro Tools mixer, so all the audio from different samplers, synths and sources comes into Pro Tools and I can do some mixing. It holds my video, too, which is outputted to a 70-inch Samsung LCD monitor above my centre screen.

MT: What other projects do you have coming up?

MM: I’m just finishing up a score for Rings, which is the third in the Japanese franchise, The Ring. We’re just getting ready to record the orchestra for that next week and we’ll see it in theatres at the end of October. After Rings, I’m going to be starting up another collaboration with Henry Jackman to do the score for Kingsman 2.

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