In a previous post I mentioned that my political ad work began with a spot for Al Gore's 1988 presidential campaign. After meeting producer/director Chris Mottola, I was soon composing for Republicans as well.
Our relationship was effortless from day one: Chris has an encyclopedic knowledge of film and film music and would often suggest a specific scoring approach or technique. By the time he asked me to score series of radio and TV spots for George W. Bush's 2004 reelection campaign we had worked together on countless projects and he had established himself in the upper echelon of media consultants, so I wasn't surprised when he called again in March of 2008 to ask if I'd be interested in scoring an ad for Republican presidential nominee John McCain.
The spot was titled "624787," referencing McCain's Navy serial number. The initial cut I received was rough, and included a scratch narration read by audio engineer Paul Byers. As usual, Chris had a direction in mind for the music. We both admired Philip Glass' 2002 score for The Hours, and Chris thought that a similar approach could be used to project strength and resolve while providing a sense of forward motion. He stressed that my score would have to compliment the rich voice of actor/narrator Powers Boothe, and that it should leave sufficient space for the lo-fi audio in the black & white interview footage that appears at the climax of the spot to be intelligible.
I began by writing a Glass-esque string ostinato to accompany McCain's opening remarks. The simple clarinet melody that follows was inspired by Glass' score for The Fog of War and brings a sense of Americana that gains a heroic aspect when echoed on trumpet. The melody is then picked up by French horn to signal seriousness and resolve, setting up the strings to swell into the spot's climax. I struggled with the interview scene that comes next, but the look of the final graphic (and McCain's military background) made a powerful, percussion-driven ending an obvious choice. I mixed a synth mockup of the work in progress and sent it to Hope Krosskove, who was co-producing, assisting, and generally running interference for Chris at the time.
Hope loved the track, but expressed concerns about how I was handling the music during the interview scene. She felt that the score should be lighter under that dialog, and that the transition needed to happen sooner, right on the cut to the black & white footage. She was absolutely right. I suspended the orchestration on that cut and let a simple, repeating piano figure fade into the moment McCain gives his serial number. Hope approved the change and sent the revised demo to Chris, who emailed to say that he "got chills" when he heard it. Knowing that the track would be even stronger if I replaced some of the sampled instruments with live players, I persuaded Chris to give me an extra day to add Ron Kerber on clarinet, Dennis Wasko on trumpet, Greg Teperman on violin, and Tony Pirollo on 'cello. Now the icing was on the cake.
A few days later Chris informed me that this would be the first spot released by McCain in the general election. I was elated, and watched with special interest as it hit the airwaves and was scrutinized by media pundits. The initial reviews were generally positive, praising in particular the spot's film-like production values. But a controversy arose when bloggers suggested that the line "The American president Americans have been waiting for" was a nod to those (like Donald Trump) who were questioning Obama's nationality. The campaign denied the allegation, but it became the focus of the chattering class and probably prevented the spot from receiving wider and more sustained airplay.
I was just happy to have hit a home run for Chris, who I count among the most intelligent producers I've had the privilege of working with. He's taught me a lot over the years, perhaps most importantly that micromanaging rarely yields a better product. You provide your creative team with clear direction and let them do their thing. If more producers took that approach they'd save time and money while sparing themselves a good deal of stress--and they'd probably wind up with better productions.
Chuck Butler is celebrating his 30th anniversary as Baker Sound's in-house composer. For more information about Baker's music division, visit our dedicated MONSTER TRACKS website.