“I love the energy loop that’s created when you get people fired up,” Miriam Cutler says, explaining what drew her into a most unexpected professional journey. For over twenty years, Cutler has beaten the odds to make a successful career as a film composer in Hollywood. And she’s managed to do so working only on socially-relevant documentaries she believes in.
Statistics alone suggest the former UCLA anthropology major and political activist had to face staggering obstacles to get to where she is today as an award-winning creator of musical scores. Of the 250 most successful films ever made, only 3% of them featured women composers, according to a 2016 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
As such, despite having to follow a “mountainous, curvy trail” to established herself in the film world, Cutler has made a practice of encouraging other composers in their careers – particularly women. She’s a founding member of the Alliance for Women Film Composers, a creative advisor with the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Music Program, and a longtime Board member of the Society of Composers and Lyricists. In 2013, she became a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Documentary Branch.
Cutler’s success stems from her innate blend of virtuosity, curiosity, and drive to help save the world. Similarly, her lush, compelling scores defy easy categorization: she’s as likely to blend classical themes with synthesizer drones, or lush vocals with ethnic instruments – often in the same cue. In that spirit, Cutler can move fearlessly yet subtly from stirring to sinister, but only if it supports the narrative onscreen.
That’s clear from the enthralling scores she’s contributed to groundbreaking films like HBO’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Ethel (each with Cutler’s frequent collaborator, director Rory Kennedy) and 2017’s ecological exposé A Plastic Ocean. In 2015, Cutler won the Hollywood Music in Media Award for best original documentary score for her work on The Hunting Ground. She may also be the world’s only composer to have created music for circuses, documentaries, and singing telegrams.
Despite these achievements, Cutler might never have discovered her passion for scoring documentary films if not for a life-changing visit to the Sundance Film Festival. While active in academia and social movements, Cutler simultaneously played in bands like Oingo Boingo (alongside another future film composer, Danny Elfman) and her own feminist-ragtime ensemble Alice Stone. After a chance meeting with director Arthur Dong, however, Cutler went on to score Dong’s next film, Licensed to Kill – a powerful investigative documentary about the murderers of gay men.
Licensed to Kill went on to great acclaim after appearing at Sundance in 1997. Attending the festival with Dong, Cutler found herself welcomed into a like-minded filmmaking community: she credits that moment for bringing her to where she is today. An in-demand lecturer, advisor, teacher, and sometimes producer in addition to composer, Cutler remains tirelessly committed. With two Corgis licking her feet in the studio dominating her Mar Vista, California backyard, she continues imagining music she hopes helps audiences not just see films, but feel them enough to open their minds.
CreativeFuture: Where did your talent to match music to images come from?
Miriam Cutler: When I was little, I only had a couple records. One was this recording of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, which was the score for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. After listening to it millions of times, it shaped how I think about music as a storytelling tool. A story might be common, but add music and… Wow! It comes alive.
CF: Did you always want to do music?
MC: I had no idea. I was just curious about everything. My career incorporates everything that I am – all my interests and talents – but I fell into it, really.
CF: What in your background pointed to who you’d become?
MC: I was born in Amityville, New York, but grew up in Altadena, California, and came from a very musical family. My parents were all about business – they didn’t consider music to be something one did as, you know, a career. Still, we all played instruments. Being Jewish had a lot to do with it, too. Social justice was a big part of our temple’s mission, and my mother was very socially conscious. She protested against Franco and Hitler in her college days!
CF: Did you study music?
MC: I had a very good piano teacher, but stopped taking lessons when I was eleven. Still, I always thought I’d major in music. Then when I went to UCLA, I took a music course, which was basic theory. I really, really hated it! I changed my major to anthropology and got into activism. I stayed at UCLA for graduate work in anthropology. Much to my father’s chagrin, I left before finishing my master’s. I did all the coursework, but never got the degree. All my classmates were from Ivory Tower colleges; I was more intrigued with mixing creativity and advocacy.
CF: What causes were you fighting for?
MC: Reforming the criminal justice system. In the ‘70s, I was more into using my education and creating strategic actions and legal approaches than marching. I and some other UCLA social science students actually went undercover in L.A. County jails. They thought we were just silly college students doing a class report, but then we wrote a paper about prisoners not convicted of any crime having their constitutional rights violated. It got written about in the L.A. Times! Then a friend of mine was raped and murdered, so I got involved with an anti-rape crisis group.
CF: How did you go from activism to music?
MC: I was really happy doing activist work – working with some amazing public interest lawyers. But I was also in three bands at the same time. One day, I realized I just wanted to do music. I quit my job and started down this whole other path. I joined Oingo Boingo because they wanted women musicians, and someone had seen me perform. I walked into my audition and there was my friend Steve Bartek, Danny’s collaborator in Oingo Boingo, now an orchestrator and a composer in his own right. We’d met in college playing in, like, Greek and Balkan music ensembles, as we shared an interest in ethnic music. I remember Danny came back from world travels with all these instruments, which they used in Oingo Boingo.
CF: How was it suddenly being in a rock band with other powerful musical personalities?
MC: I loved how Oingo Boingo was so wild and free. At that time, it was as much a guerilla street theater group as it was a rock band. I mean that quite literally: we wore gorilla costumes during performances! At our first rehearsal, Danny just handed me a saxophone and we just started playing. I might point out that, at the time, I didn’t actually play saxophone. But Danny and I are similar in this way. It doesn’t really matter to us: we just understand music genetically. We both have the same attitude: “Give me any instrument, and I’ll figure out how to do something with it.” [laughs]
CF: He’s in touch with his musical id.
MC: Me, too! With us, music is just so easy and natural. Production is the hard part, but writing is just the easiest thing. It’s part of me, and just flows out. I’m lucky that way.
CF: How did this transition period ultimately work out?
MC: It was hard. I got kicked out of Alice Stone, left the Boingo, started my own band, got some songs in movies… Still, I felt like I couldn’t get any traction. I just said, “I give up.” I’d developed this idea in my head that music was trying to kill me… So I decided to just get a job. I ended up working at a singing telegram company.
CF: I can’t even imagine what that was like.
MC: I thought the songs could be better, so I started writing them new ones. We created acts and did amazing live performances, so we started getting hired for product promotions. I wrote a whole Wizard of Oz-themed presentation for Pioneer Chicken! I hired actors, a trombone band which I played clarinet with, and directed it – it was crazy. I was heading for a job in advertising, but then realized that I didn’t want to do that.
MC: When you’re creative, you discover you can do all these things – but that doesn’t mean you should. You have to figure out what you want to do. I was falling into things, and I’d be good at them. I could’ve been a dairy farmer if I’d decided to. But what did I want to do? That’s the harder part.
CF: What was your big break?
MC: I was working for these public interest lawyers, but I kept tripping over music. I met Arthur Dong at a screening for another film I’d scored. He told me about this film, Licensed to Kill, where he was going to prisons to interview men who had murdered gay men. And of course, as I’m passionate about social justice, he stimulated the activist in me and made me want to do the film. Then it got into Sundance and won two awards!
CF: What was the resulting impact on your career?
MC: While I’d become solvent as a composer of film scores in my thirties, doing horror movies, mediocre docs, corporate stuff, Arthur was already a respected filmmaker and director. So when I went to Sundance and I met the documentary people there, it all came together for me. It was astonishing: I’d found what I’d been looking for my whole life! This community truly shared my values. I learned from it as much as I contributed to it: the colleagues I met then, they really schooled me. I’d found my tribe.
CF: You were ready to make a change.
MC: Well, I couldn’t make a living. What I realize now, looking back, I learned a lot about being a self-starter, being independent, creating my own niche. That’s my advice to young people: take responsibility. There’s no career path you can just walk into. You’ve got to figure out how you’re going to make it happen, how you’re going to survive, and what makes you happy.
CF: How do film composers actually make a living from what they do?
MC: My friends call me the “blue-collar composer.” [laughs] I couldn’t survive If I had to live on what I make from film budgets. My copyrights are responsible for half my income. They’re mine. I created them and decide what to do with them. I own 90% of my music. We’re talking hundreds of scores and songs. A lot of it is now placed in libraries, getting sync licenses – all of which brings in revenue I depend on.
I might make more money in the short term if I did more work-for-hires. But because I control almost all of my copyrights, I’m able to choose which projects I can commit to. That allows me to put more of a film’s budget into making the music better. I’m really into collaboration, not a paycheck. I could take more upfront, or we could hire a string section. That’s what a filmmaker gets by being fair and allowing me to keep my rights. I’d rather do that and keep the back end. That will help support me for many years to come.
CF: What projects are you working on now?
MC: I’m serving as both co-producer and composer on a film called Dark Money. A friend has been working on it for four years and I’ve been helping anyway I can. It’s about untraceable money in campaign financing, involving Citizens United and using Montana specifically as a case study.
CF: I’m trying to imagine what the music to that scenario would sound like.
MC: As a film composer, my job is to also make the film watchable. I can help with pacing. I can help it be exciting and emotional. The audience needs to feel it. We don’t want people to think about statistics in this film. We want them to think of people’s lives and what’s being destroyed because of these laws.
CF: In the master classes and seminars you teach, how do you help students understand something as seemingly unteachable as composing music for documentaries?
MC: First, I call it musical storytelling. I named it that because I’m trying to get composers and filmmakers to talk about it that way. I like teaching composers how to work with filmmakers so they’re coming from the same place – and vice versa. ¬It’s easy to go into that relationship unprepared.
CF: So if I’m a novice documentary filmmaker, what do I need to think about when it comes to music?
MC: First, don’t worry about talking in musical terms. If you can hear something, and react to it, then we can stop the tape and you can say, “I didn’t like that.” I can help you discover what exactly you want. Both film composers and filmmakers have to learn how to articulate and talk about music. But it’s hard, because it’s abstract.
I might be thinking Debussy, while the director’s thinking of Jimi Hendrix. I’ve had that happen. Really, to be a successful, working composer, one must be very clever at so many things. There’s an entrepreneur aspect to it. You need business skills to create a system to monetize your work, or it won’t happen. It’s amazing how many skills you need!
CF: People probably think you sit down with a finished film and then scribble your score on sheets of paper. How is scoring different today?
MC: Because we have these digital systems, I can go back in and chop it up. All of my mixes are automated, and I have all the stuff recorded, so I can cut and paste. I can grab something from here and there and make something new with it.
CF: It sounds like you have to be very flexible.
MC: Very. If we’re on deadline to make Sundance, I know the filmmakers will be editing up to the very last second. If I want any chance to develop good, musical ideas, then I need more time. I start with whatever they’ll give me. I like to work to picture – even if in sections – because that gives me a feel for the way the footage looks. Really, any information I can get my hands on informs what I do.
CF: So you work as you get material – sometimes without even seeing footage?
MC: Yes. Once, I worked off a paper edit. If that’s all I have, that’s what I work with. If they send me a rough assembly of the first act, when I send back music, it’s to picture, so they can cut it up and use it throughout the film. This way, we start collaborating on themes and motifs, and we’re all on the same page.
CF: How does your process begin, exactly?
MC: Every film is different. I believe in a highly structured, organized score that doesn’t just move from cue to cue, but brings the film together in a holistic way. I just try to be open to what the film’s asking me for. I might start out with an abstract concept, or something to inspire me.
For A Plastic Ocean, I listened to a ton of Debussy, like “La Mer.” It’s so descriptive: you can hear the movie going on in Debussy’s head as it plays! It’s very modern, with complex chordal structures and stuff – but above all, you hear the ocean. Debussy is a storyteller: when you can hear the waves crashing like you do in his music, that’s just fantastic storytelling! From there, I start making stems of sketches and ideas. This way, the editor can use my music in the first pass.
CF: Does your experience being in bands ever come into play?
MC: I make scores the way I’d make an album. I never limit creativity. But until the director gives final approval, it’s all on MIDI [Musical Instrument Digital Interface, which translates musical notation into digital information, allows composers to hear scores immediately as they write and control instruments remotely]. I mock up the entire score so that the filmmaker can understand my ideas. Then I bring in live instruments to replace most of the MIDI: strings, pianos, percussion, guitar, anything really, and I build as we go. I’m involved in every note until we’ve overdubbed the entire movie.
CF: Have any projects proved particularly meaningful for you?
MC: [Director] Rory [Kennedy] is an incredible journalist who really gets access that no one else can. When she made The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, it truly moved me. I’m very proud of that. And I grew up during the Kennedy era, so the loss of innocence in Ethel also really resonated for me. And One Lucky Elephant was a true labor of love. In the ten years it took to make, I got to explore feelings that began when I was composing for a working circus that used animals. I learned so much about how much social grace and brilliance elephants have – as well as the ethics involved in training wild animals to perform. Honestly, I have a major love affair with every film I work on.
CF: After the success you had, why not branch out and start scoring, say, scripted features with bigger budgets?
MC: People think it’s unusual that I just do documentaries, but I just have an affinity for independent filmmakers. I’m both an activist and a composer: I need the combination of social consciousness and music documentaries give me. I get so inspired by filmmakers, I try to become their partner. They’re real heroes, with all the qualities I admire. They’re brave, true, good – and they never give up!