O Zoo: The Making of a Documentary Film Music

by Tucker Zimmerman

I want to take you into the actual process of working on music for a film. I want to do this with a piece of music that I am not so pleased with. This is intentional. I had a lot of trouble with this film music. The film was made by Philip Hoffman, a Canadian filmmaker. In Canada, Phil met Peter Greenaway who liked his work and invited him to come to Holland to make a documentary on the shooting of his new film which was A Zed and Two Noughts.  Phil shot his documentary in the summer of 1985, and at the end of that summer he came to me from London, where he had met a mutual friend who told him of a composer living in Belgium who writes a similar kind of serial music that Greenaway used in his film.

At this point Phil and I didn’t know each other. This was our first meeting. One of the things I sensed about Phil was that for me to write successful music for his film I would have to become his friend. This was not as drastic as it may sound. We did become friends—and not only because of the work we did on the music for this film. However, everything that Phil does is personal. And in many ways, at the start at least, this was a difficult situation to be put in. It is much easier if the relationship between filmmaker and composer is detached. Then it is simply a transaction.

As it turned out, Phil had four days to spend with me. And for the first three days I think I drove him crazy because I refused to talk about music, film music, or even the specific work at hand. So we had conversations about other things. I had him doing other things, such as playing baseball (he is not the first filmmaker I have subjected to my baseball test, nor will he be the last—I can tell a lot about a person once I get him or her out throwing a baseball). Later Phil told me that he had serious doubts about my own sanity, about my capabilities—whether I knew how to write music for films at all.

Finally, on the last day we got down to talking about his film. We went to the RTB in Liege where I had the use of a Steenbeck, and I saw the unedited footage on the small screen. After the screening, I was not sure I could do the job. I must say that when I look at most films the first time, I know what needs to be done and how to do it. With Phil’s film I didn’t know what I was looking at. I’d never seen this kind of work before. It was not just a question of what kind of music I would write, but if I could do it at all. I wasn’t sure I was the right person for this job.

One of the first things we discussed was the music of Michael Nyman, the composer of Greenaway’s film. Phil thought that my music should somehow connect with Nyman’s. He wanted something with a mechanical nature to it. My first reaction was that Phil’s film did not need minimal music, that it was not a ‘minimal’ film, that it needed another kind of music.

Another element that became important was that this was the first time that Phil had worked with a composer. He had used music in some of his previous films—one features a saxophone solo— but it was done without a great deal of preparation. This new film would demand a composed score.

So understandably, Phil was a little nervous about this new adventure. And he reacted by wanting too much control over the music. He had these elaborate charts. Music should be here and music should be there. Which is OK. If a filmmaker says he wants 37 seconds of music at this point here, and another piece of music over here for 13.5 seconds, that’s no problem. But if he gets too specific about how all these various pieces should be related—and not only in musical terms—then the job becomes too restrictive. The composer is shut out of the process and his input is denied. This is a trap that Phil fell into with his unbelievable schemes which I couldn’t decipher. And this is getting back to what we talked about before about trust — learning to trust the composer and letting him get the job done. Phil couldn’t trust me, and as it turned out, he found he couldn’t trust himself either. In any case I agreed to do the music, still unsure I could, thinking maybe that I was jumping off a cliff.

Phil returned to Canada and then began a series of long telephone calls. The plans kept changing and the phone bills kept going up. We exchanged letters with a lot of conflicting decisions. We were wasting time. He told me later that he was confused about the music. He admitted it.

(Later, when I did the music for his next film, he gave me total freedom and the music came out quickly and we were both pleased with the result.)

Anyway—concerning the film we were working on back then—the film presented certain problems to me that I wasn’t sure how to solve. It was supposedly a documentary about the making of a feature length fictional film. It’s called ?O,Zoo!, and subtitled: The Making of a Fiction Film. But what Phil did was a lot more than that. He created a fictional documentary. A documentary is one thing, but a fictional documentary is something else. For example, let’s take the opening sequence. The old footage that his grandfather, who was a newsreel reporter, had shot a long time ago and which Phil discovered in his attic. As you quickly find out, there is no grandfather, there is no attic and there is no old footage. You begin to see that this is all something that Phil has created himself. It is imaginary. Then you start realizing, you say “What’s going on here?” And what is going on is that he’s playing around with the documentary, with its traditions, while making a fiction film.

Now for the music. Phil is saying ‘mechanical’ and I still don’t know what to do. I’m struggling, trying out this and that kind of music and unsure of what I’m doing.

Another problem was that Phil had shot some of the same things Greenaway had shot and would probably use in his film—from a different angle and not all of the time—for as you will see, Phil spent a lot of time with his camera doing other things, which at first sight might appear to be unrelated to the Greenaway film, but which in fact are not. You have the scene with the tigers. What does Phil do? He goes around to the back of the cage where the tigers are waiting and gets into a conversation with two boys. Those scenes Phil shot on set were the same as Greenaway, and to which Nyman would probably write his own music. So the problem here is twofold. First, I don’t know what music Nyman will compose, and second I must compose my own music for a different ‘angle,’ just as Phil’s camera was shooting that scene from a different angle.

Finally Phil and I established the idea that we would start with ‘source’ and move away from that and progressively deeper into the illustrative (or a non-real music). I was talking earlier about sound effects and how music can be mixed with good result with natural sound. So we started with the water sprinklers. Tapping and making a spraying sound. Of course this is not the real sound of water sprinklers. This is the noise generator on my synthesizer making a ‘false’ sound effect. This tapping allowed me to establish the pulse of the first piece and I moved on from there, inwards, into the illustrative. The plan was then to get progressively deeper into the illustrative until you reach the end where the boy is walking with his grandfather, coming home from a fishing trip, and you’re hearing music that is almost straight out of a Hollywood film from the 40s or 50s, if not in colour at least in style and gesture. It has the same nostalgic, or sentimental type of feeling to it, but of course its function here is quite different. Its function is to make you aware that I’m fooling around with these emotions, that the music is almost a parody of itself. So I am playing around with ‘false’ music in the same way that Phil is playing around with a ‘false’ documentary.

So I hope you get the idea. It’s a very complex thing. Let’s look at the film.