MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with Amie Doherty was--as might be expected--by way of her music. It was in the late spring of 2012 and I was in Valencia, Spain, the first American hire for Berklee's new (and still very much unfinished) international campus. The school had set up a makeshift FTP site for applicants to the maiden class of the MA in Scoring for Film, Television & Videogames (of which I was, at the time, director) to post their audio submissions. Many of the applicants, trained in European or Asian conservatory settings, had submitted chamber music or raw orchestral recordings--some quite good, some not so, but few evidencing much understanding of what we think of as "film music." Amie's file included a full-blown digital mockup of a symphonically orchestrated cue with a stylistic lineage that somehow encompassed BACK TO THE FUTURE, HARRY POTTER, and GLADIATOR. It wasn't the style choices, however, that made me shout across the room, "We've gotta get this girl to Spain!" It was the command of the language. This was a composer with ears.
Getting the girl to Spain wasn't a piece of cake. Her application gave County Galway, Ireland as her home, but Amie was off the grid. When I first managed to track her down, she was in a remote village outside of Hanoi, teaching English to Vietnamese children. Our cell phone connection was tentative, as was her readiness to abruptly abandon her mission for an untested post-grad program. And Amie did seem to be a creature with missionary impulses and a strong sense of duty. Before Vietnam, she'd been a kindergarten teacher in Seoul, a post she'd taken shortly after earning her degree in composition from Trinity College, Dublin. And at 19, she'd undergone a baptism by monsoon, teaching the rudiments of English to eighty-five kids in a rural village outside of Calcutta, all under one corrugated aluminum roof.
Students in college fiction writing programs are told that they should "write what they know," and that if all they know is the work of other writers as opposed to life-shaping personal experience, the best they can do is to hit their marks and pray that a winning style will offset the lack of authenticity. The longer I work with aspiring film composers, the more I come to believe that the same imperative holds true for musical authors. The best film music emerges from an understanding of story, and understanding emerges from a life deeply lived. This story has a happy ending, as we finally did convince Amie to migrate to Valencia for the one-year program (she made stops in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, and Indonesia en route). She worked as hard in the composer lab as I presume she did in those Third World schoolhouses. She listened. In fact, Amie was so diligent that I took to calling her Hermione. Diligent, but never stuffy or self-important. Always the Irish wink and an attitude that said, "Teach me." Soon after graduating and securing an artist visa, she migrated again, to perhaps the most exotic and culture-shocking of all her destinations: Hollywood.
I interviewed Amie on a break between assignments as orchestrator for Jeff Russo on the new STAR TREK:DISCOVERY skein. Amie's most recent feature score is KEEP THE CHANGE, and she's on-board for a new project from Oscar-winning documentarian Rob Epstein (Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt).
AH: First of all, how are you? What’s your state of mind like at the moment? Are you deep in the trenches with a half-dozen deadlines looming, or in-between projects?
AD: Hey Andy! I’m great, thanks for asking! I’m definitely deep in the trenches with multiple projects on the go, but life is good and an overabundance of work is a champagne problem, so cheers! I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of work over the last few years both as a composer and orchestrator, which can mean splitting myself in two sometimes. I’m currently scoring a feature, a mini-documentary series, and 2 other documentaries, as well as orchestrating 3 TV shows. Staying on top of it all is definitely challenging and can be extremely stressful at times, but it’s what I signed up for.
AH: You’ve been in Los Angeles for less than four full years, but on a number of counts, you’ve already beaten the odds. If things keep going as they have been, you may well pull ahead of the typical 5-7 year “gestation period” for a film & television composer’s career. You’re working on your seventh feature film, you’ve scored a bushel full of shorts, and you’re a principal orchestrator for Jeff Russo. Truthfully, I know many young composers—some of them very talented—who after four years are still asking how they can land an unpaid assistantship with the potential for cue sheet credit. What is it you’ve done right?
AD: I’m not entirely sure...I still have a long, long way to go but things have gone mostly well since I moved to LA in 2013. I'd done the program at Berklee Valencia, of course, which equipped me with some great tools. Over the years, I've been accepted to many of the film scoring workshops/programs (ASCAP FSW with Richard Bellis, Sundance Composer Lab, SCL Mentor Program, etc) which were all milestones for me along the way. Through the ASCAP workshop, I got my first assistant job here in LA. Through the Sundance Lab, I met Rachel Israel, an incredible director who hired me to score her film Keep The Change, which won Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival. I guess what has worked for me is having two streams of work in composing and orchestrating. My orchestration work (and assistant work for the first few years) keeps the lights on when I take on lower budget projects to score. I work very, very hard and probably take on too much at times, but I’m realistic about this industry and what it takes to get to where I want to be. I believe in the 10,000 hour rule (and then some!), and I hold no one responsible for my success and failures but myself.
AH: Anything you would have done differently?
AD: No. Everything that has happened, good or bad, has been a learning experience. Cliché answer, I know. I suppose I wish I had learned not to sweat the small stuff earlier and saved myself some mental trauma. And maybe learned to drive before I moved to L.A....
AH: Yeah. Driving is probably not in the “optional” column for L.A. You also appear to have broken a curse that plagued Hollywood orchestrators for decades, which is that the industry can only perceive you as what you are at the moment, and if what your are is an orchestrator, you’re not seen as a composer, though you may be the equal in talent of some of those you orchestrate for. It seems to me that the fact that you’ve continued scoring short films and earning composer credit all along is a key reason you haven’t been “pegged” as Amie Doherty the orchestrator. Do you agree?
AD: Yes and no. I agree that scoring anything I could get my hands on to build up credits and relationships definitely helped my case for putting ‘composer’ in my email signature. I’ve met some composers who've turned down orchestration jobs because of their fear of being pegged. But I feel like the pegging is mostly done within the film scoring community. In my experience, most people outside it have no idea what an orchestrator does. Orchestration work can be all-consuming and often pays well, so it’s easy to see how one’s career as a composer could be back-burnered. If your orchestration to composing ratio is 2:1 or more then you probably deserve to be pegged as an orchestrator. It’s not a dirty word!
AH: You earned an undergraduate music degree at Trinity College, Dublin and a masters at Berklee Valencia. There’s been a lot of discussion in various composer forums lately about the value of formal education in music, and even about the importance of knowing how to read music. How valuable, in concrete career terms, has your education been?
AD: My education is everything to me. I’m so grateful for it, and so lucky to have grown up in a country that invests in its young people by providing free, quality education all the way through college. I went through the classical music training route and had the strict rules of fundamental harmony, counterpoint, theory, etc., etched into my brain. In concrete terms, I could not be an orchestrator without this training. I apply all of that knowledge I have acquired over the years to everything I orchestrate and it’s vital, in my opinion. As a composer, I think formal training is probably less important, funnily enough. Everyone comes from different backgrounds and experiences, which all adds to the musical lexicon from which they draw to compose. I've worked closely with some very successful composers who have no formal training and it doesn’t seem to be holding them back at all. In fact, I sometimes think they have more freedom in their writing because they’re not limited by rules. Years of aural training means I often hear traditional no-nos as nails on a chalkboard which can be very restricting. Having said that, I don’t think there's a downside to having a solid understanding of at least the basics. Film scoring programs are a different kettle of fish. Personally, I got a lot out of my masters at Berklee, but I didn’t think of it as a golden ticket that would suddenly propel me to success. I definitely learned invaluable skills there and being incubated thoroughly in film music for a year is like a crash course or starter pack. Those skills can be learned outside of school, as an assistant or just flying solo, but the programs at Berklee, USC, UCLA, Columbia, etc, all provide a no-pressure environment to learn and experiment without the fear of messing up badly and being fired. It was one-hundred percent the right call for me. As long as you keep your expectations at bay, and see it for what it is - training - a program like that is totally worth it. You can’t expect to put in one year at school and walk out with a ready-made career. I think unreasonable expectations is where some of the negative opinions about formal film scoring education come from.
AH: You’ve been orchestrating a great deal for Jeff Russo, including shows like the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery, Fargo and HBO’s The Night Of. I’m guessing the orchestration work is a lot of what’s paid the rent. Is there any downside to it? Do you enjoy “putting flesh” on another composer’s bones?
AD: I do enjoy it, yes. At first it was very daunting, the thought of someone handing you the responsibility of getting their creation over the finish line and sounding as best it can. But after a while, you come to know the person’s music so well that you know exactly what they’re looking for. I’ve been orchestrating for Jeff for a little over a year and a half and have built up his trust in me over that time. I also conduct (as does Jeff) a lot of the sessions, which is always fun. The only downside to orchestration work, I think, would be the quick turnarounds. For an episode of TV, I'll often have only 2-4 days to orchestrate and prep 30-40 minutes of music, and it’s not unheard of for a new cut to arrive the day before, or even of, the session, meaning a lot of last-minute chaos. It can be extremely stressful at times, but we always get there in the end!
AH: What would you say are the three or four most critical career decisions you’ve made in the last five years of your life?
AD: Firstly, I would say applying to Berklee was a major turning point in my life and sowed the seeds of a career. I'd been, as you know, living in South Korea and traveling Asia for a few years and thinking I really ought to come back to reality-- and return to music, if those two things are compatible! I'd known I couldn’t afford the program fees but applied anyway. Taking a big lunge forward into the unknown and trusting that the ground will appear in front of me seems to be how I live my life, and it worked out. I was accepted, but as you'll remember, I still had no idea how I'd pay for it! When I found out two days later that I'd been chosen for the Howard Shore Scholarship, I was all-in. Berklee set my mind to turbo focus and as I mentioned earlier, gave me an important starter-pack skill set.
Secondly, moving to LA was critical for me. I had the option of moving home to Ireland or back to London, where I'd lived previously and where I would have a better chance at being a big fish in a small pond, or I could move to LA and battle it out with hundreds (thousands?) of other small fish. I can’t say how things would have turned out had I chosen the former, but I feel like I made the right decision in choosing LA. It wasn’t easy at all. Obtaining a work visa is nothing short of a nightmare as many composers know, and the cost of living in LA would put anyone off, but it was worth it. I got a part-time assistant job within a week of moving here and, fortunately, have been run-off-my-feet busy ever since.
Thirdly, I chose to only take part-time assistant work in the early days, to leave me enough time to work on building up my own credits, etc. I definitely struggled financially in the first year, but it paid off in the end. There seem to be three options: working solely for yourself and slowly building up your credits and relationships; working full-time as an orchestrator/ assistant to a busy composer--which has proven to be hugely successful for the right people--or doing both part-time. All three streams can provide great results, if you’re willing to put the work in. I’m still figuring it all out, so ask me again in 5 years, but for now, I feel like doing both is working for me.
Oh, and fourth, I bought a good-quality coffee machine.
AH: The best-known film and television composers have a “sound,” and that sound is often associated either with a genre of film or a particular filmmaker. And behind the sound, there’s usually a distinctive “voice.” Have you had the opportunity yet to score a project that allowed you to fully express the “Amie Doherty sound” and voice?
AD: I've probably scored a couple of projects in almost every genre by now and I definitely have preferences, but I’m still dipping my toes in lots of different styles (of both filmmaking and music) so I’m still figuring out what my forte is and learning to be adaptable. I think the best-known composers who have a distinct sound all got very lucky (“luck” is a whole other topic) in that they worked with a filmmaker who was willing to let them take risks with the music. I think a lot of the criticism you hear about scores--mostly from people who lack any authority--fails to acknowledge that at the end of the day, the music has to be approved by the director/producer.
AH: And God knows how many others.
AD: Right. In my experience, it’s not uncommon to be told at the spotting session they want a unique score that sounds like nothing else in the world, only to receive an email after version four saying, "we like the feel of the temp." And I do understand that they’re playing it safe and above all else want the score to support the emotion they feel is on-screen. What's rare is to find a filmmaker who's willing to stand up to the pressure, fully trust their composer, and work together to allow the score to take the film to a whole new, previously unthought of place. It’s an ambition of mine to find and work with a visionary filmmaker like that. Those are the artists who push composers out of their comfort zone and into that place that fosters a distinctive ‘sound’.
AH: Yep. The gate has to be opened. Except in those rare cases like Trent Reznor or Jonsi, where the composer has a pre-existing sound signature and is hired for that, it's the filmmaker and the project that enable the sound. Mica Levi undoubtedly brought her own musical personality to Under The Skin, but Jonathan Glazer's images gave it a place to go. David Wingo, an Austin-based composer I recently profiled here, has become known for a kind of haunting High Plains sound, but when Jeff Nichols asks you to score films like Take Shelter and Mud, that spirit is free to roam.
To come back to earth, say a composer has just arrived in L.A., as you did in 2013, and he or she has just two weeks to accomplish things that will nourish a future scoring career? How would you advise them to spend that time?
AD: Reach out to as many people you respect or admire as humanly possible and offer them coffee/lunch in return for a quick chat. Aim high--you'll be surprised at how many good hearts there are in this industry who'll take the time to respond. I sure was! Find some film festivals to go to--LA has tons of them--and meet filmmakers. They're the 'bosses' we want in the end. And, if orchestral scoring is your interest, try to find a way to sit in on a recording session on one of the stages (Warner Bros., Fox, Sony, The Bridge, etc). You may learn some details about how sessions are run, but more importantly, it will provide endless inspiration and motivation for you to follow through on your dreams. It did for me.
AH: What’s the most important lesson learned in your four years since graduating Berklee?
AD: To be prepared for anything and be ahead of the game as much as you can. Opportunities often arrive without warning and you have to be ready with the skills required to get it done and the stamina to move on it quickly.
AH: Yes. My biggest takeaway from my early years in Hollywood was that if you can't 'turn on a dime,' you're dead. One of the first things I noticed was how many people came to work in running shoes. It was as much a practical consideration as a fashion statement! It's a marathon...but are you having fun?
AD: Yes! I wake up every day and make music. That is a privilege I don’t take for granted. I’ve never been happier. :)
AMIE DOHERTY would be the first to say that she's been lucky. But it's apparent from a glance at the musical territory she's covered over the past four years that every drop of luck has been matched by two drops of hard work. It isn't supposed to be easy, but if you come to the game prepared, the goal line is never entirely unreachable.