Interview with Todd Haberman
8Dio Artist Spotlight. Answers by Todd Haberman / Questions by Troels Folmann. September 2014.
Todd Haberman has built a broad and respected list of film, television & game credits that began to emerge right out of NYU in 1997 where he majored in music composition. He is known for his work on Arrow, The Firm, Need for Speed; Carbon, Transformers 3, Mortal Kombat, The Hungover Games, Pompeii among many, many others. He has worked on and contributed to countless scores behind the scenes for many of the biggest composers in Hollywood.
Your first gig in Hollywood was a harbinger of things to come. Please share the story about what it was and how you landed it.
My first gig in LA was interning at Hans Zimmer’s studio, Media Ventures (now known as Remote Control Productions). When college graduation was looming and my, then-girlfriend-now-wife, asked me what I wanted to do; working for Hans Zimmer was at the top of the list. I was (am) a huge fan of his music and what he was doing with computers and film music was something I wanted to be around and absorb. She suggested I call him and after I said ,"You can’t call an Oscar winner on the phone" and she said "why not"? I looked up the website and called and spoke with Allison Clark, who I still consider a friend today, and she suggested I come out and interview for an internship - which I did two days after graduation from NYU. I was offered the internship. I said I’d be back in two weeks, they told me not to rush that a month was fine, (like I was gonna wait to start working there?!). I went home and packed up some clothes, grabbed the girl, said my goodbyes and drove out to LA.
It must have been an eye opening and grand experience to work in one of the most prolific and successful music shops in all of Hollywood - especially your first toe in the water. Looking back what was the most important experience that came from it?
It was an incredible time, I admit. I mean I was 22, was (and still am) a huge fan of movies and soundtracks and the posters on the walls and the CDs in the closet made me giddy. Getting lunch or coffee for these guys made me happy and feel like I was a part of something awesome. John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams had small composer rooms and were just about to make their own jumps into stardom. Spielberg and Katzenberg were walking the hallways before a playback and I’m putting diet cokes on the table. It would be tough to pick one moment that is the most important, but I will say the first time I went into Hans’ room and heard a mockup he was working on for Prince of Egypt might have had the biggest impact. It floored me. How can it sound this incredible with only computers and samplers? Mind you it was a WALL of samplers and reverbs and on the opposite wall - 6 Yamaha 02Rs consoles linked together. It was on another level from anything I had heard or realized possible with sequencing. But even more impressive than the production of the music was the attention paid to the music itself. That moment set the bar for me in so many ways.
Zimmer's company, Remote Control Productions, is a behemoth in terms of high-profile projects. How do they get such big franchises?
I think it’s as simple as he delivers something special every time he does a score.
Being exposed to so much talent on a daily basis must have been inspiring. Sounds like you needed to bring your A game everyday.
Absolutely, it was an inspiring place to work. It made me want to be my best and I was looking forward to learning something new every day and you really never knew what your day was going to be until it was over. One minute I was getting a sandwich and an hour later Roy Hay (of Culture Club fame and an accomplished film & TV composer) asked me to write a cue for a network show. It was a rock track to be played on the radio in a car while 2 characters are talking for about 45 seconds and I thought it was huge! I wanted it to be great because that’s what everyone did there. Make it great.
Once you found your rhythm there did the process become more relaxed or more intense?
I never found the process relaxed, but when you do it over and over and over - as you have the chance to do at a place like Media Ventures - at least you can hopefully predict what’s coming and attempt to be prepared for it. And you can build confidence that way.
As an East Coast transplant what was it like to adjust to the lifestyle of a Hollywood composer?
Well when the first pizza/pasta place I called didn’t know what a chicken parm hero was I knew I was in big trouble. And I’ve given up looking for a decent bagel or black and white cookie. But it’s sunny every single day. It has not been hard to get used to that at all.
Your projects have involved comedic spoofs, futuristic doomsday dramas, video games & the supernatural. What are the fundamental approaches to such different genres?
That is the best and worst thing about this career for me. I love changing projects and working on new music and at the same time it seems like just when you get comfortable with what you’re doing it’s over! The only consistent thread is that the music is always trying to tell a story regardless of genre. As far as the approaches to different genres go, I wish I knew! It starts with a conversation and somewhere along the way and idea shows up and we’re off to the races.
Is it more fun to write for a comedy and more interesting to write for, say, an Armageddon storyline?
I don’t see it that way, no. What’s fun or interesting to work on can have more to do with what’s going on in my personal life than what the project is, oddly enough. I mean, I get to make music all day so that’s pretty fun right there and it’s always interesting to solve the puzzle of the cue in front of me.
Tell us your experience about being a ghost composer. It seems like almost every budding composer goes through this rite of passage by producing scores with little pay, no credit or acknowledgement.
Ghost writing has become a necessary part of the business. Composers now can make music sound too good, too quickly and unrealistic expectations are set up for what can be accomplished in a short amount of time by one person. With an exception or two, the composers I work for are calling me because there is physically not enough time for them to get the job done without help.
Without naming names can you tell us the most notorious experience you have had being a ghost writer?
Oh nice one! Let’s see. We’ve all had the times where we’re waiting for notes while our composer is surfing the internet booking their next holiday or the time where we’re promised a cue sheet then don’t get it when the job is done. Hmmm. I wish I could tell you the best one I’ve got … buuuut this one was pretty good. Ok, I was doing 2 TV shows all by myself as a ghost writer (and contributing to a 3rd!). At it’s craziest I did 5 shows in 2 weeks. After those 2 weeks I had 3 days off and all I wanted to do was be with my kid or sleep. Instead, I agreed to help the same composer out on a film for those days. When I went home at 8pm one day I came in the next day and got yelled at for not working hard enough. And this composer was working maybe 6 hour days at that point as well while 3 other guys wrote the score ‘round the clock'. Serves me right for saying I would help I guess!
People in this business are not necessarily known for their humility. Do you think some composers relish the anonymity of ghost writing?
I do think some composers prefer ghost writing. It can be less stressful to do your work anonymously. Having a composer as your client instead of a director/producer/studio/network can be easier to deal with because you speak the same language, or not having to get out and get the job in the first place is something some composers would rather not deal with. Then of course there’s not having to deal with the politics or the countless emails or the meetings during the job as well.
How does it feel to see a treasured score released to critical acclaim with no perceptible credit? Is it something you just learn to leave behind?
Yeah you learn to let it go. It burns, don’t get me wrong, but you just accept it and appreciate any praise that comes. If it’s about your music then you can still own it and it feels great. Just keep chugging and hopefully one day the review actually has your name on it!
How does the process of a ghost writer work? Who has final say on the work and who gets the credit?
Every composer has their own process for working with ghost writers and I’ve found that film and television and video games each tend to have different processes, as well, even when working with the same composer. Generally, on a film, I will have a face -to-face with my client and we will watch my scenes together and have our own spotting session. On a TV show the schedule is so tight - when it’s a show a week - I’ll usually just download my video and spotting notes, get a cue assignment and I’ll go and write my cues, submit them for approval and wait for notes. I’ll do my own round of fixes, or hopefully not, with the composer 'till he feels the cue is right and then I’ll wait for notes or approvals from THEIR client. And around we go again.
I’m not in the room during the playback for the director and/or producers and I’m not in the spotting sessions either. Only one composer I know of puts the ghost writers on stage with himself for playbacks. And often for TV we’ll just send QTs for everyone to listen to. Schedules are tight for everyone involved on a series so, more often than not, the clients are watching the videos at night when they get home and send notes rather than making the trip out to the studio for a full playback session. And I haven’t found any consistency for who has the final say on a job. Could be a director, could be a producer, could be both. Sometimes the picture editor gets in the fun with notes, then the studio or network sends their notes as well. There are so many relationships and internal politics going on. It’s always a surprise when the job starts to find out who has the last word and that’s usually something you have to feel out. Nobody gets up and says “just so you know, you’re writing for me.” And the REAL fun comes when you find out more than halfway through the job that person wasn’t who you thought it was.
Did you ever just feel completely taken advantage of? Has it ever compromised your own ability to create?
Maybe more frustrated beyond belief than taken advantage of I’d say. And it’s often from the client more than it would be coming from the composer who hires me. There’s a problem cue in every gig. There’s always a scene that is difficult to nail for whatever reason. When I start getting into what seems like countless revisions I get frustrated and feel like I’ve already nailed it and wonder why I’m doing this again today and I’m thinking, ‘how can I second guess my instincts that got me this far in the first place'?! And that’s really when it feels like a job - which is something I never wanted to have. I’m a musician! Gotta suck it up, write it again, make it great, then go home and cry.
When striking out on your own became viable, had you reached a certain threshold of productivity that you could rely on to insure future projects?
Nope! And it’s not necessarily advice I would give someone else, but I was working for Basil Poledouris at the time and after we finished a film he decided to go on vacation and he told me he’d be in touch when he got back in a month. All of a sudden I didn’t have a job to go to every day. And on almost the same day I got a call from a friend who was producing a TV show for MTV and needed a theme and commercial bumpers and, the best part was, he could pay me! So I dove into my composing career headfirst and officially stopped looking for assistant work. I continued working for Basil though whenever he called.
Tell us about your current projects.
Right now I have 3 films on my docket, all of which I’m very excited about. I’m hoping the overlap is minimal and, knock on wood, so far so good. I was ghosting a few minutes a week on a summer network show, as well, but had to jump off it with the film work now.
How did these come to you?
All in different ways. One of them is a sequel and I had done the first two films already. I also have a long working relationship with the director and production company. The 2nd film came from a friend introducing me to a producer and we met up for lunch one day - 4 hours later he offered me a film! The 3rd project was from my agent. I submitted a reel based on a couple soundtracks and I was told the director was a fan. My music was picked out of the pile and I was sent a script and a week later we had a meeting. A month later I got the call I got the gig.
Will you be receiving sole credit for this work?
Yes on these 3 films I will be receiving sole composing credit.
How does it feel to be an overnight sensation after 17 years in the business?
ROTFFL. Overnight sensation? Love it. Spread the word! No, I don’t see it that way. First of all, nothing happens overnight. If I hadn’t been working hard and gaining experience and meeting people I wouldn’t be in a position to get my own work. And furthermore I fully expect to be working on someone else’s film or TV series or video game as an additional writer in the fall when I get through these films. And if I happen to have another job of my own lined up than that’ll be even better.
How are you utilizing 8DIO products?
I LOVE LOVE LOVE my 8DIO libraries and have been using them since it’s Tonehammer inception. Your percussion is all over my music and I have found that anything I buy from 8DIO is of superior quality recording and a playable instrument on every key to boot. And those are the two most important things for making it into my template. My biggest pet peeve is when sample library companies leave hiss or noises on samples. Makes me want to send fix notes of my own!
How did you discover them?
I try to check out every company out there making libraries that I can be of use to me. I don’t remember exactly but I’m sure it was a friend who told me about a library I had to have that originally got me to the website. Once there it was easy to see this was a company who understands what I do and what I need.
Are they making an impact on the way you compose scores?
Well, they sound better. ☺