Joan of Arc: The ultimate musical feat

This article was first published in the Music & Sound issue of Playback Magazine, July 12, 1999.
The opening and closing music cues discussed here can be screened on this website. See post-script below for links.

Joan of Arc: the ultimate musical feat

By Asher Ettinger

Soon after starting preparations for Alliance Atlantis Communications’ Joan of Arc, it was clear that this was going to be a wild ride to someplace that we’d never been. I started keeping a record of the twists and turns ‘cause I love to tell a good story and I thought I might need to retrace my steps if I wanted to get back home from Kansas.

Joan of Arc, a two part mini series shot in Prague a posted in Toronto is the largest scale and most expensive film ever commissioned by CBS. Broadcast during the May sweeps, ratings were crucial to the broadcaster with a chance to move into the Number One spot, and the promotional budget was enormous.

Joan is a major showpiece for the power of the merger of Alliance Atlantis. Industry eyes were watching, and a lot of creative backsides were on the line.

It is certainly an understatement to say that film required extraordinary effort fro all departments. It was just plain huge. A four hour presentation of an archetypal story with an enormous canvas and high profile stars like Peter O’Toole, Shirley Maclaine, Olympia Dukakis and Maximilian Schell, it has the production values of an epic feature and the timeline of a weekly series. Joan stretched a lot of pretty experienced film types beyond what they had previously thought possible.

For the music group, led by Tony Kosinec and me, it was the most complex and demanding assignment that we’d ever heard of. In fact, it may be a first for film music production. Never to my knowledge has so much music been produced in so little time. More than 120 minutes of symphonic work was composed, prepared, recorded and mixed in just 23 days. Yikes!

The film required a grand scale score in the classic Hollywood tradition-a challenging form with no shortcuts.

Despite a substantial overall budget of US25 million (CDN$40 million), there were budgetary restraints when the film reached the post stage. Everything was in continual flux. We had to assemble a large team at the last minute; impossible necessities were the norm and working around technical nightmares a daily occurrence. The schedule was so tight that final cues were still being polished only two days before the air date. That’s almost live TV.

How did we get this gig? How the heck did we ever pull it off? Read on…

Nov 6, 1998: Ed Gernon, executive producer for AAC and an artistic powerhouse, calls us from Prague and tells us he’s shooting a four hour miniseries and he wants us to write the score, but that there are political hurdles to overcome. We’re ‘network-approved’ composers, but that’s not enough this time. The scores for films like this don’t usually leave Hollywood, so assigning key creative positions is a delicate business and we agree to give him whatever ammo he needs to make his case for us.

He asks us to write two pieces describing two aspects of Joan’s character.

Nov 8, 1998: Ed sends us the treatments. It’s great storytelling, beautiful, spiritual, really inspiring – boy, we want this job. After researching music of the period, we begin sketching. Two full days on the themes and we don’t like them so we throw ‘em out.

Nov 14, 1998: Post supervisor call me for a budget estimate. Based on a full size orchestra with choir, the accelerated schedule, the number of minutes required, we estimate $400,000-$600,000 (we can dream, can’t we?)

Nov 21, 1998: We compose and record new themes using string and brass sections plus members of the Tafelmusik Choir. We’re out a few grand but pleased with the results. We burn the tracks to CD and Fedex them to Ed in Prague.

Dec 6, 1998: Three weeks have passed and we haven’t heard from Ed. He’s in pre-production hell with no script, no actors and a first shoot only days away. This thing may be slipping away…

Dec 8,1998: Message from the producer. He likes the music but it’s too period. A setback, and we can’t rewrite until we get a fuller briefing. Shooting’s started and we can’t get the detail we need yet.

Jan 2, 1999: We don’t have the job but get a tentative post schedule. With no contract or budget we must start booking orchestras and choirs in Bratislava, Seattle, Quebec and Toronto just to ensure April recording sessions.

Jan 6, 1999: We begin sketching new melodies, play them over the phone for Ed “Listen guys -less rhythmic, more romantic and sweeping. Forget everything that I’ve told you and just come from the heart”
Tony sings an improvised melody for him on the spot. “ I Loove it, Record it!” (this ad- libbed tune eventually becomes Joan’s Theme, and carries many of the important scenes in the movie).

Jan 7,1999: Write, orchestrate, record (MIDI) email soundfile to Prague.

Jan 8,1999: Ed confirms approval of the theme u tarns us he still can‘t guarantee the assignment until his team and CBS are onside. We’re feeling confident.

Jan 11,1999: We receive a request to fax our bios to Peter Sussman, Ed co-Executive Producer. Is this bad or good?

Jan 26, 1999: Paul Cremo, head of the film music and soundtrack division of Sony Classical in New York contacts us to pitch his catalogue of instrumental needle tracks. He also suggests Charlotte Church, the 12 year old Welsh soprano superstar, as a good fit for Joan of Arc and sends us a stack of CDs.

We contact the Dorian and Omega record labels, specialists in medieval music, and pre-negotiate acceptable rates for recordings on the hunch that some period pieces may be requested at the last minute. A very good hunch. Sony wants too much for their catalogue. We contact Ed and suggest that the association between SONY & CBS be used to bring down the price.

Feb 1, 1999: Still don’t have the green light for the job and other offers are coming in. No word yet.

Feb 4,1999: Message from Ed: “CBS says no. They love the themes but want a big name composer”. Ed thinks that we’re the right choice and vows to make one more pitch. This guy is loyal.

Feb 8,1999: Good news- CBS approves us. Bad news – the music budget has been slashed. Goodbye orchestras, hello MIDI. It’s a whole new ball game. MIDI requires a very specialized musical approach and complex recording techniques, not to mention a ton of samplers in order to get anywhere near the subtlety of an orchestra.

Feb 9,1999: After several auditions, we hire composer/arrangers John Herberman and Yuri Sazonoff; Yuri Gorbachov agrees to handle the music editing. The team is now in place, or so we think.

Feb 11,1999: Tony plans the technical reconfiguration of our recording studio from a multi-function facility to a monster digital orchestra with two recording floors, dedicated to re-amped overheads for each stem.

We’ve got dibs on every available Kurzweil sampler in Ontario and still we’re short of what we need to make this work. Jeff Long, of Long & McQuades, bends over backwards to loan us two Kurzweil 2500s right out of the factory. I start creating a sequencer template and a bank of instrument samples that can be used in fur different writing rooms on different samples, computer platforms and sequencing programs. At this stage, the rental budget is the single biggest expense.

Mar 3,1999: Revised schedule arrive. How the hell are we going to do this? Locked picture isn’t available until April 13, delivery for the first two hours is April 25, and the second part is due on May 5. And with the way Ed values music, there’ll be lots of rewrites and alternate musical approaches to execute.

March 4-13, 1999: I’ll have to write this with one arm tied behind my back. It takes almost two and a half weeks of setup and experimentation to get the recording studio going. A new sequencing interface screws up the main composition stage station for days. After “*@#!! computers”, the phrase “*@#!! manuals” becomes the most commonly muttered cry.
I audition hundreds of orchestral and choir samples. The music keymaps and sequencer template are completed. John & Yuri load heir systems to match the mother system. All the mouse and sampling work give me a case of tendonitis. I can barely use my right hand on the mouse or synth keyboard. This affects my speed and with a tight deadline it could mean disaster.

March 15,1999: Ed finally arrives from Prague. He has until April 3 to get a cut down to length for CBS. He needs as much original music score as possible for the presentation. He’s extremely busy and has no time for a full music screening, but identifies the first four acts as our immediate priority.
We start with the movie’s powerful opening sequence and blast away at the first hour. Our plan to have John & Yuri simply complete sketches is abandoned. There’s so much territory to cover in so short a time that Tony has to take on the role of music director, sketching cues with John, Yuri and me to ensure an integrated style and overview for the score.
I take on the big, long cues. Using many of the melodies stockpiled earlier, while Tony leads the entire team in interpreting the themes. We start to receive alternate cuts daily, which means constant music revisions. Instead of moving forward we re continually going over the same newly cut scene. The 16 hour days begin.

March 18,1999: The first rough cut is way over length, five and a half hours. It takes nearly a day just to screen it, but we’re blown away by what we see. At this point every scene is still too long and many will be dropped, but nobody knows which ones yet and we have to start scoring – everything.

March 23, 1999: We meet with Ed and director Christian Duguay for the first time. Christian is upset to discover that the score will primarily be MIDI. It does not go well. They’re both trying to solve problems with the flow of the opening hour and for some cues the music’s objective changes with each new cut.

One scene, ‘Joan’s Revelation’, is recur and revised seven times. We get notes – changes to the opening theme. We schedule an all day music screening for March 27.

March 27, 1999: This screening goes well. Our rescored opening still needs reworking. We suggest the use of a singer as Joan’s guiding voice and a young vocalist to be her innocent soul. This is a hit, as are several music cues we present.
Christian is a little more comfortable with us. He shows us the Battle of Paris scene, a highly stylized battle scene that is visual poetry. We’re very moved and newly inspired.

April 2,1999: Despite a week of ever changing cuts, ongoing contract negotiations, technical problems. Incompatible music sequencers and construction in our building, we manage to deliver 20 minutes of cues for approval in the CBS rough cut. All are tightly scored to picture, but because of these many problems, can only be roughly recorded, so the MIDI sound we so meticulously planned cannot be utilized. This has immense consequences.

April 7,1999: All hell breaks loose. “ All the music has to be sweetened, MIDI alone won’t do it” With those words , everything changes. For the first and only time in this process, I’m scared. I’m starting to think that this really can’t be done. I see a fast approaching air date with no music, and instead of a head credit , a wanted poster.
This is already an impossible schedule. Sweetening more than doubles the workload, requires a much larger team and costs more than twice the money to produce. In addition, we still need to keep the possibility of using only orchestra as an option.
Our studio has to be reconfigured once again and a new mix concept employed. We have to interview and audition additional support orchestrators and musicians. We have to work out a new approach to MIDI inputting so that music copyists and use the files. Two more writing rooms must be created.
We are fortunate to get Glen Morley to conduct, Rossi Tosur to con5tract, Jeff Wolpert as scoring mixer, Phillip Stanger for premix programming, Dave Balan as coordinator and second engineer, and Martin Loomer and his staff to music copy. We still need another arranger and a lot more money.

April 10,1999: After three very frustrating days of team building and planning, with not a single note of music written, I complete a full 10 minute mega battle scene in one sitting – with my left hand!

April 11,1999: Still no word on the budget. Possible musical production values keep changing, therefore the contract keeps changing. I’m always on call for the lawyers.
We begin auditioning singers and find the voice of St Catherine but can’t find a young voice who can handle the very difficult opening theme.
Despite all the distractions, the mood is positive and the music coming from the four rooms keeps getting better and better. We’ve found our stride.

April 13,1999: We’re so immersed n the music and there’s so much of it. We feel at times like a group of angels scoring someone’s whole life. Good News – we receive the locked picture for Night One. Confirmation of additional budget for the sweetening.

April 16,1999: Premixing approved cues. Tony engineers. This is an excruciatingly long and tedious process because of the technical disparities between the different workstations and the complexity of mixing eight stereo stems of electronic orchestration that must blend properly with up to 24 tracks of live orchestra.

April 18,1999: Tony & I propose a needle drop to Ed for the Battle of Paris in Night Two. We suggest Charlotte Church. We play Charlotte’s CD, Ed falls in love. Not only does he want to use her CD but he wants her to sing the opening theme and suggests an operatic component for the closing scene. He gets on the phone and the wheeling dealing wheels start to roll. Watching him make it happen is an impressive lesson in Thinking Big.

April 19,1999: Sony Classical is interested. Charlotte’s management is interested, trouble is that she’s in Wales and the music has to be recorded within a few days. Neither Tony nor I can afford to lose any time in transatlantic flights. Negotiating a deal between the singer and the production company is tricky as are booking two sessions with Charlotte, one in Wales, the other in New York.
We are overwhelmed now with preparing and overseeing sweetening sessions, finishing pre-mixes, and completing Night One cues, while getting started on Night Two.

April 22,1999: The session with Charlotte via ISDN line between BBC in Cardiff and CBC Toronto is cancelled when a deal isn’t reached in time. Thankfully, the deal is confirmed on April 24.

April 22-24,1999 Orchestral and vocal recording sessions. We get more minutes recorded than anticipated. Hey, this sounds good.

April 23,1999 – daytime: The music copyist chews us out head off about the inconsistent state of the MIDI files he’s getting from our team. His requirements are distributed to the arrangers.

April 23,1999 – nighttime: The crying starts.
After the recording session I’m back at our studio working on the nine minute finale climax. Tony and I have already done some initial sketches- tonight I’ll start on the orchestration. While I improvise through the interweaving themes, watching my little screen as Joan is condemned, burned and ascends to her freedom, I weep for the utter beauty and depth of the effects of the music, story and image. The meaning and reality of what we’ve been trying to express is full born. It jumps out and grabs me.

April 24,1999 – nighttime: The crying continues.
I play the improvisation of the closing for Tony. He starts crying. He’s overwhelmed and has to leave the room. He’s experiencing the same thing. It must really be in the work – or maybe this project is getting to him, too.

April 25, 1999: Charlotte sings the opening theme and proves why she is the top selling classical artist in England. The first batch of final sweetened mixes is delivered to the mixing stage.

April 27,1999: All the rooms are buzzing with sounds for Night Two. Tony is collaborating in five rooms at once, overseeing the evolution of the sound of the score. Todd Booth joins the arranging team. I’m finishing the last act. Charlotte is to sing through four minutes of this and her music chart must be faxed to Los Angeles by May 2.

April 29,1999: Ed gets mad at us, we get mad at Ed. What’s the point of doing two months of 16 hour days if we can’t take it out on the people around us?

May 4-6,1999: Recording sessions for Night Two. The normally reserved musicians applaud many of the pieces. We’ve scored the entire of Night Two in just seven days.

May 8,1999: Just when we though the coming was over, the post mixer is having difficulty getting our track or one of the battle scenes to cut through the massive sound effects. They request additional parts to help define the track. I’m in Montreal at a family function. Tony & Yuri lose their much needed breaks.

May 9,1999: Charlotte records her vocal in Sony Studios New York. I direct her via telephone line from Montreal. The head honchos of Sony are at the session. Charlotte delivers a very challenging piece with skill and confidence.

May 10,1999: We put the finishing touches on the revised battle cue. Ed is concerned about two key court scenes and briefs us on rewrites. These must be delivered by May 12.

May 14,1999: The screening of Night Two at Casablanca Studios in Toronto. Christian, whom we haven’t seen since late March, is in tears watching the climactic burning scene. He’s seen this act a hundred and one times, but never with the music track. It is very sweet to witness the invisible power of music.

May 16,1999: Night One is aired. It is a critical and ratings success. Gets a 15.1/23.

May 18,1999: Night Two is aired. Another ratings winner for CBS – 12.9/20.

May 19,1999: Our composer contract is finally signed, sealed and delivered.

May 20,1999: Now I know; anything is possible.

P.S. The opening theme for this film can be screened by clicking here.
The closing scene can be viewed by clicking here.