Interviews with Industry

John Swihart, Composer of Napoleon Dynamite, Table 19 and More

John Swihart is a very accomplished american film and television composer. With more than 15 years of industry experience to his name, composing music for a wide range of projects including Napoleon Dynamite, How I Met Your Mother and Table 19, he has acquired a very successful portfolio of work. Lift Off looked to him to find out where his interest in composing started, hurdles he has faced during his career and his insightful advice for aspiring composers.

Interview By Lauren Macaree

What attracted you to being a film composer initially?

 Because it was the only way I could eat, and once I had a taste of it I wanted more. Because more is more.

Is there a film or person that influenced you to become a composer?

Not really. My friend was making money doing commercials and that looked good to me. I was more annoyed with the music I heard in film and tv for years and always wondered why the filmmakers didn’t push or squeeze a little more out of it, when they obviously had the opportunity to do so. Now that I am more mature I understand we are in the service business of an entertainment commodity industry. So typically the more money that is wrapped up in a project, the less adventurous the filmmakers can be because they have to answer to their investors.

Do you have a favorite genre of film to compose for?

Not really. If I had to do the same type of film or show for too long I suspect I would find another career. It would not be satisfying to me and knowing myself, I would not be happy and therefore would probably not have a happy life. You know how us Americans are about having a “happy life” 🙂
I have been through periods where I feel frustrated that I do so much comedy, but then other times I am so lucky I get to laugh through my days. I used to play a lot of death metal when I was young and I always thought that was a form of comedy, so there may be a cynic buried in me somewhere.

How do you choose your projects?

I try to find a reason to do the project. I have to like the script or rough cut. For a long time, I would feel so lucky to get asked (I have self-esteem issues…) that I would say yes to almost anything. But the heartache from those experiences has taught me that sometimes trying to be a nice guy and do a solid for an up and coming director, only makes things worse for everyone.

What has been the biggest hurdle you have faced in the industry and getting to where you are now?

It may have been just figuring out that I was better at this than anything else.  I talk too much about money but money was always my problem. I didn’t have any. I painted a lot of houses to buy the equipment I had when I first moved out to LA. It was only a couple computers, an O2R, and a bunch of analog synths and guitars, and a $9,000 Beta SP deck, but I was Han Solo. I did not have anyone to call for backup. I have never taken out a loan to buy equipment. I don’t think anyone should unless they are building a recording studio that will be rented out to artists.

You have many notable credits as a composer such as Napoleon Dynamite, How I Met Your Mother and Table 19. Is there something specific that drew you to any of these projects?

Well, the first two I was just happy to get a meeting on. I was very hungry at that point.  I learned a lot from HIMYM. TV is so fast, it’s sort of a smash and grab job. You really need to be as organized as possible. I am now a person who knows that if my template takes 10 more seconds to open, then that, in turn, represents 2 weeks a year of time spent waiting for my template to open.
Table 19 was a FOX release and I was very excited to work for Fox again, and with Jeffrey Blitz the director and Yana his editor. I have always liked Jeff’s films.  I work on a TV show titled TRIAL & ERROR with them now.

What have been the most challenging and most enjoyable projects you have worked on?

To be honest they are all enjoyable and challenging in different ways. The low budget projects are much more relaxed because the filmmakers are so happy you are working on their film. The more money that is wrapped up in a film the likely you may feel like you may get fired at any point. This is a terrible feeling, and it makes it very difficult to invest your soul in the music when you don’t have confidence that your work is being appreciated. More money = more starf***ers. I know there are other agents calling the directors saying ” you know Danny Elfman could do this if you wanted” or John Powell, or Mark Mothersbaugh, you know, some of my heroes. There are some agents that make a living out of saying “that guy sucks” and then that seed grows in the producers or investors mind, and if you can’t hook them with a fantastic cue before that seed grows, you’re gone. Just focus on the music and you will be okay.

Can you think of a piece of music throughout your career that was particularly challenging to compose but was very satisfying/rewarding when you completed it?

I usually don’t like my own music so much.  I like it after a couple years go by and sometimes not at all. I have so much invested in it to be able to like it myself.  I typically have moved on to liking other things by the time I’m done. I usually feel that I’ve done the best that I can under the circumstances, but I also usually would have exicuted a cue or two differently if I had my way with it. This small indie I did a couple years ago was maybe the first film that I could watch with the audience and not cringe from self-hate half the time. My clients are happy and that’s all that matters.

What do you think the biggest surprise about the role of a composer would be to an outsider?

That we write the background music not the songs…

What would be your dream project to compose for?

I would like to do more electronic thriller type of music, but not the more common type.  I really like what Chritobal Tapia de Veer did with Utopia and Black Mirror Season 4, episodes 4 and 6. His stuff is playful and eerie and beautifully executed. I really enjoy his approach. I would like to do some of that kind of thing but I’m sure I would get tired of it as well… I just want to keep going. There is part of me that is realizing that it’s really all about feeling wanted. I know that sounds pathetic, but at the root, I think that’s all there really needs to be for us to be happy. The more work I do, the more I want to do it better the next time, so there is a natural progression that occurs.

If someone wants to pursue a career as a composer, how would you recommend they go about it?

Write as much as you can. I don’t mean with paper and pencil, (if your ego really needs this you can do it after you start getting paid), I mean produce your own music.  Nobody thinks you can do something unless you already have it recorded. So make as much music as you can. When I was starting out I looked at job boards that had listings for picture editors and I would send music to them. I would not send links for people to view on SoundCloud. Just send them a download link and they will have the files on their drive.  Make sure all your music is tagged in the metadata with your information including your contact info. Make your music “the path of least resistance”. This will put you at the top. Remember that nobody gives a s*** about you or your music, they are trying to produce something for a client and they need your help, not your precious bulls***. Don’t act like your music is more important than the picture. If this is a confusing statement then you better get some thick skin. Remember, it’s not your music, it’s their music that you are making for them. You are 50% a digital janitor/custodian, or whatever you Brits call the person who cleans the toilets in a big building.

What are the biggest mistakes you notice aspiring composers make at the start of their career?

Thinking that they are more important than they are. If your music is better than the movie, you will have a problem. Some say that you should not notice the score, but most importantly, the viewer should be lost in the scene, not the music. The wrong music can ruin a film. This mostly happens with big name composers, who producers and directors are too afraid to give notes to.
Think about what a director goes through to make a movie. For example, a writer-director may have written the script for the film you just got hired on 10 years ago. After a couple years she gets the courage to present the script to some friends and they do a table read for fun to start fine-tuning the script. Eventually, after 3 or 4 re-writes, she starts to look for the right producers who would be a good fit and be able to get the funds together to make the film. After another few months to 2 years casting they are ready for pre-production, scouting regions of the planet where they want to shoot the images used in the film. Costumes, visual FX, more re-writes now that the cast in fixed, then shoot time. They wake up at 5am and work until 2am every day for 30-60 days, then they lock themselves in a dark room with an editor for a few weeks to piece together their film, where they begin to see the rewards of their sweat at last. Now it’s time to meet some composers. The filmmaker has a much more intimate relationship with the material than you ever will. Your job is to figure it out quickly and catch up to where they are. You need to be the path of least resistance. It needs to be obvious that you are the right choice. Writing music is easy, and writing the correct music is more difficult, but getting the gig is the hard part. If they don’t think they can sit in a room with you for a couple hours without getting annoyed (with your precious bulls***) you will never get hired.

If there is one thing you personally think would make the film industry better today, what would it be?

If there was a better way to combat piracy? If the protections for the investors disappear, so will the industry. If there’s no money to be made, then there’s no reason to do it, and making movies will be similar to playing acoustic guitar in a coffee shop. It will be something people do to get laid. And with technology going the way it is, this may happen sooner than you think. I can imagine an AI system that has every piece of music ever written inside of it and someone talking to it saying “a little Bach with a sprinkle of Chopin” and the machine would pump out the music with a few mixing options for you to choose from. If you are pulling from the old masters like this, then there is probably a program that already does this. My advice is to be different. It’s somewhat unavoidable anyway so embrace what makes you different. Don’t think it’s wrong. My dad was a professor of physics who used to say anyone who spells a word the same way twice is boring. He also gave me the long-winded answers… If you Google “Swihart Waves” you will find out more about him.

(Any other advice you would like to voice to help the next generation of composers? Or what is next for you?)

I started making records for fun under a pseudonym.
Part of me wants to grow weed, and part of me wants to build solar farms.
All the best,
Keep writing.