Joey Moser speaks with the composer about the legendary comic and the creation of the Music Composition of a Documentary Series or Special category.
There was only one Gilda Radner, and she left us way too soon. Lisa D’Apolito’s documentary, Love Gilda, is a loving portrait of a woman who never expected to be famous and only wanted to make the world a more beautiful place through humor. Miriam Cutler is nominated for writing the score to Gilda’s life (she’s also nominated for RBG, and both films were executive produced by CNN Films), and it’s a gentle tribute to a legend.
Not only is Cutler nominated twice this season, she helped create the Music Composition of a Documentary Series or Special category. It’s shocking that this category never existed when you think of the staggering number of documentary series and films that have been released in the last 2 years alone. The music of a documentary really shapes the tone and emotional drive of a film, and Cutler knows when to pull back and to drive the narrative.
Throughout our wonderful conversation, Cutler and I discussed how comedy has changed and how the world around us is falling apart. We need Gilda Radner more than ever, and Cutler knows how to honor her and let her light shine through.
Awards Daily: I was always a big fan of Gilda Radner, so I really responded to Love, Gilda.
Miriam Cutler: Thank you.
AD: What was it like receiving the nomination?
MC: It was very surprising, because I’ve been doing docs for a very long time. Until we had this new category it was pretty much impossible, especially because I work primarily in independent docs. It really shines a light on how audiences are really tuning into documentaries nowadays. There’s been a real uptick in interest, so I’m glad that I can be a part of the industry celebration.
AD: I feel ashamed that I didn’t know that there wasn’t a category for documentaries to compete in.
MC: We’ve been trying for years. It’s been a long time.
AD: You were one of the people spearheading the effort to create the category. How long did that take and what was the process like?
MC: I was on the board for a very long time, and through that I have many close colleagues like Jeff Beal and Mark Adler. People that really flow between docs and more, what you might call, industry type stuff. About 3 years ago, I became part of the executive branch at the TV Academy, and when I got there the governor, Rickey Minor, said, ‘Miriam, we need to work on this documentary score Emmy.’ So it was kind of my assignment, and he and I worked on it together. It had tremendous support in our branch. Originally, they had tried to do this a few years ago, and the only way we could have a documentary score Emmy we’d have to give up one of the other categories.
MC: I know! And the one they wanted to eliminate was Main Title.
AD: That’s crazy!
MC: I know! At the time, they were so desperate to keep viewers that they just jump right into the show now. You know how shows eliminate and jump right in?
MC: A while it was really prevalent and the people on the committee thought it might be okay since there are 3 second themes now. But the branch didn’t go for it, and, sure enough, themes have come back. Richard Miner is very savvy and knows how to get things going in the Academy, and he kind of shepherded me and I was able to deliver to him a perspective and he made his pitch. And this finally happened. The great thing is that as soon as it happened, it made all the press and it made huge news, and then the branch had massive submissions. Now the documentary submissions are as big as the regular submissions. Part of our argument that the Academy is trying really hard to enhance diversity, and a lot more women and people of color—people who aren’t considered bankable in the big time television world—are involved with these projects.
AD: It feels like there is always a hot new doc that everyone wants to talk about. Some of the stories are so sensational that it makes me wonder why this category hasn’t been around before.
MC: I’ve been part of the documentary community for a long time, and I’ve watched this transition happen. Originally, there were really fine documentary films—very well crafted and beautifully done—even Aaron Copland scored one. It kind of moved away to low budget land. It didn’t attract as many people. Filmmakers want to make great movies and great TV, and they don’t care of it’s a documentary or a feature film. They want to use all those tools possible and make the best project they can. Broadcasters viewed it as this great content, and you didn’t have to pay all these huge movie stars. With streaming, there are so many outlets and so much content. You can make documentaries cheaper. Not necessarily faster but cheaper. We have all these murder mystery docs, too.
AD: They’re everywhere.
MC: Some of them are great, but some are teetering on reality television almost. When you think about it, how do you distinguish reality television from documentaries? We didn’t want to get stuck in a category with music from reality shows—which are very different. What’s so complicated about documentaries—and what I love about working on them—is that there is a very strong ethical component about making films like this. It’s more akin to journalism and the ethics of that. In fictional media making, you have way more license to play with facts. In documentaries, part of the training is journalistic standards and taking responsibility for what you present and how you treat the people in the film. That’s why I love it so much. It matches up with my own personal value system.
AD:I always respond to documentaries when you can tell there’s a lot of care in telling this particular story.
MC: It’s very important. Also, the community really holds one another accountable. You have to get through your brothers and sisters. If someone stumbles over the line, they hear about it. With that’s happening right now with journalists and the new, people want to delve into a topic in a responsible way. I’m very proud to be part of this community, and I’m very happy with my choices.
AD: Do you purposely seek out projects that focus on women’s stories?
MC: I never seek them out, but I think feminism has roared back. Needless to say, what’s going on in our country, women are aware of their situation and they want to be noisy about it. We want to educate people about it. I’ve always been an advocate and a feminist, but people denigrated the term. There was pressure with misinformation. My real awakening was through the issue of rape. I had a friend who was raped and murdered when I was in college, and it just so happened that it was Women’s Week and I got involved in the rape crisis center. I came into my feminism through that issue and over the years I learned more about it all. When you realize how hard won women’s rights are—people were just pushed and kicked over when they were trying to vote—you realize people give up their life and dedicate my life so I have rights. Even when I was young, women were very not allowed to be independent financially. My mother wasn’t. My cousin didn’t get to go to the school she wanted to, because they were going to send her brother to a better school. You couldn’t get a credit card. You couldn’t get an abortion. It was illegal when I was a teenager. I think it’s super important that people understand that they’re at it again. They’re trying to take it all away. We have to stay vigilant, and I was very happy to see many people taking to the streets in these last few years.
AD: Everything is so terrifying now.
MC: It really is.
AD: You can’t turn on the news anymore really. We are going the wrong direction.
MC: When in doubt, go backwards! I try to look at life in a heartening way. This is the last gasp. The system we are living in now is unsustainable with the patriarchal value system and the fossil fuels and the gree and all this crazy shit. It’s falling apart. I didn’t expect to see it in my life. We are either going to save ourselves or we’re not. I’m looking to you youngsters because I am doing my part.
AD: I do work with a lot of younger people, and they are mad. They are more aware than I was at that age.
MC: They have the numbers. They can help pull us out of this.
AD: Love Gilda is a lovely tribute to her, and I think the intimacy makes it feel like you are getting to know a great person through a friend. Did you want the music to support that warm feeling?
MC: Definitely. I used to watch Saturday Night Live every week, and I, of course, adored her. When you watch her comedy now, it’s so innocent and non-harmful. Non-toxic. It’s just about human nature. Spending in that world with her, it was wonderful to feel that kindness and an affection for wacky people. It was a really endorphin-inducing experience. As with so many comics, they are tremendous actors, and they understand tremendous pain. They can focus their talent towards the angst of the human experience. I think Gilda was masterful of that, and she was building on Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. I couldn’t help but notice how mean comedy is today and someone is paying the price. Some of it is very mean-spirited.
AD: Seeing of some of the footage—especially when you see the first cast members of SNL—there’s a purity to it.
MC: They had no idea they were going to be stars! They were like the kind of people that got together in their living room to crack each other up, and the world went, ‘I want that!’
AD: Comedy now feels so different and…calculated?
MC: And crass. Even Lenny Bruce wasn’t as crass as they are now.
AD: When I was listening to some of the tracks, I didn’t even know the selection titled “SNL” was a piece of music that you wrote. It felt like something from the 70’s version of SNL.
MC: I was really trying to evoke the show. During the Gilda years, they were focusing on a saxophone sounds—it was very funky. I’ve always thought their bands were tremendous. The original band had more horns, though. I don’t think of those as “scores.” I have music that I want to play a duel role to create a certain vibe but also take you to where you need to go and be in that place. That was really fun, because I really love funk and I never have funk or jazz in my scores.
AD: The first piece of music feels like a gentle homage to Gilda. Did you want to try and capture her essence in one piece of music?
MC: Oh, that means enormously that you feel it that way. I’m a big believer in music being integrated in the narrative of the film. It shouldn’t be pasted on or an afterthought. I teach that when I’m teaching and do that when I’m scoring. How can I support the narrative and the character and story arcs? How can I connect the audience’s subconscious many things? When you have a good, strong scene, you ca utilize it throughout. Any time we spend time with Gilda, I have her theme. It may vary all over the place—sometimes it’s happy or sad or nostalgic. People don’t see it that way, but they feel it. Hopefully, it fits their relationship. I’m helping to guide them. One of the things I show people when I teach is a guy fixing a roof in another country and speaking in another language. I put all different kinds of music to it and show how I can make him looks suspicious or make him look like a hero or villain. Or I can make him look scared or stupid. Is he fixing the roof because there was a storm and people died? Or is it because a little old lady needs help—it could be anything.
Music plays a very big role, and I take that very seriously. If I am out of sync with the vision, I can dilute the vision of the film. In documentaries, you don’t want to be manipulative. You want to be honest, but you want to provide guidance. Sometimes people don’t know it’s okay to laugh or if someone is an unreliable character. This is what I was talking about with bringing those tools to documentary film making without sacrificing the integrity of the story. It’s hard. And I love it because it’s so hard. It’s complicated.
AD: You can tell when you watch a movie or TV show and then the score rushes in and tells you how to feel. I always feel like it’s more effective when it amplifies the character and then affects the audience instead of the music pushing a button and telling you to feel a certain way.
MC: Exactly. Sometime my job is to simply be neutral and let people have the experience. If I slow something down, I can make it a lot more dramatic or I can speed it up. There is a great thing we do at the Sundance Lab where they show the original Star Wars but without the music.
AD: That has to be weird, right?
MC: It’s not just weird—it’s awful. It’s hilariously dumb. You have all these heroes running around and then the actor who plays Darth Vader acting with his real voice. It’s like a bad costume party, but once you put I the sound design, you’re sold! That’s the magic of moviemaking.
AD: I thought of a quote that Gilda has where she says, ‘Cancer taught me more about life than anything else.’ Was it difficult to score those scenes when we are seeing her decline?
MC: Absolutely. It’s all about how you calibrate it. I did a film about child slavery, and that director wanted you to feel it. He wanted you to sit in it and wag his finger at the audience. I was shameless and we were tragic. A lot of people won’t like that film, because it’s too painful. With Gilda, I sort of took my cues from her. She found tremendous growth as a person with her experience with cancer. Once she had a handle on it, she was very upbeat about it, so I followed her. I’ve dealt with cancer firsthand (my partner died from it) so it’s very personal for me. Gida was able to channel all of her gift—the way she looks at life and how she interprets people emotionally—and use it in her theater. There’s a quote where Gilda says, ‘How do I make cancer funny?’ and that was her goal.
AD: Light sort of radiated from Gilda, and I knew how she passed. I truly feel the documentary allows her to shine in her most natural way.
MC: She was a fragile person who became so famous. Sometimes when you have issues, that spotlight can be hard. People aren’t always kind. I think she thought she could beat the cancer.
AD:One of the hardest parts of the entire film is when she makes a comment about how she thought cancer would become this story. Like it’s something she could refer to after she beat it. That was heartbreaking.
MC: Yes, it was.
AD: I’m glad people can find it now, too. I just saw that it was streaming online. Two of your films, Gilda and RBG, were about famous, influential women. As a silly question to close: would you choose to do another film in the same vein, and, if so, who would you want it to be about?
MC: Right now I’m doing a film about sexual desire and I think it’s really interesting.
AD: That’s amazing subject for a doc, especially because of how women’s rights are constantly under attack.
MC: We’ve had it up to here, you know? Basically, the film is about how a part of our body is barely mentioned in books of the anatomy. It’s the clitoris. I couldn’t say the word until I was working on the film. The film is about these 4 young women who, in different ways, are pursuing this story and rising up against it being erased. The consequences of that part of our bodies being erased, you can’t ignore it disempowers women and separates them from their own bodies. I am excited about it because it will broaden the conversation just like how The Hunting Ground did with survivors. It forces women into the shadows. The only way we are patrolled is when we’re silenced, and young women aren’t having it. I think the film will do a lot of good in bringing out the conversation.
I also finished another film about post-partem psychosis, and that’s another area where women are so ashamed. I would tell people I was working on it, and so many women would tell me things like they didn’t want to nurse their babies or they had thoughts of killing it. And they feel like they can talk about it and they were going psychotic. I am really excited about that film—it’s really powerful. Going back to one of your other questions about why I want to tell women’s stories. It’s because it’s the least covered stuff. I’m always learning new things. I’m so inspired by all these women and their stories. I didn’t really answer your question, did I?
AD: I like that better! I can’t wait to check those out!