Jacques Brautbar today (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)
By the time Jacques Brautbar finished his bachelor’s degree at the University of Southern California a few years ago, he was significantly older than most of his classmates.
The 37-year-old originally enrolled in the college’s Thornton School of Music in 2000. But his band, Phantom Planet – yes, the same band that featured Jason Schwartzman on drums and that wrote the theme song for The OC – started to tour, release records and make appearances on Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Through the ups and downs of indie-rock stardom, Brautbar continued to collect credits from USC. But once he finally conceded that he wouldn't have a career as a professional musician, Brautbar decided to back to school full-time to become a music teacher.
Then he bumped into an old friend who asked if he was interested in writing music for commercials.
“He kind of groomed me and showed me the way of writing for picture," Brautbar says. “That was my first experience writing music for something other than its own sake.”
A "music in film class" at USC helped clarify Brautbar's new career trajectory even further: He was determined to be a film composer. “My two favorite things in life are music and film," he says. "I think I can do this.”
A few composition classes and a college degree later, Brautbar was enrolled at USC again, only this time in the school's Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television graduate program.
Whether writing a hit indie-rock song or a short film soundtrack, Brautbar says musicians and composers work with different parts of the same brain, using the same tools in different ways.
Still, traditional songwriting is more self-serving. “It’s a little advertisement for itself,” he says of traditional songs. “There’s certain structures and genre tropes that you have in there, and you have to do everything within three-and-a-half minutes.”
On the other hand, when he's composing for film, “it’s to help the narrative," Brautbar says. "It’s to help the audience to connect with the film, it’s to help emotion, and it’s about timing music to picture.”
It's also about working with the director, whose vision is complimented by the composer's music. Even as an undergraduate, Brautbar made a point to befriend the student filmmakers at USC's Cinematic Arts school. That’s how he met director Reuben Guberek and producer Jacqueline Walukas, who told him about their dream project: a stylized spoof of Goodfellas, set in the fast food industry. Brautbar offered his services for their soundtrack, thinking nothing would come from it. But he heard back from the production team a few months later, after the project was greenlit as Guberek's thesis film, Foodfellas.
Guberek explained his vision for the film, and Brautbar immediately thought: Scarface. “There’s something dirty about that Scarface soundtrack,” he says. “Glossy and dirty.” For inspiration, Brautbar and Walukus spend a weekend watching the infamous Al Pacino flick. The result is six synth-heavy tracks that capture the "King of Burgers" rise from grill cook to fast-food gangster.
"He was always happy to go in a new direction or tweak the piece until it was right," Guberek says of working with Brautbar. "And in the end I always felt that he nailed it." (The director's favorite track is "The Customer is Always Right.")
Since Foodfellas, Brautbar has composed music for more than a dozen undergraduate and graduate USC films. (“That’s the best part about going to USC: There are people making movies there,” he says.) He also won a coveted 2016 Sundance Institute Fellowship in the Music and Sound Design Labs, an eight-day experience he likens to "creative camp."
Brautbar's words of advice to future film composers: Be somebody that people want to work with. That can be tough, since composers are weird, he admits. “We’re shy or sometimes we’re very precious about our music,” he says. “You’ve got to let all of that go, because when you’re working on a film, the director is your boss and you’re providing a service for your boss.”
“The world is oversaturated with talented people, talented composers," he adds. "I think at the end of the day, people want to work with people they like to be around.”
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.