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An Extreme Beginner's Guide to Composing Movie Scores

09/05/2014 18:54 BST | Updated 08/07/2014 10:59 BST

Way back in the rainy summer of 2010 - when Wikileaks was busy leaking, a volcano in Iceland was busy erupting and Gordon Brown was busy packing - my old university chum Damian Samuels contacted me to say he was making a short film.

"Oh, yes?" I commented. "What's it about?"

"It's about a man who falls in love with a mermaid."

"A fairy tale - how sweet."

"No, it's a gritty British seaside comedy with lots of fish, big knives, an underwater scene, a Punch & Judy show and a fat bloke running. Will you do the music?"

"Well... I'll have to think about it."

"It's got Keith from The Office in it."

"Oh, in that case, of course!"

Months passed. I had all but erased the conversation from my brain until one day, just before Christmas, an email with an enormous attachment slammed into my inbox. The subject of the email was simply "Fish!" - the accompanying message short and sweet. No, make that short and terrifying.

"Attached film draft, for your eyes only. Looking forward to your music. Wednesday of next week would be good. Love, Damian."

Panic. How the hell was I going to write music for a short film in a week, let alone get musicians to play it and someone else to record it? Who did Damian think I was, Hans Zimmer? I rifled around my flat. Half an hour later I was looking at a small collection of things on the kitchen floor. My acoustic guitar, my electric guitar, a tambourine, a kazoo and my daughter's toy ukulele. Somewhere, lurking within the instruments in front of me, had to be a jaunty, occasionally chaotic yet melancholic comedy movie score. I thought of my favourite film soundtracks. The Shawshank Redemption. Se7en. Schindler's List. I looked back at my pile of stuff. Hmm. Then I thought again. The Graduate. The Third Man. Kramer Vs Kramer. All of which were doubtless gleaned from a collection of musical items not unlike the little heap in front of me. Convincing myself that this was so, my next task was to phone the one person who could, with the appropriate amount of emotional blackmail, help me record it. My friend, a world-renown composer. Let's call him Jonathan. That's his name, after all.

"Yes?" came the stern, businesslike voice on the end of the line.

"Jonathan! It's Tim! Your old buddy. Your favourite riverside beer-drinking pal. The guy who often does you huge favours by drumming on commercials for you. Okay, it happened once. Anyway - how are you?"

A large sigh.

"What do you need, Thornton?"

"Can you help me record an entire soundtrack to a short film I haven't seen yet by next Wednesday?"

"My diary's packed. Oh, hang on - Tuesday evening is free."

"Great. Slam me in."

"Can you send over the scores?"

"The scores? What, the musical scores?"

"No, duh, the cricket scores."

"Um, yes, er, well, no problem, it's just that, erm, well, ah, okay, I'll get them over to you in the next day or two..."

I spent the next few days hard at it, devoting hour upon hour to painstakingly constructing a wonderful musical backdrop for the zany comedy flick churning out of my laptop. I'm lying, of course. I did absolutely bugger all until about 4pm on the Tuesday when I bagged up all my equipment and jumped on the bus.

I needed a slow song, a fast song, a weird sort of Mexican standoff song, an opening song and a closing song. Five songs. By the time the bus reached Waterloo I'd decided the opening and closing song could actually be the same, just played at different speeds. Four songs. While I queued for my ticket I thought of a melody and hummed it into my phone. The old lady in front of me turned and frowned.

"Sorry," I shrugged. "Film composer."

While on the train I hit on the idea of channelling those quirky instrumentals on early Blur albums, all called things like "Intermission" and "Commercial Break". I could even bring in some Graham Coxon-style fuzz guitar to beef it up a bit. A few more melodies, a few more strange looks from fellow passengers and I basically had all my cards in a row. The only thing left was to convince Jonathan that I had the foggiest idea what I was doing.

"What's your first cue called?" he asked, firing up one of those crazily complicated studio programs in his stately-home sized flat.

"Uh... cue?"

"The first piece in the film," he explained, patiently. "What's the title?"

"Ah... um... that would be... 'First cue'."

" 'First cue'?"

"Yup. Or 'Cue one', whichever you like."

Jonathan at least convinced me to up the ante a bit, title-wise; thus, they became things like "Waltz cue", "Water cue", even "Mexican cue". I started to play the first one on the acoustic guitar, and we gradually layered it up: bass guitar, organ, ukulele. Before too long it started to sound like... well, like me playing bass, organ and ukulele on top of some acoustic guitar.

"Not bad," Jonathan commented. "The fast one?"

Inspiration temporarily eluded me. Then I remembered the kazoo, and some long-forgotten nugget from my memory's movie vault miraculously surfaced. Woody Allen, training with an army of revolutionaries in some fictional Central American country, and making his usual hilarious hash of it. It was 1971's Bananas, and the composer was the sadly departed Marvin Hamlisch. The main instrument, if I wasn't desperately mistaken, was the kazoo. So I played a jolly chord progression on the ukulele, then played an approximation of the main Third Man melody over the top. Anton Karas meets Marvin Hamlisch meets Damon Albarn. At least, in my head.

An hour or so later I was back on the train with all my stuff, a WeTransfer link winging its way to the fledgling film director. I had no idea what he was going to make of it. I fully expected him to get in touch the next day with some comment along the lines of, "Very promising! Let me know when you've done the real thing!" But no. A text arrived a few hours later: "Perfect. Love it." Phew.

I'm not blowing my own trumpet - well, actually, I am blowing my own trumpet extremely loudly while marching down the street wearing a Donald Duck costume - but a few months later my music had been nominated for Best Score: Comedy Short at the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema, and given an Honourable Mention. Fish! itself played in film festivals around the world - Raindance in London, Cannes, New York, Sapporo, and managed to win Best Comedy Short at the Valley Film Festival in Los Angeles. Unsurprisingly, my old friend wants to make another one.

"Bigger and better" is his intention, but - I need hardly mention - that means bigger wallets and better cashflow. So we've decided to try crowdfunding for this new project, The Five Wives and Lives of Melvyn Pfferberg - have a look at the Kickstarter page (link below) if you've got a spare second; there's a pretty funny promo video with Hugh Jackman, Basement Jaxx, Doctor Who, a dolphin, and me appearing at around the 3.40 mark, miming the violin rather badly...

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1704432156/the-five-wives-and-lives-of-melvyn-pfferberg