Updated: Aug 18, 2020
When I watch movies as a writer, I obsess over the theatrical structure, the directing, the producing, even the costume design. It wasn’t until I met Pietro Milanesi, LA-based composer, that I started noticing and enjoying film and TV scores.
I caught up with Pietro to discuss his experience supporting his work at two very opposite film festivals: The California Independent Film Festival and Sundance. Nestled in the tiny town of Orinda, CA, CAIFF is the perfect place for indie filmmakers to see their movies screened. It’s common to attend one event, meet friends, and see them at most other screenings, parties, mixers, etc. Pietro was attending because of an award he received from a film scoring competition associated with the festival.
Sundance is one of the biggest and most notorious film festivals presented in the snowy hills of Park City, Utah. Regardless of the high budgets of the films, everyone in attendance is laid back. There is an exciting energy in every coffee shop and event. Sundance is a great way to enjoy the year’s most highly anticipated films.
Artists in Los Angeles often face this age-old dilemma.
CAIFF and Sundance were very different not just because of their size and structure, but for Pietro personally, they represented very different projects on which he worked. One score he composed on his own, the other, with a high-profile team. It's a question I too struggle with all the time. Do I work for a bigger company with more reach and learn from those who are further along in their careers? Or do I tough it on my own and work on smaller projects, cultivating my portfolio and setting my own schedule? Both paths provide different lifestyles. Pietro elaborated---
PM: I try to advance my career both in a freelance capacity and collaboratively. While in Orinda, I was awarded for a film scoring competition where I wrote music for a clip and demonstrated my ability to jump from scene to scene using different styles of music. Freelance work allows me the time to submit to competitions like the one at CAIFF.
Additionally, you have complete creative control and you’re fully responsible for the score’s delivery to production. It’s harder. It’s uncertain. But it can be much more rewarding both artistically and financially. The award is something I couldn’t have received if I was working full time for another composer.
When we met up at Sundance, I asked Pietro about his experience on the music team for The Dissident, one of the most highly anticipated projects at Sundance. I'd heard Hillary Clinton came to the premier. I was fascinated that it seemed Pietro had a burgeoning career both with his own music and when it came to working with impressive teams. He explained--
PM: I attended Sundance to support The Dissident for which I did additional writing. The large team was led by Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel and I worked alongside composer Adam Peters. The movie received fantastic reviews and it’s currently seeking world-wide distribution. Being part of a larger team can give you the opportunity to work on higher profile projects. This route offers more stability, but sometimes less creative freedom.
How do you maintain balance?
PM: Until my career could stand on its own, I worked a lot of jobs that didn’t directly seem to advance my career. However, over time, the connections with filmmakers and creatives have allowed me to go completely freelance. I still collaborate from time to time with other composers whenever the budget and projects are rewarding. For example, the upcoming Ghostbusters movie by composer Rob Simonsen. So it largely depends on where the artist is in their career and what they need at that particular time.
I do try to experiment with different types of productions that require all sorts of music, which to me is necessary to stay current and develop creatively. On gigs like campaigns for Adidas and Uniqlo I get to write my most experimental and cutting edge music, while on many of my film work I get to fully exploit all the techniques of traditional scoring and orchestral writing.
How was your adjustment to moving to LA?
PM: When I moved to LA four years ago, I had a few college connections that helped provide a sense of community and belonging, but it was far from a steady path. I think a town the size of Los Angeles can be quite intimidating for a foreigner looking to start his career.
Do you have any tips for composers just starting out?
PM: Writing for music houses has facilitated continuous work. A music house is basically a link between composers and production companies that helps place my music on television shows. Everything I’ve written for them in the past can be reused and becomes available over time, so there is a lot of opportunity to get pieces licensed.
PM: Over the years I’ve received some good placements, which translates into royalties every time a show airs. For example, American Idol, The Bachelor or Wicked Tuna on Nat Geo all feature my music regularly. Because of this, I’m able to receive passive income even when regular gigs slow down, which happens from time to time. This type of work is ongoing, so whenever I don’t have a specific project I’m working on, I write for them.
Composing is a very competitive field so it’s key to be able to deliver your best quality. Because technology has made composing tools accessible to everyone, anyone can make their own music. Ideally, this also means that you have the ability to produce music that has the same sonic quality of established artists and composers, regardless of the length of your career. That's where the bar is set and where you should aim.
Composers and artists in general, wishing you success in your personal and collaborative projects, and the perfect amount of peaceful balance in your career.