For more than 25 years, Vancouver has been a hotbed of activity for the film and television industry, from The X-Files in the early ’90s to the recent Deadpool franchise, with no shortage of homegrown projects. In 2017, the industry spent a record-setting $2.6 billion dollars in British Columbia. All of this has entrenched a stable infrastructure of talent that repeatedly brings filmmakers back to the Canadian West Coast.
But what happens once the film stops rolling? A lot of post-production is then taken back to L.A. or Toronto, including scoring and soundtrack work. That hasn’t stopped a new generation of composers from cashing in on Vancouver’s cachet as a film hub. And they’re getting it the old-fashioned way: through networking, hustling, and hard work.
Eli Bennett was born into the job: his father, Daryl, is a winner of multiple LEO Awards (the B.C. screen industry honours) – although Bennett junior bested his father at last year’s ceremony, picking up his first LEO for the orchestral score for Believe: The True Story of Real Bearded Santas. Eli got his start in his dad’s home studio, learning how to write cues before moving to Toronto to study jazz at Humber College.
Even more than the hands-on experience, however, the 29-year-old Eli credits his father with the best advice: don’t just look to Vancouver for work, but get in touch with students at all the major film schools in North America and develop working relationships on their short films.
“A lot of people just focus on their own cities,” he says. “I thought reaching out to the North American market was a no-brainer, but it’s not necessarily a thing in Vancouver. You should cast a continental net beyond your immediate city.” Directors like to work with collaborators they know, and several of those former film students have continued to employ Bennett as they get commercial and feature work.
Sometimes, however, directors do take a chance on an unknown – though not the Hollywood directors that regularly parade through Vancouver. David Ramos, a Mexican-Canadian dual citizen, met Oscar-winning Canadian documentary filmmaker John Zaritsky (Just Another Missing Kid, 1982) at a party, which led to work on his 2012 film Do You Really Want to Know? Likewise, a chance encounter with producer (and former SOCAN Board member) Ben Mink (k.d. lang, Barenaked Ladies) at a shop where Ramos was teaching led to them working together on film scores. Ramos has been a full-time film composer for six years, with a major U.S. feature about to be announced, as well as a documentary set in 18 different African countries.
Ramos was once an active live musician, mostly in Mexico, and also in a Vancouver prog-rock band, but now scoring takes up all his time. Eli Bennett tours frequently with Five Alarm Funk, popular favourites on the summer festival circuit, who’ve been touring America lately. “When I’ve been touring a lot, I haven’t been able to take on feature film projects that require five weeks at a time,” he says. “With commercial projects, it might take a week-and-a-half, and then I head back on the road.”
Another Vancouver film composer with an active live profile is Matt Rogers, half of award-winning blues duo The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer, who have four albums to their name, and have toured throughout North America and Europe. “The band takes up more of my time, but when composition projects come through, they require 150% of my time and energy to get them done,” he says. “I have to switch gears and ignore everything else to meet deadlines.”
Rogers studied jazz at Capilano College in Vancouver, where he started scoring student films. He soon got a job as an assistant to composer Ari Wise, who did a lot of TV work – including, like Daryl Bennett, scores for the TV spinoff of the Police Academy movies, shot in Vancouver in 1997. “Even if I wasn’t the one composing, I got to see how film composition works,” he recalls. “Ten years ago Wise quit film composing to become a film-composition agent. That was another break for me: I didn’t just have a composer ally, but I had an agent… that was a huge step for me.” He now has five LEO awards, and has scored numerous TV movies (Who Killed JonBenét?) and independent features.
Now that Rogers has two young children, film work is more appealing than the physical rigours of touring, which he’d sometimes like to dial back. So, if and when he ever comes off the road, his Plan B is already up and running.
One of his old Capilano classmates, Red Borrowman – who composes under the name Red Heartbreaker – is also thriving, with 60 films under her belt, and steady work stretching into next year. Discussing her beginnings composing for film, she says, “it’s a very male-centric industry, and there aren’t a lot of female composers anywhere. But there’s so much mentorship for people who are new, so much shop to talk, and commiseration during tough periods: people are unbelievably available. The film community in Vancouver, especially the [film] composer community, is so supportive and collaborative. I’m constantly blown away by how generous and loving my colleagues are.”
Borrowman has a lot to bring to the table: as a classically trained composer and arranger, she writes orchestral and choral pieces when there’s a budget for it. “I think of everything in three dimensions when I write,” she says. “One of the wonderful things about jazz or classical theory informing what you do, is that you’re always thinking in three dimensions. It’s not just about the hook or the sample, it’s: ‘How does this move? Is this a many-layered moment or a small-layered moment?’ The one instrument I always want to play is the orchestra. I can’t think of anything more malleable.
“‘Orchestra’ doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does,” she says. “If you think of orchestral scoring as combining different timbres together and having themes, and variations, and leitmotif, and keys, and tones connected to character development, I still think of that as orchestral. If you’re talking about character development and emotion, and the right instrument is an 808, it’s still orchestral composing, because you’re writing linear music that moves forward with the story. It’s not just symphonies and violins. I would be okay with retiring the cello, though. I feel it’s been used so much in the way that amateur chefs use truffle oil: it just tastes like gasoline after a while.”
Borrowman has worked on projects with Rogers, and says the camaraderie of Vancouver’s community of cinematic composers should be a major selling point for the local film industry. “When you hire one Vancouver composer, you’re getting the benefit of their entire community,” she says. “Why wouldn’t you want that?”