A Conversation with Mark Adler

By John Rosenberg

For this issue of The Coachella Review I caught up with a long time friend, Mark Adler, a talented, all around filmmaker. Best known in recent years for his work as a film composer, including on the Academy Award nominated documentary, Food, Inc., Bottle Shock and The Rat Pack, Mark has also worked as a music editor (The Godfather Part III, Amadeus, etc.), animator, director, and cinematographer.  He recently produced, directed, photographed and edited a new music video.

Can you tell us about your new music video? Who's in it; does it have a particular angle or theme? When and where will it be released?

The video stars Billy Bramblett singing his song, "The 33rd Amendment."  The tune starts off with a kind of bouncy reggae beat - upbeat and happy - except the lyrics are expressing indignation at social injustices which are the result of moneyed interests polluting free speech and the political process in America.  So there's this tension between the danceable music and the serious political tone of the words. There's also a surprise verbal explosion, which I will leave as a surprise so as not to ruin it!

Billy has tremendous charisma; he's really a natural actor.  As a performer, he was constantly inventive, coming up with all sorts of spontaneous gestures and expressions, which really helped put the song across.  On a technical level, his lip-sync was perfect take after take.  We've also got a group of high school students, featuring a 15 year old named Carolyn Stephens.  Bill is (how should I put it?) of a certain age.  His energy is boundless and youthful, but I thought it was important to have some younger folks in the video as well.  Carolyn has a wonderful screen presence herself, and it was a pleasure to work with her.  Finally, we have a group of extras portraying protestors on the street, many of whom were excellent and brought a lot to the climax of the video.

We'll launch it on YouTube and as many other Internet venues as we can find.

You're well known as a film composer; what inspired you to shoot a music video?

As you know, I'd been to film school and making films was a road-not-taken for me. Back in the 80s I directed a music video for Billy which won some prizes at film festivals.  He contacted me last year about doing another one for him, and it seemed like too crazy a proposition for me to say no.  It also helped that I really liked the subject of the song.

These days film technology is constantly changing. Did you have to learn any new hardware or software in order to make your film?

I'm old enough to have cut my teeth on film, so yeah, the whole digital thing was new for me.  In many ways film was tougher to shoot and manipulate in post, so it was helpful to have that discipline in my background.  I shot the video with a Canon 5D mark ii (I operated myself), and it took me a while to feel comfortable with it.  Film cameras are actually pretty simple.  The tricky thing with the 5D was learning to navigate the various menus and buttons, which are not exactly intuitive.  The little wheel, which selects manual exposure or shutter priority or aperture priority, does not have a lock on it, so if it were bumped and moved it could cause problems.  The other thing that took some getting used to was the large image sensor, which yields a very shallow depth of field.  Most of my experience was shooting 16mm, which is relatively forgiving as far as focus goes. We shot this very quickly, and much of it was done almost documentary style, so I was constantly worrying about focus.  Of course, the shallow depth of field was great for close-ups...it really draws you into the character.

I'm cutting with Adobe Premiere CS6, which is quite similar to Final Cut Pro 7.  I had a bit of experience with FCP, so it didn't take long to get up to speed with that.  We have a few green screen shots and we had a VFX guy on the set to make certain those were done properly.

What other production or post-production hats have you worn as a filmmaker?

I've done lighting, animation, picture editing, music editing, sound editing, Foley, writing, pretty much all of the hats.  I've even acted a little.  I've been making my living as a composer for quite a while now, and I've conducted and orchestrated almost all of my scores, and mixed quite a few of them as well.

Would you like to make another music video?

I didn't think I would be saying this, but yes I would.  I actually thought of this as a one-off, a kind of vacation from composing.  The process hasn't been easy, but I've enjoyed the challenge.  In retrospect, I would've done a few things differently and I suppose I'm hungering for the chance to refine things, to see if I can learn from my mistakes, so to speak.

You've scored documentaries, dramatic TV shows and feature films. Do you have a favorite genre?

I love the teaching aspect of the docs, and it's been rewarding to have worked on films such as FOOD, INC., which influenced so many people.  From a music standpoint, it's hard not to love working on a dramatic feature film--they often have large canvasses and provide the composer with dramatic and musical opportunities not usually found in the other genres.