We had the good fortune of connecting with Russ Whitelock and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Russ, what’s the most difficult decision you’ve ever had to make?
The most difficult decision I’v ever had to make was to walk away from an industry I had been a part of for 20 years. I decided it was time to follow my passion for composing music for film.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I heard my first film score when I was around 10 years old. All my friends were listening to rock and I was listening to John William’s score from Jaws. I fell in love with the entire soundtrack, not just the two iconic notes but each of the selections on the soundtrack captivated me. I remember going often to the local record store and buying the scores of Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams and Allen Silvestri and others. From that time on I knew I wanted to compose music for film. I struggled with my piano lesson assignments because I was always making up stuff when I was supposed to be practicing. From a young age I wanted to compose music for film but had no idea how to map out the steps needed to become a film composer.
After marrying my wife Tami I ended up working as a sales rep for a regional shipping company for almost twenty years. The whole time I always felt that someday I would have a shot at scoring a movie. I didn’t know how or when it would happen. During that time, I put together a small home studio and tinkered with music production. I had several opportunities to compose music for small documentaries and short films that gave me a little exposure and allowed me to do what I love. Due to the economic down turn in 2008 I was laid off from my job. I remember vividly thinking that one door had closed and now is the time to somehow attempt to make composing for a living a reality, not knowing where in the world to begin. As a sales rep for a shipping company I got up everyday for the previous twenty years and put on a white shirt and tie. That was engrained in me, so I found myself up each day putting on that white shirt and tie, however now instead of going on sales calls, I went to the Utah Film Commission office and picked up a member directory. I sat in my car, looking through the directory and calling as many producers, directors and anyone else I thought might give me a chance as a composer.
One of those contacts was a screen writer/director named Craig Clyde. He talked to me for the better part of two hours. He told me he was in pre-production on a Christmas movie titled ‘A Rootbeer Christmas’ and would be an advocate for me with the producers. Apparently he thought enough of me to allow a visit or maybe he felt sorry for my pathetic approach and decided to give me a bit of his time. Either way it meant the world to me. He made it clear that he did not have the final say regarding a composer, but would do all he could to get me the opportunity.
At the completion of filming “A Rootbeer Christmas”, a producer called and I could tell he was not sure about using me. He reluctantly sent me three scenes to write music for and they would compare my work with two other composers. I was hoping for a week to perfect these scenes, but he gave me two days! Several weeks later I received the exciting phone call – they would give me a try with this movie! I could tell he was not fully convinced even then and honestly, neither was I.
It scared me to think about actually getting the job. I had never scored a feature length movie before, I didn’t even have a computer to score the film. Days before I received the final cut, I purchased my first MAC and ProTools software. Keep in mind I was now hired and just starting to purchase vital components to begin composition not to mention linking everything together so things worked! I was unsure of how to do everything. I didn’t even know if I could finish it before the deadline or how to deliver a final score! I had themes running through my head but that was about it! The entire technical know-how of the recording software, instrument libraries, computer, not to mention mixing, cue sheets and the like was all foreign to me! How do you want to review music? How often?
Although the most stressful time of my life I was very fortunate to work with people who walked me through the process and gave me the time to really figure things out. ‘A Rootbeer Christmas’ was aired as ‘A Christmas Wish’ on the Hallmark Channel the next year!
That opportunity led to more collaborations with those producers and started my career as a film composer.
I have since worked with numerous directors and faced the challenges that scoring a film bring. Sometimes the first cue composed is just what the director is hoping for and is quickly evident by the reaction during a review of the score, while other times I write a cue over and over with real challenges to find just the right emotion, tempo and musical balance to the scene. It’s a hugely satisfying process from start to finish. From a musical theme or idea bouncing around in your head to a finished orchestrated cue that weaves it’s way around the story you’re telling with music. I love it and try daily to not take anything for granted.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I would love to give a shoutout to screen writer/director Craig Clyde. He sat down and genuinely listened to me when I really didn’t have a clue regarding how to find work as a composer. He gave me my first opportunity to score a feature length film that aired on the Hallmark Channel.
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The image from the film festival needs to credit Bitter Monkey Productions.