Hollywood Confidential

Composer John Hanson and producer Kyle Biane iwork the sliders at the mixing board.

John Hanson, left, and Kyle Biane in Studio 3 at East West Studios, Hollywood.
(Photo: Courtesy ConfidentialMX)

They might be the best movie music squad you’ve never heard of, and the Confidential Music team is happy to keep it that way.  The Santa Monica-based trio – composer John Samuel Hanson, artist Becky Hanson, and mixer-producer Kyle Biane – create custom music for movie trailers. Although their clients are technically the trailer houses, ultimately their clients are the movie studios, and studios are notoriously tight-lipped about marketing tactics.

But when you’re this talented, it’s hard to keep it a secret. The team put together a killer cover version of the Bee Gees “I Started a Joke,” helping to create an internet sensation when Suicide Squad had its big reveal at ComiCon last summer. That “first-look trailer” racked up nearly 70 million YouTube views since its July 2015 debut.

The cover song, by ConfidentialMX (featuring Becky Hanson), made it onto Suicide Squad The Album, the only 2016 soundtrack to date to go gold (sales of 500,000, which it achieved September) and now platinum (sales of one million units). The Atlantic Records release also became Grammy’s most-nominated visual media contender with recognition in five categories including Best Compilation (credited to music supervisors Gabe Hilfer and Season Kent). In case you’re wondering, the MX stands for, in film production, there are three audio departments, Biane explains:  DX, dialog;  FX, effects; MX, music.

“It is very humbling to be on the same record as some of the biggest names in music today,” Becky Hanson says. “There is still something unreal about it when you read down the credits.” Confidential’s Suicide success story indeed had humble beginnings: it started at a Trailer Park. Not just any trailer park – but one of Hollywood’s most successful motion picture advertising agencies (colloquially known as a “trailer house”) – and its VP Music and, as described by John Hanson, “resident genius,” Bobby Gumm.

“Bobby Gumm, who is an exceptional music supervisor, said ‘We’re working on this film based on DC Comics characters, and I’m thinking about “I Started a Joke.” Why don’t you do a slowed-down version of it, that’s really moody?’”  Hanson was intrigued. “I had this idea to have a descending melody throughout. Because in the chords there are notes that can be moving down, and usually in trailers we’re always going the opposite way: up, up, UP! In this case, we start really high, and descend into the pit. It starts high, and then things start bending and breaking down.”

Becky Hanson stands at the microphone before a baffle wall.

Becky Hanson, a natural soprano, ready to roll at LA’s Paramount Recording Studios.
(Photo: Courtesy ConfidentialMX)

Hanson, who with Biane launched Confidential in November of 2012, worked with Gumm on a cover of the classic ballad “Danny Boy” for the trailer to Liam Neeson’s 2015 actioner Run All Night. “Bobby asked me to get Becky to sing it. We delivered the music and Chris Park cut a killer trailer. Chris is an amazing editor and when he, or any editor, believes in a piece of music and feels there’s a story in it that he can sell, it really brings the trailer to life. The cutting of visual to music makes it all feel right, and the dialogue is its own instrument, in a way.”

With “I Started a Joke,” the lyric plays well off the main villain, the Joker, with Becky Hanson’s angelic  vocals providing their one counterintuitive touch.  Both she and John graduated from Cal State Fullerton, where Becky studied classical voice and music history. John majored in composition and also studied voice. “Instrument-wise, it was our main interest.”

After college, Hanson in 2004 started working at Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control, where he was assistant to Klaus Badelt (perhaps best known for his work with Zimmer on Gladiator, The Prince of Egypt and The Thin Red Line).  “I started as a technical assistant for Klaus, doing a variety of tasks, from creating instrument sounds to dealing with everyday computer woes and server work.” Working on epics including Constantine and Poseidon, his title on the credit rolls was synth programmer, “a general term for someone who assists musically – doing sound design and fill ins,” he explains. Eventually Badelt actually did actually have Hanson programming synths, “which was great, because it’s Klaus’ main instrument.”

It’s also the whole orchestra, digitally, affording substantial creative opportunity. “Synth programming is kind of a blanket term for developing all the instruments, with the writing of the music itself referred to as programming.”

In 2007 he took a job as an assistant at Immediate Music, where he met Biane, working for five years as a team. Formed by Yoav Goren and Jeff Fayman in 1992, Immediate made quite the splash with a new niche: serving music to movie advertising agencies (colloquially, a “trailer house”). Hansen describes Goren and Fayman as “formative” in establishing trailer-specific music as a business and an art form. Although John Hanson joined the company aspiring to be a film composer, his years there made a big impression. “They gave me assignments to work on trailers that included everything from writing music to getting coffee and organizing sheet music. They were on a similar track – wanting to get into film music in the early ‘90s and I realized they were on to something – custom music for movie advertising.”

The movie studio marketing departments approve every aspect of their movie trailers, from the opening shot to the seconds onscreen for each actors to the music (and if the producer or director have any clout, they get to weigh in, too). Frequently, trailers are cut to music from a trailer music library. Confidential, as with other trailer music companies, issues regular releases of general –purpose trailer music, the 21st edition of which, entitled Wonderama, is being serviced to clients today.

In addition to tracks created for trailer music catalogs, music from other films, classical music – or a combination of the above – can be used.

What almost never happens is that the composer hired for the film creates the trailer music. Practically speaking, there is a timing issue. Major releases are shot a year in advance with teaser trailers often cut before a composer is hired. And while there are often multiple iterations (as more footage becomes available, or test audiences suggest a different “sell”), a composer, once hired, is up against an immediate time crunch.

But there are creative reasons. “We’re in that world, writing the type of music that works for advertisements for movies,” Hanson says. “We have a standing catalog of stuff that we put out for our clients, and we also do custom work when a trailer house comes to us and says ‘Hey, we’re looking for this, and it needs to do that, and be this long. Since that’s all we do, we deliver quickly.”

An example of a film whose trailer did use its composer’s music was the summer sci-fi release Arrival. “You have Jóhann Jóhannsson music in the beginning, and our music is at the end. And David James Rosen, at Ignition, did some overlays over that, so three collaborators.”

A look at the top 20 on a chart of the Frequently Used Trailer Cues at soundtrack.net has Immediate Music occupying six slots, but it’s kind of misleading, because at No. 12 is “Trailerhead: Trumph (Ode to Power),” a 23-track collection of re-recordings of company’s previous power favorites. Rounding out the top 20 are a handful of composers, and two classical pieces (including Beethoven’s 9th).  Although it appears the chart has not been updated in a decade, the general ranking probably hasn’t changed much.

Even more rare than a composer’s original film music making it onto the trailer is music created for a trailer finding its way into the film, as recently occurred with Gumm’s placement of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic’s “Dies Irae (Requiem),” by Giuseppe Verdi,  for the Mad Max: Fury Road trailer that director George Miller used for the same scene in the film (but did not make it onto the soundtrack).

“Most of the stuff that’s composed for trailers is way too over-the-top to exist in a film. But if you think it could be one of the films’ themes, then we’re doing a good job,” says Hanson, whose recent work includes trailers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, working with Giaronomo, and Martin Scorsese’s highly-anticipated Silence, for Open Road Entertainment” (for which music starts at :50 in the embedded clip, above). “We are truly grateful to be in collaboration with so many talented people,” Biane notes. “Seeing the end product come out so well never gets old.”

While the team at Confidential clearly have the chops to deliver a wow-factor — and in trailers, there has been a recent trend toward songs, dating back to Baz Luhrman’s 2014 film, The Great Gatsby, which premiered several of the film’s unique tunes in the trailer — staying focused on client goals, Hanson says, has been key to Confidential’s success.

“Our job is to get people into seats. At the end of the day, for a trailer to really work it has to be inspired, and have something that emotionally connects to the audience.” The studios, he says, know what trailer houses have what strengths. Some are huge and can do anything, others are more artsy. Those known as cutting edge, while across town they cater bread-and-butter. Everybody takes their best guess at what they think will work to sell a movie. “The funny thing about our business is we usually don’t even know if our music is actually in the trailer until it actually comes out. We know it might be happening, but until the day it drops, we never really know for sure.”

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