Film Composer James Sale

Film Composer James Sale

James Sale B.M. ’91 is a composer and conductor who has had a long career working in film. His scores can be heard in Hotel Transylvania 2 and The Lego Movie and he recently was a conductor for Transformers: The Last Knight. James and I met playing hockey in Burbank and struck up a close bond over all this film music. He was kind enough to chat with me about his Berklee experience in the Film Scoring Department, pushing through doubt, believing in yourself, and treating fellow players with kindness. 

La-La Land: In life, I have a saying: “You need someone fighting in the room for you.” I say it at work, when giving advice, and when pitching for projects: you need someone who can and will vouch for you. The only way to do this is to keep pitching yourself for projects. I battle a fear of rejection all of the time, but if I get the gig or I don’t, I always learn from the experience of putting myself out there. Here’s what James says about getting over rejection:

“Most of the time the person that got picked has a connection, or it’s nepotism, or they’ve worked with someone before that the director knows and so they feel comfortable with them; it has little to do with their music being better than yours. Your music doesn’t sound as good to people that don’t know you. When they know you, [your] music sounds very good to them; they believe in what they are hearing. When you’re a no-name it sounds very different to them.”

Marathon Man: April 15, 2013, is a day I will always remember. I was running the Boston Marathon, when a bomb exploded just feet from where I was running. From that day on I made a new commitment to myself to dedicate my life to being involved in music, never giving up, and always pushing towards a final goal. This mental commitment took me from being 28 and lifeless in Boston, to the amazing career and life experiences I have today. I asked James for advice to keep pushing for the finish line as well as advice for new Berklee graduates. He replied:

“I would say keep an eye on the one thing you want to do most in music, but don’t be afraid to make a living doing other things related to music. Don’t think being a copyist for five years ruins your chances of being a composer. If anything, it will give you a different set of skills to help you become a composer. I say that having worked as a music librarian, as an orchestrator, as a copyist, all of those things will help you… Remember you are in it for the long haul, this is a marathon. Survive, keep going, and keep learning. That’s what it comes down to.”

Ex-Machina: The first time I ever conducted a piece I had written at Berklee was one of the most nerve-wracking moments of my life. One thing that stood out was the players were just as nervous as I was. I will always remember that feeling of when I stood up at the podium for the first time confident in the music I had written and how I was able to share that emotion with the players. We are all humans in that room bound by a love of music. Keep that in mind. I asked James how to win over the confidence of the players the first time you conduct a major score. He said:

“Be confident. I know that is hard your first time, but if you’re standing up there, there’s a reason that you are up there and you have to believe in that and yourself. Also treat [the musicians] well, treat them like human beings. That goes a long way. Don’t yell at them and don’t criticize them. These guys are on pins and needles just like you are, trying to make a living, and they don’t want to make a mistake. They don’t want to be yelled at in front of an orchestra where they are worried they might not get called back again.”

Read the full interview.

Tim Hare B.M. '11
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