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An interview with Kim Tae-seong, film music director: A movie person? A musician? I’m the film music director who lives with both movie and music

  • [등록일]2018-08-09
  • [조회] 1161

Kim Tae-seong, the film music director (Source: Studio Monopole)


Beginnings in a childhood bedroom
A masterpiece film has masterpiece music. Sometimes the masterpiece music exists as an ensemble that highlights the masterpiece film more than simple background music. For Kim Tae-seong, there is one masterpiece composition that stood out like a landmark in his life as a music director for films: Ennio Morricone’s score for Cinema Paradiso, a film that touchingly portrays the friendship across generations between characters Alfredo and Toto. How many times did Kim listen to this score? He reached a point where he could write down the music by himself, humming the melody without even looking at the notes. Ennio Morricone became the name he wanted to be and resemble the most.
Now Kim Tae-seong is a music director renowned and trusted by the film industry in Korea, but as a child, he was a “cinema kid” who would secretly borrow movies without his parents’ permission and stay in his room all day.
“Maybe it was my destiny to become a music director, or maybe because I used to play the piano, I strangely remember the music better than the story itself after watching a movie.”
In particular, the music composed by Morricone, the maestro of film music, always inspired him to dream of becoming a composer just like him.
As a child, Kim learned many musical instruments, since he had various tastes and opinions on things, and he ended up sticking with the piano. He entered university to study classical music composition, but he decided to take some time off after his freshman year in 1999. It was because of his enormous desire to experience the reality of movie music, the field he’d wanted to work in since his childhood. At the time, the Korean film industry had just opened a new chapter with the movie Shiri and offered infinite opportunities and possibilities for growth.
“I chose classical music as my major because I wanted to learn the basics of music to do film music, but nobody taught me that. I was bold and I just thought, ‘Well, then I’ll jump into the actual field of film music.’”
He started to make demo tapes of his music and sent them to all the famous movie directors and film companies. He didn’t expect to hear from any, but at least he was happy doing that. One day, he received a call saying they wanted his music for a movie trailer. He was so thrilled.


More than mere composing

Luckily, Kim was able to make music for the Champion trailer, followed by Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield and Lover’s Concerto, and he officially debuted as a film music director with the movie Au Revoir, UFO in 2004. Most actively working music directors in Korea are from an older generation than him, which make Kim a young music director. Even though he started early, he has made so many mistakes and failures.

“Now I’m called a box office music director, but actually, most of work I did for the first few years after starting in the field ended up being failures. I worked on those projects with great passion and expectations, and it was very disappointing to see them failing to reach viewers.”
Music directors read the scripts or scenario and discuss with producers, directors, and sound editors about the characteristics of the movie and how it flows, which leads to decisions on music selection for each scene or situation. When the soundtrack album is made and selected songs are arranged or new songs are written, they choose singers or session members together. Film music, usually considered to be a realm of personal work, becomes a realm of common work. For the first time, Kim realized how much the tuning and communications between people working together can influence the result through his work on Crossing.
“Until then, I thought following the traditional grammar of film music was not very cool. I thought sad music for sad scenes was not cool enough. Because of that, I fought with the director so many times. In the end, I had to coordinate with the director and the resulting music received awards, and I was recognized by critics, which changed my thoughts.” (laughs)
The film Crossing far more awards than he had expected. Kim was even asked to work in Europe after this film. He realized that the things he had insisted on were not always right. The wide range of music in films from such different genres and scales as Twenty, Office, and The Sound of a Flower was all created by the hands of Kim Tae-seong. His music, which adds more vividness to the story, was also used in the movie titled The Priests. As the film was about the stories of priests, Kim used medieval religious music as a motif and the starting point for an original score.
“I realized that good music is not always good film music. What I also realized was that there can be a gap between how I feel and how the viewers react to the music. Of course, I have a long way to go. So I’m really working on it now.”

The makings of a good film music director: originality plus commerciality
After many mistakes, he began to focus on what he learned from those mistakes, which was to create film music that captivates the audience. In the process, he was able to help the movies such as War of the Arrows and The Admiral to become box office hits. Now Kim is a music director that make music for movies that attract more than 10 million viewers to the screen, but he cautions against blindly focusing on films. Kim says a good music director knows how to maintain his or her originality as a musician as well as to ensure the commerciality of the work.
“Back in the days like in the 1980s, there was a distinct melody within the film music with some good theme music, but now I think the perspective of the director is more emphasized. It’s now considered more important to immerse the audience in the movie. So the form of film music has gone through many changes. Recently, some people say if you hear a melody from a commercial movie, then there’s too much music in the movie. I had to reflect on this issue a lot when I worked on the movie 1987. How much melody should I make or at what temperature should the incident play out? That’s where most musicians find it difficult to decide when they participate in the film music making process. After discussing it with the director and making compromises, they find themselves doing completely different music they’d like.”
Just like the name of his studio, Monopole, which means to find the root of this world, he says he’s still studying all the time as he attempts to make new efforts. For the first time in Korean film history, Kim worked on his music in Warner Bros. Studio in Hollywood, and he’s the only one from Korea who still continues his work there. With the movie The King’s Case Note released last year, 1987, and Golden Slumber this year, all the music for these films was produced in the Hollywood studio. In the background music for The King’s Case Note, which captivates the ears of the audience with its majestic sound and maximizes the adventurous elements of the movie, no Korean music scales or instruments were used, unlike traditional Korean historical dramas, but instead melodies with Hollywood’s adventure movie style were incorporated. The splendid, majestic music of grand scale created by a large-scale orchestra with 100 players doubled the excitement and thrill of the spectacular adventure and offered something different to listen to. There are reasons for recording in Hollywood studios, which cost more and pose more difficulties.
“The sound is excellent above all. It makes me want to bring the advanced film music system in Hollywood to back home. In the Korean film industry, a music director composes, arranges the music, and casts session members. In contrast, the Hollywood movie industry has all the fields of music specialized. Of course, there needs to be more budget. But sound is the most important element for the audience to have experience in theaters. To provide the best sound to the moviegoers on a limited budget, we are making extra efforts.” (laughs)
Kim reflects on his issues of expanding the spectrum of his music and how to study and improve it along with endless issues of the Korean film industry, such as the position of film music in the Korean movie market, ways of working on film music, and its limitations.
“When working in Hollywood, everyone is obliged to work with the local union. I need to pay a certain percentage of my fees and soundtrack album royalties to the unions. It’s difficult work, but I want to learn in the process. In fact, the budget for post-production work including film music is not much different from that of 10 years ago, even though many say production conditions in Korea improved a lot. Even some budgets have decreased. Many new music directors are often robbed of their credit after completing all the work. There needs to be an environment for these new directors to be able to be recognized for their work. I’m taking a lead in this initiative at the forefront now, and actually it feels heavy!” (laughs)

Making beloved film music with depth and seasoned experience
Kim has become the music director who gets the most calls from the Korean film industry, a music director who doesn’t have to worry about his name making the film credits, but what he wants the most is more work. It’s because he is expected to work on more music with his abilities. He says the better you know, the more you see, and he tries to make some time in his busy schedule to read books and watch films to meet and experience all kinds of humans and things that exist in this world. With his work for 1987, which came out last year, and Golden Slumber this year, he’s made another turning point for his life as music director.
“I used the song ‘When that Day Comes’ for 1987 and Golden Slumber, the song by the Beatles for the movie of the same title. I think you get more pressure when using a song that is well-known to everybody, because you have to arrange the familiar song in a familiar but simultaneously new way.”
The music for Golden Slumber was acclaimed for following the changes in emotions well-expressed by excellent acting and is known to have been paid the highest royalties for film music in Korean movie history. The amount was comparable to a guarantee paid to a top movie star.
“So many people worked hard to settle down the issues on copyright. In the end, Paul McCartney allowed us to use his music. I had to arrange the song because they didn’t allow us to use the exactly the same song as the original one. As a musician, to arrange music by the Beatles had great meaning and was a challenge. In the movie, there is also a song with the voice of late Shin Hae-chul, a legendary Korean musician who passed away a few years ago, which hasn’t been disclosed to the public.”
Kim is always willing to make new attempts and challenges and has a great list upcoming projects. Idol starring Sol Kyung-gu and Han Suk-kyu, Sabaha with Lee Jung-jae, Default with Kim Hye-soo and Yoo Ah-in, and Extreme Job starring Ryu Seung-ryong will all be completed with his music.
“I think what makes a good music director is a humanities sophistication of knowing how to understand and express the meaning of a story. Every day I feel how important humanities sophistication, experiences, and depth of the view on life are more than the music itself in making film music.”
Kim Tae-seong says he wants to make film music that hums around the viewers’ ears after watching a movie, as if the impressive scenes of the movie linger on. His greatest motivation and inspiration is his hope for a day when Korean film music will be recognized by the world just as other Korean actors and film directors get nominated or awarded in prestigious film festivals around the world.
“I still see myself as a little kid who stays up all night, excited for music in films. That kid now holds so much experience and know-how, but he’s still inspired and motivated by the beautiful film music. I think the most important thing for someone who does creative work is the inspiration he or she received for the first time. I’d like to treat films and music just like a little boy who is inspired to begin making music. That will make me so moved and happy enough.”


Written by Lim Ji-young, contributing editor
Photo courtesy of Studio Monopole


Source: Hallyu Story, Issue August + September 2018