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Director and film music pro hit the perfect note sharing experiences

Two days before his first feature film, Pitch Perfect, opened nationwide, Tony-nominated director Jason Moore (C93), joined by Mike Knobloch (C92), the president of film music and publishing for Universal Pictures and a key collaborator on the movie, sat and talked with School of Communication students about making art in Hollywood, both the tailspins and the triumphs.

Moore, the 2012 Hope Abelson Artist-in-Residence, was in town to meet with students and screen Pitch Perfect, a musical comedy about an all-girl a capella group. He was joined by Knobloch, who oversaw the music on the film (the two are friends and former Northwestern classmates). Their three-day visit to campus culminated with a frank and funny discussion on October 3 about Hollywood filmmaking and what Knobloch called “the tricky business of being at the intersection of art and commerce.” The conversation was moderated by Spencer Parsons, assistant professor of radio/television/film.

Moore is best known for directing the Broadway productions of Shrek the Musical, Steel Magnolias, and Avenue Q. His biggest surprise about movie directing, he said, was “the small, gentle erosion that takes place of everything in your movie.” Roadblocks he came up against involved music licensing, MPAA ratings boards—even notes from studio execs.

“There is a period of time where you do have creative control,” he told the students. “Try and be as smart about those decisions at that time as you can. Know who you’re collaborating with and try to anticipate things.”

Knobloch, who oversaw the music on Avatar and Titanic, said his job involves “everything from managing risk to helping creative people realize their vision.” Licensing, he said, is often one of the trickiest parts of his job. The difficulties associated with it are legendary. “Every time you hear someone singing Happy Birthday in a movie or a commercial,” he said, “someone is writing a check.”

Pitch Perfect was especially challenging because there was so much music in the film. It required “a lot of negotiation and a lot of horse trading,” he said.

Ultimately, Moore added, these compromises can be “a good thing because they force you to decide what’s important.”

And both men agreed that their respective goals were the same: to craft a great soundtrack that stood the test of time. Describing his hunt for the songs in Pitch Perfect, Moore said, “I always ask: is this that song that, hopefully, ten years from now, you’re going to hear in the grocery store? Because there are those songs that do make it past their date and survive. For me, those songs usually have great melodies and timeless sentiments. We tried to put that filter on some of the songs in our movie, but inevitably some of them will sound dated at some point.”

As the Abelson Artist-in-Residence, Moore met with School of Communication classes, including Parson’s senior film directing seminar and a stage directing course in the Department of Theatre. He also visited a rehearsal of the Arts Alliance at Northwestern University’s production of Avenue Q, which opens Oct. 11 in Shanley Pavilion.

The Hope Abelson Artist-in-Residence Program began in 1990 with a gift from Hope Altman Abelson, who studied theatre at Northwestern University and became a Broadway producer. The first Abelson Artist was opera and theatre director Peter Sellars. Subsequent Abelson artists have included playwright Tony Kushner, actor and director Brian Bedford and actors Cherry Jones, Meryl Streep and Bill Irwin.