Theme Queen

By Kayla McGrady ’05

Helena Lea ’78Helena Lea ’78 Photo: Jon Reese

The best movie scores are as memorable as the films themselves. After Jaws was released in 1975, it was impossible to go into the ocean—or even a lake—without hearing the terrifying “dunnnn dun . . . dun dun” from the movie’s Academy Award–winning score.

While composers like Jaws’s John Williams get the acclaim during awards season, a film’s music editor, like Helena Lea ’78, works just as hard to maximize the emotional impact of our favorite films.

Lea discovered music’s power early in life. Her mother and grandmother spoke mostly Greek, and the family spent summers in their native Greece. When she started kindergarten, she struggled to speak with and understand her classmates. But when she began studying piano and ballet a short time later, she realized that music is a language she instinctively understood, and it became a consolation to her as she overcame the language barrier.

Now a music editor in Hollywood, Lea communicates with music for a living. She creates temporary scores out of preexisting music so that a film can be test-screened with audiences before original music is composed. Later, Lea helps the composer incorporate ideas from the temporary score and the director’s notes, cuts the original music into the film, and then works with mixers to finalize the score. If, after the composer is finished, a director wants to change a musical cue—the musical accompaniment to a specific scene—Lea recuts the existing cue or locates and edits a piece of music from a different scene.

Her primary objective is to give viewers additional information about what they’re seeing on the screen. For instance, while she was creating a temporary score for director Phillip Noyce’s 2016 remake of Roots, she decided that a pivotal scene—in which slave Kunta Kinte is being whipped for refusing to accept his new Anglicized name—should have a lyrical melody instead of violent or somber music. “I reused a melodic theme from earlier scenes of his childhood in Africa,” she says, “so the viewer understands his defiance, understands that he’s looking back and trying to hold onto his identity.” The composer, Philip Miller, used her approach for the final score.

Lea has worked on three films with Noyce, including her current project, upcoming thriller Above Suspicion, which is scheduled for release later this year. Noyce is “all about subtext,” she says. “Music is the emotional undercurrent of what’s not being said, of what can’t be said in words.”

It took Lea more than a decade—and a series of dead-end jobs—to discover her true vocation. A political science major at Carleton, she was still searching in 1992 for the right career and taking a variety of night classes at UCLA. On a whim, she registered for “Music Post-Production.”

“I was hooked from the beginning,” she says. “I kept asking questions—I didn’t care if I sounded stupid.” When the course ended, her teacher, composer Ray Colcord, hired her as a music editor on his TV show, Dinosaurs, which launched her career.

She quickly found herself swimming in the deep end when she was hired to work on the 1995 blockbuster Toy Story. Although an associate music editor would typically follow the head editor’s lead, in this case the film’s music editor became focused on another project, leaving Lea mostly on her own.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing, but there I was working on music notes with [singer-songwriter] Randy Newman and spending a month at Skywalker Ranch,” says Lea. “I was so nervous I lost 10 pounds. But it was an amazing experience, and a huge confidence boost. My success working on Toy Story was a stamp of approval. I stopped underestimating myself.”

Since then, Lea has worked on more than two dozen films, including three with director Robert Altman: The Gingerbread Man (1998), Cookie’s Fortune (1999), and Dr. T & the Women (2000). “Robert always said, ‘Give me something different. I want something I’ve never heard before.’ And I like to be different,” she says.

Lea’s outside-the-box approach—scoring delicate music where other editors might go for bombastic drama or choosing to accentuate underlying details instead of the main action—doesn’t always work. But she’s learned to adapt and persevere. And she’s developed the self-confidence to see her through the rough patches. “Robert Altman told me I’d need the skin of an elephant in this business,” she says. “Music is subjective, and some people won’t like my work—but some people will, so I just keep at it.” 

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