Despite being one of the most successful Christian movies of all time, God’s Not Dead isn’t exactly what you’d call “good.” In it, a crotchety atheist professor and a stripling college freshman spend three full class sessions debating whether or not God is, in fact, dead. Naturally, the kid wins and the whole class mass-accepts Jesus, but the professor doesn’t want to believe. So God, uh, runs him over with a car and turns him into a deathbed (deathstreet?) convert.
It’s not the strongest movie theologically (and I say this as a music director for a church), but God’s Not Dead does have one thing going for it — I did all the guitar for the soundtrack. And it’s all because of a Craigslist ad.
It was the summer of 2013. I had just graduated from college and was living in America’s cultural epicenter of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Thanks to a failed attempt to water my laptop, I suddenly needed money. Our band had some shows lined up, but I wasn’t exactly banking on making a ton of cash playing empty bars to six drunks at a time.
So, like thousands of broke and/or high musicians before me, I launched Craigslist on my housemate’s computer to peruse opportunities for a pretty-okay guitarist to make some cash. After several minutes spent scrolling past offers to non-sexually cuddle with some “very nice” guys, I spotted a post demanding to know, “Can You Sound Like Explosions In The Sky?” The poster claimed he needed some ambient guitar for his “movie.” Right away I thought, “Yeah, sure. I can record some music for this dude’s homemade sex tape or whatever.” So I hopped on Garageband, plunked out a couple guitar lines soaked in pretty much all the reverb, and emailed him the track and my phone number.
Within 20 minutes, the composer excitedly called to say he loved the track, and that I wouldn’t believe how many people had sent in twangy country guitar solos instead of my post-rock ambience (I could believe it, though, because Harrisonburg). He told me he was scoring a “for real for real” major motion picture. The movie was so big, he couldn’t even forward me any clips for fear of leakage.
The composer offered $200 to insert some guitar on a few pieces he’d already written. Obviously, I immediately accepted, then excitedly ran downstairs to tell my roommates I’d made the big time. I’d try to remember everybody once I was a world-renowned film composer — even though you ate all my cookies that one time, Tim.
Later that day, I received my first assignment. The email contained nothing except one literal Explosions in the Sky track. The film’s producers had clearly just seen Friday Night Lights and decided their movie needed the exact same soundtrack. The movie was already edited with temporary, unlicensed songs. They just needed some scrub to come in and rip off Explosions as closely as possible without actually breaking copyright law (and/or be the fall guy if somebody needed to go to jail).
Now, you might think ripping off a post-rock song would be easy. Just pluck some pretty chords and keep the beats per minute below 100. But because these exact songs were already in the movie, I couldn’t just copy a song’s “vibe.” I had to match every single movement. If the music swelled at 37 seconds, you better believe my track needed to swell at exactly 37 seconds. If it dropped to a single, strummed guitar, my track couldn’t feature more than one guitar or somebody would get pissed. I had to match songs perfectly beat-for-beat without matching them too closely, you know? It was a classic Catch-22 but with a broke Virginia guitarist instead of crazy Air Force pilots.
To make things even more difficult, I’d often send off a track only to immediately receive feedback like, “Hey, actually this scene should be a little sadder. She has cancer.” Or “can you make this more triumphant? It’s literally the climax of the whole movie.” Again, I never saw a single scene. How was I supposed to know abnormal cell growth was involved?
Sometimes there’d be producer notes like, “use less reverb” or “glass slides make everything sound super country” (*Ron Howard voice* “It did not”). I don’t know if notes are usually that detailed for a composer’s hired guitarist in most productions, but then again, God’s Not Dead is for the Lord so it needs to be perfect.
This back-and-forth continued for over a year. It went so long, in fact, they offered me an additional $125 for my efforts. Somehow during all that time, I never actually met anybody associated with the movie — not even Hollywood legend Kevin Sorbo!
It wasn’t until I scored the very last scene that the composer finally relented and let me, you know, actually watch the scene I was working on. He prepped me ahead of time like I was about to enter Fallujah. “Okay, you need to understand this movie is a Christian movie. Are you prepared to be associated with that?” Right, because the guy you found on Craigslist willing to score your movie for $300 is clearly an established film composer who can’t have his reputation sullied by a film so offensive as to give the Newsboys a prominent role.
I don’t exactly remember which scene they sent now that I’ve (unfortunately) watched the whole movie, but to be fair, the creators didn’t remember me at all. I wasn’t credited for my work, because I was technically a work-for-hire. I was rehired for God’s Not Dead 2: Die Harder, but even then, I made the mistake of asking for a pay raise. They gave in, barely, but GND2 was ultimately the last feature film I ever scored.
All that remains from that weird, weird time in my life is this track of “original score excerpts” and an inbox full of emails asking for more ambience.
Oh. And $325, I guess.