We had the good fortune of connecting with Robert Mai and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Robert, what do you attribute your success to?
Communication, communication, COMMUNICATION. Along with my love for music, I’m deeply passionate about the art of film and storytelling, and while studying screenwriting in college I also took classes/jobs in directing, cinematography, acting, editing, sound mixing, and production design. As a script supervisor I had to communicate closely with all set departments and act as a mediator between them, the director, and the editor, so I was able to learn about every single aspect that goes into making a film, and how people of different creative background communicate with each other. I also learned the value of patience, kindness, and compassion; I’ve seen my fair share of tense encounters, fights, and screaming matches on set, and vowed never to lose my temper at another human being when de-escalation was possible. When I made the switch to composing, I was surprised to discover that I still use these skills every day while working hand-in-hand with a director. So much thought goes behind an actor’s gesture, the clothes that they wear, how they’re lit, the speed that the cuts progress, and it’s so important for the composer to mesh with that environment since the wrong music can immediately distract the audience and undercut everyone’s hard work. It was crucial for me to be able to get inside the director’s head and figure out why they made these choices, and to try to translate these choices into pure musical expression. Sometimes I get it wrong, and sometimes I get it REALLY wrong… but that’s all part of the process because music is weird and mysterious and subjective. As long as you foster an environment of trust and communication with your director, the process goes smoothly enough.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Apart from the obvious answer that writing the actual music keeps me busy, there’s actually a lot more to being a composer than just putting notes on a page! So much of the industry is built on nurturing relationships with others, so I spend a lot of time (at least before COVID) going to mixers/seminars and having coffee meetings with filmmakers. I’ve used to be super introverted and shy when I was younger, but years of being a script supervisor and putting myself out there as a composer definitely forced me to be more social and outgoing and take more risks. After all, the entire film industry is built on risk, so you simply have to embrace it and be ready to fall flat on your face over and over again if you want to advance your career. Throughout the years I wrote hundreds of unanswered cold emails, had directors vanish on me after composing on spec, worked on countless projects for free, and had to walk off or was fired from a couple projects after it was clear my production skills were not up to snuff. When this happens, you simply shrug, learn, and move on to the next project, because statistically you’re going to experience a lot of failure before enjoying some success; you might as well deal with these failures with a positive mindset.
Apart from networking, I also spend a lot of time learning new technologies, practicing music theory, and mentoring young composers as they figure out their long term career goals. In the long term, I want my work and my legacy to be defined by my kindness and willingness to nurture and support other creatives that lack the same opportunities that I was lucky to have while starting out. So much of the industry is defined by this crazy need to abuse desperate artists, so I hope my colleagues and I can help shift that landscape to one that’s more empathetic and inclusive. I also want to be able to break down the stigma that Asians can only pursue jobs in medicine or law and inspire other Asians to pursue jobs in the film industry, because it’s definitely possible!
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Sadly, in the days of Covid it’s hard to recommend places for people to meet up… but until it’s safe for restaurants and bars to open up again, I highly recommend people to check out the beautiful hiking trails all around Los Angeles. Since I live in Pasadena there’s all sorts of wonderful places to go in the mountains north of me, but my particular favorite trails are Sturtevant Falls, the Sam Merrill Trail, and the Eaton Canyon Trail.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
There’s hundreds of people that I’d dedicate my career to, but I’ll always be in debt to my wonderful parents who supported my career choices from the beginning. There’s also so many teachers and professors that were crucial to my artistic development, but I’ll always give a shout-out to Jeff Phillips, Paul Wolansky, Bill Rosenthal, Dan Pavelin, Scott Arundale, Val Jamora, Chris Brude, Tony Spiridakis, and Erin Topping Cusick for being especially formative in helping me figure out my calling in life, as well as shaping my creative worldview. And to every filmmaker and musician that I ever worked with, thank you for inspiring me to work hard every day!
Other: Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/artist/33hYOiz9xCFMrQ0RQ2YWag
Studio photos taken by Tue Duong