Film Magic in Novato

Marco and Terri d’Ambrosio’s lives seem to affirm the notion of destiny, the belief that there’s some sort of fixed natural order to the universe. Take the night they first met, by chance, back in 1989.
“We met at a bar on the St. Mary’s college campus [in Moraga]”, Marco recalls. “We were both doing two things we never do—go to a bar and [watch] a sporting event.”

It was lucky for the film world that they were acting out of character that day (Marco still has the ticket to the game). They married in 1991 and the next year started MarcoCo, a studio that provides music composition, sound design, digital editing and more on the premises of a former cheese factory in Novato.

Last spring another chance encounter, between Leslie Ann Jones, the director of music and scoring at Skywalker Sound (where Marco has recorded), and Suzanne Noe, marketing director at the Marin Symphony, led to the couple being enlisted as guest speakers for the symphony’s “Screen Gems” performances at Marin Center in San Rafael. On two nights in February, maestro Alasdair Neale will conduct compositions that have become well-known theme music for movies including Platoon, Trading Places, Chocolat, Schindler’s List, Fantasia and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (one of Terri’s favorite soundtracks).

In their Novato studio, Marco is an independent film composer, which given his classical background he compares to “having a suit made for you versus a suit bought off the rack—my dad was a tailor.” Originally from Italy, he grew up attending festivals in Florence and playing the trumpet. Later, it was the music in movies that captivated him. “The film that got me hooked [on movie scores] was Blade Runner; it is a fascinating blend of synthesizers with orchestral instruments.” In 2000, Marco’s work on the anime film Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust garnered him an Anime Academy Award nomination for best score.

Terri, who grew up in Santa Rosa, acts as studio manager and music supervisor, overseeing production and general business activities and handling all music licensing, from song placement to contract negotiation and administration. “She’s the boss,” says Marco. Terri reflects a moment and then agrees. “OK, I’m the boss,” she says with a laugh.

Procuring a song for a film isn’t as easy as one might think. When director Josh Kornbluth desperately wanted the San Francisco Symphony’s version of Stravinsky’s Firebird for his new film Haiku Tunnel, Terri knew the independent film’s budget wouldn’t be able to cover it. She tried to persuade the director to choose a cheaper Eastern European orchestra’s rendition, but he wouldn’t budge.

“He was attached to the San Francisco Symphony version and just couldn’t get past it,” says Terri. It didn’t help that the symphony had just won a Grammy for its rendition and Michael Tilson Thomas wasn’t interested in giving the rights over to a film—for any price. The day before the movie was to be screened at Sundance, the music department had two different versions of the film ready, one using the Eastern European orchestra’s rendition and one using San Francisco’s. Hours before screening time, the department still didn’t give up. “We tracked down MTT at his mom’s house in Florida over the holidays and we got approval,” Terri recalls with a smile.

Recently the d’Ambrosios worked on the score for a comedy starring Gary Cole and a documentary about the National Grocery-Bagging Competition. Marco also wrote the score for The Rape of Europa, the 2007 film about the Nazis’ widespread destruction of artworks, which was on the short list for an Oscar nomination for best documentary (and by press time may have been nominated).

Their success has made them optimistic about the Bay Area’s future role in the entertainment industry. “It’s a place for creative independence,” says Marco. “The arts matter here.”