Bryan Singer: The Purist

When it comes to film music, Bryan Singer and longtime composer-editor John Ottman are keeping the big, traditional orchestral score alive

The Hollywood Reporter: What was your overall approach to the music in "Valkyrie"?

Bryan Singer: The key thing was that even though the film takes place during the Second World War it's still, at its core, an assassination thriller, so it shouldn't have a traditional World War II military score. Our first order of business: No snare drums. It should be modern, but not the kind of score that will be dated in 20 years either. And it should be a score that, at the end of the film, because it becomes so emotional, there should be a drive and heartbeat that moves the story forward. So it shouldn't be a bombastic, dated World War II kind of score, nor should it be an overly emotional score.

A specific scene is a moment when Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) and his wife embrace when they leave each other before he goes on his mission, and instead of playing music with a crescendo or an emotional beat, we drop the music entirely and just have the droning sound of the airplane he's sitting in.

THR: So you wanted the score to have an almost minimalist quality?

Singer: Yeah, that was something I wanted to do from early on. I knew that in the end there were a lot of things that had to occur and, for lack of a better word, in a "Godfather"-esque manner it should crescendo and play out as a musical experience as much as a visual experience. It needed to be the same score you'd have on a modern assassination picture. But, again, being careful not to (modernize) it too much. If there's going to be electronic effects, for instance, they should be organic -- they should be something that takes the film out of the Second World War and into a timeless arena and makes it about the drive and the forward momentum of the story.

THR: Did you have to resist the temptation to employ Wagner?

Singer: I knew there would be a moment when you hear "Ride of the Valkyries," but it's organically part of the story, not the score. You hear it when children play it on a record player. We touch upon it in two places: there's when the children play it, and there's Hitler's reference to National Socialism and Wagner, because he did actually draw a tremendous correlation between his movement and Wagner and how it related to his pseudoscience.

We touch on it in those two places so the music has a tragic irony, but we're not reliant on it. (John Boorman's) "Excalibur" does it brilliantly -- I love the way "Excalibur" uses Wagner -- but I didn't want to do anything like that.

THR: When the budget for Valkyrie increased, did the music budget go up as well?

Singer: No! This isn't a very promotional thing to say, because the score sounds great -- it's rich and it works -- but our scoring budget on "Valkyrie" was actually less than I had on "Apt Pupil." We ended up with a chamber orchestra that we multiplied and recorded in a church in Seattle. We were doubling, so that took a lot more time, and when the sun hit these beautiful stained-glass windows the temperature would change and they would crack, so we'd have to stop.

THR: You could actually hear the cracking?

Singer: Yeah. If we had a full orchestra it may have been OK, but the budget for the score was very, very low, which is what happens when the money is going to costumes and tanks and planes. For this particular movie though, because of the minimalist score and the fact that we were doubling, it was fine. If it wasn't fine John (Ottman) would have said so. And if it wasn't working I would have gone to bat and said, "We need more money."

THR: What are the advantages of working with a composer who is also your editor?

Singer: The advantage with John is that he is involved all through the mix, so for all the attention he puts on the score when he's composing, in the editing room he's laying down (sound) effects, and some of those effects are as important as cues in the score. He lays those effects down very carefully because they work in concert with the score.

That's been the magic of him being a composer and editor for me. He provides the mix. He's there the whole time so he's not letting the score overpower the effects and he's not letting the effects overpower the score.

THR: As a director that must be a huge relief.

Singer: Oh it's wonderful. It allows me to have more objectivity. John will sit there at the mixing board and do a synthesized mock-up and work on the sound effects with the engineers, so I know I can come in and listen to something with objectivity and then have clear notes.

The more you sit there listening to a mix, the more your brain turns to mush and you lose objectivity. John does that so I can then come in and pretend I'm an audience member. That's a valuable asset to have in a partnership.

THR: When you're preparing for a film do you listen to music for inspiration or to help set the tone?

Singer: No, not really. I have a musical background -- I play piano, my father's a pianist, my grandfather is a violinist -- so music is important to me from a directorial standpoint.

There is a method I use when I'm shooting to help me understand how the pace is going to play out: On "Valkyrie" I had a little rhythm in my head, a little pulse or an internal score. I'd never really hum it to John because he would be mortally offended. But I'd turn a little metronome on in my head when I was shooting scenes that don't involve dialogue, scenes in which the plan is in motion -- meetings, assembling bombs, briefcases, flights. I'd have a little melody in my head and I'd hum it. I do that quite frequently to help myself keep a sense of pace. I did it at the end of "Usual Suspects" with a K.D. Lang song.

THR: A K.D. Lang song? Do you remember what it was?

Singer: Yeah, it's called "Miss Chatelaine." I'd hum that song during the shooting of that entire end scene where Kevin Spacey steps out of the police station. There was something about the rhythm of that song that helped me understand the rhythm of the scene. I'd hum that song during shooting and the actors could all hear it through the microphone. Pete Postlethwaite was like, "Bryan -- shut up!" (Laughs.) That's just a little musical trick I use.

THR: Do you consider yourself a traditionalist when it comes to film music? You like an orchestral score, and you don't use a lot of licensed music.

Singer: I do like the orchestra. I've always used an orchestra in my films and haven't done a song-heavy soundtrack, although I did in the pilot for "House." I specifically added in a Rolling Stones song at the end that became a theme that the show uses now. There was line in the script about the "great philosopher Jagger" saying "You can't always get what you want," so I keyed off that exchange and decided to just end the show with that song.

THR: Is that something you'd like to do more of?

Singer: I was going to do it on "Usual Suspects." There's a big boat heist at the end of the film, and I was going to shoot the whole sequence to Tchaichovsky's first piano concerto. So I told that to John and he just rolled his eyes and said, "I'm going to score that scene." So I guess I am more traditional in that respect, but the day will come where I'll do a movie and pick all my favorite songs from an era and hopefully do what Scorsese does so well.
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