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Evidenced by the adulation regularly heaped upon film composers, an orchestrator’s job holds a lot of responsibility without offering a commensurate amount of recognition. But after his stellar work with the French duo Daft Punk on the soundtrack to TRON: Legacy, Joe Trapanese is finally getting his time in the spotlight, collaborating with Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda on the score for the Indonesian action film The Raid: Redemption.
Trapenese has many other credits to his name, including work on Fast Five, Dexter, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, and the upcoming Disney XD series TRON: Uprising. In advance of the March 23, 2012 release of The Raid: Redemption, Trapanese talked to The Hollywood Reporter about his past work as an orchestrator, his collaboration with another pop artist on a classical score, and his future as a multitalented musical multitasker.
The Hollywood Reporter: Just to get started, talk about the process of creating a score that would appeal to a more international audience, since a soundtrack already existed prior to your participation.
Joe Trapanese: We made clear from the beginning that we didn’t really want to reference the original score — and we didn’t want to watch it with the original score, just because we wanted to come up with our own artistic vision, our own artistic take of the film and to avoid comparison. That was our first goal. After that, and more importantly, was to just get in tune with the film and see what it needed and to go scene-by-scene and pay attention to the overall tone of the film and take away from that musically what we can and come up with as good a score as possible.
THR: What exactly are an orchestrator’s responsibilities?
Trapanese: An orchestrator’s primary goal is to take the music the composer’s writing and fit it to the orchestra. The word orchestrator can mean very different things from film to film, because sometimes the composer is a highly trained or special composer, and your sole job is to cross the t’s and dot the i’s and make sure the oboe is in the correct register and the trombones are as loud as they can be at certain times. But other times you might be working with a composer who’s not as familiar with the orchestra. TRON was very interesting because the artists were actually very familiar with the orchestra – [the members of Daft Punk] went to private school out there or they were trained in orchestral music. But maybe they don’t have the nuts and bolts training to be able to sit down and to transcribe that to the orchestra, so my primary goal under the term orchestrator was to make sure that what we were doing, in the arranging world and the writing world, was going to translate to the orchestra properly. Ultimately it can have varying degrees of creativity, which is what I find exciting about the job, because sometimes you’re presented with a scene and there’s always a few different ways to score it. In The Raid, there are moments with family where we use strings and piano, which is very typical, but it pulls heartstrings immediately, and the audience knows what’s going on. And other times it’s more challenging.
THR: On TRON, how much ownership do you feel is shared among everyone who participated? Are there certain areas where you feel like you would like to get more recognition or credit?
Trapanese: One of the things that attracted me to composing film scores is what got me into music. I watched Star Wars when I was a little kid, and I said “what’s that? That’s an orchestra — I want to do that.” So I went to a conservatory where I got really strong orchestral training, but also at a music conservatory as a composer you are the star; the music you write has to be full of interesting things that grab people’s attention. But that wasn’t as interesting to me because that ego is not really interesting to me. What was more interesting to me was when I looked at composers like Bach. If you look at Bach, he didn’t do it for fame or fortune, he did it because that was his job and every week he had to write a new [composition] for the church he’s employed at, he had to teach a certain number of students, he had to write, or he would be commissioned by a court to write a suite. His ego was very small in those situations, and it was very much a blue collar job. But when someone like you says to me “hey, I really dug the TRON score,” that’s where I take my pride in saying thatI was part of the reason why you enjoyed that, and being a part of something as bold and interesting as that, that’s the reward. It was a fantastic experience.
THR: What were your initial thoughts about what the tone should be? Did you have something in mind that you pitched Gareth and the producers, or did they maybe hire you because of your work on TRON: Legacy knowing this film might need a similarly electronic musical foundation?
Trapanese: No, definitely not. As a film composer I try to very much be a chameleon, and I know that I’m not the star. And the director isn’t even the star — the star isn’t even the star; what is the star here and what is really great is at the core of The Raid is the story. It’s a very simple story of two brothers. So whether it’s The Raid or TRON or any other film I work on, one of the first steps is to kind of boil it down to its simplest elements — how am I going to approach this story, how am I going to help tell this story? Once you establish that, you can kind of feel a lot better about whatever direction you go in musically, in the sense of the way it’s shot — that because of the really interesting choreography, we’re going to have some really distorted beats. To get really nitty-gritty stuff like that first and foremost is boiling everything else down to its simplest elements so that you can build on a really great foundation.
THR: As a composer, what’s your initial approach to something? Do you come up with leitmotifs, ideas, tones?
Trapanese: I tend to think in terms of tone and color, and one of the most informative things for me is I sit down with the film for as long as possible and kind of absorb what the cinematography is doing, what the production designers, what is the scenery’s effect, what are the actors wearing, what angle is the camera being held at, is it handheld or mostly dolly, and then even stuff like what is the medium of this — is it shot digitally or is it on 35mm or 16. All of that I find very informative in terms of tone and color. For The Raid, it was all handheld, very dark, very gritty, but also very unique in the sense that the color scheme was a little bit different than what a usual film like this might be. So that is the first inspiration for me, what kind of colors are we going to use, are we going to use just strings, or are we going to use synthesizers, or drums, what exactly are we going to do? That’s the first step for me.
THR: For this, what were the easiest and most difficult things to come up with?
Trapanese: The first thing we did was really set out some rules as to what kind of sounds we could use. For instance, we avoided guitars, because of course Mike coming from Linkin Park, there were expectations there, and a lot of times you go see a big fight action movie and you hear distorted guitars. We felt that that would take the film into a place that we didn’t want to go and that the film didn’t want to go, so we set out these rules and some of the first things we worked on were the biggest scenes [because] that gives us a chance to really stretch the boundaries and to see how far we could take it, so that when we go to the other scenes in the film that aren’t necessarily as big or climactic, we know what the big climactic moments are going to be like and we can then build and structure those other moments accordingly. Some of the hardest parts about film scoring in general are when you get these long scenes of tension where what is happening for maybe 30 seconds on camera isn’t necessarily a tension filmed moment; for instance, there’s a hallway scene where Iko and his injured friend, they’re going down the hallway and they’re holding each other up trying to get through this hallway alive. They’re kind of having this funny banter, but the thing is they’re in this building full of villains, full of people waiting to kill them, and one thing that the music needed to do at that sequence was keep that tension. And finding a way to keep that tension without overscoring and without getting in the way of dialogue, that’s one of the most challenging parts of what we do.
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