Keeping score

Top film and TV composers discuss their latest projects.

Tyler Bates
"300" (Warner Bros. Pictures; Release Date: March 9)

"While the film is set in 480 B.C., the Spartan people were sophisticated philosophically and emotionally. Thematically speaking, many words are left unspoken in this film, which presented the opportunity to further express the emotional range of the characters as the film progresses. From a visual standpoint, the music accentuates the environments (director) Zack Snyder created, based on the Frank Miller graphic novel. The richness of color and depth of field called for the musical texture to embody complexity in breadth but appear simple in its form, much like the Spartan soldiers. Zack applied a technique in many of the battle sequences where he uses slow-motion and speed-motion camera work in the same shot. These are intense action moments that simultaneously engage the audience in the head space of the Spartans in battle.

"I was fortunate to have worked with Zack in the developmental stages of the project. I had written music for an animatic that was created directly from the graphic novel and the test shot that Zack made for the studio prior to principal photography. This enabled me to create a 'sound' for the film before he shot it. Some of the film was shot to music I had written in advance, based on the script. That said, we rolled up our sleeves once the film was in the can. As the visual art of the film developed, more information was available (on) which I based my creative choices. This also revealed more details of the film's characters. Our discussions are primarily focused on the dramatic context for which music is necessary.

"The trick to this score was to figure a way to create action, tension and excitement when necessary. ... Quick melodies did not seem to meld with the picture, so I used an arsenal of percussion during the battle sequences, in addition to a large orchestra and choir. The melodies are stoic and hopefully tasteful. There are deeply threatening and emotional moments throughout the film, especially in the third act, where the music heightened these feelings on a visceral level. It was important for me to feel the music in my chest more than in my head, if that makes any sense.

"I avoided the most stereotypical instrumentation one might expect for this score. Azam Ali sings on much of the score. Because we have worked on so much music together over the years, I know the depth of her talent well enough to write music specific to her unique qualities as a vocalist and musician. All of the choral and solo vocal parts were written in a phonetic language. I felt it was important not to comment literally on any of the dramatic content with discernible verbiage. As for the instruments ... I would rather not divulge the contents of the stew, but I will say in addition to Azam, Greg Ellis did some incredible percussion work. As for the nonorchestral atmospheric elements (and there are a ton), they are all made from human-recorded sources. There are only a couple synthesizers involved in the music."

Teddy Castellucci
"Wild Hogs" (Buena Vista; Release Date: March 2)

"'Wild Hogs' is a road movie that follows four best friends (Tim Allen, William H. Macy, Martin Lawrence, John Travolta) as they embark on a motorcycle trip from their Midwestern home to the Pacific. Each of the guys has issues in their life that need to be addressed. This trip is their escape from normalcy. Along the way, they meet some very colorful characters that add humor and menace to their adventure. All of these components create a great canvas for which to write music. The cast in 'Wild Hogs' is so strong that the score acts as a travel companion.

It accompanies our four main characters almost as 'the fifth Beatle,' if you will, adding another voice to the ensemble throughout their adventure.

"(Director) Walt (Becker) and I first met three days into shooting. He was excited and clear very early on that he wanted the music to have a distinct personality and sound. He spoke specifically about some of my past work that he felt had those qualities, and off to the races we went. It was wonderful to be involved early with him to develop our sound.

"Musically, I approached Walt's direction two-fold. First, I went after the thematic and sonic elements that would give the score a signature sound by writing for what I call 'personality' instruments, including lap steel (guitar), dobro, harmonica, solo fiddle and various electric and acoustic guitars; some with unique tunings to add some spice to the overall color. The score is really a hybrid between orchestral and rhythm-section instrumentation. Many cues, particularly at the culmination of the film, utilize an 80-plus piece orchestra, in addition to the personality instrumentation.

"Second was the orchestral component. We knew that we would need size for the picture, and absolutely nothing fills the theater like a warm, rich orchestral score.

"The underscore plays both the comedy beats as well as the broader adventure moments. Because the guys are bikers, there is a major rock 'n' roll component to the music, both in the score and source.

"One of the biggest challenges in scoring 'Wild Hogs' was to create a cohesive feeling to the score through different musical styles as we travel with the guys on their physical and emotional journey to fulfillment -- not to mention the fun!"

John Frizzell
"Primeval" (Buena Vista; Release Date: Feb. 9)

"(Director) Michael (Katleman) and I spoke in great depth before he started shooting. We knew that the score would need a great deal of drive and intensity, but we both had a great desire to make it stand out from other scores and, in particular, scores to films set in Africa. We noticed that while many scores to African films were beautifully composed and produced, many introduce African sounds in an imitative way. Our talks led to the conclusion that to get a unique sound, we needed a unique process, and to do that, I would need to do work with masters of African music. The best way to do that was to go to Africa.

"My goal was to put you into the mood of the film by using very traditional African instruments and performers. I did research on traditional African instruments, performing techniques and the structure of African music. Much traditional African music differs from European music, in that often the performer and the audience are not delineated. I have heard traditional African music described as being so completely intuitive, it is 'like breathing.' Capturing this idea and blending it with filmmaking proved quite a challenge, but I think our goal was achieved and serves to put the audience in a unique place.

"There must be over 100 different African instruments in the score. I lost count. I spent 10 days recording in Cape Town, South Africa, at Mamadance! recording studio. My players included Dizu Plaatjies, from the legendary band Amampondo. In addition to instruments like the bow, mouth bow and various drums, Dizu also played dried kelp, used to make a sort of trumpet, (in addition to) mbiras, flutes, various animal horns and different rocks with a strange metallic sound. Another soloist on the score, Madosini, who has been performing in the world music scene for many years, is a master of creating split tones with her voice, not unlike Tuvan monks but with a distinct African style.

"Melding the African instruments into a score was a massive challenge. I recorded in South Africa while the film was being shot. I ended up with about 800 short performances and phrases, which were painstakingly looped and loaded by my associate, Frederik Wiedmann, into Native Instruments Intakt software . Then I was able to adjust the tempo and the key of each phrase as I was composing to picture. Electronic instruments and a 70-piece orchestra ended up making this 80-minute score by far the most complex I have ever created."

Christopher Young
"Ghost Rider" (Sony; Release Date: Feb 16)

"The film opens up with Johnny Blaze, a youngster, working with his dad in a motorcycle daredevil show for a traveling circus. His father is dying of cancer, and so the devil, played by Peter Fonda, shows up and offers to save his father if Johnny will sign his soul away. So, Johnny does that to try to help his father, and then ironically, the following day his father, who has gotten rid of the cancer, gets in a motorcycle accident and dies anyway. So, the Ghost Rider is an indentured servant to the devil; he is waiting for the devil to call him to take his soul away. And he, himself, becomes a daredevil motorcycle rider, sort of like Evel Knievel. The devil shows up one day and says, 'Here's your job: 'I'm gonna turn you into this Ghost Rider, so you'll have the power to do battle with Blackheart.' So, the score has to keep it dark.

"The main function of the score is to give the film epic proportions and yet keep the comic book flavor. The music adds to the epic nature and illuminates the fact that it's about a comic book character.

"What (director Mark Steven Johnson ) said he wanted was definitely a melody-driven score. He wanted the Ghost Rider (Nicolas Cage) to have a main theme. But what made it interesting is that he said he wanted the score to be an odd hybrid of Gothic Western industrial music.

"All the action takes place in the Midwest. Unlike Superman, Spiderman or Batman, who are superheroes that do work in the city, here we're talking about a character that rides around in the desert on a motorcycle. So, the location and the Midwestern element had to be worked in to the score, (which is) Gothic (-sounding) because it's just a very dark story line. The Ghost Rider has a pact to work with the devil.

"A lot of the film is jam-packed with action, and certainly, the music helps push the film forward. It illuminates his character and the whole nature of the film.

"In order to communicate the Western element, there were some guitars; there were acoustic guitars. There was a trumpet used, but in the end, it was more industrial, less Western. I used electric guitars and some members of Nine Inch Nails. The Western aspect of the score got diminished; there's very little of that left. It's more Gothic-industrial. I would have to say that it's an exciting score and unlike anything I've scored before."

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