Spring film & TV music

Writing music for the summer blockbuster presents -- well, blockbuster-size hurdles.

When John Debney came to score "Iron Man 2," he faced a particular challenge: Being consistent with the first outing in the franchise, while adding his own distinct voice.

"It's quite different from the first score, but it retains a lot of the same cool elements," Debney says. "There's a lot of guitar in it, but most of it is couched with the orchestra, so we never lose sight of that whole thing."

"That whole thing" means the vast enterprise referred to as a tentpole or summer blockbuster. Composers tasked with scoring these movies not only have to contend with super-heated action, rapid-fire editing and overpowering sound mixes; they also have to cope with schedules that can be in flux right up to the end of postproduction -- and convey a sense of bigness that belongs with budgets reaching $200 million and more.

Ramin Djawadi scored the first "Iron Man" with a strong dose of metal guitar, and director Jon Favreau wanted to keep some of that while exploring a new direction. He also wanted to maintain the continuity of the rock guitar aspect that characterized the hell-raising persona of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his "metal man" alter ego, Iron Man.

"As Iron Man has evolved from his scrappy beginnings, we want to establish him as being more comfortable with the mantle of a superhero," the director says.

A blend of classic orchestral film scoring from Debney; rock stylings courtesy of guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine; AC/DC songs -- and even a surprising touch of Walt Disney -- contributed to that.

"What I like about Tom's guitar is that he tunes it down, doubles up, sometimes double-records and triple-records the guitars, and the orchestrations are built around his guitar work," Favreau adds. "It was interesting to see John collaborate with Tom, people who come from two different sides of the music business."

That collaboration extended from the music team to the sound department.

"What Debney brings to the table is how to write music around that (the sound effects), so you're not competing," Favreau notes. "Understanding what range to use, what tones to use, and how to time it so you're reinforcing the effects and you're not muddying things up and the music can be played at a high level without competing with the sound effects -- he's pretty masterful at that."

Debney is also masterful at incorporating the classic songs that will allow the studio to issue a compelling soundtrack when the movie opens. While Sony Classical will put out Debney's "Iron Man 2" score, the lion's share of attention may go to the Columbia Records soundtrack that will consist entirely of AC/DC songs.

"They've never done something like this, with all of their big songs together," says Dave Jordan, music supervisor on all the Marvel Studios productions. "Jon is a huge AC/DC fan and they're an expensive band to use. Here he could use any song in their catalog any way he wanted to. It's a very unique situation."

Blockbusters have the budgets to get such songs. But songs can present their own problems.

"At one of our test screenings, we put a rock song over a big action sequence as an exercise and on the cards it got completely trashed," notes Brian Tyler, composer of Sylvester Stallone's upcoming "The Expendables." "People really hated it and asked why were we trying to make this into a rock video. We replaced it with orchestral music and the numbers for the film shot up and the notes on the music were great."

Unless the songs are already classics, Tyler says, the results can seriously date a film. "You can imagine what it would be like watching 'North By Northwest' and having the train go into the tunnel at the end and going into a contemporary song of that period. It just would have destroyed it."

Perhaps to avoid that, for "Iron Man" Favreau and Debney also used the music of Dick Sherman, the prolific songwriter who did a lot of the early Disney theme park material and even "Mary Poppins."

"We brought him onboard and had him write a song for the Stark Expo, which in our movie lore has been going on since the '30s, much like the World's Fair," Jordan says.
Debney interpolated Sherman's song melody into the "Iron Man 2" score, making it play as the theme for Tony Stark's father. The tune's origins will likely be revealed in the new "Captain America" film, set in World War II.

"We're laying a lot of seeds for other films to explore musically as well as in other ways," Jordan continues.

It's easier to lay such seeds when the director has already done one outing on a franchise. But dealing with directors has its own special challenges with blockbusters, whose helmers frequently have to marshall staffs of a thousand or more. Debney was fortunate to have plenty of face time with Favreau; but other key players can also play an important role.

"Even if you're working with the same director, producers may change, film executives may change," Tyler says.

Schedules may change, too. Trevor Rabin, who scored Jon Turtletaub's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," says the "race to the end" is becoming more prevalent in film. "It's such a bottleneck mentality: You start off, get ideas and kind of relax and then suddenly you've got three weeks left. There are picture changes all the time. You write a cue that you think is really tailored well to the picture, and three days later you see the music editor with the best intentions has chopped it to fit the picture and there goes the music."

In the case of "Iron Man 2," Debney says that while the overall amount of time did not change, the amount given for demo'ing and adjusting to picture changes -- even on the dub stage -- did. "The process has become more technically oriented," he notes. "We're becoming so concerned with versions of scenes that we're constantly cutting and lengthening and shortening, that we can lose a vision of the overall work. This film is on a scale times five or 10 of what the original film was -- we have a lot of characters, we find out more about Tony and his relationship with his father and there are lot of other plot elements so it's a much more elaborate film than the first one and that presents a lot of challenges."

At least Debney had the money to do what he needed. Or did he?

"Marvel is very careful with what they want to spend on the music, so it was a rather tight budget," he says. "You can't run off willy nilly, doing session after session."

"You make budget decisions in a different way," Rabin argues with regard to blockbusters. "It used to be, 'Whatever you need.' But those days are gone. Today, if you say you need a choir, the question is: 'What size choir do you need?' Now there is an increasing request to size down the orchestra and do less days. There's definitely a nip-and-tuck going on."

"Clash of the Titans"

Rabin also had to budget time for research on "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" in order to musically reference one of the film's inspirations. "Part of the challenge is John Turtletaub's done an extraordinary nod to the (Walt Disney's) 'Fantasia' film, and the Paul Dukas piece, which inspired the original, is what I had to look at and utilize within the context of this cue. So it was really exciting going in and analyzing that piece of music. The weird thing is that kind of has nothing to do with the rest of the film -- it's just that one area where they've done this nod to it and it's pretty extraordinary."

With a big budget, however, there is at least time to perfect the details, the kind of details most composers only get time for with commercials.

"I remember doing a Marlboro commercial for Tony Scott years ago and being quite shocked at the amount of detail required and how long it took him to sign off on the music -- something like 10 days or two weeks," says Harry Gregson-Williams ("Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time"). "And I remember thinking, 'How would this be with two hours of music?' I'm still asking myself the same question."

In the case of "Prince of Persia," the film's release date wound up giving Gregson-Williams more time to hone his work -- far more time than he expected. "It was supposed to come out last summer, and they shot it 18 months ago, and it didn't quite look like it was going to make it. There were a lot of special effects, a lot of reformatting and quite a lot of recutting of the movie. And we made it and had it been a winter-type movie we would have been ready to release it at Christmas last year. But it's a summer blockbuster so they had to put it in a can and wait for the next summer. So with all that extra time they said, 'Well, let's beat up on the composer some more!' To be truthful I was on that picture longer than anything I've ever done. It was a pretty long time to be on a Jerry Bruckheimer film, I can tell you."

A bigger problem for Gregson-Williams is how to contend with big overall sound mixes. Luckily, he says, producer Bruckheimer is "very interested in the whole sonic tapestry, but he's also very supportive of the music, which is good because he invests a lot of his time helping to create the musical soundtrack."

Djawadi ("Clash of the Titans") has his own solution when it comes to dealing with booming special effects. "Sometimes if the sound effects are ready I try to get them into my studio and lay them into the picture in a proper 5.1 sound mix to see what I'm up against," he says. "For 'Clash' there are areas with Medusa where I knew there would be voices in the background, so I tried to stay away from that in the score so we wouldn't clash."

Handling such tasks has become incomparably more difficult than it was in the days of the first big blockbuster -- "Jaws" and "Star Wars" -- not because of all the software but because those films had far fewer minutes of music.

"There's so much music (today) that the challenge is to try and prevent it from sounding like wallpaper," Rabin says. "If you look back at 'Psycho,' there was 30 minutes of music. Now it's, 'How long is the picture? Two hours?' Well, that's probably how long the score will be."
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