Category Archives: Film Composer

RIP Ennio Morricone (1928-2020)

I normally don’t comment on moments like this, as I normally reserve my blog for film and soundtrack reviews, but the passing of Ennio Morricone, a veritable titan in the world of film music, cannot be passed over without a mention.

I woke up this morning to the news that Ennio Morricone had passed away at the age of 91. He composed over 400 scores for film and television, and to this day might be best known as the composer for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (you know the piece I’m talking about). But Morricone’s work stretches far beyond that (rightfully acclaimed) film. He composed for spaghetti westerns, comedies, Hollywood films, foreign films, television scores, when you look at the complete list of scores Morricone created, you’ll be amazed that one man could create so much.

But I think the memory that will stick with me the longest about Ennio Morricone is how he won the Oscar for Best Original Score for The Hateful Eight at the age of 87 (making him the oldest person to ever receive a competitive Oscar to date). That he didn’t receive an Oscar until so late in his career is something of a crime in my opinion, but I’m glad he did receive some official recognition of his work from Hollywood (and rightfully so, as the music for The Hateful Eight is incredible).

The world of film music will never be quite the same again now that Ennio Morricone is gone. Rest in peace good sir, and thank you for everything.

Let me know about your favorite score by Ennio Morricone in the comments below.

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To the Future: A Talk With Halli Cauthery About the Music of ‘Future Man’ Season 3

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk with composer Halli Cauthery about his work on the third and final season of Future Man. The Hulu original series Future Man  was co-created by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. His credits also include the Netflix/DreamWorks animated series Turbo F.A.S.T., for which he received an Emmy nomination in 2016; the critically-acclaimed thriller The East; Bernard Rose’s 2015 film adaptation of Frankenstein; the Shrek Halloween television special Scared Shrekless; as well as the Lifetime Television film Living Proof.

He has worked extensively with composer Harry Gregson-Williams, contributing additional music to such films as Cowboys & Aliens; Unstoppable; Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time; Shrek Forever After; X-Men Origins: Wolverine; and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian; as well as Bee Movie and Winter’s Tale alongside Hans Zimmer and Rupert Gregson-Williams. He has also worked with Henry Jackman (Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle; Captain America: Civil War; Pixels; Turbo); Danny Elfman (Hellboy 2: The Golden Army); and Bryan Tyler (Iron Man 3).

How did you get started with composing for film and television?

I got my start working under the mentorship of the renowned composer Harry Gregson-Williams. After completing my postgraduate studies some years ago I lived in London for a while, working as a jobbing musician, playing in orchestras around the city (my initial musical training was as a classical violinist at the Yehudi Menuhin School), as well as teaching, and writing music for the concert hall. But I soon began to feel that, if I wanted to earn a living writing music, the smart move would be to go into film and TV. And so I got in touch with Harry – whom I had known years earlier when I was a young kid and he was a singing teacher at the same school where I used to go for my after-school violin lessons! – to ask for advice. We re-connected, he invited me to come to California for a few months to see the process of film-scoring for myself, and soon I was working as his assistant, and he became my mentor.

What did you think of Future Man when you started working on it?

I thought it was utterly mad in all the very best ways! I loved it: it was funny, clever, silly, jam-packed with quotable lines and memorable characters, and just delightfully weird… I knew straight away that it was going to be a blast scoring it. And I wasn’t wrong!

Did you know, going in, that season 3 would be the last for Future Man?

Yes, we were all aware of that. Which is a double-edged sword: very sad to say goodbye to it, obviously, because I’ve enjoyed myself immensely; but at the same time, knowing that you have a definite end point to build towards can be very useful creatively.

Where did you start in the scoring process for season 3? Did you build off the previous seasons or did you start in a completely new place?

It’s a little bit of both. In the first place, if I interpret the question very literally, I did technically start in a totally new place, because the first piece of music you hear in season 3 is the ‘Monday Night Football’-style music accompanying the ‘Running Man’-type TV show that the main characters are forced to take part in during episode 1. In a more general sense, though: the great advantage of coming back to a show in its third season is that much of the underlying musical architecture is already in place: I already know what the ‘sound’ of the show is, and I already have a network of existing themes because those things have been established from season 1. (For example, I already have a Josh theme, a ‘Resistance’ theme, a Tiger+Wolf theme, and so on.) Having said that, with each new season there are always new characters and new situations that require new themes and sound worlds. Most obviously in the case of season 3, there are the scenes set in Haven, the ‘realm outside of time’ that the main characters become trapped in during the second half of the season. These required completely new music and a new ‘sound’ from the previous seasons.

A related question: did anything specific inspire the sound of Future Man, be it season 3 or any previous season? How did you come up with the sound for this season and series in general?

Haven inspired a slightly more unconventional approach during season 3. When you are depicting a place that’s supposed to exist outside of time and where the usual physical laws of the universe don’t always apply, that’s a pretty big invitation to do something different and get weird, musically. So I took the opportunity to experiment a bit with sound manipulation: taking audio and time-stretching and/or compressing it, reversing it, etc. to achieve strange effects. I also took the opportunity to write some twelve-tone music; and, for added ‘off the wall-ness’, to combine this with a part for a microtonal piano. The result is very trippy!

How much time did you have to score season 3 of Future Man?

I began working on season 3 in October, and we wrapped early in March – just in time, as it happened, before we all went on lockdown! It was a slightly shorter production schedule this season, with eight episodes as opposed to the thirteen that comprised seasons 1 and 2.

What instruments were used in the scoring process? I like how several pieces of the soundtrack have a traditional “sci-fi” sound.

Throughout the show’s run the score has consisted of a mixture of synth elements and traditional orchestra, sometimes combining the two within the same music – the synth elements tending to be utilized during the more futuristic, sci-fi moments. In addition, during season 3 I’ve occasionally had to dig into certain specialized types of ensemble: an example would be the Medieval-style music in season 3 when the three lead characters find themselves in Medieval France; this required the full complement of crumhorns, shawms, recorders and so on! I also recorded myself doing a bit of fiddle playing for a scene set in 17th century North America, playing a traditional folk tune called ‘Rambler’s Hornpipe’.

 Last question: do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?

A few examples spring to mind: in season 3, I would pick out the twelve tone music I mentioned earlier, as well as the over-the-top orchestral piece accompanying the final gag in the last episode. From season 2 I rather like the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ parody from episode 4, as well as the Renaissance-style version of the ‘Resistance’ theme heard numerous times throughout the season. And season 1 contains one of my favourite episodes of all: the one set in James Cameron’s ‘Smart’ house, which gave me the opportunity to write an episode of score full of music in the style of music from Cameron movies!

It was a great pleasure to learn more about Halli Cauthery’s work on season 3 of Future Man and I’m very thankful for the opportunity.

See also:

Composer Interviews

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Looking at El Camino: An Interview with Dave Porter

I recently had the opportunity to speak with composer Dave Porter about his work on El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. The movie, a direct continuation of Breaking Bad, was released on Netflix on October 11, 2019. The story follows Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) in the wake of Breaking Bad’s series finale.

Dave Porter studied classical and electronic music composition at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. He received an ASCAP Award for his work on Breaking Bad. Other composing credits include the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul, The Blacklist, and Preacher.

How did you get started in composing for film and television?

I grew up playing piano from when I was very young; my parents both are musicians though not professionally. I was always into music and when I got into high school I started to get into the technology of the time, digital synthesizers and computers. I found all of that very inspiring. I went to a liberal arts college called Sarah Lawrence College which was near New York City and there I learned to combine the two worlds: my interest in electronic music and my interest in classical music. In addition to that I learned to love the collaboration between music and film, TV, dance, theatre, lots of other things. That’s what really sparked my interest.

What was it like to return to the world of Breaking Bad after its been off the air for seven years? Or was it not that difficult since you’ve been working on Better Call Saul since then?

When Breaking Bad ended in 2013 we had a big event at the airing of the final episode, with the cast and crew and a bunch of the fans at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. They projected [the episode] on a huge wall and it really felt at that moment like I was saying goodbye to this world. Then Better Call Saul came along, which is a prequel to Breaking Bad. At the beginning I thought “Oh, I can get right back into the same world of characters” but actually because Better Call Saul happens so far before Breaking Bad it was entirely different. It hasn’t been until recent years, when the Better Call Saul timeline has started to encroach on the Breaking Bad timeline, that the music and those worlds started to meld. So when [El Camino] came up, totally unexpected to me, I was very surprised and excited because I didn’t think I’d get to see a character like Jesse Pinkman again. I was also excited because, in the process of working on Better Call Saul, and working back up to Breaking Bad, I had gotten excited about that idea, so it was in my mind already. In some ways it was not a huge transition, because I haven’t entirely left that universe.

How connected is the sound world of El Camino to that of Breaking Bad? Are the musical themes related?

Right at the beginning of El Camino, the score could have been ripped right out of the finale of Breaking Bad. That was very much intentional to try and connect our audience back to that moment in time. From there it actually does diverge into its own thing. That’s because it is a different story and is told in a different way. It’s also a film, which allows for a different kind of score than on a television show. There’s much more of an opening expanse of time to develop cues and the score. Since we’re focusing on one character, we really get to delve into him in a way I really didn’t get to during the series. The only exception to all that is in a few flashback moments within El Camino where we are once again placing ourselves back into the original Breaking Bad timeline. In those situations I’m going back and bringing back the score I used originally in various forms. That is to say, a newly tailored version of something I had already written for Breaking Bad.

On a related note, how did you decide on THIS type of sound world for El Camino? Given the plot, I was expecting something with more action in the score, but much of this feels very laid back.

There’s two aspects to that. One, part of it is grounding the sound of the musical score in a way that is relatable to all of the other aspects of the Breaking Bad universe. That way, when an audience hears [the music] they’ll feel that connection. There’s a certain world of sounds that I use on the shows that I definitely adhere to as well in the film. I don’t use a traditional, classical, Western orchestra. There’s no oboes or solo violins in this world, which was very much by design because, in Breaking Bad, I wanted Walter White to feel very much like a fish out of water.

The other aspect of figuring out what we wanted El Camino to sound like involved talking with Vince Gilligan about what the story really was. The story of El Camino, while it has a lot of tension and fast-moving elements about it, it’s actually a very cerebral movie. It’s a movie where we spend a lot of time in one character’s head, that of Jesse Pinkman. It’s his struggle to survive and also making right the wrongs he has made the best way he can. The score really takes a macro look at the storytelling as a whole. It certainly plays into the action. For the most part, though, the role of the score is to help us be with Jesse and be deep inside where Jesse is.

What was the scoring process like for this film? What was your starting point in putting the musical themes together?

That’s a good question. I don’t always do this, but in the case of El Camino I did it very much in sequence. I started at the beginning and worked my way through it. I did that because that’s how the film was constructed. First of all I knew we were starting right as Breaking Bad ends. I knew how I wanted the beginning of the movie to feel. Then I wanted to feel my way through Jesse’s journey. I thought the best way musically to approach that and have the music remain on a trajectory across the whole film was to do it in sequence. I was afraid if I jumped around that I would lose the overhead vision of the film. I was trying to keep an eye on the larger story of the film.

About how much time did you have to put the score together?

I was fortunate to have a good block of time. Music and sound are typically one of the last things to get done on a TV or film project. That was certainly the case here. I’ve been blessed to almost always get to work with a “locked picture” on Vince Gilligan projects which means that almost every aspect of the show is complete by the time I see it. I spent around six to eight weeks on the score for El Camino. By comparison, I generally have three or four days to do the score for an episode of Better Call Saul or Breaking Bad.

Do any of the tracks correspond to specific characters?

Actually they all relate to one person, which is very different from the TV shows. Everything about the music in El Camino is focused solely on Jesse Pinkman. It is really telling his story, his physical journey. It’s also his intellectual and psychological journey from where he is at the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie where he has a glimmer of hope for the future.

What kind of instruments are used in this soundtrack? Some of the tracks sound very non-traditional. 

Good, I’m glad to hear that because that was definitely the goal. With Breaking Bad and El Camino, maybe not so much with Better Call Saul, I’m definitely spending a lot of time trying to create sounds that are new, sounds that are interesting to the ear. I create sounds that are evocative and familiar that you can’t quite place. I take a lot of interest and joy in working with sounds that are electronically created or “found sounds.” There’s also taking a recording of something else and manipulating it into something that feels organic, like something you’d hear with your own ears in the real world. That’s part of the goal and what I’ve always wished for on these Vince Gilligan projects.

There were a lot of live performances [for this music]. One of the beauties of working on the film as opposed to the TV show is that I had the luxury of a lot more time. In that time I was able to record a lot of musicians and spend a lot more time recording myself playing instruments that found their way into the score of the film. There’s a lot of interesting instruments in use, including some non-traditional stuff in terms of the percussion and world instruments. Almost everything I do I’m later processing with various computer and synthesizer elements to blur the lines between real, organic instruments and what is synthetically created.

Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?

Yes, there are a few moments that I love and I’ll give you a Top 3. There’s some music right after Jesse learns the fate of Walter White over the radio and he’s thinking about his next move. A second moment would be a piece where Jesse sneaks back into his childhood home. These are all things where Jesse is being forced to deal emotionally with things he would rather not. And the third moment was one of the hardest pieces to write by far, which is the very end of the film. I love how we worked to tie together all the emotion from Jesse’s journey in as few notes as possible and then leave the audience with silence at the end of the film-as we have so often in the Breaking Bad universe-leaving it open for the viewer.

When you started Breaking Bad, did you ever think it would come to all this?

Definitely not. When we began Breaking Bad, I knew I was blessed to be a part of something very special when I saw the pilot episode. It was unlike anything else that was on TV at the time. Twelve years later…to imagine that I still get to work not only with Vince Gilligan but so many of the wonderful people who have been part of that world for this long. This is something I’m so grateful for and I never could have imagined it.

My thanks to Dave Porter for taking the time to talk about his work on El Camino. You can find Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul readily available on DVD while El Camino remains available on Netflix.

See also:

Composer Interviews

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Exploring the Music of ‘We’re Here’: An Interview with Herdís Stefánsdóttir

Recently I was given the opportunity to interview Herdís Stefánsdóttir, a film and television composer perhaps best known for working on The Sun is Also a Star and currently working on the upcoming HBO series We’re Here.

Herdís Stefánsdóttir graduated with an M.A. degree in film scoring from New York University in 2017. Since graduation she has scored two feature films, an HBO series and a few short films. Her scoring work includes Ry Russo -Young’s MGM/Warner Bros. feature film, The Sun Is Also A Star and the HBOseries We’re Here. Herdís was nominated for The Icelandic Music Awards for her score in The Sun Is Also A Star. Herdís interned for the Oscar nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson inBerlin while he was working on the film Arrival (2016) and she has scored numerous short films that have premiered at top-tier festivals around the world like Berlinale, TIFF, Sundance and Palm Springs International Film Festival.

The subject of the interview was Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s work on the upcoming HBO series We’re Here, a short series about people being transformed into drag queens and coached into stepping outside their comfort zones by famous drag queens including Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara, and Shangela. We’re Here is currently set to premiere on April 23, 2020.

What drew you to composing for film and television?

I started experimenting with it a few years ago when I was in school. I was collaborating with dance projects, theater, and all that kind of stuff. I really enjoyed working with people and working on stories. It’s a totally different way of approaching music that I hadn’t done before. That’s how it started.

How did you get connected with We’re Here? It’s an interesting premise for a show

We’re Here [came about] from my agent sending in a portfolio, essentially a reel of my music that the creators really liked and they thought it was a good fit. And it is a good show, I quite like it.

How did you approach scoring a show like We’re Here?

Actually I’m not quite finished [with scoring], I’m actually in the middle of the scoring process. I just finished episode 3 and I’m working on episode 4. It’s definitely something that I hadn’t figured out before I started because what’s interesting is that the episodes all have the same theme with going to small towns. They’re talking to people and getting their stories. Each of the stories are so different and the characters are so different. So it kind of developed through the process of scoring. And I feel like where I am now, basically I’ve been creating a sound world for each person. Each story and each character gets their own sound. That’s how it’s been developing. And that sound is changing from episode to episode.

How is the process for scoring television different from scoring for film?

It’s very different. I’ve never worked on a project like this, that has real people and a real story, and it makes the scoring process almost indescribable because it’s so different from working on fictional material. It has to be so right, like when a person is talking you don’t want to go overboard and make it cheesy. You want it to be the right emotion without taking too much space. It’s a lot of work to get everything right. In film, there are moments where you’re just writing music for something where no one is talking and you can just write a piece of music more inspired by the film. But this [the show] is more like weaving a thread of music within all the stories and conversations.

About how long was the recording process for each episode?

For the first episode, that was the one I had the longest time to work on. That was when I was starting to figure out what I wanted to do, how do I want this to sound. That was more a process of experimenting and trying to get the right emotion and the right heart of this show.

I’ve been mostly working my myself in the studio and I record instruments, synths, different sounds, the piano, and my voice. Then I get friends to record specific instruments that I might need. And the further we are in the process the faster it’s happening. There’s definitely been more pressure for each episode as it goes on. And [the process] has been interesting because in a [traditional] narrative or fictional series you start creating a sound world with themes that are reused throughout. However, because each episode has its own identity, I always feel like I’m starting from scratch when I start a new episode. I would say it’s about three or four weeks per episode [to finish scoring].

Is the music for each episode connected to that of other episodes, or are they in their own musical “bubbles”?

They are definitely connected because there are two sides to it. There are the characters but there’s also all the moments in the show. Some scenes need cues to bring out a certain emotion so there’s definitely a thread connecting them. It’s a special element that defines each story or character. There is an overall sound that connects everything, even when I might play around and change the instrumentation for the different characters.

Did anything in particular influence the sound of the music you were making? That is to say, were you going for a particular sound?

I wasn’t at all. I was just kind of open to see where it would take me. What kind of surprised me was the different people, with their different stories, and how they called out interesting things. It was like “this person needs this in their story.” All of it has been developing as we go. I didn’t decide anything before [we started]. I just knew I wanted to avoid a typical TV score, I just wanted to create a unique voice for everyone.

What do you want viewers to take away when they watch these episodes and hear your music?

I just hope it gets into people’s hearts. I hope they feel the story. I think that’s the purpose of the music. It’s a way of helping people tell the stories.

I want to give a big thank you to Herdís Stefánsdóttir for taking the time to talk with me about her work on the upcoming HBO series We’re Here. The show will premiere on HBO April 23, 2020.

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

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Soundtrack Review: Stuffed (2019)

Lakeshore Records has made available Ben Lovett’s original motion picture soundtrack for Stuffed, a film directed by Erin Derham. Stuffed is a documentary feature film about the surprising and unique world of taxidermy.  Told through the eyes and hands of a passionate and diverse group of renowned artists from around the world, the film explores the lives and perspectives of an extraordinary subculture that exists at the intersection of art and science.  With a keen eye on conservation and the natural world, Stuffed also explores the important and unexpected relationship that exists between taxidermy and the human effort to preserve the beauty of nature.

Ben Lovett is an American songwriter and composer best known for crafting unconventional scores to a diverse range of films and documentaries including the Netflix cult favorite The Ritual, Amy Seimetz’s award-winning noir Sun Don’t ShineIndependent Spirit Award nominee The Signal, the Duplass Brothers’ survival thriller Black Rock, Emma Tammi’s avant-garde western The Wind, and the time travel sci-fi noir Synchronicity which earned Ben a nomination for “Discovery of the Year” at the prestigious World Soundtrack Awards. Lovett’s most recent work debuted at Sundance 2020, a reunion with director and longtime collaborator David Bruckner for the upcoming Searchlight thriller The Night House.

Speaking on their close collaboration throughout the making of the film, Derham explained:

“The process was very unique in that Ben started writing and recording the score while I was filming. I knew I wanted Stuffed to feel beautiful and romantic like a Jane Austen novel but giving it that distinct Lovett edge. I’m Ben’s biggest fan. All of his movie scores blow me away, but when I first heard the ‘Stuffed Waltz’ suite it felt like he’d written a song about my heart. It represented the humbling journey that took place as I filmed wildly different people around the world for nearly three years and had all my preconceived judgements about taxidermy challenged.”

Lovett described his score as a collection of “musical dioramas” that aim to capture a glimpse into the minds and hearts of a variety of uncommon personalities. Lovett explained:

“I was inspired by the characters in the film who all come from very different political, social, and economic backgrounds and often disagree on most things, but ultimately populate a distinct subculture that’s bound by a deep and genuine love for nature. I wanted to capture that unmistakable childlike wonder they all have when they talk about animals. For taxidermists the work they do is not at all about Death, it’s about Life.”

The soundtrack for Stuffed was nothing like what I expected, though honestly I’m not sure what I should expect for a documentary about taxidermy. The music is beautiful and delightfully quirky in many places, especially in the opening tracks like “Encyclopedia” and “Life.” If the music is meant to reflect the personalities of the people working on these creations and the creations themselves, then Lovett definitely succeeded.

The instruments come together to create something bright and vibrant, and now that I think about it that could be what surprised me. When *I* think about taxidermy the big thing I remember is that these animals are dead, but Stuffed appears to be taking the opposite approach (and Lovett says as much above): don’t think about them as dead, think about how they simulate Life! And that’s why the music is so vibrant and alive, because that’s the work these taxidermists are doing.

If you listen to nothing else on this soundtrack, you need to listen to “Stuffed Waltz No. 2” and “Stuffed Waltz No. 3.” These are two beautiful pieces that take a moment away from the hustle and bustle of the regular soundtrack and seem to be created to give you time to think about what you’ve seen thus far. And for the record, they are in fact true waltzes, I can hear the 3/4 time clear as a bell (I wasn’t sure at first if the “waltz” in the cue title was literal or figurative).

Listening to soundtracks like this is giving me a renewed appreciation for documentaries and everything that goes into making them. Sometimes, I hate to admit it, these works can get overlooked because they’re all factual and can be mistakenly perceived as “boring.” But works like Stuffed are actually working really hard to tell a good story and the music has to work just as hard as any action film score to help tell the audience what they need to know.

I really liked the soundtrack to Stuffed and you should definitely check it out if you get the chance. Let me know what you think about Stuffed in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

Film Soundtracks A-W

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Soundrack News: Atli Örvarsson to score ‘Defending Jacob’ for Apple TV+

Thankfully the coronavirus hasn’t stopped all television from being made. In fact, Icelandic composer Atli Örvarsson (The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Rams) will compose the upcoming thriller “Defending Jacob,” which is set to premiere globally on Apple TV+ on April 24th, 2020.

 

“Defending Jacob” will premiere its first three episodes exclusively on Apple TV+ starting Friday, April 24th, and new episodes will premiere weekly thereafter Friday.

The new character-driven thriller starring Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell, Cherry Jones, Pablo Schreiber, Betty Gabriel and Sakina Jaffrey is based on the 2012 New York Times best-selling novel of the same name by William Landay. “Defending Jacob” unfolds around a shocking crime that rocks a small Massachusetts town, and follows an assistant district attorney who finds himself torn between his sworn duty to uphold justice and his unconditional love for his son.

Örvarsson recorded the score at The Village in Los Angeles with a 24-piece orchestra. Atli on the sound of “Defending Jacob”:

It was music from my upcoming album which sparked the interest of the filmmakers and as a result, composing the music for the series has felt almost like a continuation of that. The instrumentation and general feel is cut from the same cloth and there’s a definite Nordic Noir feel to the show, which has made the whole process feel even more natural. The vision of Morten Tyldum (director) and Mark Bomback (writer/producer) has been very compatible with my own, which has made the whole process a real joy!

Raised in the small town of Akureyri in the north of Iceland, Atli Örvarsson relocated to Los Angeles early on to pursue a career in composition. There, Atli worked extensively alongside prolific TV veteran Mike Post and Hollywood legend Hans Zimmer, which launched his career leading him to score over 40 films and countless TV shows.

Atli’s accolades include winning the HARPA Nordic Film Composer Award for his acclaimed score to Rams, several ASCAP & BMI Film & TV Music Awards, a “Breakthrough of the Year” nomination with the IFMCA Awards in 2009, plus he was nominated for the prestigious World Soundtrack Academy’s “Discovery of the Year Award” for his score for Babylon A.D in 2009 and his score for Ploey: You Never Fly Alone was nominated for a “Public Choice Award” in 2018.

Defending Jacob premieres on Apple TV+ on April 24, 2020.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens “Rey’s Theme” (2015)

This is my honest opinion: if you try to tell me there are no great musical themes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, then you haven’t been paying attention, because John Williams introduces a beautiful, original theme relatively early in the film. This is “Rey’s Theme” and it comes when, you guessed it, we first meet Rey living as a scavenger on Jakku.

 

The theme starts as Rey is leaving the ruins of the crashed Star Destroyer, having finished her work for the day. It starts off with a bit of whimsy, a soft chiming melody that soon grows into a flowing theme with the strings and woodwinds. This melody tells us several things: that Rey is young and idealistic (much as Luke Skywalker was many years ago), but also that she has her own inner strength even before she starts to use the Force. The former is heard in the opening part of the theme, and the inner strength is revealed when the strings come in, pushing the theme to new heights.

This original version of “Rey’s Theme” lays the foundation for several melodies to come in the sequel trilogy, particularly in The Rise of Skywalker. Williams will put this melody through several variations, altering it to meet Rey’s changing circumstances as the story progresses.

As a musical introduction to one of the most pivotal characters of the sequel trilogy, “Rey’s Theme” performs its purpose beautifully. This theme deserves to be remembered just as much as “The Force Theme”, “The Imperial March”, “Duel of the Fates” and any other classic Star Wars theme. For me, this theme is clear proof that John Williams is just as talented as ever when it comes to creating memorable film music themes.

I hope you enjoy listening to “Rey’s Theme” as originally heard in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, let me know what you think about it in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens “Kylo Ren’s Theme” (2015)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens “March of the Resistance” (2015)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi “The Spark” (2017)

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker “Kylo Ren’s Theme (Redeemed Version)” (2019)

Film Soundtracks A-W

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi “The Spark” (2017)

My general opinion of The Last Jedi has changed a great deal since I first saw the movie in 2017, but one thing that hasn’t changed is my love of the film’s soundtrack. It’s been my longstanding opinion that the Star Wars soundtrack as a whole is one of the greatest film music creations ever made and the music for The Last Jedi is up there with some of the best themes Williams ever created.

“The Spark” is one such theme and one I’ve wanted to talk about for a while. It occurs very late in the film, when Luke Skywalker appears out of nowhere in the remains of the Rebel base on Crait. Most of the cue, starting around 1:00 is actually from a Return of the Jedi theme known as “Luke and Leia” and plays when Luke finally reunites with his twin sister. You would know this as the music that plays in ROTJ when Luke reveals that Leia is his twin. It’s pretty much the same theme all over again and it really is perfect for this scene that happens to be the first and sadly, only, time we see Luke and Leia together in the sequel trilogy (everything after this was done with body doubles and CGI so it doesn’t really “count” for me if that makes sense).

After this memorable theme runs its course, then the fun really starts. Starting around 2:15 the music begins to morph into something different but it doesn’t latch onto the new theme until around 2:30. From that point on, the music enters a weird march-like motif that might sound odd at first, or vaguely familiar depending on your point of view. There’s a deep, booming motif that repeats over and over again as Luke strides out to confront the First Order and his wayward nephew Kylo Ren. As you listen to it, you might realize that this is actually from the bass line of The Imperial March, known the world over as “Darth Vader’s theme.”

luke-leia-tlj-tall

Think of the symbolism in this choice on the composer’s part. We have Luke Skywalker, Jedi, hero of the Rebellion, etc. and so on, marching out to face the evil First Order to more or less the tune of the Imperial March. I don’t know if it’s merely ironic or also meant to send a message, maybe something to the effect that it’s Luke who has the power and authority that Kylo has always sought but will never find because he’s too much of a hothead. It could be I’m thinking too much into it but it always sends chills down my spine to hear the remnants of that immortal theme when Luke walks out, all alone, to stare the enemy down.

Some people gave John Williams a lot of flack for not creating a new Imperial March or something equivalent for the sequel trilogy, but I really feel he didn’t need to, and “The Spark” is a prime reason why. It’s a combination of the old and new that lends sadness and power to this scene in a way that only Williams can make possible.

Enjoy listening to “The Spark” from Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Let me know your thoughts about this moment in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

The Empire Strikes Back: “The Imperial March” by John Williams

Star Wars: The Force Awakens “Kylo Ren’s Theme” (2015)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens “Rey’s Theme” (2015)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens “March of the Resistance” (2015)

Star Wars: The Clone Wars “Bad Batch Theme” (2020)

Star Wars: Rebels “It’s Over Now”

Film Soundtracks A-W

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An Interview with Paul Mills, Composer of Overcomer (2019)

Last month, I had the honor of interviewing film composer Paul Mills, a composer who has worked on a number of films, including War Room (2015), Still Breathing (1997), and Sweet Sweet Summertime (2017).  This interview had to do with one of Paul’s most recent works, his score for Overcomer (2019), a film directed by the Kendrick brothers, Alex and Stephen Kendrick, the same minds behind War Room four years earlier.

The plot of Overcomer follows several characters, including John Harrison (Alex Kendrick), who is a basketball coach at a high school. Due to the closure of businesses in the city and the departure of several families, he agrees to be the running coach for Hannah Scott (Aryn Wright-Thompson) who is an asthmatic. Hannah’s sporting journey will be accompanied by a self-discovery that will answer a question that has been a concern for her for a long time.

I hope you enjoy this short interview with Paul Mills, composer of Overcomer.

How did you get started with composing for films?

It was a long journey, I always loved music growing up. My dad had some films that had music he loved, he had some Henry Mancini scores, Jerry Goldsmith, Ennio Morricone; I became fascinated with what the music in a film could do. And then through school I was involved in music; I went to the University of Houston to get a degree in composition, and while I was there I started working at a recording studio. I started learning more about how to arrange strings for pop music, and how to work with artists and record companies. And there was a guy there who worked with documentaries and short films who ended up going to Los Angeles with a script he’d written, and ultimately arranged for me to score the project. That experience is what hooked me [into film composing], even though it was 12 years between that score and my next composing project.

How did you become connected with Overcomer, and what did you think of the film’s story?

After War Room, I’d been throwing hints around [about working with the Kendrick brothers again]. Finally, I was in a Publix grocery store, and I got a call and it was Stephen Kendrick on the phone. He said “We want you to do the movie, and here’s what it’s about.” And it was like a twenty minute space where he told me the whole story arc of the movie. By the time he described a critical scene at the end of the film to me, I was jumping up and down I was so excited to score it, it was such an awesome sounding scene. That’s how it happened, [the Kendrick brothers] were happy with War Room so they wanted me for Overcomer.

Was it easier working on Overcomer because you’d worked with the Kendrick brothers before for War Room?

It was. We already had a shorthand, and we had this program where I can upload scenes from the movie-in-progress with my music embedded into it. And with a set of earbuds [the Kendrick brothers] can watch the scene with music on their iPhones, and comment on it in real time. It was really easy then, because we didn’t have to try to figure each other out. For example, I know that the brothers love films with “hummable” themes, they want the audience to be humming those themes as they leave the theater, and as a composer I love that! My job was made easier because I already knew that.

On a related note, how is that story reflected in the film’s score? Is it?

Well, the way the music came about, you see there’s a long race scene at the end. And I sat down with the director’s to watch a rough cut of the movie (that’s called the spotting session). Long story short, once we got to the end of that, we thought “this scene is so critical, maybe we should start here.” I spent a couple of weeks trying to put things together and then I realized “I CAN’T do this scene yet, because I don’t know what the other thematic material is going to be.” I already knew in my head that I wanted to have an “Overcomer” theme, because the movie is basically about finding your identity in Christ, and overcoming the obstacles along the way. So…once I realized I needed thematic material, I went back to the beginning of the story and wrote the Overcomer theme. After that, I jumped to Hannah’s theme, and went on from there.

I haven’t seen many film score tracks that are 11 minutes long, what was it like putting such a lengthy track together?

It was actually way easier [to write] once I had my thematic material, because a lot of stuff happens during that scene. Having the thematic material definitely made it easier, because this is Hannah’s big race. And there are big areas in the track, and slow areas, and the slow areas happen when there’s a lot of dialogue. That is a scene where people are actually yelling at the screen in theaters. And there was just nowhere that the music could break because it was one long race. The music had to go all the way through it. I was really happy with the way it came out, with the ebbs and flows and the climax at the end. It really works with the scene, and it stays out of the way of the dialogue when it needs to.

What do you want audiences to take away with them when they hear this music?

When people see this movie I want them to realize that they can find their identity and their meaning in something more important than a number of things that we normally attach meaning to, whether it’s a career, or worrying about our finances, or having family problems. This movie talks about finding your identity in Christ, and I think the Kendrick brothers have done a really great job showing people that there are answers that you can find. So I want people to be uplifted by the music, so that they’re lighter walking out of the theater than when they came in.

I’d like to say thanks to Paul Mills for taking some time out of his day to speak with me about his work on Overcomer.

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

An Interview with Chad Cannon, Composer of American Factory

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Chad Cannon, who composed the score for the Netflix original film American Factory. Composer Chad Cannon has traveled the world drawing inspiration from cultures, history, and human stories to create moving scores for documentaries, animation and live performances. His debut soundtrack for the documentary Paper Lanterns received an IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Awards) nomination for Best Original Score for a Documentary, and was lauded as “haunting, mystical” by The Japan Times; while his soundtrack for Cairo Declaration, co- composed with Xiaogang Ye, received China’s highest film prize, the Golden Rooster Award for Best Music. Chad most recently scored Netflix’s documentary, American Factory, which won the Best Director Award for a Documentary at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and is the first film released by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground. His other recent works include a symphonic Americana score for PBS’ documentary CyberWork and the American Dream, as well as scoring Chris Meledandri and Illumination Studios’ animated short, The Dog Days of Winter.

Chad Cannon 2.jpg

 

How did you get started with composing for films and documentaries?

So I studied music at Harvard, I was studying music and Japanese there, and then I did my Masters at Julliard, also in composition. But all along I kind of knew…I’ve always like film, I thought it would be really cool to have a career that intersected film and music. So when I graduated from Julliard I moved to L.A. and I started working with this orchestrator named Conrad Pope, he worked for many years with John Williams, and the first project he hired me on was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, so I got kind of dumped right in the middle of a huge film score project, and as an orchestrator it’s a little less pressure then a composer obviously, because the orchestrator’s job is really to help the composer prepare all the conducting scores in time for the recording sessions, so you’re the one putting the notes on the page eventually. So from there, I kind of transitioned into writing more for film, and I had an opportunity to score a couple of feature documentaries with my brother who directed feature films for CrossFit. …My brother just had me write some custom music for those films. And then I had this opportunity to write for a film called Paper Lanterns, which was a Hiroshima documentary about the 12 Americans who had died in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. So that was my first feature doc(umentary) that was more serious and I had an opportunity to write a more rich, orchestral for that film, and it was also a crossover score where I included some traditional Japanese performers in addition to this American orchestral sound that I was creating. So that led to me being accepted into the Sundance Composer Labs which happen every summer at Skywalker Ranch, and that lab is how I got connected to the American Factory film.

How did you get involved with American Factory

The Sundance Labs people knew I’d done quite a bit of work in Asia and they thought “Oh, since this is a film that is very much connecting Asia with the U.S., maybe he would be a good match” and so they referred me to Julia [Reichert] and Steve [Bognar]  who were the directors of American Factory.

How did you approach scoring the documentary?

Well, anytime I get a new film, the first thing I like to do is experiment with new materials or new instruments, just to sort of develop a sound world that I can draw from as I start getting clips of the film. So I tried two things at first that didn’t actually end up working out very well for the film. One was, because of the glass factory I thought “What if we used glass instruments?” and had glass be the heart of the score. So I got all the glass I could find and recorded myself playing rhythms on them. I got wine glasses, and did a bunch of tones, and I tried a bunch of stuff. And Julia and Steve heard it, and were like “Oh, this is cool but it’s too ‘twinkly.’” And that’s because glass creates a lot of high overtones, which creates a “twinkly” sound. And because there’s quite a few ominous, or dark themes in the film, as well as a huge amount of factory noise, from a sound design perspective this film was very difficult because the sound designer Lawrence Stevenson had to navigate, when you’re recording the audio in the factory and it’s hard to hear, just from the amount of noise. So anyway, the glass approach didn’t really work.

And then the next thing I tried was to include traditional Chinese elements, especially from Fujian Province, which is where the Fuyao headquarters is within China, and I had happened to have been there before…Steve and Julia also considered that, but then they said “We’re Americans,  we’re from Ohio, we don’t want to make this feel like it’s exoticizing the Chinese component of this movie. Make it more universal in the approach.” So ultimately we ended up focusing on a low woodwind sound; so there’s a lot of bassoons, bass clarinets, some lower flutes like alto flutes…and the reason we went in that direction is because Julia had heard a Mozart piece called the “Gran Partita” and this piece is for woodwinds with two horns and a double bass, and it’s just a really unique instrumentation…and ultimately I think she was right in leaning in that direction, because the woodwinds’ timbre goes well against all the metallic glass timbre that you hear in the film. The factory noises are complimented by this woodwind sound, as opposed to competing with it. There’s something about that combination that ended up working nicely, and I ended up writing a lot of music for these slow woodwinds.

Were you inspired by the factory machines, because in several of the manufacturing scenes it feels like the music is mimicking the frenetic action of the glass factory

For sure, there are a lot of moments..there’s one specific moment if you remember near the end of the film, there’s a sequence where Wong is sitting next to this panel of blinking lights in the dark, he’s sitting there and there’s a voiceover where he says “I think the most important thing is mutual understanding” and he expresses this admiration for American workers who can manage having multiple jobs at once…and that sequence…the blinking lights were the trigger for the music in that scene, where if you listen there’s a lot of minimalist patterns. A lot of the American minimalists will come to a pattern and they’ll repeat it for a really long time to create this meditative state and, that’s a very common technique now in film music. That pattern that I have in that scene is very much trying to show…it’s drawing inspiration from the blinking lights on the panel. And it gets you into Wong’s mind about how things are kind of dark at that moment.

And the music when we enter the factory for the first time is also rooted, grounded in a repeating bass note. The cue is actually called “The Resurrection,” …and for me the pillars of the factory, and the weight of this machinery, all of that is finding its way into the score in these heavy bass figures that I’ve been writing.

It feels like there are different themes, or different musical sentiments for the American and Chinese sides of the story, is that so or am I imagining that?

There are no themes that are specifically Chinese or American…Thematically there’s like four or five melodic ideas that spin out, and sometimes it’s the same theme but in a dark variation, sometimes lighter. Pretty much all of the musical material is tied back to that first theme called “The Forge.” There’s a parallel fifth motif that becomes the bed of pretty much everything else that happens after that. There are also themes for the Chairman and Wong. Wong’s theme is what comes back at the very end when we see this sequence between American workers and Chinese workers leaving the factory, and it’s like this fanfare for workers. The point of this theme is that it’s where I’m trying to convey the dualism of two countries coming together. And at the very, very end, there’s a long sequence with the Chairman where all of the themes you’ve heard throughout start to come back very quietly, underneath the dialogue, revisiting the places we’ve been along the way. So there are musical themes that are attached to specific characters.

How did you decide which parts of the documentary need music, because I’ve noticed chunks that have no music at all, and it feels like a very abrupt transition between music and no music.

So the way the film is edited is by chapters, and they’ll create a scene, or a series of scenes which together comprise a chapter. And the filmmakers who are also the writers, you know documentaries are written in the editing room, they don’t have a script, they just go out and film stuff. They get all the footage and then they go back and figure out what story they captured. And they could’ve told many different stories with the footage they had. They had to go through 1200 hours of footage shot over 3 years, so it’s really an incredible feat, what they did to cut it down to the film you see now. So musically, the way this pans out in documentaries is that, first of all, as opposed to feature films, and I personally feel that feature fiction films tend to get over-scored, I’m a fan of leaving space for people to just appreciate the environment that they’re in…the whole world is full of sound and interesting environmental ambience, and there’s music everywhere if you just open up your ears.

And I feel like in film it’s really beautiful when people know not to put music, because then you can be more immersed in the reality of whatever environment you’re in, even more so in a documentary. The challenges of a documentary film composer is that you can’t be too dramatic, you can’t hit things too hard on the nose without it starting to become editorializing. They’re telling true stories and representing real people, and you have to respect that. So the choices about where not to do music were largely where Julia and Steve had told me beforehand, where they said “Oh we don’t need music for this scene, or for here.” If there was music the whole time it would just start to get in the way of what people are saying.

There was one scene where I pushed for there to be no music, which was this scene where there’s no video just the recording, where the Fuyao employee had recorded this audio of the anti-union guy persuading them to vote against the union. And originally that scene had some very ominous music in it and I ultimately told them this is already such a shock where you lose the video, that you don’t need any score there because it’s already such a change from what we’ve been doing. And it’s already so ominous that the picture’s gone.

……….

It was a great honor to be able to talk with Chad Cannon about his work on American Factory, and I hope you enjoyed reading about it. Let me know your thoughts about American Factory (and the soundtrack) in the comments below and have a great day!

American Factory is currently available for streaming on Netflix.

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂