Hello James, before we begin we would like to thank you for this interview.
How are things lately? Quite uplifting, if I may speculate, due to the “Wallace & Gromit - The Curse Of The Were-Rabbits” critical success, both film and score. You worked together with a big team, including Julian Nott, Ruppert Gregson-Williams, Lorne Balfe and Alastair King. What can you tell us about the experience, your specific
part in it and the overall musical result? How would you describe the score to someone who hasnt heard it yet? Many people talk about strong
“Chicken Run” references…
Working on “Wallace and Gromit” was a bit unusual for me. I had just come off scoring “Socom 3: US NAVY SEALS”, and I got a phone call to get on a plane the next day, back to London after having returned to LA for only 4 days. Working with Julian, Rupert, Lorne, and Alastair was a pleasure. I have worked with all of the afore mentioned, with the exception of Julian, before this project so we jumped into the saddle quite quickly. I think any persons feeling that “Chicken Run” had been referred to is a bit confusing. They are both British style scores. “Chicken Run” is modeled after “The Great Escape” which is very British. “Wallace and Gromit” is very “Brass Band” which is also of the same decent. So, from and ethnomusicological stand, the answer is yes, but in actual practical scoring, the answer is no. The score is a
reflection of a style that Julian created with the original Aardman shorts many years before
“Chicken Run”. So, which is the chicken and which is the egg becomes a little clearer.
How is it to work in a group? Do you like this working style or do you prefer composing alone. Are you looking forward on doing something like this again?
I enjoy doing both. Working with a group allows you to learn so much more. You can solve problems together, and its usually more fun. I would do it again, and I assume that I will.
Hans Zimmer, what do you think of his music? How is he in person? Is he supportive and encouraging to new composers in his studios?
Hans is an amazingly talented composer. His strength to picture is matched by few. He, to date, I believe is the biggest supporter of young composers in the world. I think that is clear when you think about how many people have come from his studio.
Media Ventures, one of the biggest film music studios in Hollywood from where a lot of talented young composers are emerging in our days. How did you get involved in the studio in the first place?
I was Hans chief technical person back in the “Gladiator” days. I did that until “Riding in Cars with Boys”. Then I stayed on to do orchestrating and eventually writing, after I had earned enough trust supporting technically.
Is there really anything like “the Media Ventures sound”? A tag film music fans often use to describe a certain Trevor Rabin / Klaus Badelt – like (and not only) sound mainly consisting of a certain rhythmic, powerful and intense musical style fronted by electronics, electric guitars, heroic themes and with strong rock / techno influences…what do you think of that?
Well, that is a slippery slope. There had been a lot of work with Jerry Bruckheimer in the past, and those films had a specific sound that Jerry likes. So, no matter which composer was on that film, the client needs to be served. I think when people get to do their own thing, ie, Harry Gregson-Williams – “Spy Game”, or “John Powell” - Borne
Identity, you see other facets of the composers coming through. Lets put this in context. The band, Rush, when they first came out, sounded a lot like Led Zeppelin, but eventually grew into their own sound. We all learn from somewhere. Not many artists end up with a never heard before sound when they first start. We were all just trying
to figure out how this crazy business works. I have just completed two film scores that have nothing to do with that sound. “When a Stranger calls”, and “Urmen Aus Dem Eis”. One is a horror/thriller filck and the other is a childrens movie about a baby dinosaur.
Electronic, techno, rock elements in film music…what do you think about these? Many people suggest that while a score produced under those principles might attract a lot of new listeners into film music area, at the same time it largely drags it away from its original orchestral foundations all into a new, cheaper and easier way of electronically composing and producing music, a tendency which is consider by many as very harmful for the idiomthat is film music. What do you think about this?
The film music industry goes in waves. In the 10 years before Star Wars came out (Episode 4) the big orchestral thing was out of fashion. I think that this is a stylistic phase. The good stuff will stay, and the not so good stuff will eventually become less cool. There are many scores that use electronics in amazing ways and I believe they help strengthen the film. That is the key, it has to serve the film, otherwise its just gratuitous. I don’t think adding those elements makes anything cheaper by the way. Doing it well, like anything else, is an art form. Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell have made that very clear.
”Traditional” composing on paper or digital ways of writing music with sequencer software / sound libraries on computers? What do you use and why?
I use both. I have a piano at home and no electronics there. That is usually where I write themes and study. This keeps me focused on the tunes and the ideas and not the production elements. I think this helps me create stronger scores. Then I go away from that into the studio to start working to picture and applying the ideas that I have worked out on paper. I have a drafting table in my studio so that I can keep working and orchestrating ideas out as I am working with the sequencer to realize the idea.
What drew you into film music in the first place? Are you fond, or even influenced by any specific film music composers work or do your musical references come from other musical genres.
I think most composers can pick the film/filmscore that brought the art-form into consciousness. For me it was Danny Elfman score to “Batman”. I said “I want to do THAT". I study a lot and go to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic seasonally. There is a lot of great music out there to learn from. I think it makes for a stronger composer. For example, great writers are usually very well read. You need to expand your musical vocabulary just as a writer would learn their words. The wider the palette, the more colors you can make. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Changing the subject a little bit and along with “Wallace and Gromit” you have worked in other animated features like “Madagascar” among other mentioned earlier.
Would you say that there are any big differences between scoring a film with real, live actors and scoring for an animated film, or game?
Scoring games is another beast entirely in that you are writing a score that doesnt have a pre-determined linear structure. Games are written to be contingent on circumstances that trigger music to simulate actual scoring. Animated films and live action films arent that much different I think. Its all about getting the emotion across and helping move the story forward.
Now that we mentioned games, you recently worked on “SOCOM 3: U.S. Navy SEALS” by Sony Computer Entertainment America. How did you become attached to this and what was your experience on it? Did you work freely or within tight collaboration with the producers and perhaps, specific musical paths that you had to follow?
I had to write the Main Title theme to get the gig. I was up against other composers and I won based on the music. That is very rewarding after 3 months of work. I worked closely with the creator of the game and the music supervisors at Sony to create the score. The needs for the game were very detailed. I did write a couple of big pieces just to get the ideas out, those ended up in the game as well even though they werent originally needed. The pieces for the game are very specific as they correspond to specific game situations and story points. For example, you start a level, and a unique piece of music plays for the “insertion” point. Then as you start moving, there are random mood pieces that play sporadically to create ambiance. If you run into enemies, another piece would begin. If you run into a leader, another type of music plays to emphasize his significance.
Is there a specific style of composing that you believe matches your personality suitably or do you prefer experimenting around with various musical styles?
I dont think there is any specific style that matches my personality. I am still experimenting, usually on independent films, on trying new ideas. I think there is still room to make some cool new scoring ideas out there. It just takes time to find those.
Looking back in your career, you worked as a “music arranger” in various projects like “Matchstick Men”, “Spirit”, “The Time Machine” and “Hannibal”. What exactly did you do in those projects?
Each project was different. The first as “Hannibal”, and I was doing arranging and orchestrating only. The farther I got into the projects, the more I would usually contribute.
Also, what exactly was your part in “M:I 2” and “Black Hawk Down”?
I was still Hans tech on “M:I 2”. “Black Hawk Down” presented itself as serious orchestrating and arranging opportunities. I learned a lot on that one.
In 2003 you joined the composing team of “Somethings Gotta Give” which was a quite simple but romantic and sweet score. What was your part for that score exactly and what do you think of the resulting whole?
Hans wrote this amazing theme for the film and we only had 1 week to do the score. Literally! So, we all got together here at the studio, picked our cues, and went to work. There is pretty much only one theme in there which is amazing. It was a labor of love for all of us in getting it out on time and with excellence.
This film was previously scored by another composer (Alan Silvestri) and then his work was dismissed. Same thing happened in another partly celebrated, partly hated but albeit successful score, “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Word is that, for the later, Alan Silvestri who was previously attached on the project didnt record anything but he did have original demos were Gore and Jerry were not happy with the focus on woodwinds and they asked your team not to write any woodwind parts that audiences would
associate with a traditional pirate score. Are you aware of this bit and if yes, is this how things actually happened?
I dont know exactly what happened. I do know that Jerry likes working with Hans, and if thats what he wants, thats what he gets as one of the most powerful producers on the planet. I think the score is very whimsical in nature. And yes, Jerry is not a big woodwind fan, but I dont know if thats the whole story.
Score rejections sadly seem to be developing into a worrying trend nowadays, becoming denser after the rejection of Gabriel Yared “Troy”. Do you consider this to
be something normal, a natural risk that every film composer has to take or is it a harming and unnatural procedure? Have you experienced anything similar in your
career so far?
I think its like any relationship. You take a chance on someone. If its not working, you have to make a change. Its still the film makers film. I have not had a score thrown out but I have been fired once. There is the potential that you can be replaced, but that should keep one working hard, not afraid. I think that there are varying situations in which I am sure it was wrong to fire the composer, but its a very tense process making a film. I think anyone that has every rashly broken up with someone would understand that. It is a very intimate relationship, and needs to working at some very basic levels.
One big reference point in your career was “The Ring” critical worldwide success in 2002. How was it working with Gore Verbinski, Hans Zimmer, Henning Lohner and Martin Tillman on the beautiful, chilling score and also sitting back and watching fans going mad over both film and score…
I love the music that Hans wrote for “The Ring”. Its a real departure from all the other scores. His original suite of ideas, before anyone else was involved is the credit crawl
music. That should make it clear how much effort was put forth in mood and color.
It was a big opportunity for me and I got a couple cues that didnt have any existing material for them, like the horse chases. Working with Henning and Martin, as we have
many times before, was a pleasure. So much talent! I was hounded for a long time for the audio files of that score until the album came out. Thank god thats over.
Antoine Fuqua “Tears of the Sun” is a great score and many people loved it, especially Steve Jablonskys Variations on a theme by Hans Zimmer. How did you become attached to it and what do you remember of that collaboration?
Hans asked me to help on “Tears” As we normally do, cues are divided up and we went to work. I think that score is very interesting. There are some rather unusual textures in there. I do remember that it was one of the most pleasurable scores to work on. Antoine is a very sweet man and is encouraging the whole way.
What exactly did you do in “the Amityville horror” and what do you remember from your work on it?
Steve asked me to pick up a couple cues in between “Madagascar” and “Socom 3”. I was going to take a break but he was a little behind. I think I only did 2 or 3 cues in that score. Its really Steve the whole way with minor exception.
Is “The Mars Underground” your biggest and most important work to date? What can you tell us about it, score and documentary and how was it to work with Scott J. Gill? How did you become attached to it?
I did Mars as an experiment. They had a rather small music budget but the project looked amazing! I am quite fond of that score. I dont think it my most important work, but it is rather interesting to me. I get a lot of compliments on that one. I am hoping to arrange it into a performable suite one of these days. I became attached to it because the writer is a friend of mine from USC. We lived next door to each other and when the project came up he was kind enough to give me a call. I was into Philip Glass and John Adams minimalism at that time.
One of your latest work is Simon West horror thriller, “When a Stranger Calls”. How did you get into this project? What elements and composing techniques of this specific genre have you followed?
I was asked to pitch some existing music of mine with some other composers in LA through my agent, Cheryl Tiano. It was very odd in the sense that I the powers that be went through the music and picked me solely based on the music at that point. It doesnt often happen like that. Usually they have heard a previous project or met a previous client and referrals seem to take priority.
I am a horror movie fan anyway, so when I saw it for the first time, it was fairly clear what it needed. The film was to have more of a classic style score because of the amount of tension it required over time.
A whole of new projects for you were announced this week: “Bone Dry”, “Urmel aus dem Eis (Impys Island)” and “First Flight”. We would love some comment on them please, how did you become attached and what their musical approach will be…
I´ve co-composed “Bone Dry” this summer with Mel Wesson. I was contacted by the director after he used my production music in his commercial work. “Urmel” is in post and I have completed the score. “First Flight” is just hitting film festivals now. It has premiered at South by SouthWest and at the Tribeca film festival in NY.
Thanks a lot for everything, we wish you all the best for the future.