[Interview - John Frizzell]
From Beavis and Butthead Do America, to Dante's Peak, to Alien Resurrection and then to Mafia!, Composer John Frizzell has proven his ability to successfully tackle a variety of film genres. In his latest work, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Frizzell visits the realm of horror ,and dives in head first.

You just completed scoring I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. Being a sequel, did you incorporate any of John Debney's themes from the original film? What was your approach to scoring the film?

There is no thematic material in this movie from the original film. It's a very different movie from the first one ,a different look, a different setting and a different feeling. Director Danny Cannon has a very good sense of what's scary. This is horror film that also has a sense of humor. The score builds patiently to the terror ,yet there are moments where it jumps out at you unexpectedly. Singer Joan LaBarbara performs some very avant-garde vocalizations in the score. Her voice is used atmospherically with a lot of multitracking and manipulation.

Will there be a CD release?

I don't know if there will be a release of the score, but there is a cut of the main theme on the pop album.

What kind of unique instruments did you use in the film?

I used an Appalachian instrument called a psaltery which if played improperly, can provide a very abrasive and dissonant sound. I also detuned a dulcimer, played polyrhythms with soft mallets on it then looped these performances as samples. Iím very pleased with this effect. Very quiet and creepy.

You seem to be doing a lot of "dark" movies lately...

Well, I did Mafia! and I'm working on a comedy for Mike Judge ,it's his first live action film. I'm also doing a film called The White River Kid. Both of these films will be small ensembles and will be much less traditional. It's funny how things are ,a few years back I wasnít doing many orchestral scores ,I did a lot of synth work and small ensemble works. So now after doing seven large orchestral scores, it will be nice to shrink it down again.

So you tend to keep yourself varied in terms of the projects you do?

I love a challenge and I love taking on a different type of film than the one I did before. The White River Kid takes place in Arkansas, and follows brother Edgar, a con-man/monk played by Bob Hoskins through many strange adventures with several other eccentric characters. The score will have a southern flair to it with a bit of renaissance music thrown in for brother Edgar. "Oh ,another Blues-Renaissance Score!?" <laughs>

It's definitely stimulating to finish a film and then pick up and do something completely different. That's what was so great about Mafia! ,the score is completely dead pan serious the whole time ,it never gets the joke.

So even though you were doing a movie like Mafia! you decided to avoid satire?

If you put on the score and listen, you would say that it's Italian music ,mandolins and violins - it's reminiscent of early opera. There's nothing funny about the score ,it was enjoyable to write.

When you write music, do you take the traditional pencil and paper approach?

Someday that question will be " when you compose doe you use the traditional hands on a MIDI synthesizer approach or do you plug directly into the cerebral cortex?" For thematic material I will use the "traditional approach", my piano, but I will usually use the synthesizers to write and orchestrate the cues to prepare them for the director to hear.

What is your musical background?

I started as an opera singer when I was 10, singing with the Paris Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. I did that until my voice changed at age twelve, and then for 2 years I didn't do anything with music. At 14 I learned rock guitar and then became a serious jazz head before attending The University of Southern California School of Music, followed by Manhattan School of Music. Afterwards I worked for a great vibes player and producer named Michael Mainieri. I called these years my "post-graduate school". While working for Mainieri, I learned how to compose and orchestrate and learned the Synclavier inside out. I also worked with Ryuichi Sakamoto before moving to Los Angeles in 1994.

Does your exposure to all sorts of music help you in the scoring process?

I think so. I'm sure there are many people with more knowledge in specific areas of music than myself, but I have a pretty vast range of knowledge. Maybe that's why I do so many different types of films with different styles of music.

Tell me a little about your relationship with James Newton Howard ,people say that he's the reason you were able to score films...

No, my father is the only man who could truly say that. James was going to score Dante's Peak, but there was a schedule change. He had already written a theme, but director Roger Donaldson was comfortable with me coming in and taking over. I've seen it written in different places, but I've never actually worked for James before. We're very close, and he's extremely supportive and helpful to me. He has been, and if Iím lucky, will always be, my mentor.

How was it writing a score where you didn't create the theme?

It made it pretty damn easy! The theme shows up in several places, and there's a lot of completely original music. It's good that most people can't distinguish his theme from my score, because it would be wrong if they didn't feel integrated. That's what we promised Roger Donaldson and I know that besides being very pleased with the music it did not feel like two minds were involved. James has the great ability to create a melodic gems ,his thematic ideas are so concise it was very easy to expand and adapt them into the film.

Tell me how you got to score Alien Resurrection.

I sent my music to Jean-Pierre Jeunet three times, and on the fourth time he called me back. I'm a huge fan of his work, and we hit it off, so I got the job!

There seems to be mixed feelings about the film and the score ,mostly in the extremes for either case...

If you're going to do something different, you have to be prepared to take some criticism. I think the score presents some strong reactions - it definitely rocks the boat. If no one really cared either way, I might feel like a schmuck. Some people cherish the score and others loathe it - it's so polarized in either direction ,which was absolutely thrilling to me. Jean-Pierre wanted something very different ,we didn't want to do everything over again, and I think that's what was so successful about it. His European sensibilities played very heavily into the film ,he was very specific about how you treat a picture with music. I was very pleased with the reaction to it ,I just think that the people who complain about Hollywood making the same thing over and over are the same people who complain when Hollywood makes something different.

I noticed you scored the season finale for "King of the Hill"...

I don't normally score the series, but from time to time Mike Judge has asked me to do a special episode. Schedule permitting, I do it and it takes about a week to score, and I record it with an orchestra.

Tell me a little bit about "VR.5"...

It was my first project. It was a really trippy show ,there were only 13 episodes, there must be some very loyal fans because they keep re-running them over and over on the Sci-Fi Channel. John Sacret Young, who was the executive producer, heard my music and took a chance just based on my work even though I had ver few credits at the time.

"VR.5" was only about four years ago ,are you surprised how fast everything has been moving?

Yeah ,it's been a very fast change for me. I work a lot ,I'm in my studio most of the time, but I couldnít imagine a better existence.

Tell me about Office Space...

It's Mike Judge's first live-action movie. He wrote, directed, and even has a small acting part in it. It's rated R, so there is an adult level of humor. Mike has an amazing insight on what it means to be an American and what our culture's about ,and a brilliant sense of satire. The film is quite amazing in that it is both very unique and very accessible. It won't have a big score ,maybe highlights here and there, not a lot of huge cues. My work will be intimate, odd, and pretty subtle.

What would your dream project be?

I would love to work on a French film in France with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. There's talk of it . To spend a few months composing in Paris and eating snails around the clock ,man, that would be great! So I may end up needing a new dream...

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer comes out in theaters on November 13. The soundtrack album, which features a cue from Frizzell's score will be out on November 17 from 143 Records. Hopefully we will eventually see a score release ,perhaps in conjunction with Mafia!
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment.