by Mike Brennan
You're channel-surfing late at night and for some reason, you stop at some made for tv movie. The CGI is laughable, the effects cheap, the dialogue awkward, but wait... what's that music? Rising above the look of the average B-movie is an enjoyable musical score. Chances are, the credits would list Neal Acree as the composer. You ask, "who's that?" Neal Acree is a young, up and coming, prolific film composer whose work spans many genres, who has started out writing good scores for...well, we'll say mediocre movies. In the past few years he has written music scores for 14 feature films as well as additional music on projects such as TNT's hit tv show "Witchblade" and the mini-series Helen of Troy. His films include many Sci-Fi Channel originals such as Deadly Swarm, Project V.I.P.E.R. and the recently premiered Curse of the Komodo.
The scenario outlined above was how I happened across Acree's name when I flipped to Curse of the Komodo back in February and I found his website (www.nealacree.com). I contacted his website about the music in the movie and he replied himself. He graciously agreed to send me some samples of his work and to allow me to interview him, so it is my privilege to introduce Neal Acree to our SoundtrackNet reader.
How did you get your start in music composition?
I picked up the guitar when I was 14 and played in a few rock bands. I was always into experimenting with recording and writing instrumental songs which got me into the keyboard and some early attempts at sequencing. After studying classical theory and orchestration in college I began to see how much further I could take my music with the orchestra.
How did you get your start in film scoring?
Like many people I started off by scoring a lot of student films and interning with a few different composers to learn the craft. I also worked as a copyist, a music editor and an orchestrator though probably the most significant step in my early career would have to be meeting Joel Goldsmith ("Stargate SG-1", "Witchblade"). I met Joel when I was doing "cartage", which is delivering and setting up music equipment for recording sessions. I eventually became his tech, which mostly involved maintaining his computers and samplers. I learned a lot from Joel about the scoring process and about engineering and mixing, and eventually he began letting me write cues here and there, which led to my contributing to the TNT series "Witchblade".
Since then you've composed in numerous genres. What types of movies do you like writing for the most? The least?
One of the fun things about being a film composer is getting the chance to write for a variety of styles. I enjoy the genres I've worked in most frequently like action and horror, though I'm always interested in trying something new. I admire guys like Edward Shearmur who can completely reinvent themselves each time out.
What film composers have influenced your work and in what way?
That's a tough question for me because as a film music fan there are few composers out there who haven't influenced me in one way or another. Aside from the greats like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, who are at the top of most people's lists, there's also James Horner's rich melodies and keen dramatic sensibility as well as James Newton Howard's and Thomas Newman's broad sonic palettes. A couple of guys who really stand out on my list are Elliot Goldenthal and Christopher Young who I think are at the top of their game and are really raising the bar for the art form with their mastery of orchestration and their unique approaches to the craft. Howard Shore and Don Davis are a couple who, especially with their trilogies, have really shown their worth as composers.
What recent score releases have you particularly liked or found inspiring?
I have to admit I'm a bit behind on my CD shopping but there have been some interesting things out there this last year. I thought Howard Shore's Return of the King had some great moments. Horner's The House of Sand and Fog was especially lush in those climactic scenes, even though the movie made me want to kill myself. This may not be an obvious one, but I really got a kick out of Elliot Goldenthal's score to SWAT. He picked about the least likely project he could have to follow up his Oscar-winning Frida but he came up with some really intense stuff in a film you wouldn't have expected it in.
How about some of your favorite film score moments?
What I love about film music is the emotional power it can take on when combined with visuals. Purely on an emotional level for me would be the climax of Return of the Jedi where Luke loses control and starts hacking at Vader with the choir behind him. Another along those lines but in a different way would be the then end of Gladiator from Maximus' death through the end credits. I always get choked up at the end of Legends of the Fall when Aidan Quinn's character saves his estranged father and brother from being killed. These are all very powerful scenes due in no small part to some wonderful music.
I really enjoyed your work on the Sci-Fi Channel original film Curse of the Komodo that premiered in mid-February, which was my first exposure to your music. However, no one will pretend that it's a really great movie. Do you ever feel your music outshines what is on the screen? There were definitely a few moments in Curse of the Komodo when the music stood out really well.
Thank you. [Play "Rebecca's Theme"] I really do try to give every film I do the best I've got. Each project is an opportunity to push myself and improve and if someone notices what I've done then that's just icing. I take a great deal of pride in what I do and what matters to me more than anything is that I tried my hardest. If I'm able to elevate the film through my music, then I've succeeded. [Play "Isla Damas"]
How do you go about writing a score and how involved are the producers of the project with the process?
Generally the first step for me after having spotted the film is to begin pulling together sounds and to start conceptualizing. In addition to writing themes for the film early on, I try to establish a sonic palette that will connect with some of the underlying elements of the story and help define a sound that is unique to the film. I like to work chronologically through the film whenever possible, demoing the music for the director and producers periodically through the process. In the films I've worked on, the director usually is the one that works with me the closest on the music, which is usually how it works. There have been a few cases, though, where I have worked directly for the producers after they had parted ways with the director during editing.
What equipment do you use for the score?
Sampler-wise I have 2 PCs running GigaStudio and 2 E6400s. I'm also running Logic with EXS-24 on my G5 and mixing virtually.
You have worked quite often with director Jim Wynorski (aka Jay Andrews). How did this partnership come about?
Joel Goldsmith had worked with Jim on a few films and recommended me to him for a film he was working on called Militia with Dean Cain. Joel wrote the main title theme and I wrote the score which was actually my first feature.
How would you describe your collaboration with Jim Wynorski.
Jim's a great director for a composer to work with because he's a soundtrack collector so he knows the importance of music in film. He also knows exactly what he wants and how to get his ideas across. And since he's really big on melody and has a good enough ear, sometimes he'll make suggestions that actually help make the theme more memorable. How many directors do that? Having just finished my eighth score for him I feel like he really trusts me with the music and I can always count on him to play the music up in the mix.
You have written additional music for a few of Joel Goldsmith's projects (Helen of Troy). How do you find writing additional music? Do you stick to the themes and style set by the main composer?
Additional music is all about helping the composer realize their musical vision when time doesn't allow them to give the whole score the attention it deserves. Whenever possible I try to work in thematic or stylistic elements that have been established to help make a more cohesive score. Collaboration is a good thing, whether it's with a director or another composer.
You also wrote some music for the TV series "Witchblade". What is writing for television like and how does it differ from films?
An a hour-long dramatic show with 30+ minutes of music per episode can dub as often as once a week which means spotting, writing, recording and mixing in that time, week after week. There's generally more to do with less time and resources to do it in with television but it has its plusses. I've really gained a lot of experience and built up a lot of my writing chops from doing TV. Because you have to work faster, you tend to simplify things more often and in doing so manage to find a more straightforward approach. It's easier to accomplish your final result with layers and layers of orchestration than it is to find the same effect with one instrument.
A lot of your work tends to be in the thriller/horror side, but I've noticed that you bring in a lot of ethnic, action, and romantic sounds to the project, despite the genre, especially in Deadly Swarm and Curse of the Komodo. It adds depth to the picture. What about certain scenes makes you step into a different style of music like that?
I generally try to create as much musical contrast as the film will allow. [Play "Daniel's Theme"] In the cases of Deadly Swarm and Curse of the Komodo the ethnic elements represented their exotic locales and there were characters and relationships that called for lighter moments between the tension. In the horror genre it has to be scary when it has to be scary but whenever possible I'll try to bring in styles from outside the genre for contrast. In the end I think this adds depth to the story as well as heightens the tension. [Play "Black Fire"]
I got to preview your score to the upcoming movie Gargoyles. The music has a very gothic feel, with some interesting vocal and organ orchestrations; I particularly like the opening cue in Romania. The gothic genre has obviously been done before. Do you find working in certain genres limiting or pre-established? Do you go for that sound or try to make it your own?
I think a good composer is aware of the conventions that have been established but avoids the clichés. [Play "Romania, 1532"] There's only so far you can stray from what is expected in a genre film but there is always room for a little experimentation. There are those films where you can pull out a kazoo and a banjo and really break the mold, but Gargoyles wasn't one of them. I enjoy the challenge of trying to walk that line between what the audience expects to hear and what might take them somewhere new. [Play "Euro Chase"]
What are some challenges facing composers today?
I think everyone is looking for the next original approach to scoring, whatever that may be. The industry tends to follow certain trends, and music is no different. What might be fresh and new on one film will become the cliché once everyone decides to do it. One example of that would be using the duduk, (the Armenian reed instrument) with the orchestra. As far as I know, Jerry Goldsmith was the first to use it in a film score on The Russia House which was great. A few years later Elia Cmiral used it in Ronin which was very hip. It was still fresh in The Bourne Identity and even Hulk and I'm not even mentioning the films like Gladiator or The Passion of the Christ where it fit perfectly in the ancient setting. Even though I've used it many times myself because it's such an evocative instrument, I'm the first to admit that it's not a new concept. Once you start hearing the duduk in minivan commercials, then it will probably be time to retire it.
What aspirations do you have as a composer?
Despite the fact that I spend a lot of my time trying to make samples sound like an orchestra, I would love to make that transition into working with live players in the big budget film world. With technology advancing as rapidly as music budgets are shrinking, I hope that the orchestra remains as integral a part of film music as it has been in the past and I hope to be a part of keeping it alive.
What do you foresee the next step in your career to be?
Being that I just turned 30, I feel very fortunate to be making a living writing music. Maybe I'll be able to work my way up to some higher profile film and television projects in the near future. You always hope that the people you are working with will break through into the big time and take you with them which is how a lot of people break out. Until then I'm just going to keep on doing the best job I can and hope people notice.
What are some projects you are currently working on?
I've had a very busy year so far. I just finished a film called E5, directed by James Seale which was a great opportunity to work for another director who really knows what he wants from the score. I had a lot of fun experimenting with some unconventional sounds, ambient soundscapes and industrial percussion and I think the score is something new for me. [Play "Main Title"] Before that was Gargoyles for Jim Wynorski. [Play "End Credits"] I have a few things on the table for the near future but nothing official enough to mention. Right now I've got my hands full upgrading my studio! [Play Bonus Track"Forbidden Love"]
I would like to thank Neal for his time and patience as well as providing samples of his music to help me formulate my questions. For more on Neal Acree's music, including sound clips and descriptions of his scores, please visit his website at www.nealacree.com