by Dan Goldwasser
Since SoundtrackNet last spoke with composer Alan Silvestri, he's worked on plenty of films, including Lilo & Stitch, Maid in Manhattan, Stuart Little 2, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Van Helsing, and the most recent Robert Zemeckis film, The Polar Express. We had a chance to catch up with Alan after the holidays, to talk about what he's been up to.
Robert Zemeckis has been working on The Polar Express for a few years - at what point did you get involved?
One of the things about this film was that Bob - when he was exploring the story originally - had talked about the idea of also wanting to explore the possibility of having some songs built into the fabric of the film. So the whole thing really began with Bob starting an almost "stream-of-consciousness" expansion of the original Chris Van Allsburg book, and while he was in that process, in a sense, the music had an opportunity to be right there and be part of that. So when I heard that he was looking for a substantial song involvement in the movie, I immediately called my pal Glenn Ballard, who I had been looking for the right project to team up with - and this seemed like a great one.
This was two-and-a-half years ago - we sat with Bob, talking about where he was headed with the story. Talking about ideas of what might be possible song placements that would have some kind of narrative value in the film, and not just be a dropped in song. We went through that process through the whole making for the film. Like any kind of musical situation, at some point the material has to be ready before shooting - or in this case, motion capturing. Unlike the normal scoring curve, where basically the film is made and then you get to look at it and react to if after the fact, for this we had to have songs that were written, approved, and rendered in some form, so they could make the movie to them. So it was a long curve for music, in this particular case.
How did you get Josh Groban for the big song, "Believe"?
Well, all of the songs organically appeared over time, and as we got further on into the filmmaking process, "Believe" was one of the last things that came about. We all started to have more of a sense of the film. Bob, from day one, had always talked about how his great dream for the music in this film would include what he was calling a "new Christmas standard". He wasn't very specific about what it might be, because if you look at Christmas standards, they include everything from Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas", to Alvin and the Chipmunks! So what we started to see was that we wanted to have some kind of big theme that encompassed the essence of the film, and then we really wanted to find a way to expand that and have something that would be this big kind of overview in song of the heart of the movie. And as we started to work with that, Glen and I kind of just knew that Josh would be a perfect voice for that - it was really in a sense written for him. We were talking about Josh before we even started working on that song - that was somehow just the perfect placement for the film. Then we presented the movie to Josh, which was a lot of fun, because it was so innovative - I think this is number eleven for Bob and myself - it spans 20 years now! I know nothing that is so great for a film composer as working with Bob Zemeckis. It's the most creative, protected, energizing experience somebody who writes music could have. So I think when we presented the movie to Josh and Bob talked to him about his hopes and dreams, it got to show him how the film was being made and all, Josh immediately got it and was just fantastic about wanting to be a part of it - so there you go!
For the underscore, what was your process? You didn't have final rendering to work from...
Exactly - a lot of the stuff wasn't even finished when we were recording the score! Even though this is not a standard animation process - it's something very different with motion capture, instead of animation - it still has that constructive building curve like animation, where it begins with a very low-res, lightly rendered presentation, through generations of refinement. And because of that, like animation, the dialogue aspects of the film are constructed very early on. So you can hear the movie a year in advance - but there are all different types of stages of rendering - one we called the "Michelin Man" - you would see a grayish character moving - and it would give you a lot of information about the action and the movement of the characters. The other thing they did, which was fascinating, was because it was motion capture, you had real actors performing all this stuff. So what they would do, on tapes I worked on, is they would split the screen. On the top of the screen, you would have two shots of Tom Hanks, in sync with the "Michelin Man". One shot is Tom, in full view, doing the physical acting, and the other shot on top was Tom in close-up, for all of the facial stuff. So you had this three part screen - the "Michelin Man", with the "Michelin Sets", then the actor in full view, and in close-up. He's wearing the black suit with the tracking markers, but you're still really getting all of his acting. So it was an interesting way to present the material, but on the other hand it was very inclusive - just not conventional!
The box office results for the film have been interesting - it was a slow buildup into the holidays!
Yeah, this is one of the most unique growth curves that box office has ever seen. It has a lot to do with it being a Christmas movie coming out in November, and I think it's up to about $160 million now, and it's done very well overseas. I think it's the kind of movie that could be a perennial on many numbers of levels - definitely see it on the 3D IMAX. The film has had a modest recognition from the film community, but I think it represents some truly groundbreaking, innovative thought done with love and passion, and I think that as years go by, that film will be seen for the tremendous effort and accomplishment it was, from Bob and all of the folks who created it. And I think unfortunately that recognition will come to Bob in years to come - people will see what really happened here, and it's truly amazing.
This year you also worked on Van Helsing for Stephen Sommers, as well as the Universal Studios ride, Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride. What was your involvement on that one?
That was more of a consultation type of project. But certainly, Van Helsing was the big one. It was a huge score, and you could see from watching Van Helsing that the scope was tremendous, and he wanted the scope of the score to be in lock-step with the imagery he created. So that translated to a lot of big stuff!
It seemed that the soundtrack album was a bit unbalanced - with a lot of the big bombastic cues, but missing much of the smaller emotional material. Why is that?
Well, one of the problems that seems to happen very often is that you go in on your third day of scoring of seven days, and you have to deliver the album that afternoon! You just don't get a chance anymore to record the score, then take all the material somewhere, sit, and start to think about it. Sure in some cases you get to do all that, but Van Helsing was not that situation. The schedules are so compressed, and you're scoring so late in the game - I would say that it happens to me more often than not, that I have to deliver a soundtrack album well before I had a chance to finish recording the score - and in many cases, writing the score! So we do the best we can, because it's either that or the album company says that they don't want to put the album out because if they can't get it in their hands now, they don't have time to do what they need to do to bring it to the marketplace. So that really speaks in large part to what you're talking about. The idea of a balanced soundtrack album would really have to include having that time to digest the material and work with it - and it's very rare to have that opportunity.
Hopefully you can go back to your earlier films and do that! It would be great to have a 20th Anniversary release of Back to the Future!
Oh, that's certainly out there, and that film has been a real wonderful event in all our lives. It's part of our cinematic culture now!
Will there be a more substantial score release for The Polar Express?
We're talking about it - I'm not sure, I have no real information about it at this time, but I can certainly say that we all have talked about it, and it's in the air as we speak - it just hasn't gotten any further along at this point.
Lilo and Stitch was your first "fully" animated feature film. How was that experience?
It was a fun movie. Once again, I was working with spectacular people. Executive music producer Chris Montan is amazing at what he does, and how he interfaces the musical side of the filmmaking process with the filmmakers. Director Chris Sanders - you couldn't have a nicer guy. Everybody involved were all good people, working hard, and that's just a fantastic environment to try to do something creative in. On top of it, the way Disney manages the making of their films is fantastic - there's nothing slipshod about it. It's all very beautifully planned, and you always have the time to do your work, and you're working with reasonable people - I had a great time!
Lilo & Stitch was also done by the "B" animation team - so there was less pressure...
Yeah, they were really thrilled with how it performed, so that was a great surprise.
Did you find yourself competing with the Elvis songs at all?
All of the Elvis stuff in that movie was great character stuff, so there were no heads to butt with the gang!
2003 was an interesting year for you. With lots of rumors flying around, let's just set the record straight here: what happened with Pirates of the Caribbean?
I was brought into that project through Gore Verbinski, who I had worked with on The Mexican and Mousehunt. But it was a Jerry Bruckheimer film, which has a certain sound that has to be kept in the mix. Jerry is a very powerful producer - not just in terms of his success rate, but he's also a very creatively involved producer. I can only speak for the dynamic in this particular film, but Jerry is not the kind of producer that hires a director, and then sends him off to make the movie. Jerry is a very big part creatively of the making of the movie, with the director. So when you walk into that situation, in a sense you have two very strong entities that have to agree on a collective vision of the film. Jerry has people that he's worked with in the past, and a mode of working in the past, that has been very successful for him.
So really what happened was that Jerry's creative needs, and work mode, needed to be addressed as well as Gore's. In the end, I think Jerry was much more comfortable working in a way that he had worked historically, with people he had worked with historically, and it seemed the best idea for us to part our ways. But never anything acrimonious happened, and he was just fantastic. It just wasn't the right chemistry in the end, for all of the forces at work. As you know, in all of these movies there's a tremendous amount at stake and certainly it's a Jerry Bruckheimer film - it's not an Alan Silvestri film! And Jerry understandably needs to have conditions that he needs to feel that he is bringing what he is being asked to bring by the people he serves, with him in order to accomplish his task. We had a really lovely chat after all of that, and there's no harm, no foul there for us.
How far did you get with the score?
We never recorded anything, and we really didn't get that far. But we got far enough for Jerry to feel that he wanted to change horses. So like I said, he's the man ultimately responsible to the studio for bringing that product, and having it be viable - so he has to do what he has to do to accomplish that. But he couldn't have been more respectful, and sensitive to how it all ultimately happened - and that's all one can ask!
In a small bit of irony, about two weeks later you replaced a composer on Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. Did you bring anything from Pirates with you?
No! I probably said this a bunch of times, but I don't keep a file of cocktail party conversations, where the party was cancelled! *laughs*. How it works for me is, I watch a film, and I start to respond to what I'm looking at. I use the cocktail party analogy, because it's exactly like that. I walk into a room, I introduce myself, and we start to talk. We might talk about flying airplanes, making wine, making movies, the news, whatever it is. But we're having a conversation and interacting. Neither one of us are there making a speech! So I don't really worry about carrying anything, because I don't see the work that way.
Tell me about Two Soldiers.
Two Soldiers was a fantastic short film that was made by a young film director named Aaron Schneider, who incidentally won the Academy Awards for that film, for Best Short. It's well deserved recognition for his work! It's a very interesting thing, because I was sent the film by Bob Ducsay, who is Stephen Sommers' partner, an executive producer of the film. He sent it to me, just to get a sense of my musical take on it. It's one of those films that the filmmaker made with his own money, very limited means, did every job himself - so there wasn't going to be much in the way of resources to score it. So Bob sent it to me just to get my take on whether they were headed musically in the right direction. I was sitting with my wife one night, we popped this thing in, and watched it. Within 15 minutes, we're both sitting on the couch, crying, watching this movie. When it ended, my wife asked me what was going on with this - and I told her that they wanted to get my opinion on what I thought of the film, and how I felt about the music. She said, "Well, you should do this!" So I called up Bob and asked if he thought Aaron would be interested in me doing it! And he said, "I can maybe talk him into that!"
It's one of those things I did for absolutely no fee; I did it because the film was beautiful and had so much love and care into it. I had still not met Aaron when I said I was going to do it. I subsequently met Aaron, who is an amazing ball of fire, and I'm sure we'll hear a lot about him in the coming years! We spotted the movie, and I came home and I did it all on synthesizers, as it were, for the most part - I think we hired guitarist George Doering to do some guitar work for us, but we did it all in my room. Dennis Sands was gracious enough to help me mix the score, and we handed it to Aaron. Then he went out, and won the Academy Awards! I think that was the most fun I think I can remember - seeing him up there, winning the Academy Award for this film that he worked so hard on, and spent all his own money on. It was a great fun thing - so we all congratulate him, and we'll be hearing more from Aaron!
What are you working on now?
Well, the next thing I have coming up, sitting out there, is a film for Disney called The Wild. The schedule has been delayed somewhat here now, so for the moment, that's the only thing hard and fast that's out there. We're always looking, but that's really it for now.
I've been relaxing - I had a great holiday with Sandra and the kids, and it's a good time to do some studying. We also just bottled our first vintage! We started a vineyard eight years ago, and now we have our first pinot noir, our first chardonnay, and were bottling our first syrah this week, and the first two will be released this spring, and the syrah will be by Christmas. Wine and music have a lot in common - they're both a tremendous blend of art and science. I think you'll have a lot of fun checking it out. So I wouldn't' say I'm completely relaxing! We're going to be distributing the wine, and our capacity is about 2300 cases - so it's a fair amount! We have the vineyard out in Carmel Valley, but only 20 minutes from the house here. We've been working on it a long time, and it's fantastic to finally see it come to fruition! Definitely not an endeavor for the impatient!
Music from Silvestri's score to The Polar Express can be heard on the song album, available in stores. We at SoundtrackNet strongly urge everyone to check out the film at the nearest 3D IMAX, if you can. Van Helsing is available on CD and DVD, and you can check out the official Silvestri Vineyards website, and place your advance order today!
Special thanks to Dave Bifano and Emile Brinkman for their help with this interview.