by Dan Goldwasser
SoundtrackNet peels back the curtain and takes a look into the harsh, gritty underworld known as Sin City. Join us as we talk with director/composer Robert Rodriguez, and co-composers John Debney and Graeme Revell and see how this project came together. We also find out how on earth Robert works the way he does!
The feature film version of Frank Miller's Sin City opens this weekend, with much buzz and anticipation. Exceptionally violent, this stylized film is not without its controversy: director Robert Rodriguez left the Director's Guild so that he could give Frank Miller co-director credit. Rodriguez has been at the front lines of digital cinema, along with George Lucas, and the advances in technology allowed him to create a look for the film that honors the original harsh black and white inked look that Miller established over seven graphic novels.
Jack of All Trades
As is typical for a Robert Rodriguez film, he was personally involved in almost every aspect of the filmmaking. Of course, this included the film composing. When asked how he mentally balances all of those roles, he said, "I tend to do all those jobs organically as opposed to the traditional moviemaking schedule. I find that I write a lot of the score during the screenwriting phase, when I'm trying to figure a character out. I also write a lot on the set, since I keep a guitar handy in order to keep myself from pacing around the set. Inevitably, because the movie is so much in your head at that point, you end up writing score right then and there. People will come up and say, 'What is that you're playing, I really like that.' That's when I know I've accidentally come across a main theme or musical idea for the movie."
Keeping the music constant in his head allowed him to work on the music as he edited the film. "I just love how technically advanced music systems are," said Rodriguez. "It allows you to write at the speed of thought. I love that I can be editing a movie till about 3 am, and then turn around and in a couple of hours write an entire cue for the scene using samples and writing software. It's so fast that you can write a cue before your conscious self can even catch up, allowing you to create something very organic and from the gut."
Reaching Out for Help
When it came to Sin City, however, Robert might have been a bit over his head. The idea he had was that he would write the whole score himself, but he was running out of time, and was too busy focusing on the Bruce Willis storyline - so he turned to two composers with whom he had worked with previously: John Debney and Graeme Revell. "Since the three main characters each have their own voiceovers as well as their own storylines, I thought it'd be really interesting to let each have their own composer as well. I had written some of the main themes already, so that would help unify the score. I chose Graeme Revell to write the Mickey Rourke sequence, and John Debney to write the Clive Owen sequence. They used my main Sin City theme, as well as writing main character themes for Clive and Mickey. It really gave the stories their own identities and both composers did really terrific work and had very different approaches. I think it was a better way to go than for me to write everything. I also learned a lot from the both of them."
Before he even had the rights to film Sin City, Robert shot the opening scene with Josh Harnett to convince Frank Miller that it was going to work. For that test, he wrote opening titles music. "I had this idea for a cue called 'Descent', which would be a series of notes that would climb down, as if descending into Sin City itself. The notes would keep climbing down, getting lower than you'd think they could go. It was a concept, and I worked it up and used it as the titles theme as a temp, but after months of playing that sequence to people it really stuck. So that became the main Sin City theme for the movie."
Musically, his approach to the film was that of a noir film (or, "neo-noir", if you will). He wanted to pay homage to the traditional film noir score, but update the sound into something new, much like the film itself. "The first piece I wrote was the opening titles, which had a saxophone and a film noir feel but with a modern twist to it. That set the stage in my mind to creating a score that was traditional, yet modern." Helping him with that approach, Debney and Revell were given Rodriguez's themes, and individual instructions. Revell was told not to use an orchestra, so he used half synth, and half live instruments - saxophone, trombone, female voice, and bass. According to Graeme, "Robert said he had enjoyed the way I worked on From Dusk 'Till Dawn, creating new sound and destroying old ones". Debney, on the other hand, had a goal of creating homage to many of the great noir scores of the past. His primary influence: Bernard Herrmann. "I wanted the 'classic' feel to be complemented by contemporary production," Debney tells us.
The signature sound of the score is a gritty, heavy sounding saxophone. Rodriguez had his friend, saxophonist Johnny Reno, play the gravely sound, but modulated and distorted it afterwards on the computer. "I wanted the score to have traditional noir elements, like the sax, but to manipulate them so that they became very dark and twisted (like Sin City itself). So I kept a lot of those tonal sax lines that drop to low foghorn levels and then run up to a screech in order to keep it organic but weird. I'd play my highest and lowest notes on my tenor sax, and then pitch them even lower and higher." In Los Angeles, Debney added to the saxophone sound with player Dan Higgins, and engineer Alan Meyerson and electronic engineer Wolfgang Amadeus adding their own touches. "The result is this really cool and messed up sax vibe that really enhances the aural fabric of the film", said Debney.
Three Storylines, Three Composers
Robert was busy finishing up the film in Austin, Texas, and so the internet became a useful tool. Beyond the occasional meeting when he flew out to Los Angeles, he would work with Debney and Revell remotely, with file sharing online. Revell felt that it was extremely easy, "partly because Robert is a very good communicator about music, being a composer himself - and also because we think in the same way about music and sound in general."
Both composers were given the main themes that Rodriguez composed, and then were allowed to go off on their own to write their own themes for their individual storylines. Debney felt that Clive Owen's character (Dwight) needed "a classically elegant theme expressing his smoldering sexuality, as well as his heroism". Helping him present this angle were trumpet player Dan Savant, as well as Higgins mentioned above. "I strived to create a classic noir-ish score, while painting with other more contemporary colors."
Given the episodic nature of the film, with three unique storylines, Revell and Debney never communicated with each other. Revell felt that this approach was "a really cool way to approach this material. There are some connective elements (Robert's themes), but essentially it creates more unexpected and satisfying colors which are all part of the unique feel of the film." In the end, Debney was on the scoring stage recording his score, as well as Robert's score.
Asked about his musical background, Rodriguez recalled, "I started with music around the time I started making movies, age 11 or 12. I took piano, guitar and saxophone. My dad was a jazz drummer, and my mom played Spanish guitar and had all ten children in our family sing with her in shows. I ended up leaning towards making movies because it was a way to do projects that encompassed all my favorite hobbies: music, photography, drawing and writing."
When it came to a film like Spy Kids, things got a bit crazy. Originally Rodriguez approached Danny Elfman during the filming, and had him write the "Floop Song" for Alan Cummings to sing on the set - hoping that down the road, Elfman would be available to score the film. However, he was unavailable, creating a new challenge for Robert: "How was I going to find a single composer to be able to write great music in 5 weeks that I would completely love for a project that I've been working on for over 5 years?" The answer came from Elfman himself, who said "Why don't you write the score?" After a bit of instruction with Digital Performer, Rodriguez found himself writing "Spy Wedding" much to his delight. Still, he knew his limitations, and at the suggestion of Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams was brought on board. However, due to an illness, Harry had to leave the project, which brought on Gavin Greenaway and Heitor Pereira. John Debney had worked with Danny Elfman before, on such films as My Favorite Martian and Heartbreakers, and was recommended to Robert to help flesh out the material based on Elfman's theme.
All of these composers being involved on one project served as a great learning experience - he matured as a composer, and also learned a bit about time management: " had dodged a bullet and never wanted to be in that rushed situation again, so I decided that for all future movies I would write the scores by starting early, in the script stage even, so that I would never be behind and could be building the sound and musical character of the movie more organically throughout the movie process instead of saving it for the very end, which is the norm. That way if I do run out of time I can bring have the option to bring in a composer at the last minute and he'll only have a small amount of music to do and already have my themes to work from. By making myself do the score, I would also be forced into learning how to write score (I often put the cart before the horse) and would enjoy that part of learning something creative and new."
This new approach would be tested on Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams. In that instance, Rodriguez enlisted the help of local orchestrator and composer George Oldziey. Oldziey would add color to Robert's cues, occasionally writing his own music based on Robert's themes. "It's always fun hearing someone else play your theme and seeing how it can be stretched and pulled," explained Rodriguez. "I know [George] could do his own score, but I feel it's important to the feel of the movie that the music come from the same place the script and characters came from. I wasn't trained in screenwriting either, but somehow have been creating original characters and stories, so I felt the music should be the same. I could hire someone a hundred times better than me, but that goes for the screenplay as well. By making myself do it, I think it makes it more personal and original and odd. George has heard me improve over the course of the scores and get more daring in the arrangements." In the end, Debney came back to help Robert finish up the film, and the score was recorded in Austin - proving Robert's point that you don't need Hollywood to make a film. Afterwards, Robert came out with Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, and the third film in his Mariachi trilogy, Once Upon a Time in Mexico. He wrote the score to both of those films, and even ended up writing score for Kill Bill 2.
On top of all of this, he has a band, Chingon. While Chingon isn't featured in Sin City, Robert told SoundtrackNet that there will be an iTunes exclusive version of the "End Credits", played in the Chingon style. Additionally, there's a new CD, "Mexican Spaghetti Western", available at their website. "It's been great having a band and making music outside of the movies for charity, cause I do a lot of charity events, like one we did for the Austin Childrens' Museum with Bruce Willis's band and Chingon while we were shooting Sin City. The CD is also a charity project. So many people had asked to hear more of that style of music that I made a CD with the songs from Kill Bill 2 and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and wrote 5 new songs. The CD has done amazing just on our website, so we're now going to put in stores this month as well as on iTunes."
A Family Affair
With so many responsibilities, one has to wonder how Robert balances his professional life with his personal life. The solution: work at night. "That's the best if you have children, because I'm like an elf. They never see me working because I work while they're asleep. The phone never rings and you get so much done at night with no distractions at all. I get at least ten times the amount of work done at night then I do when I have to switch to a day schedule. It's really staggering the difference a schedule change will do for your creative output and your quality of living. I then have breakfast with the family then sleep when they are at school. Pick the kids up from school, and play or swim then make dinner with them (very creative, like art you can eat) and then hang out with them till they go to bed. Then I go to work. Since I work at home I spend no time traveling from here to there. I put the family first, because that's really all that matters to me, and when that is working right, then you're inspired to go into the garage and create. And now it's all spilling over itself since my kids are involved in creating the movies, so we're dreaming up ideas as part of our play time.
Currently, Robert is finishing up work on the animated film, The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D. Co-written by Robert's seven-year-old son, Robert plans on having his nine-year-old write some music for it. "He's been playing piano and written a few pieces on his own, so I'd like to give him an opportunity. When you make a family movie you're trying to tap into that mind of yours that is still 8 years old, and my kids are there already, so might as well use their ideas as much as possible so that the movie is authentic to a child's dreams. I'm working on the score right now but will probably co-compose it with someone, mainly because the movie comes out June 10th and I'm running out of time!" While he hasn't been officially asked, Debney has indicated that if Robert calls, he'll be there.
Rodriguez is currently working on several special edition DVDs to come out later this year, including RoadRacers, The Faculty and Spy Kids, as well as finishing up The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D. Debney is currently working on Chicken Little, coming later this fall. Revell is working on a few films: The Darwin Awards, Goal! and Harsh Times.
The soundtrack to Sin City is available from Varese Sarabande Records.
Very special thanks to Rafael Ruiz, Adam P. Cray, Ray Costa, Melanie Mullens-Hoyson, and of course Robert Rodriguez, John Debney, and Graeme Revell.