[Interview - Mark Isham]

Composer Mark Isham has been composing film scores for over 20 years. In that time, he's tackled nearly every genre imaginable.  From the tense horror of The Hitcher to the dramatic emotion in The Majestic; from the lush orchestra in A River Runs Through It to the seedy jazz of The Cooler.  Most recently, Isham scored the comedy Kicking and Screaming, but it's his work on Crash that has people talking.  SoundtrackNet talked with Isham at his studio in Los Angeles.

How did you get involved with Crash?

I've been friends with writer-director Paul Haggis for a long time.  We met years ago, he was a friend of my wife's, and Paul always said that once he got something that was "worthy" of me, he wanted me to score it.  So the first thing that came along was a television show called "EZ Streets".  It was an amazing show - it was one of those shows that got the cover of TIME, and unbelievably glowing reviews from everybody, and then got cancelled after eight episodes.  I don't know what to say about that, but that's the truth of the matter!  But there were eight brilliant episodes, and it allowed me to work with Paul and get to know how he thinks and works, and I really enjoyed working with him. He has a great taste in music, and he lets you get on with it - he's very articulate about what he wants or doesn't want, so it's very easy to find the path together as to where you both want to end up.  I also did two more television shows with him: "Family Law" and "Michael Hayes", and then he left, and I left, I think we were both getting a little burned out on television.  Paul said he wanted to write and direct films, and so a few years later, he did exactly what he set out to do - and took me along with him!

We have a great working relationship - there was no reason not to keep working together.  So he told me the minute he got the film green lighted and got the money,  and said I should expect him to call as soon as he had something to show me - which he did, and then we got started!

What was your approach to writing the score?

Music should only stand out when it is truly another character in the movie, and that character has its moments when it is speaking directly to you.  If it sticks out, and pulls you out of the actual storytelling, then it's not doing its job.  Paul wanted there to be two moments where the score was prominent: the fire at the car wreck, and then the locksmith's daughter, with the gun. Those are brave moves - the director has to believe in the music.

I think it's a fair observation to make that, out of a lot of composers in the business, I perhaps am one of the more eclectic ones.   While I think - and people tell me this is true - that I still have a very personal sound.  So I'm not a composer that just flips from one impersonal style to another impersonal style.  I have a personal style, and yet I do cover a lot of ground.  And I do that because, quite frankly, one of the  reasons that I really love film music, and writing it, is because it offers me an opportunity to explore and create a new sound, even if it's subtly new, or a slight variation, or really if the film warrants, a completely fresh approach.

In independent filmmaking, often what is the more successful thing to do is to really find that fresh approach.  First of all, you're not going to have the pressure to be more "ordinary" or "predictable", which many of the large-budget films will have.  But because you won't have a budget, you have to come up with a clever idea to get a certain emotional impact, without all of the access to the tried-and-true.  Even if a movie is temped with a great John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith score, where they went to London and recorded the choir and the philharmonic and the whole bit - you're not going to be able to do that!  So the independent world is very challenging to me in the most exciting way, in that it really demands a conceptual creation.  For example - there's a certain style of scoring that Jerry Bruckheimer likes, and he will say, "That's it.  My company, my film, my checks - this is the way I want to do it."  And you don't go in there and try something other than that - or you don't work for Jerry Bruckheimer, which is fine.  They also cost a lot of money, those scores, because that is the way those scores are built, and there's a way of building them and you build them that way and that's how they sound.  In an independent picture, you have an opportunity to create as much of an emotional impact as any film that cost a billion times more, but you don't have access to the same tools - so you need a really clever idea.  That is what will cross you over the line - that's what’s going to give you this ability that Crash has, which is to stay in the Top 5 against Star Wars!  This is no small feat for a $7 million dollar film versus a $115 million dollar film.

The sound on this developed from discussions with Paul.  He played the movie with the temp score, and it was all over the map genre-wise, but emotionally it was consistent.  It was a decent temp score- from ambient sounds, all the way up to this marvelous piece from the Prayer Cycle by Jonathan Elias.  So I talked with Paul to see what the emotional essence was for each piece, to see how I could capture it, and one of the things he said was that he loved the female voice.  We didn't talk about the fact that the female voice, in the past ten years, has become this "thing" in film scoring.  When we had been working on "EZ Streets", we had a female voice in there - but Paul licensed five of Loreena McKennitt's records, and we went back and forth between her songs, and my score so that any time there was a voice, it had the completeness of being a song - I would write around her songs.  It was completely designed that way. I knew that if we stuck to that concept for the voice, then I wouldn’t, intellectually, get worried that I was stuck in a Gladiator "clone"-type request, because I knew that any approach I took with Paul would be from a "song" point of view and so I went that way in writing. 

What I had to do for this film was to write four or five pieces of music that hit the emotional tones that you needed to hit.  And I made a point of two or three of them being a “song” with voice.

You used two singers in the score - who were they, and how did you find them?

Carol Ensley is a Welsh singer, and Catherine Grant did the Latin and Farsi.  Catherine’s a professional singer in the Seattle area, and does a lot of ethno-musicological performing, and is a big star in the ethno world.  That's why she can sing a song in Farsi, then turn around and sing a song in Latin and make it sound like two different people.  The Farsi is a traditional lyric from the Persian culture, while the Latin song is from Hildegaard Von Bingen, who was an Abbess in the 11th Century who wrote a lot of Gregorian Chants.  The Welsh woman, at the time of the recording, lived in Wales, and was like the grandmother of the town, who knew all of the local songs.  She was not a professional at all, and just used to sing these songs to grandchildren.  I found both of these women through Eric Persing, who has a very large library of ethnic material - I just went through his library, and found these things and started there!

It works really well because you have a strong emotional element in the music that is subdued and laid back during some rather intense moments on screen...

It's funny you said that. I have a friend that writes for NPR, who described the score in the same way you just did.  She said, it was like a guardian angel, who sits on your shoulder and helps shepherd you through the film, and makes it safer - it reminds you that the theme of the film is redemption.  The behavior of some of these people is just awful, and whether you see it coming or not, you're holding on for dear life, and the score is there, almost in a sense, to remind you that they may redeem themselves. The message of the film is that they can, and given the opportunity, they will redeem themselves.

You started out professionally as a Windham Hill artist.  How did you make the leap from musician to film composer?

I was there in the early days, so I was never signed to a long-term contract with them, but I did make at least three albums for them.  Throughout the 70s, I was a jazz trumpet player.  I played in modern jazz groups, and was recording for ECM, the German Jazz label.  A friend of mine, who was a record producer, called me up and told me that there was this new label called Windham Hill, and they are doing something different - it's not jazz - but there might have been something there for me, because he knew I also did some electronic music, which wasn't jazz.  I had a band in the 70s, called Group 87, which was a fusion band.  He said, "I don't know if you can be fusion, but if you want to take some of that electronic stuff and come up with an easier, cooler style, they might give you a record deal!"  So I took a look at it, and said “sure - I'll give it a try”.  That's how it started - it was a conscious decision to do something that wasn't jazz, and wasn't fusion.  They were an instrumental music label, and that was hard to find!

That was before it was really known as anything - it was just a label.  But within 18 months or so, just as my album was being finished, it took off.  And the whole New Age thing started to be labeled and marketed as such. That was always bothersome to me because I never thought of myself as part of that group. But I was very glad to have a label that was being successful, that was actually successfully selling instrumental music records - which has always been a difficult sell. 

Before Windham Hill, I had written a piece that was in the instrumental style, and not jazz, which had been sent by a friend to a film director. That director was Carol Ballard, who then contacted me, and I did some demos for Never Cry Wolf - and that's how I got into film. Literally six months later, I got the Windham Hill thing - it was a very good year!  Because the styles were similar, and there was interest in the market for this "new" instrumental music, one became New Age, and the other became an influence in film music.

What is your schooling background?

Basically, I wanted to learn - I just went and figured it out.  I knew in the 5th grade that I wanted to be a musician.  My mother is a violinist, and she put a violin in my hand at an early age, and I practiced dutifully.  When I was 12, I said, "let me play the trumpet also". She said, "ok, you can play trumpet". By the end of that year in school, I was the 1st Trumpet in the band. So that was it!  Then I discovered jazz when I was in high school, and started listening to jazz records.  My parents were great - they're both from the university world, and they saw a hungry mind. I studied with some great private teachers, to the degree that by the time I got to college, I was bored.  I really just wanted to get out and start being a musician, instead of sitting in a room just talking and thinking about it.


How did you jump from playing music to writing music?

I always had that bent - I would always sit at the piano and make stuff up.  Thank god my parents were musicians. We had a piano in the house since the day I was born. My mother would practice and record herself and listen back, and by the time I was eight, I knew how to record the piano, and would make little tapes of my stuff.  I don't ever remember being aware of making a conscious decision - it was just what I did.  There have been times where I have studied - but I am pretty much self-taught.  I took music-theory in high school, but basically I took myself through the class in the first quarter, and then hung out and asked the teacher more and more.  I really did want to know about a German sixth!  Because my parents were in academia, they had heard of this guy who was "the guy" for composition, so once a week, during my last year of high school, I would go to him and would just talk about the construction of music, and how it was built.  We would talk about anything from a Bartok string quartet, to the way Herbie Hancock voiced things on the piano.  If we didn't know how something was created, we would analyze it and figure it out.  That, to me, was one of the most seminal educational experiences I’ve had.  It set the precedent for me so that whenever I heard something I didn't understand, I knew that I could figure it out - either by listening, or just going and buying the score and analyzing it.  So at various stages of my career, I've done that. 

At one point, in the early days of my scoring, I was asked to write in a way that I knew where I wanted to go, but I didn't know the vocabulary to write it.  So I bought the scores that I knew would teach me what I wanted to know, and I sat down and analyzed them.  I broke it down to the raw data - and then I could make it mine.  I didn't just want to copy Samuel Barber, obviously, but I could figure out the types of voicing and harmonies he used, and use that to create similar effects in my own way.

Looking over your filmography, you've scored films from practically every genre...

One of the reasons I love film music is because it gives me an opportunity to learn about music. When I first started scoring films, I was scared to write for an orchestra.  I studied a little bit in school, but not to the point where I had any confidence that I could do it professionally.  I had scored maybe 10-12 films, all from an electronic music or jazz point of view, before I was comfortable enough to score for an orchestra.  What happened was, I kept going for these films I wanted to go for - but they wanted orchestral scores.  After a few of those, I realized I needed to find someone who would let me do an orchestral score for them.  The first one that was low-budget enough to let me "learn" was Reversal of Fortune - it was a chamber orchestra and electronics, mixed.  The first real one that got into an orchestra was Point Break.  When Katherine Bigelow hired me, she wanted an electronic score - but about halfway through post-production, she said she needed it to be "epic".  That made it a complete reversal of the concept.  I had been working on it for 5-6 weeks, and I was able to resurrect a theme or two. A number of cues had some rhythm stuff, and orchestra on top of it, but the ending became a full orchestral ending, which was good because I hadn't figured out how I was going to handle it with just a rock/ electronic vibe anyway. So the timing was good, but for me it was a steep learning curve because all of a sudden I had to deliver in a genre that I hadn't gotten my chops up in.

You were originally set to score Waterworld - what happened on that project?

Well, Kevin Reynolds and I had done The Beast, and we got along really well, so he hired me for Waterworld.  It was all going fine, and I had even written a little music box theme as a pre-record, because the little girl needed to hum it as well on screen. I had started work on the score, and then Kevin Costner saw the film.  It's pretty well documented that he didn't like what he saw - and he was the producer and the star, so they got into it.  Ultimately, Kevin Reynolds left.  He called me up and told me, and I asked him if it were okay for me to try to stay on, and he said it was fine, but he couldn't help me.  So I had to go back into demo mode.  Costner was cool, and he said he understood what I was doing, but at the end of the day, he needed to go with someone he had worked with before.  I think the real reason, which makes a lot of sense, is that they're locked into a release date, and they're now behind - and why would Costner need to work with someone he'd have to be more attentive to, whereas he can just go to James Newton Howard, who he had a relationship with, and just say "do it like this" and go away.  With me, he'd have to come to work every day - and I understood that!  We're actually friends now! 

You were one of the many composers involved with From the Earth to the Moon - how did you get involved there?

I'm not quite sure... I pitched to Tom Hanks to do the Michael Kamen job!  I wanted to do that, and he didn't choose me - but I think whatever happened after that, I obviously made it to some list.  I was picked by three of the directors on the segments, and the timing didn't work out on one of them, but I wrote the themes for one episode, and the full score for another.

You also worked on that beautiful and underrated film, October Sky.  How did that come about?

That was a case of the temp score.   If a temp score can be constructed by the music editor from of one previously recorded score, and it works perfectly, it's hard for the filmmaker to not at least meet that person and tell them that their music is working perfectly in their film, and can they work on this movie too? That's what happened here.  A score I had done for The Education of Little Tree had been temped into that film, and worked beautifully - even to the point where, when I saw a screening with the temp, I felt intimidated.  But I remembered a trick I had used in the past to get around this.  What you do is, you get the people who are making the decisions to critique those cues - and the next thing you know, you have a list of 20 things that, if they really wanted it perfect, they would change.  That opens the door to writing a new piece of music!

You worked with William Friedkin on Rules of Engagement...

Billy was absolutely the best - I had nothing but a fantastic time on that film.   He picked me for that film because he knew a piece of mine that he wanted - it was an older piece - and he licensed it, and told me that he was going to put the piece in his movie, and he wanted me to write my score around that piece - which was on my first Windham Hill record - called "On The Threshold of Liberty".  We orchestrated it, since it had all been done with electronics, and we recorded it in London with a 105-piece orchestra.

You also wrote a jazz score for The Cooler...

I’ve spent most of my life as a jazz musician, so I'm always on the lookout for films that demand a jazz score. They're fairly rare.  We go through little phases in Hollywood when it's acceptable to have a jazz score, and then there are phases when it's the kiss-of-death to have a jazz score!  It is very unfortunate, because it's such a magnificent genre of music, and I think it's very possible to score movies with that genre - and I have proved that it can be done!  Forget the click track, forget the written notes - hire real jazz players and let them play jazz!  But also let it be an effective score - it can be done, and I've figured out how to do it a couple times.  The one I'm especially proud of, that is a true jazz score, was Afterglow - again, another independent film where you needed a bright idea!  But The Cooler was a blast to do - and now I have a 21st Century jazz score!

What are you working on now?

I'm working on the new Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) film called Running Scared, which is a dark, dark thriller!  It takes place in contemporary New Jersey, in the lower-class gang/Mafioso sub-culture.  Basically a low-level mobster has to dispose of the gun used in the killing of a cop, but his son's friend gets a hold of the gun and uses it to shoot his abusive stepfather, who is also the nephew of a Russian mob boss.  Then things get out of control!  New Line Cinema has picked it up, and I'm assuming they'll get it out this year. We are almost done with it, and I have put some orchestra on it, but it's a very small budget, so only the moments that really benefit will get the orchestra.

The soundtrack to Crash is available on Superb Records, and the film is playing in theaters nationwide. 

Special thanks to Jeff Sanderson at Chasen & Co. for his assistance with this interview.