[Interview - Alex Wurman]

Composer Alex Wurman recently made a splash with his romantic score to the hot new documentary, March of the Penguins.  Before that, he put his musical touch on such films as Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.  SoundtrackNet had a chance to talk with Alex at his studio in Los Angeles, about his projects.

You just finished March of the Penguins, which is quickly becoming a success.  Did you expect that the film would be as popular as it is?

Well, you can never expect something to take off - because if you do, it taints the reason you're doing it enough to take the focus off the fibrous - the real motivation for doing something. Ideally, that’s what people identify with. 

What is it about the film that makes it worthy of a nationwide push, as opposed to limited run?

I think it's a few things - one of which is that many people love penguins.  And there's actually a story - what happens each year when these penguins mate.  It's a story of love, if you want to think about it that way. The word of mouth is great! Luc Jacquet and his partners were in Antartica shooting this film for over a year with an extreme amount of skill, and they came back with phenomenal visuals.  You can't help but be shocked by those visuals when you're watching the film. Also, I wrote a score that takes the viewer in a more emotional direction than your typical nature doc. [Play "Found Love" MP3]

Is this your first major documentary?

Well, sort of.  I worked with Percy Adlon on a wonderful documentary he made in 1996 called The Hotel Adlon, which documented the story of the Hotel Adlon in Berlin.  When the wall went up, it was just on the East side, near the Brandenburg Gate.  But before it went up, Hitler and Mussolini and all those bad cats were over there, conspiring in the lobby and rooms of this modern and lavish hotel.  It has a fantastic story. So that was a feature-length documentary, but it didn't get a theatrical release here.

But what influenced me to add more of a "romantic" perspective to March of the Penguins was Luc Jacquet's original conception of his movie and the story, which had three voices - a mother, a father, and a child penguin voice - as well as love songs by Emilie Simon.  I watched it once, and I got the sense of what it could be for the U.S. release- so I didn't hold back.

Is the American release much different than the overseas release?

When I first saw it, it was subtitled with a different English translation.  The songs in the film had a different sense than what Warner Independent and National Geographic felt would work for a U.S. audience, but the idea behind it was wonderful.  So apart from the fact that it wouldn't translate, I commend them for what they did! I didn't want to change all of that - and there was a lot of discussion about how far to go in that direction.  In fact, a lot of the criticism we've received is about anthropomorphizing.  That was a touchy thing, so we get some criticism for that, but on the other hand, I think that's what differentiates this movie from others - and what is getting it a big release is that people come away feeling like they've experienced something emotional that they didn't expect.

Is that also because of the music?

Maybe- I'm very proud of what I did.  I think it makes sense, I think it was well executed in the circumstances - short amount of time, short budget.  I think it worked. I’d be the first to admit otherwise. After doing this for a while, I am able to maximize things. That’s a relief.

When did you come into the process - and how did you get involved on the film?

I just had a chance meeting with Mark Gill, the head of Warner Brothers Independent Pictures.  They needed to hire somebody. He knew of my work on a few interesting projects and offered this one to me on a hunch. I watched it and loved it. I came into the process about 2-3 weeks before they finalized the deal with the French - so it wasn't certain that it was going to work out.  But if it was going to work out, the clock was already ticking.  Even before they’re deal was finalized, I started working on it, and in total spent about six weeks writing, recording and mixing the music. 

Did you meet with the French team?

No.  I worked directly with Warner Independent and National Geographic who bought the French version at Sundance but they wanted to redo the elements.  Collaborating with Jordan Roberts (who wrote the script), Mark Gill, Tracy Bing (WIP), and Adam Leipzig (NG) was a pleasure. In fact, there was something cool about being in contact with the studio heads directly throughout the project.

So if someone were to watch the French version, then the U.S. version, they would walk away with two different feelings?

Oh definitely.  Musically speaking, my ensemble was very different.  My harmonies were very different.  I had no vocals.  The narration was no longer three voices and poetic and symbolic in nature. It was a very different thing.  Luc's was more of an art piece.  But I still consider it an art piece, just in stealth form.  It's very well shot - and is very emotional - but I'm not trying to lead people down some path or preach anything in particular. [Play "Reunited" MP3]

But aren't you?

I don't know if I am!  There's a very fine line between preaching and doing something meaningful.  Because if you do something you love, you want to be understood or felt. What I'm doing is being seen by people - but it doesn't mean that I'm preaching to them.  When I was watching the film, I was really feeling something - and that's what I was doing - I was feeling!  It's hard to call that preaching, but some people call it just that.  It's like, I'm taking the bull by the horns and saying, "This is what I want to feel, so check it out".  That takes an ego!  My father had a complex about it.  He was a composer/arranger, who grew up in Vienna, Austria, and went to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London, as he was running from Hitler.  He basically had a love-affair with among others, Mozart's music, and he spent his whole adult life clarifying that he was not a composer - because a composer is as great a Mozart!  I feel the same way!  The only reason I'm doing it now is because I know I'm better than some cats, and I might as well be doing it!  <laughs>  If I can watch some of these guys - who I won't name - get up there and do their thing, and I know I can do a better job than they can, then I might as well go for it.  Jerry Goldsmith was a composer.

What is your background?

I grew up in a musical family, in Chicago.  I played piano very early.  My father had a recording studio and a relationship with Robert Moog - he had the Modular System, serial number 2.  Walter Carlos had serial number 1.  They were getting parts as they were being built!  With my father's classical training, he did amazing recordings - he had a record deal with RCA. He was reading scores like Nutcracker and Chopin’s works, and executing them perfectly on this Moog - reading all the dynamics and tempos.  He was very conscious of creating music that had the same depth as orchestral music, but using a synthesizer- the first synthesizer - to do it.  He was an accomplished pianist and accompanist, and my brother (a very good cellist who studied with Jacqueline duPre) and he were playing wonderful music in the house- everything from the Shostakovich cello sonata, to the Cesar Franck violin sonata. I studied French horn for eight years, but I headed off into the world of contemporary jazz music, as a pianist.  I played a lot of funk and blues in the ghettos of Chicago, during High School.  In my later 20s and 30s, I've headed back to my classical influences.  I'm still going in that direction.

I studied at the University of Miami for six months before they kicked me out.  They kicked me out because I wasn't studying my jazz piano, I was actually writing horn band charts, and things like that.  They should have said, "Hey you're not a jazz pianist, maybe you should think about composing!"  But they didn't do that.  I think educators need to be a little more conscious of what their students are doing even if the students don't know what they're doing.  So I left Miami, and went back to the Conservatory of America in Chicago for six-seven months. I’ve had odd, short bouts with education. Shortly after I got back to Chicago, I started playing some gigs with Booby Broom and Stanley Turrantine… go figure.


So what brought you to LA?

Well, after I studied a bit in Chicago, I was making a career in advertising.  I did some spots, and was really into syncing up and working to picture. I knew that was in my future because my father had done a bit of that as well - he had done small industrial-type things.  Back then, industrials were cool!  Motorola made some great industrials...  I saw Star Wars 100 times when I was a kid and I didn't realize it, but inevitably I would see that film scoring is what I really wanted to do, for a whole host of reasons.  For instance, I'm much better when there's a deadline, and if I were in the record world, I don't know if I'd ever finish anything! 

I had a friend from Miami, who came out here to go to USC, and he met Kyle Eastwood, and they wanted to do some recordings.  He called me up, and asked me to come out to make a record with them.  So I did that a few times, and at the end of one of the projects that we did, my ad stuff had fallen off because I had been out here so long.  I was 22 years old and just decided to move out here.  I was very ignorant - I had no idea about the difference between the two mediums - film and television - and it's taken me a long time to figure it out.  I guess I'm one of those guys who had his head sunken deep into what he was doing and didn't see the world around him.  Now, I'm not spending as much time studying music, as much as I am studying everything else!  And it's going well - I'm enjoying it! But I'm going to get back into music again, and try to get in really deep.  I've always studied older scores though - I studied very hard for Anchorman.  There's a five-minute sequence where it goes from Planet of the Apes, to Spartacus, West Side Story, The Mission - just doing send ups of all these guys- I had to study to get that one done.

You worked a little with Hans Zimmer early in your career...

Yeah - my friend who had this connection with Kyle Eastwood ended up working with Hans Zimmer.   And he would play the recordings we'd done on the big speakers in an effort to get Hans to hear them.  One day he was playing a tune that had a soli in it and Hans heard it - I guess he liked the fact that there was a compositional aspect to it, and his ears turned just enough so that when I met him, he and I sort of hit it off a bit.  It was a great way for me to begin to realize all that went into moviemaking.  It just took me a long time to figure out that my style is different. So there was quite a rub there for me - I couldn't figure it out for a long time, because you can idolize someone like Hans so much that you feel you have to write and work that way.  At that stage, I didn't have any concept of myself as an artist.  So I've been establishing that over time.

You also got more films from there - did you discover your style?

I've got a pretty good idea of what I want to do now, but it's hard to characterize that because I love doing different types of things.  I don't want to get pigeonholed - I'm not worried about that at the moment!  If you look at my credits, it goes to every end of the spectrum.

How did you get involved with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind?

I have a friend named Stephen Mirrione, who cut Doug Liman's first movie, which I scored. He went on to cut Doug's next movie, Swingers, and they didn't offer it to me because they didn't have enough money and thought I wouldn't want to do it!  I was kicking myself for a long time because when I saw the screening, before Miramax bought it, I thought it was a very cool movie - I would have loved to do it!  Stephen is a fantastic editor.  Steven Soderbergh saw Swingers, hired Stephen to cut Traffic, and he got the Academy Award - but he's still a friend! <laughs>

So Stephen then cut Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, which thanks to him, I scored.  It was such a joy - Jill and Karen Sprecher are going to make another movie soon, and I can't wait! Then Stephen was cutting Confessions and director/actor George Clooney was working with a different composer and he wanted to go in a different musical direction. Stephen suggested bringing me in to write some cues and I was hired to score the film. [Play "Cautionary Tale" MP3]

So you replaced Clooney's original pick - was there any animosity there?

No, none at all.  Clooney was very pleased because he had struggled to get something that he thought was working, and then they gave me one shot at it, and I got it right the first time.  So it was smooth sailing for both if us! He is a great guy too.

You also did Hollywood Homicide - a big action score.

Yeah, I don't particularly like action music, and was gritting my teeth at the beginning.  But as I got 75-bars into the last few cues, I started really enjoying it – I was drawing on some of that Stravinsky I heard growing up.  It was my first time with such a large orchestra, and I'd like to do more of that - it was pretty cool!  Ron Shelton, the director, is my champion.  Ron is a friend of Percy Adlon, and that's how I met him.  I was pretty young, and didn't get a chance to work with him - I wanted to do Cobb, but I had no clue about what I would have done.  I was too young.  But Ron is a wonderful person who gives people chances, and when he gave a young director a chance, and produced a small film called No Vacancy, he needed a young composer that could do the job, so I did that with him. The director wasn't as music savvy as Ron, so Ron and I ended up working together more.  There were a few problems with the movie, so I had to pick a side - that's a bad situation to be in, but it was one I had to navigate as well as I could. It worked out well because we did what the movie needed, and Ron and I made a relationship. [Play "7m4" MP3]

He later made a movie called Play it to the Bone, with Antonio Banderas and Woody Harrelson. It was mostly an electronic score, since there was not much money, but it went well. Then when Hollywood Homicide came along, it was a big budget film. He wanted to have a composer that would stick around a while and not just get in and get out really fast- someone to collaborate with. So for that, and because of our previous successes, he called me again.  I'm always like that, though - I like to get in early and stay late on projects.  I like to be around and make movies - not just make movie music as quickly as I can.  But the studio was nervous about me, because I had never done such a big thing before.  Ron has a bit of clout around town, and he had to basically shelter me from the studio. I will never stop being grateful to that man, because he made my career and gave me a chance to do something bigSo between that and Confessions, and my two champions (Stephen Mirrione and Ron Shelton) - if it weren't for them, I might still be floundering about. Not only did they both help me, but they're both on opposite sides of the spectrum - very different. And I just feel like the luckiest guy in the world.

So that all led to Anchorman?

Yeah - Confessions opened that door. Hal Willner is a producer and music supervisor eclectic cat.  He's very cool.  He saw Confessions, and suggested me to director Adam McKay. I had a meeting with him, and we jived right away - and I've never had so much fun in my life.

You mentioned you did research for the battle scene?

Well, there were certain visual things they did that were send-ups to other films. The first thing I saw was one of two things, when the news teams start to collect up around each other, it was either Warriors or West Side Story, and I chose West Side Story.  It's a situation where if it's a parody, you want to play what's on screen.  But obviously news teams - that's a good rub right there!  West Side Story is literally my favorite piece of musical art.  It's definitely the most satisfying to me.  You get this great action music, dance music; great choreography in the music, a really wonderful capsulated part of musical history is in that music, and then these melodies that just kill you.  So Leonard Bernstein, and Elmer Bernstein are huge on my list.  So, I wanted to do West Side Story right away, but only in a rhythmic sense - an ambiguous way.  There's a bit of whistling in there, if you listen.  It was just me paying homage, trying to do this thing.  There was a bit of a The Good, The Bad and The Ugly feeling when they started to get some close ups.  Then they started pulling out weapons that had a medieval look to them, so I went straight to Spartacus.  Which isn't medieval, but it had this scene where they had a huge battle out on the field, and for a minute and a half or so, they're revealing everyone, and the whole time Alex North is doing these big percussive slams right on the cuts.  It's minimalist- the slam dies away - and then there's extreme stark slamming on the next shot.  And it goes on for a long time!  So I did that.   While I was working on the cue, I was making some changes to my room so I was behind my rack and I had Planet of the Apes playing for probably two days straight. Jerry Goldsmith is an absolute master at creating a world in an orchestral sound - and he did that so well for Planet of the Apes.  So there was that part of the battle in Anchorman where they pull out the net, so I had to use Planet of the Apes there. Too fun… [Play "Battle Scene" MP3]

Who are your musical influences?

Ennio Morricone is very high on my list because at an influential time when I was studying film music, in my early 20s, I saw Bugsy, and bought the score. Those melodies are gorgeous.  Shortly after that I got The Mission, and it blew my mind.  I'm still learning from that one.  Jerry Goldsmith is another one.  James Newton Howard is a more contemporary guy that I thought was doing some really cool stuff.  I could identify with the music I heard in Grand Canyon, so I learned a lot from that.  Other than film composers, I'm influenced by a lot of classical composers that I can't really name, but I know their music.  At this moment, Ravel and Debussy and Gabriel Faure are right up there.  I love romantic music because it's meaningful, it's heartfelt, and it's not flashy in any way.  If you don't feel the passion of what they're doing from the melody and the harmonies, then it's unsuccessful music.  There's no confusing whether or not it's working.

What is your dream project?

Gosh, I don't know, I really don't.  I don't have to have one at this point. I am going to enjoy whatever comes my way that I want to do.  As I say when anyone asks me what I want to do, the only thing I can say is what I don't want to do.  And I don't want to do anything irresponsible.  It has to have some kind of substance, and it cannot be manipulative and selling.  If it has those elements, I can't do it.  I just can't find inspiration in things I know that are made for the wrong reasons.  Gosh, I'm going to lose a lot of work for saying that! I think I’ll have something to contribute to a romance and a drama before all is said and done.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I'm actually in my spare time working on a record for my sister who is a wonderful singer who hasn't had a chance to complete a record.  She's had some tough kids to bring up, and so she's now getting her time, and that's great.  But I'm really looking forward to Adam McKay's next project with Will Ferrell, which is just around the corner - we're going to laugh really hard.

The soundtrack to March of the Penguins is available from Milan Records.  The film is still in theaters nationwide.

Special thanks to Tom Kidd and Ray Costa for their assistance with the interview.