by Dan Goldwasser
Composer Michael Suby is still a relative newcomer to the world of film and television scoring. His first project was a studio feature, The Butterfly Effect, and lately he's been working on one of the top rated reality shows, "The Simple Life", as well as the new hit smash, "Robot Chicken". SoundtrackNet recently had an opportunity to talk with Michael about his work from his studio in Los Angeles
The Butterfly Effect came out in 2004 - but when did you really start on it, and how did that come about?
I must have been hired in August of 2002. When I was out here in Los Angeles in 1992, I lived next door to J. Mackye Gruber. We had played guitar and written songs together - we had a musical connection. After I graduated from Berklee College of Music, I moved back to Los Angeles and he called me up to tell me about this film that he and his partner Eric Bress wrote and would be directing. He told me that it wasn't going to work for me because it was their first movie and they didn't want to "rock the boat". I told him to send me the script anyways, and it was brilliant - like, 1,000 times the movie. I was just so inspired that I immediately wrote the main title, and some themes.
J. and Eric had gone up to shoot it, so I didn't know what else to do, except that I really wanted to do this movie and it was all I had. I hadn't done anything yet, and had no real connections. So they were up in Vancouver prepping and all that stuff, and I rented a full orchestra, recorded the main title, and created a DVD with all the main titles, with all the characters, producers, etc., and hit them just right. I had a friend who knew a very prominent music editor, and knew my agent, and they contacted Erin Scully, got her the DVD, and she watched it and called me the next day. She loved it, everyone loved it, and then they called my friends up there, and told them, "We know you've been listening to CDs and trying to find a composer, but we've got this guy who wrote this theme, we think it's great, he's up and coming." They asked, "What's his name?" She said "Mike Suby", and of course they just started laughing hysterically because J.'s my best friend! So they called me immediately, and that's how it all started. [Play "The Butterfly Effect Main Theme" MP3]
So you came on board while they were still in production.
Yeah, I was in Vancouver while they were shooting. It's very rare, but the whole experience was unbelievable. It was like a dream experience since I was working with good friends, the content was great, we got to record it, and I had about four or five months to do the score, which I needed because I was totally in the dark. I didn't have any help from anybody until the recording. Luckily I found Charles Fernandez, who did some orchestrating, put the score to page and conducted it. He was fantastic. The experience was amazing, and hopefully someday I'll get back and do it again - all the other scores I've done have been in my computer.
Before The Butterfly Effect came out in 2004, you did a few other projects...
I did The Real Cancun! <laughs> Do we have to talk about that? Actually, The Real Cancun was amazingly fun. It was the total opposite of The Butterfly Effect. Film Engine, who produced The Butterfly Effect, they were just starting at the time, and the main producer, A.J. Dix, called me up and said, "Hey do you wanna do this reality movie? It was the fastest "movie" ever made, and I was locked in my studio with drummers and electronics, and wrote 3.5 hours of music in four weeks. It was crazy, but it was a lot of fun.
Did the film really require 3.5 hours of music?
Oh, it didn't, but the way that company works, they edit their stuff to music. So I had written maybe an hour of music, then they started using it and temped everything else, and I'd have to knock it off. But I had a lot of fun doing that, it was cool. It's not exactly a shining star, but whatever, I don't care!
Did that lead to "The Simple Life"?
Exactly. Dave Stone, the head of music at Bunim-Murray, called me up. I had done the theme for a show called "Starting Over" for NBC, a daytime show they did, and so he called me to do "The Simple Life". It's been fun, and it's different. Scoring a reality show is an oxymoron. You write music, and they use it any way they want. So you may score one or two scenes per episode, but mostly I have meetings with Dave and discuss the overall tone and direction. Dave has great musical instincts. Then I write enormous amounts of music really fast, send it over, and they cut it in. Then we decide what's working and what isn't, and we shift, or we don't. It's like a machine.
This year's new season has been really cool, and I think it's going to be the best "Simple Life" there has been. The premise this time is that they're housewives - they go in and learn "housewiving", for lack of a better term. Musically, we did a kitchy fifties-sixties "Bewitched" meets "I Dream of Jeannie" style of swing orchestra, and then moved from there. The problem with the way the show is run is that there's always an act structure. So we did the kitchy orchestra swing jazzy style for certain stuff, then when Paris and Nichole are separate, we use modern rock. They go through different families, we have a Pakistani family, a British family, for instance, so I wrote themes for the families and then branched off those themes. [Play "Nichole's 80's Theme" MP3]
That made this year much more interesting for me as a writer, since last year they were just on the road, and the families were just all-American families, so I didn't have too much to go on except that it was tons of rock, rock, rock. The working American thing. This year it's been cooler to just have themes and go off them and build them and cut them down and whatever.
How did you get involved with "Robot Chicken"?
I did a movie called The Zodiac, for a director named Alex Bulkley, which came out a few months ago. It was a limited release through ThinkFilms, and he owns Shadow Animation. So he called me up, and told me about the show. He made it sound so small - which in some respects it is - and I was like, "Heck yeah! I wanna do that!" I mean, action figures - come on! So I went in there, we met, I read the scripts, and it's awesome. God, I love that show.
What is your work process like?
The music comes at the end of the schedule. Basically, Seth Green and I would talk on the phone for five minutes, and go through the episode, spotting it over the phone. We used to spot it in person, but they're deep out in Hollywood now. So we just go through the episodes, and I do them. The episodes themselves are like going to school, because they're in all different styles, and different genres, and it's really fun. It's been good for me, as a guy who feels like he went to music school and didn't do anything. I did all these fugues, and wrote all this stuff, and I'm still the guy who just looks at the picture, hears the score, and writes it out. I'm not mechanical, I'm not mathematical. I don't think about counterpoint, I don't think about chord changes. I just do it. It's always just like "that's it".
I did an interview once for this Spanish magazine, and I think what I said to then is true: I'm all heart, no brains. <laughs> But if you listen to The Butterfly Effect, it's deep, rich, moving slowly type of stuff. I'm not a John Powell type, which I can do, but it's not what I would choose to do. You know what I mean? You take all your influences, you take your life, you take your knowledge, and whatever it is that comes out of you is what you are, and what you're doing. What's coming out of me is deep rich textures, and that type of thing. So it's been great to work on "Robot Chicken" and "The Simple Life" for the reasons that I'm doing lots of different styles, lots of different things, and I feel like I'm still going to school.
Do they temp the episodes?
Normally they don't, but on some they do. When we did the Highlander one with Lindsay Lohan, I listened to some Michael Kamen, trying to figure out what his angle was on the score. I got the bagpipes out, did a full orchestral action score, and then we did a little Queen thing with the thousand voices. It was so much fun, and a learning experience at the same time.
How do you deconstruct the original material to write your own stuff?
I do it so much with both shows, but it all started off with The Real Cancun, when I got a huge stack of CDs and they told me to knock off five tracks from each disc. I must have knocked off 120 tracks for that film, and then later stuff for that company. I never had a problem though - it all went through New Line, where it was "close but not too close", so it was clean. With the Highlander spoof, it was more about the orchestration and the way you use intervals. Different guys used intervals in a real particular way, and so I was listening to how Kamen used his solo trumpet in that, as "the call". So I made my own "call", and that was it. It was like brushing away like an archaeologist - it's all there. Once you do something the rest of it's already done. That's what I mean by "all heart, no brains". I don't hunt and peck - it's there, and I just move everything out of the way and lift it up. We recently did a Harry Potter spoof and that was awesome. I got to grab Williams' Harry Potter scores, listen to a few cues, and get a sense of what it is. [Play "Robot Chicken Harry Potter" MP3]
How do the songs work in the show?
We do all the songs, and that's the best part. Like when we knocked off "Never-ending Story" for "Never-ending Party". I loved doing that, a little '80s production! We have a singer we go to, Beverly Staunton, she's really diverse. There is an album in the works, and we're working on getting through the legal stuff. I mean, this year there is so much great stuff: "Senior Mutant Ninja Turtles", "My Stalker", and much more. It all adds up, and it's been so much fun. [Play "Never-ending Party" MP3]
Do you do the songs earlier than when you would write the score for the show?
Yeah. Recently we did this Beastmaster thing with David Hasselhoff, Faith Hill, David Hyde Pierce, Gene Simmons, and Nathan Lane. I know a lot of them did, and some of them didn't, do their own singing. Hasselhoff obviously did, and he's operative! So I got to do this huge Beastmaster Andrew Lloyd Webber orchestral thing with him doing over it. I haven't heard the final mix yet, but they called me from the session and were like, "Dude this is money! Hasselhoff is wailing!" Then I wrote this song for Gene Simmons, so it was amazing. We also did a song for Faith Hill, and then a "Hakuna Matata" thing for Nathan Lane. We also did "Monkeys in Outer Space" with Adam Sanborne, who writes a lot of music for the show too. Oh man, it was American rock-anthem with fake-Creed type of vocals - just pure fun! I don't know what else to say, except it was great!
You've also worked on some other films, including The Zodiac and Tamara.
Tamara was a teenage slasher picture over at Lion's Gate. I give the director, Jeremy Haft, major props on this - he turned a super trite, done-before witch movie, into a pretty good film. I watched it, and remember it being kinda gripping. I mean, it's a good rental, and the score is whatever - the usual rich, dark crap. <laughs> [Play "Back from the Dead" MP3]
Did you get to record with live instruments since The Butterfly Effect?
I record live stuff all the time, but on small levels. Small solos. If at any point, I can afford it, and it will work, I'll do it. With The Zodiac, we were so close to going - we had booked the stage in Europe, and hired the players, and then they pulled it. I wanted to do it so badly, but it just didn't happen. [Play "Zodiac Main Title" MP3]
What is "Kyle XY"?
It's this show that was created by J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress. It's about this kid-thing who, for lack of a better word, is "born" as a full-grown teenager in the woods. They find him naked, covered in goop, in an embryo position, and he wakes up. The premise - and the "magic" of the show - is that he's a total blank slate. He doesn't have any powers, but he's a genius. He learns English really fast, and after the first 20 minutes of the show he's eating and starting to talk. But it's great, the whole magic of it is seeing the world through the eyes of a child. . He doesn't understand eating, and pisses in his pants because he's never peed. It's interesting stuff - it's an hour long drama on ABC Family. So we're in the middle of that - I'm working on Episode 5 of 10.
What is your musical approach to the show?
Well, it's different. There's a lot of thematic material, and there's a family that takes the kid in, so there's a lot of family interaction to score. I do a lot of delayed guitar solo stuff, with maybe some drums, and other elements sprinkled for the family. Kyle, for the "magic" stuff, we've been using rhythmic lithophones, with different rhythms and sometimes a little electronics, some beeps. A lot of harp, piano, and mallet instruments with sprinkles here and there, for his "magic". And then I do a lot of my usual deep rich stuff for when he's figuring stuff out. The truth is, I look at it, I do stuff, and it's done. <laughs> I don't sit around pontificating about how this and that. I see the show, and I try to make it good. I try to make the show I see, and hopefully the network likes it.
You also worked on The Butterfly Effect 2?
Yeah I finished that a few weeks ago. I loved working on the first film, so in a similar way, it was a bit difficult working on this one since none of my friends were doing this one. But I really enjoyed doing the score again, and sort of revisiting themes. It's much more frenetic, a lot more pace, a lot more movement in the score. I think people will be pleasantly surprised. It's a much different score than the first score, and if we did it live, I would be really proud of it. I did it in 12 days. <laughs> For one, the schedule was really tight on the movie, and "Kyle XY" was banging on me, I had to do "Simple Life" and "Robot Chicken". I had a window, and I took it. The music came to me fast and easy, and I pumped it out. It will be interesting to see what happens with it. There's a really large young underground type of support for the first film that has always been revealing itself to me in strange ways. I don't know if they'll put it in local theaters or not, but it will be released over seas. [Play "Jump" MP3]
What else do you have coming up?
Well, I am probably doing a movie with Bunim-Murray, a documentary about autism. So that should be in the next month or so. Other than that, I have some things that aren't finalized yet, so we'll see.
Do you have any dream projects?
I'm waiting for an opportunity to really break loose, because The Butterfly Effect is the only thing people know me for, that was released and recorded. I didn't know anything at all when I did that, and I've just been waiting for an opportunity to unleash with some time to develop stuff, and record it right, and do something I'm proud of again. I really love doing sci-fi stuff, and I'm way into anything that's mystical and dark, I love thrillers. What's occurred to me is that I seem to be able to write really beautiful slow music really easily, so I'd be a great guy to do a slow paced Merchant-Ivory romance, or something like The Cider House Rules. So maybe someday something like that, but I'm just happy to be working, to be honest! <laughs> I have kids and a mortgage, so I have to pay them!
"Robot Chicken" airs on the Cartoon Network on Sunday evenings at 11:30pm. "The Simple Life: 'Til Death Do Us Part" airs Sunday nights at 10pm on E!. Look for The Butterfly Effect 2 next year.
Special thanks to Rich Jacobellis at First Artists Management for his assistance with this interview.