[Interview - Aaron Zigman]

Composer Aaron Zigman is becoming a quickly rising star in the film music community. Since his first feature film in 2002, Nick Cassavetes' John Q, he's written almost every kind of score possible, from restrained romanticism (The Notebook) to urban dance (Step Up). His latest two films are the ultimate dichotomy: The rock heavy Alpha Dog, and the orchestral fantasy Bridge to Terabtihia. SoundtrackNet had a chance to talk with Zigman about these two recent projects, as well as a few other works.

So let's start out with your relationship with director Nick Cassavetes. Alpha Dog is your third film with him, and you first started working with him on John Q - how did you get on board that project?

John Q was my first film. Nick and I had been friends prior to that for a few years, and he knew of my abilities, and when he got a chance to direct John Q for New Line Cinema, he hinted to me that he would give me a shot at writing some music, and a shot a getting the job. When he was up filming in Canada, he sent me some dailies and I wrote an opening montage sequence that everyone gravitated towards. With a bit of coddling from him and the producers, I managed to get on board with New Line.

Was that a risk for New Line?

New composers are always a risk for studios, in every sense of the word. At least, that's how they usually feel, so there are all these clauses put into contracts, and steps along the way that allows them to get out of the situation if they're uncomfortable. I had those challenges along the way, but I managed to pass those tests like a high-grade video game.

The opening and end titles are more operatic and classical, which doesn't fit the remainder of the score - what's the story there?

Yeah, it was a piece they had temped the sequence with - a much more modern sounding "Ave Maria". It was written in the 1960's and had almost a 2-5-1 kind of progression in there, a tinge on the jazzy side. I don't know who the composer was, but nevertheless, it was temped into the sequence, so that gave me a signal. I wrote my own "Ave Maria", just using the "Ave Maria" text, and the rest was a vocalaise. There was nothing else like that in the movie, unfortunately. I would have loved to have written more in that style - I love it. [Play "John Q: Main Title" MP3]

It's almost like two different score styles - was it a pressure thing, that you weren't able to write more like that?

No, the score in the movie didn't warrant anything like that - it would have probably been too overdramatic. [Play "John Q: Video Feed to E.R." MP3]

So you mean you just want to write more music like that, in general....

Oh yeah, it's always when you get a case of writing something like that, you want to keep going because it's so gratifying!

With The Notebook, you did get to go a little more in that direction....

Yeah, The Notebook was a straight-up, down-your-throat classical score with a little bit of jazz undertone at times. But it was tuneful, and all classically derived, like a late 19th, early 20th century romantic piece. Tuneful, romantic music in the classical sense. [Play "The Notebook: Overture" MP3]

Were you surprised at the reaction to the film?

It was a hit over time, but it was never an immediate success. It was shunned by the critics at the beginning of the year, which was unfortunate for the great performances by Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling - it didn't give them a chance for any Oscar nominations, and they were fantastic in the film. I think the reason why the film worked was because it didn't have an A-list cast of Hollywood actors, which would have detracted from the story, and that's to Nick Cassavetes' credit. It was brilliant on his part not to cast known actors in that type of movie. It had a sentimental tinge - how could a movie like that not? But it wasn't an immediate success, and it wasn't surprising that people started to gravitate towards it eventually, and it kept hanging on and it had a very large gross for a movie of that stature, and did even better on DVD.

It's funny, over the years, the people I know who may have never gone to see the movie when it first came out for fear of their own fear of sentimentality and sappiness, if you will, managed to love that movie! <laughs> How could you not love a movie that hits on all those three areas of family, love and loss, in a very poignant way.

The next film with Nick was Alpha Dog, which not only was a complete 180-degree change from The Notebook, but also just opened in theaters. I remember hearing about this film a long time ago - what was your timeline on it?

I did the film a year ago, and I didn't have a lot of time to do it - only a couple of months. Nick and I had talked about the project at the beginning, but then he went away to film it and there was talk of me not even doing it. But then it came my way, and I had to do what I call "writing and producing almost two albums in different styles in two months".

You call your music in the film "scourse" - a combination of score and source music?

Yeah, there's very little score in there, and what score I did have in there is very understated and mixed very understatedly. I am a classical, jazz and pop music junkie - I like all styles of music, I'm not locked into just one. I had a lot of record experience back in the '80s and '90s, playing with a lot of different bands, producing stuff, arranging charts, and so I know that world, and a lot of people in that world, and so I collaborated with some great people to put together, if you will, a "scourse" soundtrack for Alpha Dog. With Nick's direction and musical taste, and the songs he liked and the artists he gravitated towards, they were all temped in the movie - and I stripped them away, and wrote my own thing, inspired by some of Nick's and my earlier influences, like David Bowie and his edgier stuff. [Play "Driving to the Site" MP3]

Initial appearances are that you only have two score cues on the CD - but if you read the actual credits, your name is all over the album, co-writing the songs and the like...

Yeah - like I said, it was like producing and writing and arranging a record. It was probably tougher than writing an hour of score, since every time I had to change something, I had to get everyone back! I couldn't just manipulate it in ProTools - I had to rework things, and that's assembling everything. It's not like changing a couple bars on a piece of paper, and going to the piano and changing an orchestration - it's more much pressure.

How were you able to get everyone back?

Oh, I knew everyone who worked and played on it - they're all buddies of mine. Nick has great taste, so sometimes it requires going back and changing things.

So when was the film first released?

It was playing at Sundance back in January 2006, and it came out wide in theaters a year afterwards. [Play "Alpha Dog: Elvis Arrested" MP3]

And you've scored a bunch of films in the meantime, like Step Up and Akeelah and the Bee - another small movie that generated some buzz.

Akeelah was received very well - the critics loved it. It had a great performance with wonderful chemistry between Laurence Fishburn and Keke Palmer. You can never go wrong with Fishburn on the billing, he's such a great actor!

How did you get involved with the film?

Well, I had just finished scoring Flicka - and you were at the scoring session for that...

Yeah, that took a while to come out, too!

Yeah! I thought I was done for the holidays, and Lions Gate approached me and said that something had happened with Akeelah, and I had 2.5 weeks to score it. It was amazing, because nobody had enough time to say "rewrite that". I wrote a theme that the director liked right away, and I just wrote 45-mintues of music. It was a whirlwind!

That's the upside to having little time - they can't reject anything!

And I can write pretty fast - I like working quickly. My instinct, if I'm zoned in, is pretty good.


What's your working process? Do you write into the computer or paper and pencil?

I work at the piano - I can't write at a synthesizer. I compose at the piano, and then when I figure out what the harmony and the chords are, and what the melody is, then of course I go to a computer and mock it up for the director. But my writing and orchestrating process is always at the piano. I can only hear orchestra chords at a piano - if I put the chords together in synth, I just can't hear the overtones. Especially with string voicings, if it sounds good on a piano, it's going to sound good with the orchestra, without question.

You had a large orchestral sound for Flicka, but also a contemporary edge too...

I had a lot of imaging - I used a lot of organic and ethnic instruments on that score, with George Doering playing dulcimers and all kinds of stuff underneath the orchestra palettes. It's just a bit pastoral orchestral score. [Play "Flicka: End Titles" MP3]

That contemporary sound mixed with orchestra gives it a nice modern edge, and that bled over into Bridge to Terabithia....

Yeah, definitely. Both scores have a little tiny similarity in that at times there's a bit of a Celtic influence but not much. But yeah, you're right - with Terabithia, there's a little bit of a modern thing, but to me the most important thing is the melody - having a theme you can resonate with. Both scores, I feel, have tunes, and that's why I'm a big John Williams fan - the guy writes tunes, and form, and there's also a few other guys who do that so great. I'm always a fan of somebody who can make you feel like there's some kind of direction, or something I can feel grounded to instead of just gloss and tapestry and coloring. [Play "Bridge to Terabithia: Main Title"]

If it's thematic enough, you could even come up with a song to tie into the score...

Yeah, we did it for Bridge to Terabithia, and I did it with the movie I just finished, Pride. I co-wrote a track with John Legend on the film, and we worked my theme into the song, into the chorus.

Terabithia has a large orchestral fantasy sound, but also is pulled back at times. Compared to your previous works, though, it's a very large score, including battle sequences, complete with choir. What was it like for you to work on this type of film?

I'm so happy with this score. There are a few big action cues in this one, and I was really able to stretch out. Aside from the minimalist stuff and coloring that I love to do, I also like big orchestral stuff, and want to do more of that, and this film enabled me to spread my wings out a bit. The Notebook was a reserved kind of restrained tinged sentimental romantic score, and this is a big theme score, robust, and at times very huge - which is the stuff I love to do. I'm praying I get to do more of this stuff, because I love it. It's very melodic, though at times I get to get angry and dark and I get to spread out and write some great chords, and show some of what I feel is harmonically deeper stuff. [Play "Bridge to Terabithia: Battle" MP3]

Oddly enough, it's a world I know so well, and it's like being a Minor League baseball player waiting to get your shot in triple-A ball. I'm hoping that people can see that I can do that, and in a way, what I feel I'm best at is being able to write a melody and morph it. If you notice in the Terabithia score, there are times where I completely understate it, like in "Leslie's Diving Story", which is completely just pads, quiet minimalist stuff, and kind of cool, and then we have "Entering the Forest", and it's completely big and lush and very acrobatic. [Play "Bridge to Terabithia: Leslie's Diving Story" MP3]

Is there a soundtrack album coming out?

Walt Disney Records is releasing just 15-minutes of score on four tracks. I'd love to see a score album come out, so we'll see.

You mentioned Pride, a sports drama. How did you get on board, and approach?

They had a lot of my music temped in the film, and the director really like it!

Have you ever found yourself forced to lean towards the temp score?

I've been forced to stay pretty close to a few temp scores with my music on it, but that's okay - it's just a feeling, and I re-invert it and write something new. One time a director said, after I played her the new cue, that it was so close to what I'd written before, that if it got any closer, I'd have to sue myself! <laughs>

Is it easier or harder if they temp it with your stuff, or someone else's stuff?

My own stuff, absolutely easier! Because then you know that they already like you, and you're not chasing somebody else's style - you're chasing your own! But it depends on how many times that happens. If it happens a lot, then it gets tough since you're writing the same score every time. Fortunately, I've had enough different stuff that they've been using as temp. But I find it does make your job easier, because you're not trying to copy or be inspired by something else, except yourself - so I look at it as a positive, not a pejorative.

So with Pride, was it more of an orchestral approach to the score?

Yeah - I had written a theme for the film, before the test screening, and they worked it in the temp, so it wasn't like it was from an old score.

Nick Cassavetes has another film in production, God is a Bullet. Will you do it?

We've talked about it - I read it when he first started working on it, so I'll be doing it. I'm also currently doing a movie called Good Luck Chuck, which I'm having a ball with. It's directed by Mark Helfrich, who was Brett Ratner's editor, and this is his first time directing a movie. It's really funny and has Jessica Alba and Dane Cook - I'm having a ball!

Alpha Dog is currently playing in theaters, and the soundtrack is available from Milan Records. Bridge to Terabithia will hit theaters on February 16th, with a soundtrack album from Hollywood Records on Febuary 13, 2007.

Special thanks to Tom Kidd and Ray Costa at Costa Communications for their assistance with this interview.