by David A. Koran
Recently SoundtrackNet had an opportunity to sit down with South African composers, Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian to discuss their work on the film Rendition. Their first team scoring assignment was also for director, Gavin Hood, a fellow South African, for 2005 Academy Award winning Tsotsi. This project marks their third collaboration together, and we’ve had the chance to chat with them about their approaches to non-traditional scoring techniques and their view of collaborating on a large scale film composition.
This is your second major U.S. film project together, how did you start your composing and scoring collaborations?
Mark : Well we worked together in South Africa a great deal, but as players, neither of us were making a living as composers back then. So we have a long history together playing in bands and playing theatre and all sorts of stuff. It's only when we got to L.A. that we started working in film and really Tsotsi was the first time we actually worked together, collaborated on a film project... Rendition is the third film, Bird Can't Fly is the second film that we collaborated on.
What's a typical work set-up for you while working on a film?
Mark : It was a little different than it was with Tsotsi, we both worked out of my studio here in Santa Monica, for the most part. We also recorded musicians in Morocco...we also recorded musicians in my studio, and also recorded an orchestra in Burbank. But the majority of the writing was done with Paul and I sitting in one room, in front of one workstation, with a gazillion ethnic instruments around us, writing and playing and working the score out that way.
Did you think it was odd to both have been from South Africa, but it wasn't until spending time in the U.S. that you both joined forces to work on these films, and that it took you this long to work together on a project?
Paul : Tsotsi kind of came together because of, you know, we've got kind of a strong South African group here in LA who knew each other back in South Africa, and had worked together actors or musicians. Gavin Hood was here, and he was part of that group.... When it became apparent he was working on Tsotsi and developing the script with (writer/playwright) Athol (Fugard) and was about to film it. It looked like a great opportunity for Mark and I to combine our strengths and go back to South Africa and do the film together. Composers don't really get that much chance to collaborate, it's really a solo job most of the time, and from that point of view, we both jumped at the chance and it really worked out.
Rendition is your second picture with director Gavin Hood, also from your home country of South Africa, how did you come to know Gavin?
Mark : I know it's my turn, but I'm going to let Paul answer that one. (laughs)
Paul : I knew Gavin's ex-wife when I was still at high school, so I was more familiar with her, and one of Gavin's best friends was an actor in South Africa. (He) was in a bunch of Delta Force movies, these kind of Chuck Norris... American/Vietnam mock ups... "shoot-em up" kind of stuff. One of those guys (that) he was in that movie with was married to one of my other best-friends from South Africa. So, when Gavin and Janine (Eser) [his ex-wife] arrived in L.A., we hooked up soon after he arrived, (and) that friendship got extended. One night we were at a party, and Gavin was there and was talking about Tsotsi, and at that stage, he was developing the script, and they were raising money to get it done. He was really excited and passionate about it. I told them I wrote music for film and called Mark the next day and sent (him) the script, and both decided it was something we'd both go for. And the rest, as they say, is history. So yeah, he was part of a circle of friends, and we now both consider him a close and personal friend.
What's the working relationship been like with Gavin through these two films? Is it detached as "boss-to-employee", collaborative "artist-to-artist", or more jovial like friends?
Mark : Yes, we had a deep friendship, I think it's like "all the above" almost in a sense. Our relationship is very "work-like" when it needs to be... but we also sit around the piano, drink beer, and sing Pink Floyd songs. We hang out and see each other a lot as friends. Yeah, so it's really a wide-ranging relationship.
Paul : Yeah, I do think on top of that, when we're working together, particularly when were working with Gavin and editor, Megan Gill, the four of us, having come through Tsotsi together, and then into Rendition; there is a sense of things that Gavin can show us and talk to us about, and filter through us before he necessarily moves it to the wider sphere of people working together on the film. There's kind of a little bit of a trust, in a circle of trust, which is great. He really includes us in a lot of decisions, and makes space for stuff that we choose to do if we need more space in a scene, he was very open to working with us.
Since the score uses a lot of unique ethnic instruments, were they all electronic, or did you find live musicians to perform? How difficult was it to find capable musicians to play those instruments in Los Angeles?
Paul : Well, the main people we used in LA were the duduk player Pedro Eustache who's South American, and two vocalists; but the rest of the stuff Mark and I played ourselves. We also used what we recorded in Morocco. It wasn't too difficult, there is a wealth of Middle-Eastern players here, some of them quite accomplished. I think we gathered enough in Morocco to give us an idea where we wanted to go with the score.
Did you use any former collaborators and band mates from Johnny Clegg and Savuka to assist in performing for the score?
Paul : I was his keyboard player, I played on couple of albums and I toured with him for about a year. However, I didn't use any of the Johnny Clegg people. However on Tsotsi, we had other contacts, South African musicians we got in to play on the score (and) we got a couple people Mark knew. On Rendition, there's another band called Just Jinjer. Originally there was a scene in the beginning of Rendition where there's a Capetown carnival band playing, and so we got him in to mock up some of the banjo. But, the music from that scene got cut from the film, so, yeah, we do try to involve some of our fellow South Africans.
Both of these scores, Rendition and Tsotsi, have definite African influences, but from different regions of Africa, was it difficult, or intentional, to localize the sound of the score?
Mark : Well, I don't think in either of these films that we set out to specifically make it regionally African, in terms of what the score was doing. In lesser sense, Tsotsi perhaps. It's kind of like (Mychael Danna's)The Ice Storm when you hear lots of gamelan, but there's really no relationship there, but it just works. With Rendition, perhaps (we did it) just a little more, because we need to create the musical landscape of where the story was set. But even then, I don't think we were specifically trying to (regionalize), there were a lot of cases where we mangled the instruments we recorded in Morocco beyond what maybe a regular player might have done. So I don't think we were tied to trying to make them (sound) African or trying to keep them in their specific ethnic place.
Paul : I think there is kind of an atmospheric bed, and emotional bed, that kind of transcends those kind of musical boundaries. Like from a musicologist or ethnomusicologist point of view, I think we sweeten the score with those kind of instruments and give them a flavor. We try and stay true to the kind of scales, and the tones, and the tunings that they use. There was a lot of quarter note tuning in Rendition mostly... that we kind of experimented with. We filtered those through kind of our own Western point-of-view, and came up with what we thought was an interpretation of record, and try to communicate to somebody that was not used to the exotic sounds of these different regions. It was to be accessible.
Mark : I don't think the authenticity was the biggest concern... there was a producer of sorts, that was vaguely involved in this project at one point; saying that she gets really angry when composers portray a Moroccan setting, with say, Tunisian music. She was like, "How can you do that, that wasn't authentic?" Well, I can say, I don't think we're concerned about that in any way... it's building up a "soundscape" from material we already have, and making the emotional aspects of the film work, no matter what it takes to get there.
With your varying backgrounds in the styles of music you've studied and performed, how have you worked through using those influences while working on a scoring film together? Has it been like working with a kindred spirit or close friend?
Mark : Well I think that kindred spirit comes from almost a twenty-year history and finding a place with each other where we could play piano a lot. We used to put two pianos together... there's a lot of shared performance time we've put in with each other as friends. But, our musical sensibilities are somewhat different...our backgrounds are quite different musically, so, I think we come together because of our shared friendship and experience. We bring a lot of different things to the table.
Has this ever led to "creative differences" when spotting the films and eventually writing the underscore?
Paul : I think what's interesting, is that there feels like there's more than one of each of us in the room. That there's two of us that have been let off the leash and do stuff that's very spontaneous and improvised and very from "the guts". Spontaneous is really what is the word for it. Once those "kids" have had a chance to throw it out there, and we've record it and spoken about it; then there is a sense of us stepping into the other role of the critic or the judge. Once you've let go of that attachment, of the ownership of a piece, or idea ,or whatever, that's been put out there, that has become something common and something that belongs to both of us. Then there is a way of approaching it that takes away any of those emotional outbursts that might happen with a "Oh, I really liked that!"... no real petulance involved. There's really a weighed consideration. I'll put a case forward, or Mark will put a case forward, (and) sometimes we'll even put our own cases against ourselves. (laughs) We'll try to talk ourselves out of something we just tired to convince the other person into doing. It (just) depends, you know. I think just listening to what you've created works towards the main objective.
A lot of times, ethnic influenced scores, often gravitate towards a strict adherence to that sound, without integrating music of the classical film score techniques (including a classical European style orchestra). How has it worked for you (especially, Mark, who's worked for Christopher Young) to blend those styles?
Paul : I think there's kind of a huge overlap there where Mark and my musical styles meet in our appreciation of what you call "a classical film score style" and particularly world music. From that point of view, we really have a large middle ground. We might have different melodic or harmonic senses, but often that something we can work through together, just from an improvisational, and collaborative point of view. We throw out the ideas fast and furiously, and whatever sticks, we both tend to recognize that, "Oh, this is it!"... of all things we've thrown out, and develop it from there.
Mark : I don't think in either of these (scores) really have a great deal of that sort of European classical orchestral sound to them, but they do have the engine behind it. They do have the harmonic thinking and the melodic structure of it. I don't think setting up to, on this, either of us, on any project, would set out to make a "classical" score, just for the sake of it being there.
I know Christopher Young varies his styles and approaches quite a bit, with electronics, a small group or single musician, or full orchestra, such as Murder In The First, where it's overwhelmingly emotional and sweeping... and working with that background and knowledge, does that influence ever creep in there?
Mark : I think so, you know, and I do consider Chris Young as one of my mentors in life and I learned a great deal from him through watching him work. Learning, like I say, maybe it doesn't come across in sound of my writing, but definitely in the thinking of my writing. There's definitely a thematic structure, and Chris is always talking about an eight-bar structure and he was always insistent on something (that) could translate with one man sitting on a piano and playing it. I learned just a great deal of technique from that kind of thinking from him.
Rendition is lush rhythmically, but somewhat less so melodically, a less conventional "theme" based approach. Was this a conscious decision due to the topic and structure of the film, or just part of your different approach to scoring?
Paul - (laughs) Without directing too much, if you listen to it, I think there really is a strong thematic context, and there are quite a few themes that are quite subtle, and they may come across as atmospheric. There are a lot of things that we did that are. There is certainly the duduk part; the laments that Gavin wanted in the film. I don't know if you've seen the film, but it's a duduk piece that runs throughout the movie, that kind of begins... it comes in at the middle, (and at other) different places, and ends the movie quite strongly. But apart from that, there are also some thematic movements, like from a suspended note to the major, to the minor; that (is) kind of echoed through all of these instruments. That's in those atmospheres. I think there's a lot of thematic material in there, but it's probably not as overstated or conventionally stated as it is in some of the classic movie themes.
Mark : Yeah, I think what Paul's trying to say, is that it's thematic, but in the way, that perhaps the way that John Adams is thematic, or Steve Reich is thematic.It's not a traditional single line melody with a certain phrasing going on over a bed of harmonic development. The theme could be the texture, the theme could be the rhythm, it's a lot more of the subtle approach. I think the film in every respect really called for s subtle approach in the cinematography, and every way really. I think that's where that came from for us.
You mention about those single notes held out and passed between instruments; are the any little "secrets" to listen to or pick up in the score that may not be obvious to the casual listener?
Paul : I think that one of the interesting things, when Mark and I first went to Morocco, and we were starting to work with the musicians; they have a lot of different scales, that they were all really, really familiar with, these maqams. A lot of those scales would involve the use of a major and a minor in the same scale. They could have a flattened sixth or a sharpened seventh, and you'd start to realize that a lot of this stuff that doesn't seem to make sense on first listening as a westerner, is based around the juxtaposition of these major and minor thirds. Not in kind of horror movie, "ah-ah-ah" (think Herrmann's Psycho - ed.), the atonality of it; but from a melodic point of view, those movements are something that really shone through. So in this score, if you look at it, there's a lot of use of that moving through the major to the minor, and also the different minor and major thirds in the melodic sense in how those would work in a non-western way. So, for example, like using a scale of D, for instance, going from a sharp - down to a B-flat. So using that as a strong melodic part over the D is a very Arabic thing, but not something we're really accustomed to hearing. So we were trying to explore a lot of those kinds of intervals, and juxtaposition of intervals.
Mark : So, I think for me, the thing I might want people to look out for, is that we do have a fifty-piece orchestra in the score. My thing, is that there are many times where you can't honestly figure out what's orchestra and what's electronic manipulation of a Moroccan instrument. Or, where we hired a guy to build on specific software he designed, to build electronic ambiances and textures out of the stuff we recorded in Morocco. So, we don't, at any point, use anything other than organic sound. And the way that blends with the orchestra, sometimes you just cannot tell "what's what". I think Paul and I are very proud of that.
Paul : I think there was a genetic seed that was planted in Morocco, and we took those seeds - these performances - little chips of melody and harmony. Not so much harmony, because it's not a very (harmonically based) music. But we would take those seeds and plant ambient atmospheric sounds out of that, and apply the same process to how we were orchestrating (that) with the string orchestra.
That sounds a lot like what Peter Gabriel has done with his music, mostly on display for his score to Passion of the Christ and his solo projects. Is that a similar level you are trying to reach while blending the ambient with the real ethnic instruments and world music styles?
Mark : We're huge fans of his because, everything he does sounds absolutely organic, it sounds like an instrument that's actually been played somewhere. Nothing really sounds electronic, and that's something we really try to aspire to.
Like Tsotsi, Rendition deals with rather charged political and social issues, is that one of the driving forces for you to become involved in those films?
Paul : I think really being attached to Gavin was the first step. Mark said in a recent interview, the way we feel about Gavin and his passion; the way for a director to make a film is really so much more commitment in the early stages. It's really such a long haul. (With) years of negotiating and working on scripts, and getting projects, and getting all the stuff to the point where it's going to be made. As composers, at least with Tsotsi and Rendition, we were kind of dragged along in Gavin's slipstream, as it were. We'd follow Gavin, what'd you say Mark...
Mark : Into a black hole...(laughs)... and he's been there too. You know, having said that; whatever these films might have been, we would have gone there with Gavin. But definitely, we're very, very interested and attracted by the subject material of both of them. I mean, in the case of Tsotsi, it was. So often we've seen South African films that are about yesterday, and about apartheid and the wrongs of the past, and here was a film that looks at South Africa today and where it stands today without judging the past, and looks to where South Africa might be going. It was very interesting to us, very intriguing. And then Rendition as well, because Paul and I, and Gavin, come from a country that has had a very checkered past. We see a few seeds of that happening here, and it's somewhat frightening, a little bit to us. And this was a story we really wanted to be involved with in telling as well.
Paul : We're both very drawn to the material. Specifically in these two cases, it was our relationship with Gavin which ended up getting us on these two films. That's not to negate, then, that the subject matter is not important to both of us.
What was the most challenging aspect of spotting the story and scoring the eventual film for Rendition?
Mark : I think staying true to what the film was trying to say... in other words, trying to keep the hell out of anything that worked properly. (laughs) Not putting too much music on top of the film; let the film breathe. The film is very successful in telling it's story already. So how are we going to build a score that is thematic, that people are going to like, that is going to make the film exciting, yet not overpower the film? (It) kind of goes back to an earlier question; I think that if we had, in the beginning, (that) we were thinking of many different approaches, one of them was obviously a big orchestra and thematic score. I think after some discussion, I think that everybody felt that that was something that was going to overpower the film in a way that we didn't want it to.
Do you have any planned future collaborations, either together as composers, or together working with Gavin in the future?
Paul : In looks like we may be skipping out on the next one... Gavin's working on Wolverine for Fox, and it looks like they may have a composer already attached to that one. But Mark and I are up for a couple of other projects together, and obviously individually we are pursuing them. (But nothing is really) solid at the moment, (we have) a few things that might pan out, and that'd be great.
What have been your favorite projects to work on?
Mark : I think Rendition and Tsotsi, and to work with Gavin have been the highlights of my career for sure. There are many others, but it would be hard... I like many things for many different reasons. I like working on TV, but that's a completely different hat to wear. I'm doing my solo record at the moment, which I'm enjoying for different reasons as well. So, it'd be hard to say, but as films go, Rendition and Tsotsi are the highlights.
Paul : Yeah, I'd agree... for Rendition, which was our first Hollywood foray. It was really smooth and creative, (and) it was amazing team. New Line was a pleasure to work with, an executive, a lady called Erin Scully, and she was fantastic. Really it could have been a lousy experience; we could have got burned when you step up to this kind of level. Who knows what's going to happen, but Rendition was really fantastic.
Mark : It was really amazing to have a big machine like that, hire someone, and then trusts them to do their job, and leaves them to do it with that kind of trusted input. What a difference it makes, I think, to the entire process.
What would be your dream assignment or project?
Paul : I'm a big Batman fan, I think sometime before I shuffle off this mortal coil, I'd love to do a decent Batman movie. Just because he's been my kind of childhood hero when I was a kid and stuff. I think the direction of the new Batman movies have gone have been really cool. I like that dark neo-classic (look and feel), I like the darker material really. I find that that inspires me.
Mark : As I said, I'm finishing up an album, which has been a very interesting experience, because everything I've done in the last thirteen years has been to picture or to something that basically has a template for you to write to. This is making you feel rather naked. (laughs) I think it's a very interesting and cathartic experience in a way.
It's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you for your time, and good luck.
Rendition is currently in theaters this fall. Please also visit Mark's website at (http://www.markkilian.com) and Pauls' MySpace page (http://myspace.com/paulhepker) to find out about their current projects and listen to some of their other work.
Special thanks to Allie Lee, Paul Hepker, Mark Kilian and Dan Goldwasser.