Interview

[Interview - Marco Beltrami]

It's been a while since SoundtrackNet has had a chance to cach up with Marco Beltrami, in those ten years, he's risen up through the ranks of journeyman composers, selecting just the right projects to become one of the most in demand composers today. We had a chance to sit down and chat with Marco on the eve of the Academy Award nominations to talk about his work for 3:10 To Yuma and Life Free or Die Hard as well as a host of other intriguing questions.


The last time we caught up with you, you mentioned your dream project would be to score a western... and the last film you scored, 3:10 to Yuma, the original was considered a quintessential western... were you excited about finally getting to score one of you dream projects?

Very. They don't make too many westerns, and when I heard about it I was very interested. I think the whole process and the whole form was a lot of fun to work on. I was really glad to haven been given the opportunity.

Being that this was a western, and you've had always pined for having a western to score, did you always have music envisioned and how did you approach this film given it's something you've always wanted to do?

Well, I've always had ideas on how I wanted to approach it and different types of stuff. This is not a big orchestral western, and I still have ideas about an orchestral western, but this was a more stylized piece. The thing I enjoyed doing, and have really enjoyed doing, is sort of taking and coming up with whole environmental sounds and landscape of sounds that aren't necessarily part of a traditional orchestral thing. Working with that... I think you can have a lot of fun with it, in a western. These westerns have something, sort of slightly anachronistic about them. They're period pieces but they take liberties with that, musically I think it would have been a lot of fun to do that too and take instruments that were around during that period and use them in a modern way. That's what I ended up doing on this. In fact all the instruments on this were acoustic instruments that could have been used in the period. From the pump organ to the tack piano to the nylon guitars to the native Indian percussion stuff, to banjo and fiddle, tin flute and things like that. Even some sounds that weren't orchestral at all that we were able to use in a rhythmical way with everything else, such as a chime from a grandfather clock, a processed jaw harp and things like that. So it was, from that standpoint, something I've always wanted to do, and it's something that evolves, and I think the western provides a great template for doing this.

So you were like a kid in a candy store, "ooh I get to use all this stuff".

Yeah. You can make your own, there's no set convention that you have to follow. You can sort of do "whatever", you know. That's what's fun, because you have an open template.

I was also listening to The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada which is kind of western in style, but in a different vein. What was you approach to that versus your approach to 3:10 to Yuma?

In terms of sound and all, it was a very similar approach, but with a very different result. There it was sort of the Tex-Mex landscape, and you know, I was more concerned with sounds. I guess, since it took place with traveling with Tommy Lee Jones and the other character, I forget his name, they were traveling across the desert, I was thinking it'd be much more of an indigenous native sound. For instance, the guy I had been working with ever since 1997, Buck Sanders who does all the electronics and has produced stuff with me... we took sounds like the plucking of cactus thorns and made loops out of that to have as a background. So it was a similar approach but very different sounds. Like you said, it was a western, but not a stylized western like 3:10.

With three re-invisionings/remakes under your belt now, with The Omen,3:10 to Yuma and Flight of the Phoenix, what do you think you've added to these endeavors, say other than could have possibly aped other composers, such as George Duning (3:10 to Yuma) or Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen)?

They're all different. In The Omen I definitely wanted to do some type of homage to Jerry, both in sometime quoting some of his theme and sort of his style of writing. The great thing about Jerry was that he was so economical, and everything from his score derives from these four notes, and similarly I wanted to have something very simple and have the entire score evolve out of that. So I was very aware of Jerry's presence while writing The Omen, and there was a lot of pressure on me, not from anybody, but just myself as I had been a student (of Jerry Goldsmith's), and he was a hero of mine and I wanted to sorta live up to the challenge. Whereas in 3:10 to Yuma, the original score, I have to say, wasn't much of an inspiration to me in terms of what to model this score off of. The movie itself was, although the stories were very similar, there were extreme differences in the way the story was portrayed, and the music written for that film (the original) would not have been very appropriate for this new rendition. The Fight of The Phoenix was another one for John Moore , it was a completely new approach. In fact I had never even seen the original Flight of the Phoenix when I had written the score, so that wasn't really part of the vocabulary for it.

With 3:10 to Yuma, at least with the original, a lot of people cite the influence of the song by Frankie Lane as a common thread that was throughout the film, with it in the credits, and the "bad guy" in the film whistling it. Is there any thing you'd done in your score to act as a common thread to tie the music together with the story and characters in a similar way?

There's nothing used on-screen that any of the characters are whistling, but I guess there are three themes I have for the movie, one for Dan, one for the Ben Wade character and one for the gang, the Charlie Prince and all. I would say, pretty much the entire score, is based on one or a combination of those themes, and at the end they come together a little bit. There wasn't any particular part where they were whistling the theme or anything.

We had talked earlier about your work on The Omen and that you had been under the tutelage of Jerry Goldsmith earlier on in your career, and had the luck to fill his shores on The Omen remake. I noticed you tended to pick the more modern Jerry Goldsmith, with electronics, rather than the 1970s Jerry, in a possible way to bring it up to date. Was that an intentional choice on your part for this score?

I think I was cognizant of it but probably it evolved just out of the way I approached it, in trying to approach the score the way Jerry may have approached it from, as you say, because he liked to use electronics in some of his work too. He worked with sounds and timbre and manipulating timbre, and from that point of view I think it was purely coincidence.

So for on the end credits, the track is listed as "76/06", which is based on Jerry Goldsmith's "Ave Satani" from the original Omen, how did you update that for this piece in the new film?

It's sort of a direct quote of it you know, but I thought it be neat to take one of the prominent sounds, which was the sound of a pedal of a piano being depressed and released and the way the strings would resonate inside the piano had a very breathy quality. So we combined that with a processed voice saying the Latin, so it comes out together. Although it's not used extensively throughout the movie, there are places, I don't know what tracks on the CD, but you can hear, but actually in the movie one place you can see it is where Julia Stiles is at the park on the swing with her son, and he's gone and that is a point where, in that scene where it comes out of the wind. We used the "Ave Satani" thing, but it wasn't exactly how Jerry used it in his score.

Unfortunately not to follow along the "Dead Composers Society" vein, but this year you also got to fill in for a series for Michael Kamen for Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth film in the Die Hard series. I'm a big fan of Michael Kamen, and I noticed while listing this, your orchestrations and musical constructs, that your use of the violins and brass in the score, both melodically and rhythmically, although as your own melodies, but they are very reminiscent of Kamen's earlier works for the other three films. Was this once again a conscious effort, or just because of the way the film was, did it draw it out to be this way?

It was conscious in the fact that, both I and the director Len (Wiseman), thought there should be some homage to the original Michael Kamen scores, because they were so classic, even though there wasn't any real defined theme for the movie, there was a Die Hard motif, but real theme. They wanted to reflect the score in some way, but the studio wanted a much more modern sounding score, so the trick was, how to achieve both. But I think the way to achieve that we figured out was to use the chord voicings in the brass, that you mentioned, and the motif and some of the string figures and score the picture in more of a modern setting, but using these throughout as recurrent motivic ideas. I think that achieved some sort of continuity and homage to Kamen's scores and satisfy the requirement of being a modern score.

I went around trying to dig this one up, but a few years ago you scored a very unique film, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. It's a very bizarre film and unique score for you, given your past and current projects in its sound and structure. How'd you become associated with that project and how was your experience on it?

I don't know what got me the job and why they asked to interview me, but I remember having the interview with the director and Jodie Foster, and hitting it off well and then being hired. It was a difficult project to work on, on of the few. It was a tough ride. I don't know if it was the director's first film or one of their first, but he had a bit of a hard time describing or knowing what he wanted. So we ended up going around in circles a lot until Jodie Foster came on board and took over a lot, and then it became quite simple. For a while it was quite tricky.

He didn't have that musical vocabulary some directors are known for, right?

We ended up trying a lot of stuff, I don't know, its just part of the process. It was a little strange.

Being that it's been ten years since we last talked, and at that time you were just getting your footing in Hollywood, at the time more or less, working as an orchestrator, how has your perception of scoring films changed within that time? What preconceptions have changed from back then until now and how have they changed given your experiences?

Well, I think the business itself has been changing a lot right now. I think there is a lot of expectations for producing scores at very low cost and all, it's almost become sort of a commodity it seems like. I'm not crazy with how the business is going right now. You're expected to produce these orchestral scores that nobody cares how they get done and everything is sort of under the table, with everybody wanting you to go overseas. It's really hard right now, I'm fortunate I'm working and working on projects and all that. I think the quality overall has suffered a bit with scores. You hear a lot of repetition of ideas, a reliance on temps, and it's very difficult to stray into original territory. It's become more of a conservative enterprise underpinning a film.

It's become more of a business rather than an art at this point...

It seems, but I don't want to seem overly gloomy, but for every composer in the past who's complained about the status of the way things are in their own time, but maybe it's just a question of being around the business and getting a little bit jaded from when we spoke ten years ago. I'm still really enjoying the work and my work, and I'm working on a great project now (In the Electric Mist) for Bertrand Tavernier which has all Asian-inspired music and it takes place in Louisiana, and I'm really enjoying it. So, it's not like you can't be inspired, and I think the stuff I'm working on is new and all and I'm really excited about it. I'm just talking about an overall trend in the business. I don't know what the end result will be, but I'm sure things will pick up and get better and all. I don't know, I think another thing that bothers me is that composers are put in a position to get pitted against one another. Maybe it's because we don't have a union or whatever.

Kind of like the government giving contracts to the lowest bidder...

It very much is. So just as you go to the lowest bidder, rather than having a standard of what can be expected. So many composers get screwed over for the work they're doing... friends of mine, people that I know. It makes it into a sad state of affairs and not such a great work environment. So from that standpoint, a practical standpoint, the business is kind of crappy right now. So hopefully... it's going to have to reach some point, and then change.

So given all this time, you've had a lot of exposure, what has been you best experience?

Best... I dunno, that's hard to say. The fortunate thing about my business is that all my projects are so different, in many respects, from one another. You'll be working with different personalities, scoring in different places... doing completely different things. In that respect every day is different, and it's and exciting job. So to say one project is the best, it's hard to do... it's like asking who my favorite composer is. It's hard to do, because you may like a few measures from within a piece from a particular composer and not like something else. It's the same with projects, and there are great moments to what you do and things that you get out of it. The positive and negative go hand and hand.

So was there any that was particularly fun doing?

The thing that sticks out for me was the first time we went London was fun, I had never worked there, and I had heard a lot about working at Abbey Road. So working on The Omen with John Moore was a lot of fun, we always had a bottle of Irish whiskey handy. I think that one of the things that sticks out in my mind actually, is when he was conducting me, I was playing the piano and he was in the booth. He came out because I couldn't see the picture, so he was conducting me as to when to start and stop, to slow down and do everything. So we both had a lot to drink and that was a lot of fun. It's at the end of the movie, and that was a great memory I'll always have. But each film is really unique, you know, and that's the exciting part. So I could think of stories for every one of them.

So know with 3:10 and Three Burials under your belt, does that satisfy you need to do westerns? You mentioned in our earlier interview that you'd like to do a Nino Rota/Federico Fellini score as well... so what would be your next dream project now that you've been able to achieve at least on of them?

I still have ideas for western stuff that I haven't done on this film, but yes, I'd still like to do a Fellini-esque type picture. I guess, just more dependent on the individual project, not so much as a style of what (the film) is. It can be anything you can get inspiration from, so the quality of the picture or something on it's own, as opposed to a genre thing. I guess there is one thing I can I'm not interested in doing is romantic comedies. But I have kids now, so doing a kids movie would be kind of fun now. They often have a lot of music in them and it'd be great to do. I'd love to do, for instance, these Tin-Tin movies that they're talking about because I was a huge fan of Tin-Tin when I was younger. My kids read them, and knew every line from every book, and you asked me who said it, I could tell you what book and what page it was on. Even though those directors have their guys they work with and all... that would be a dream project. A dream.

In another interview, on of the composer mentioned, contrary to the types of films they have worked on, they'd like to do a Batman film... those superhero films... you'd accomplished that already with Hellboy.

That was, when you talk about it, was one of those that stuck out as a great experiences.

So given you now have a decade of experience in Hollywood, what would you take from that to guide you, or change, for you next ten years and beyond?

I guess the main thing is not to take yourself too seriously, and this business too seriously. It's easy to get caught up and have disappointments, which can lead to a disruptive lifestyle. I guess the one thing I learned is that my kids and my family are the grounding (force) and to take everything with a grain of salt.

You've had a busy year in 2007 (6 scores, 5 films), and besides the In the Electric Mist for 2008, what projects are you currently working on that you can discuss and share with our readers?

There are two possibilities, but nothing else is cut in stone right now. I had an interview for a film today, so we'll see how that goes...


3:10 to Yuma was recently released on DVD and CD and Live Free, or Die Hard is also available on regular and special unrated edition (one of the first to have a pre-ripped digital copy for consumer use) DVDs.

Special thanks to Allie Lee, Marco Beltrami and Dan Goldwasser.