by David A. Koran
SoundtrackNet recently had the opportunity to speak with composer Theodore Shapiro about his recent work on Harold Ramis' Year One. He discusses his "eureka" moment on the film and the challenges this prehistoric road trip as well as some of his other working experiences.
We last had a chance to talk with you in 2004, you just scored Dodgeball, directed by Rawson Thurber. Since then you've scored probably about a dozen and a half films and, for Year One, this is your first collaboration with Harold Ramis, how did you become attached to the picture?
I had met with him when he was working on the The Ice Harvest, which I wanted to score, which unfortunately I was not hired to do. We met, and I really liked him. I think it was just one of those things where he hired somebody else, but we had very positive feelings about one another. So when this one came up, it was a bit easier to get. He's just such pleasure to work with and a bright guy. He has a very interesting, philosophical perspective on the work that he's doing.
We've spoken to other composers before, and a number of them say there are some directors who "get music" and let the composer do their job, and others that don't and think they do, and try to meddle. What was it like to work with Harold on the film there?
It was really enjoyable, we got in sync about what we were doing pretty early. So, for the most part, the discussions that we had were about fine-tuning the individual moments. We were really just sort of keeping an eye towards developing a structure for the score that mirrored the evolution of the characters in the film. The film is like a road trip movie, but as the characters go on their road trip the movie is exploring the evolution of civilization.
The characters start out as hunter/gatherers. Then they encounter Cain and Abel in a more agrarian society. Then they encounter the Hebrews, and so on, and so forth. I think what Harold is trying to get at is telling some kind of a version of the Old Testament in a very, very loose way. He was trying to get at something that explores the evolution of civilization.
Part of what we talked about is starting out with something that felt primitive and tribal, and then sort of having the music migrate towards the Middle East. This is as though the characters were beginning in Africa, and sort of walking up into the Middle East, in a very non literal way.
Did you reference any of the old Bob Hope and Bing Crosby road trip films, or did you just go off on your own and pick what you wanted to do? What other musical styles or ideas did you try to reference when developing this score?
I've seen bits and pieces of those movies, and that is clearly the spirit of this movie, but I did not reference any of those scores. There was an interesting process with this movie. Somewhere in the middle of writing the score I took a bit of a departure in direction. The initial thrust of this score was more faithful to the notion of African music and then Middle Eastern music. I was applying those styles in a more straight-ahead way, and with a heavier reliance on the orchestra.
At a certain point in the process, I started to feel like maybe the score was underlining the wrong thing about the movie. It was underlining the story of Jack Black's destiny, which I think was an entirely reasonable tactic to take. I started to think the strongest thing that is really holding this movie together is that road trip aspect of it, and the relationship between Jack Black and Michael Cera. That was really the strength and heart of the film.
I backed away from being quite so literal, and moved towards something that was really modern and used almost a collage type approach to the music. I was taking drum loops and little snippets of modern guitars, ethnic woodwinds and stringed instruments. I pasted them together and added the orchestra on top of that.
Who knows how I thought of it? It's just one of those things that flew into my head. When I stumbled across that, everything really clicked and that's when everything really came together.
It sounds like the score is very involved and intricate. I did hear some influences of Jerry Goldsmith's Planet of the Apes. Is there anything in the score that you would like the casual listener or movie goer to take away that you find especially interesting or a little something you put in there that's unique?
Right off the top of my head, in the main title cue, there is a boar hunt. Harold and I came up with this idea of using the music of the Indonesian Kathak dance as part of that sequence. Most people aren't familiar with that, but it's a form of music that involves a lot of people chanting. It is very complex music that involves interlocking parts of everybody just chanting, "Thak Thak Thak Thak". All the parts are interlocking in such a way that it sounds like this very dense rhythmic texture. We found a sample of that which we liked and we used that in the main title cue. That's a fun use of a musical performance that is. I think, a little bit different.
So basically, when it gets sold to a distributor in Southeast Asia you'll have everybody standing up and cheering at the main title.
Either cheering or [laughter] horrified that I've completely misused this style of music for a boar hunt. Hopefully it will be the former.
I think that film score fans may find that there are one or two things. One of my absolute favorite scores, and a very influential score to me, was John Williams' score for Raiders of the Lost Ark. I think that it would be wholly appropriate to say that towards the end of the film, as the music sort of verges into a slightly more orchestral style, there are some recollections of the score to Raiders, in particular the Map Room and the Ark themes. There is clearly an homage being paid to that.
David: Looking back at your career so far, you have tended to stick to comedies… is this a genre of film that you intend to stick with, or would you like to branch out into other films?
I always like to keep myself interested in my work, and the more variety the better. With that said, the films that I've had the privilege of working on are wholly engaging, challenging, interesting to me. This is the case in films like Year One or Tropic Thunder, in which the genre is really merging with either action or adventure. Those are really great films to work on, and are satisfying on every level to me as a composer. While I would certainly love to work in other genres, I have absolutely nothing to complain about the work I'm doing now.
What do you find appealing about composing in general that kept you from doing something else as a career? Did you always want to start out and do movies?
I don't know what else I would do. This is just always what I've wanted to do. Although I grew up with my parents telling me that I was going to find something else to do with my life, find a more stable career. From the time that I went to college and decided that I was, in fact, going to pursue this as a career, I just haven't considered anything else. I really thoroughly enjoy working on films.
There is just something very special about that time that you spend alone with the picture. It happens, particularly, in the beginning of the process, where you are wandering in the desert and searching for something that works. It can happen, as well, when you are just searching for something that's different and unique, and you stumble across something that excites you, there's really nothing better. It is work that I absolutely love, and there's nothing that I'd rather be doing.
Which is what's the most fun, or the most challenging, project that you've worked on?
[laughs] Well, let's see. I think that, as far as fun goes, I've done a couple of films with David Frankel, who directed Marley & Me and The Devil Wears Prada. Those films both took their final form, very, very early on. He is an extremely good director who knows what he is trying to accomplish and knows how to accomplish it. Those movies just were both incredibly enjoyable processes, mostly because of the working relationship. It happens when working with somebody who is just such a nice person and so confident in their skills and their process.
At the same time, I would say that Year One was one of those instances where I had this "discovery" in mid course of composing for the film. It was very exhilarating because, to a certain degree, it required me to take my head off of my shoulders and then turn it sideways put it back on, and see the film in a slightly different way.
It's exciting when you realize, "Oh, wow. There are so many ways that you can do this job!" It's a very exhilarating feeling to stretch yourself in that way to try to take a totally different approach and make it work.
I think that the most challenging experiences are the ones where you work on a film that goes on a very long time. You can always deal with directors who are demanding, and that is certainly very hard, but it's something that I think that we all learn to deal and live with. I think what's hard is when you on a film for a very, very long time. This is either because the film is just in post (production) forever, or the testing process is making it drag out. You just start to lose all perspective on what the film is, and you start to question your own first instincts. You no longer have that fresh perspective on what the picture is doing, and those experiences are really challenging. They really take away your best weapon, which is just a fresh instinct towards the picture.
You noted in our earlier interview in 2004 that, "your musical heroes change on a day to day basis." Who are your heroes, currently?
I've really had the same hero for a while, which is Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen, of all the 20th century composers, I feel like he just imagined a sonic world that just hadn't existed anywhere else. I'm just so inspired when I listen to his music, because it's just so phenomenally original and unique and passionate. It's driven by his very particular passion; for religion, for birds, and so forth, and that's very inspiring for me to listen to.
Is there anything you have on your upcoming schedule that you can share that we should be on the lookout for?
The next thing up is something I'm just finishing now called Jennifer's Body. I actually co composed the score with a young composer named Steven Barton. That was a really fun movie to work on, and the first time I've ever worked on a horror film. It was a lot of fun to delve into that genre.
You mentioned in the previous interview that working with Todd Haynes would be one of your dream projects? Have you had a chance to have him come knocking at your door, or have you've gone hunting for him to try to get attached to one of his projects recently?
No, I have not gone out in search of Todd Haynes, although I would still absolutely love to work with Todd. But between 2004 and now I have had two children. I would say that right now, that I would really love to do is work on is the kind of movie that eventually might touch their imagination. I'd hope that, in the same way, for me, as a nine year old seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark really changed my life. I would hope to work on something at some point which would do the same thing for them. That would really be my dream project.
Thanks to Caitlin Owens of ID PR and Theodore Shapiro for their time and assistance with this interview.