by Dan Goldwasser
Rolfe Kent has written some rather interesting scores for some rather interesting films. From Citizen Ruth and The Slums of Beverly Hills to Election, he has always captured the mood through his unique choices of rhythm and instrumentation. His latest film, Gun Shy is no exception. I had the opportunity to talk to Rolfe at his studio in Los Angeles
In your score to Gun Shy - a rather eclectic comedy - you seemed to have captured many ethnic nuances in a musically simply way.
I'm glad it seemed simple. It wasn't, but I'm glad it appeared that way. In my mind, it's not an esoteric approach. It has things like a mandolin, an oud, and other instruments like that. They are all within the palette of the film. There is a slight Latin element for the Colombians, and the mandolin for the Italian flare. There are all sorts of ethnicities in there.
How does one go about scoring this type of film?
Well, firstly there are a number of separate individuals with personalities in there, and so to a degree one simply finds a voice for that personality. Liam Neeson's character, Charlie, is represented by the mandolin theme - it's both Irish and Italian - you can use it in many different milieus; it has a nice swing to it. I suppose the broad strokes - the main threads of the film - have their own music. So as the threads interweave, so does the music and you hear echoes of each theme. But the Irish bit at the end of the film was entirely because the filmmakers heard an Irish cue I had written for something else, and said "can we have one please?" They really loved it - and I said, "Sure we can put one in". It's not necessarily out of place, but it's the only time you hear it.
You used whistling for a lot of the "showdown"-esque scenes in Gun Shy - is this some type of homage to the Ennio Morricone westerns?
While the whistling is very Morricone, it's not an homage - I tend to use whistling in all of my scores - Citizen Ruth, Mercy, and others. I think it's a really good sound haunting sound. Morricone would tend to use a female solo voice in many of his scores. There are certain sounds that are just haunting - and whistling is one of those sounds. I love using it - it's simple, but carries a lot of emotional weight.
You didn't get your start in music - you were a psychology major?
Yes, but since the age of 12 I wanted to score films. I was always driven in this direction. I've always been open to the possibility of doing something completely different, but I really love doing this. Even when I tried other things - I always came back to scoring. When I was studying psychology, I wondered if I wanted to be a psychologist. I obviously thought about that stuff. Scoring films is all about psychology. It's all emotion. With storytelling you need to have a grasp of how people are going to respond to what you're doing. Storytelling, writing, and music are all about creating anticipation with a set of rhythms. Then people anticipate certain sequences from the rhythms that you've set up, whether it's in words, or narrative, or music. It's all about communication, which is a psychology in itself.
Did you find it hard to break into the film music industry?
I had no relatives in the industry - no musical relatives, in fact. I know some people have better connections than others, but it was pretty tricky to get into it. The people I most feel sorry for are the actors. I know a lot of people want to score films, but the sheer number of people wanting to act is just overwhelming! What they must go through!
You tend to use a lot of rhythms in your scores - how do you tend to approach writing your music?
There's no particular way - it's just whatever turns up, and when it turns up. I love rhythm - it works very well in cinema. The history of film music is filled with people who have done cunning things that might not work standing alone, but against a picture they unfold beautifully. I tend to start with melody mostly, but the rhythmic qualities I really like and I think they really work - they're fun in film. Anyways, there's something really fun about groove. I think that groove and melody are the essence of what I bring to the party.
Your score to The Theory of Flight appeared to be more orchestral than Gun Shy - it was more sweeping and full.
Well, there's a full orchestra in Gun Shy - it's just not sweeping and romantic. We have a full orchestra, plus cimbalom, mandolin, guitar, and percussion. That's what you're dealing with - but it's the solo instruments that you tend to notice. They command more attention than strings, per se. I think a solo instrument makes someone pay attention. You're used to the sound of a full orchestra sweeping away - it doesn't rivet you. You don't look for the type of detail from 24 violins that you would from one guitar - it's not conscious, but I think you can pick up much more nuance. It's also a testament to a great engineer. Just being able to balance out all of the sounds and let the voices that need to be heard drive the thing.
What can you tell me about your other film coming out this year, Nurse Betty?
Well, it's directed by Neil LaBute - he did In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors. He's never had a score before, so this was a new experience for him. It's also the first film he's directed that he hasn't written. It's a really fun movie with an ensemble cast - Renee Zellweger, Chris Rock, Morgan Freeman, and Greg Kinnear comprise the main cast. I'm not quite sure how to describe it. It's a really fun interesting dark film - a romantic film as well. The score is a mixture of things, a lot of rhythm, but it's a full orchestra. I have some nice analog synths making some nasty noises - something I thought I'd experiment with - and I am very pleased with the result.
Do you have a dream project?
Well, it's a hard question to answer - you can think of films that already exist, and wish I had gotten one of those. In that case, I would love to have a Dances With Wolves - something with simplicity but a deep emotional sweep to it. I would love to do a Bond film. David Arnold does a great job - I think he does exactly what the Bond series needs - musically Bond films have a genre of their own, and it's not about re-inventing it. It's not about saying, "I have my own style and I'm going to bring this in." It's about working in that genre and bringing interesting stuff to what was already there. We know what the Bond music sounds like - and we want to hear it! What I would do is what he's doing - to a large degree.
So do you feel you would want to take on more action projects?
I would take on anything that's intelligent. Within all genres there's stuff that isn't very good. I wouldn't do any genre without thinking about it - I would always want to do stuff because it was interesting to me. I would even do a horror film. Take Alien - how could you not do something like that if it was that good? One would generally tend to be cautious about horror as a genre - but you can't live by caution - you live by optimism. Also the film isn't finished when you get it. The fact is that it hasn't got your stamp on it yet, and that might bring out elements which you yourself didn't realize at the time. The Slums of Beverly Hills - not that I ever had reservations about doing it - was quite different after it was all finished - and that's a testament to Tamara Jenkins' involvement and direction because she knew where she wanted the music to go. I didn't know what I was going to be contributing, and it's because of her direction that the film ended up the way it was. I was thrilled with the result. You never know - it's not over till it's over.
What upcoming film projects can you tell us about?
Right now I'm preparing for Daniel Waters' new film, Happy Campers. He wrote Heathers and the story for Batman Returns. This is his directorial debut, and he also wrote the screenplay. It's going to be a lot of fun - it's looking rather interesting.
Gun Shy is playing a limited release in New York and Los Angeles. No score release is expected. Nurse Betty should be out later this summer.
Special thanks to Jeff Sanderson at Chasen & Co. for setting up this interviewNote - composer Ken Williams actually provided an underscore to The Company of Men