by Dan Goldwasser
Graeme Revell has composed nearly 60 scores in the past 11 years, and this past year composed six film scores - including three science fiction films and an epic mini-series. With such films as The Crow, From Dusk Till Dawn, Spawn, and The Siege under his belt, Revell recently tackled Pitch Black, Gossip, Titan A.E., Attraction, Red Planet, and "Dune". SoundtrackNet had an opportunity to catch up with Graeme at his home in Los Angeles.
Most recently you worked on the six-hour long "Dune" mini-series for the Sci-Fi Channel. How did you get involved with this project?
I think my music editor and the editor were friends, and it was one of those jobs where they used a lot of my music in the temp, and so they brought me in. I liked the people involved, and I thought it would be fun. Also, I hadn't done any television, and I remember being quite disappointed in the original David Lynch film, so I thought it would be interesting to sign on to something that was trying to do a better job. The books were great. I think the mini-series succeeded well, given the boundaries of television. I think a problem with "Dune" is that there's just so much exposition needed. The first third of the piece is spent just telling everybody who the characters are. Those big sagas are like that, and I think people are concerned about The Lord of the Rings for the same reason.
"Dune" was your fourth science fiction film of 2000. Do you think you're being typecast?
Oh, only slightly. <laughs> The good news, though, is that science fiction is probably the most interesting palette that you can use in a movie - you really can use almost any sound. So I really like doing it.
Were you a fan of "Dune" before you got involved on the project?
I wouldn't say I was a rabid fan, but I did enjoy it - I like science fiction.
Did you have any preconceived musical ideas for "Dune" from the time you had initially read the book (before you got involved in the project)?
I can't say that I had - it was too long ago. I read the book long before I got into doing what I do. It's frequently the case now that I think about such things. But not back then.
For the score to Red Planet, you used French singer Emma Shapplin as a soloist singing in Italian - that seems to be what she does.
I believe she's only done one record; some of her songs were French, and some were Italian. The interest for me came from reading Dante - I don't know why I picked it up - but I read it, and one of the sections refers to "The Fifth Sphere of Mars" and I thought, this is pretty cool! There wasn't much room in the movie, unfortunately, for vocals. It was just impossible - every time we tried to do it, there was some voiceover going on, or something else. I really conceived of the film and the soundtrack as two different ideas. I get a little bored with just "movie soundtracks" - I like the idea of taking a theme and going somewhere else with it.
So you basically had your themes and score for the film, but then you took those themes and expanded on them for the soundtrack?
Yes - so one of the songs is based on the main theme, which also reprises at the end - a version of it . Another theme, "The Inferno" has a bit of vocal in the movie. I know some soundtrack fans actually get irritated if the music isn't on the soundtrack that was in the movie - but it's as you pointed out. It was my fourth Sci-Fi film of the year, and the last thing I wanted to do was just another soundtrack like all of the others. So it was worth a try - people seem to like it, and it's getting a good response. Additionally, Emma is probably my next project - in February or March, I'll be doing her next album. I'll be writing about half and producing all of the songs.
Is that something you've done before - branching beyond film music?
Yes, I did that with an album called "Vision 2" which was the songs of Rumi of the 12th century - a Persian poet - and I worked with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who was the singer on Dead Man Walking. Unfortunately, he died the week before were going to do a huge show in Istanbul in the mosque there - so that all came to nothing; such a tragedy. But this time around, I want to develop a whole visual show with the artist, Emma.
Would you go on tour?
Well, not me - but yes, she would be doing a tour, and I would figure out the orchestra and what would be needed like a choir and keyboards, and I would probably choose a touring musical director - we will be working with Miles Copeland. I must credit Doug Franke at Warner Bros for encouraging me to go in that direction.
Titan A.E. was your first animated film. How was it to work on that?
It was extremely exciting to be chosen and to work on it - I worked closely with Glen Ballard who was doing the songs, and also with directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. All are immensely talented people. I have to say, as often happens in animation, there were a lot of people involved and perhaps compromise happens sometimes under those circumstances that you wish didn't. Personally, I had a great time - I tried to be a little more percussive and a little more interesting that some other animation scores. It's just a little bad luck about how the movie was perceived. The animation world has a long musical tradition, and trying to break the mold is extremely difficult. I would love to do another animation film if I get the chance.
For The Insider, you wrote "additional music" - how did that come about?
Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke had been on the film for about six months, and then I came on board. If you look at the music sheet for every scene, Michael Mann has four or five musical alternates for every scene. He just likes that. He has various people write what they do - how they see the scene, and he'll juggle them and try them all different ways. So ultimately, he pretty much decided to stay with Lisa's work for most of the film - and he wanted a bit of a change up for the Al Pacino character, which I did.
So you wrote more music than what was used?
Yes, there's quite a bit more. I don't think I'd ever release the other stuff - but yes, I wrote a lot for that film. I knew in advance that I was only doing certain cues, and it was understood that not all of it would be used.
Do you like that approach to filmmaking?
You know, I'm always excited by anybody who takes a different approach, and you can see from Michael's work that it's extremely interesting and usually very successful. So who's to argue with the way he does it? For a composer, Michael said, "Just do what you do" - and I think as a film composer (which is why he tends to have difficult relations with film composers) we react to a film- so when he says something like "Just do what you do", it does beg the question, "What is it I do anymore? I'm not sure anymore - I just score films". Whereas perhaps he had a guitarist Gustavo Santaolalla - that's what he does - he plays guitar. Therefore if Michael thinks it fits the scene, of course it fits the scene. But it's much more difficult for a film composer to work that way - we have different styles at our disposal.
Your first project was Dead Calm - what was that like?
I was the fourth or fifth person hired on Dead Calm. Phillip Noyce was the director, and he wanted an electronic score - so I wrote an electronic score, which he loved. George Miller was the producer and 2nd unit director, and he was an equal partner with Phillip in the process, and he wanted a classical score. So he had the whole film temped with "Tanhauser" by Wagner - and he wanted me to do a score in that vein. So we tried to do that, and it was very difficult because the only way I could demo it was on an eight-track FairLight - which at that time sounded awful - you couldn't demo full on Wagner! We really didn't think that worked, so fortunately I already had a piece I'd written under the auspices of my group (there was no group really) and we tried that and I told him why I thought it worked. He really loved it, so effectively I ended up writing three scores - and it was the third score that I used.
I guess it had about three or four major instruments - a solo cello, two opera singers, heavy African drumming, and me doing heavy breathing. Those were the four major elements - I guess it set up my career! But it does show in a nutshell what a film composer has to do - I guess you have to be eclectic sometimes even on the same movie!
People tend to think of The Crow when they think of your work.
Thanks! I remember a lot of soundtrack fans didn't receive that one all that well, but since then it's been shown to be very influential. There are a lot of people doing that type of stuff now! I still get so much feedback from that. If you go on the internet, there are so many people who are into that Gothic material - it's very popular. I had to do the score to the second film in eight days - from writing to recording. It was never in very good shape as far as editing went - there were lots of issues.
You also ran into an unfortunate situation on The 13th Warrior.
Yeah, that was a shame. I still really like that score. It was very odd - I'm always astonished at how a production can spend that much money recording something, and then not even listen to it, simply because the new director or producer has a prior relationship that he wanted to go with. To be honest, I don't think it made any difference either way, for that particular film. Jerry did a good job, but certainly. I think there was a structural problem with the film - there was no action on the screen for the first six reels. There was a lot of reporting of action - someone would come on screen and say, "It was terrible!" Well, why don't we just see glimpses of it? That would be the way to do it. But I was proud of the music, and I hope to use it again. The good news is that I own the composition - but not the recording.
Is that the case with all of your work?
I believe that's the case if something's not used - you get to keep the composition. I'm not sure I'd want to test that in the courts, but there's an interesting point that you can see where my hero for example, Ennio Morricone, has reached. He gets all of his new movies temptracked with all of his old movies - and that's something I try and avoid. It's bad enough when you get temped with someone else's music, but it's even worse when it's your own because it seems, in a lot of cases, perfect. Why would you want to come up with anything else? It's a very strange phenomenon. People think they're paying homage to your work by temping it on their movie, but in fact I think they're doing the filmmaking process a disservice.
Have you ever relied heavily on a temp?
I think that on The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, I was very young and they didn't trust me so I was kind of forced to sound like the temp. Since then I haven't fortunately been pressured to do that. I usually come up with something different.
What are you working on now?
I just finished Double Take for George Gallo at Disney - it's a black urban comedy. The music style is a funky, 70's feel with a contemporary urban groove and some Mexican influences. It's a run-across-the-border, double-switch film - it's very funny. I also just finished Blow directed by Ted Demme starring Johnny Depp. That was a very taut but very emotional score - I was very pleased to do that one. It's a story about a drug dealer made into a very moral tale. He's very likeable, even though he's made every wrong choice imaginable - he's even ruined his family. It's a very good tale.
The one I'm working on now is called Human Nature. It's written by Charlie Kaufman, (Being John Malkovich) with Spike Jonze producing, and Michel Gondry directing. It stars Patricia Arquette, Tim Robbins, Ed Reese, and Rhys Ifans - it's a bizarre film. I love it because I'm getting to use all of my old synths and a lot of very strange old vintage sounds. It's very quirky - I haven't had a chance to do that before.
I love working on this film - it's so quirky, in every scene. Briefly, it's about a woman who has a terrible body hair problem who goes to live in the woods. There she meets a man whose father has gone crazy and brought the baby up as an ape. They bring him back and meet a guy who runs a lab who believes that by teaching lab mice manners, we can teach the human race better manners. <laughs> But the great thing is that you can look at any scene and probably score it one of a hundred different ways, so choosing the right cool one to do it with is really fun. Sometimes with studio films you are locked into a certain way of writing. They want it to be like American Beauty - or something that's already been a success. Human Nature is an independent production, so it's wonderful to be working with these sorts of incredibly imaginative people.
It sounds like you've been busy!
Well yes, and even though I did four sci-fi films this year, I did three that were very different at the end of the year. <laughs> It's a great relief, I must say. It's nice not to have to write 80-minutes of full-on action.
So it's important to stay fresh and take on different types of projects.
Oh certainly, if just for my piece of mind - because there's a tendency to start repeating yourself. I noticed (I don't mind being honest about these things) that there were certain things in Pitch Black that you just think, "Hmm - it worked in Pitch Black, and there's the same type of scene in Red Planet..." <laughs> But Pitch Black worked really well I think and delivered a lot of bang for the budget . Director David Twohy has many other projects lined up and Iıd love to work with him again. Theyıre making another one, but I haven't been asked to score it yet.
Do you have a dream project?
I'm working on it. I'm producing a movie at Disney called The Tear Garden. Peter Schneider bought it from us. It's actually my story - it's about my band in a mental asylum when I was 21 - we developed a story based on that, so that's fun. I get to write songs for the band to play. But it's not a regular band - the music is made from found instruments, like toy pianos and things like that. It's a fun comedy about a guy who really doesn't know why he's gone to work in an asylum - it just seemed like a cool idea. By meeting this girl, Billie Teargarden - who becomes the singer in the band, he finds out to his surprise what he's good at. Lo and behold - he had no idea what he was good at in life, he thought he wanted to be a musician but he's actually good at looking after people. I also have two or three other things that I'm trying to get produced. I must say the main reason for wanting to produce in the first place was that I feel that there aren't enough good movies around. So in a way, if I try to do some myself then there's no excuse!
Graeme's score to Red Planet is available on Pangaea Records. The score to "Dune" will be coming out from GNP Crescendo in February. Special thanks to Versa Manos for arranging the interview.