by Dan Goldwasser
Alan Silvestri might be known from his collaborations with director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Cast Away), but he is also one of the more versatile composers working in Hollywood today. From action (Predator, The Abyss, The Mummy Returns), to comedy (Soapdish, Grumpy Old Men, Stuart Little), he has proven himself to be capable with any type of film. SoundtrackNet had a chance to talk with Alan just as The Mummy Returns squashed Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace for the record for best non-holiday opening weekend ever.
Let's first talk about The Mummy Returns, which had a phenomenal opening weekend...
It's all good! I think one of the things that was fun about working on that film was that no one was ever trying to do anything but create a fun movie. You read some of the critical comments on it, and it's like, "Hey guys, lighten up!" It's a fun movie! I know that was Stephen Sommers' intention. The first movie was a bag of popcorn, and he wanted a whole tub of popcorn for this second go around.
You had to write over 110 minutes of music?
That's right - I think it clocked out somewhere in excess of 113. I'm not sure how accurate it was, but someone mentioned that there are only seven minutes of the film that does not have music. It was quite an undertaking. Just from the physical standpoint it's a lot of stuff to have to do. It's one of the more breathless movies I've ever seen in terms of never letting anyone sit for just a moment. Steve wanted that aspect in the music as well. He didn't want any hanging about - it was pedal to the metal from front to back. So physically it was a lot of material to do.
...and this was shortly out of Cast Away, which had only about 20 minutes of music...
Certainly, it was 180 degrees away from the demands of that film. The Mummy Returns was so over the top that you could allow yourself to go over the top musically. Undoubtedly there's this action component to the film that's completely obvious, then you have these huge desert scenes with 4-million people on camera, then you have these fun characters to deal with. You have this husband and wife who are like the Nick and Nora of Egypt; they are very sexy and very much in love, and it's kind of a sweet lustful relationship, which is fun. Then you have Imhotep, who is the bad guy everyone loves to love, and in the end Rick and Imhotep are doing it all for love. Rick's doing it because his wife has to go and do all this because it's her destiny and Imhotep is doing it for his lady. So you have this timeless love component that's going on, and Steve has taken it to such a grand scale that it's almost operatic in its proportions. So we figured we'd pull out all the stops, and just go along. That's what I was hoping to do! It probably doesn't give the critics a lot to write about, it's exactly what they wanted it to be. Obviously folks have to justify the ink, but the few things I've read, the people who didn't like the second one didn't like the first one.
Did you feel like you had to fill Goldsmith's shoes?
We didn't use any of his material, but Jerry has been one of my idols and icons forever, and it was a rather unusual set of circumstances. The first film was very successful, and Jerry's score was fantastic. It was just unusual to not have that combination revisited, and to be asked to come in and carry it on. When you look at sequels to successful films, it's very rare. Look, I don't even try to fill Jerry's shoes - he's bulging over on his own...
Well, you have some pretty big shoes too...
Yes, they're different shoes and they're my shoes, but in a sense I don't look at it like that - but certainly that's an area of questioning that was bound to crop up when I was asked to do this project. I didn't try from the point of view of filling his shoes, but I certainly felt that I was being asked to come in behind someone who had done a spectacular job and I have to give it my all and do the best I can.
Let's jump back a bit to another effects-heavy film, Stuart Little. Are you involved in the sequel?
Yes, I am going to be doing that one. Rob Minkoff was a fantastic director to work for, and I'm looking forward to going back into the room with him and working on the film.
The big thing everyone talks about, of course, is your work on "CHiPs".
It was one of your earlier projects - did that help get your career going?
Oh, absolutely. It's like anything else. You can only learn so much.... In those days there weren't any film music departments in schools, so there weren't many places to learn the craft except by working on the job. I did about 120 hours of that show, and it was my taste of dealing with horrendous schedules and having to deliver something day after day. I think that any time a composer can write something and see it against a piece of film, there's a tremendous opportunity to learn. So it was a tremendous learning experience for me - dealing with producers, directors, dealing with film, and schedules, and the mechanics of film scoring. It was invaluable, and it kept me alive for three or four years, and allowed me to spend my down time studying and working and not have to go to another means to make my living, which was another component. You have to have the time to do this if you're going to do it. So that was all positive.
So how did you meet Robert Zemeckis for Romancing The Stone?
I met Bob Zemeckis about 17 years ago, we were just talking about it since I was with him this weekend. It's a good segue from your previous question. He was working on Romancing The Stone and had had a great deal of music submitted to him - none of which he sparked to. The music editor on that film happened to have been the music editor on "CHiPs". So one fateful night he called me up and explained the situation: "I'm working on this movie and this director has just not sparked to anyone's music - do you think you'd like to take a shot at this?" At that point I had been out of work for over a year, and I was ready to take a shot at anything. The next thing I knew, he was introducing me to Robert Zemeckis over the phone, and I put a demo together for him. The next morning I went in to meet him, and at the close of that day I had already been on the phone a couple of times with Michael Douglas - and I was doing Romancing The Stone! The part that a lot of people don't know is that when I went in for that meeting, I was wearing a Calvin Klein sweater and I walked in and Bob had on the exact same sweater - so that was the sign! You have to make sure you're wearing the right sweater when you go to a meeting! <laughs>
A lot of what you've done with Zemeckis is considered some of your best work. You recently visited the realm of Hitchcock (and Bernard Herrmann) with your work on What Lies Beneath...
Oh, the whole thing was a tribute to Hitchcock. There was never any secret about it - what was fun for all of us in doing this was that it was an opportunity to work in that genre, and dress up in that garb and explore what the genre is, what it was, and what allowed it to work - and continues to make it work. I think we all entered into that sprit. The Hitchcock films are among the greatest films - and the most favorite of all of us involved and so this was just an amazing opportunity to go and visit that genre. Of course you have a modern technological environment that is surrounding the project, but not in terms of the choreography and the emotional side of it - so it was just amazing to have fun with it like that, which we all did.
So we had a real blast doing that, and if it weren't for Bob, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to work on a film like that. It's something he's always wanted to do - he always wanted to look at that type of material and figure out how would he scare the folks, and what worked and didn't work in the old films, and how could he take that knowledge base and filter it through his own creativity, which was the experiment for him.
Cast Away was split up into two segments, around What Lies Beneath. So you must have had early discussions with Bob about the music...
Bob includes me very early on in what he's doing, so it's interesting. We theorize about all sorts of things until the movie's finished. For instance on Forrest Gump, Bob called up and said, "Al, I don't think there will be any score in this movie". Then another time he said, "I think there's going to be a lot of music in this movie". I think we enjoy stopping in the train stations along the way. But in the end it comes down to the film. Traditionally he's done such a clear job of telling his story that we just have to take our leave of the film and never try to inflict any theory on it once it's finished. It's like sitting there and theorizing about what's already right in front of you. You're better off just listening to what the movie wants than sit there and try to figure it out. There's nothing to figure out; it's already done, now just listen to it! Cast Away was a really glaring example of that.
We watched it and everyone was on board about the use of music in the film, and what it didn't need to be. We knew it didn't need to be some kind of traditional... Look, after The Mummy Returns you know I have no problem with being "Hollywood", but for this particular film it somehow demanded an approach that was just not the conventional musical treatment for a film of this scope. So we felt something very similar to what we felt with Gump. We were going to be walking a very fine line with everything - whether you're the effects person, the cinematographer, or the composer. If you lose your perspective you could really destroy something that was very fragile. Cast Away was a very extreme example of that. You go through the film, and after all of this time you still haven't heard the music. Then he breaks through that wave and you think, "Here we go - now they're going to do it!" but nope, can't do that yet! We would destroy the movie if we played the thing like that. So it was really interesting to look at it that way. Then it came down to instrumentation - there needed to be a purity of material for this movie, and that's where the choice ultimately came from to use a medium sized string orchestra and an oboe and an English horn supporting it. The oboe is known as being an amazingly pure sound sonically. Not that we approached it through theory, but through the process of elimination - I couldn't hear anything else in the movie. So it's an interesting exercise in trying to listen to the needs of the film and find something that's appropriate.
Another recent film you worked on, The Mexican, allowed you to revisit the Ennio Morricone-stylings that you used in The Quick and The Dead...
I think Gore Verbinski has a lot of eclectic musical tastes. I worked on Mouse Hunt with him, and he like to keep a very loose reign musically, and in a lot of other aspects, about how he tells the story, and goes to a lot of diverse influences. Yeah, Ennio has created an idiom, in a sense. It is part of cinematic language, the way he wrote and the way he treated those films that he did. So as the body of knowledge builds over time, this language becomes part of the overall cinematic language. And the fun part is that it has tremendous associative value. The way Hitchcock plays the shower scene - you've seen a lot of filmmakers shoot that scene on film. These become part of the vocabulary. So of course, homage. When Ennio did this stuff, it wasn't funny, because he was creating the language. Now you can use it and have it be ironic, or poignant, or all sorts of things all because of the associative value that it has in the language of cinema. And that's a lot of fun, then! So that is something I think we all have to be thankful to him for, just as we have to be thankful to Hitchcock and so many other filmmakers for creating these language tools that now have a tremendous range and possibility because they are so well known and associatively valuable.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a Disney film called Lilo and Stitch, which is a really wonderful animation project. It's not my first Disney film, having done Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but it is my first full-animated Disney film.
What would your dream project be?
Well, let's talk about what makes for a dream, as opposed to a nightmare. We can certainly start there! I've now done ten movies with Bob Zemeckis. One of the things involved in a dream project for me is having a tremendous level of love, support, and trust from the director. I always view the composer as an actor in the film - they need to be directed, they need an environment created around them that allows them to do their creative work. They also need the support. They need all of that in order to go hang it out there. Because like any other performer, if it is threatening, if it is tenuous, they will do what everyone does in that situation, which is play it safe. I think that is a component of the dream project - having that kind of tremendous communication and support from the director. I think another aspect is to have a director of the capability as someone like Bob who through their artistry can go ahead and create a standard that one feels a calling to measure up to.
I always liken working with Bob to being on a relay race, where you're the last guy to go. Here it is - here's Cast Away. Here's Gump. Bob Zemeckis runs his lap, breaks the world record. Tom Hanks runs his lap, breaks the world record. And then they hand you the baton. It's like, "We're done, pal, you gotta take the stick around the course now." You absolutely feel some kind of moral imperative to dig and search for the best you can possibly do. So that is part of the dream project. I think having the financial resources in the film so that when you do allow yourself to go to wherever you can go to come up with the best response to the film that you have the ability to actually get it done. And lastly, everybody has their own kind of slant and thoughts on what it is to be a film composer and how they come to it and how music fits into their life and all that.
I've thought about it, and I see myself as a filmmaker first, who happens to write music. So what I really love about this is I love working with a story and using music as an instrument to tell the story. A lot of folks over the years have made comments about the diversity of the music I write, stylistically and in every other way. For me it's not a mystery because I write music in response to a film and a story. I don't sit and write it in a vacuum. I always try to look for what the film needs, and then I do the storytelling aspect that has a musical component through the music. The better the story, the better it is told, the more of a dream project it is for me on that level. It's like being with an incredibly boring person at a cocktail party or an incredibly interesting one. I'm going to have a dialogue with somebody here now, and if they're fascinating, I'm going to be fascinating if I can stand up and measure up to the dialogue.
Silvestri's scores to The Mummy Returns (now in theaters) and The Mexican are available on Decca Records. Cast Away will be released later this month as a special edition DVD; some of the score (with themes from other Zemeckis films) is available on Varese Sarabande Records. Stuart Little 2 and Lilo and Stitch will be in theaters in 2002. Special thanks to David Bifano and Sandra Silvestri for making this interview possible. Images © Universal Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox