by Dan Goldwasser
Russ Landau got his big break working on "SeaQuest DSV," and recently worked on a slew of reality-based television shows including the smash hit "Survivor." We had a chance to talk with Russ about his work at his studio in Los Angeles.
Tell me about your work on "Survivor," which was a phenomenal hit.
I was lucky when I was able to marry my piece of music, "Ancient Voices," to that television show. The producers of the show feel so strongly about the music that they edit every scene like a music video. So even the main titles were cut to the music, and it helped propel the song into "theme song popularity."
So the song was written before the show?
I worked with producer Mark Burnett on the main theme, coming up with 12 or 13 different themes. They were all big and orchestral, and they ended up being used in the show. But it wasn't hitting on what Mark's idea was for the main theme. This was all before anything had been filmed, so it was just on paper at that point. Mark and I went on a family ski trip. He and I rode in one car, while the wives and kids rode in the other. We listened to a lot of music and talked - we developed a way of communicating: he doesn't speak music, and I don't speak Navy SEAL war hero! So over the course of that trip, we basically came to a better way of communicating about what it was he was looking for, and how I could better serve his needs. I remembered this piece of music I had sketched out for another show a few years ago, so I dusted it off and re-orchestrated it. It was a piece of music that said, "Lord of the Flies." It's great that it's an old Russian chant - no one seems to know that, it doesn't seem to matter; it's so visceral. It's used in the background as a percussive element. I'm very proud of mining that piece!
You also work with another composer on the show?
Yes, I work with David Vanacore. The theory is that since the show is wall-to-wall music, they want as much fresh weekly music as possible, hence two composers. So David and I have been exchanging ideas, and sharing sounds. Right now we're setting up our recording sessions for "Survivor: Africa." Together we're going on an exploratory trip - first to Johannesburg to record with a bunch of better known African musicians, and then to Kenya to record a lot of tribal elements. We have some guides that will take us around to some of the villages and we'll record kids, and church singers. The Maasi are amazing - they do some incredible rhythmic stuff, all without percussion.
So you're basically going on a "sample" safari?
Yeah. We're going to create pieces around these elements. It's really the vocals that are going to bring us in and let us feel Africa in the music. We'll be in the country for about three weeks.
Had you been to Africa before?
No, this is the first time. So I have to get my shots and everything!
Did you do the same type of exploratory trip for "Survivor: Australia"?
Australia was different, because there isn't that much to model from. There's just one thing everyone knows - the didgeridoo. I was lucky enough to hook up with David Hudson, possibly the worlds best didgeridoo player. He acted as my guide, and we went to his father's ancestral land in Undara. We recorded his didgeridoo overdubs for the main title in a lava tube - a huge underground cavern. He also took me around and taught me a lot about the culture. He's a very modern man as well, so we did go to some recording studios, but the best stuff was recorded in the outback, with kangaroos watching.
It was a great trip, but it ended up being more of a "hurry up and score the show" situation. I showed up to the "Survivor" location, and that's where David Vanacore joined me. We set up a little remote studio and just collaborated on a bunch of cues right there. It was nuts because the editors were so used to cutting to music, so here we were, out in the middle of this gorgeous country, locked in a 6x6 foot room cranking out cues as fast as I could on my PowerBook with a 36-key keyboard. I probably did about 10 full-length cues for them to cut to, so I was exhausted by the time I got back to the States.
Tell me about "Fear Factor"
Well, the show just came out! It's like, take the grossest parts of "Survivor," and make a show about that! It's a fun show. Matt Kunitz, the executive producer has a wicked sense of humor, and he's putting people in some very scary situations. I basically created a music package for the show, and the editors cut the music in. Then afterwards, I come back and write score to fill in the blanks. I have a music editor named Rick Livingstone, who goes in with the editors and helps the music fit - then we smooth it out with custom cues.
The only way I could do all of these shows at the same time would be to do this one as a library package. It works out very well, especially for these shows that are wall-to-wall music. I just wouldn't have time to score each one individually. But by creating a set of themes and variations, and general scoring cues, it gives the editors something to work with, and helps the show "pop." I still expect to score about 12-minutes of music for each episode, where there is probably 44-minutes of music. So it's a significantly smaller amount of music I have to write. I was doing "Fear Factor," "Survivor: Australia," "Eco Challenge," "Combat Missions," and I just finished "Survivor UK."
What's the musical difference between "Survivor" and "Survivor UK"?
It's a whole new library package that I created for the parent company of "Survivor," the one that licensed the show format to Mark Burnett. That show ("Survivor UK") started airing a few weeks ago. But the great thing is that the music will be licensed with the show format - so when Venezuela does their version of "Survivor," they get that music. So "Survivor" is the gift that keeps on giving!
Jumping back a bit, how did you get involved in "SeaQuest DSV"?
"SeaQuest" was my entree into weekly episodic scoring. It was such a great pleasure, and a learning experience. It was a great gig, because I had a live orchestra every week. John Debney and Don Davis are great composers, and they had gotten busy with film work, so there was an opening! I got slipped in through Executive Producer Patrick Hasburgh. Until that time, I had done pilots and little B-movies. So getting a weekly series - especially when living in New York - it was a big thing!
How did you find the transition from New York to Los Angeles?
I love New York. I love the music scene, and I didn't want to move out to the West Coast until I had something that would support me not just financially, but emotionally. The typical thing is that people lure you out, and then you sit on your ass for a year. Which is exactly what happened.
What did you do?
I had produced a lot of records, so I fell back on that. But gradually I was able to chip away - I did three or four pilots, and a few lousy little movies, but it was all a good experience, and then "SeaQuest" happened. And it was great - I learned so much on that show.
Did you work with Debney or Davis at all?
A little. There's a piece of software called "Cue." It's a way of plotting out your tempo changes so you can line up where your hits are going to be. It's kind of convoluted, and it's old and not even commercially available anymore, and John - and Don especially - were very helpful in helping map some cues. If I recall, John gave me a sketch he had done for one of his cues, and I put it on my wall. Whenever my sketches looked as dense as his looked, I figured it was close to being finished. <laughs>
What else are you working on these days?
Well, "Survivor: Africa" is a major force, and it seems that I'm turning into an ethnomusicologist! Just being able to travel and meet people and different musical cultures is a complete blast. In August I'm going back to Australia to produce an album with David Hudson that I'm also writing. I'll be taking my kids because they wouldn't let me go without them! In September "Eco Challenge" will be in New Zealand, and I'm definitely going! I also try to do a movie or two a year, I recently did “Racehoss.” It's a stand up documentary of Albert Racehoss Sample, who grew up during the depression. He has an amazing story to tell, and when it comes out you should definitely go see it. It's very sensitive scoring, since he's standing up telling his story. I expect "Fear Factor," "Combat Missions," and "Eco Challenge" to continue, as well. Then there's "Survivor IIII" in the fall.
Where is that going to be located?
I can't tell you that!
Oh - then there's what used to be called "Destination: Mir," but that's now being called "Destination: Space," I guess. It will be held in Russia, and their goal is now the International Space Station. It's been a busy year! I had a Grammy nomination for "Dinosongs" with Susan Sarandon. It's a narrated book that I underscored. It didn't win, but we were nominated - and that was nice, it was great to do something for the kids!
And last but not least, I was just named Music Director for UNICEF and the Audrey Hepburn Children's Foundation. We'll be doing albums with some major stars, and a single, and a concert at the UN and the Santa Monica Pier. All for the benefit of keeping girls in school - all over the world. In many cultures, girls go to work at 10-years old. So it's all about education, and for me it's great. Obviously there's no fee involved, but I'm so proud to do something positive with my craft. I'm honored!
One of my favorite things that happened this year, was doing the last 15-minutes of the final episode of "Survivor" - live! The last 15 minutes of the 2-hour "Survivor" were live, and I recorded it up on stage, live. It was recorded at CBS television studios, and the director was screaming directions to me - it was the first time I'd ever done live television; it was crazy! I conducted the orchestra, as well as played keyboards. I was so scared, I probably sweated five pounds off that night. I watched the delayed playback, and was so happy about the way it came out.
What would your dream project be?
I can't wait to sink my teeth into a dramatic feature that really stands out. I've been waiting for that all my life.
"Fear Factor" is currently airing on NBC; "Combat Missions" will begin this fall on USA; "Survivor: Africa" will air this fall on CBS. Special thanks to Alison McGuire at BWR for arranging the interview.