[Interview - Don Davis]

Composer Don Davis scored a smash hit in 1999 with The Matrix.  Since that time, he's scored a whole slew of films, and is back with another anticipated summer hit, Jurassic Park III.  SoundtrackNet had a chance to catch up with Don at his studio in Los Angeles, where he filled us in on what he's been doing for the past two years.

The last time we talked was just before The Matrix came out - and it turned out to be quite a hit.  With the success of The Matrix, do you think that has impacted your career thus far, two years later?

Oh yeah!  Anything that has impact like that is going to change somebody's perception by others. The Matrix was such a surprise hit, but it's still hard to get projects because now I find myself competing with much higher properties.  But I don't think I would have been considered for Jurassic Park III if I hadn't done The Matrix.

Tell me a bit about the projects you did immediately after The Matrix.  Some of these films weren't considered to be "quality" projects...

Well, one always has specific reasons for doing a particular project, and they're not necessarily financial or career-driven reasons.  What I do is write music.  The fact of the matter is, as soon as The Matrix came out it was a phenomenon, but anyone who was interested in hiring the composer of The Matrix wasn't necessarily ready with post-production on the film they wanted me to do.  So it's not like I got this huge number of offers the minute The Matrix opened at number one.

The situation with Universal Soldier: The Return, was that I knew the director, Mic Rodgers - a very nice guy - and I met him because my son is on a baseball team with his son, and our wives are friends.  It was a small project - they wanted just a synthesizer score, and nothing else.  It ended up being a pretty hefty amount of money for about two weeks of work, and frankly I just couldn't find a reason to turn it down.

With Turbulence 2: Fear of Flying, David Mackay (the director) was a friend of mine and I had done two other projects with him.  He's an excellent director, and I simply wanted to keep the relationship going.  I've done a lot of television work, and I had spent a lot of time building my career - I didn't just appear with The Matrix.  So one of the unexpected things that happens when you're involved with a hit project, and supposedly your stock goes up, is that a lot of people I used to associate with who are still working in television or on low-budget features that people tell me I'm out of the league for still want to work with me.  But I can't see telling those guys, "Oh, I'm sorry - I'm too expensive to talk to you now."  They're talented people, I like them, and I'm hesitant to write them off.

There are plenty of situations where composers have turned down major movies thinking they weren't all that significant, and they turned out to be extremely significant.  The best instance I can think of is when Bruce Broughton backed out of Home Alone because he was scoring The Rescuers Down Under and the schedule was extended by about a month, and as far as he was concerned, that made him unavailable for Home Alone.  In hindsight, it would have been better to pay off his contract on Rescuers Down Under and do Home Alone, but who knew?

You mentioned how Universal Soldier: The Return and Turbulence 2 were all synth, and the albums for those two scores sounded pretty good - what kind of equipment are you using these days?

Well, the main part of it is that I have four Yamaha O2R boards, cascaded - so that gives me about 160 tracks that I can work with.  I'm sure that in ten years I'll be laughing and saying, "ten years ago I only had 160 tracks - how could I possibly get by?"  I also have twelve Roland 760 samplers, and recently got two Gigasamplers.  I also have a Kurzweil K2500, an Emulator 4, a Waldorf synthesizer, a Nordlead, a Korg WaveStation, Yamaha EX5, and a fairly ancient Roland D50, which I haven't used in a while - that's the meat of my sound generators.   I'm also using a computer based sound generator called Reactor, on a Macintosh G3-300, which I suppose I should be upgrading sometime.  So I'm pretty well equipped in here.  I also use Digital Performer and Pro Tools.

You're pretty well grounded in composition work; when writing what will ultimately be a synthesized score, do you write it out by hand and then go into the computer?

I started writing it all out by hand, but then I got tired of the additional step and ended up just loading it directly into the computer.

But for films like Jurassic Park III, you still used the pad and paper?

With Jurassic Park III, I only had to demo four or five cues, so I did the whole score on paper - I didn't turn the synthesizers on at all.  I hired someone to input the written scores into the computer, and I only turned the gear on when we mixed those demos for presentation.

You also worked on House on Haunted Hill - how did you get involved in that project?  Was that your first real horror feature film?

While I was working on The Matrix, Joel Silver asked me - during a scoring session - if I was available to do House on Haunted Hill.  That was pretty much it.  Yeah - it was my first horror feature.

Well, you must have done something right - because you ended up with Valentine and Long Time Dead.

Valentine was a Warner Brothers film, and Doug Frank at Warners asked me if I'd be interested in doing it - and I said sure.  Actually, what I like about that movie is the cast - how can you go wrong?  Denise Richards, Jessica Capshaw and Marley Shelton - what's wrong with that?  I also ended up getting along very well with Jamie Blanks, the director, and I think the film was successful in terms of what they were looking for.  These days the type of audience that used to go see that type of picture would just as soon see it on video - but it didn't do badly in theaters.

Long Time Dead kind of came out of the blue. These British guys were interested in the composer who did The Matrix, so they sent me a script, and I thought it was fun, so that's how that happened.

Was that one all-synth as well?

It started out as an all-synth score, but then their legal department noted that because of the funding it had to be recorded in London.  It wasn't practical to ship all of my gear out to London, record it, and send it back.  So I suggested we just record it here and say we did it in London; obviously they didn't like that idea.  So we ended up recording 30-minutes of music with a 45-piece orchestra and the rest was synth.  My understanding is that the film is going to be released in October through Universal Focus.  I really liked it because it's not American - it has a British cast and it's more of an ensemble play than you normally get with your American horror films.

Then you did AntiTrust...

Well, Valentine and Long Time Dead came after AntiTrust - at least, when I worked on them.  I recorded AntiTrust last November.  It's a pity that the film didn't open very well - I thought it was a strong film, and don't know why it didn't do very well.  I don't think anyone expected this film to be "great art" - it was the type of film you would go see on a Friday night to be entertained.  It's the sort of movie I expected to be doing when I got into this whole business.  But I had a great time scoring it.  Director Peter Howitt is a really good director, and I enjoyed working with him quite a bit.  And I regret the fact it didn't do very well.

And then you did Jurassic Park III.  There was a rumor floating around that James Horner was going to do the score, and then when you got the gig, there was a rumor going around that either Horner picked you for the project, or John Williams did.  So which one, if any, was right?

The second one.  Apparently Spielberg wanted Williams to do it, but since Spielberg was directing A.I. and they were both happening around the same time, it was pretty obvious that Williams couldn't do two things at once.  I suspect he wasn't too interested in doing the third part of a franchise that he said goodbye to some time before.  I think Steven and Kathleen Kennedy looked to John as to who they should get.  Williams discussed it with Mike Gorfaine, our agent, and my name came up and Williams thought it was a good choice.  As far as Horner being involved, I asked Joe Johnston if Horner was ever considered, and he said no.  So I know that Horner was never signed, and Joe says that he wasn't considered - and I would imagine that Horner wouldn't have been interested anyway, because he's been a major composer for a long time and he doesn't need to do a project with someone else's themes.

Was it required that you use Williams's pre-existing themes?

It was never a matter for discussion.  But I considered it an honor, really.  Putting myself in the position of someone in the audience, I would have wanted that continuity, you know, seeing Jurassic Park III, I want the Jurassic Park themes!  I was listening to both of his scores quite a bit to get into the whole language that Williams used, so that it would be as consistent as I could make it. 

You even seem to tweak Williams' themes just a bit...

Actually, I had to extend or shorten some of those themes to hit particular beats in the film.  The first one is a fly-over on the island, and I had to extend the music to fit so I could get this particular motif over the shot of Tea Leone.  I didn't really want to do that, since I felt it was stepping on ground I didn't want to step on, but eventually I came to the conclusion that it had to fit the picture.  There are actually parts in the first two films where it's pretty clear that Williams was extending and compressing to hit certain beats.

The action cues are pretty intense, including one of my favorites from the scoring session, "Clash of Extinction"...

I've got bad news for you. In the dubbing, it was determined that the "Clash of Extinction" sequence would work better without any music.  It appears on the album, but not in the film.  To be honest, the film was a bit over-spotted, and Joe seemed a little nervous to not have music everywhere. In the final analysis, I think we spotted too much music, so when we dubbed, there was some judicious excising, which happens pretty often.   I believe that in the original Jurassic Park, the T-Rex attack on the kids in the car was underscored - but the decision was made at the dub stage to remove the music - and I think it works. 

In addition to removing my music, they also cut out about 20-seconds of footage from that sequence.  What they cut out was a bunch of shots of the two dinosaurs standing off - the animatronic shots.  I'm not sure I agree with that decision, I thought the animatronics looked great - but it's not my call to make.  I guess Joe felt that in the final analysis, when the two monsters see each other, what are they waiting for?  Just fight!

While at the scoring session, I noticed that you took a lot of time to walk the orchestra - in sections - through the very complex action cues.  Do you intentionally torment the orchestra with this difficult passages?

<laughs>  Well, I have a technique of rehearsal when it's a difficult cue; especially if it's brass heavy. If I just keep the brass rehearsing and rehearsing, then by the time we put it on tape they won't have the endurance to play through it.  So usually we'll read down a cue, and if there are any big glaring problems in the brass I'll work on that first.  Then I'll go through the strings and work out the kinks.  The nature of string instruments is that they have different hand positions.  There are various ways of going from one position to the next, so if there's a complicated pattern that the strings are going to do, they need to figure it out in advance - they can't sight-read it.  So that's why with certain passages I'll go below tempo - so they can work out those patterns, and once they have it worked out, then they do it up to tempo. There are 30 violins, so it's a matter of getting them in sync as well.

What were the final specs of the orchestra?

It was a 104-piece orchestra, and a 60-person choir.  There wasn't anything outrageously different about the orchestra.  The brass section was a little bigger; I had six trombones: three tenors, a bass trombone, and two tubas that doubled cymbassi, and also eight French horns.  I had four trumpets, three oboes, three bassoons, four flutes, and four clarinets.  It's certainly a full orchestra - thirty violins and seven percussion.  Joe wanted a pounding sound for the Spinosaurus, so I had a pair of timpani - two timpani players that each had eight drums.  That was pretty raucous really!  <laughs>  Other than that, it was standard percussion - nothing exotic.  Sometimes that sort of thing is warranted and called for, but more often than not it seems like a gimmick to me.  Some whoopdie-doo rattle drum from the island of Burma to get your point across.... I don't really subscribe to that.

In addition to Williams' themes, you did write your own themes as well...

In the course of the film, these two estranged parents come together to help rescue their son - so there's this bond between them that I felt needed to be expressed musically.  Whenever there's a situation that involves them reminiscing or something like that, I felt that that theme was appropriate, and I didn't think there was anything from the other two films that I could use to represent that.  And they are new characters to the franchise, so that would help give this picture a bit of uniqueness.

What do you think about the comparisons that will be made about your score and the Williams scores?

Well, first of all I am satisfied that I did a good job, and Kathleen Kennedy and Joe Johnston indicated to me that they were satisfied, and that's what they pay me for!  So I feel that the mission was accomplished.  I haven't heard from John Williams, whether he was happy or pissed.  I was hoping that he would be flattered and pleased - I don't think he's heard it yet.  Outside of that, my wife and my mom like it.

Have you read some of the online reviews of the score?

They're hard to avoid.  There's one review that was very complimentary, and that was nice to read. There was another review that was less complimentary, and I thought it was basically idiotic.  You know, what control do I have over what idiots say?  <laughs>

Of course you're going to be scoring a highly anticipated film, The Matrix: Reloaded.  What do you think of the title?

I think it's brilliant.  The title was on the script, so it wasn't an afterthought.  And it kind of surprised me about two months ago when there was that "big scoop" saying that the Matrix 2 was called "The Matrix: Reloaded".  My script said that all the time!  The thing is, they don't let the script out of the office - I don't have one - you have to go to the office, sit there and read it, then leave.  They're keeping pretty tight wraps on it all - so I suppose that's why.  I think it's a great name; I was just surprised when everyone else got all excited about it.

It's like the "revelation" that Howard Shore's score to The Lord of the Rings will be operatic.

Every score is operatic.  Film scores comes from opera; don't they know that?  There's a name for Matrix 3 but I guess I can't say - because it would be a big media splash.  So I'd better shut up! <laughs>

I had heard that you already wrote some music for The Matrix: Reloaded - what was that about?

There's going to be dance and on-camera instrumentals.  So for the on-camera percussionist to play, they needed something for him to play to, and they needed something for them to dance to.  I don't know how much I can really give away here, but I can just tell you that there is on camera dancing and on-camera percussion playing.  There's enough interest around this film that it kind of creeps me out a bit.  It's just that people want a scoop on something... but to answer your question, also there was some material that Jason Bentley, who produced the song album for The Matrix, brought in.  So it remains to be seen whether or not my music is used, or his is used.  I'm hoping that it will start with mine, and segue into his - because the nature of the scene would be to start with reality and end up in something surreal.

Amidst all of this composing for film, you did do a bit of orchestration work on Meet The Parents, for Randy Newman.  How did you manage to squeeze that into your schedule?

Well, we were talking, and I wasn't terribly busy at the moment and he asked me if I could do it.  So I did.  He's asked me on other occasions, and I've had to say no, but this time it worked out.

So you don't think you're "above" orchestration at this point in your career?

You know, I just don't care.  <laughs>  I get asked that question quite a lot, because it seems to be couched in terms of "you're above that now", as if it's a slight to go back to that.  And I think that's BS.  Who can possibly care that I'm orchestrating?  Don't people have better things to worry about?  Orchestration is good solid work, and if I want to do it, I'll do it!

Aside from thinking about The Matrix: Reloaded, what else are you working on these days?

I just got a commission to write a string quartet, which I haven't started yet, but will be working on.  I like writing music, so if I'm not working on a film score, I'm doing that.  Writers write, composers compose.  I'm up for a few film projects, and there's enough time between now and The Matrix: Reloaded that I could take on some more work before I get too busy.

Have you ever thought about doing a computer game?

There is talk about me doing The Matrix computer game; I suspect that I'll be too busy working on the two films to actually work on that, though.  They're shooting both films back to back.  Apparently they're going to cut the second film, then score it and go to the dubbing stage, and while they're on that I'll start work on the third.  So it sounds a little hairy now, but I imagine it will work itself out somehow.

The soundtrack to Jurassic Park III is available on Decca Records.  The film opens on July 18th.  Long Time Dead will be in theaters this fall, and The Matrix: Reloaded should be out in 2002.