by Dan Goldwasser
Composer Ed Shearmur started out by working as Michael Kamen's assistant. Since that time, he's scored almost 20 features and has proven himself to be a rather versatile composer. From Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight to The Wings of the Dove and Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her and Charlie's Angels, Shearmur has scored in nearly every imaginable style and genre. This fall Shearmur's music will be heard in The Count of Monte Cristo and K-PAX. SoundtrackNet had a chance recently to talk with Shearmur at his studio in Los Angeles.
You seem to be a composer whose style is "unclassifiable". Do you actively seek out such varied projects?
Whatever genre I am working in, I try to make it feel like it's personal to me. I never try to write "genre" scores, per se. To me, the challenge is more about figuring out the demands of the film, and finding a satisfying way of approaching it. Frankly, some films require a "Route 101" approach - and there's no way away from that. Even if you wanted to do something more interesting, you always have a director or studio looking for something that the audience is going to feel comfortable with; sometimes you just have to accept that.
Partly the reason I'm able to write in such a wide range is because I had a very broad musical background. I'm classically trained, but I have played with rock-and-roll bands. I studied North African music when I was at university. I didn't listen to much film music growing up. But I listen to everything from Japanese electronica to Renaissance polyphony, to '60s R&B.
You worked with Michael Kamen early in your career, as his assistant. Did it help that you two had a common background in the rock world?
I was playing in a lot of bands, but I was also directing and playing with orchestras and choirs; there were very few boundaries in my music-making. Michael has a similar background, which helped us get along well. He's taught me a lot - how to deal with directors, how to spot a film, how to work with an orchestra; but one of the most important things is how to incorporate one's interest in many different kinds of music into one's work. How to keep it compelling
You recently completed work on The Count of Monte Cristo, directed by Kevin Reynolds - who Kamen worked with on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. What kind of score did you provide?
It's a dark film – the score isn't very "swashbuckly". It plays more to character, and what happens to a man when his dark side and desire for revenge prevents him from seeing what is truly important.
How did you get the project?
Kevin has a great relationship with Chris Douridas, who was a DJ at KCRW, and now he's a music supervisor. Chris was initially involved with providing some temp ideas for the film, and he sent Kevin some of my music, and that's how I got on board!
What is your connection to Chris?
None other than he had listened to my stuff, and I used to listen to him on the radio!
Do you prefer to do fully orchestral scores, like The Count of Monte Cristo?
I like doing those types of scores, but I wouldn't want to be doing them exclusively - I wouldn't want to do anything exclusively! With that kind of score, you have the ghosts of a dozen great composers looking over your shoulder, which can be both an inspiration, and a hindrance. You obviously don't want to follow too closely in the steps of other people. I treat every score as a learning experience - if you can't improve, there's not much point to it!
Tell me about this new project you're currently working on, K-PAX…
Of all the projects I've done in the last couple of years, this is easily the thing I'm most excited about. Iain Softley and I have a relationship going back to Wings of the Dove. The performances from Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges are extraordinary. I don't want to say too much about the film, except that the score draws from many compositional approaches – from pure electronics to orchestral…
What about Miss Congeniality?
It's a light romantic comedy. There wasn't a huge amount of challenging music in it – the film simply didn't call for it. I'm glad I did it, though. Working with Sandra was a real pleasure.
It seemed that you had a lot of fun with Charlie's Angels…
A lot of the musical energy in the film came from discussions that (director) McG and I had right at the beginning, which was that we were going to have as much fun as we could with it. Even in moments where the girls are in jeopardy. McG is very comfortable in the studio – he's produced records as well as directed a ton of videos. So we brought in some DJs, played around with synthesizers, and we had guys from Beck's band come in and play - it was really just a fun project.
You even got to write your own take on the spy genre…
Yeah - it's fun to reference a particular style (be it Bond or Lalo Schifrin, whatever), but the important thing is to make it unique, and personal. I'm not interested in pastiche – however accomplished. So in Charlie's Angels we covered a lot of stylistic territory, but I don't think anyone would accuse the score of being a slavish imitation of anything.
And you also do serious dramatic projects, like Wings of the Dove. How do you mentally go from a comedy to a drama in such a short time period?
I approach them in absolutely the same way. I evolve a language for the film, and that might take two or three weeks. Just to figure out a palate of sounds that is right and is going to stick to the film - a harmonic language, maybe. Once that is in place and I have musical ideas that I'm happy to go forward with, the mechanics of constructing a cue change very little from film to film. The needs of the film always dictate a huge amount of what I do. If I find myself trying to force a cue into a place it doesn't belong (maybe I'm just in love with the melody..) the film will always spit it right back out again.
Do you prefer thematic scores to atonal?
I prefer both! Divorcing yourself from melody would be like denying yourself the sense of taste. I believe the human spirit responds to, and needs melody, in whatever form it comes. Atonality and sonic ambiguity are hugely powerful compositional tools when allied with strong critical faculties. The ability to adroitly manipulate a 12 tone row makes one no more of a composer than the ability to endlessly spin an Alberti bass. All I care about is that the music I make (or that I listen to,) is, for want of a better word, true.
Have you ever had a conflict with a director?
Well, you always want to have a point of view - that is the critical thing. Because if you don't have a point of view, your music means nothing. You always want to come to the table with an idea about what you want to say about each character, or what you want to say about a particular scene. You hope to express that in an articulate way, and you hope you're working with somebody that can do the same.
Usually the problems crop up when a director isn't able to pinpoint what it is about a cue that isn't working for him. One of the banes of our lives is that we have to present unfinished work, and the director has to respond to that. Maybe it's the sound in the room that he doesn't like, or you're using a string-patch that has very little life to it - it's all shorthand for a composer. But for a director, it's the first time he's had to respond to the music. So there are many variables, and you try to eliminate as many as you can, but at the end of the day there are directors who, frankly, don't know anything about music. And what for you is a bright, sunny, happy chord, to him is all gloom and doom - and there's nothing you can do about that.
What is your take on temp scores?
I prefer to look at a film initially without a temp, so I come to the film with my own point of view, and not with a music editor's point of view in my head. A lot of these things start by someone reaching for something off a shelf, putting it in purely to gauge the pace of a particular sequence. But unfortunately "temp-love" is a very common disease, and it's hard to shake. But sometimes I find that a temp can be very instructive. I'm not so proud that I can't see somebody else's take on a scene, and appreciate its merits. But I am usually able to say, "this is what is working in your temp version – this is what doesn't work – here's something that addresses your needs…" and hopefully in a different and equally engaging manner.
Your first feature film was The Cement Garden…
It's funny - it was playing on the Sundance Channel a few years ago, and I had more comments about that score than many things I've done since. It's a very small dark creepy film, and in a way, it benefited from being a first scored by a first–timer. When you don't really know what you're doing, you try things that experience would normally mitigate against. In this case, almost the whole score has a static and dreamlike quality, with layers of dissonance on top, but almost nothing with any pace or energy. As a result the effect was like basking under a very hot sun, but with something unidentifiable rotting a few yards away. It's an interesting film.
Did that help you get Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight?
I actually got that one through Kamen. Joel Silver was the producer on it, and he had asked Michael to executive produce the score, and Michael hired me! It was very over the top, and again I was very much flying by the seat of my pants. In that score, there is some successful stuff, and some unsuccessful stuff.
Do you consider Wings of the Dove to be one of your best scores?
You don't really get a chance to write that type of score very often, so when it comes up at the beginning of your career you put everything you have into it. In fact, it was a project that I had a couple cracks at. There was some hesitancy by Miramax to hire me, and they actually explored a couple of different avenues before coming back to me. I had a lot of time to think about the film without writing anything. The score was written in three weeks - Iain and I had been talking about it for nearly a year, so by the time I came to actually write it, it was just a matter of putting it down on paper.
Why is there a lack of representation of your work on CD?
It's usually to do with the union reuse fees, and many times they'll release the songs before they release the score, as with Charlie's Angels. It happens to a lot of people. The Count of Monte Cristo will be released, though.
Do you think it's hindered you in terms of building up a fan base?
That's not really one of my priorities - you're always thrilled if people respond to the music, but I don't write to appeal to a certain group of people. If I did, I'd be doing something completely different. I went into film because of the collaborative process and the scope and the range it affords you as a composer. There are scores that I wish people had access to – Things You Can Tell…, Jakob the Liar, Charlie's Angels – but I'm sure they'll find their way out sooner or later.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
Not yet - I'm going to take a bit of a break after K-PAX.
What is your "dream project"?
That's a very good question. To be honest, they're all dream projects. This is one of the best jobs in the world – I couldn't be happier than doing what I'm doing. As long as the material is good and I have the trust and respect of an imaginative director, who'll let me explore beyond the bounds of Hollywood convention, I'm happy.
Ed Shearmur's dramatic orchestral score to The Count of Monte Cristo will be released later this fall, when the film comes out. K-PAX will be released this October.
Special thanks to Jeff Toyne, Robert Urband and Monique Ward for helping with this interview.