[Interview - Trevor Jones]

Composer Trevor Jones thrilled audiences last winter with his tense score to the political thriller Thirteen Days.  Now he takes on Jack the Ripper with the stylized graphic novel come to life, From Hell.  SoundtrackNet had a chance to talk with Trevor regarding his work on that film, as well as a few of his other earlier projects.

The Hughes Brothers film From Hell is based on a rather successful graphic novel.  When you came on board the project, had you read the book?

For me, this project started about four years ago when the Hughes Brothers gave me a script.  They had called me and said that they wanted to meet me.  So they came to London to see me - this is before the movie had been picked up by any studio - and they wanted to talk with me about the movie way in advance.  It isn't normal, but it's quite refreshing!

After that, we met on a regular basis and as the movie went from one studio to another, Fox finally picked it up and got it made.  So my relationship with the Hughes Brothers on this film goes back a long way.  I'm not sure whether or now I saw the graphic novel before that or not, but I know that they certainly gave me a copy of it.  You know, the things about scripts and novels and things like that is, I'm not terribly interested in them.  I'm more interested in what's on the screen.  You can be misled by what you perceive as narrative.  If I sit and watch a movie, I say to myself, "this bit of the story didn't make sense" - whereas if I've read the book ahead of time, I can fill in the blanks - and I'm not as objective as I should be. 

People send me scripts, which is all very well, but I would prefer them to just send me a one page synopsis that tells me the story, and then see what they've shot on film.  Then I can tell them what was and wasn't clear.  So I'm much more objective about what I'm presented with, as opposed to what I think I've seen.  I'm not a big fan of scripts and graphic novels, and if I can avoid them, I do.  I like to see a movie for the first time with an audience, at a test screening. 

I went to Prague when they were shooting the film, and was on set for about a week, and it was great to actually take on board what the Hughes Brothers were trying to do.  So my relationship with this movie is really much more intense than any other movie since my work on Angel Heart or Mississippi Burning or The Name of the Father.  Those are the movies I can relate to in regard to this - and Dark City, when I went to work in Australia.  I fell more involved in those movies because people involved me at such an early stage.  It's weird, but for me those are the more successful films.

Your main romantic theme for From Hell is full of tragedy and sadness.  How did you come up with that theme?

The Hughes Brothers totally involve you in their world as they're creating it.  I spent a lot of time with them socially; we would spend time playing each other bits of music, and just enjoy each others company.  So, Alan Hughes had come over to London and he and I were sitting in my studio one day, and I was just tooling around on the piano.  Suddenly he said to me, "I really love what you're doing there - that would make a lovely theme for the two leads - play it again!"  And I said, "Play what again?" because I wasn't actually paying attention to what I was doing; I was just tinkering around at the keyboard!  I tried hard to remember what I was doing, and after a few minutes it came back to me - and I realized he was right, it was a strong melody.  So that's how it came into being - in the presence of the director, which is very rare.  But it was really him dialing in on something that worked for him. 

In fact, Robert Kraft, the head of Fox Music, was there at the time, he said he also loved the tune and started playing it on the piano - superbly!  I realized that if Robert was able to pick up on it so quickly then it must be either a very catchy tune, or a very simple tune.  So it worked out terrifically.

Some of the darker elements of the score, including the choral elements, were dark, gothic an heavy - it even reminded me a bit of Dark City while watching the film.

I try so desperately to change my styles so people don't say, "Oh, that's a Trevor Jones score".  I don't want to pull people out of a movie because of the music - I just want to put emotional life and shading into the movie instead of saying, "Watch me, I'm the composer!"  So I'm worried when people identify scores in the past, but stylistically, there's bound to be comparisons.  We used Bill Brooks, a wonderful American bass baritone, who did this Tuvan chant - it's a kind of Mongolian Buddhist chanting.  It lent a wonderful aspect to the score.

Was that mysticism drawn from the whole Freemason aspect of the film?

Yes!  I brought in Mongolian chanting because I was looking for a mystical element.  The whole of the Freemasonry thing is bound up with mystic symbols and rituals and I wanted to bring out that aspect of the organization.  The Ripper wasn't just some lunatic running around slashing ladies, this is something that was almost part of the British establishment that had this bizarre thing steeped in mysticism - that part of the culture of this country that these people who belonged to the various castes and so on had this mystical aspect to them that resulted in virtually wiping out half a dozen women.  It's unbelievable, really!

So to bring out that aspect, I drew on this Mongolian thing.  And the overtones in Bill's voice are quite amazing - he brought the whole thing a very spiritual aspect that I was looking for.  I also used the London Voices choir, but I used them quite sparingly.  They're used almost as a texture, including the female voice, Belinda Sykes.  I used them almost as instruments, and not a regular choir.

Speaking of textures - there was a report a few months back about Marilyn Manson taking your score and adding textures, rhythms, and atmospheres.  But it didn't happen in the end - he just has a song on the end credits.  What is your thought on that whole idea?

You know, I thought that was such a tragedy that it didn't happen. Because, you know, it would have been a great spin on the score.  To have explored that aspect would have been a very interesting way to go.  I still think there's a place for a concept album where we can do that with that material.  It would have been very interesting to try that approach.

So you would want to be involved?

Well, not necessarily.  I did what I thought was an original underscore, which served the movie in terms of making it accessible to the public.  There are some scores that can alienate people and pull them out of the movie - it doesn't help them understand or enjoy the film.  If the musical style isn't sympathetic towards the images, then people are going to lose out on the cinematic experience - they're not going to enjoy it as much.  But at the same time, I'm also interested in finding out how far one can go with material.  How far images and a different type of music can work.  Certainly Marilyn Manson's approach to music making is quite out of the ordinary, to say the least, and for him to take my material and do stuff with it and put his spin on it might have been a fantastic way to go.

In fact, I'm still trying to get Alan, Albert and Marilyn into the studio and say, "Look guys, do a concept album!  Just take the material and see what you can do with it!"  I emailed Albert last week and asked him about it - he came back and said, "No, it's all by the wayside, the movie opens soon".  But I'm not going to let it go - I think it would be great to do.  Any time the Hughes Brothers do something with music like that, when they get a chance to be creative with music, it's successful - their last two albums went platinum!

A regular soundtrack album is all very well and good, but when they come in to put their spin on things - especially if their style of music is targeted towards a different audience than film scores - it's great because the music gets more exposure.  It's another market, and I feel terribly strongly that this is their only movie that hasn't gone down that route.  This is something they shouldn't miss out on - there are fans in that field who want to hear their take on this subject.  I think it would be a wasted opportunity if they don't do it.  I'm going to keep on them, and hopefully it will happen.

At the same time, though, it's nice to have a traditional score release for film music fans - and if the other album happens, people can compare and pick and choose the one they want.

Indeed!  I'm not going to give up until they do it.

The other song on the album, "Bow Belle", was a new song, but modified to sound incredibly old...

Well, the thing that's great about this is that it was beautifully recorded in the Abbey Road Studios with sopranos and a beautiful orchestra.  Then it was transferred from digital tape to a wax cylinder.  We still have this facility in England to make cylinders, and the best guy in the country cut the cylinder.  The Hughes Brothers wanted it to sound all crackly and distorted, and this guy told us that the best cylinders don't sound as bad as it ended up.  I know it sounds silly, but for me if the first few opening bars crackled and then the clean mix came in full, then at the end it went back into the crackles, I think it would have worked better.  But I don't know how successful that is - the way the soundtrack was designed originally was for it to start on the main titles, and to end with Marilyn's song.  And I still feel that's the way for it to go.  But to start the album with Marilyn's song, then have the score, and end with "Bow Belle", well, it's another route.  I did enjoy the album more than most albums I've worked on, just because I like the writing and the mood it sets.

I was disappointed that the "Bow Belle" piece with your underscore - as heard in the film - wasn't on the album.  Was there any particular reason?

That's actually the version I originally had on the album - it would segue from the "fresh" version of "Bow Belle" into the orchestra.  That was what I sent to be mastered - then Alan came back and said that they wanted the Manson song at the beginning, and "Bow Belle" at the end. I think Mike Knobloch at Fox did those changes, so I didn't hear the change until the album came out.  I'm glad you saw it that way, because that's exactly the way I had it!

What was the deal with Last of the Mohicans?   So many stories have been floating around, all of which are different…

There was an article that my agent, David May, wrote for Film Score Monthly.  But basically, to set the record straight, I was involved with the film for a very long time.  I tend to score a particular film in the way I feel suits it best.  But the fact is that if I feel I'm being asked to do something injurious to a picture, I have to say that and stick to my guns.  I was asked to score parts of the picture that were under dialogue, and I didn't think required scoring.  The option at the end of the day was that it was the director's perogative to get someone else to score those bits, and for me to produce a score that I felt worked for the picture.  To that end, that's what happened.  I never met Randy Edelman except for 10 seconds on my way to the airport at the dubbing stage.  I haven't met him since - I have no ill feelings towards him whatsoever.  I just didn't score the parts I didn't think needed scoring.  We had an artistic difference, and it really wasn't that big a deal.  Michael Mann could hire 20 composers if he chose to.  It is not uncommon for people to hire multiple editors, so why should it be a big deal to have multiple composers?

Do you have any plans to release The Dark Crystal on CD?

It's a funny story about that.  I have the original digital masters, which have since been transferred to DAT.  There have been questions about the re-release of that album for the past four years now, and there's someone over at Henson Productions who is supposed to work on releasing it - but I don't think they have the masters!  I should get together with them and release this, since it's one of my scores that I hold most dear, and it was a fantastic experience.  The film was so heavily reliant on the music, because it was just puppeteering and animatronics - you needed to bring out the emotion.  Also, it was a project with Jim Henson, who I had a special relationship with - he was a most extraordinary man, and I feel he would have wanted it to be re-released.  But sometimes there are commercial reasons (budgetary and so on) that would make it difficult.  But maybe if you put out a limited number of them, and see if people wanted them it wouldn't be too difficult to do.  I have a record label called Contemporary Media Recordings, and perhaps it's something we should put out - we're trying to get something off the ground, and maybe The Dark Crystal is something we should look into.

The Dark Crystalwas the first project you worked on with Jim Henson, and that lead to Labyrinth and "The International World of Puppeteering".  What attracted you to working with him?

I loved working with Jim because you could extend the boundaries of your craft.  You could discover things about yourself and your writing.  He trusted you to do it.  He would come to the recording studio to listen to stuff or 11 at night to listen to sketches.  He was a wonderful man - and the image of Kermit is just one aspect that is formidable.

What prompted you to go to attend film school?

Well, it was all very logical.  I wanted to be a film composer since I was five years old.  I came back from a movie and told my mother that I was going to write scores for films.  She gave me a clap on the ear, you know, "those kids!"  Actually, I was talking with her about six months ago, and she said, "I still don't know what you do, Trevor, why don't you do a serious job?"  But she was always very encouraging about my music, partly because my family has been involved in film.  But when I got a scholarship to the Academy, I got the classical training I needed. I was born British, and then South Africa became a republic, so when I got to England on my scholarship, I was a South African. I was treated as an alien, and after 4 years of the Academy, I needed to become naturalized again.  The only way to do that was to work for a British institution.  Fortunately, my 3rd year at the Academy, I had advanced enough that it brought me to the attention of the BBC.  I had written a critique of some classical music, and my practical results were such that they offered me a job.  So I worked as a classical music reviewer, which was great!  After 4 years you could apply for naturalization, which I did, and that allowed me to continue my studies. 

The internet movie database lists you as doing this film To End All Wars.  What is it about?

That's the one about the Burmese P.O.W.s - but I'm not going to be doing that picture at all.  The internet is very inaccurate!  <laughs>

You're also working on the new Britney Spears movie, Not A Girl.  What's the latest on that?

I'm currently in the Abbey Road Studio recording the new film - it's got about half a dozen titles so far, and they haven't locked into one yet.  It's also been known as What Are Friends For and Crossroads. But my score is being recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, and will be a mix of orchestral bits and rock.  It's a rather wide underscore.

Do you have any other projects at the moment?

Well, there's a film with Richard Longcrane I'm doing here in Britain with Vanessa Redgrave about Winston Churchill and World War II called The Lonely War.  Then there's some work I'll be doing for the Hallmark people - they want to do another mini-series with me.  I enjoy those things because the turnaround is virtually instantaneous!  I get ten days to do a full length movie - it is quite a rush!  It's called Dinotopia, and is a wonderful children's fantasy thing.  It's quite a huge project - I think they're spending over $80 million on it!  And there might be television spin-offs and the like.  I really like fantasy stuff, and with me it's a case of just jumping and changing to go from From Hell to a Britney Spears movie to a World War II drama - it's keeping me on my toes - I really enjoy that!

What would your dream project be?

Well, my dream project is the one that I'm always in search of - the one that I would get a charge out of.  I don't commit to a project unless I give it 101% - unless I go the distance and enjoy it.  But at the same time, I've been known not to take on projects because I'm simply tired.  I think this is one of those periods where I think I might take a break and listen to other people's stuff.  I've been living in studios for quite some time, and would like to spend some time with my family.  Being called "Uncle Dad" isn't fun.

From Hell is currently in theaters, and the soundtrack is available on Varese Sarabande records.  We'll have to wait and see if the Marilyn Manson concept album comes to fruition.

Special thanks to Jeff Sanderson and Chasen & Co. for arranging the interview.