by Dan Goldwasser
Last time we talked with Steve Jablonsky, he had just scored the horror-remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for producer Michael Bay. Now he's back, with the new version of the box-office hit The Amityville Horror. SoundtrackNet talked with Steve about his latest role as Michael Bay's go-to guy, and his work on one of television's most popular shows.
How did you end up becoming Michael Bay's new composer of choice?
I don't really know how that happened - I know that I get along with him very well, and he likes my ideas and the sounds I come up with. I have guys like Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams and music editor Bob Badami to thank, since I had been working with them on Michael's films before I started doing them myself – Bob helped me get the job on Texas Chainsaw, and ever since then Michael has been calling me.
When working on a film like The Amityville Horror, how do you work around the obvious "scares", while also trying to take a more subtle approach to get under the audience's skin?
It was really difficult - the film changed drastically from when I first saw it, to the point when it came out. Not until the premiere had I seem some of the finished scenes, I had been trying to hit a few things that I didn't know where they would end up in the picture - they hadn't decided quite where to put some of the scares yet! I think at the beginning the film wasn't quite what they were hoping it would be, so they tried to speed up the pace, and make it scarier. Part of the problem for me is that the first couple reels of the film are "scare, scare, scare" - it's in your face, and there's no room for the audience or the music to breathe! It made my life tough because it’s difficult to just keep hitting everything, but I have to hit it all - I have to build and hit several times in a row. It doesn't always feel musical to me, like a scene hopefully feels - it doesn't have a rhythm, or give me time to flesh out ideas. It was tough - from the point where the family moves in, through to the babysitter sequence - it was a tough area because it was like one big long scare after another. The film definitely improved from where I first saw it. When I first come on a project, most of the producer/director meetings and arguments about what they should do and how they should edit the film have usually taken place already- but on this one, those discussions went on right up to the end - so I was in the middle of it all.
Were you being tugged in multiple directions?
Sometimes, yeah. But the producers (Andrew Form and Brad Fuller) were great. They would call and ask if I thought certain scenes were scary - they were asking me! It just got to the point where we weren't sure. When you watch a scene 500 times a day, it’s easy to lose sense of whether or not it's scary, or if it’s working. It was a time issue. I just did the best I could under the circumstances.
At least you did get to create a melodic theme for the family....
It's interesting you bring that up – they actually shot more family footage than is in the film. After they move into the house, there was more family interaction – but they decided to take a lot of that out, because they wanted to get right to the scares, for the audience. It would have been nice for me to have of that kind of footage to work with, but I understand why they did what they did – it’s a horror film, the audience wants to jump.
How do you balance the two types of music (melody and cacophony)? What is your work process?
Texas Chainsaw and this one are definitely different than any other film I've done, because you don't think as melodically some days depending on what scenes you're looking at. It is all about atmosphere and you want to hopefully bring the audience into the scene, and a melody might be too much. You don't want to tip your hat - that's one thing we were trying not to do, give scares away. I told them, as soon as you put a violin line or something that's traditional kind of score, in my opinion, you're subconsciously putting the audience at ease because it’s something they recognize as movie music. So we would do stuff that feels uncomfortable. I did a lot of stuff where I took the orchestra, and put them through a lot of plug-ins and effects on my computer, so it was organic, but you wouldn't know it's an orchestra. There were elements of that in most of the cues. [Play "Library / Cavern Montage" MP3]
Before I had written any music, I had sketched out on paper a lot of crazy stuff. Like tell the musicians to pick any note, violins do this, you do that, freeform kind of stuff. Bruce Fowler conducted it, and he's the master of that stuff, from his Frank Zappa days. So we created about 3 hours of that material, and I even had him conduct to tempo maps that I felt would fit certain scenes, and then I wrote musical direction on the score for them to follow. I used this material while I was composing the cues, and built on it.
How do you think it turned out in the end? Are you more of a fan of melody versus cacophony?
I think I'm more of a melody person, definitely. There are a few melodies in there that I thought were nice, and I wish I had more of an opportunity to use them. For instance, I sent the first batch of cues to Michael Bay, and the one he picked out as his favorite was one I never would have guessed. It was the scene where the mom is putting the kids to bed, and the son is talking about prayers not working, because his dad had died. And there's this tiny little string thing, which was the family theme, and it's what he reacted to. I felt good about that, because I'm still getting to know Michael's musical tastes, and to know that that kind of music is something that interests him, that interests me too, because I'm working with him now on The Island. Any clues to a director’s musical tastes are useful to a composer. [Play "Prayers Don't Work" MP3]
How did you reconcile your musical approach with Lalo Schifrin's classic score? Did it influence you?
At the beginning, we had talked about using Lalo's theme, but I think what it comes down to is, Michael Bay is into new things. Traditional score to him isn't very appealing, and I don't want to say that as a general note - I'm sure there are things that he does like - but I think it just sounded "old fashioned" to him. It's a great score, obviously, and we did have that discussion, but chose to do something else. I wrote a new melody, in that similar style, with a bit of a choir, and it's used as they drive up and see the house for the first time. I then took it and twisted it for the rest of the film. [Play "Finding the House" MP3]
You also worked on the Japanese anime film Steamboy for Katsuhiro Ôtomo, the director of Akira. Did you get to go to Japan to work on that?
I didn't go to Japan until after the film was done. Katsuhiro came out to meet with me months before I started on it - there was a big delay with the production of the film. He doesn't speak English, so I dealt a lot with Keiichi Momose, the sound supervisor, who spoke English fairly well, and between the three of us we managed to get by. [Play "Collape and Rescue" MP3]
We recorded the score here in Los Angeles at Fox with the great Hollywood Studio Symphony, and we also did a few percussion sessions with great players like Mike Fisher, the top percussion guys in LA - just let them go crazy! They released the film here in the states in a very limited release, which was surprising - I thought they were going to really push it. [Play "The Chase" MP3]
You're also currently scoring one of the top television shows of the season, "Desperate Housewives". How did you come to be involved on that one?
That was a complicated situation! There's a whole huge history of composers who either had the show, got fired, or tried out for the show - I don't even know how many composers were involved! One of the producers of the show was a producer on the ABC show "Threat Matrix", which I had scored. Michael Edelstein is a great guy, and easy to work with - and knows his music. He called me in the middle of Steamboy, and asked me to do a demo for Housewives. I scored the opening scene of the pilot, sent it over, and got a good response, which made me happy - and they wanted me to score the whole pilot! I was right in the middle of Steamboy, and couldn't afford to take it on as well. He was a bit disappointed, but understood. So they went and got someone else, who I believe was Steve Bartek.
He did two episodes, and for whatever reason, creative differences or something, they called me and asked if I could come on the show - they still liked my demo, and had been temping it in the show. Stewart Copeland did the third episode, but at that point they called me and told me that I had the show. I didn't ask questions - I just said "thank you!" It was a strange process. [Play "Wisteria Lane" MP3]
How do you balance it all, with a weekly television show and working on these feature films?
It's tough! Fortunately, in the early half of the season (before the features started), the episodes were much more music heavy - like twice the amount of music. There were murders happening, a lot of mystery and drama as well as the comedy. And the show has so many scenes each week, I was writing as many as 30 minutes of score per episode. We all eventually realized that it was too much - the show didn't need it because a lot of the scenes lived fine without score because the writing and acting is so good. So we toned down the music to about 15-18 minutes a week, much more manageable. I also got two friends to help me out, Jay Flood and Louis Febre. Febre had apparently helped Bartek on the pilot - so there was a connection there already. So when it got really crazy, I could call up one of them and have them help with a cue. They were able to pick up my style pretty quickly, since it's a specific sound palette, and they're really good composers and have helped me get through some of the tougher weeks. [Play "Murder Montage" MP3]
Thankfully there are only four episodes left for this season, and then The Island will really start to get heavy. So for me, I'll finish "Desperate Housewives" in early May, and The Island comes out in July, so there's time to get it all done.
So you're working on The Island - is that going to be an action score? An emotional score?
There's a combination. I just saw a rough cut a couple of days ago, and it was really good. The action was insane - just when you think Michael Bay has done it all, he pulls this other stuff out of his hat. He's funny - he downplays it. He's like, "Oh, I thought it was cool, and I just went for it." Meanwhile cars are getting ripped in half. The story does have a lot of emotion though. The premise is that, in the future (2019 I believe), you can hire a company to clone you, in case you get sick and need a new liver or something - in which case they'll just kill the clone and take the liver. The problem is that you have these living clones in an institution, who don't know what's going on or why they are on this planet. The cover story for them is that the whole world is contaminated. There's a lottery every night, and the winner gets to go to "the island", which is supposedly the last contamination-free place on the planet - like this haven, that they think exists. But in reality, it just means they're going to kill you and take your liver or whatever. Ewan McGregor gets a little too curious and figures it all out, and then the fun begins! Ewan is great in the film – the scenes with two Ewan’s (the host and the clone) are amazing.
Did a little extra work on Bad Boys II and Team America - were those emergency calls?
Yeah, Harry Gregson-Williams called me, and I had heard of the film, and love the "South Park" guys, and had been waiting for the chance to help Harry out – kind of pay him back for everything he's done for me. So he called and said we had eight days to do the entire score. It was nuts, as you can imagine - I got about two hours of sleep for eight days! I never saw the final film - I couldn't bear to go - I'll rent it!
With Bad Boys II, it was another complicated one. I think they were behind, and because of the work I did on Texas Chainsaw, Michael suggested I come in. Those two rush projects happened at times that I had the time to help out, and with people I wanted to work with. If I hadn't done Bad Boys II, I don't think I'd be doing The Island - because I did some cues that Bay really liked. I don't know if that's the reason why he's giving me such a great opportunity, but I love working with him.
Will there be a score release for The Amityville Horror?
I kinda dropped the ball on that. La-La Land Records called me a couple months ago about it, but I was in the middle of a million things, and kept putting them off, and then when I decided I needed to record real strings for the score, it proved to be a bit too costly for them, since it's AFM, and that's understandable. After they told me that, I didn't really look into other routes.
The Amityville Horror is in theaters now. The Island comes out on July 22, 2005. The soundtrack to Steamboy is available in stores.
Special thanks to Kristen Chin at Chasen & Co. for her help with this interview.