Veteran and influential film music composer Marco Beltrami discusses his craft in this exclusive interview
Music is the spine of almost all cinema, radically transforming an image and dictating our emotional response. And yet, so few audiences actually pay attention to its essential presence. That’s why director Matt Schrader’s new documentary Score: A Film Music Documentary is so important. The movie — which is now enjoying a limited theatrical run — assembles some of contemporary film’s most revered music makers, from Danny Elfman (Batman, Justice League), Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight), Quincy Jones (In the Heat of the Night), Trent Reznor (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and many more to discuss their respective processes and identify what makes music in the movies matter.
Featured prominently in the film is veteran composer Marco Beltrami, the sound architect behind the Scream films, key Guillermo del Toro films (Mimic, Blade 2, Hellboy), The Shallows, Resident Evil and dozens upon dozens more. Here is an artist who might be one of the most prolific and innovative composers alive but who is still humble and open to discussing his craft. We caught up with Beltrami last week to talk shop and the importance of Schrader’s doc.
ComingSoon.net: When was the first time you realized, or even noticed, score at all?
Marco Beltrami: Well, in a movie that sort of featured that, Fantasia, the original, back when I was a kid and I think that was the only movie that I’ve seen multiple times, I think I saw it like six times, and that sort of awakened me to it. Thereafter, I sort of dropped it for a while, I went to music school, I thought I was just going to write concert music but to make a living doing that is a tough gig, you have to stay in academia and I really didn’t want to. I has an opportunity to study with Jerry Goldsmith at USC and that’s when I really started realizing that film had a lot to offer.
CS: You know, with Goldsmith, I think of my favorite of his works, the score for the original Planet of the Apes and in that and others, there was the use of percussion in his work and I guess you kind of have that too. I always think of your music, the signature stuff like Scream and my favorite which is Resident Evil, having an electronic, almost post-industrial pulse to it. Do you think I’m right in saying that?
Beltrami: Yeah and I guess that’s the thing that really interests me about film music is that, like in the concert world I was always looking to explore temporal boundaries and instruments and extended techniques and all that, and then in film I realized that the recording is the performance, so it gives you a lot of license to play around with and manipulating sounds and doing things you wouldn’t be able to do in a live setting, or would be difficult to, and it’s sort of pushing the same temporal boundaries but in a more extreme way.
CS: You know, speaking of live performance, I mean so many of your contemporaries, Han Zimmer, the list goes on and on, John Carpenter, Clint Mansell, all of them are performing their stuff live now. Have you done that or is it something you’d consider doing?
Beltrami: It is something that is very intriguing to me. There’s been some cinematic concert stuff done in, well mainly in Europe, and it would be something I am interested in. I like to spend time to compare the music so it doesn’t work just as film cues, as it appears in the movie, but actual pieces that could be listened to and have the wrong flow to them so it’s more than just translating the film cues to stage.
CS: Let’s go back to your Resident Evil score, which you made in collaboration with Marilyn Manson. I love this score. There’s that opening theme with that amazing tinkly melody that just kind of creeps into it, it reminded me of Suspiria. Was that Goblin score at all an influence to you, when you guys were making that?
Beltrami: I think it was, in the background somewhere. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff gelling at one time and certainly that was as well. It’s hard to remember exactly what my influences were, but I do know that was an influential score to me.
CS: It’s funny you say that, it’s hard to remember, because again so dense, so many years doing this. Are you ever cautious about repeating yourself, I’m sure by accident you often do, but is it something you purposely try to avoid?
Beltrami: It’s very easy to fall into the traps of repeating oneself, or myself, especially when you find problems with similar movies or puzzles that need to be solved, it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing something you know works so yeah, I think I’m probably guilty of that.
CS: I think of the great composers and they always some sort of link to a director, whether it be John Ford and Max Steiner or Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone, but you have a few directors that you seem to be the go to guy for, one of them was Wes Craven; can you tell me about working with Wes a little bit?
Beltrami: That was a great relationship. He was the first director that I worked on serious projects with and really learned a lot from him. We spent a lot of time, he would listen to cues, working in my studio and basically giving me advice on how to proceed with things. I’d never seen a horror movie until I started working on Scream, so a lot of the conventions were things I had to learn and he was a great guy for that.
CS: I find that more than a bit outrageous that for a guy who has done so many essential horror movie scores, you had no real entry point into the genre. Do you think maybe that sometimes works, when someone is not too bogged down by the knowledge of one subject that they can maybe create something that’s a little more pure or organic?
Beltrami: I think so, I think that is a strong possibility. I think that horror movies lend themselves to that world of extended techniques and tambura music and me just sort of taking an open-minded, creative approach to it and also not being jaded at all by the genre because always being afraid of horror movies. The first time I sat through Scream with Wes was a scary experience so maybe I viewed it from the point of view of this person watching the movie when I was writing it, I was very conscious of it.
CS: Do you ever get lost in your own work? Do you ever get creeped out by your own sounds or someplace where you’re going with sound?
Beltrami: Sometimes yeah, it can happen. The studio here is pretty remote, sometimes late at night you can freak yourself out.
CS: I mentioned Morricone and Leone and talked about the collaboration, sometimes Morricone was there from the script stage, sometimes even before, the concept stage on up, with many directors I think. Have you ever had experiences like that? Was working with Del Toro like that sometimes?
Beltrami: Yeah, I was just going to say, with Hellboy we started work right from the beginning, when he started shooting, went over there and saw some of the shooting, came back started working on some themes, sending it back, him putting some dailies with the music I was sending, it was a real collaboration and I think the film really benefited from us working early together and I find that usually that’s the case. The more time that I have to explore, have fun, the better the result.
CS: I’ve got to mention another favorite of mine, which is Alex Proyas’s Knowing. I always thought that was a little visionary piece of work. It kind of got lost and I’m waiting for it to find its cult. Is that ever frustrating for you sometimes, to create beautiful music like you did for that film and then have the movie kind of slip away? How do you feel about that?
Beltrami: Well I mean, what happens with the movie after I’m done working on it, it’s all beyond my control, I can’t get hung up on that because you can get depressed, not just from the work I put into but the film as a whole, all Alex’s movies are amazing, same thing with Gods of Egypt, but you know, I try and focus on what I can control and change, it’s hard to spend too much time thinking about it.
CS: Regarding remakes, you did the score for Carrie remake. Did you completely ignore Pino Donaggio’s original score for De Palma’s movie?
Beltrami: They wanted to do something different. I was specifically told we don’t want you to incorporate the original score, so I didn’t. I love how the original film and score work together, but we were doing something different.
CS: Similar with what you did with Ben-Hur as well I guess.
Beltrami: Yeah, there’s been a few like that, where I was able to get a little bit of homage, doing the Omen remake.
CS: What was that like, paying homage to your mentor Jerry Goldsmith?
Beltrami: It was a little daunting and scary at first, but the thing that Jerry really taught me was being economical with my writing and keeping things as simple as possible and reducing all the ideas to a more simple form and that’s how I approached The Omen. He wrote his score which could sort of be reduced to three notes and I tried to write mine with as few as possible as well.
CS: This documentary I think is important, from someone who always champions scores. In my writing, I always isolate score as being a major component of especially horror, but do you feel kind of vindicated in some way, that the documentary exists exclusively to concentrate on this component of the art form?
Beltrami: Yeah, I was blown away by the documentary, so much amazing footage and they put it together in a really cohesive, entertaining and informative way. I thought they did a fantastic job.