Interview: Composer Lorne Balfe on Scoring Top Gun: Maverick

ComingSoon’s Jeff Ames was given the incredible opportunity to speak with composer Lorne Balfe about his work on Top Gun: Maverick.

Lorne has been a part of some of the biggest films of the last decade, including Michael Bay’s 13 Hours, 6 Underground, and Ambulance. He also composed the music for Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible — Fallout and is currently hard at work on Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part 1, which releases next year.

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Jeff Ames: This is quite the thrill speaking to one of my favorite composers. I actually just purchased La La Land’s complete score of Mission: Impossible: Fallout, which I’ve been listening to nonstop.

Lorne Balfe: Well, you and my mom! You’re buying everything, so thank you. Have you seen the new trailer that came out?

Yes, and that’s your music in there, right?

Yeah, we recorded that about three weeks ago and went to Air Studios. An eight-piece orchestra and 60-piece choir. You never get to do that for trailers, absolutely never. So, that was awesome. I had forgotten how cool that trailer was. I had to text Christopher McQuarrie after watching it and use the “f” word followed by “dude.” Just breathtaking. Especially after not thinking you can beat Top Gun: Maverick – just wow. And I’ve been watching it for ages! It’s just fantastic. But it’s a long wait!

How is that for you as a composer, having to wait for people to hear your work? Because I know Top Gun got pushed back quite a bit and so you’ve had to wait a long time to unveil your score.

It’s a weird thought thinking about what it’s like because we take it for granted now. Top Gun, we all started working on it three years ago. That’s how long we were working on the music. We would come in and walk away from it and go back in over the course of those three years. Things change. It’s like the best-kept secret, that’s the only way I can describe it. You’re just sitting there and you know this wonderful secret and you can’t share it with anyone. It’s just great to now have it be able to breathe and be free.

How did the score for Top Gun change over the years?

It changed in many ways. A big thing that changed was Lady Gaga’s song and that changed the way we were looking at the film and scoring it. I think what we were missing was something that represented not just a Platonical love. What changed was this love for aviation and deeper meaning of love, which we were missing in the score. When that song appeared it was like the key had opened this door of what we should be doing now with these emotional beats. So, that changed quite a bit.

The song was a big thing. Right from the beginning, we knew we had one of the most iconic themes in film music — Harold [Faltermeyer’s] main anthem — so we always knew that was going to be part of the story that was being told. But the emotional beats changed. Plus, we were no longer able to sit down with an orchestra and have them play. That didn’t exist. So, recording remotely with musicians all over the world was a difficult thing to try and control. Three years is a long time, but it went quickly.

We were working on the trailer for Top Gun as well. Working on that trailer alone took three months. How do we honor the legacy of the first film but make it a new experience? Like the Mission theme, just because it exists doesn’t make it any easier. We wanted the audience to have the same emotion they had the first time within this sequel.

Did you start at a specific point with Top Gun?

There was never a plan. That’s the one thing we all learned now. It’s a big music team — Lady Gaga, Harold, and Hans Zimmer. And we were all over the world, sometimes meeting up in the same place because of Covid. So, there was no start from the beginning and work to the end. When you see the film, tracks like “Dark Star,” that was written near the end of the process and it educated us on how to tell a story differently musically. That then made us reassess other musical parts of the film. Some people do start from the beginning and others start at the end. There’s no correct process to do it. The actual film kind of dictates where you’re going to go with it.

Especially on Mission: Impossible. I started working on that two years ago. And Chris will send me a page of the script with something they’re about to film for inspiration. Other times I’ll be writing it to a finished scene.

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Is there a point where you’re working on these projects for so long they become burdensome?

The day it stops being fun is the day you have to retire. This is all a dream come true. You’re sitting there and you’re getting to work on a movie that Jerry Bruckheimer has produced. The reason I got into movies was because of Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay and Hans Zimmer. All of those films were what I loved in film and still do. As a child, I watched those movies, even though I was too young, and I wanted to be a part of them. And I loved everything about what they all made collectively ad separately. Now, being able to work with these amazing and talented people and being lucky enough to have them as friends is the excitement also. You’re scoring a scene with one of the few true stars on the cinema screen, Tom Cruise. It can never get boring.

Is there a specific sequence in Top Gun that you’re excited for audiences to hear?

I think collectively, for the audience the beginning and the end — having watched it in cinema — you can feel the enjoyment of the audience embracing it. There’s a nod to Harold and that reminds you of those happy times watching the original movie. And then the end is rejoicing that we’re all back in the cinema again, sitting there amongst each other — the Lady Gaga song really embraces that whole feeling. When I saw it last week, for the first time in years I felt a sense of normality, the way people were bonding. It was very special.

Is there anything you can tell us about the score for Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning?

I’m too scared to say anything. Knowing my luck, I would say too much. I will keep out of that question [laughs].

Are you allowed to discuss Ambulance, which I loved by the way?

Absolutely, yes! It’s a privilege to work with Michael Bay. Bad Boys, The Rock, all these movies lighted my fire. So, getting to work on Ambulance, it’s always fun with Michael. He pushes you as a composer. There’re not many people who can shoot like Michael does. It’s truly unique. It’s such an honor to be able to work with him.

So, you’ve worked with Michael Bay and Christopher McQuarrie on franchises like Mission: Impossible and Top Gun. How do you top that?

Mission: Impossible 8! I think after a while, I don’t know if it’s about topping it. It’s about making sure you work with people you enjoy working with and admire and have stories to tell. There’s so much out there being created now. It’s about wanting to know that you’re going to keep getting pushed. Jerry really pushes you. I just finished recording Secret Headquarters, a family film coming out this summer. If the melody’s not right, there’s a thumbs down and he pushes you to make it memorable. He knows his themes whether it’s with Hans and Pirates of the Caribbean or Harold with Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun.

Well, I love your work and the movies you guys work on. These are the type of movies that get people to theaters. So, please continue doing what you do.

Hey, these are the movies that I go and see. It’s good to hear that. That’s the point of cinema. Escapism. We need escapism from life sometimes. I hope people are going back to the cinema and it doesn’t have to be about this film, but it’s that collective experience we all have together. You can watch these at home but you miss out on that interaction with other people.

Positive thoughts, Jeff! Positive thoughts. It’s taken a long time and a lot of passion, especially from Tom, to really make it as perfect as possible so the audience can have their — well, I was going to say have their breath taken away, but that would be the wrong song. [Laughs]


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