Interview: Pirates of the Caribbean 5 Composer Geoff Zanelli

Pirates of the Caribbean 5 composer Geoff Zanelli discusses his process making the music for the new Jack Sparrow adventure

Walt Disney Pictures’ upcoming fifth Jack Sparrow adventure Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is primed to sail onto screens on May 26th. In it, Johnny Depp returns as the iconic, swashbuckling anti-hero, now down-on-his-luck and feeling the winds of ill-fortune blowing strongly his way when deadly ghost sailors, led by the terrifying Captain Salazer (Javier Bardem), escape from the Devil’s Triangle bent on killing every pirate at sea – notably Jack. Jack’s only hope of survival lies in the legendary Trident of Poseidon, but to find it he must forge an uneasy alliance with Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a brilliant and beautiful astronomer, and Henry (Brenton Thwaites), a headstrong young sailor in the Royal Navy. At the helm of the Dying Gull, his pitifull small and shabby ship, Captain Jack seeks not only to reverse his recent spate of ill fortune, but to save his very life from the most formidable and malicious foe he has never faced.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales looks to be a classic slab of Pirates escapism and, like all of the films in the famous franchise, features majestic music to propel its high-seas, supernatural shenanigans. In the first four films, iconic composer Hans Zimmer has been credited as the man who sculpted the soundtracks, but he’s always been assisted and supported by co-composer Geoff Zanelli (Secret Window, Into the West, Disturbia). This time, however, Zanelli has been given the sole key to the sonic kingdom, his first time handling a Pirates film’s sound alone.

In this exclusive new interview, we speak to Zanelli (who has a long formative history writing pop music as well) about creating that larger-than-life score for Norwegian director’s Espen Sandberg and Joachim Rønning (Kon-Tiki) rollicking family action film, as well as getting insight into his background and creative process. Enjoy! When you finish a giant film like Pirates, is there a sense of relief when it’s over? Or is it like the circus has left town?  How do you feel?

Geoff Zanelli: With some of them, you know, I just start to miss them right away, and I did with Pirates. I actually have with all the Pirates, they’re just kind of like dream projects for me. I just like them, you know what I mean?  Like, I’d be a fan, I’d be in line to go see this movie. So when a movie like that comes to an end, I just kind of say, “Isn’t there something else I can do for you guys?” I’ve been lucky. I’ve had a lot of projects that I miss. But, you know, you’re also just always exhausted and I leave it all in the score. I’ve heard people say it’s like “there’s no more toothpaste left in the tube,” you know, at the end of every movie, and I think that’s a pretty good description of it.

CS: I absolutely love that analogy. That’s fantastic.

Zanelli: Yeah. And I guess with Pirates, at this point I’ve realized that I’ve spent more time working on Pirates movies than I have, like, in high school (laughs). I’ve done all five of them, and, you know, with a bigger role now.

Prepare for the latest adventure with our Pirates of the Caribbean characters guide! This Pirates of the Carribean guide is useful in advance of the May 24 film.

CS: Well, let’s pause there, because I know we’re going to get into more Pirates in a bit, but let’s flash back to those early days. Can you remember the first movie you saw or the first moment where you actually recognized the use of score in cinema?

Zanelli: I can. It was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the original one. I wouldn’t have seen it in the original run, so I must have caught it on television, you know, when it started hitting cable. But I do recall, like, just sort of, like having this little epiphany, like “this movie and this music were, like, born together.” You know what I mean. Like, this music is written specific to this movie. Which, I mean, we all know that now, as adults, but when you’re a child you just take for granted that there’s music there. It’s not necessarily even on your radar that there’s a person who writes that music and it goes into the movie, you know? In retrospect, that was the moment where I just went, “Whoa! That’s a job!” (laughs).

CS: Even when Gene Wilder moves, it’s in time to the music, you know, the little pings and the pangs; it’s just so perfectly orchestrated.

Zanelli: Yeah, you’re right! Shades of Jack Sparrow, actually…

CS:  You know what? There really is, isn’t there? Yeah. So is that a conscious point of reference when you were composing for Jack?

Zanelli: I don’t think, no. I mean, Johnny Depp has always talked about that it’s Keith Richards with a little bit of Pepe Le Pew, which I think is perfect description. But, I suppose, if you think about what Willy Wonka is, it’s sort of a live-action cartoon. And, in a lot of ways, at least in comedy aspects of Pirates, Jack Sparrow is often a live-action cartoon. Now, of course, we go quite a bit farther than that with the adventure and there are some dark and serious moments in this movie, but I think, not consciously, but subconsciously, it’s got to be a reference point because there’s a physicality about Johnny’s comedic performance that isn’t, you know, so far from Gene Wilder doing a somersault when he comes out the chocolate factory.

CS: Yeah, the pratfall, it’s great!

Zanelli: Exactly!

CS: So guitar was your first love and you have a history in pop music. When you’re writing for film, do you use the guitar as your primary springboard?

Zanelli: No! Uh, well, on rare, rare, rare occasions. The Odd Life of Timothy Green is one of them, where I felt that it was coming from more of a folky, acoustic perspective, I guess. But not for the vast majority of what I do. Pirates is all over a piano. But, of course, it’s a synthesized piano, you know?

CS: Right.

Zanelli: So, we have a synthesized orchestra that we can all work with, and so that all gets put into the computer, and the orchestration built up, you know, inside, you know, some technological woo-hoos and all that! But that’s all at a piano.

CS: Who’s the most influential composer when it comes to your work?

Zanelli: Oh boy! I mean, look – Bernard Herrmann, I mean, there’s no question! But, I mean that’s easy, right? But, and this might not even relate directly to the work that I write, but the orchestral music that I was latching onto early on was Ravel.

Pirates of the Carribean 5 - Carina prepares for a dip

CS: Okay.

Zanelli: And I think it wasn’t — not even necessarily because of the notes — it was about the precision and the detail. Which is extreme! I mean, it’s like watch making or something. I mean, it’s down to the last little drop of detail that you could ever possibly think about in an orchestration or in a piece of music, and it’s right there. You know, those were the scores and the recordings that I was sort of latching onto. So that’s certainly one of them. It’s also unashamed to be beautiful, which is something that I think probably comes through in my work. Even when I’m being dark, there’s a dark beauty about it. I guess I’m an optimist! But look, I did come up through rock bands and pop music and things like that, so there’s no way around, you know, the Guns N’ Roses influence. Maybe less optimistic, but it was certainly something that kind of turned me into a guitar player.

CS: You know, I saw a great interview with you online, a little while ago and it goes back in the vaults: it’s when you made the score for Disturbia.

Zanelli: Oh, right!

CS: And you’re talking about the intelligent way that you kind of plot the music, based around the narrative arc of the characters and the really, really interesting way you break that down. Does that approach apply to the Pirates movies, as well?

Zanelli: Yeah. It does. And, I think, in fact that was one of the luxuries on this when I knew I was doing it at least a year before I started really writing in earnest. It was a year before they shot! So I had plenty of time to think about it. I knew the script. And things evolved from the script. I knew what the main character arcs were. And, you know, it gave me a lot of time to think about what I’d call the architecture of the score and sort of the grand design, right? Before I go and do Ravel’s detail work on it. But it definitely informs, even in Pirates. The character of Carina Smyth in this movie has a huge story arc. That’s the playground for a composer. She’s a love interest, but there’s more than just romantic love in her story.  She’s a scientist, she’s, you know, making discoveries, she’s dealing with adversity because pirates don’t really necessarily believe in science. And she also doesn’t really believe that things can’t be explained outside of science, and she has to lean that too. So there’s a whole lot in there. And what that means is her music has to touch on all of that in some way or another. So, in the case of Disturbia, you probably read me talking about how to take what could have been just any old teen romance and make it instead into something that’s meaningful. In fact, that actually came from the performance.  Because I had read the script for that, too, but I thought, you know, this is three-fourths thriller and one-fourth love story. But I don’t think it was that by the time the movie was filmed. Because then that has to do with Sarah Roemer and Shia LaBeouf – their chemistry and performances. It suddenly made the love story, like, on par with the thriller aspects. And it made the movie kind of transcend being just a thriller. I think it’s actually what made the movie, you know, great!

CS: At this stage I’m looking at, you know, you’ve been with Pirates since ground zero with Hans. Did your new directors leave you alone to your devices?

Zanelli: Oh, no, no! And I wouldn’t want them to, either. Pirates has always been collaborative, anyway, and really, that’s how I work with basically every director.

CS: A lot of famous composers – including your mentor – are now touring and performing their music live. Is this something you would consider doing in the future?

Zanelli: I would. I haven’t really done it yet. But I would. In fact, actually, in — two things are going on — there’s a show in Japan — now, the trouble is, I’m not going to be there for these — but they’re incorporating part of the new Pirates music into it. It’s sort of like a Disney orchestral performance. And they’re going to play a big, like, sort of a suite of Pirates 5 music. But, unfortunately, again, I’m stuck in Los Angeles. So, what I’m having to do is, as we speak, in fact, that’s what my task is today – getting it all together, sending the orchestration and I will have to sort of record the rehearsal and weigh in that way. It’s sort of a sideways way to work. But those would be me dipping my toe into the concert arena…