An Interview with Alan Silvestri and Robert Zemeckis by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.75/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl
It’s Friday June 2nd 10 a.m. on the Sony Scoring Stage in Culver, Calif. as composer Alan Silvestri begins rehearsal on his first cue of the day ‘The Chase’. Silvestri is currently engaged scoring WHAT LIES BENEATH, his tenth collaboration with director Robert Zemeckis. From ROMANCING THE STONE to the new Dreamworks motion picture WHAT LIES BENEATH that stars Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, Silvestri and Zemeckis have forged a working relationship that can be compared to that of Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann or Steven Spielberg and John Williams.
In ‘The Chase’ the rain pours down as Michelle Pfeiffer drives up, gets out of her car, and runs to a truck that’s towing a boat behind it. You see her run to the truck in a close up shot of the right outside car mirror – yes, this is Robert Zemeckis at work. She then gets in the truck and drives off, putting her cell phone on the dashboard of the car, across a bridge. Then all of sudden Harrison Ford comes crashing through the rear truck window to grab Pfeiffer around the neck, wrestling with her, as the truck and boat plunge directly into the deep river below. The wooden shaft that holds the boat mast comes plunging through the back of the truck and its windshield, then it submerges underwater as Ford is barely conscious and Pfeiffer rolls down the window to escape. Just as rehearsal ends and Alan begins to record at 10:30 a.m., Robert Zemeckis makes his entrance saying, “I know how to time this, l don’t come for rehearsals,” even though he relished working every minute of the day with Alan and was one of the last people to leave.
The cue finishes, the sheer power of the music was overwhelming, and it was reminiscent of classic Bernard Herrmann, CAPE FEAR to be exact. As Silvestri enters the control booth Zemeckis approaches him enthusiastically and they slap hands like take 5, but with two hands, saying, “That’s some Herrmann shit baby!” A total nod of approval from the director himself. Then after another take of the same cue they both talk about stingers, hits, more impact for Harrison when he comes through the truck window, and then Silvestri really goes to work. With a gleam in Alan’s eye that signifies an excited kid who’s just found a brand new toy, it’s time to invent. Just as Alan starts to redo ‘The Chase’, Zemeckis ponts out, “How are we going to get a car from point A to point B and make it fun?” This statement summarized the whole scene.
As the day developed, Silvestri worked constantly with Zemeckis as they molded the film and score into one mind-blowing event. Just before he was going to make another change Alan commented, “We’ve got to rewrite it, it’s nip and tuck.” He then turns to one of the producers, Jack Rapke, “It’s a contact thing.” He responds, “Yea, it’s a contact sport.” Then towards the end of the day, Silvestri, on a second take, had a better idea. During a break he went to the grand piano and started to bring his new version of the cue to life. Soon Zemeckis came out on the scoring stage and joined him with overwhelming approval. Right after Alan recorded his successful version of this cue, he looked at Zemeckis in the booth and said, “We don’t want bad cinema, Bob.” As the day’s work winds down, the orchestra disbands, and the creative duo reviews the current cues of the day. Again it sprang to light, Bernard Herrmann without a doubt. He would be proud of Alan if he could hear his score.
Silvestri had to get home for his son’s birthday party, so he picks up the phone and makes the arrangements setting up his plane in Santa Monica, in one hour, to fly to Monterey, which is next to home in Carmel. Just like his scores, he’s in total control, he’s the pilot, and needs to know the conditions, “The winds are at two nine zero, what’s the forecast for the next two hours?” It was almost as if he was asking, “What genre am I going to score next?”
Composer Alan Silvestri
This is your tenth film with director Robert Zemeckis and your reunion since CONTACT three years ago. Do you constantly stay in touch and know what his next film is?
I’m constantly in touch with Bob, but normally he’ll call me when he decides what he’s going to do. I usually know well in advance, very often even before a script is finished. We’ve become friends over the years and that relationship transcends the professional side of things.
When you’re about to go to work for Robert, what comes to your mind?
He has demonstrated an amazing sense of loyalty towards me, since the very beginning. That has certainly just been reinforced over the years, so there’s this emotional overlay that is a component in working with Bob. The way it all boils down ultimately is that I always want it to be the absolute best that it can be.
When did you first hear about WHAT LIES BENEATH?
Actually it might have been at the end of 98. I remember Bob saying, “I’m going to need you to reserve the year 2000 for me. We are going to be doing two movies and we’re going to have this crazy schedule.” They knew they were going to do both CASTAWAY and WHAT LIES BENEATH in this split configuration. They were going to shoot the first half of CASTAWAY and they knew then that Tom Hanks was going to require a certain amount of time to prepare for the second half of CASTAWAY, so they were going to shoot WHAT LIES BENEATH in-between. They had planned the logistics out about a year and a half in advance. Now CASTAWAY is finished, but long before I had seen any film, Bob explained WHATLIES BENEATH as being a Hitchcock style thriller.
When the words Hitchcock and thriller came to mind, did Bernard Herrmann came to mind?
Oh absolutely, Bernard Herrmann was such a significant presence in so many of Hitchcock’s films and he had such a fantastic sensibility about how to write music for that style of film that he absolutely came to mind.
What was the first thing you did when you first saw the film?
I wanted to look for some thematic material that would represent the ghost in the film. I wanted to find something that had a slightly feminine feeling to it and was beautiful. I wanted it to be something that was inviting because when you look at the entire film, folks are popping out of their seats when they get scared here or there, but throughout the entire film the ghost is trying to communicate and is calling. I was looking for some kind of thematic material that would evoke this ghost calling to Claire.
What was WHAT LIES BENEATH temped with and how did you deal with that?
They used some THE SIXTH SENSE, and a whole bunch of Bernard Herrmann, including music from CAPE FEAR, quite a collection of things. A temp score is like a hammer; in the hands of a builder it’s a tremendous tool, in the hands of a homicidal maniac it’s a weapon of mass destruction. I want to help the director realize their vision of their film. If temp music facilitates that communication, it’s a very smart and useful tool, if it does something other than that, then it’s a detriment.
When working with you, how does Bob view the temp?
Bob is always very open about all of that, he’s very willing to take what information is available from seeing a piece of temp music and is not attached to it ever. I’ve never seen him fall into that trap. He will certainly reference the temp. Let’s say we’ve been to a preview and the audience jumped out of their seats at a scary sting and that’s what we wanted them to do, then I write a cue and they don’t jump all of a sudden, we need to know why they didn’t jump. Bob will then be very comfortable, as will I, in terms of going back in and saying, “We’ve lost a possibility here,” but we’ve always looked at temp music in a clinical sense. You don’t want to lose a possibility. There’s an example where the temp is a useful tool for us to see how the film wears music.
What challenged about scaring WHAT LIES BENEATH?
In the spirit of the Hitchcock context, Bob and I talked at great length about music for that genre. One of the things that we felt Bernard Herrmann had really captured was that the music always allowed the film to still be viewed as entertainment and not something else. In this film there is a fair amount of comedy, as there was in many of the Hitchcock films. There’s a fair amount of shock moments where you do want folks to jump right out of their seat. Through it all the challenge is “How do you walk the line in such a way that you allow what is funny to remain funny and still not lose the folks in the more ongoing tense and scary aspects of the film?”
In one scene where Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford are engaging in sex, I got the impression that Michelle Pfeiffer’s character had left and someone else had taken over her body. How do you score a transformation sequence like this?
Actually it was one of the more difficult scenes because of the reasons just mentioned. It was a long sequence, maybe six minutes long, and it was a seduction scene. This was very sensual – funny would not be the right word – but certainly there was a playfulness that was inherent in the scene. At the same time it was very serious because she was her guest at this point, so it was one of those difficult situations where “How do we allow all of these elements to coexist and not have the music destroy the range that we really need to show in the sequence?” There’s nothing revealed of a sexual nature in the sequence, it’s all implication. Musically it was more difficult, just from the point of view of wanting to not trample it in some way. To be there and support it, but not destroy the range between the lightness and the darkness, to let it all live.
When I arrived at the scoring session and heard you practicing your first cue, ‘The Chase,’ it was as if Herrmann had risen from the grave and had written a new score.
First you want everybody fresh before you beat them up. Bernard Herrmann has this wonderful way of supporting a film that was always telling us that it was entertainment. His music always had a big presence; it was not mousy, shy, or hiding off in the corner somewhere. That’s part of what allowed us as an audience to see the overall film as entertainment. That was the spirit of his music with Hitchcock and that is a tremendous influence. So sure, absolutely I was influenced; Herrmann’s sensibility was just tremendous. Of course you have to understand that the bad guy in those films name is Norman (laughter). It kind of says it all.
Can you explain the overall structure of your score?
Early on we talked about a theme for Norman, a theme for Claire’s neurosis, a theme for the ghost, a theme for this and a theme for that, it’s where dialog very often begins when you start to talk about the musical components for a score. As I started to work through the score, I started to feel that all of the music in the movie was Claire’s music, other than this ‘Ghost Theme’. Everything that’s happening in the film is about the ghost trying to make contact with Claire. Now she doesn’t understand that early on. We go off with this other side story about the neighbors, but if you’ll notice, whenever she starts to move away from moving closer to the ghost something happens. She’ll cut her hand, she’ll hurt her foot, and she’s always being called by the ghost, so all of the music is related to Claire and this attempt at communication.
There are different kinds of thematic motifs and elements that are developed throughout the body of the score. They service different kinds of modes that Claire is in, whether she’s having an anxiety attack, whether she’s pensive, whether she’s thoughtful and being led into some mysterious circumstance, so there are some very clearly defined motifs that are constantly appearing throughout the score.
Who were your orchestrators?
I orchestrated everything myself. This was a situation where I had the film so early on that I thought it would be fun to do and it was. Normally you don’t have the time to do that, but this was a situation where I had lots of time.
On the scoring stage I noticed that you have a lot of fun working with Bob, in fact you laved the challenge of changing cues or redoing them. Most composers dread this, but you love it like an ambitious kid that’s learning something.
When a composer goes in and writes a score, it’s their first reading, it’s their rough cut. If you equate it to every other one of the crafts involved in making a film, the composer’s been off in a room and this is what he brings to the party. It has not been for the most part exposed to the director or anyone else at that point; so it makes all the sense in the world that not only are things going to happen the first time it is exposed, but as you live with the material longer, you’re going to be more in step with the needs of the film. I look at myself as part of the film making team, so if we’re making the film better, I’m excited about that. It’s not music against the movie or composer versus director, we’re just trying to make the movie as effective and powerful as we possibly can; so if there’s a great idea that comes up or even a better idea, I embrace it.
The thing that’s interesting about Bob is that he never has you do something just because he said so. He really wants you to understand and agree that this is better and if not, he wants you to really present the case to him why it isn’t. He is very open about giving you your day in court. He’ll be the first one to say, “You know what? Maybe it’s a bad idea, let’s not do that. “He’s very smart like that. There are some directors who just don’t operate that way and you have to just face the facts as they appear to see how you want to handle that.
Did you score WHAT LIES BENEATH from an emotional or intellectual approach to what you saw on the screen?
It’s interesting from the point of view that this wasn’t a love story. You need to keep supporting the emotional life of the characters, but it was a thriller in the end. We always wanted to make sure that we kept the tension alive throughout the film and that played right on into the sexual tension in ‘The Seduction Scene’. There was always something about a tension level that we were looking to maintain that really was the primary goal of the film and consequently of the music.
How do you work with Bob in order to get him the score he wants?
We usually have a lunch somewhere after I’ve worked on the movie for awhile. After lunch we’ll go and I’ll play a few things thematically on the piano for him and that’s it. It usually takes us about an hour and that’s it! All I needed to do was to put a few things together just to get the sensibility and that’s all he needed to hear.
The other thing that you’ve got to remember with somebody like Bob is he’s a very clear filmmaker in terms of what he’s trying to communicate by what’s on the screen. So often you’ll look at a piece of film that some director has shot and you will know exactly what’s going on in that movie (pause) – until the director talks to you (laughter). Now you’ve got a real difficult situation because somebody’s telling you something that you’re not seeing. That is not the case with Bob, he is very precise about what he’s communicating and he’s also very able to get it on the screen. He’s doing 99% of his communication to his composer just by what’s on the film without having to sit and talk about it.
Your scores are always orchestrally strong, is that the key to your musical development?
I love the orchestra, I love it as a voice. I seem to write personally from a very emotional place. I just feel that the orchestra is the ultimate tool for expressing emotional material. I’m like anyone else; I’m looking for the most effective means to communicate what it is I have to communicate when I’m working on a film. I find in most instances that’s going to be the orchestra. We had a tremendous amount of electronic material in this movie, almost on every piece of music in the film, but I don’t look at it as something separate from the orchestra, it’s another tool that’s part of the orchestra.
A lot of composers don’t conduct their scores because they want to be in the booth with the director. Why do you still conduct your scores?
I want to be with the director, but I don’t see this as an obstacle. After the music is on the paper there’s still a great amount of communication that is necessary in order to accomplish the performance. That happens out there with the players, not in the booth. I just need to get out, first things first. Nobody knows what I want it to sound like better than I do. It makes perfect sense for me to be out there, I want the director to hear exactly what I did, and I’ve got to be out with the players to accomplish that.
Is conducting an emotional high point for you?
That’s part of it. Folks have to understand that the director performs for the audience, the people sitting in the theater, but the composer performs for the director. If the director does not feel what the composer has done is appropriate or accomplishing what they have intended, then that music will never be heard by the audience.
What have you learned or done differently by scoring WHAT LIES BENEATH?
I’m always learning a lot. I’m always learning about how music fits or more importantly, how film wears music. Learning things about the cumulative effects of music. Some people can write a great cue in a film, but how that cue becomes part of the overall musical fabric is a completely other task. You really want to score the film to have a sense of unity and you want it to hold together as its overall component.
It’s very much like the color timing of the film. You don’t want one scene where all the greens are played hot and then the next scene all the reds are played up and then in the next scene you will not have continuity. I need an overall level of unity in the structure of the score. That’s something that can only be experienced over time, over having a chance to write a lot of music for films. I also had an opportunity in a number of previews to see the audience reacting to the score and you always learn a tremendous amount there.
What do you plan to do next?
My next film is CASTAWAY; I’m just about to start scoring this. I’m going to be doing THE MUMMY 2 – Steve Summers is back doing it. It’s great that they’ve got the same director and he’s terribly excited, he’s a really enthusiastic guy. He’s got every intention of making this one bigger, greater, and stronger than the first one, so I’m really looking forward to have a chance to work with him. We almost had a chance in the past, but there was a scheduling conflict.
I’m also doing a Disney animated film called LILO AND STITCH.
Director Bob Zemeckis
Legendary director Bob Zemeckis who created ROMANCING THE STONE, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, all three BACK TO THE FUTURE films, DEATH BECOMES HER, FORREST GUMP (Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Director 1994), and CONTACT, has ventured into new cinematic territory with the supernatural suspense thriller WHAT LIES BENEATH. Uncharted territory for Zemeckis, this is a genre similar to many Hitchcock thrillers of the past. It’s this influence that Zemeckis proudly admits to, “Hitchcock comes to mind in every movie I make, he will always be one of the greatest.”
Silvestri met Zemeckis in 1983 and he has scored every one of his films since then, ten in all. This composer-director collaboration has become one of the most creative relationships in the film making industry today. I contacted director Bob Zemeckis to talk about his work with his “creative soul mate,” as he refers to Silvestri, and their latest teaming on WHAT LIES BENEATH.
How and when did you first meet Alan Silvestri?
It was on ROMANCING THE STONE. He walked into my office with an audition tape and played it for me. I had no idea which way to go with a composer and had an instinct that he would be the right guy for the job. He hadn’t seen the film, but came up with this very wild and nonspecific music based on feeling, connection, and instinct. AI was intense, a good guy who laughed and smiled easily, just a solid human being.
What do you want the score to do for WHAT LIES BENEATH?
I very seldom think about underscore when I’m filming. In fact I don’t think I even think about it at all. I do have an instinct for the rhythm of scenes, but I never think of it in musical terms. Sometimes I’ll think about a scene if I’m going to be putting source music in it, like a record or something. I don’t know how to direct and think about music. I’ve heard other filmmakers think that way. However, I did know as a general feeling about how the movie was going to be made, that the music had to definitely playa tension, with an emotional creepiness throughout. I just don’t start hearing music until I start connecting shots together in the editing room.
Did Bernard Hermann come to mind when considering the score you wanted here?
Bernard Herrmann comes to my mind all the time, no matter what kind of movie I’m making. I always try some Bernard Herrmann as a temp score because there’s something really very interesting about what it is that he does. Herrmann is one of the composers who wrote some of the language for cinema.
What has attracted you to using AI to score all your pictures for the last sixteen years?
It’s such a personal thing. I can’t imagine working without AI. If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it. You’ve got to throw editor Artie Schmidt into this mix to, because Artie’s been with me for nine movies, while AI’s been with me for ten. When I get into that post production phase of the film, it’s so delicate, so personal.
On the set you’re like a general who’s got this large army you’re moving around, but when you’re in the post production period of the film, it’s the complete antithesis of that. It’s all about being in a personal relationship with the people that you’re working with. I can’t imagine being in a dark room with people I don’t love and respect, for months and months, working on shaping this art. When you find people who are your creative soul mates, you want to be around them, and you want them to be part of this process. You can definitely make this parallel with Spielberg and Williams, plus the fact that Spielberg’s been working with the same editor as well. It’s exactly the same thing; we have exactly the same working procedure in post production. Basically what it comes down to is you develop a shorthand. You know how the person is thinking or feeling. I’m sure AI can sense how I feel about a cue when I say the first word or by the look on my face, the same thing with AI. If there’s a silence I know what AI’s thinking about a scene, or when we’re spotting it. The greatest thing that Al does is to talk me out of music. I’m always amazed where Al says, “Bob, I’m not hearing anything here.” I would always be thinking, “This is where I’m absolutely going to need a cue.”
Is the temp score important to you? How do you want AI to deal with it?
The temp is not important to me. I just keep telling AI, “Let’s do it better than this. This is all we can do at this point to rough it in and get a feel of the rhythm of the scene, but try to make it better.” I’ll tell you what’s interesting about the temp: I’ve never been able to temp anything with any of AI’s other music. I don’t know why that is, but I think it’s because we don’t keep making the same movie over and over again, so nothing ever works from past movies.
Do you fine tune everything at the scoring stage?
Yes, sometimes if there’s a questionable cue, we have the orchestra run it down one time. These musicians play so good that all the nuance of perfecting the cue can happen later, but if I just have the orchestra play the cue one time all the way through with the picture, then we know whether it works or not. On the first day of scoring we usually take the last hour of the session and just run one take down on all the cues, so that we can we hear the ones that Al or myself might be nervous about. At least we can then say, “We have to talk about this” or “I’m not sure about this” or “This is great, it will work.” It’s one of those things where it’s a trust thing; you only hear it on the day. I can’t look at a piano sketch or an orchestration and imagine music; I don’t have that training or talent.
What do you find unique about AI?
He’s unique in that he’s a composer in the best classic sense of the word. His music is always a texture of the complete film; he just doesn’t write songs that call attention to themselves. His music always supports the images and the performances, it’s that extra layer, and his approach to the music is always that we’re making a movie here. He’s like part of the movie. I think that’s the problem with most movies, you’ll say, “Boy that’s really a good score, but the movie doesn’t work.” It’s nice when a score stands alone as a piece of symphony music, but it’s really not what it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be part of this whole tapestry.
In WHAT LIES BENEATH doesn’t the music have to underscore the changing or different personalities of actress Michelle Pfeiffer?
To some degree yes, because she’s the pivotal character of the movie, but I think that the score in this movie is unique to other movies that AI and I have made. In this film there’s a lot of things the music does that deviate from the classic shoring up of a character emotionally, including misdirecting the audience, which is all part of the fun of this movie. Playing with convention of what music is supposed to do and then pulling the rug out from under you, it’s that kind of thing. More than any other score that AI and I have done together, the music plays to things that aren’t there, maybe, or mysterious things or things that are of our subconscious rather than of our emotion.
I noticed when AI was scoring WHAT LIES BENEATH, his enthusiasm and inspiration to make your film and his score better never seems to end until the scoring sessions are completely finished. Is this the way it’s always been when working with him over the years?
What he taught me is that there’s no mystery to it, it’s definitely workable, and I should speak my mind. Most composers put up this wall of mystery around what it is that they do. I wouldn’t ever suggest anything musical to AI, but if I don’t think something’s working for the scene the way I had envisioned it, I will express that and he’ll either listen, disagree, talk me out of it, or go ahead and change it.
My personal thanks goes out to producers Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke, Dave Bifano, Dora Barrera at Dreamworks, Joan Tomaro (Assistant at Silvestri Studios), Heather Smith and Kelsey Clark (Assistants to Robert Zemeckis), director Robert Zemeckis, and composer Alan Silvestri. – RK
Composer/Conductor: Alan Silvestri
Where: Sony Scoring Stage at Sony Studios, Culver City, California
When: May 22, 23, 24, 25, June 2 and 6, 2000
Orchestrator: Alan Silvestri
Orchestra: 85 to 90 Pieces
Engineer: Dennis Sands
Keyboard Players: Randy Kerber, Ralph Grierson, Mike Lang, and Randy Waldman
Electronics: Alan Silvestri
Composing Time: Started seven weeks before the first scoring date, the sketches and orchestrations were done in sequence.
Length of score: Approximately 1 hour
Longest Cue: ‘The Seduction Scene’ which is approximately six minutes
Shortest Cue: A couple of five-second stings
Contractor: Sandy DeCrescent