An Interview with Alex Wurman by John Mansell
With many thanks to Tom Kidd and Ray Costa of Costa communications
The name of composer Alex Wurman is a relatively new one to collectors of film music and connoisseurs of soundtracks. It was when Wurman scored the movie CRIMINAL in 2005 that many such collectors began to take notice of his music and also became aware of the composer’s originality and his musical expertise. I was fortunate enough to get Mr. Wurman to answer a short questionnaire for me and the questions and response set out here are the end result of that interview.
What musical education did you receive?
I came from a musical family in Chicago and started to play piano at a very early age. My father had a recording studio and also was good friends with Robert Moog; he had the modular system, serial number 2, Walter Carlos had serial number 1 – they were getting parts as they were being built! With my Fathers classical training, he did amazing recordings – he had a record deal with RCA. He was reading scores like The Nutcracker and Chopin’s works and executing them perfectly on his Moog – reading all the dynamics and tempos. He was very conscious of creating music that had the same depth as orchestral music but using a synthesiser – the first synthesiser to do it. He was an accomplished pianist and accompanist, and my Brother (a very good cellist who studied with Jacqueline du Pré) and he were playing music in the house – everything from Shostakovich cello sonata, to the Cesar Franck violin sonata. I studied French horn for eight years but I headed off into the world of contemporary jazz music, as a pianist. I played a lot of funk and blues in the ghettos of Chicago during High School. In my later 20s and 30s, I’ve headed back to my classical influences. I’m still going in that direction.
I studied at the University of Miami for six months before they kicked me out. They kicked me out because I wasn’t studying my jazz piano. I was actually writing horn band charts and things like that. They should have said, “Hey you’re not a jazz pianist, maybe you should think about composing”. But they didn’t do that. I think educators need to be a little more conscious of what their students are doing even if the students don’t know what they’re doing. So I left Miami, and went back to the Conservatory of America in Chicago for six to seven months.
I’ve had odd, short bouts of education. Shortly after I got back to Chicago I started playing some gigs with Booby Broom and Stanley Turrantine.
What size orchestra did you utilise on the score for MARCH OF THE PENGUINS?
It was about a 50-50 situation, with a full orchestra and the same amount of electronic instruments. There was even a 44 piece string instrument section at one point. I relied heavily on the real flutes, piano, harp, and live percussion. There were some synthesiser sounds that were also very important to paint the palette of the film.
Did you find it easier working on a movie that had no actors; by this I mean was it easier or maybe difficult to work on a movie without any dialogue apart from the commentary track/voice over to contend with, and was this voice over already on the movie when you came to score it?
I had the commentary/dialogue in script form. It was far easier to work with because I could choose more easily the values that I wanted to bring to it. I didn’t have to interpret that much.
Do you orchestrate all of your own music or do you use an orchestrator for this?
I use an orchestrator but I’m doing all the arranging myself.
How did you become involved with MARCH OF THE PENGUINS?
I just had a chance meeting with Mark Gill the head of Warner Bros independent Pictures. They needed to hire somebody, He knew of my work on a few interesting projects and offered this one to me on a hunch. I watched the movie and loved it. I came into the process about 2-3 weeks before they finalised the deal with the French – so it wasn’t certain that it was going to work out. But if it was going to work out, the clock was ticking already. Even before their deal was finalised, I started working on it.
Was the scoring process different in any particular way when you worked on MARCH OF THE PENUINS as opposed to working on a Hollywood/studio movie?
Well, I grew up watching National Geographic… totally in my soul. But every movie I do, hopefully will be a departure, and certainly ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGANDY was a major departure. The movie itself was a departure and so was the music. I was given an unprecedented amount of freedom on MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, There was no temp score – I didn’t have to listen to the old score. In fact the idea was to go do something different. I had a whole lot of freedom there. I had the freedom to effect change to the extent that most composers don’t have because we were working on film editing at the same time. I was able to be a part of that and also with the sound effects at the end – I could have influence there. Using a romantic approach was an idea I got from the original version.
When did you first decide that you wanted to work as a composer of music for film?
After I studied in Chicago for a bit, I was making a career in advertising. I did some spots, and was really into syncing up and working to picture, I knew that was in my future because my father had done a bit of that as well. He had worked on small industrial type things, back then industrials were cool! Motorola made some great industrials… I saw STAR WARS around a hundred times when I was a kid and didn’t realise it, but inevitably I would see that film scoring is what I really wanted to do, for a whole host of reasons. For instance, I’m much better when there is a deadline and if I were in the record world, I don’t know if I would ever finish anything.
When a compact disc is to released of one of your scores, do you have any input into what music actually makes it onto the disc?
In the case of MARCH OF THE PENGUINS it is specifically a score album. I created the sequence of tracks and their lengths completely, and in fact, remixed the score in my studio for the purpose of making the album. I also did this for my score to CRIMINAL; there was just so much material to choose from, from that particular soundtrack. The other scores that I have had released I was actually very lucky to get any of my music on the albums in the end. They were soundtracks that were selling songs. The factors that influence those types of records are clearly the appeal of the song and the marketing of the song. They have nothing to do with the score.
How much time were you given to score MARCH OF THE PENGUINS?
We had a very fast turnaround, so I was doing the score right up until the last possible moment before we mixed it and gave it to the printers. I don’t know how the process would compare to a documentary, but inexpensive would apply because I was trying to get a broad orchestral sound. To fix that problem I went for a hybrid sound. It was pretty fast – I wrote, recorded and mixed 67 minutes of music in six weeks. It was at Sundance prior to that. They looked at it in Sundance and decided that they wanted to release the American version in June because of the idea that people would want to go into a theatre and visit a cold place on a hot summers day. That was Mark Gills idea.
When scoring a project do you have any set routine or way in which you tackle it, i.e. do you start with the main theme and work through to the end titles or do you start with larger cues and leave smaller tracks till last?
I try and come up with the main themes first, then I try them out in and around the different places where I think that they might work – and also in some places where maybe I think that they wont work just to experiment. Once I have figured out how the themes are working for the film I like to go back to the beginning.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am going back to another Will Ferrell movie, TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY. I’m very privileged to have those different styles of movie in my life they are so much fun to work on and, because they are all so different, it is valuable to me as it keeps me fresh.
When working on a movie do you prefer to be involved at the script stage or do you prefer to start work at the rough cut stage of the proceedings?
I like to work from the rough cut because cinematography is a big influence on me.
How do you work out your musical ideas – do you use piano, or synth?
I work out things very much in my head first, then I move on to the piano and then on to the computer.
You worked alongside composer Hans Zimmer for a while. Are there any other composers that work in film that you would say had influenced you in any way?
Ennio Morricone is very high on my list, because at a very influential time when I was studying film music in my early 20s I went to see the movie BUGSY and had to go and buy the score – those melodies are gorgeous. Shortly afterwards I got THE MISSION and it blew my mind – I’m still learning from that one. Jerry Goldsmith is another one. James Newton Howard is a more contemporary guy that I thought was doing some cool stuff. I could identify with the music for GRAND CANYON, so I learned a lot from that. Other than film composers, I’m influenced by a lot of classical composers that I can’t really name, but I know their music. At this moment Ravel and Debussy and also Gabriel Faure are right up there. I love romantic music because it’s meaningful, it’s heartfelt and it’s not flashy in any way. If you don’t feel the passion of what they’re doing from the melody and the harmonies then it’s unsuccessful music. There’s no confusing whether or not it’s working.