An Interview with Christopher Young by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/No.78/2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
With his last few assignments, Christopher Young seems to be breaking out of the mold of low-budget films for which he has been a prolific and proficient mainstay since he first emerged in the mid 1980s. His latest assignment is the big budget thriller, SWORDFISH, starring John Travolta as a spy hired by the CIA to facilitate the theft of unused government funds. This, and his next assignment, Kevin Costner’s DRAGONFLY, may finally see Young emerge into the midst of top film composers, which his talent and versatility surely seem to deserve. Interviewed in early May, during an all-too-short break between the two films and another small effort called SCENES OF THE CRIME, Young described his work on SWORDFISH and his outlook on his career in film music.
It’s good to talk to you again. You have certainly been busy these days! Welcome to the A-list, huh?
I don’t know if I’m in there yet, Randall. I think I’m like, just about to break in…
If you’re not there yet, then they’re just checkin’ your ID at the threshold! You’re definitely getting some important assignments these days.
Yeah, I’m real happy about that. Real lucky.
What can you tell me about SWORDFISH? How did you get hooked up with this one?
SWORDFISH is a bona-fide action film, produced by Joel Silver and starring John Travolta, Halle Berry, and Hugh Jackman.
What’s the gist of the story? Somehow I suspect it’s not about deep-sea fishing!
No, it’s definitely not about deep-sea fishing! John Travolta is a bad guy who thinks he is saving the world by diverting funds from banks, from this government fund that was set up years ago called Swordfish.
How did you get involved in the project?
I got on the project through the assistance of Joel Silver. I’d wanted to work for him and his company for many, many years. I’d actually interviewed with one of his assistants years ago, named Dan Gracchiolo, he just wanted to “sus” me out, because he very much liked the score I did for NORMA JEAN AND MARILYN. Then, flash forward about four years. Joel Silver saw THE HURRICANE and really loved the score for that, and then at the WONDER BOYS cast and crew screening I was introduced to him by Michael Douglas. Joel SiIver said, “I really want you to work on one of my upcoming movies,” and I said “Oh, great!” Well, you know how these things go, but he really came through.
So on SWORDFISH, he took samples of my material and gave them to the director, Dominic Sena – or Dom, as he’s called – who very much liked the versatility. He didn’t hear exactly what he was looking for in my stuff, but it was one of these situations where the director has enough ability to read between the lines, so to speak, and even though he wasn’t hearing exactly what he thought he needed, still he thought I’d be able to pull it off. I think what he responded to was the diversity of the material.
At what point during production did you come into the film?
I was hired during pre-production, which, as you know, is unusual. I was hired with the understanding that I was going to work hand in hand with a very successful DJ/Mixer guy named Paul Oakenfold, who was very popular in that world. You’re probably wondering: did I embrace that idea or not?! I did. I completely embraced that idea, I thought it was cool. You know me, you know my stuff, I’m always trying to do something different. It’s like, “Okay, yeah, I’m up for this. It’s time to try to reinvent myself and try something I’ve never tried before.”
You can tell that, just from the last couple of assignments you’ve had. I don’t know if you can really say “this is a Chris Young score” any more because they’re so different. You don’t pigeonhole yourself.
Tell me something, Randall, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I think it’s a good thing, because some composers you instantly recognize, you hear two notes and you know whose music it is. And it’s often terrific music, but perhaps the versatility that you bring into this is now giving you the ability to have different kinds of projects and do different kinds of things.
It certainly has opened up the door for me to do different kinds of projects. And, as you know, many years ago I was very worried that I was going to be forever typecast as the Bela Lugosi of film music. So I have broken that, but in my eagerness to rid myself of that image, I’ve spread my wings and am always trying to redefine myself. Now, indeed, you and I both know that one of the things that a film composer is theoretically to aspire to is to be able to wear many different coats, but my concern here has always been, in my eagerness to wear many different coats, have I become so multicolored that I’m hard to define? The diversity has helped me get jobs. But in the long run, when everything’s said and done, the diversity may just be something that is going to confuse matters, in terms of who I am.
That may remain to be seen. But I think it’s healthy for you right now; as far as giving you the chance to break into some of these higher budgeted things is concerned…
Yeah, that may be true.
You first got involved in SWORDFISH during preproduction. So you had some time to develop your musical approach?
You know, not really. Unfortunately, I was tied up on a whole bunch of other things even though I had been hired. I didn’t begin to write until the normal post-production end of it. I had met with Paul Oakenfold and we talked about concepts, and I listened to things that he was doing. We were trying to figure out how we would work.
So he’s bringing in songs and whatnot, and you’re skirting among them with score?
He was hired as the music supervisor, and he also is responsible for the CD. On the credits for the film, on the one-sheet, it’s “Music by” the two of us. He has actually written all the source music, and pulled the tracks together for the pop CD, and his third task was to collaborate with me on the underscore. The problem was that no one knew what the real post-production schedule was. I would hear that the film is coming out on June 8th, but there was no postproduction schedule on paper! They allowed Paul to go off on a tour, and no sooner had he gone off that I got this call from Joel Silver, saying “okay, we’re spotting the movie tomorrow and it’s due in three weeks!” Ultimately, I wrote more music per day for SWORDFISH than I can remember doing in quite some time. It was 4 1/2 to 5 minutes for ten consecutive days, and then some rewrites. It was real fast writing. I’m very proud of what I did – that not only I got to the finish line, but that I got to the finish line without having to bring in ghost writers.
So the music supervisor just did the source music and worked on the songs, but he didn’t really have a hand in the actual underscore, is that correct?
No. He didn’t get back in town until the day we went in to score. I did some synth stuff with my guy, Gerard Marino. We put together our own synth track, and that’s what we use when we go onto the stage. Now, after the fact, Paul and his assistants are now enhancing them, somehow. The other thing: there was one track in the film, one dramatic scene, an action cue, where we actually started with his music, one of his dance tracks, and I laid a little orchestra on top of it; then at a certain point the orchestra takes over, and we keep a little of his vibe going, so there’s really only one scene where there’s a true fusing of our worlds, which is unfortunate, I would have liked to have done it more often. It was not only a time issue but, in truth, I think when push came to shove, I got the feeling everyone involved in that movie, from the picture editor all the way to Joel Silver, what they were looking for was a classic orchestra/action score with as many of Paul Oakenfold’s ideas incorporated as possible. What does that mean? That means that a lot of these action cues, you’ll hear a sort of synth groove thing backing them up, which I’ve done before, but the sounds are a little different, they’re more in the analog moog kind of thing that is coming back into favor.
What were some of your first impressions of the film? What musical directions seemed suitable when you started on this project?
When I watched the film for the first time, it was, okay, how can I try to redefine things a bit, knowing that Paul’s on board? How will this work? Can it work? I suppose it was trying to see the film through that visor, as opposed to, in the case of ENTRAPMENT, it was through the visor of someone who was more into traditional action music; we had to groove that one out at the last minute – all the synth grooves that were part of the ENTRAPMENT score were added, because the music department wanted it to be cutting edge.
But in the case of SWORDFISH it was at the onset. There was this understanding that we should try to do something different here. That was my objective, anyway, but because the thing was done so quickly, the shortcoming was, as I’ve already mentioned, that Paul and I never got to collaborate. Also, there wasn’t a chance to have the kind of thematic unity that I normally would have liked to have had in a score. I think this is the only film (aside from being called in to re-score, which is a whole different story) where I saw the film on a Monday and I started writing the Main Title on a Tuesday. I didn’t have time to develop themes, and then pick my favorite. Usually I’ll give myself ten days, two weeks, to come up with themes and then pick out the ones I like. Here, I started out with a main title and just started writing! It’s very big. It’s a very dramatic score, when the action kicks into high gear, but I don’t know if you’ll hear it in the film over the sound effects.
What was your orchestration on this score?
I had a solo trumpet with a Harmon mute on it, and I put it through delays and effects to give it that kind of sound. Otherwise it was pretty standard. Your normal large orchestra score, with full strings, full brass; the only oddity I guess was that I had four trumpets and the solo trumpets – so five trumpets, four horns, three trombones and a tuba. The woodwinds were mostly in threes – we had three flutes, two oboes, three clarinets, three bassoons, five percussionists, two keyboards, two harps.
Yeah, but nothing that far-out. Nothing like a Herrmann score or anything!
No medieval serpents or gigantic church organs…? Would you describe this then as more rhythmic than melodic?
Yes, I would say it’s more rhythmic and atmospheric than melodic. There are tunes in it, but just not like a development of the tunes that I would have liked to have had.
How much of that was due to the time factor, and how much was just due to the current musical vocabulary that action films have these days?
I would have to say that it was more a time factor. It’s funny you should ask that question, because you’re right – themes are not really hip, you know? Whenever I can, I always like to tie it together with a theme. There are thematic ideas in SWORDFISH, but they’re not developed properly, and that was just because of the time factor.
How much music did you write for the film?
With all the rewrites, I’d think there’s 88 minutes. The film doesn’t have 88 minutes, the film has probably 78 minutes, I’m guessing.
Were the rewrites at the request of the director or producers?
This was a bizarre situation. They were so busy working on re-cutting the film that absolutely no one was there when I was recording. They’d come at the end of the day and spend about half an hour reviewing and then make their comments, and then I’d have to go back and rewrite if they didn’t like a cue. But no one was there during the actual recording. I was on my own. The rewrites were a combination of the director and I, or Joel’s and I, or the picture editor’s needs.
What was in the temp track for SWORDFISH?
It was primarily my stuff, but it wasn’t working. I think they used some ENTRAPMENT stuff, maybe some COPYCAT stuff. It wasn’t very thrilling. But the good news was, because I was under such a crunch, I saw it with a temp, and then I never listened to it again! So fortunately it didn’t plant a thick enough seed in my head to fuck the writing up! So it didn’t affect it.
Other than the time crunch, what was the most challenging thing of this score, for you?
Just to get it done, believe it or not! The finish line was constantly being redefined – meaning that, let’s say you’re a marathon runner, and you’re told you’re running a hundred mile marathon, and you’re at about at mile ninety eight, and you’ve only got two miles left, so you pace yourself for those two remaining miles and you’re psychologically so thrilled that you’re that close. Well, I did it to mile ninety-eight and then found out, oops, it’s actually a hundred and twenty miles! The finish line was constantly being redefined.
Obviously on SWORDFISH there will be the song CD, but will there also be a score promo, like you’ve done before?
Yes, I’ll put together a promo. I understand that I’ll get two tracks on the song CD. But that’s going to be Paul Oakenfold taking some of my material and doing his remix thing with the orchestra stuff. I don’t really know what he’s going to do with that. It will be a surprise. But I’ll put together a promo of the actual score.
I understand you’re now finishing up another film this week?
It’s a low budget film called SCENES OF THE CRIME, and I’m recording that one in about a week. It’s got very little music in it, and is an entirely different score. The movie is kind of a hip crime drama, starring Jeff Bridges. The director is Dominique Forma, he was the music supervisor on MURDER IN THE FIRST. He came back for me because he was happy with that score, and I’m doing it as a kind of favor to him.
What was your approach on this?
There’s going to be a small string orchestra, even though I wasn’t initially keen on that idea. A lot of guitars, and a string trio. An Indian Harmonium is the weird instrument I’ve put in this one. Again, Hammond organ, which r have used before, also acoustic bass, drums, dulcimers.
How much time did you have to do that one?
I was signed to a non-exclusive deal. I had been on that film for three weeks, but I wasn’t hearing anything from Joel Silver, and so I thought I was going to be able to finish this one off. Then Joel called and I had to jump over to his project and stop working on this one, and now I’ve picked up on it. Even though there’s only about 30 minutes of music in it, I will have had more time on his than I did on Joel’s!
What do you have coming up after this new one?
After this I’m going directly into a film called DRAGONFLY, which is a psychological thriller with Kevin Costner.
Well, if anything will put you over that threshold, maybe this one will.
I hope so. You never know. If I never make it to the A-List, I never make it, you know? I’m lucky enough to be in demand.