An Interview with Christopher Young by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.84, 2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
From his cinemusical beginnings in 1980 through his genre-defining compositions for horror films to the larger and more mainstream efforts of the ‘90s, Christopher Young has managed to craft or concoct more than two decades of compelling and intensively atmospheric film music. Poised to join the A-List after scoring such big films as ENTRAPMENT, SWORDFISH, WONDER BOYS, and THE SHIPPING NEWS (some feel he’s already made it), Christopher Young continues to exemplify contemporary, serious film composing at its best. We spoke with Young on November 11, 2002 as he was in the midst of post-production for THE CORE, his latest big budget title. With a premiere delayed from November until next February, THE CORE promises to deliver powerful action music on a massive yet intimate scale – and a more complex style than Christopher Young has hitherto displayed.
THE CORE is a big budget science fiction disaster about an attempt to send a ship into the center of the Earth to prevent a natural catastrophe – kind of a disaster movie take on JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. How did you get involved in this project?
I had worked with the director, Jon Amiel, three times before. In fact, I have a longer standing working relationship with him than I do with any other director. He called me the minute he got the green light on the film.
When were you brought in to begin conceptualizing your musical ideas?
Jon actually flew me up to British Columbia for a couple of days to watch them shoot, which was the first time I’d ever done that on one of Jon’s movies. I’ve done it before on a few other movies, but this was the first time in my relationship with Jon that he wanted to include me in that end of things. Jon described to me what he thought he wanted and I went ahead and wrote some themes based on those descriptions, but later when I saw the footage they all very quickly became meaningless. When push comes to shove, as you know, nothing means anything until you see the picture, so even though he was kind enough to hire me during pre-production, it wasn’t until I was actually handed footage that I was able to really start thinking about it.
After you saw the visual footage, what type of music first came to mind? How did that develop through the scoring process?
It was interesting. I think maybe Jon was somewhat surprised when he saw the finished footage. He had in his mind what it would look like, but as you know, when a film is so thoroughly dependent upon special effects, you never really know what you’re going to get. Initially, Jon’s concept of the score was to keep it intimate. He said “I don’t want the score to have that excessive pomposity that some of these disaster movies have.” On one hand this is an end of the world movie, but the majority of the film takes place inside of a ship heading to the earth’s core. In the original JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, as you know, they’re walking through these caverns, and they find the Lost City of Atlantis, you’ve got all of these worlds that the music can address. But in this case, it was your basic submarine movie! So, originally he didn’t want the music too big. He wanted it more intimate because it is a very personalized story. I think you’ll find more heart and more character involvement on a realistic level than you will in most other disaster movies. Ultimately, though, by the time I walked on the recording stage, the orchestra at its maximum was nearly a hundred pieces, and I still have to overdub choir on it. So while it is intimate at its heart, it is massive in moments.
Did Bernard Herrmann’s music from JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH come into your mind at all as you were watching this or conceptualizing your score?
Oh yeah. I knew I had a tough act to follow on that one, but fortunately they didn’t have the Lost City of Atlantis or the salt flats or the giant chameleon…
It’s also a different kind of film. It’s just the same idea of travelling to the earth’s core.
Right. It’s about saving the world. The one thing that Herrmann didn’t have to deal with that I did constantly was that there was a sense that time is running out – the mission is not for science, it’s to save mankind, and they’re rushing to get to the center. So a lot of the music has pulse in it, there’s a lot of ostinatos, a lot of action music.
What can you tell me about the instrumentation of this score and how it pertains to the unity and the development of the music throughout the film?
It has the largest brass section I’ve ever used, although not by many instruments. I used eight French horns, plus three trumpets, three trombones, one bass trombone, tuba, and then triple woodwinds and six percussionists, so it was just a big, large score. Now I used eight horns in HELLBOUND and in parts of ENTRAPMENT and parts of HARD RAIN. But these guys are used pretty consistently throughout the whole picture. There’s one cue for one of these big spectacular action moments in the movie where I actually had them switch to the Wagner Tuban, one of the instruments that Wagner had created for his operas. I still have to add the choir to that cue. But there are moments like that where the orchestra is just blasting. In terms of color and sound, there’s nothing that unusual. There’s an electric guitar figure that flies in and out of beginning of the score in a repeating ostinato, but that may be the only really distinctive sound. The synth is integrated with it, but basically it’s doing drum loops. The color of the score is very conventional, it’s just very large conventional.
How would you describe the thematic structure of the music?
There’s only a handful of themes that do appear numerous times. It’s like things I’ve done in the past, but those who know my work have told me it’s a step up. That’s their take on it, anyway. I think it’s much more harmonically and contrapuntally complex than stuff I’ve done in the past, and I did that consciously. I tried to make the music interweave in a way that I have never done before.
How much of that is a result of your growth as a composer and where you are right now versus last year or five or ten years ago, and how much of that was a reaction to the kind of film you’re being presented with today?
I thought the film had the potential of embracing it. Knowing that Jon was a little worried about the score having too much pomposity, I was worried about overwriting. I would ask myself, “Am I going to squash this movie?” Interestingly, by the time the effects were finished and the sound effects were in there, all of a sudden the film was able to handle an orchestra that big. But I would have to say ultimately you are correct, it was my conscious effort to display whatever development I may have had as a composer. One of my percussion buddies, who I’ve been working with since my student films, came up and said “you know, I hear really tremendous harmonic growth from you in this movie!” And I said to him, “You know what? This has always been there, but I’ve always been afraid to use it, to a certain degree.” I’ve never felt comfortable enough getting that complex, only because I was afraid it would end up on the cutting room floor! In my case, if the pictures have gotten better, I’m more and more reluctant to be experimental. With the state of movies nowadays, there’s this notion that the safer it is, the better it is.
Yet a film like THE CORE permits that kind of thing. Horror, fantasy, and science fiction films, such as those you started out doing, have always been the places where you can get away with being experimental. So maybe here’s the kind of film that came along at the right time to allow you to express that complexity and evolve a little bit.
I think so. It’s allowed part of my personality, which has been dormant, to come out of the closet. Yeah, I’ve definitely grown and maybe five or ten years ago I might not have been able to write the same score. I know something like it was dying to be expressed, but I hadn’t really had the opportunity. As you know, Randall, we talked once a long time ago about having that score I did for INVADERS FROM MARS thrown out – that messed my head up and made me think twice about being radical. Now that I’m trying to branch out to do all different kinds of movies I feel like I’ve really got to make sure I deliver what they’re looking for!
Having recorded most of it, now that the film has been delayed until March, how has that affected your scoring process, now that you’ve got to stop and wait a few months?
It was kind of weird how that worked. When you’re in a state of panic, rushing into the finish line, there’s something about the synergy and the madness and the panic and the rapidity with which the ideas are flying into your head as you have to react on gut response. But the minute that the plug is pulled out — and I don’t care how hard you might want to try to stay on target and just go ahead and write for even those areas that are unfinished, knowing you’ll have to come back and fix them later on – what happens is the wind goes out of the sails and the ship stops. So I’ll have to get back into it. Fortunately, it’s not a lot of time that has elapsed, but a lot of other stuff has passed into my mind, including another movie, and so my fear is that I’m going to return to it and it isn’t going to be there in my head any more. But I was just on the phone with the music department this morning, and I think they want to go ahead and finish it up.
Was the delay due to special effects, or what?
No, the special effects were in pretty good shape. They were uncertain about the end of the movie, but more importantly, from what I understand from Jon Amiel, they just felt that with the remaining time they had until November 1st [the original release date] that they didn’t have enough time to successfully advertise the movie. They really believe in the potential of the movie to make some money, so rather than just throw it out there, they wanted to get it done properly and then advertise it to the max. We’ll see if that happens, but that’s the plan now.
Other than the delay now, what do you think was toughest for you about this project?
The amount of music I had to write. This is the first film that I’ve actually spotted ninety-five minutes of music. Now, whenever you spot a movie you always have to add roughly ten to twenty percent for rewrites, so it was actually more than that. With the volume of music I had to write, I calculated I needed to compose two and a half minutes of music a day, seven days a week, just to get this done. I started off with a certain group of themes that Jon didn’t approve, so there was a certain period of time spent just trying to get the right themes, but once he approved them, I had to jump immediately into writing two minutes a day.
How has your working relationship with Jon on this film, as far as finding what it was that he was happy with on this movie?
There’s not a better director to work with, in terms of knowing how to get the best performance out of someone, trying to have you see the film from their point of view, to make you feel like you’re a real important team player, and if something’s not working, he has a way of not slapping you in the face about it. We have an ideal dialog- he’s a musician himself, and he’s the only director I’ve ever worked with who’s actually got a copy of the score on the stage and he’ll be looking at it while we record. He’ll notice things that he’s not crazy about and he’ll refer to measures or bar numbers, and say “why don’t you take the violins down an octave,” and thinks like that. We’re talking the same language.
So what’s coming up now? You mentioned another project you’ve starting to work on while waiting for THE CORE to finish?
I’m working on a film right now called SHADE, which is a gambling movie, somewhat like ROUNDERS, with Gabriel Byrne; Sylvester Stallone, and Melanie Griffith. lt’s a very good movie.
What are your initial thoughts on the music so far? I think gambling and I think up-tempo?
No, it’s more dark and moody. These are seedy characters. I’ve got to figure out a way to communicate the dark, seedy world that they live in, but at the same time figure out a way to make them likable people. That’s the hook that the music has to do, to make sure the audience warms up to them. It will be dark but not too dark, serious but at the same time, fun. It encourages me to try and come up with a sound that is unique, so that’s where I’m at now, trying to get that sound. They have a very restrictive budget, and I have money for five people, period. So I’m going to have to figure out a way to make these five people create something that will be immediately recognizable and have a voice that’s unusual. The owner of the company sent me off to look at THE THIRD MAN again, although of course solo zither is not going to work in this movie! I’m not even sure it works in THE THIRD MAN. I think a more dramatic score would have been more involving. But, anyway, he’s looking for something like that, so we’ll see…
Thanks to Ray Costa, Samantha, and Christopher Young for arranging this interview.