An Interview with David Arnold by Ford A. Thaxton
Transcribed and edited by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/Nos.80/2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Ford A. Thaxton
David Arnold’s latest score, for the Ben Stiller comedy ZOOLANDER, may seem to be a departure from the composer of TOMORROW NEVER DIES, INDEPENDENCE DAY, GODZILLA (well, O.K., maybe not so much with GODZILLA!), but the composer, eager to shed his big-budget-spectacular-action-film image, enjoyed the very different challenges of scoring this comedy.
Okay, you’ve done Bond, you’ve done GODZILLA, you’ve done the alien invasion, and you’ve done SHAFT. How did you end up scoring ZOOLANDER?
I actually went out for it in February when they were putting the call out that the film was being made. They sent me a script and it read very, very funny. I was totally into it and I love what Ben Stiller is doing. So I went over and met everyone, and didn’t hear a thing until 4 or 5 weeks ago. I was back in England and got a call from Scott Rubin, the producer, who said they wanted to pick up about ten minutes of score, at the end of the movie, ten minutes of slow, orchestral, end-of-the-film stuff. I said I’d love to get involved somehow, because I still thought it was a very funny film. I got the reels and found it was a lot more complex than that, there was a scene in a graveyard with David Duchovny which was quite long and needed a lot of electronic and orchestral weaving in and out. It became this really complicated thing, and we only had four of five days to do everything… Anyway, we got it done. I demo’d everything up here (the UK), and then we’d dial up Capitol Studios where Ben was and he listened to the cues, and then we flew over to Los Angeles to record it, which was going to be like one or two sessions just to record this ten minutes. We finished the whole thing and Ben came over with the producer and asked if we’d do the rest of the movie for them, and I said yeah, I’d love to. How long have I got? “Another week!” So it was a bit intense, but I was very pleased to have done it. I’ve never done a comedy before, and part of the effort was to try and get away from the kind of enormous, overblown nonsense that we usually come up with for an enormous, overblown movie.
In other words, it was an effort consciously on your part not to be typecast as the crash-bang-boom guy?
Difficult not to, when you’ve done the films that I’ve done, and produced the scores that I produced because that’s exactly what those films needed, so that’s exactly what they get, and it’s unashamedly what it is. There’s absolutely no apologizing for the sort of scores that films like INDEPENDENCE DAY or GODZILLA or the Bond movies need, you know, and ultimately it’s about giving the movie what it wants, what the producers or directors want, and what the film is asking you to do. I think as they probably proved with GOLDENEYE, there’s a limit to how much you can run away from what the film is asking you to do!
Now, BT was the first gentleman on this project?
Yeah, and I think he’s still got a couple of things in it. But for whatever reasons, which they never really make known to you (I don’t know if they ever made it known to him), we’re in the not-uncommon situation where they wanted to try a different approach, and that different approach was me.
When did you finish scoring it?
We finished round about ten days before it was released, I think. A few weeks ago.
There’s a part of ZOOLANDER that is satirizing the kind of spy genre, to a certain degree, among many other things…
I don’t think it’s in the same ballpark as the AUSTIN POWERS thing, which is probably as close as you’re going to get if you need to draw comparisons; certainly the opening was a total Bond rip, but I think it gets away from that eventually. The nice thing about comedy is that you don’t have to write funny music.
Do you have any plans of it getting out in some form?
Well, I haven’t. I haven’t actually heard the edited pieces, yet. I’d like to hear what it all sounds like and see if there’s enough for a release. It played quite nice but I think we only did about 25 minutes, and I don’t think that would be enough to justify an entire record.
You mentioned you’re trying to get away from doing the grandiose scores a little bit, going off in a different direction. Certainly, about 180-degree as you get was a film you did earlier this year, BABY BOY. What attracted you to that particular project?
There were two reasons. The main reason was that it was a film that concerned human beings, for a change – a film that was bothering with the realities of what actually happens in life as an adult, as a human being, to live in the world that we live in! I haven’t really had an opportunity to do that. Everything that I’ve done up to this point, pretty much exclusively, has been fantasy, anything to do with relationships or people’s feelings has all been tied in with some kind of fantastical or unreal premise. BABY BOY was a very simple, and I think very honest, piece of filmmaking, which deals with a very simple set of human emotions.
Is there a moment in that score that you’re particularly pleased with?
I think the one part that I enjoy in the film and the score more than anything, is a very brief 2 or 3 second element in the scene, what I think is one of the most powerful but also most controversial scenes, where the protagonist is going down on his girlfriend, and she’s fantasizing about what life would be like with him as a decent, honest person, and what life will actually be like, if he carries on down the road that he’s going; there’s a moment where she sees herself with him, happily, with their child, and then you go to her face, and her face changes slightly, and she goes into the fantasy about what her life is probably going to be like, and just that moment, that switch, is really a big part of the film. It’s really insignificant, musically, but just that little brief moment of joy, that ray of hope in a trough of despair, that’s it.
Your very first film had to do with people, to a large extent. That was THE YOUNG AMERICANS.
You’re right. It’s funny, how sometimes I don’t even count that, because a lot of people haven’t heard of it, and they think STARGATE was the first film that I did. But you’re right, there’s a lot in THE YOUNG AMERICANS about that, plus there’s the enthusiasm of it being the first time you’ve done it and you don’t really know what you’re doing, you’re just doing it the best way you think you can. We didn’t have as many opportunities to play things in that movie as we might have done; there was only I think 30 minutes of score in that film and a lot of it was kind of broody, noisy stuff…
Since that was your first big project were you involved when it came to do the album? It does have a lot of dialog overlapping your score material. How did that come about?
Danny Cannon, the director, is and was a friend of mine, and at the time we were making that film we were actually sharing an apartment. At the time he was very into the Oliver Stone movies and ANGEL HEART, and there were some of these scores that were produced that had dialog on it, and he wanted to do the same thing. So, being the director, they usually get what they want! I don’t know how many people were involved in the fundraising of that movie, but I do know that there were dozens and dozens of commercial interests, because it was a very low budget British movie which had to get its finance from lots of different sources; when that happens you get a certain amount of pressure from all sides to do certain things, and the record deal did generate income to make the movie, so they needed to get some of their bands on it. I was pleased to get anything on it, because a lot of times you don’t even get that.
Now your end credit music was sung by Björk. You’ve worked with her several times subsequently, haven’t you?
Yes. At that point, she’d just finished doing ‘Debut’, her first solo album, which hadn’t come out, so she’d been in the Sugar Cubes and hadn’t yet become the phenomenon that she became soon after. She lived around the corner from me in London, and it was literally phoning up and saying “do you fancy doing this?” and she came around to the flat and I showed her a bit of the movie and played her what I’d written at that point, and she goes “yep.” And she goes off and writes a lyric, comes into the studio three days later, sings it, the end. It was as simple as that. Everything just worked for that record.
That was definitely a very striking effort, one that ultimately wound up landing you STARGATE.
Yeah, and quite a long way away from THE YOUNG AMERICANS in every respect. But it was actually the requiem cue that Dean and Roland heard that I think convinced them that I was someone worth looking at. It was on the strength of that.
The other project you’ve done recently, getting back to big spectacles, was the Peter Hyams film, THE MUSKETEER, which I would imagine, with a chance to swash your buckle in quite that manner was very appealing…
It’s always appealing – on paper! I think there are really three stages of film music composition: One is when you get the call or someone asks “would you be interested in this?” and you think about it for a sec and you say, “Yeah, I really would.” That’s always wonderful. The second is when you get to meet the people and hopefully decide on the best way to do it, and that’s fantastic.
But then everything else is a complete nightmare until you finish, and then you just feel extremely relieved! Pretty much every film I’ve done has been like that. The doing of it is the worst thing. The idea of doing it is fantastic, the opportunity of doing it is fantastic, and the finishing of it is fantastic – but the stuff that’s in between is just a nightmare!
Peter Hyams is a very gifted filmmaker but he is notorious for having very particular ideas on music…
(chuckles) Absolutely! I wasn’t aware of that notoriety!
Let’s see, this film started with Jerry Goldsmith, then it went to Bruce Broughton, then to John Debney, and there were a couple other people in there before it went to you. Basically, he has very distinctive thoughts about music, at least that has been the comment from previous composers who have worked with him. When you met with Peter, what was his dictate on music? What did he ask you for initially?
I read the script, and it read fantastic. It would be like Han Solo was the Musketeer, that’s how it read, someone really vibrant and exciting and charismatic and cheeky. You can imagine the whole thing being a real thrill. Pete was shooting in Germany and he phoned me up and was very complimentary about INDEPENDENCE DAY, and asked if I’d be interested in doing it. I said I really liked the script and it had a great cast, so I said sure. Then we met at Pinewood Studios where we looked at the movie, and he was very honest, I think the first thing he said to me was “I’m going to be the biggest pain in the ass you’ve ever worked with!” – or words to that effect. And, all credit to him, he was! He didn’t disappoint on that front.
There were things that were quite unusual that I was a little uncomfortable with. He doesn’t like music going over cuts; he doesn’t like music starting before or after a cut. He likes the music to end, BANG, on the cut, which always feels to me like it fragments a film, not being able to tail out of the sequence into the next one; it always feels to me like you’re continuing the drama into the next scene, and there’s a little memory of what’s just happened as you go into the next segment, but he was very rigorous about never doing that. Every time I did do it he said “I don’t want that to happen!” so that became a particular characteristic about the way this was being scored. And he was on my shoulder all the time – there wasn’t one cue that he didn’t hear mocked up as well as I could do it, every note was criticized and talked about. There was no breathing space as far as I was concerned; he wanted absolutely no surprises by the time I got to recording it, which is fair enough. I don’t mind how anyone works, if it works for him like that and he feels happy and more comfortable with that, then fine. I had a good time with him, we had a good laugh.
This does bring up an interesting question: what is your work process? Every composer has different ways they approach a film, some composers start with 1 M1 and go right up to 12M2 chronologically…
I really feel uncomfortable unless I can work through it sequentially. It feels like you learn from the film as it unfolds before you, and I like to work from start to finish. A lot of the time you get to a point in the movie where you come across something hat actually informs you about something that you’ve done before, and you’d go back and readjust, but generally, 1M1 is my starting point. It’s like if you were writing a novel, you wouldn’t start with Chapter 12, because you don’t know what’s happened in Chapter 11. I wouldn’t like to start with a cue in the middle of the movie, because I wouldn’t know what key or rhythm or pace I’d have got to by then.
You mentioned you were doing mock-ups for the director. Now, this is a process that many composers have differing viewpoints on. With the exception of Mr. Hyams, do you usually tend to mock up several cues, major moments, and show that and ask how it works?
I haven’t had a situation that you can say is normal – I don’t think that you can say that “usually” you do this or “usually” you do that. ZOOLANDER was mocked up and played to them, as I was working in London, over ISDN, so that was reasonably detailed. Comedy’s a different thing and Ben Stiller has specific requirements for the music. Obviously as a director one needs to give people what they want as well as what you think is right.
On BABY BOY, the director didn’t hear anything, apart from a couple of things I played him on the telephone, because I was writing it in London. We’d obviously talked about the kind of tone and the color of it, but as long as it felt right, he was happy. And then he came when we recorded it and sat down and watched it happen and made a few comments, but it was effortless with BABY BOY, as it was with John on SHAFT. With that, (producer) Scott Rudin was more involved in a selective way, but John was relatively easy. And with Peter, it was every note, he wanted to know what it is and where it sits and what it’s doing. With Roland (Emmerich) and Dean (Devlin) it was mainly rough sketches of the main moments, the big moments, they wanted to hear the tunes, and if they could shut their eyes and picture elements of their film in the tune being played to them, they were happy. Michael Apted liked to hear, not everything, but some things. He doesn’t necessarily need to hear it finished, but he needs to hear the work in progress and see where it’s going. So everyone has a different agenda and a different requirement. There’s never been a film where I’ve had to go about it the same way as the one before.
Going back to MUSKETEER, I think this is the first time you’ve recorded outside of London or L.A. You went to Germany and you recorded the score there, initially. Did you finish recording it there?
We did, we recorded the entire score there. We were obliged to, contractually. And I was so happy with it that I came back and re-recorded it here!
So there’s none of the German material in the film?
The movie is the entire Berlin performance. The soundtrack album is the London recording. It’s a completely new recording for the album.
A couple of other things you’ve done recently, you did a TV pilot over here with Kevin Kiner called UC: UNDERCOVER. How did you become involved in that project?
Shane Salerno, who co-wrote SHAFT and wrote bits of ARMAGEDDON, and I think he did stuff on THE INSIDER as well, was one of the biggest fans of mine I have every come across, and it’s really quite disturbing that he knew everything I’d done so well! It’s just really weird to have someone, especially in the industry, who was such a big fan of your stuff. He was in control of this show and wanted me to do it, so he just put the call in.
Was that a case of you writing a theme and then Kevin taking on the episode scores?
Not quite. I’d written the theme reasonably quickly. Shane gave me a tape of the opening sequence when I was recording BABY BOY in April, in New York, that was when we first made contact. Then I came back to England and he sent me the pilot and 500 pages of notes about what this theme should be! No pressure there! They were shooting in Canada and I sent him a demo of the theme, and he was totally into it. Then we just went around finding different ways of doing it that would facilitate finding these 450 things that he wanted to achieve, and the finishing of it coincided with me coming out to record ZOOLANDER; so I worked with Kevin – Kevin did the score – for a few days I guess in an executive role, musically, just suggesting different things to Kevin, and just trying a few different approaches. Kevin did a great job and we recorded the theme, eventually, at his studio, and did it from there.
You’ve dabbled in the television world a little bit. Among the things you’ve done, the show which we know over here as MY PARTNER THE GHOST, but is better known as RANDALL AND HOPKIRK (DECEASED) – a revival of the 1969 show. Did you write a new tune or did you just update the old one?
I wrote a new one.
How did that come about?
That was Charlie Hickson, who’s a comedy writer and producer over here; it was a combination of PLAY DEAD and the Bond stuff that gets people interested in this sort of thing. He wanted a big sort of cinematic TV theme. The thing is, I’m up for doing most things, but most people either think I live in Hollywood or they think it’s going to cost them millions to do it – and neither of those things are true. So Charlie wrote a letter saying he was making this series and would I be interested in scoring it, and I said yes because the guys who were in it are big, sort of cult comedians over here. It was one of those painless experiences which come along every ten years!
The other thing you did, which I haven’t heard yet and am really curious to hear it, you did a new version of the theme to DOCTOR WHO.
Yeah. Some friends of mine are in a show called THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, and one of the guys from that group, Mark Gatiss, is a huge Bond fan. I met him when we were doing TOMORROW NEVER DIES, and we just started talking and hanging out together. A couple of years later a friend of his was doing a radio show who was a big DOCTOR WHO fan… He just wanted someone to rerecord the DOCTOR WHO theme, and they asked me; it really wasn’t a big deal, there was absolutely no money involved, because they had no budget, I just did it in my little studio in a day. It’s not a career-defining moment, let’s put it that way! It was something I did as a favor for a friend. I quite like what I’ve done but it’s really nothing more than a sort of enhanced version of what’s already been done.
Your next film is called ENOUGH; this is another in that series of things that you’re trying to get away from – the big, bombastic projects. What’s that going to be about and where do you stand on that at the moment?
It’s a very adult movie with Jennifer Lopez and it deals with the subject of abuse, in a similar way that SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY did, in as much as it is a Hollywood picture. The difference is, it’s the first film I’ve seen in a while where the woman gets to behave like I think a woman would behave when she finds herself in a situation where she’s being physically abused by the person that she loves and trusts and had a child with.
What kind of musical direction are they looking for on the project?
When I met with Michael Apted about it, he was quite keen on it being electronic, to a certain extent, so it’s probably going to be about 70/30 percent in favor of electronic, sort of atmospheric things. There will be more of a melodic base in it. The film I’m finishing up at the moment is far more unusual, CHANGING LANES, the Ben Affleck / Samuel L. Jackson drama. The only way I can describe this is that it won’t be bothering the orchestral fans, let’s put it that way. The thing about people’s preconceptions about what an electronic score is, is that you say you’re going to do an electronic score and they expect you to be doing this sort of bleep-bleep sequencer-drum machine kind of thing, which is complete rubbish. It’s not electronic the way a Hans Zimmer score is electronic. It’s more to do with the sort of music that I’ve written that no one really gets to listen to because it’s too uncomfortable. Layers or noise and organic sound!
I want to wrap this up with a couple of questions to allay some rumors that have been going around the Internet. Do you ever read the Internet message boards about film music?
Oh yeah, I do.
All those guys out there who rag on you, you’re seeing all that stuff?
Oh yeah, I know them all! I know the nice ones and the bad ones! I think everyone does. They all say they don’t, but I know they do!
So let’s clear these up. The first one is CUTTHROAT ISLAND. That was a project you were going to do after STARGATE with Renny Harlin. There are several rumors going around about that, and my understanding is that you may have submitted some demos to Renny and at some point they went off into another direction, or you had to leave the project. In brief, what really happened?
Renny Harlin, at that point, was like a black hole – he’d just walk into a room and the energy would just disappear into him. It was a very bizarre situation, and I actually came out to do the movie in Los Angeles, and I was staying in a small hotel, and he wouldn’t let me see the movie. I tried to see the movie at one point, and I got escorted out of the editing room! He wouldn’t talk to me, and all he would do is send me 3 or 4 page long faxes saying things like, “it needs to be a scene which is so good that it makes the hair on the audience’s neck stand on end.” I’m obviously very pleased he suggested that because I would have otherwise just have written a shit theme that everyone hated! So his directions basically came down to that, kind of hollow, pointless, thundering platitudes, which never said anything. I was coming up with thematic ideas, and he was just kind of not getting it, and it was just one of those moments that I just knew, immediately, that no matter what I did, this wasn’t going to work. That was after 7 or 8 days, and I finally made a couple of phone calls and said it would be better if we didn’t continue doing this, and luckily, he agreed. At least I didn’t end up recording a score and then getting it kicked off, so I didn’t waste too much time.
There’s this rumor than John Debney used a theme of yours on his score, so that’s not true then?
I haven’t heard John’s score, so I’ve no idea. I certainly didn’t give anything to anyone. John told me Renny was great on CUTTHROAT ISLAND, and Alan Silvestri said he was great on LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, but my experience was just very peculiar. But I’m not aware of any of my music that John was exposed to as far as CUTTHROAT ISLAND is concerned.
Now we’re coming to the sensitive one I’ve got to ask you about, THE PATRIOT. Now, the stories that you see floating around on the net were that, by all accounts, you were going to do THE PATRIOT…
Yeah, I’d written the whole score.
Now, my understanding is that you submitted some demos early in the process and basically for whatever reasons the demos didn’t quite hit with Dean or Roland or the studio, and then somewhere in the process they said, “We’re going to go get John Williams”. Is that pretty much the way it happened, from your perspective?
It was very unusual, because the way that film was developing, Dean phoned me when they got the script, a long time ago, and he was screaming on the phone, saying “This is it! This is the one! This is the one we’ve been waiting for! You’re on!” They were quite a ways into shooting and I think they were getting to the point where they were getting into over-budget difficulties, and I started getting phone calls from Dean and Roland where they were saying “do you still want to do this film?” And I was going, yeah, of course I do! And then another phone call a few weeks later, “Well, we’re going to have to hear some demos first…”
I’d done three movies with them and I’ve never done that before! So I said, okay… I’d also heard, before I’d even written anything, that the studio had put out inquiries to John Williams and James Horner, independently of Dean and Roland. One of the producers had worked with John on SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, so he’s going, “look, we can get John Williams – why do you want to stay with Arnold when you can get John Williams?”
I think they were under a lot of budgetary pressure. I think the studio was very keen on getting someone with obviously such a huge marquee value as John, ho tends not to put his name to things that aren’t first rate, and as far as I’m concerned very rarely ails to deliver something quite astonishing. So I felt, I’ve got nothing to lose, so I might as well send them his demo that I did. I think it was one of the best thing’s I’d ever written. And virtually immediately I hat a phone call from Dean, saying “look, we haven’t really connected with it, so we’re going to go with John Williams.” I mean, you don’t get a demo and on the same day call up John Williams and have him agree to do the film at the drop of a hat. Obviously, some other things had been going on, and I wasn’t particularly surprised. I was a little disappointed, perhaps, in the way that it was handled, but to be passed up for him certainly isn’t an insult!
Have you talked to Dean and Roland subsequently to his?
Well, they’re not really doing anything together anymore. They’ve got this ARAC ATTACK thing, but Dean’s kind of split from Centropolis, so perhaps in the heart of all that there were other things going on as well. I have spoken to Dean and there’s absolutely a problem. I’d work with him or Roland again at the drop of a hat. In the space of all that happening I’ve cored five movies so I’m very happy.
A lot of your scores, the majority of which have not been released on CDs, have been bootlegged. As an Artist, what’s your feeling on that?
I’d rather they were released properly, but also I’d rather people heard them than didn’t hear them. One thing I don’t like is that, when you put together a soundtrack album you do it in a way that you think is the best listening experience, and it’s not all the time that a bootleg is done that way. Obviously there are the hard-core fans who want every millisecond of score.
I was just looking at ebay and somebody’s auctioning off the complete STARGATE, 33 tracks, for $50.
There’s not an awful lot that isn’t on the soundtrack album. That was one of the big arguments I had at the time, I’d loaded it with absolutely everything, but David (Franco, album supervisor) was saying “we don’t need that much!” But I think if it’s good, people should hear it, and if they don’t want to listen to a 100-minute CD then they can skip it, but if they do want to listen to it, it’s there. So it as a little pared down. INDEPENDENCE DAY suffered more than anything, because when I sequenced it, it was originally 75 or 80 minutes, and again it was costs, re-use fees.
An interesting thing about INDEPENDENCE DAY is that there’s now a 2-CD boot out, and even that doesn’t have everything. The other thing about INDEPENDENCE DAY is that you have two versions of the soundtrack album. One has the first ‘Main Title’, which wasn’t the one that ended up in the film, and then they went to a subsequent repress and it has title film version. Personally, I liked the first version myself!
Yeah. The first one’s always the best because that’s the way they’re supposed to be, and then you start getting into “well, can we change it a bit?” I can’t remember why we did change it…