Don Davis Goes Ballistic

A conversation with Don Davis by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.83/2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl

Don Davis (ba lis’tik) Having its motion determined or describable by the laws of exterior ballistics. Ballistics being the science or study of the motion of projectiles, as bullets, shells, or bombs. In this case, BALLISTIC is the skill fully choreographed human anatomy flying through space, a high tech martial arts adventure starring Lucy Liu and Antonio Banderas. This action oriented science fiction thrill ride is directed by Wych Kaosayananda or Kaos as he likes to be called. Born in Thailand, Kaos’s reputation is based on his direction of the Thai film FAH, which is the highest budgeted film in the country’s history and the hit that led him to BALLISTIC: ECKS vs SEVER, his first movie made by a major motion picture studio. BALLISTIC deals with bringing a mysterious agent (Lucy Liu) and a former FBI man hunter (Antonio Banderas) together to obtain a new assassination device that is microscopic and can be injected into any unaware victim while being totally undetectable.

When you think science fiction, thriller, high tech weaponry, one composer on the cutting edge comes to mind – Don Davis. It becomes an obvious choice when you consider the surroundings and the plot of this film, but what turns everything upside down is the fact that BALLISTIC’s music is an electronic film score created entirely in Davis’s studio domain. Davis, who’s known for his orchestral work in productions like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, BOUND, JURASSIC PARK III, BEHIND ENEMY LINES, and THE MATRIX, is creating an edgy beat based soundtrack for his newest challenge. Compared to his electronic scoring in the past, this project dictates a new sound.

On Thursday August 29th I drove north up Pacific Coast Highway to meet with composer Don Davis at his studio in Calabasas. As I arrived at Davis’s studio that overlooks the mountain range situated on the Malibu coast, he was currently mixing down his latest score to BALLISTIC with his engineer Larry Mah. Davis always has a sense of humor, no matter how deep he’s involved or critical the deadline is to finish the score. No matter what’s being thrown at this composer from multiple directions, his goal is always focused and he creatively takes things up a notch.

When I arrived at his studio, Davis and I relocated by his pool to interview outside. On a stunningly beautiful day Don talked with me about his new opera, his first step in scoring the new MATRIX films, and his approach to scoring BALLISTIC. It was a real pleasure talking to Mr. Davis, who has an extremely exciting musical future ahead of him.

Why do you love composing for film?
Composing for film is the ultimate expression of writing dramatic music, and in a way it’s the only relevant medium for the marriage of drama and music in the twenty-first century. Film music comes from opera and ironically, film has essentially destroyed opera. Prior to 1929 and the application of sound in movies, opera was the ultimate expression of drama and music. The realism of film, once sound was applied to it, essentially rendered the excesses of opera obsolete and threw writing for opera into a crisis.
It may sound paradoxical, but I’ve been working on an opera the last few months. I think that the way to revive opera as a relevant dramatic medium is to revisit it via the medium that destroyed it. I haven’t actually written any music yet, but we’re almost done with the libretto; it’s going to be sung in Spanish, so it has to be translated before I can begin composing. I’m really excited about this because I really believe that my background as a film composer, as a dramatic music composer, can inform my opera writing and bring something unique to it. This is the culmination of a lot of different directions that I’ve taken musically in the last twenty years.

Do you have a name for this opera?
Right now it’s called ‘Rio de Sangre’, which means ‘The River of Blood’. Although we are working on spec, we have a number of promising avenues we are pursuing to get it realized. My librettist is a novelist and poet named Kate Gale, who’s really quite brilliant, and what she’s come up with is truly exciting.

How did you get involved in scoring BALLISTIC?
I believe that the music supervisor on the project, who’s a record producer named Michael Lloyd, had been interested in my work since I scored THE MATRIX. I hadn’t met him personally before this, but he expressed an interest in my work and that was the genesis of it.

Since this is a sci-fi action oriented motion picture, are you required to do wall to wall scoring on BALLISTIC and how long is your score?
The movie pretty much required wall to wall music; the real question was how much of it was going to be songs and how much was going to be underscore? The answer to that question has evolved and is still evolving as we’re finishing up the project. Initially their concept was to have quite a few more songs than they actually ended up with, which meant that the actual underscore would be a lot less than it actually turned out to be. The underscore is at least fifty minutes, if it’s not over an hour, and this is for an eighty five minute film. There are also sequences for which they have songs, but they still want me to deliver underscore cues as alternates, just in case they change their minds when they hear the songs with the picture on the dubbing stage. It’s hard to say at this point whether these sequences will go with underscore or songs.

It seems like when you get the job to score action/adventure type cinema, you’re expected to almost compose for the complete film these days.
Concepts change, approaches change, and styles change. In the forties it was typical to have music in the entire picture and it was unusual to have moments of silence. I’m not sure what the rationale for that was, part of it might have had to do with the fact that the art of sound effects editing hadn’t developed to the point it has now. Not so much the art of it, but the technology of being able to manipulate a very complicated sound effect matrix wasn’t there until basically the seventies. In those days they didn’t even have magnetic film, they had optical film and individual sound effects would each have to be played back on a separate machine. They used to have rows of dummy machines for this on dub stages, and each one was only capable of playing one sound at a time.
Now with digital editing they can have literally thousands of units presented at any particular moment. So, in the forties a lot of what the music was substituting for was a lack of realism on the soundtrack. During the fifties and sixties, as sound effects technology came into its own, there was some rebelling toward the concept of wall-to-wall scoring, and by the time the seventies came along it was not unusual for directors to discard the idea of having underscore music at all. THE LAST PICTURE SHOW only had source music; it didn’t even have a main title. Look at THE DAY OF THE JACKAL; it had a main title and nothing else. Part of that sensibility was the influence of foreign films on Hollywood. European filmmakers considered film scoring to be less of an art than a crass sideline. By the time the seventies came along, a lot of times, producers and directors were not interested in underscore. Films like JAWS and STAR WARS were really the exceptions to the rule in those days. Then, when STAR WARS came along and made such a splash and created such a new interest in epic film scoring, people began once again to see the power of music in film as being very substantial.
Now the pendulum has swung to the extreme in the opposite direction, and film makers who are making films for a specific market are often afraid to release a picture that doesn’t have music telling the audience what to think every moment of screen time. These films that are coming out now that are wall-to-wall action, wall-to-wall music, and wall-to-wall sound effects are being targeted toward a specific demographic that the filmmakers think will not tolerate a moment of repose.
I also believe that there are situations in which there is a subtle manipulation going on; when some people hire composers, they figure that they should have him (or her) score every scene, and then they’ll decide when they hear the finished score what they like and what they’ll use. They don’t really understand how much that can tax anyone’s creative forces, so that it ends up being very un-creative in the end.

Why was an electronic score required for BALLISTIC instead of a symphonic one?
Because they see it as being directed toward a youth-driven market, and as such they wanted a pop music sensibility in the underscore, and that was best achieved with synthesizers rather than with a big string section. When you’re getting an assignment to do a picture and they say, “We want electronics,” you have to scope out what that means. In this case they wanted a record kind of sound as opposed to an orchestral sound. In other instances it doesn’t necessarily mean that, it might mean that they are looking for something very austere and un-emotional, with more of a textural, sound-sculpture approach. It seemed pretty clear that what they were looking for in this instance was a beat oriented score, which orchestras don’t do.

What was the creative spark in this film that opened up your ideas?
The film was re-cut since I first saw it and in the re-cutting the focus of the picture changed rather dramatically. In the final version the essential focus is on Sever, the Lucy Lui character; that focus is really what informed my concept for the score. Lucy Lui is obviously Chinese, but there’s a multicultural nature to Sever’s character. One of the things that defined her character is her calling card, an origami paper folded bird, which is actually a very nice visual archetype. In focusing on Sever there’s something of a world music thing that I wanted to bring to the film. I brought in a vocalist who improvised in a number of different Middle Eastern and northern African styles, and I had a number of different ethnic percussive elements that I was trying to make into something that was mysterious and unusual, but not geographically specific in the world music orientation. The Sever character is really a dream like figure; she kind of appears and then disappears, so she has a very dreamlike quality that I tried to latch onto.

Considering what you do symphonically, what things in this process completely changed?
In this particular instance, what is more important than the fact that it’s realized in an electronic medium, is the fact that the score is beat based. The compositional tools that composers can use when we are confined to a pop music style are incredibly limited. It’s the reason that a lot of composers don’t react too well to pop oriented scores, because there’s very little anyone can do in terms of really dealing with dramatic situations that also elicit a so-called “record” kind of sound. That’s the basis for a lot of controversy amongst people who deal with film music. A lot of producers and directors are interested in a youth oriented “record” kind of sound for their film scores, not understanding that records can be exciting and emotional and contemporary, but records generally aren’t menacing or suspenseful, and that’s the lexicon film composers must deal with. It’s difficult trying to traverse those various dramatic terrains when your materials are as limited as a pop sensibility would make them.

Is there a temp score in BALLISTIC and how did they want you to deal with it?
This film definitely had a temp. It’s gotten to the point where composers have no choice but to deal with temp tracks on some level or another. On this picture, like many others, they had already spotted the picture by temping it. I find it a little disconcerting because when I come in I try to take a fresh look at the film and say, “It would be interesting if the music would start here.” I really should be used to this by now, because usually I get the retort, “Well, we started it over there,” which doesn’t seem conducive to artistic discovery, but we have to deal with it.
It’s not uncommon now to have the temp score going while we’re spotting, so basically you have to say, “The temp is sort of good here, but then later it gets bad,” and they say, “OK, so we’ll have to do something different there.” So in one region I would be forced to kind of pace the music the way the temp is and then in another region I can discard any reference to the temp. I don’t think that filmmakers are quite aware of what this process does to us, but it really changes the dynamic of what a composer can bring to a film; it’s not a really such a creative dynamic anymore.

Isn’t it in the film makers’ best interest to get you involved before they temp their film, so you spot the film together and use your electronic score as the temp?
You have to take every situation as it comes. When I did THE MATRIX, I was brought in early enough so that I could actually deliver most of the music in the form of mock-ups prior to the test screening, and the test audience judged the movie with at least some kind of concept of what the underscore would be like. That is an incredible advantage, not just for me but for the film itself.
On BALLISTIC the test screening had happened about a month before I was even considered for this movie and they didn’t have any more test screenings after that. By the time I came into the spot the film, they had been using a temp score for months.

Because your mock ups inside the studio domain eventually become the original soundtrack, does this give you more time to score the picture?
Well, when a score is done orchestrally, that means that enough time needs to be set aside for the orchestra to record the music, so that the recordings can be delivered to the dub stage when they are ready to add music to the mix. If the score needs to be mocked-up and shown to the filmmakers before those scoring sessions, then the mock-ups have to be orchestrated and then copied, which all takes a certain predictable amount of time. But in this case the mock-ups have to be complete enough so that they can be mixed and placed into the movie as a complete musical entity, which means that you have to spend more time on them and make them that much more legitimate. I can’t say that in itself really makes a difference in the whole process, though. In this situation we brought in a vocalist and a guitarist, and the process of overdubbing parts has a certain time inefficiency to it. When you have an orchestra perform your score and the performance is the essence of what the score is, there’s a predictable time element that enables a certain efficiency. When you’re coming in and doing all these overdubs and you have these deadlines bearing down, it makes things a little complicated.

Do you include any sound design melded into your music to compliment and work with the Foley in this film?
That wasn’t really specifically addressed in my discussions on this particular film, but that is something that comes up a lot. It’s like many other things when you’re trying to communicate with people on a creative level, you have to figure out what they mean when they say they want sound effects incorporated into the music. Does that mean they want music that has a certain sound effects-like quality to it? That could mean structuring the music with found sounds and processed samples, which is something I’ve been interested in for a long time. I don’t think that they generally mean that they want the car-bys and door slams to actually be incorporated into the underscore.
The ideal situation in any case is one in which the sound effects and the music have some kind of relationship to each other, so that when you get to the dub stage you don’t have an enormous train wreck. There are elements in my score to BALLISTIC, as there are generally in techno records these days, in which there are sound structures that come from natural sources and I think that’s usually what is meant when they say they want sound effects incorporated in the music. I definitely tried to utilize that kind of technique when I was writing this score.

Since an electronic score is usually hard edged acoustically, will this enable your score to cut though the barrage of sound effects these films usually have?
You’d think it would, but in my experience orchestral scores generally cut through better. I think the reason for that is because an orchestral score which is entirely acoustic comes from an entirely different sound source than the sound effects do. When something is done with samplers and synthesizers then it’s the same essential sound source as the sound effects. For that reason they don’t tend to come out as well, they tend to blend in, merge, and fall into the background somehow. It seems to me that the acoustic sounds identify themselves better on the dubbing stage than the non-acoustic sounds.

Are you more comfortable scoring in the acoustic or the electronic realm, or combining the two?
My initial orientation has been as a composer, working with musical materials. Usually, and I suppose this is my own folly, I tend to approach most situations at the outset from that standpoint, and so I’m more comfortable working as a composer than as somebody who assembles various different elements for a scene.
At a certain point, however, you have to decide whether you’re in this business or you’re not, so I’ve come to adapt, and as such, I’ve become very comfortable working in the electronic realm. There are levels of difficulty and complication in any situation that is dependent on how much time you’ve got and how much money there is. The easiest thing is to do something that’s either all orchestral or all synthesizer and just deal with that entity. When I’m doing something that’s orchestral with a strong synthesizer element, then there are two things to keep track of. If I’ve written something for an orchestra and it has synthesizer tracks with it and then I get a big set of changes from the editor, I have to reformat the scores, and then I have to go back to the synthesizer tracks to make sure they conform to the new cut as well. That’s twice the amount of time it takes as opposed to just dealing with one or the other. It’s twice as much opportunity for some kind of breakdown, therefore there’s twice the stress. It’s easier to deal with one realm than both at the same time, but the fact is that we have to deliver what’s best for the picture. If that means orchestra with synthesizer elements, then that’s what we have to do.

For some composers, scoring a film in their studios takes a lot out of them; there are a lot of demands. Does it take more out of you composing in your studio or by going to the scoring stage and creating your soundtrack there?
What I really like doing is being involved in the performance of my music. Although I was a trumpet player in college, and since then I’ve done some live conducting, I’m really just a composer by orientation rather than a performer, and that may be why I’m really stimulated by the performance of my music. Going to the scoring stage, conducting the orchestra, and being integrally involved with the performances is really what keeps me going. Doing an electronic score doesn’t involve that, so that for me is a liability. Another thing that is a real liability in our business is that film composers now have to be studio owners as well, which means we have to manage the studio, we have to maintain the gear, we have to hire engineers, bring instrumentalists in to overdub, and that’s a big deal. It’s not a creative deal, but a business deal. You’re maintaining inventory, keeping spread sheets and payrolls and that entire sort of thing. It’s very time intensive and it takes away from creative endeavors. To a certain extent film composers were always businessmen, at least more so than concert stage composers, but it’s gotten to an extreme point now and I believe that it cuts into one’s creativity.

From spotting to creating the music to putting it to film to the mixing and dubbing stage, what do you think is the most important part of the process that makes an electronic score succeed for the film?
It’s all in the mix. The performance in electronic music is in the mix, it’s finding the sweet spot in every particular musical situation that sounds best. The essence of the commercial record is the mix. That’s certainly become the case more and more in the last thirty years than anything else involved in doing records. There are some very successful records that have no musical value whatsoever, but the mix is so interesting and intricate and advanced, it becomes a parameter in itself. The most important thing in an electronic score is the mixing.

What have you learned by approaching BALLISTIC electronically?
I’ve actually learned quite a bit about putting a rhythm oriented score together, which I haven’t done to this extent in the past. I’ve been using some new tools; I’ve got a program called “Live” which is quite a bit like the “Acid” program for the PC, but this one was written for the Macintosh platform. It can manipulate and layer pre-recorded beats and conform them to a tempo structure that you can impose from another program. That’s really changed my approach to a pop rhythm oriented sound structure quite a bit.

Do you think by stretching your creative limbs out on a project like this, it’s a great training and experience to do the electronic parts of the upcoming MATRIX films?
Definitely, everything informs everything else. The more you do this the more you fit new things into your lexicon. I have been thinking a lot about what I can apply to the MATRIX sequels, through various things that have come my way. A lot of this is incumbent on the films and the two sequels themselves are going through quite a bit of new transformation and the music has to transform with it. The really amazing thing about this whole MATRIX experience for me is that it’s this group effort. The film makers have presented everyone else with this amazing opportunity and challenge, and it’s up to us to rise to the occasion.

After you finish BALLISTIC, what are your plans?
As I said before, I’ve been working on an opera, but I don’t know if I’ll have an opportunity before we spot the MATRIX sequels to have anything substantial written for it. This opera isn’t something I can just dash off. If I didn’t have anything else to do it would take me at least two years to write it.

Are you going to score any more films between now and THE MATRIX: RELOADED?
There’s an anime project called AniMatrix that I’m going to be scoring. This involves nine episodes of peripheral MATRIX stories that have been animated in Japan in the Japanese anime format. Four of those episodes will premiere on the internet, a fifth episode will be possibly be released as a theatrical short (which was animated by the company that made FINAL FANTASY, Square Pictures), and the remaining four episodes will be packaged with the previous five as a DVD that will be released concurrently with THE MATRIX: RELOADED. I believe we will be spotting them the last week of September.

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