An Interview with Elia Cmiral by Ford A. Thaxton
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.74/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Ford A. Thaxton
Born in Czechoslovakia, Elia Cmiral (pronounced smear-al) escaped his country’s political upheaval and moved to Sweden in 1980, where he began to build a career in music. In 1987 he moved to the USA and enrolled in the film-scoring program at USG, studying with Buddy Bakers and others. This led to the opportunity to score the stylish thriller, APARTMENT ZERO. He returned to Sweden in 1989 to produce his music on records, and returned to the USA in 1993 to resume his film-scoring career. A break came in 1998 when he scored John Frankenheimer’s thriller, RONIN, with an 80-piece orchestra. The film’s success led to such high-profile assignments like STIGMATA (1999) and BATTLEFIELD EARTH (2000).
How did you become involved in BATTLEFIELD EARTH?
I was introduced to (director) Roger Christian through Linda Livingston from BMI. I had a nice talk with Roger, and he introduced me to John Travolta. He showed me a couple of sequences from the movie and asked me what I would do here, and we discussed the music. After two hours he said I was hired.
You wrote about 80 minutes of music for BATTLEFIELD EARTH, and you not only have a full symphony orchestra which you recorded in Seattle, but you also have a lot of electronics to blend in with it. Once you got the job, how long after that did they lock the picture?
First of all, the picture was not ever locked. That’s kind of a natural thing in a movie where we have so many minutes of optical effects – you never really know the final timings until you get it, and you have to have music written already, hoping it’s going to fit. So you get very good at editing. I probably had six weeks to complete it, minus a couple of days in the end for orchestration.
During the course of this, when you were scoring the film, what was your musical approach to this subject matter? It’s not what I would call a thematic score, per se.
I am very sparse when scoring movies, and I try avoid too many themes to any project. I don’t like the 19th Century Wagnerian approach, where every person, every sword, every horse, has motifs. It feels to me like the yellow pages. I like to keep it a little bit simpler. On BATTLEFIELD EARTH there is just one epic theme.
Kind of a liberating / freedom type theme?
It’s used kind of heroically in the opening titles, and then it comes in all the battles in different versions and different keys. The approach I use I actually started in RONIN. Ideally, I would write the theme for the opening, and continue right on to the end. That would be great, but unfortunately this is not the case in scoring. One reason, especially in our case, is that the movie is changing constantly. Also, I’m doing most of the cues for the director or the producer, synth mock-ups, but I keep the percussions and I keep synthesizer work for the real score later, so it’s actually in one way a mock-up, but not really.
You just fatten it up with the orchestra.
I just exchange it for acoustic instruments in the real orchestra. At the spotting session, when we had all the cues on a piece of paper, I divided the whole score into groups: ethnic type cues, some Americana kind of stuff, four or five different groups. The next step was to show the producer, John Travolta, Roger, to show them the direction and concept…
BATTLEFIELD EARTH is a very different kind of score than we’ve heard from you before – this big, John Williamsy /Jerry Goldsmithian kind of adventure, for lack of a better term. What would you like to go on to? Do you have anything lined up next?
I’ve got a couple of offers, but nothing is signed at this moment. I’m kind of taking it easy now with my family.
One of your earlier Hollywood credits is NASH BRIDGES, that TV show with Don Johnson. How did you get involved with that?!
That was my first break after two years in Los Angeles. I did the opening season with Don Johnson, and I was not really happy.
American TV can be a sausage factory.
I didn’t really realize it in the beginning. This was my first job on an American TV series. I had scored programs in Sweden, but how they approach scoring a series is very different from how it’s done in Hollywood.
On the show itself, when you went in to deal with it, usually after two or three shows and they have the vocabulary down that they like, then it’s like you have an associate producer in the room going “yeah, yeah…” Was it more of a hands-on situation on that show?
The whole season was changing. I worked with three different post-production producers, one after another.
And each one had a different idea of what the music should be!
On the last episode I did, one of them said “the opening should be something like Mancini,” another one, “something like Americana,” and Don Johnson told me “something like world percussion.” Going from nowhere to doing a prime time TV series was great.
So you went off and did some other projects, including THE LAST EXPRESS, which was just released on CD by Intrada.
That was actually before NASH BRIDGES. That was my first computer game, and it was my first serious project. I scored it with a small orchestra. It was fun except I had like 350 cues – everything from 2 seconds to one minute!
One particularly interesting project was STIGMATA. That was an interesting score for you, because you were working with Billy Gorgan of the group Smashing Pumpkins. How did that collaboration come about?
STIGMATA came after RONIN, so I basically worked with the same people from MGM and a different director. That was a fun experience, like working with a family. With Billy, though, it was a little strange. Billy was already hired to score the whole movie.
Billy is a very good musician in his own right, but the scoring world is a very different animal. I assume you were there to help him with those sections that needed a more orchestral approach…
Exactly. It was very friendly. I suggested that I should meet Billy and discuss how we can approach the score. We met once, with my music editor and his people in his studio. Actually, before this meeting happened, his music editor and my music editor had divided the score into two parts, and Billy got the first choice of the cues he wanted to score, and the rest was mine. So I took my list of cues and went back to my studio and started to work.
So at this point, I would imagine you were sweating beads… You had a lot of music and not very much time to compose it.
Yes, at the beginning. Already at this time we were discussing orchestra scoring, how we can manipulate a 70-piece orchestra to work with Billy’s purely electronic cues.
What happened when they get down to the dub stage and you have to make it all fit?
It was a big headache for both music editors, and I think they did an absolutely marvellous job. I had 45 or 50 minutes of music in the whole score, and Billy has 19.
And then of course they did the promotional CD with just your material on Intrada.
That’s really another story, because they didn’t want to let us release another album of STIGMATA. That was a very big issue. They finally allowed us to do it with restrictions, Intrada was not allowed to sell more than a certain amount of CD’s, CD’s could not ever appear in retail stores so my CD wouldn’t clash with Billy Corgan, and it shouldn’t say “score by”, it had to say something different.