An Interview with Graeme Revell by Jeff Berkwits
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.76/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
Over the last year, New Zealand born composer Graeme Revell has taken many journeys into outer space, with eclectic and superior scores to PITCH BLACK, TITAN A.E., and RED PLANET. Previous excursions into the fantastically macabre include SPAWN (the live-action version), FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, and THE CROW series. Even his first American film score, for Tobe Hooper’s SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, brought his unique musical sensibility to the fantasy fold. Now Revell takes on the challenge of scoring one of the mightiest science fiction epics of the 20th Century, Frank Herbert’s monumental 1965 novel, DUNE. Broadcast the first week of December on the Sci-Fi Channel, starring William Hurt as Duke Leto Atreides, the 6-hour miniseries was adapted and directed by John Harrison, himself a notable film composer, having scored CREEPSHOW, DAY OF THE DEAD, and a handful of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE episodes for George Romero.
Why do you think you were chosen to compose the music for DUNE?
That was interesting. When I first saw the original film I wasn’t really doing film scoring, and I didn’t take much notice of the score. I think they chose me because they didn’t want to cover the same ground. I’m fairly experimental and I guess they felt I would come up with some interesting musical choices. They wanted me to be inspired by the new take on the picture and to be a little different. And also I very much enjoy working with ethnic music and different music, so that worked out very well with the way John [Harrison] was thinking about the picture.
At the time, Toto’s music for the original movie was considered rather controversial. What thoughts do you have on that soundtrack?
I think the whole film was up against quite a challenge, trying to do such a vast canvas in what really was a fairly short time. It was a flawed work, and the music perhaps played a little too heavily into the electronic pop sensibility. But I never judge these things in too much depth. Decisions are made; sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. Hopefully this one does.
In other interviews for DUNE you mentioned your use of ethnic influences. How would you describe the Arabic influences that you’re using?
They’re not strictly Arabic. We used some Armenian instruments, plus others from across the Middle East. And we also used a few from the southern republics of what used to be the USSR – places like Kazakhstan and so on. We had a singer from Lebanon. We were trying not to be too specifically ethnic, but music is a part of the storytelling of this piece, and we wanted to remind people that we were in a different environment. For people who are not absolute fans or devoted to the Herbert book, it can be a little confusing. There’s a lot of intrigue and inevitably a lot of exposition at the beginning. The music helps to tell you where you are and who’s who at the time.
How would you describe the music for the Harkonnens?
We did two things. Because it’s a sort of Sodom and Gomorrah environment, there’s some electronic stuff but there’s also quite a lot of Asian instrumentation going on. So it’s more environmental than it was specifically scoring to the characters. John chose to shoot that environment in red, and it just spoke to me as being somehow Asian, even though the characters aren’t. On the other hand, for the Emperor’s palace, I did this very odd, almost 17th or 18th Century minuet, but one of the lines is wrong. It’s almost like a string quartet, except that the viola is crazy. And it actually turned out really interesting! The violas are always crazy!
How about the music for the Fremen?
It’s kind of warm. But then, when they get out into the desert and so on, it definitely becomes very otherworldly and enchanting and Arabic.
How about Paul Atreides. Does he have a specific theme?
Yeah. He definitely does. That’s pretty much the main theme of the film, and goes right from the beginning through his evolution into the Maud’Dib. It opens with a big orchestral statement, and then it goes through various mystical evolutions until the end. It’s really the major through-line of the film.
In an earlier interview you stated that you felt that the story is really a conflict between the profane and the sacred. How do you musically indicate that struggle?
One thing I’ve frequently found is that when a lot of people use ethnic music, particularly Middle Eastern music, they tend to use it for the bad guys. I’m the other way around. I find that kind of music extremely evocative. It seems to talk about our past, whether you’re Christian or Jew or Muslim – it’s like a central, sacred feel. I use ethnic music in an almost reverential sense; not in an overly silly way. I think I really have a strong affinity for it. In a way, its simplicity speaks to a lot of people.
On the other hand, I think that there’s an almost techno kind of thing, which is quite profane. That’s for the Harkonnen type of environment. It’s a very eclectic score. In a four and one-half hour version, I think you have to be; otherwise it can become soporific if you keep going back to the same themes all the time.
What challenges did doing music for such a long production present?
It’s just a matter of trying to keep all the relationships and themes straight. I had to create a big wall chart showing where each theme was going. It was a monumental challenge just to remember whose motif had to go where and which form it had to take. I think we ended up scoring, literally, around 120 minutes, which is roughly 50 percent of the film. Because we were on a reasonably limited budget, I had to work out blocks of material so we could import the orchestral material from Prague and then it put into a different setting. We had to do it that way, because it was just not feasible to score the entire 4-1/2 hour picture.
They joked that it was straight out of the Communist era. Hadn’t been touched. And I actually suspect that it wasn’t a joke! There was no air conditioning, and it was the hottest day they’d ever had in their history. It was the hottest week.
That must have made for a sacred vs. profane recording session?
Fantastic, yeah. And the choir session was wonderful.
What does the choral element add to the score?
This is a very, very large canvas we’re painting, and to live up to the size of it in terms of visuals and so on, we probably could easily have spent $100 million dollars. But we didn’t have that kind of budget, although John has done an amazing job. I think the choir brings majesty and scale, not to mention a spiritual dimension to what’s going on.
How would you describe the choral sounds that you’ve used?
A lot of it is just vocalization. I asked them to sing the classics, like Agnus Dei and Dies Irae, but I had them all overlapping, so it’s not really a literal Latin text. You can’t really tell what they’re singing, even though that’s at the core of it. If people sing ‘Aahh’ or ‘Oohh,’ it just sounds like a choir of angels, which is a sound I really despise.
You’re also intermingling orchestral and synthesized electronic music. What does that mixture add?
If you mix electronics with orchestra, it takes away the edge off of just orchestra. Film music, in some ways, is a little limiting. When you’re trying to compositionally tell a story, you can’t lapse too much into pure atonality. In compositional terms, I think storytelling revolves around certain chordal moves and so on. If you add electronics to it, it makes it much more interesting. In reverse, if it were just the electronics, you don’t get the clarity and the power, and there are very few choices in lead lines that strings, horns, trumpets and so on give you on the orchestral side. So I really feel that they both have an extremely important part in film scoring, and I think that you see that in almost everybody’s work now.
I know that on some at your past films you’ve worked with ex-Tangerine Dream member Paul Haslinger. Did he work with you on DUNE?
No, he didn’t work on this one. I worked with David Russo. Also, Tim Simonec was the orchestrator, and he did a lot of creative work on this, just because of the time scale we had to work in. Often, I’ll orchestrate to a very high degree. This time quite a lot of it was just in sketches, and he did a lot of great work on that.
Prior to this project, had you read the DUNE books?
I read the first one many years ago, shortly after it came out. I didn’t read the other ones. But I enjoyed that first one a lot.
Are you a fan of science fiction overall?
Oh yeah. Definitely. More of the J.G. Ballard, Asimov, William Gibson kind of stuff. Not so much science fantasy, but pure science fiction. I think you can tell where my tastes lie.
Did doing DUNE, which is obviously much softer; present any interesting challenges for you, since you have a love for harder science fiction?
Yeah. The real challenge was that there already was a movie, although it got a mixed reaction from the sci-fi fans. DUNE was an opportunity to try and take something that’s a classic and make something spiritual out of it. That’s where my head was aimed at, anyway. I wasn’t thinking so much in terms of the action, which is reasonably straightforward. I was really focused on the spiritual aspect.
Prior to composing music for films, you were in the rock band SPK. What benefits does your rock background offer you as a film composer?
People are looking for an edge. With a few exceptions, producers and directors no longer want the old-style film scoring. There’s a certain experimentation and a knowledge of sound that people like me have, and I think we are being hired more because of that, perhaps more than some of the people that are purely coming out of the classical film scoring arena.
But, people like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith aren’t about to go away in a hurry, and what’s the point of trying to compete with them? They do what they do extremely well. Okay, there will be very many opportunities where they don’t want Jerry’s sound, so that’s where I’ll try and fit in. When you talk about me being in a rock band, it wasn’t really a rock band per se. It wasn’t like an Oingo Boingo. It was me sort of changing styles every year anyway. And now I find that film composing gives me this amazing opportunity to change styles about every six weeks. So it’s my heart’s desire, really. It’s so great, because the next film I go on to is an African American caper comedy. So it’s like, “Wow! Yes! I can clear all this heavy sci-fi out of my head and just get silly!” It’s pretty cool.
Did you run into any problems with temp track expectations with DUNE vs. what you handed in?
There were only three cues where John really preferred the approach of the temp, which is not bad out of four and a half hours. There was a scene where the navigator turns up, where I wrote something really strange and eerie, and John felt that this was signifying that the navigator was evil somehow, instead of helpful. So he asked me to redo it and come up with something a lot mellower. That was a shame, because I actually liked the piece of music that I wrote. But on the other hand, you go in and you’re a servant of the film, and I don’t get upset by that stuff. I actually really enjoy doing things several different ways.
Did it help that Harrison also had a music background?
Yeah. We didn’t have any conflicts, though. Most of the thing was temped with my other music anyway.
Did that make it easier?
Easier and harder. I think actually one of the reasons why people end up repeating themselves is that if you temp with your own music, it’s much easier to filch from yourself than it is from somebody else! So either way, temp is not a very good thing. But I’m not obsessive about it like some people are. I’m quite happy to watch a temp because I think some things turn up from temps that you’re watching that you wouldn’t have thought of. There are often one or two things per cue where you think, “Oh, that’s interesting. I wouldn’t maybe have put the peak of the cue right there.” There’s always a learning thing going on.
Are there any composers influences we might hear all DUNE?
Probably. Mostly directly from ethnicity. For example, if I mention that the theme is slightly Celtic, then of course some people might go “James Horner”. But the fact is that we’re deriving it from a much older tradition than that. I’m definitely not influenced by many other film composers! I tend to be much more influenced by the vast array of CDs that I buy from all around the world, the classical repertoire, and so on.
In interviewing John Harrison earlier, he noted that each night of the miniseries was really a minifilm and the music changes from night to night…
The first night is really the political intrigue. The task there was essentially to establish the different environments – who the characters were, what’s going on [between them], and the drama of the House fighting for supremacy. The second night becomes much more about the desert and the spiritual aspects of the water. And the worms. And also about Paul’s relationship with the baby and all that. The third night really is the big final conflict. Then it becomes much more about action and it gets very exciting.