Graeme Revell on Spontaneous Combustion

An Interview with Graeme Revell by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.9/Nos.35/1990
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson

Graeme RevellWhen Graeme Revell says his latest film score is hot, he’s not kidding. It’s for Tobe Hooper’s new movie. SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, and it opens with a blazing 1812-ish overture for orchestra and flamethrower. It’s not your usual film score. But then, Graeme Revell isn’t your usual film composer. Classically trained in his youth in New Zealand, Revell now lives in Australia; this is his fifth film score, and his first for an American film. By the looks of It, SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION will introduce Revell to American audiences with a real, well blast.

Revell was working as a nurse in a mental institution in Australia during the early 1980s when. With a patient there, he formed an experimental pop band called STK, one of the forerunner’s of a European music phenomenon called Industrial Music. With the band, Revell recorded a number of albums – mostly experimental electronic music, sampled acoustic sounds made into musical notes (such as an LP that Revell recorded using nothing but insect sounds) – but always wanted to do a film score. “As a musician, I always wrote visually,” Revell said. “We put together some videos of our own, quite bizarre, with a lot of horror and weird imagery, but it really came about by accident in the end.” Despairing over whether he’d ever get to score a film. Revell recorded an album which he titled ‘Music for Impossible Films’, which was eventually released as ‘Songs of Byzantine Flowers’. The album came to the attention of a group of English filmmakers who hired Revell to score an Elizabethan surrealist film called THE MALADY. Although Revell had lost track of most of his Classical training in his Industrial Music years, he found the ability restored when he composed the score for 20-part baroque Instruments and choir.

Revell went on to score an “awful” Australian documentary called ESCAPE: WORLD SAFARI III (“it died a death and I never got paid, so it’s blacklisted!” he murmured), but it was his moody score for the thriller. DEAD CALM, which brought him to the attention of American agent Richard Kraft.

Kraft, an agent with ICM in Los Angeles, was so impressed with Revell’s DEAD CALM score that he telephoned Australia and went through all the people with Revell’s surname until he found the right one. “I knew I was with the right agent, for someone to take that much trouble!”

Among the offers Revell received through Kraft was for SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, Tobe Hooper’s new thriller based on the phenomenon of people who have reportedly burst into flame. “When the Tobe Hooper movie came along, for somebody from the other side of the world, it’s like a dream come true,” said Revell.

The film is a mixture of fact and fiction, opening with a 1950s atom bomb test; this eventually results in the spontaneous combustion of the protagonist’s parents, an event with haunts the character throughout the film. Revell came into the project during final editing. He met only once with Tobe Hooper, for an afternoon spotting session when they viewed the film and decided where the music would go. After that, Hooper left the composer on his own. “I just threw in ideas, and he seemed to be really happy with them,” Revell said. “Basically, it’s a movie that’s a drama with a whole lot of people getting burned to death. Apart from a few other subtleties, that’s pretty much what it boils down to! I was trying to build some kind of dynamic into it where I got the chance, going into really heavy rhythm like where somebody’s driving or a bridging cue or something like that.” At one point, Revell tried to open up the rhythmic cue with an Arabic lead Instrument, to give it an unusual touch, but Hooper nixed the Idea. “Some of the score is fairly modal, but almost Arabic with lots of augmented 7ths and diminished intervals and so on,” said Revell. “I did this driving thing with an Arabic instrument, and they threw that one out! A pity, but it was a little bit too off the beam, apparently!”

One of Revell’s first musical ideas had to do with the Main Titles. At the time, these were planned just to be credits over a black background. “I came up with the Idea of doing a version of the 1812 Overture only using flamethrowers, flack bursts and stuff like that,” said Revell. “I wrote the music first, and then got them to put all these fantastic flame-thrower pans across the screen, which I spotted and scored.” Thus, Revell not only scored but wound up designing the imagery for the opening credits. “That was basically something that I’ve wanted to write all the time, but nobody would ever pay me to write! That’s sort of my general attitude to film scoring anyway, to get everything off my chest, as long as it works.”

Graeme Revell in his Studio

Graeme Revell in his StudioRevell also contributed to the opening scene in the bomb shelter by suggesting the source music heard from a radio. “The movie starts off in the ‘50s, and it’s all tied back to this Idea of an atom bomb experiment gone wrong with this guy’s parents,” said Revell. “By being set in the ‘50s, I thought it ran the risk of looking very cheesy right from the start – you know how those B-grade things look? I thought the music can possible take the edge off this, so I started off with this kind of extremely fearful opening credit music, with these flamethrowers and bursts of fire and so on, and then we come out of that and immediately we come Into the bomb shelter. I chose the source music, which was The Ink Spots’ 1941 song, ‘I Don’t Want to Set The World On Fire, I Just Want To Start A Flame In Your Heart’, which segues out of this really over-the-top opening music. I think it sets it up as an extremely weird moment, rather than anything that’s really cheesy.”

Although Revell’s film scores sound orchestral, they are in fact created on a digital sampler and are performed entirely on synthesizer. Over the years, Revell has compiled an electronic library of several thousand acoustic sounds which he sampled into an EPS Ensonic Sampler; the synthesizer then recalls those sounds at the touch of a button, to be performed with the instrument’s keyboard. The resulting sound, rather than a generic synthesizer tone, takes on the characteristic of that pre-sampled sound. Thus Revell can score a theme for Insect noises, or in the case of SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, all the resources of an actual orchestra. Revell doesn’t feel this “imitation orchestra” is a cop-out, though. “I think it gives it a slightly harder edge than you’d get from a real orchestra, and in a film like this I think that’s really useful,” said Revell. “It gives me an advantage.

I can do it a great deal quicker, because it makes the process of composition and orchestration more or less a unit. You’ve got the sound there straight away, and you know if it’s going to work because you can hear it straight away, there’s no messing around communicating with your orchestra.

Revell prefers manipulating sampled acoustic sounds rather than using the familiar electronic sounds overused by other synthesists. “I threw out all the boring sounds that everybody uses, all the Yamaha 0-50 and MI, all that tinkle Japanese rubbish,” he said. “They were not appropriate and I didn’t like the, sounds anyway.” On SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, Revell worked with a Los Angeles sound effects technician, on the side, to sample a library of special sound effects (“really weird harmonizer stuff, feedbacks, and so on,” said Revell). With the EPS Sampler, Revell took these new sounds, combined them with his own orchestral samples to create the unusual instrumentation which will be heard in the score.

Revell also prefers to avoid the kind of cliché orchestral sounds heard in many horror scores, and his, electronic arsenal has been a great advantage with its library of sound. “Instead of the violins with a suspended 7th or something like that on a tense moment, I tend to use an effect sound instead,” said Revell. “For example, on SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION I was using the sound of a wine glass instead of a string, with that kind of grating top to it. The final result was probably a little like Bernard Herrmann’s Theremin. Another thing I used was feedback run through a harmonizer.” Revell finds this approach fresher and more Interesting than opting for the usual tremolo violins or low brass. “I think this is a new way of handling some of the basic legwork that you have to get through in film scoring. I try not to pull out the clIche if possible.”

In addition to the sampled sounds, Revell recorded the voices of four opera singers, which he multi-tracked and overdubbed to form a 30-volce choir. “It felt sort of like a Wagnerian choral piece – very, very intense,” said Revell. “It’s sort of Tchaikovsky-meets- Wagner-meets-Industrial Music.” In addition to this climactic material, Revell also incorporated a 16th Century plainsong figure as a theme for the protagonist’s haunted past. “I have a very great love for 16th and 17th Century religious music, so there’s a little bit of post-Gregorian chant. I’ve taken it past that, because Gregorian chants have become hackneyed, from THE OMEN movies. At times he has these visions of his dead parents in flames, and I’ve written something like a 16th Century antiphon for that one. It’s a traditional score, in a thematic sense. But there’s a fair bit of psychoacoustic stuff as well.”

There is also a nursery rhyme theme which Revell uses for sympathetic or poignant moments; though Revell’s mischievous sense of humor is often revealed in the placement of this motif. “Tobe had written a nursery rhyme: ‘Sleep, baby, sleep in my arms, you’re mother’s little pearl, our love will save the world.’ I’ve done a music box version of that and then a variation which comes back when somebody gets killed – ‘Sleep, baby, sleep in my arms’!”

spontaneous-combustion-movie-poster-1990-1020677761Other jokes Revell has spiced his score with Include a sampled quotation of a Sanctus Christos played when a character burns his finger. “I mean, what else do you say when you burn your finger?!” said Revell. “There’s a few others like that. The most common phrase in the whole movie is ‘My God!’, so in the end credits, It’s all going along very Wagnerian with German translations of some phrases and then there’s a 7/4 bar with ‘Mein Gott!’ It’s a pretty weak musician’s in joke, but it gets you through the night!”

Revell wrote the score in three weeks, composing sixty minutes of music and recording it at Los Angeles’ Amigo Studios In early October. While that would be an extraordinarily short period of time for many film composers to compose and record the score for a major film, Revell found it sufficient. His style of composing and orchestrating on computer streamlined the process, as did he fact that Revell writes extremely quickly. “George Miller tells me I’m the fastest he’s ever seen,” Revell said. “I did a 6-hour mini-series for him in two weeks, back in Australia. But it’s not good for the health! It takes me about three weeks just to get back to normal.”

It took Revell a little while to get used to the differences between recording movie scores here and in Australia. “When I came over here I was most surprised when they told me I’d need a programmer, and it would cost so much, and an engineer, and that would cost so much, and also a music editor – and I’d never seen any of these functions before! In Australia we don’t have the ancillary personnel around.” Revell did find the music editor very useful, especially on long, tedious underscoring segments. He also used an engineer to assist in patching circuits together during the mix-down, but preferred to do his own synth programming. “At home I used a really low-tech, analog approach to things, with a VHS and a pause button – I just cue things up that way and it seems to be really close,” Revell said. “Here, they want split second timing. Once the score is done it’s transferred onto film MAG, but in the places I’ve worked In Australia, they just use video editing to lay it out.”

Revell hopes his Involvement with SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION may likewise spark further career opportunities for him in Hollywood. Just prior to the Hooper film, Revell scored George (MAD MAX) Miller’s 6-hour Australian mini-series, BANGKOK HILTON, which opens soon in England on cable TV, and is booked for a small Australian documentary about the tombs of the Aztec Indians, a project ripe with audio opportunities: “Even if I don’t get to go to Mexico myself, I’m going to send somebody there and sample off the acoustic characteristics of the tombs; then I’ll program all my reverbs to make it sound as if the music was coming from the tomb. That might be an interesting approach, if it’s actually realized.”

Now that he’s finished SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, Revell has already been contacted to score a new, upcoming horror film, though he hopes to avoid typecasting. “I guess it’s a fairly normal upward curve, but I seem to be put up for horror movies all the time, which Is not something I want to do forever!” said Revell. “I guess it’s that they sometimes have a smaller budget, so that’s where a lot of people start and then graduate. So I don’t mind, for a while.”

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