John Debney’s Sword and Sorcery Spectacular

An Interview with John Debney and Chuck Russell by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.82/2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl

john_debneyIt was nearing the end of a day’s scoring session for THE SCORPION KING at the Todd-AO Scoring Stage on the CBS lot in Studio City, California. This was a long Thursday for composer John Debney, who had reached the end of seven days of orchestral scoring for what might be his greatest challenge yet. Debney had just conducted the main title sequence that led into THE SCORPION KING’S prologue, a dramatically thriving and percussive orchestral piece. The sequence is a narrated montage of scenes that come to life out of ancient stone drawings that tell the story leading up to the premise of THE SCORPION KING. At this point the music editor, Will Kaplan, turns around to director Chuck Russell and says, “Now we’re about to do the final fight scene.” This was The Rock’s finale, with many ideas merging to bring the films storyline together.

After the first take of cue ‘Die Well Assassin’, Russell absolutely loved it and wanted the cue to remain just as he heard it, but he needed a little bit extra in a part where The Rock is fighting his nemesis, the evil warlord Memnon. “I call it the ‘Jules Verne Hit’, it’s in the climax of the film when The Rock does that which no mortal man can do,” the director explained. It was a cue not un-reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s music from MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. Debney kicked into full gear and started changing the cue for the director as if he was beginning his session at 10 a.m. It was amazing to see John take off with all engines roaring, considering the high paced scoring he’d been doing all day long. This change was immediately done, recorded, and THE SCORPION KING was put to rest.

When I arrived at Todd-AO, lunch had just ended and it was time to record the first cue of the afternoon, ‘Balthazar Arrives’. Debney commanded the podium and roared through this cue as if his life depended on it. On the screen The Rock and his cohorts clashed with their enemies in a battle of weaponry and flaming swords surrounded by fire. It was testosterone gone awry as The Rock plummets through a curtain of burning fire and comes out the other side to face Memnon with a fury. The score passionately accented the action by using orchestral hits and explosive percussive instrumental sequences. John conducted the cue and then returned to the control room to hear the results. After the cue ended, out of the blue Debney commented, “It’s like the Egyptian Dudley DoRight,” as both the composer and the director laughed. John wanted to record this cue one final time for Russell, “Let’s make sure they really nail it for me, through bar five and that’s it!” John told Pete Anthony, who was conducting now. Anthony took to the podium and the cue was a huge success as Russell responded, “I like it a lot, it’s all it needs to be. When it’s right it gets you emotionally.”

It was Monday March the 25th as I made my way over to The Debney Building in Burbank, California. When Tony and I arrived, John was in the mixing stages of putting together his SCORPION KING score. As we set up I began to think how Wagnerian this sounded, with its orchestral splendor and apocalyptic sounding choir. I mentioned this to John as we started our interview and he said, “AII of reel six is one big fight scene between our hero and the bad guy, our hero’s men and the bad guy’s men. There are four cues in reel six that are literally wall-to-wall. You just heard 6M2, which is part of the battle, part of the sword fight, and it’s really non-stop.” For an hour John talked about his collaboration with director Chuck Russell and his methods of composing for this ancient epic. After the interview and photo shoot he offered to play me one final cue, and as we listened to this atmospheric piece, he enthusiastically explained, “You know, if this score is like anything, it’s like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. It really has that mood, that feeling.” With that in mind John left for lunch and I departed thinking that I’ve heard a lot of Debney’s film music in my life, but I’ve never heard anything like this.

COMPOSER JOHN DEBNEY

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When I was just listening to your score to THE SCORPION KING, it sounded very Wagnerian.
It is very Wagnerian. Most of THE SCORPION KING is very adventurous and there are some beautifully melodic things. This is the quintessential “good versus evil” story. It’s the battle between two elemental forces, the good guy and the bad guy, be it fire or water, good or evil. It came out like Carl Orff meets Bernard Herrmann meets John Williams, although it’s actually closer to Wagner.

How did you get this scoring assignment?
Actually some friends of mine were doing the temp score for this – Will Kaplan, Paul Silver, and some more editors started temping in some of my music and lo and behold, Chuck became a fan. He loved my music for CUTTHROAT ISLAND. We had a couple of meetings, and just hit it off. They were using CUTTHROAT ISLAND, a lot of THE RELIC, and a little END OF DAYS in the temp. They were also using some music from the other two Mummy films, a lot of Jerry and a little Silvestri, but interestingly enough, they took a lot of that out; they wanted this score to be different from THE MUMMY because that music is so recognizable. This score’s concept was to do something completely different than THE MUMMY. They wanted a combination of all these World Music styles, but it was schizophrenic because they didn’t know quite how they wanted it. We were throwing all kinds of ideas together. Both Chuck and I wanted a pretty big traditional score with various influences included – some Persian influences and some rock and roll guitar where we thought it were appropriate. That’s what it ended up being. The compass was way over to the side of rock and roll and contemporary music, then it swung way back the other way.

When you worked with director Chuck Russell, what were your impressions of him?
I like him a lot; he’s really bright, and had a vision for the movie from the very beginning. After the first few demos I did for him, we really didn’t see each other a lot. He was off doing a $20 million re-shoot – they did massive re-shoots at the eleventh hour. There wasn’t a whole lot of contact past sitting in a room and spotting the movie. He liked some initial things I’d done for him demo wise, so I went off and started writing the first reel. He’d give me notes when he was able to and that was it. Two weeks before the scoring sessions he was back. I was in reel five already and he was getting my tapes. Chuck’s done a lot of successful movies and he knew what he wanted from day one, that’s the key. Luckily it was what I thought it should be too.

You’re back to scoring an action adventure film like CUTTHROAT ISLAND. It’s been a while since you’ve done one of those.
CUTTHROAT ISLAND had been the biggest score I ever wrote up until now. THE SCORPION KING could be even bigger than that in terms of scope. Yes, I really enjoy writing this kind of music. I remember when we were in the middle of mixing a week ago and I turned to Shawn Murphy, my engineer, and said, “This is so much fun,” and it is. To be able to write on this scope is everyone’s dream.
I just, happen to have come off DRAGONFLY, which has very long cues of very dramatic music. Before that I’d done JIMMY NEUTRON and SNOW DOGS. SNOW DOGS is Aaron Copland, so they’ve all been different. I enjoy not doing the same thing every time and I’ve been very fortunate that I really haven’t.

How did Chuck want you to deal with the temp and how did you approach it?
This was a situation where there were many, many cooks in the kitchen. They brought in a number of very good temp people. The temp changed daily. It could have been from THE CROW one day and everybody would say, “This is great,” do this,” to the next day saying, “We hate the temp, don’t pay any attention to it.” The temp was superfluous in this situation – it was meaningless. Even before their first screening with an audience they had re-temped it and were saying to me, “This new temp is great, just follow the temp. “Then they screened it for an audience up north and the screening went very well, but everyone hated the temp. What do you do? In most cases I don’t pay attention to it anymore. I just do what I’m going to do. I may get shot down, and they may hate it, but I have to do first what I think it should be, then if that doesn’t fly I’ll start to listen to who I perceive is in charge. Especially now, I go with my instincts because I usually find that will produce results.
My first instincts were, right with THE SCORPION KING. The very first piece of thematic music I wrote for this movie I wrote in August, and I demonstrated it on a synthesizer with a choir and everything else. As a fluke, I handed it over to the temp music editor back then and he threw in a few pieces, fading in and out, without telling anyone that it was my music. We mutually agreed, I said, “This is a synthesizer temp. If it works, cool, if they hate it, you don’t know who wrote it!” I didn’t even know if he used any of it or not. January comes along and in the meantime I had been demonstrating all kinds of other themes they liked, so in early January we were sitting in the spotting session and this one little scene comes up where they get on the camel and they ride off into the distance. Lo and behold, one of my themes from last August was playing. No one ever knew that was going to happen. Chuck and the producer were there. Chuck said, “I love this piece, whatever this is, we have to do something like it.” I turned and said, “Well, Chuck, that’s me. That’s a demo that I never let you hear because it was a fluke, it was my first idea and I never dreamed it would work.” He said, “We love that,” and that became the main theme.
That’s how it goes sometimes – your very first impression is correct. That was the height of irony. That’s the ‘Mathayus Theme’ that you hear throughout the film – The Rock’s theme and interestingly enough, his theme even works as the love theme. It was very odd because I had written a love theme that was quite lovely. Talk about being closer to Bernard Herrmann – that was close to Herrmann in terms of an homage to what he had done with the Princess in THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. But when it came time for me to write it in the movie, plugging in a love theme at that point seemed like it wasn’t right, so I used The Rock’s theme as a little love theme when they kiss and it’s wonderful.

What particular element in the process opened the door to your score here?
Chuck was off doing that massive re-shoot during the crucial period when I was starting to write to finished film. I scored the first reel. I had the editor over and we talked about it. This happened when I tackled the first big cue, which is when Mathayus, our hero, has to sneak into this enemy encampment and try to steal away King Memnon, our bad guy’s sorceress. She gives him all his power because she can see into the future, so Mathayus is going to try to take her away and also kill the king. He doesn’t succeed at killing the king, but he does kidnap the girl. It’s a long cue, about four minutes. My ideas opened up through the film when I was dealing with the first reel. I don’t go too far unless I get a reel because sometimes things that you write, when you end up putting them against the movie, don’t work. The film usually dictates everything to me.

Did you mock up your complete score for Russell? How important is that process to you?
I hate it, but what are you going to do? You have to mock up your score these days. Some guys don’t have to, John Williams doesn’t have to and I don’t think Jerry Goldsmith has to mock up his complete score either. Now I’m used to it, but I hated it when I first started doing it. Now, it’s what I do. I start the writing process and I’m orchestrating and mocking it up as I go along. Maybe unlike other people, I literally mock up every note and it’s fully orchestrated. You could almost copy my MIDI files because they’re pretty complete.

Can you please explain your score in parts or themes?
It’s really simple to break down because there really is only one theme, the ‘Mathayus Theme’. Interestingly enough, I really didn’t intend it to be that way because I usually like to have a couple of themes, but it’s fun that this was the first monothematic idea that I’ve done in a movie, for a while, anyway, if ever. So there’s really one theme, which is pretty European of me. This presents itself throughout the score in different variations. There’s this wonderful scene where The Rock comes into this town and he meets up with this little boy who’s a pickpocket. The pickpocket kid becomes another character in the movie that becomes bonded to The Rock. I even used it in a little chase scene where this gang of pickpockets take The Rock’s little bag of twenty blood rubies, so my theme presents itself all over the place. The rest of my score is theme and variation time. I try to be conscious on how much I used this theme. I really didn’t want to use it in every cue. I don’t think you necessarily should. There are times when I like to hint at it and other times I like to just state it right out. It was a pretty simple thematic score in that sense.

What is the key factor for you in understanding the director’s vision?
Luckily, Chuck and I had the same vision to start out with. A lot of times that’s not the case. A lot of times I might have a vision and the director hears my first go round and doesn’t share that vision. Then I have to change things to accommodate his vision. In this case from day one, from our first meetings, he and I both agreed that this should be a big score with a big heroic theme that could express the exotic locale of where we are. It’s some desert arid country, circa 3000 B.C., it’s not supposed to be specifically any country. We talked about different types of music. The theme is pretty rich – you’ve got everything from solo vocalist Lisbeth Scott to Liz Constantine who did this primal yell. I loved this primal yell and it’s sort of Mathayus’s signature. It’s only in about three or four spots in the whole movie, but the first time you see him in the film, you hear this yell. It’s a scream really and I coupled it with a Shofar, which is a traditional religious horn. So it’s a really rich score, I have some Persian instruments like the duduk played by Chris Bleth. You’ve got all kinds of interesting influences; you’ve got electric guitar and a big rock and roll drum kit in a few places. It’s really a weird score in some areas.

How did you approach using choir in this score?
It was very much like I did CUTTHROAT ISLAND. It’s been awhile since I’ve scored with a real choir. On some of the scores I’ve done with very small ensembles, we tripled the voices to make it sound like a big choir. On THE SCORPION KING I really had enough people to do a true choir, like I did on CUTTHROAT ISLAND. It’s basic, classical choir writing. I’m a singer also; I used to do session singing, so I’m very familiar with vocal music and how to orchestrate with it.

How did you use electronics within the context of the orchestra, and who did you work with?
I used very little electronics in this score. I basically threw a handful of cues, maybe four or five cues, at John Van Tongeren, who’s my buddy. I think my words were, “Throw some shit in.” In some areas I had some very specific requests for him, where I was looking for a particular sound. When I got back from John’s I was so thrilled with it, I was just delighted. We gave him my synth demos, which were fully orchestrated, and he would go and work with them, adding little goodies, ethnic beds that he added some spice to, which was really great.

Tell me a little more about the Bernard Herrmann influence on this score?
It had been a real treat to conduct a lot of Herrmann’s music in Scotland a couple of years ago, with Bob Townson, for Varese Sarabande. I had the pleasure of being able to re-conduct THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. Early on we didn’t know what the score for THE SCORPION KING was going to be. We thought it might be a rock and roll score with some Arabic influences, then September 11th happened and that all went away, not wanting to be too politically incorrect. So I didn’t know what this score was going to be like for a long time, but I knew that I wanted to write a couple of old school themes. I listened to THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD once again, that really lovely feeling that’s there for the princess. Listening for me is more for orchestration than anything else. Herrmann is one of my top three favorite composers, so I’m certain that this came out.

What was the most critical part of the process that made your scare succeed for THE SCORPION KING?
I think the biggest factor here is that they let me loose, which doesn’t happen that often, unfortunately. We all get slammed for our work now and then, sometimes it’s due to us not doing what we should do, but a lot of the times it’s because people don’t let us do what we do. This was a case where they pretty much let me do what I do. In fact for the very first session, Stephen Sommers (the producer of THE MUMMY series) came down, and he was thrilled. He said, “It’s brilliant, it’s great.” The last words out of his mouth to me when he was leaving the stage, my agent overheard it, “This is so great, I don’t even have to come back.” It can work in your favor that there’s enough trust in what you do, that they’ll leave you alone, and if the score does anything in terms of getting any recognition, it’s probably because of that.

What did you admire about this particular director?
This was a very difficult situation for Chuck. It’s a huge movie with lots of expectations. He had to go through this rewrite, this $20 million dollar re-shoot. What I admire about him most is that he’s very, very bright; he’s a very intelligent guy. These situations can be tough sometimes with so much on the line. I’ve seen directors put up against the wall as it were and they feel like they’re cornered and they have to “Duke”” their way out. Chuck fought the fights he felt he needed to, but he was very collaborative and I admired that about him. He was really fun to work with, not tense, he was very complimentary, and I felt a great emotional attachment between us. He came out and thanked the orchestra, not all directors do that, which to me is hard to believe. I have nothing but the highest regard for Chuck, he pulled it off, and hopefully it’s going to be a huge success.

Tell me about your future plans?
I’m taking a month off because I need to. This year I really don’t want to work as much. Last year I composed for seven films, including parts of things that actually came out this year like DRAGONFLY. This year, I’ve turned down a couple of films because I wanted to take this time off. I might get involved with SPY KIDS 2, but it’s all up to Robert Rodriguez. He wants to write some of the music, so we’ll see.

DIRECTOR CHUCK RUSSELL

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When I first met Chuck Russell I mentioned to him that the variety of films he’d done was amazing. From THE MASK, ERASER, and BLESS THE CHILD to THE SCORPION KING, each film’s genre couldn’t be more different. He replied, “But I haven’t done a science fiction film yet, that would be interesting.” Russell, who also a produces and writes, thrives on his films’ diverse genres and feels his challenge as a director is embodied by the opportunity to visualize something he’s never done before. “I was inspired by the old classics, CRIMSON PIRATE with Burt Lancaster, which had a real sense of joy about the adventure, as I did THE MUMMY series,” he explained, talking about his newest cinematic achievement, THE SCORPION KING. This time his vision reached beyond what the film should be, it was a prognostication of a star to come. “It was all about The Rock. I really didn’t know who he was and I’d never seen him wrestle. On Saturday Night Live when I saw him, he was charming, great looking, and as funny as anybody else’ in the cast. It immediately occurred to me that there hasn’t been anybody new and exciting in the action genre in five or ten years. “With this thought in mind, Chuck Russell set out to bring his sword and sorcery spectacular to the big screen. As for scoring such an epic, this is definitely a high point in the process for Russell. “Film directors and composers are one of the most exciting collaborations. It’s always a pleasure if I have a composer of choice to get to that stage in the film making process,” explained Russell. He was overwhelmed by the sheer scope of what his composer had to offer. “It’s more accessible than Wagner, it has some of the size, but what John’s done is really emotionally accessible.”

I spoke with Chuck about his new action adventure extravaganza April the 8th, eleven days before the opening of THE SCORPION KING across America. “I don’t want to reinvent the score,” he said. “But if I sense that we’re on the same page, I really can work successfully with the composer the way I will with an actor,” he explained.

Why was John Debney hired to score THE SCORPION KING?
I took a step back, and I did something that I always promised myself I would do. Rather than be swayed by what soundtrack I was listening to that week from the latest hit film, I went back and reviewed a number of composers and listened to a lot of film music. I knew of John, but it was remarkable, his work stands out and I realized that over the years we had pulled from his work for temping when we wanted to preview a film. We pulled from his work here and there, we pulled tracks from THE RELIC a couple of times. I was knocked out when I listened to his soundtrack for CUTTHROAT ISLAND. I thought, “My god, this is really hard to pull off. It’s big and adventurous but still heartfelt and it’s not corny.” It was quite stirring, but it had that fun and adventure quality that I’d hoped we get into THE SCORPION KING. This score has a primitive feel, which is again really all about The Rock. Boy, he nailed it. He really put the heart into the film as much as the actors did. That is the highest compliment you can pay a composer.

When you start to make a film, at what point do you start thinking about the music you want for it?
For this picture we had a short prep time, so we started off in fourth gear. The movie had a deadline to start pre-production based on The Rock’s schedule and the pending strike. I did less sampling of touchstones musically for this film than I might normally do. We went right into it. I developed a language with John based on our favorite scores and my favorite work of John’s. I pointed to cues in his other work that I thought was on the path. I wanted John to be as inspired as we were, trying to create a uniquely original score to something he’d never seen before. Normally I do listen to a lot of music; in fact I listen to a lot of film scores when I write, but on THE SCORPION
KING we just jumped into production on an existing screenplay.

What kind of a score did you want for THE SCORPION KING?
I didn’t want the score from CUTTHROAT ISLAND, but I didn’t realize how great the score was until I heard it without watching the movie. I knew I wanted it to be stirring and the biggest challenge was for the music not to get melodramatic. This is a movie about legendary, larger-than-life heroes. One of the things I really wanted was a great main theme, and we have a fantastic one here. By the middle of the film, when it kicks back into this great, exotic, adventure cue that is our main theme, you’re transported someplace special.

When you let your temp score guide the composer, isn’t that a bit misleading?
I told him not to do the temp. I said, “You’ve got to look beyond the temp, don’t be influenced by it.” In this case the movie has specific scenes that are all about comedy, that are all about romance, as well as thrills and adventure, and the temp sounded like a patchwork quilt, it was incredibly jarring. The temp had been pulled from so many different kinds of movies, at least a dozen adventure films, comedies, and romance, that it was completely distracting. In trying to do a temp score, we were all over the place. Happily, John’s music pulled the movie together in a great way, with one terrific score that seems to encompass all these different variations on a theme, feelings, and styles.

Is it totally necessary for the composer to electronically mock-up the complete score for you so you know what will happen on the scoring stage?
All directors like that. I’ve had composers who have simply played it to me on the piano. The only problem when you get a really good elaborate synthesizer mock up, if it’s good, it starts to sound like a bad score (laughter). In other words, it’s so much better than hearing it on the piano or keyboard arid yet you have to bear in mind, this hasn’t got the heart a fuII orchestra will bring it, if you are indeed doing a full orchestral score the way we did on THE SCORPION KING.
In this case it was very constructive because we were able to work fast and zeroed in on what ended up being a terrific score, but the choral elements really took this up to another level. We used a lot of choral seasoning with these cues, you could hear it in the synth, but it’s the exact kind of thing that a mock-up doesn’t emotionally represent. These new kinds of electronic mock-ups, they are neither fish nor fowl, but it’s a lot better idea of where you’re going than hearing it on a simple keyboard.

What is the most important part of the process for you – from spotting to orchestral scoring – that makes the score successful for your picture?
Each stage is extremely important. It’s like comparing writing a screenplay to directing on set to the editing and music. Each stage is so vital and organic to the process that you’ve got to succeed at every stage in order to get a great film score, unless you get lucky and have an ingenious composer who nails it without a collaboration, which could happen. If the picture changes, which tends to happen, you’ve got to be smart, inspired, and flexible, to take advantage of the strengths of the score.

What did you learn by working with John Debney?
I didn’t have to learn anything – he was terrific! I guess maybe it was just to trust my instincts. While we did experiment with some elements of the score, he went the way I thought the score should go. I had the most fun I’ve ever had working with a composer, that’s the truth. This movie was an adventure / comedy at heart and it was important to infuse it with a sense of joy throughout, the joy of life. The Rock has charm and humor, so does the score, it supports and makes him all the more charming and that’s all you can really ask from a score.

What are your future plans?
I like to see a film with an audience. For some reason that’s always a part of my natural evolution, it’s part of how I decide what to do next.
I’ve never been good at piggybacking projects; I have real tunnel vision on projects and get quite consumed with the whole event. Now I’ll go out and watch my film with audiences. It’s interesting to see how my film plays around the world. THE MASK translated better than I ever thought it would, I was amazed to see people in all different cultures respond to that high physical comedy. I’m anxious to see how THE SCORPION KING is received in different languages and cultures because it’s a very visceral, visual film, it may play well in other languages, we’ll see…

A special note

A special note of thanks goes out to all those who made this article possible: Ronni Chasen and Jeff Sanderson of Chasen and Company, Alyssa Andrews (Universal Pictures), Kirsten Smith (Manager Todd-AD Scoring Stage), Michael Mason (Debney Productions), Gina Carty (John Debney’s Assistant), Juan Castro (Chuck Russell’s Assistant), and especially Director Chuck Russell and the Debneys, Lola and John. -RK

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