John Frizzell: From Aliens to Comic Gangsters

An Interview with John Frizzell by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.67/1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson

John FrizzellJohn Frizzell started out as an opera singer in his youth, singing with the Paris and Metropolitan Operas. Studies at USC and Manhattan School of Music led to an association with Ryuichi Sakamoto and by the early 1990’s he had been hired to score a short-lived but intensely fascinating television series called VR5. After several independent and cable film assignments and a noteworthy score for BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA, he got a plum assignment completing the score for DANTE’S PEAK, which James Newton Howard did not have time to do. The fourth ALIEN film followed. Frizzell’s latest score is for a riotous Jim (AIRPLANE!) Abrahams comedy, MAFIA.

How did you get involved with MAFIA?
The producer was Bill Badalato, who had produced ALIEN RESURECTION. He asked me to come and meet with Jim Abrahams, which I did, and we had fun together and Jim asked me to do the film. It’s been one of the funniest things I’ve ever done.

When did you come onto the project?
Actually, very early. I think I met with Jim a day before they started shooting. So I was hired before they started shooting.

Did getting involved early on give you a better opportunity to feel the movie more and to do a better job in the scoring rather than coming in at the end?
Almost none of the film was temped, so I wrote the whole score on synthesizer. I think Jim enjoyed that very much. By knowing that the synthesizer score was going to be very similar to his final score, I think Jim found a lot of security and was able to enjoy the recording process with the orchestra because he knew every note.

How would you describe your approach to scoring the film? Where were you coming from originally when you began to compose?
I thought about Italian music and Italian opera in general. In all of the Mafia movies, there’s mandolins and accordions and solo trumpets all over the place, and this is a score that takes itself extremely seriously. It never lets on that this is a joke.

So you’re playing it straight throughout then?
Absolutely. Jim’s biggest direction to me was to never, ever let this score wink at the humor in the film.

He’s tended to do that in all of his scores, all the way back to AIRPLANE, a very dramatic, straightforward score which really makes the comedy work even more because it’s so contrapuntal now.
I can only think of one time in AIRPLANE when the music lets on that it’s a joke, and that’s at the very end where the choir keeps ascending higher and higher until eventually they’re just screaming! That’s the only example that I can think of music actually being funny in a Jim Abrahams movie. And it was very effective, but the music in MAFIA just plays real straight.

Is it of the ilk of, say, THE GODFATHER?
Yeah, and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, THE UNTOUCHABLES, CASINO. We go after everything. But it really goes after Italian music in general. There’s a lot of tarantellas.

Were you familiar with that kind of music or did you have to do any kind of studying to prepare for this?
I ate a lot of pasta!

How closely did you work with Jim Abrahams on creating the score?
Very closely. I did these very extensive synthesizer demos, and played them all for Jim, and got a yay or a nay and figured out what’s working or not. He’s was very involved all along, and quite enjoyable to work with.

What challenges did the project pose for you?
Obviously, when I say I ate a lot of pasta to learn how to write Italian music – I did sit down, and listen to Verdi for days and days. I have quite a bit of experience with opera, and so I think I probably drew on opera more than anything. There are three major themes in the film, once I got Jim to sign off on those. So much of this genre of film that we’re spoofing, you re-orchestrate and use your thematic material a lot, and so that was a very critical part of the process. I would say sitting down and getting the themes together, although it went very quickly, was probably the most crucial step.

Who orchestrated the score?
Brad Dechter. Brad’s worked on most of my films.

How do you find the relationship between a composer and an orchestrator?
It’s very important. There are so many pictorial changes, that at the end of a film I’m spending most of my time forming my score to the picture, and it’s a process that I don’t like to shrug off and do lightly. You can really botch up a cue that worked very well by not spending enough time to conform it properly to the picture. You’ve got to get that feeling back to how it was affecting the cut that you wrote it to. The orchestrators are enormously important to me, because they give me the chance to really focus on that. Working with Brad, I never have to question if it’s exactly the way I want it, because he’s so good.

Is there going to be a score CD for MAFIA?
So far there’s not… but we’ll see how the world receives this film. I think it’s going to be very successful, and it’s music that I would like to put out there. Maybe I’ll do a promo on this one. One of the more difficult cues I’ve ever written was the Main Title, which is completely a capella. I just wrote it for choir. It’s a challenging way to carry the opening of a film, but I think people will probably enjoy that.

How do you approach writing comedy? Comedy is almost the opposite side of the horror, which you did with ALIEN RESURRECTION. You almost have to approach it from the same angle, where you don’t want to give away what’s coming; you want to build this kind of suspense, whether the payoff is in a shock or a joke. How do you approach that, as a composer?
I don’t see them as similar, I really don’t. The two comedies I’ve done, BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD and MAFIA, were similar in that the music played it very, very serious, never acknowledging that there’s anything funny about this at all. To me, that’s a very different place. It’s more of an intellectual process. It’s more of a crafting of a joke, where you’re not necessarily listening to your gut, but you’re listening to your head to inform you about how to craft the joke, and then you’re using your skills to manipulate your gut to let you get those emotions in the right place.
Drama and fear tend to be more from the gut. You have to get to a more visceral level of our id, for lack of a better word. You have to get down to the id and say, okay, now where’s the fear? It’s definitely not in my head! It’s deeper in, so it’s a very different process for me. I’m doing a scary film coming up, and so I’m sort of starting to really think about that again.

The new film is another sequel – I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER. How did you get that score?
I think the director really liked the score to ALIEN.

When you were doing ALIEN RESURRECTION, being the fourth in a very successful series of horror films with notable scores, was there any request or requirement on the producer’s part that it follow the same kind of line, musically, or were you given a free reign?
For the most part I was left completely on my own. It’s interesting that that series has never been thematically drawn together – although, in the fourth one, there are two moments which are taken exactly from the first one. The director asked if I wanted to change it, and I said it would be kind of arrogant to do it differently – it’s perfect, why change it? I just left it exactly as Goldsmith wrote it, so I didn’t alter that at all. But, other than that, it’s such a different film that it just went off from there.

What was hardest about creating that kind of audio/musical horror?
It’s a huge score. I think it’s almost 90 minutes long. The sheer size of a score can be daunting, in that you have to pace the film accordingly. You become almost a narrator at that point, and you have to think from cue to cue, so that you’re driving the film in its entirety across the entire score. Perhaps when there’s less music in a film, you can be more of a hue that comments from scene to scene, but when you’re playing most of the film you do become sort of an omniscient narrator. That’s a very daunting and challenging role to take on for a composer.

One thing I liked about that score was the sound design you created, with that thickly orchestrated music…
So much of the movie is about blurring the line between what is human and what is not, and I tried to get that across in the music, blurring the line between the synthesizers and the orchestra with what is synthetic and what is not. I was going after a deeper meaning to that.

As a composer do you find it easier doing something that’s as wildly fantastic as ALIEN RESURRECTION as opposed to something that takes its suspense from more natural phenomenon, like DANTE’S PEAK?
Neither film was at all easy. I would say that they’re just different places to come from. Any time you’re working with fear, fear is a fairly one-dimensional emotion, and the difficult thing about fear is to keep it interesting, to keep ways of saying it that don’t become redundant or rely on cliché’s.

And there are so many horror film cliché’s in the film music world, going all the way back to Universal in the 30s and 40s. How did you approach that, as far as doing something fresh for ALIEN?
I tried to make it a little more erotic and romantic, and, again, to work with blurring the line between the alien sounds and the score. That was another attempt to take you the other way, and be a little soothing at times.

You became involved with DANTE’S PEAK through the recommendation of James Newton Howard, who was unable to complete the score…
He was going to do the film and the schedule changed, and I ended up doing the score using his theme.

How did that work logistically as far as taking his theme and then fleshing it out into a full score? Where do you define what’s his and what’s yours in the score?
James and I are very good friends and you just try to serve the film and leave your personal stuff behind. Anything that serves the film is the right thing to do. James and I have a good relationship and we worked things out.

How did you approach taking this rather daunting mountain music and all the dissonance of the second half of that film and creating an appropriate musical balance for that?
I think that the schedule was a large part of the motivation, because the schedule in itself was so rushed that it created a freneticism and a sense of close to panic, which I think luckily was very much transmitted through the music! It was a lot of music to write in a very short period of time! All the energy around that film really got into it and really helped the tension in the score.

As you look at current film scores and you look at new films, what’s your view of the current state of the art of film music?
I think it’s seriously hampered by temp tracking. I don’t think we’re in a great heyday of film scoring right now. But I don’t think that it has to do with the composers that are out there, I think it has to do with this structure of the creative process. By taking a few more chances we could return to those days of much more exploratory and musically aggressive, interesting film music.

Finally coming up on 4-5 years of scoring films, some of which have been high profile pictures, where do you see your career heading in film music?
I want to continue on this path of different types off films. I’m very excited about Mike Judge’s new film, OFFICE SPACE, which I’m doing next. This film is a little more mature than I think people are used to seeing in his work, and I think it’s going to allow me to write something which is, first of all, non-orchestral, which I’m actually very excited about. It’s sort of strange ensemble stuff. I’m excited about projects like that.
I think the thing I Iook forward to most in my career is to have sustained relationships with directors I really admire, and to be maybe part of a group of films that are regarded as good work. I think that would be a very satisfying thing.

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