An Interview with Klaus Badelt by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.83/2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
A series of very fortunate happenstances led Klaus Badelt from his native Germany to Hollywood as a burgeoning member of Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures family of film composers. Without a formal musical education but with an ear eager to absorb various kinds of music, Badelt had scored some TV and feature films in Germany since 1990 but showed up in Hollywood in 1997 a virtual unknown. He arrived on vacation, but wound up moving in, with a position secured in Zimmer’s outfit, with whom he apprenticed for several years. He orchestrated and eventually provided “additional music” to such Zimmer scores as THE PRINCE OF EGYPT, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II, HANNIBAL, and GLADIATOR (notably, the closing sequence). With THE PLEDGE and INVINCIBLE (both 2001; the latter not released in the US until this September), Badelt received co-composing credit with Zimmer, and with THE TIME MACHINE earlier this year Badelt flexed his own musical muscles as solo composer, with a winning effort full of rich melody, compelling orchestration, and broad thematic unity. With K-12: THE WIDOWMAKER, a massive and heavily intoned dramatic score, Badelt clearly demonstrates that he’s left his apprenticeship days behind for good.
What kind of a training environment did you find when you began at Media Ventures?
The first is that you learn quite a lot. You don’t learn how to write music, though, because every composer here is so different, but what you learn about that is just how to get over a blank page of white paper, and it’s good to see that even Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell have that fear in common! They all have to get over that.
What’s especially great is that you learn how to deal with the pressures of the business and you learn how to talk to the filmmakers, how to get them to tell you what they actually want. How to sit in meetings with Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott and listen to how these guys are talking, how they are feeling, and what filmmaking is really about.
You find out there’s a whole other political and collaborative realm to it besides just writing the music…
That’s totally right. It’s good to see how it all works. It wasn’t like I didn’t do any films in Germany, but when I came here; nobody was interested in that because nobody knows what I did there. However, they’re open here for good work and they give you a chance, if you’re nice and if you have the right attitude. It’s such a competitive and high-pressure job! You’ve got to think of a movie as a hundred million dollar enterprise – it’s a company and they have investors, and those investors want their money back with the lowest risk. You, as a new composer, are a high risk, so they don’t want you, no matter how good you are. For them, it doesn’t count. And Hans or Harry and these guys have to deal with that kind of pressure – if you’re one day late, that could cost the company a lot of money, and they want to make sure that doesn’t happen. That’s another important point because at Media Ventures, with Hans and Harry and John in the background, a filmmaker comes to me and feels comfortable, even though I am new, because they walk through the hallway and see all the movies being scored there. I’m using an established infrastructure, and then I go from there and build on my own. But I’m not starting from scratch, and the filmmakers realize that.
You’re not coming onto a film as an anonymous composer; you have the reputation and the validity of Media Ventures behind you.
Right. You have this trust from filmmakers, because they know they can call somebody there if something happens. Thank God so far they haven’t had to do that with me! It’s easier than working out of your living room, and I know there are a lot of really good composers out there who are just having trouble getting a break, because you can only work on a big movie if you already did a big movie.
At the same time, with Media Ventures, Hans seems to allow composers to get recognition on their own and establish their own place in the industry.
Yes. It’s not a corporation. It’s more like a group of crazy creative people who, if they’re desperate and run out of ideas can dash into another room and get help! I remember I was on GLADIATOR and felt pretty desperate about what to do at a certain point. I ran into Harry Gregson-Williams’ office where he was doing CHICKEN RUN, a completely different film, of course. It’s not like I brought back chickens into the GLADIATOR score, but I got some input from him, and I felt like I could breathe a little bit when I went back to working on GLADIATOR. This is what Media Ventures is all about. You basically rent an office, but you’re a free composer there.
What do you recall about some of your experiences with Hans on films like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II, HANNIBAL, and PEARL HARBOR? What were you assigned to do?
PRINCE OF EGYPT was the first thing I did with Hans, when I was merely orchestrating for him. I did some of hat on THIN RED LINE, too. He gave me, say, the piano track, and I would synth-orchestrate it at the computer. Eventually he would trust me with more. Starting with MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II and since, he’s given me complete scenes to compose. There’s so much music in these movies these days and then they change the movies so much at the very last minute, so you always need help. I’m pretty convinced that every composer in this town has help, it’s just with Hans…
… You get credit for it!
Right. He doesn’t hide me. I worked directly with Tom Cruise and with John Woo on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II. They were in my office all the time while I was writing these scenes. The more I did that fit the work, the more I worked on his movies.
THE PLEDGE was the first one that you actually got co-composer credit for… What was that experience like for you?
That was an adventure! We had ten days to write, record, and mix the whole score. I assembled a bunch of classical musicians I knew, and we were mostly jamming. We’d discuss every cue up front and then we just went in and improvised. Sean Penn (the director) would come by at night, bring some wine, listen to things, and then make some comments, and we would move on. It was the weirdest ten days of my life!
On that score, you’ve become more of a co-collaborator than an assistant. How did that work between you and Hans?
The more Hans opened up for me, the more I got to write tunes. That’s actually the key. For me it’s about the theme. I’m not a very good underscore composer, just writing atmosphere – I’ve always got to have themes in there. I’m a songwriter, I just happen to make movie music. And on THE PLEDGE, Hans just said, “I don’t have time – you write the theme!” So I had a couple of days to come up with a bunch of themes for the movie, and it ended up with Hans Zimmer playing Klaus Badelt’s themes for the first time, instead of the other way around!
And then you worked on INVINCIBLE with Werner Herzog. What kind of experience was that?
I think I can say, if Hans doesn’t mind, that I basically did the entire score on that one, because he didn’t have time. That is one of the best movies I’ve worked on. If you see a movie in its unfinished version and you cry, that means that it is really deep. Werner, for me anyway, was a legend since my childhood, and everybody warned me that “he’s a slave driver, look what he did to Klaus Kinski!” and all that, but I had the best experience with him. He is such a sophisticated man, and he lets you work and create and he doesn’t interfere in details. He was very respectful; for example, asking me a couple of times, “can I move this music two seconds later?” He was great.
That score is so classical and symphonic and draws on some of these incredible traditions of music. How did you either learn or get away with doing such a finely crafted score without having had years of classical training?
Actually, I think you can do everything by just listening. I think listening is studying. You can’t hear how all the old masters are doing it if you don’t listen to Wagner or to Mahler (who is one of my absolute favorites – I think every good score in Hollywood is based on a Mahler symphony!) But if you remember how these old schools worked, before there was a conservatory, there was always a Master and there was always a student, and the student learned a few years with the Master, and then went on to study with another Master. And that’s basically what I’m doing, and what I was doing in Germany too. You just open your ears, and listen to what the composers are doing.
Just being a sponge to what you’re listening to.
Exactly right! With INVINCIBLE, I was going through that emotional ride, just sitting there, completely shut off from the world for three weeks, and that was probably the most intense way of working I’ve ever done. I had such a high pressure on myself; I felt I wasn’t ready for this yet. I thought “this doesn’t need a score, this needs real music! I can’t write this yet! I need another 20 years!”
I loved your score to TIME MACHINE, which was so richly melodic. How did you determine the framework of that score?
This movie was a challenge because it’s a genre movie. It happens in the future but it’s a very tribal, primitive future, so you have everything going on at the same time. It’s not somewhere out in Russia, or in Africa or South America – it’s in New York, far in the future, so you have all these very orthodox things all at the same time. I wanted to create something that sounds kind of familiar but has elements that are new. For the choir piece heard in the Eloi village, I recorded a single voice 156 times. Then I edited a full opera choir to it, so it sounds very out of perspective, familiar but with something wrong! I tried many times in the movie to play against it and try to come up with something new while keeping the old, traditional elements in.
And you gave each element its own musical identity – the first halt, which is mostly the past, is very melodic, and then it becomes more progressive as he goes into the future. You have very distinct musical identities for the Morlock and the Eloi as they interrelate with one another.
I wanted to make sure you understood the ride our main character’s taking, and the time where he’s coming from, which is the early 19th Century. I wanted it to have a 19th Century flavor, of course, and then when he goes more and more into the future, I wanted to explore new worlds. I actually put the CD together in chronological order, too, with the movie, so you’re not switching behind different vibes but you’re being taken on the journey. It doesn’t always work out that you can put a CD together in the order the music appears in the movie, but it worked out this time, and I liked that.
K-19 is a massive, incredible score, just an amazing work. How did you get involved in the film?
It was because of TIME MACHINE. I had never written for this kind of thing before, but they trusted me, and I think between INVINCIBLE and TIME MACHINE they felt I could write conventional tunes, which is what you need for a movie like this, but also that the music can be more complex. This movie was very different in how I did it. I wrote the ‘Suite for Orchestra and Chorus in G Minor’ first, totally independent of the movie. I watched it a couple of times first. I usually write themes up front as I watch the picture, but this time I really finished a complete suite because I thought that this movie stands on its own in many ways. The retail CD is actually better than the bunch-of-cues CD that’s been floating around out there, because it represents how I did it.
The movie is an incredible story with very deep characters. It’s a very deep drama, and it didn’t need help. What it needed was support from something very strong that does its own thing and doesn’t try to interfere with the drama – something that just colors the air, fills in for the audience where these characters come from and where their roots are. We’re dealing with a bunch of Russian characters – there’s not a single American character in this movie (but then they’re all played by Americans!), and you want to start feeling for them as quickly as possible. We don’t go back into the 200-year Russian history to show how they grew up, how they were educated, what a big part of their lives the military is, and the Russian history of one war after another. But I tried to put all this into the music, so you suddenly have a background. I didn’t try to be authentic Russian, because, well, I’m just not! I didn’t even try to write Russian tunes, but I used Russian instruments to give it a Russian flavor. Hey – I’m a German writing an American movie about a Russian story! What do you expect?!
The score was performed by the Kirov Orchestra.
The Kirov Orchestra is a legend in the classical world. So far they have not had much to do with the film music world, which is unfortunate. Their conductor, Valery Gergiev, whom I knew, was the principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan, and he’s just everywhere on this planet, touring with his orchestra.
How did they come aboard?
They asked! That was actually before I was involved. They heard about the story – everyone in Russia knows that story. It happened in the early 1960s, but was kept quiet. Everyone involved had to swear that they wouldn’t tell the story. They couldn’t even mourn the people they lost. It finally came out a few years ago with the whole Glasnost movement, and suddenly they were allowed to tell the story. And this orchestra came to the filmmakers and asked, “Please, can we be part of this?” Of course they gave their color to the movie. We didn’t record to picture. We just gave them the score and let them play, and Valery Gergiev did his interpretation. I didn’t want to interfere even though some of it was completely different to what I thought it would be. We recorded some of it in St. Petersburg in Russia, in the Marinsky Theater, which is a traditional, historic place where Tchaikovsky had his premiere. There’s a bell in the score, and that is the original bell used by Tchaikovsky in the 1812 Overture. The history of that place was all around you! It gives it a certain color that you can’t achieve with Western musicians. No matter if it’s London or Los Angeles – we have the best musicians, of course, but they just have a different musical color there.
It’s almost as if they made that Russian connection that you didn’t try to do because of their own backgrounds.
Exactly. And they made my bloody German tunes sound – well, not Russian, but they gave it a new color that fit the movie. After all, it’s a Western vision of the Russian empire at the time, even though it’s as true as possible to the story. We’re from the Western world and we’re watching this movie and having our vision of it based on our background and experiences. It’s always how an audience sees a movie like this, even though the filmmakers try to be true to the history. That’s what happens to the music, too. The filmmakers actually tried, for example, to put Prokofiev and Mussorgsky to it, just to see if it worked, and it just didn’t work. You cannot use that fantastic music in a movie like this, because it doesn’t stick.
People have their own associations with those classical composers, and hearing something they are familiar with in a movie tends to take them out of the movie and start thinking about the music, which is contradictory to what film music is supposed to be doing in the first place! It’s the same criticism some people have given to the classical music used in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.
And now people actually think that music is from the movie! That can be both bad and good – I think it’s part of our duty as film composers to help educate people. If a movie like that works so that they suddenly start liking Strauss without knowing it, that’s fine with me!
What was the biggest challenge for you on K-19?
There were many challenges! It’s a character study, where two characters, one played by Harrison Ford, one by Liam Neeson, are on opposite ends, and they eventually merge. Once I realized that, the challenge was that I could not write a theme for characters or a theme for moods. It wasn’t “This is Captain Vostrikov’s Theme” or “This is Captain Polenin’s Theme”, because their characters shift as they develop. Some of the themes relate to each other, so you can go from one to the other and back again. To get that family of tunes and that color – getting my ducks in a row that way – that was my biggest challenge. Another challenge was not to write a “score”. I was working very hard not to hit a cut or a visual moment, but to do the opposite, which is really hard to do! In film music, you hit something all the time, a bit of action or a movement or an emotional moment, and this movie wasn’t about that. The challenge was to be subtle but strong.
What was your schedule on this picture?
Writing the score took two and a half weeks, but I had a couple of weeks before that to write the themes. That’s where the “Suite” came from. I actually wanted to write a monothematic score on this one – there’s one idea which is central to this movie, and I thought it deserved a single theme to emphasize that, but I didn’t want to make it boring, so I gave it a little bit more!
How closely did you work with director Kathryn Bigelow on coming up with your musical approach?
She was very involved in the process. I talked to her so many times, while I was writing it, and she listened a lot. We had intense discussions about the characters, and about what the movie was actually about. I also worked closely with Walter Murch, the editor – he’s another legend, the man who did sound design for APOCALYPSE NOW and THE ENGLISH PATIENT and all these movies in between. He said little but he had so much to say, and you really have to shut up sometimes and just listen and think about what he just said. He was a big help, too, just hearing his vision of the movie. I was sitting in the cutting room many times, just being with them and discussing the editing, and then going back with inspiration to write more.
This is such a massive score and you had such little time to write it, and then you had to, go over to Russia to get it recorded. Did you have help on this score?
Not in writing – I actually wrote the whole movie – but I had help from orchestrators. Some pieces I wrote on the piano and then explained to them what the instruments should really be. The instrumentation is sparse most of the time, so I had the vision in my head of how it should sound, and then I explained it to the orchestrators. Robet Elhai and Blake Neely were two of them, and they come from a background where they had nothing to do with computers, no synthesizers, no samplers. They’re pencil-and-paper guys, and that’s exactly why I wanted them in. I didn’t want the score to be limited by my usual way of writing; I wanted to do something new. When I’m writing, I usually orchestrate it with samplers, and then I use those samples to write, so when the director comes in I can play the music roughly how it will sound with the orchestra. It’s a very thematic score, and it was fairly easy to write on the piano or just sketch it out and be precise about the instruments.
There is one cue on the CD attributed to composer Richard Einhorn…
That’s a piece that was in the movie before I even worked on it. Richard Einhorn had written it and Walter edited and rearranged and put in the temp track. It was a beautiful piece, and when I heard it, I said “Walter, I’m not going to touch this. It’s too beautiful. I’m not going to even try to write anything for that, because it fit perfectly just like it was written to the picture.”
The first impression I got when hearing your score was its weight – which I suppose ties in with the weight of the submarine and the weight of the depths of the sea and the weight of the drama of the story.
You know, now that you say that, maybe it’s right. For me at the time, though, it wasn’t so much about the submarine – for example, the submarine doesn’t have a theme. Think about that: a submarine movie with no theme for the submarine! How disappointed the producers must feel! But it was more the importance of what happened there. I was so impressed by the story and by what human beings are capable of doing when they are faced with something really intense and really deep. That’s where the weight comes from.
I guess you can say the story and then the music that is supporting it is transcending the setting, transcending the submarine, and emphasizing a very intensive human drama that’s at the heart of the film.
Very right. It’s not necessarily a submarine movie, anyway. It’s not about the submarine. It could have happened anywhere. And it’s not only about what these people faced personally. The film shows how these people actually saved all of our lives. They made a huge sacrifice for the rest of us.
I have to ask briefly about another film on your filmography called TEKNOLUST.
That was an experiment for me. It was before TIME MACHINE, and it was with this video artist director, Lynn Hershman-Leeson, who is just fantastic. It premiered in Sundance but I don’t think it’s come out yet. She creates such a weird, very progressive world in her movies, and that was so much fun to do. It was a totally non-orchestral score, just electronic. Very techno.
What were you keying into primarily?
It’s a story about DNA manipulation and the human aspect of it. In the end, everybody falls in love. They asked me to do it because of what I did on the final scene of GLADIATOR. It was this weird feeling for progressive technology, but seen from a very human perspective.
What do you have coming up now for the future? I know you’ve got a film called THE RECRUIT.
That’s a spy thriller with AI Pacino and Colin Farrell. It’s going to be out in January and I have to be done in three weeks!
You’ve been working in Hollywood for five years, and just recently your career has really taken off. Where would you like to see yourself in another five years?
If I come out of a movie liking at least one note that I did, then I’m happy! It’s so hard to please yourself, sometimes, and until I can really look into the mirror and say “I wrote something I think I can live with,” if I’m going to be here in five years, then fine, I’m happy.