An Interview with Marco Beltrami featuring Director Guillermo Del Torro by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.81/2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl
It was Wednesday October the 17th when I got the call from Marco to come to his studio in Pacific Palisades, California, for a photo session with director Guillermo Del Taro and Beltrami going over the latest mocked-up scenes for the upcoming New Line film BLADE II. During the photo shoot I had the pleasure of encountering a great composer-director relationship, two creative minds that not only excel in filmmaking, but are obviously great friends as well.
After the shoot was over, the reviewing session began. In the room were Marco, Buck Sanders (Electronics Music Designer), Guillermo, and Brian Richards (Music Editor). As the film rolled on Marco’s impressive Fuji plasma video monitor, the sound, even though it was synthesized, was stunning. Marco showed Guillermo a number of action scenes with mocked up score playing underneath. One was a terrific chase scene with Wesley Snipes, as Blade, pursuing a group of renegade vampires. Snipes fires a silver bullet at one of them – it’s filmed in such a way that it shows the bullet actually moving though the air towards the running vampire. The bullet strikes the vampire and then Snipes shoots four more times until the creature disappears into thin air. Then Blade jumps on his motorcycle in a heated pursuit chasing the other vampires running from him. This is where Guillermo starts discussing the cue with Marco, but his approval was apparent. After Guillermo saw that I was amazed at the action in this chase he said, “And that’s a quiet part.”
I really didn’t know what Guillermo meant until attending the scoring sessions for BLADE II at the Todd-AD Studios on the CBS lot in Studio City, California, on February the 4th. I arrived at the scoring stage about 11 a.m. on the first day of four days of scoring. One of the first cues that Beltrami scored was a little piece lasting seven minutes and thirty-nine seconds; cue 3M11, which is called ‘I.H.O. Paincakes’. After Marco was finished he came in the control room as Paul Broucek, Senior Vice President of Music at New Line, commented, “Isn’t that the longest cue you’ve ever recorded?” Marco replied, “I think so.” After Guillermo heard the 80-piece orchestra plug away, ferociously underscoring his extremely fast moving multiple-angle sequences, he discussed his needs with Marco. Beltrami instantly took to the podium and for nearly half an hour explained the parts of this cue in detail to the orchestra. When the second take began, it was perfect; it wasn’t an easy piece of music to perform, either, and this took a lot of dynamics as well as technical prowess on the part of each player. As the orchestra left for their break, a smiling Beltrami said to everyone, “That was fantastic!” Some of the segments in this cue are briefly reminiscent of MIMIC, controlled turmoil that’s beyond belief. It’s the attack of the Nosferatus, chaotic movie madness at its finest, as the vampires (Reapers) and their futuristic killers (The Bloodpack) clash in a graphically violent battle that leaves you in awe. Through the madness of BLADE II, I ask Marco what I.H.O. stood for in the title of the cue? He said with a chuckle, “It’s the International House of Pancakes but it’s Paincakes because this all takes place in the House of Pain.” Welcome to the new horror of the 21st Century.
Although BLADE II is a film that goes into horrific overdrive, there’s a tragic side to the story and some of the character relationships. After this day at the scoring session it became quite clear that this might be Beltrami’s finest symphonic film score to date.
Composer Marco Beltrami
Did your collaboration with Guillermo on MIMIC lead you to scoring BLADE II?
Since MIMIC, Guillermo took some time to develop some different ideas. The next film he did after MIMIC was THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, a Spanish film. He called me to score this, but I was working on DRACULA 2000 and the schedules conflicted. He mentioned that he would be going into BLADE II next. He fought for me to do this movie. If Guillermo hadn’t stood up for me to do this film, I can’t guarantee that I would have been doing it.
It’ been a few years since you worked with Guillermo. How was he different when working with you on this film?
He was much more at ease in this. I really got to know his sense of humor a lot better in this movie. On MIMIC he wasn’t able to come to the scoring sessions that much, because there were a lot of other things he was dealing with working in Toronto, Canada, while I was in California. Because we recorded BLADE II in Los Angeles and Guillermo was here, he came over to my studio five or six times to hear my score, so our location helped us have a much closer relationship.
Before you saw the film did you realize how sophisticated the horror was and that it could even be considered to be a science fiction film?
No, I really didn’t consider it. Since I saw the first BLADE, I thought it might be similar, but I was sceptical that it would be too similar because Guillermo was directing it. I know how individual he is, so I didn’t think it would be a copy, but I wasn’t sure how creatively different it would be until I saw it. It was a great surprise for me when I viewed it and then realized this is going to be a really fun movie. There are some things in this film that suggest things from MIMIC. Guillermo definitely has his trademarks and his little signatures. He loves to reflect this otherworldly feeling, this creepiness. This is great because, musically, I’m always investigating different textural things.
What was your real challenge when scoring BLADE II?
The biggest challenge was this element of Blade, the heroic side to his character, which needed cool, heroic type music. This was created through a collaboration that I did with a remix DJ by the name of Danny Saber. That was the toughest thing because I’ve never worked in this capacity before. I worked a little bit with Marilyn Manson on RESIDENT EVIL, but it was different in this movie because Danny was laying down drum and bass, and instruments like that, and I was filling it in on top with orchestral elements and unifying everything. It had to be something that worked for the character but would also fit in with the rest of the music from the movie. I think that was the toughest thing for me because it was something I’ve never done before.
How important was your first impression of this film?
The film was temped with a considerable amount of my music from other movies, but overall my ideas first started as timbral ideas. After we saw the movie, Buck Sanders created a lot of sounds that we could use for the film. It was out of these sounds that I developed my melodic ideas. Some of them I developed with Buck, some on my own. Rhythmical ideas, the idea for creating this Japanese element to the score, the Taiko ensemble was Guillermo’s idea. In terms of using the Shakuhachi and the other Japanese elements, it was evident from watching the film that there’s a side to Blade that’s like a Samurai. There’s this meditative state to him, there’s this whole way he carries himself, so I thought that using the musical elements of a monk singer, the Shakuhachi, and the Koto, became evident from watching the movie.
Were there any particular scenes that really inspired you?
One was this meditative scene where Wesley Snipes is sitting alone, waiting to see if his friend Whistler is going to be cured of his vampire disease or not. That, to me, suggested a lot of different textures and sounds and thematic material. There’s these people called ‘The Bloodpack’, they’re vampires, but hunting the ‘Reapers’. The way Guillermo filmed it, it’s so stylistic, they have such an identity to them that to me suggested this sound that Buck created, a low, pulsing, static type loop, which is really neat, and we used that for ‘The Bloodpack’. From this point all these sounds started to gel and we started to get a feeling for what would be the elements of the score. Also some of the fight scenes really got me going in terms of my approach.
How much of this score did you mock up?
All of it. You’ve got to mock your complete score up these days, and some stuff is hard to do. Like my 7-minute cue (‘I.H.O. Paincakes’), that was a big orchestral cue and I mocked it up with a string sound, a horn sound, a tympani sound, and a piano, I kept it really basic. The important thing in that cue was the intensity, the rhythmic ideas, that stuff I could show. I try to shy away from doing full orchestral mock-ups because it’s deceiving, that’s not what it’s going to sound like. The only thing that I completely mocked up to get feedback on was some of the electronic sounds because we are actually going to use those in the score, so I had to make sure that that was going in the right direction. In terms of mocking up the orchestra, to me, as long as they can hear what the melody is, harmonic ideas, the direction, and the intensity, there’s no reason to do full orchestral mockups.
Can you explain this score in parts or themes?
It’s really not that complex. We have a Blade and Whistler theme. I have a Blade and Nyssa theme (she’s the female protagonist in the movie). There’s the ‘Bloodpack’ theme, which is sort of timbral. Those are basically the major themes in the score.
How do you deal with a seven minute and thirty-nine second cue Iike ‘I.H.O. Paincakes’? It’s visually complex because so many things are going on at the same time.
This is the longest cue I’ve ever composed, not in terms of time, but in terms of measures. It’s a very fast action thing that has three hundred and forty bars, so in terms of measures it is the longest cue. In fact the Oracle program ran out after three hundred and thirty two bars (we did it all in one take), so on the ending bars we had to go without the click track. There are different story lines all happening at the same time on this cue. This is the type of thing where the score is really important and it can actually help the viewer connect all these things together. The biggest thing in a scene like this, because it’s very intense right up front, is not to burn yourself out in the beginning. The cue has to continue it through, so how do you keep that intensity up through all these different scenarios and not lose it? The things to acknowledge musically were the scene changes and the story moments. I was trying to provide the emotional support for the film. It can be tricky, but you’re really internalizing the scene to figure out what it needs.
When you were on the scoring stage with Guillermo, I noticed that after you played him your first take of ‘I.H. O. Paincackes’, he went through the cue with you. What was he saying and how easy was it to take his ideas and change the cue to suit his vision?
I really didn’t change anything in the cue. After the first take, the musicians had just looked at this mammoth seven-minute cue, played through it, and it hadn’t come together or jelled yet. As we were going though the comments I was acknowledging it, but for the most part it was just performance things that I could correct. I felt that once the orchestra knew the parts well, it would all jell and the things would be accented in the right places, the way that Guillermo had wanted. It definitely came off that way in the second take. The orchestra that Sandy DeCrescent got for me are the best musicians in Los Angeles. One of the things they are used to doing is balancing and keeping everything together, The brass and percussion, even when it says fortissimo, keep it to a certain level to not override the strings and not play completely bombastically, That’s exactly what this cue needed, it needed to be bombastic, it needed to be over the top, and it needed to have that extra something. On the first take they played a little reserved, so instead of just telling them to play louder, I told the brass to not play like sissies (laughter). So this was a challenge, it was like, “We’re going to show this guy how loud we can play.” That’s exactly what the cue needed, so on the second take it really came alive. It was like all of a sudden the lights were turned on. That’s what it needed because that kind of cue has to be really aggressive. They were blaring away, but then the scene got more intense, so then I had to put all the trumpets and piccolo trumpets playing over the top of this, it was great!
On the End Credits, you had the orchestra play this wild, rhythmic composition that’s reminiscent of Stravinsky. Did you originally intend this to be used earlier in the film?
I originally wrote this for a scene where The Bloodpack are down in the sewers looking for The Reapers. It’s this cue called ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. It was written for an earlier cut of the film, which was later edited to be shorter than the cue. It still exists in the movie as an edited version, but I really liked this piece and didn’t want to change it, so I figured that I’d use the original version of it, the complete cue, as an End Credit piece even though the End Credits will probably be all songs. I always knew that this cue was rhythmically challenging, but I wasn’t afraid with the fantastic Los Angeles players, In fact, I think they enjoyed playing this one.
How much of this score did you compose by putting pencil to score sheet?
Actually I did sketch out all the themes with pencil to paper, everything that was pertinent to the score, but I wrote all the cues, since they relied heavily on electronics, at the computer. It’s a departure for me because my last score, which was for director Ole Bornedal, I AM DINA, I wrote that pretty much away from the computer because it was a different kind of score. For BLADE II, I had all my ideas laid out on paper, but I wrote the individual cues right into the computer, because everything is so specific for moments in each scene, and so specific to the sounds I was using that were non-orchestral with my samplers.
Some composers orchestrate their own scores, but on this score you used six orchestrators. Why did you do this? Don’t you feel that orchestrating the score is part of your sound?
I would orchestrate everything I could if I had the time, but you have to balance it. I also don’t like to have them changing the picture up to the very end, I like to orchestrate to something that’s pretty much final, that’s not going to be completely cut up, so it’s a trade off. When you have nine days to orchestrate ninety minutes of music and you’re still making changes and I’m still composing for one of my last sessions coming up, it’s absolutely physically impossible. In this film I orchestrated the longest cue that’s ever been in any of my scores and this took me four days to orchestrate. That’s seven minutes out of ninety, so it’s just physically impossible to orchestrate all the music. The people I have working on this are people that I’ve worked with before, they know my music, they know my style, so I’m comfortable using the orchestrators that I do. Your style deals with both writing and orchestrating the score. Bad orchestration can ruin a fine cue, while fantastic orchestration can make a crappy cue great, so it’s a combination of writing and orchestration. The ideas are there; when I give them the cue to do it’s really not supplying their own ideas, except just orchestrational choices.
What do you think was the most critical part of the scoring process that made your score succeed for this film?
The pay check (laughter). I think it’s the actual film scoring sessions. Until you’re actually recording the score it’s not concrete. Music on paper is nothing. Music is oral until you hear it. It doesn’t mean anything; even a mock-up doesn’t really mean that much. So yes, the critical part is definitely the scoring part.
Do you feel this might be your best score symphonically to date?
I definitely feel this score is a contender. I also felt this on the last score I did, I AM DINA. It’s hard to say, you get so close to them that it takes you awhile to step back and listen to what you did and figure it out. That’s not my concern really, it’s always serving the picture, but BLADE II could be.
What did you learn from working with Guillermo?
The main thing is to really enjoy what you’re doing. If you don’t enjoy it and if you’re taking your work too seriously, then it falls flat. Guillermo really enjoys what he does. Being around him and his exuberance for the movie, the music, and the process, through osmosis you absorb that and you give that energy back into the project.
Final note from the composer: I’d like to thank Danny Saber and Buck Sanders, both of whom did additional music for this film, and Paul Broucek (Senior Vice President of Music at New Line) for bringing this whole thing together.
Director Guillermo Del Torro
Director Guillermo Del Torro has been making films since 1992. He’s definitely a man of many creative faces when it comes to making motion pictures and television. Since the late ‘80s he’s been a special makeup effects artist, a producer, a writer and a director; he has taught and headed film workshops since the age of 15 and has had articles and books published on cinema. His first major motion picture, CRONOS, starred Ron Perlman, who’s also in his new BLADE II extravaganza; CRONOS was a masterpiece of art house cinema that depicts a subtle world of vampirism. In 1997 he directed and co-wrote MIMIC. Then, in THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, Del Torro explores the spiritual horror of a child’s death in an orphanage set during the Spanish Civil War, and now he comes to the big screen with his version of the Marvel Comic book character Blade in BLADE II. Del Torro doesn’t seem like any of his films at all, he’s a fun loving guy with a great sense of humor, He has a sense of deep personal involvement with anyone who collaborates with him, He’s the last guy you’d think who would make movies like this, taking his audience to the brink of total terror and back.
How did you get involved in directing BLADE II?
It came to me through the Writer / Executive Producer David Goyer and Producer Peter Frankfurt. They had actually originally considered me to direct the first BLADE film. I was busy with another project at the time, I liked the first movie enough to be involved in the sequel, but I also felt there were enough things left that were untried for the character and the vampiric universe, so I felt it was worthy to get involved in a sequel.
What have you done with the concept of BLADE to make it different this time around?
The hues and tones of the film, visually and aurally, even the type of story, are very different. The first one was much more urban and techno, while this one is far more gothic and industrial decay. At the same time we went for a universe that is much more comic book than the first one, even the color palette was much more comic book. The first film’s color palette was very neon, almost video clip oriented. On this one the palette is very rich, extremely vibrant, but at the same time it’s full of crazy colors that have more to do with comic books than anything. It’s also a much darker movie visually, much more darkness and chiaroscuro in this movie than in the first one, The idea was to enhance the franchise with a sequel and make the avengers, even the vampires, bigger and more dangerous than in the first one.
I understand you wanted Marco to score THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE as well; do you want to develop a creative relationship with Marco scoring al/ your films through the years?
We already have developed a great relationship. What I would love to do is to use him again and again for as many times as I can. He’s not always available when I call, but that’s good for him because he’s busy. I would love to work with Marco again and again because he’s one of the most talented young musicians working in the field right now. I like working with the same people if I can. Marco and I have enough of a shorthand, but more important than that, I trust him completely as much as a director trusts anyone (laughter).
During what process of the filmmaking do you start thinking about the music for your film?
Right from the start. When I pitched Marco the idea for the music here, right from the start I wanted to utilize a Koto, a Japanese ensemble, together with techno elements and a full orchestra. That’s exactly the score, this is one of those rare changes in which what I pitched and what I dreamt from the start, became one hundred per cent true,
What did you temp BLADE II with and how did you want Marco to handle it?
With the temping process, I get involved with my music editor and tell him what is working and what is not. I originally give him a list of ten, fifteen, or twenty soundtracks, which represent the spirit of the movie. Essentially we temped a lot of this movie with Marco’s music – DRACULA 2000, THE CROW: SALVATION, MIMIC, and SCREAM, I tried to temp my movie with Marco as much as I could, so I could approximate his sensibility and the music wouldn’t be that big of a change from the temp to the score in terms of quality and voice. The temp is a good basis to start a discussion; it’s a good common ground. I don’t think the temp score is ever one hundred per cent successful. It’s just that you grow accustomed to it, you get used to it. I quite frankly don’t I get comfortable with it through the weeks, but I always await with bated breath the day I hear the first piece of score. I don’t fall in love with my temp score, but there are rare cases where I do in a cue or two, like a cue from MIMIC and a cue from BLADE II where I told Marco, “You’ve got to ape yourself. I want exactly the same feeling, almost the exact same tune,” but it’s rare when this happens.
What part of the scoring process is the critical pan that made this score work for your film?
Without any doubt, it would be the fine-tuning of the spotting session. When you already have a model of what the score will sound like with the synthesizer, the mock up, it’s fine tuning that, when you can judge a piece of music and have a discussion of some of the musical figures, whether they are appropriate or inappropriate. You can trust the composer’s orchestration and on the scoring stage discuss whether it’s dead-on or not, but the musical figures are very important when you define that in the mock-up.
Other than fine-tuning that, the second most important thing for me is the scoring sessions. While scoring you easily know if things need to be played with more forte or more piano, After working for hours in a session, the musicians tend to lose energy or they have too much energy in the beginning. Emotionally the way they play their instruments makes an enormous difference on the cue, Being there as a second set of ears and being able to talk to Marco, we coincide about ninety five per cent, it’s another critical phase of making the score.
What does Marco offer your film that is special or unique?
Marco brings a lot of emotion to the score. On top of that he’s an incredibly gifted musician, so he also brings to my film a lot of class, His music feels great and old fashioned, it’s movie music that is not pretentious, but extremely intelligent.
My deepest appreciation and thanks goes out to the people that made this article possible: Anita Greenspan (Marco’s Agent), Paul Broucek (Senior Vice President of Music New Line), Keith Kentop (Assistant to Paul Broucek), Travis Tapa (Photo Department New Line), Chris Barber (Assistant to Director Guillermo Del Torro), Kirsten Smith (Manager Todd-AO Scoring Stage-CBS), and especially to director Guillermo Del Torro and composer Marco Beltrami.
Composer / Conductor: Marco Beltrami
Where: Todd-AO Scoring Stage at CBS Studios, Studio City, California
When: February 4th, 5th, 9th, and 11th
Orchestrators: Marco Beltrami, Pete Anthony, Bill Boston, Ceiri Torjussen, Carlos Rodriguez, Blake Neely, and Bruce Fowler
Orchestra: A – 80 pieces, B- 50 pieces (plus a Taiko drum ensemble – 6 players, one Shakahachi player, and one Koto player)
Engineer: John Kurlander
Piano Players: Ralph Grierson and Brian Pezzone
Electronic Music Design: Buck Sanders
Vocalist (throat singer): Kerry Katz
Music Preparation: Julian Bratolyubov MUSIC EDITOR: Brian Richards
Composing Time: Approximately four weeks LENGTH OF SCORE: 90 minutes
Contractor: Sandy DeCrescent