An Interview with Mark Isham by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.18/No.71/1999
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
How did you get the assignment to score OCTOBER SKY? Have you worked with director Joe Johnston before?
I have, actually, on a theatrical commercial for an electric car. ILM did some really cool special effects. I won a CLEO and several other people won CLEOs for that. So we had met on that. We never actually worked face to face, but he became aware of me and became aware of him. Obviously, I knew JUMANJI. Then he had this film, and he temped it with all my stuff, and it worked really well, and there you go.
The film seems to be working on two levels, on one level you’ve got the vision of the boy and what he wants to do and become, and then at the same time you have this very intimate story with him and his father. What stage was the film at when you first came into the project, and what were your initial impressions?
I loved it; it was in very good shape. The temp score was really good, which I usually find intimidating, I actually prefer a bad temp score! You can learn more from that! And it was my own music, which made it more difficult, because if it’s working, and it’s yours, you’ve already done it. How do you do that again? So my trick was to just get Joe to tell me what he hated about the temp score. “Wouldn’t you rather have a flute in there?” “Well, no… but now that you mention it… it would be great if it did!” So we just began to tear it to shreds. And the next thing you know, I found some opinions that I could work off of. I think the main thing I did was try to make it more emotional than the temp. The temp was beautiful and it fit, but it wasn’t always deliberately emotional as I felt it could. I took a sort of traditional approach, I wrote about three or four themes, and messed around with them, found the ones that fit in the right places. There was the ‘Wonder of Sputnik’ theme, and there was obviously a father-son theme, a two-part theme, actually – one for the relationship in turmoil, and then when they come together, but you only hear that one at the end. I remember thinking it would be good if we could use it somewhere else too, but we never could find a place. It just came out of the triumph of their relationship.
Then there’s also the scientific triumph, and there was a unique piece for that. But the father and son theme was probably more related to the ‘Wonder of Sputnik’. They would go back and forth, they were the up and down part of his life then.
How would you describe the individual themes, musically?
I tend to follow my method that works for me. I probably did it best, maybe until this film, and where I learned the most about this approach, in A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT. That film, to me, had a Celtic/Scottish vibe to it, not blatantly, but there was something about the poetic simplicity of Celtic folk songs I felt would be really right. So I just sat down and wrote nine of them for that film and then played music editor for a while.
I sort of did a similar thing here, although it wasn’t sort of ethnically as specific, there was definitely a feeling of Americana. I just wrote several pieces that would reflect that, covering differing emotional tones, his continuous disappointment of the relationship with his father, anger, then also the glory of his quest. I just tried, without getting too specific, to get several themes to reflect on an item. Then my process usually involved fleshing those out to some degree and then playing music editor, cutting and pasting and seeing what sticks, what seems to work best.
Now you started out in your career doing a lot of synth scores, including one of my favorites from years ago, NEVER CRY WOLF. Since then you’ve begun to do more orchestral scoring.
How has that evolved, and what’s your current technique?
It evolved because, at the time, eight or ten years ago, all the films that I wanted to do weren’t considering synth scores as options. So my agent and I agreed that it was time to change my image! So we got a couple of lower budget films that required orchestra and I sort of honed my chops until people thought of me as being able to do both. It was a conscious effort on my part. Now, of course, it’s interesting – I find that more of the interesting films want electronics!
The pendulum keeps on swinging!
Exactly, it’s swung full circle.
How closely did you work with Joe Johnston on coming up with the music that he wanted for his film?
Very closely. That, to me, should be the standard operating procedure. When directors are shy about it, I’ve even pushed them. I like to be in contact with them. I hate that feeling when they come in late in the game saying, “well, I don’t know why, but this is just not working…”
That’s the worst thing in the universe. I’d rather have them come a week too early and say “ah, that’s shit.” “Okay – but why?” and then the next week I’ll be much closer to what they want. And then the back part of the process can be much more fun – being the hellish rewrites! Or being fired. So I learned early on that really your saving relationship, your crucial communication line, if you will, is with the director. So I encourage them to come any time they like, and spend as much time. That’s the glory of having modern technology, because you can listen and you can take the flutes out and you can add a contrabass kazoo, whatever.
How do you communicate with a director, such as Joe, who may or may not be musically versed? How do you have him get across what he’s really looking for in the music?
Just get him to talk. Usually some phrase or concept will communicate if you keep him talking. If you don’t get it, just query him. Joe’s pretty smart about music, he has some musical experience, and he’s a good communicator. The good directors are good communicators. They know it’s as much their responsibility to make sure I get it as it is my responsibility.
What was most challenging for you in OCTOBER SKY?
I think the initial start up. Just getting over the fact that it was my music in the temp, and Joe loved the temp. I loved the temp! It was just getting started in a slightly different direction.
Going back to the spotting sessions, how would you work together with Joe to determine where you wanted music and where you didn’t?
Most of the time I viewed the film with the temp, although certain directors prefer not to. I’ve found over the years it depends on their relationship to the temp, or how they’ve had success in the past. I remember working with Gillian Armstrong, she refused to play the temp, and it was only after literally five or six weeks of working on it, this one cue having been written like seven times, I asked, “did you like the temp?” She said “yes.” “Okay, play it for me.” And it immediately became clear what elements we had not communicated about.
With Joe, we didn’t have anything nearly as dramatic happen. We started with the temp track, and because I’d seen the film with it and they kept talking about how good it was, I said, “well, allright, well let’s just get the bad news over with and dive in!” And I think what I realized, during the spotting session, is I needed him to critique the temp – “would you like it to start on that cut, or would you like it to wait?” Just asking him to talk about it. Because at the spotting session, there’s a team of people – the editor, and people who’ve been on the picture as much as a year, and I’m seeing it there for the second time. So nine times out of ten, they’re going to have a lot more educated opinions about what works, and my opinion will be valuable as that Objective first-time guy, and we discuss it from that point of view. He’ll ask me, “look, we’ve had a problem in this area, we don’t know any more. What do you think.” My input, in terms of that, will be valuable. But in choosing different types of music, they will have had the opportunity to try five different things, while I’m just only guessing. So we go back and forth from different points of view.
Moving on from the spotting session – you’ve done that, you’ve got your notes and you’re ready to start composing the score, you’re looking at the film on video. What is it that first grabs you, and what gave you the concept for the style of music you wanted to use here?
I usually go to the scenes that I feel define the picture. In the case of OCTOBER SKY, the film is very up front in its structure. You have the father and son relationship, you have the son’s quest for escape from the town, but more importantly, you have his quest for knowledge and his quest for his dream. And so you have those themes that run through, and you know that you’re going to connect the dots – certain themes will be interconnected. On the other hand, there are going to be certain cues that stand alone, cues like the mine disaster. That’s not really going to show up anywhere else. It reprises itself very quickly not too long after when the mother throws the phone out onto the lawn, but that’s all one set piece of its own.
I forget what order I actually did it in, but I’ll sort of just draw out a quick map. The music editor gives me a list of cues, and I’ll go through them and put in the dots. Then, when I go to work on that theme, I’ll try it in those four places, and I’ll already have an idea of, “well, we know we’ll connect these four dots with this theme.” To me, what will make the theme win, and become the theme, is if it works and has the ability to grow over the course of the film. And then I’ll take a day or so and say, “okay, I’m gonna do the Mine Disaster,” and it’s a stand-alone, and I’ll just do it.
When you’re working, are you working on the keyboard at the synth and then later orchestrating it for the orchestra?
On a film like this, yes. I just mocked up a synthetic orchestra that had the instruments that I had chosen, and did it on a keyboard. That allowed Joe to come over and hear a pretty decent representation of what it was going to be, and then as things got signed off – I’ve worked with the same orchestrator for years…
Yes. Usually we have a production meeting, a team of production engineers, the music editor, Ken, and myself. I’ll play the synth demos and we’ll discuss how best to produce this particular score, what room we’re going to book, how many musicians, what format we’re going to mix it in, all those things. Everyone goes away and starts to do their bit.
What was most satisfying about scoring OCTOBER SKY?
I think it was just the film itself, just being a part of it. It’s getting harder and harder to find beautifully-made films that really work, that communicate those sorts of ideals, that it’s possible, over pretty staggering odds, to achieve your dream; it’s possible to overcome staggering odds in a relationship with anyone, family or not. These are two quintessential parts of life – in fact they can be summed up as perhaps the major games of life. They’re the things that you set out in a lifetime to do – establish treasured relationships and to follow your dream. This film talks about both and ways in which you can win at both. I can’t think of anything more valuable for art to do than express that well to society. It was just a great pleasure and an honor to be a part of doing it.
What’s the score you’re working on now?
I’m scoring an IMAX film, it’s called GALAPAGOS ISLAND.
Oh, I see. You’re composing a Concerto for Iguanas!
That’s it! An “Interlude of Torti!”
Would you describe the music you’re writing for this?
It’s sort of medium-sized orchestra, featuring some indigenous instruments. There’s no real Gallapoganian music today, but we’re borrowing from Ecuadorian music. I have a legit flute solo in the orchestra, offset by Andean flute, so I go back between the two.
Sounds like you’ll have some neat textures in there.
Yeah. There’s classical Spanish guitar and also Ecuadorian Charangos, which are like tiny ukuleles that are made out of turtle shells. There’s a bit of synth – there’s always a bit of strange, sampled things just to keep it eerie in places.
How would you contrast a documentary such as this with scoring a narrative film like OCTOBER SKY?
The demands are different, obviously. I think it stems mostly from the spotting. A film such as the IMAX film can be spotted almost in a much more, well, I was about to say “old fashioned way,” the way you might have spotted a film back in the ‘30s, where you started at the first frame and you ended at the last. That’s what I mean by that; I guess it was in the beginning of the ‘50s that you started to have large sections unscored. You’d know better than I – you’re the historian! But you know what I mean; the style has gradually evolved where you don’t always to use music, leaving us today which all sorts of spotting styles.
But on an IMAX film, because the camera moves so differently in IMAX – it can’t move quickly, you can’t get a lot of tremendous action on the camera, and you don’t have characters, obviously, doing anything distinctly dramatic – so it’s really the music’s job to bring the drama element to it. So you will cut to a shot of an iguana, and I will just hit it with everything I’ve got, which just wouldn’t do in a feature film, unless you wanted me to be over-the-top. But in this environment, it works fantastically. It’s the right thing to do, because that iguana is 4 stories tall – and it’s 3D IMAX! When it sticks out its tongue, it almost hits you in the nose! It’s fun from that regard, because the palette is different, and you know with the exception of some of the surf scenes where the waves are going to be loud, that I am the featured sonic element. I have no dialog to fight, although there is narration describing what you’re seeing, but they’re not nearly the same.
Plus the whole idea of IMAX is this whole larger-than-life, visual/audio experience, there’s a lot of responsibility there to…
To really fill it up, exactly. It’s a six-point audio sound with a derived seventh subwoofer – slightly different than the standard 5.1 theater today, but just as impactful, if not more so because of the size of everything.
Because of the unique stereophonic nature of IMAX, do you have to do anything special in the orchestration or composition to achieve that?
Nothing that I haven’t been doing the last few years, now that 5.1 is pretty much standard. The days of Dolby Stereo are pretty much over – well, I guess, outside of the major metropolises, you still get films like that, but from a production point of view the whole idea has changed. You now deliver things 5.1-Ready. From there, it’s the mixer’s responsibility to downsize it if it’s for Dolby Stereo, whereas you used to deliver for Dolby Stereo, you optimized everything for that, but it’s really changed.
Will the IMAX film have a soundtrack CD?
I know they really want to, but at this point, I don’t know if they have a deal. But they’ve been pushing me to “make everything of that quality.”
What do you have coming up in the future?
I start work in a little while with William Friedkin. I think it’s a Christmas picture, but you never know for sure. It’s called RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, with Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson.
Since Mr. Friedkin has been known for having some interesting past history with film scores, what are your feelings coming on to this relationship?
Well, I’ve had several meetings with him, and I couldn’t have met a more charming guy. I’m getting along just fabulously. He’s quite the gentleman.