An interview with Mark Mancina by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.68, 1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl
I knew from the first moment I heard Mark Mancina’s score to MOLL FLANDERS, that there was more to this composer than his reputation for scoring on-the-edge action films. Whether it’s a comedy like MONKEY TROUBLE, a period piece such as MOLL FLANDERS, the space docu drama FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, an intense emotional drama such as RETURN TO PARADISE, his upcoming songs and score to the animated TARZAN (composed with Phil Collins), or his action scores to CON AIR (written with Trevor Rabin), BAD BOYS, MONEY TRAIN, SPEED, SPEED 2, and TWISTER, Mark Mancina moves from project to project like a chameleon changing colors to fit in.
When I went to see RETURN TO PARADISE I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It was the depth, drama, acting, script, and story line of this film that made a powerful emotional statement which reached out way beyond the everyday film. Mark’s score married itself to these elements and elevated the emotional content of this film as well as giving it the esoteric Malaysian backdrop it had to have.
Interviewed while in the process of scoring the trailer for the upcoming animated feature TARZAN, Mancina discussed his involvement in RETURN TO PARADISE and how his approach to film scoring has changed.
How did you get into film scoring?
I’ve always liked film scores. In fact I have a little bit of a problem separating them when I see a film. If I like the score, I tend to like the movie. If I don’t like the score, I have a really hard time liking the movie, even if the movie’s great, because they marry themselves somehow. I was always a fan of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, since I was in high school. I went back and started listening to the old guys, Steiner and other composers, finding all that fascinating.
I was a songwriter and wanted to produce records. I felt this was really my strength and worked in England with Trevor Horn on quite a few records. I learned a lot about producing and knew a lot about song writing, but it was a bit of a frivolous thing to me. Getting involved in film for me was a lot more exciting and interesting. I really feel like I can use all of my skills in film music. There are times when I’m working on songs that are incorporated in the film and I’m producing those songs, all of a sudden I’m bringing those skills back into what I do. Knowing how to make records really helps a composer in film music.
But how do you learn to score films?
The thing is, nobody knows how to score a film. There isn’t a composer alive that can look at a scene and say, “This is how you do that.” There isn’t a way to score films. Every project and scene that I do is a new learning experience for me. That’s why I like to do as many different types of movies as I can. I’ll take on just about anything, as long as it’s different. It’s funny, people know me for SPEED, TWISTER, and BAD BOYS. They know me for those because those were successful movies. If I say to them MONKEY TROUBLE or MOLL FLANDERS, they kind of go, “Oh yeah, I didn’t really see those.”
I’m always looking for something different, my last three or four films have been very different from each other, so I’ve been trying to expand. You learn by scoring, it’s not like if you do twenty films then you know how to score films. Every time you sit down with a scene it’s a new challenge. Sometimes you can bring back things that you’ve done before, but most of the time you just don’t want to take that same route. It’s like directing a movie, just because you’ve directed a movie doesn’t mean you know how to direct. It just means that you’ve directed that one movie; the next one’s a whole different list of challenges. I think you just keep doing it, it’s a challenge.
What was the first film you scored?
I’ve done movies that have been on Mystery Science Theater, where they’re making fun of the score. I’ve been scoring for a really long time. When you have a big film, like SPEED for instance, all of a sudden everybody thinks that you started scoring films. I did documentaries, but there was a women’s prison movie I did that might have been one of the first. There’s a movie called CROSSING THE LINE that I get royalties for, it wasn’t the first movie I did but the first one I remember. It’s a skate boarding movie. I used to have a job where I would score the entire film from start to finish in two weeks in the studio, have to write and record it as we went, usually twelve reels. I must have done twenty of these films that went to video. Every once in a while I’ll be in a video store and see one of them and go, “Oh my God.” This was around ‘85 or ‘86.
What’s your technique in using video to score to?
I really like to read the script and watch the movie. I like to write music away from the picture for a little while. If the music works in the movie, and also stands on its own, I think that’s a pretty good accomplishment. I tend to like to try and write things first, then throw them against the picture, and start seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. Then I slowly start to score. I was talking to Alan Silvestri one time and he said, “I never write anything that isn’t to picture. I never write a note that isn’t to a specific picture.” That’s interesting because I’m the opposite. I don’t usually start a score without writing just at the piano, away from the picture, just my impression of the movie, what comes out. RETURN TO PARADISE is a perfect example, that theme is a four note theme; it’s all over that movie. That was written when I flew home from New York after I first saw some dailies of the movie. I came home and I wrote that piece of music. I thought to myself, “I don’t even know if this is even going to work. I’ll just start playing around with it.”
How did you put together your score for RETURN TO PARADISE?
Right before, I did one of the episodes for the HBO series, FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON. I did the entire episode in my room; I got about seven players, even played on it myself. Basically I recorded and mixed the movie here because it was a small budget thing. It turned out really good, so I decided when I got RETURN TO PARADISE that I was really bored with MIDI, samples, and sequencers. I use them as tools and to write at times, but I’m bored with them. What I get off on is recording acoustically. I get off on collecting eclectic instruments, odds and ends, and using them in different ways. I went out and got all sorts of instruments from Malaysia and that area, Indonesian of instruments, gamelan, finger cymbals, all sorts of little doo-dads. I just started recording ideas acoustically, put a microphone up and just ran tape recording feels, loops, ideas, sounds, and most of them stuck, some of them didn’t. I collect instruments, so I’ve got lots of stringed instruments. String instruments didn’t seem to work on the score; I ended up using a Saz, an eight-string Turkish instrument and a little charongo guitar on the score. Everything else was pretty much mallet – gamelan bells, chimes, besides the winds I’m talking about percussion here. I used tonal instruments for the score. Then I had a chamber orchestra.
I used a guy named Fred Selden, who I’ve worked with on many movies. He brought in flutes from all over the world. I wrote all the music and would say, “Here’s the phrase, let’s try it on eight different flutes and see which one brings the emotion out.”
It didn’t matter whether it was necessarily Chinese; I didn’t care where the flute was from, as long as it had a voice and a sound that I wanted. It was exciting for me because it was like my favorite records, “The White Album” from The Beatles, stuff where I feel like they just roll tape, recorded things and went back to it a week later to try some things over. RETURN TO PARADISE was written that way. Everybody was recorded at my studio here except the chamber orchestra. We recorded them and then brought everything back here and mixed it all in my studio.
Who was your orchestrator here?
Dave Metzger. I conducted the whole score on this one, but I do both, orchestrate and conduct. I don’t always do both because it’s not my forte. I just did a thing with Phil Collins (upcoming animated TARZAN), we recorded about a month ago and I conducted the orchestra for it, not because I’m the best conductor for the job, but because I knew the music. So I get out there and wave my arms and I do it. There are a lot of times where I bring people in because I’d rather be the composer here and have the conductor be the conductor. The same thing goes for playing on the score; I play a lot of instruments myself. Right now on TARZAN I’m doing a lot of the percussion with Phil and with Louis Conte, but that doesn’t mean that I do it because I’m the best person, it’s just because I happen to do it. There are times when I bring Mike Fisher in. In orchestration on RETURN TO PARADISE, I wrote most of the orchestral parts, I’d say 90% of it I wrote, but as far as putting pencil to paper and getting it all down for the orchestra, that’s what I bring an orchestrator in for. It would take me three months to do that myself.
David Metzger did THE LION KING ON BROADWAY with me. I produced, arranged all of the music, and wrote the whole new score with Lebo Morake for THE LION KING ON BROADWAY. That was all done live, it was all done at a piano. This was a theater piece based on the movie, but not just a repeat of the movie. It had five songs from the movie, but it had thirteen brand new songs. It’s a lot of new material and Lebo and I were hired to write and put that whole thing together. During that time I used David Metzger and Bob Elhai, who does all of Elliot Goldenthal’s work, to do the orchestrations because everything was done live and daily. It was really a chance to work with some amazing talent and I’m hoping to work with both of them on TARZAN now because I love their work.
What was your working time on RETURN TO PARADISE?
I think I had about two and a half months to write the score. Recording time is to hard figure out because so much of it was done here at my studio. I do my recording while I’m writing. A lot of times I record ideas and then only some of those ideas stay on the tape. I don’t wait the whole movie, then spend three days with an orchestra and that’s the recordings. That’s not how I work. I’m recording the whole time, in all maybe a couple of weeks if you line up the demos.
Explain your use of themes here?
The thing that was interesting about writing that movie is that it was a developmental movie. It was almost through-composed, meaning that nothing really ever repeats. It’s not a film like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK where you have a theme at the beginning and you hear that throughout the film. In this movie I never played the theme full out until the end, you had little hints of it here and there. We had the bicycle theme, the prison theme, the love theme which was sort of a bastardization of the theme at the end, and what we called God’s Bathtub theme which was whenever they would think back to Malaysia, this was a really beautiful piece with an alto woodwind and a couple of strings. Probably four or five sub themes in all, plus the main theme. That’s why it was hard to write, because it evolves, all the time. In ‘Sheriff’s Confession’, which is one of my favorite pieces of music, there are themes that I never use again; they only worked for that one moment. There were themes that worked for that courtroom scene that just didn’t work anywhere else because that emotion never happens again.
I was really surprised that this was your score.
It’s like anything, people associate you with what you’re successful for doing. They don’t necessarily think of you in other terms. If you were a director and you had a list and you said, “I’m going to do this movie about a prison. I can get Tom Newman who did SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION or Mark Mancina who did TWISTER.” Who are you going to get? You’re going to get Tom Newman. But if somebody said to you, “Here’s RETURN TO PARADISE from Mark Mancina. Listen to this and see what you think about it for your film.” All of a sudden you’d go, “Wait a minute now, this is not what I’d expect out of this guy.” That happens to everybody. If you notice careers you’ll see that happening. John Williams did a movie called THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, that was a huge risky departure for him. Many people who went to that movie came away going, “That was John Williams? He did that score? It doesn’t sound like STAR WARS. It doesn’t sound like JAWS. Doesn’t he do the big heroic stuff?” No, John Williams can do anything, you just know him for that stuff.
Do you think scoring RETURN TO PARADISE is helping you change your image?
Maybe so, I think I’m totally unknown. I don’t think I have an image. I think that every score is a new challenge and a new beginning. I can do anything, but I think any good film score composer can do anything. It really depends what you’re good at, are you good at action? Good at romance? Good at emotion? Good at being subtle? The really good composers are people who can go all over the map, not the guys that can come up with a really quirky strange idea.
Do you have any advice for composers getting into the business?
Write your own scores; try not to get caught in demo hell. It’s gotten to the point nowadays where you have to demo your cues so much that you’re practically held to your demo instead of really being able to create the score that you want to create. Now I know that I’m as guilty as anybody else as being put in a corner and writing cues that I really didn’t want to write. At this point in my career, since FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, I won’t allow that to happen anymore. It’s happened to me and I’m not proud of those cues. If you can, stand your ground. Avoid the temp if you can,
If you’re hired to do a score like SPEED and you do something new, you’re in trouble!
It’s a wonderful thing to have a big movie and I’ve had a lot of compliments on that score, but that was six weeks of my life. We did all sorts of stuff and I replaced my percussion section in my orchestra with sounds. Everything else about SPEED is orchestral. If you take that percussion out it’s a completely orchestral score, yet people always say, “That was a cool synthesizer score.” I don’t get that, it’s like a 100 piece orchestra on it. Whatever, that’s what people heard, whatever they want to hear.
Were you influenced by Gamelan music on this project?
For this particular film I went out and bought a lot of music from Malaysia. I went and studied a lot of music that came out of there to get ideas, not to take anything from it, but just to use a different backdrop. Now gamelans are very common and people have used gamelan bells on a million scores, but I just wanted to use them a little bit more traditionally. If you listen to music out of Malaysia, it’s not extremely western tonal, and that’s a problem. The score obviously has to bring out emotion and has to do things, so I westernized it.
Many composers are using sampled ethnic instruments as part of their scores today.
The problem with samplers and everything nowadays is that guys can call up samples of Indian Pipes and start playing them over an army film, thinking it’s really eclectic, interesting, and bizarre. It’s not, it’s old. To me, it’s old news to just use samples or ethnic samples as a backdrop to a score. It’s boring. Just like sequencers, when I hear a score that I can tell is sequenced, it just bores me to tears. I used to do it that way, but nowadays I combine it with hard disk recording, I like to record things acoustically. I’m just bored with sampled score sounds, it’s awful. You listen to a score that’s just a bunch of sampled sounds and it’s flat.
A few cues (5 and 6 on the CD) on RETURN TO PARADISE reminded me of progressive rock with a solid beat…
There’s a motif that I use through a Marshall stack here. I used about thirty stacks of guitars that I played here. The only time that it really comes together is the cue ‘Crack Pipe’, that’s where everything comes together because that’s where the Sheriff makes the decision to go back. Luma Lino, a fabulous drummer that I work with that plays a lot on my new scores, came in and laid down this kind of John Bonham drum thing at the end of the cue, which makes the whole thing come together. That’s probably what you’re hearing as progressive rock, because he and I play progressive rock. In fact, he and I were in Trevor Rabin’s band.
What did you think about your score when it was finished?
There were a couple of places in the movie that the director re-used a cue. I didn’t agree with that because I felt like the score should be a little bit more subtle than it came out. Other than that, I’m very proud of it. I think it works great. I’m very, very proud of the last scene in the movie. I think the last scene of the movie, for me, is the most powerful thing I’ve ever written. There’s a dialog between them in the prison and then she walks outside and it’s raining and it takes you out of the movie, that whole cue. That, for me, was the strongest thing I’ve ever written. It was really great that when I went to the premiere I talked to Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn. They both brought up that cue to me and said that was just phenomenal what I did with that scene. That they were trying to do the same thing emotionally that the music was doing. If the actors noticed the music it’s amazing anyway. Let alone the compliment and the feeling that the three of us were in synch! I think their performances are outstanding, so I felt very proud to be a part of that, be it a small part.
Do you think you’ve established an identity in the industry?
I think SPEED did for a little while. There was a year there that everybody thought, “Get the guy that did SPEED.” I got calls all the time, “You’re the guy that did SPEED, we want this SPEED thing.” I don’t even know what that was, I guess it was percussive. Did you ever see that film with Leslie Nielsen, SPY HARD? They parodied the SPEED score at one point in the film. It was a bunch of drums and French horns. I cracked up because I thought, “I guess that’s what that score sounds like to people, it’s just a bunch of rhythm.” I thought SPEED had a great theme; I liked that theme a lot. That passed over quickly and now I’m just onto another thing.
Is there a key factor to becoming a success in the scoring business?
The problem with the music business is that you never feel secure, unless you’re James Horner. You never feel secure financially because you always feel like this project could be the last for some reason. Maybe something’s going to happen and this is going to be the last one. I’m being paid to write music, I have a huge orchestra of the best players in the world playing my music; I live in a gigantic house. I’m as lucky as you can get. To be able to write music and be paid for it, for me is a success. I don’t care what you’re doing; I don’t care if you’re writing commercials. If somebody’s paying you to write music that’s a pretty big leap. For every one of you, there are thousands of guys who would love to be in that position.
What kind of film would you like to score most?
It just needs to move around. I would’ve told you six months ago to do a big animation movie, well, I’m doing one. I’d love to perform some of my scores live. There was a time when Trevor Rabin and I were going to go out and do that, it just didn’t work. Trevor’s gotten movies and he’s getting really busy. I think he’ll eventually end up doing it. I’d like to do it. Phil Collins and I might do it. Phil and I have talked about it, that we may want to go out for TARZAN and do some sort of promotional thing where we play the score and the songs live. It would be great, I hope we do.
You just don’t know how things go in this business. I might be scoring a comedy next summer, who knows? I just hope that everything that I do is different from the next. I hope that I can just keep moving, it’s been great to go from CON AIR to THE LION KING ON BROADWAY, a theater piece, then to do FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, then to do RETURN TO PARADISE, and now to do animation, that’s crossing the borders about as much as you can in this business. I just want to continue doing that.
What are your future plans?
The thing about TARZAN is that it’s coming out in June and as I said, one of my main things is to write your score yourself. In order for me to write this score myself, I need to spend a lot of time on it. I’ve really tried to just focus my life on this movie; I’m not really focused on anything else. I’ve got projects lined up, but I don’t want to talk about them because whether I do them or not could be up in the air. They are all different and very eclectic to themselves; different areas of scoring that I think will be really interesting. Right now I’m focused on TARZAN and it’s got to be done by the end of March.
A special thanks to Robbie Boyd, Chris Ward, and thank you so much for that wonderful bottle of wine, Mark.