An Interview with Mark McKenzie by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.75, 2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
When he’s not orchestrating for top film composers, Mark McKenzie continues to emerge as a capable and superior film composer in his own right. With such scores as WARLOCK: THE ARMAGEDDON, FRANK AND JESSE, THE DISAPPEARANCE OF GARCIA LORCA, UP PERISCOPE, and DURANGO, McKenzie has demonstrated a gift for melody and musically enriching the heart of a film’s spirit while successfully heightening its drama. Interviewed after completing his score for DRAGONHEART II: A NEW BEGINNING, McKenzie described his work on this film and his overall film music sensibility.
How did you get the assignment for DRAGONHEART?
Randy Edelman introduced me to producer Raffaella DeLaurentiis, who then introduced me to director Doug Lefler. I loved the story, the photography, the acting, and the emotional impact in Doug’s movie and was excited about composing a score for this adventure movie. Doug hired me after listening to my soundtrack to DURANGO.
What were your initial impressions of the music you were to write?
The idea of writing music to knights battling evil, flying dragons, eastern mystics, devoted monks, growing friendships and a song excited me. Composing my first movie song intimidated me at first, yet the effortless way in which it came was exhilarating.
Was the film temp-tracked, and how did that affect your decision?
Joanie Diener had done a marvelous job of temp tracking the film with music from Randy Edelman’s score to the first movie. It was helpful to me to see her input and have that as a jumping off point.
Obviously, Edelman’s theme from the first film makes a strong appearance in your new score. How did you approach working it into your own music for this sequel?
I composed themes specifically tailored to easily transition to Randy’s tremendous DRAGONHEART theme.
Did the use of Randy’s theme make it tougher for you to find your own voice in this score?
What a good question. The answer is yes and no. Stravinsky brilliantly points out that there is no freedom without structure. There are always restrictions on a movie – guidelines or boundaries that one must stay within, so to speak. On this project I knew that Doug and Raffaella De Laurentiis loved Randy’s score so I made that somewhat of a guideline for me in terms of stylistic boundaries. Despite that, elements of my style are there: warm, rich harmony, emotional melody, soaring strings, powerful brass, a certain sophistication in counterpoint – these are elements that I hope come through.
How did you interweave your own themes, and Randy’s, throughout the score to support and comment on the on-screen events?
I approach scoring much in the same way Wagner did in the ring cycle operas of Das Reingold, Die Walküre, etc.). I had recurring themes for the Chinese Wise master that was later transformed into the song, a theme for the Dragon prophecy (occurring :20 into the Main Title), an evil prophecy theme (occurring 1:09 into the Main Title), a noble theme for Geoff the orphan boy (occurring 2:35 into the Main Title). I also had a lighthearted theme for the monk Mancil (occurring 2:22 into the Main Title) and Geoff’s adventure theme (occurring 2:52 into the Main Title). These became the basic building blocks so to speak.
What about the film’s ethnic elements, which you’ve touched on briefly although not overly in your score? You’ve addressed the Chinese aspects of the film, for example, with musical acknowledgment yet without roaming too deeply into Chinese instrumentation. What was / is your approach here?
The choice to use traditional instrumentation and not use ethnic instruments was a practical one. Since I was recording in Europe with a limited budget, it was too risky for me to count on great ethnic players who could read music well. I decided to go the safe route using only western instrumentation, so that I wouldn’t be stuck on the stage with a performer who couldn’t keep up with the rest of the orchestra. I’ve found it’s difficult to move forward with the rest of the orchestra when a soloist keeps making mistakes.
How did the overseas experience work out, recording in Slovakia?
Raffaella DeLaurentiis made going to Bratislava a deal point in the job to compose DRAGONHEART. She wanted to tryout a contractor named, Peter Breiner who is from Bratislava (where the film was shot). I was concerned because the recordings I’d heard from Bratislava were less than desirable, yet, I figured, why not give it a try, be very demanding and pull it off. I found that Peter is a superb musician, a fine conductor, speaks wonderful Slovak and English and his orchestra was very useable. We worked well together. I was also fortunate to have Andrea Lalakova there (a friend of Rafaella’s), to translate everything in the booth so that communication never broke down with Otto Nopp, the fine engineer who recorded the orchestra. Last but certainly not least Armin Steiner put his magic reverb and equalization on the music back here at Oh Henry Studios. Armin has ears and a musical gift that I have such a great respect for.
How would you describe your orchestration for the score?
I hope it can be described accurately as colorful, warm, rich, full, energetic, powerful and emotional. That is my intention.
Your score brings out tremendous warmth – as if you were responding to the very idea of a dragon’s spiritual “heart” in your music. This is an element you’ve seemed to respond to in earlier scores, reaching an emotional warmth even when a film is dealing with dark subjects and activities, as in DR. JEKYLL & MS HYDE and even LORCA. Would you describe how you feel you respond to films, musically? What elements seem to reach out to you, or attract the most powerful emotions to inspire you musically?
Randall, your question is both insightful and interesting to me. Director Doug Lefler, who we will be seeing much from in the future, is someone who has the gift and ability to put a multi-dimensional story on the screen. The characters in DRAGON HEART: A NEW BEGINNING are multi-dimensional… deep, caring, spiritual, then light and silly. The “spiritual heart” is exactly what I always respond to. Anytime there are human beings in a film with any dimension of realism or depth, there is a spiritual element, a deep, sometimes complex, but always rich human emotion behind the characters that I always respond to. It is where I live in my own life with my family and friends… always making effort for genuine, sincere relationships that goes beneath the easy but often superficial mask we all wear from time to time.
With your experience as an orchestrator, how would you contrast your role now as a composer, working with other orchestrators like Pat Russ and Warren Sherk, versus continuing to orchestrate for composers like Jerry Goldsmith? I’d assume composing your own music gives you the most satisfaction, but there must also be rewards in the simple pleasure of transforming the music of others into a rich palette for the orchestra?
Great composers are looking for that “perfect” musical expression. Great orchestrators are also always looking for a “perfect” way to express a musical idea, gesture, or phrase. As an orchestrator, I help however I can to be of assistance. Sometimes nothing other than accurate translation of the sketch is needed. Sometimes, just a highlight here or there, sometimes more. The end result of an effective musical expression is what the goal always is.
As a composer, I am very particular how I want something orchestrated so my sketches are very complete. My good friend Pat Russ will often suggest valuable things and sometimes it strikes me as perfect and other times I will opt not to use Pat’s idea. I appreciate his thoughts, friendship, and his accuracy. There is always a need for orchestrators who intuit what is needed in every given situation, whether more or less, and flow with it, always accurately putting on paper the huge number of notes that fly by so seemingly effortlessly. For me there is a deep joy that comes with working on interesting music with great composers like Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Alan Silvestri, Randy Edelman, and others.
What’s up next for you?
I just finished another Hallmark Hall of Fame for director Karen Arthur that is as beautiful a movie as I could ever desire. It is called LOOKING FOR LOST BIRD and will be a Hallmark special or CBS in November of 2000. The score (which will be released by Doug Fake at Intrada) is possibly the most beautiful score I’ve ever composed or ever been a part of. I’m very proud of it and love to listen to it.
What’s that about? Sounds like that resonant emotional core was reached quite directly by this film, and you’ve responded with some rich music.
This film is a story about a woman who along with her husband and children go from Pittsburgh to a Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona to discover a rich Native American heritage and family that they unknowingly belong to. The story is about discovering rich traditions, unconditional love, and the undeniable strength that come from a loving family. The music is melodic, simple, pastoral, emotional and beautiful. There are numerous solos with harp, cello, piano, guitar, woodwinds and rich warm strings. I apologize if my enthusiasm seems unbecoming. Sometimes I can get carried away. I’m grateful to Doug Fake for putting out a TV score like this.
Thanks to Mark McKenzie for an expressive interview and a glimpse into the mind of the composer. For more information on Mark McKenzie and his music, the composer invites you to seek out his web page at http://www.markmckenzie.org/