Mark Snow on Scoring The X-Files

An Interview with Mark Snow by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.66, 1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson

Mark SnowOne of the biggest shows on TV continues to be Chris Carter’s THE X-FILES. With its ongoing conspiratorial mythology and speculative plotting, THE X-FILES is one part detective show, two parts science fiction, its eyes glancing furtively at the skies every Sunday night. Much of the show’s atmosphere is achieved through Mark Snow’s moody and inventive musical scoring. With the June release of the feature length X-FILES movie, Snow joins creator Chris Carter, director Rob Bowman and stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in translating the small screen hit to the big screen.

Last time we talked (Soundtrack!, June 1997), you were looking forward to the opportunity of expanding the scope of the TV music and orchestrate it a little broader for the feature. How has that worked out?
It’s worked out great. I’d say 90% of the score is big orchestra combined with electronics. There are a few cues that are electronic, but they’re going to be very “big” sounding. It’s going to be sort of a traditional sound, to an extent, with the orchestra, but in a sharp contrast to the electronic stuff. It should be a really great mix. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the electronics, so I think it’s going to be a really great contrast.
In the TV show, from day one, everyone involved from Chris Carter down wanted a lot of music. At first he was talking about ambient, atmospheric, basically synth-pad kind of stuff. And that’s basically what I did at the beginning. It just got too boring and ordinary so I opened it up. Chris didn’t mind and after the first year he just let me go off on my own, and as the years went on it became more musical and less sound design. Every once in a while it would revert back to some sound design stuff, but now it’s a pretty good mix of ambient atmospheric music.

Has the feature film enabled you to do any more thematic work than you were able to do on the show?
I think the best thing, thematically, that’s come out of it is the X-FILES theme itself, which is being harmonized and orchestrated in different settings that never have appeared on the TV show. The TV version is sort of a one-note pad and a simple accompaniment. But now I’ve put different kinds of harmonization to it. It doesn’t happen every place, but it happens enough that anyone who knows the theme would recognize it.

How about any new themes?
There is a veiled theme for the Cigarette-Smoking Man. It’s not as much melodic as it is harmonic, it’s a bunch of minor chords going from one to another. It sounds a little bit like Bernard Herrmann / Jules Verne…

It sounds perfectly appropriate for the character.
Yes. There’s not a real melody, but a chordal structure. There’s a theme for the Elders, the Well Manicured Man and the older conspiracy figures. I haven’t done it yet, but the last episode of the TV season will have a lot of these themes in it, which will hopefully introduce some of the movie music.

I understand the last few episodes this season will go right into the feature film. So you’re developing a musical segue as well?
Yes. Actually, I just finished the second-to-Iast episode of the season, and that’s just a stand-alone. But the next one, which is the last episode of the season, is really tied into the movie.

You started on the feature last January, so you’ve had plenty of time to develop material, concurrently with working on the series…
Yes. Unfortunately, the way things work at Ten-Thirteen Productions, which is the production company of X-FILES, there are a lot of last-minute changes. Someone gets up in the middle of the night and has an idea to change something, so just when you think we’re locked or it’s set, new changes come down, which I know is not unusual by any stretch of the imagination. So, although we had the time, I was always living under the anxiety of feeling that it was always going to change. That’s par for the course, though, and it always seems to work out.

How much music, all told, have you composed for the film, and how many musicians have you used?
I think it’ll be about 75 minutes, for 85 musicians. That’s a lot. Actually, I’m hoping to convince these people to take some of it out! I think the movie, to me, looks a little bit like the TV show at times, and I think in a feature you don’t need the constant reminder that something’s going on, with accents and music all over the place. For better or for worse, though, the legacy of the music of the X-Files has always been: play lots of music.

How would you contrast working on the feature as opposed to the approach of doing the TV show? I know it’s more expansive and you’re doing more with themes as opposed to pure atmospheres, but how would you contrast the experiences, even though the film is so closely tied to the TV show?
The biggest contrast, obviously, is the scope of the movie. There are things in the movie that the TV show can never do, and will never do. It’s just impossible.

In terms of effects and locations?
Yes. There is massive CGI, computer effects, and a scope that is quite appropriate for the big screen that they don’t have the time or money to do for the series. That’s the biggest contrast. It’s still a very dense story, quite complicated. I’m hoping that the non-fan will enjoy it as much as the fan.

Did you get the chance to use any melodies, or more of the lighter music than you were able to do on the TV show? Or has the tone been fairly dark throughout?
It’s been pretty dark. The great thing about the TV series is, when we have these stand-alone, what I call boutique episodes, sometimes they verge on black comedy, with a lot of cute things I can do. The big shows, the mythical/conspiracy/cover-up shows are fairly drab and there’s not much room for anything but the real dark approach.

Some of my favorite scores are for those one-shot episodes. I loved the ‘Elephant Mann’ episode with all the allusions to the John Morris music.
You’re one of the few people who caught that! That’s exactly right. Those are the times when the palette is wide open and you really can stretch.

What were some of the main challenges that THE X-FILES MOVIE posed for you?
I wanted to continue the effect and the honesty of the music from the series and have it modulate to the big screen, to understand how to make that jump without it seeming like a score by Jerry Goldsmith or Homer or another big name movie composer.

Was the feature film temp-tracked, and how did you deal with that?
Yes, it was, and that was very helpful. My music editor, Jeff Charbonneau, temp tracked the movie with, say, 75% existing score, and 25% original stuff from me. He did a great job and it was very helpful in setting the tone and getting the producer and director to get a feel for what kind of music they thought would work. Then I was able to do it electronically and put it into a temp screening, and that was very successful. I basically did the temp track, and I’d say a good 95% of that is what the final score’s going to be, but with orchestra.

How closely with you work with director Rob Bowman on the music?
Rob is an incredibly literate director. But we all basically work for Chris Carter. So, although Chris didn’t direct the movie, he’s very hands-on. Chris is very loyal, and he likes to work with the people he knows. It never would have worked if he got some big shot egomaniac director! Rob is incredibly talented, and he also knows what Chris likes. But, between me and Rob alone, we have this running joke where he’ll hear a CD and he’ll call up and he’ll just name a CD and the cut, and then hang up on me. “FORREST GUMP, cut 10!” and he hangs up! “TERMINATOR 2, cut 11!” or whatever.
Then we’d discuss it. And he hates violins, on top of it all. So he’s going to see 30 of them on Monday, so good luck!

What kind of orchestration are you using in the orchestral part of the score?
It’s a fairly standard orchestra. Big string section, lots of basses and five percussionists. The percussionists are going to be all over the place – glass and marimbas and all kinds of crazy instruments. So the combination of the electronic ambient stuff and the orchestra should be really spectacular.

x filesSounds like a score and a film to look forward to!
Well, I hope so! The organization for this thing has been incredible! Pre-record all the electronic tracks, and then strip them off to tapes, individually, and then all that has to be transferred to a digital 48-track machine. Then the orchestra’s recorded, then the whole thing goes to another studio to mix it all together, and if our calculations are right, it should be an awesome sound.

Now having done the feature, how do you think it will be like going back to the series, having had that experience?
Well, I’m hoping the movie score experience is going to be really great. But the thing is that the TV show is also great, and it is like doing a mini feature all the time. If it was really terrible, boring drudge work it would be a problem. But it’s not.

What do you have forthcoming?
I’m doing a movie for MGM right after THE X-FILES called DISTURBING BEHAVIOR, which is being directed by David Netter, who’s an alumni of THE X FILES!

What kind of film is that going to be?
It’s an all-unknown teenage cast, and on the surface it might seem like SCREAM or a movie like that, but it’s really a lot deeper and it’s really brilliant, with some fabulous actors, and the direction, the location photography are just great. A real deep, dark mystery.

When do you start on that and when’s it coming out?
It’s supposed to come out August 21st but I heard they moved it up to the beginning of August. I should be scoring around the end of June.

Have you done any writing on that yet?
Actually, I did. I’ve written a main title theme for that, which they all loved, so I’m off to a good start on that.

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