An Interview with Nathan Furst by John Mansell © 2012
Nathan Furst’s first major film was the 1998 movie A MOMENT OF CONFUSION. He then went on to compose music for other films such as the first BIONICLE trilogy; BIONICLE: MASK OF LIGHT, BIONICLE 2: LEGENDS OF METRU NUI and BIONICLE 3: WEB OF SHADOWS, DUST TO GLORY, and LAKE PLACID 2. Some of the television shows for which he has composed are THE REAL WORLD and MAX STEEL. His most recent score as of 2011 is the 2012 Bandito Brothers film ACT OF VALOR.
Your first movie score I think was, A MOMENT OF CONFUSION (1998). I know you had written music for a reality show before this entitled REAL WORLD, which was in 1992, so how did you become involved with A MOMENT OF CONFUSION?
Oh, wow! I haven’t heard of that in a long time. It’s not even a real film. It was a friend from college doing a short student film, I believe. They asked me to write some music for it, so I did. It never came out or anything. I don’t even remember anything about it, not even the music! The Real World was an MTV show that ran for about 10 years. I wrote some music for it briefly in 1997, just out of high school.
ACT OF VALOR is one of your latest scoring assignments; it’s a great score, very powerful and also I felt it fused old style scoring practises with the newer approaches of modern film scoring, both styles worked very well and complimented each other. Was this something that you set out to achieve or was it something that just occurred during the scores development? How much time were you given to write the score, and what size orchestra did you utilize for the assignment?
Thank you so much. While I am fond of the ‘modern sound’ of scores and enthusiastically build upon that sound in my own way, it’s the classic approach that I’m passionate about. I’m pretty obsessed with finding the organic ‘sound’ of 21st century score – at least for myself. I believe blending electronica and orchestra in a way that sounds natural and not ‘shticky’ is a delicate endeavour. Originally, and I mean very very early on, I actually imagined ACT OF VALOR as a very minimalist score. That approach is still a part of the final score, but with a little exploration as footage came in, the directors and I discovered the sound to ACT OF VALOR together. ACT OF VALOR was a very unique situation. I started writing themes before there was even a locked script. Then the film was shot in chunks, around the SEALS deployment schedules. So I would see a sequence or two out of context and that was it. I was on it off and on for about 18 months, and wrote a little over 3 hours of music when all was said and done. There would be 2 month gaps here and there, and then I’d say the last 4 months or so was when the score really came together. I actually moved part of my studio into a room next to the edit bay, so the directors could come in and listen to music anytime. It was actually a fantastic workflow that I very much enjoyed. The music budget required some creative application – remember, this started as a little tiny film! I ended up doing a 40 piece string orchestra date in Prague, which was fantastic. I then did some Brass and shakuhachi recordings here in LA. Everything else, percussion, synths, supporting woodwinds, is all me. I feel that ACT OF VALOR is the closest to date I’ve come to what I believe is my true sound and approach, which of course, like every composer, is a constant evolving journey.
Staying with ACT OF VALOR, as I already said your approach was at times old school as in writing actual themes to accompany the action in some ways similar to what say Jerry Goldsmith would have done. Do you think its important to try and create a central theme so that you can build the remainder of the score around it or upon it?
I think it’s paramount. I usually have a main central theme, as well as at least a few sub-themes that are either part of the central theme, or will work in counterpoint with the central theme. In the case of ACT OF VALOR, I have the main theme which is a pretty long melody with a few different sections, which sits on top of my sub theme, which is the four minimalist lamenting chords that are prevalent throughout the score. And then I also have several motifs, some of which are born out of the action cues, and then find themselves re-imagined in the more heartfelt moments. These days 8 people out of 10 wouldn’t catch these nuances, so it pleases me that you noticed! So many scores today have no real grounding root – no themes, motifs – it’s all just an energy level. They often sound like generic library music or something. I find it very disappointing… so many missed opportunities…
How many times do you normally like to look at a project before you start to get any solid ideas about type of music, how much music will be used and where the music will be best placed to serve the movie or TV movie etc?
It’s absolutely necessary. When I first join a project, I want to see whatever they can show me. Sometimes it’s a rough edit of the film, sometimes the script, and in the case of BIONICLE – storyboard/concept art. Once I get a look at what the filmmakers are doing, and what they want to say, I usually have good idea right off the bat what I want to do. Of course, as I get into the thick of it, I’ll sometimes make adjustments to my original concept, but I’m usually pretty close.
Orchestration is I suppose an important part of the composing process. Do you like to orchestrate your own music when possible?
I feel it’s a very important part of the process. It can be a huge component of the mood your setting, the intention you’re conveying. I always largely orchestrate my material as I write. When I’m writing, I write all the way down the score page – horns, trumpets, bones. 1st Violin part, 2nd Violin, Viola, Celli, Bass all the way down; it’s all there. I also have a fantastic orchestrator who I trust to tell me when I’ve done something….lets call it…lofty. “Too many notes!” ha, ha. Almost anything is possible with the best players, but time becomes a valuable commodity during the producing/recording process. If I’ve written anything that would take more than a few takes for players to nail, we usually make small adjustments. Knowing that often keeps me from overwriting, too!
What musical education did you receive?
Formally? Almost none. I taught myself to play the piano around age 12, specifically with the goal of composing music in mind. Since the age of 8-9 years old, I listened to countless hours of films scores and concert music. I was just drawn to it. I actually remember the moment I first heard Silvestri’s BACK TO THE FUTURE theme when I was 8 years old, and Danny Elfman’s Batman score when I was 10. I attended the LA High School Music of the Arts, which wasn’t what I hoped it would be. I faced the same disappointment in college, so I quickly dropped out and started ghost writing for other composers.
Was it always your intention to write for film?
Pretty much. I flirted briefly with other avenues of the music business, but I’ve always been drawn to the art of scoring film. I would get ‘work copies’ (post production versions without music) of TV shows at the age of 14, and I started just experimenting with my sensibilities.
Within ACT OF VALOR I think I spotted a few Horner-esque moments especially in cue 9 on the CD, the brass in particular. Are you an admirer of Horner’s work and are there any other composers who work in film that you would say have either inspired you or influenced you in the way you approach scoring a film?
Holy Cow! FINALLY someone found my Horner Easter egg! Congrats. Sometimes I’ll leave little ‘Easter eggs’ from some of my favourite composers. It’s all my own work, in my own way, but it’ll be a technique or device… something very benign and simple. It entertains me. I believe there are some subtle Silvestri references somewhere in ACT OF VALOR as well…
As I mentioned before, I’m absolutely a product, in part, of my heroes and unwitting mentors – Wagner, Debussey, Tchaikovsky, Holst, Hermann, Mancini, Williams, Goldsmith, Silvestri… it’s a pretty long list!
You worked on MAX STEEL for TV, I think Jim Latham scored a lot of the episodes, how many did you work on?
All of them. That show was a collaboration with Jim and I. I had done some work for him before, and he was very, very busy at the time Max Steel came up. He was very kind to bring me on board to help execute Max Steel. I had an absolute blast working on that show, and I learned a lot. I consider myself fortunate for that experience.
When working on a television series the deadlines are obviously a lot tighter and you have to deliver music a lot faster than when you are working on a motion picture. Do you ever recycle or re-use cues from one episode in another and how many episodes do you score at a time?
Well, on a single show, it’s usually one episode at a time, but the episode cycle can be very fast. Sometimes only a few days from the time you first see the episode to the time it’s on the mix stage. It absolutely makes sense to recycle the conceptual material. It not only makes sense for time, but it’s also artistically appropriate. It’s very important that a series have a ‘sound’ to it. If every cue from every episode is re-inventing the wheel, the show isn’t likely to have a nice, uniform continuity…especially on those timelines.
Sometimes the TV-movies are even crazier. My record was a 90 minute movie, with 80 minutes of music started and delivered in 6 days. That was a full week.
You have worked on a number of TV movies and also motion pictures and a handful of documentaries; apart from budget is there a great deal of differences between the three types of film when it comes to scoring them?
Honestly, not really. The budget is the only difference. The writing process, for me, is basically the same. The difference is that on the tight budget (on time as well as money) the writing process is pretty much the only process. It’s very common for there not to be a formal recording session or final mix. What you write/sketch in the studio is what gets delivered. The larger budget stuff is much easier to execute.
How do you arrive at your musical solutions; by this I mean how do you bring your musical ideas to fruition, via piano, or straight to paper?
Paper? What’s paper? (Kidding… sort of) I prefer to sit at the piano… it’s a very natural and organic experience. I really don’t like coming up with ideas in the studio. I’ll usually chicken-scratch a quick idea on paper, or sometimes even just the memo recording app on the iPhone, and then take that into the studio to orchestrate and produce.
When I’m fortunate enough to get on a film very early on, sometimes before they even start shooting, I’ll spend WEEKS getting the themes and arching ideas just right on the piano. So sometimes, by the time I’ve gotten around to turning the studio on, I’ve already been working on interconnecting themes equivalent of a modern opera for the better part of a month on the piano.
When working on any project do you have a set way in which you carry out your work, or does this vary from project to project. Do you like to tackle larger cues first or maybe concentrate on smaller cues and stabs etc. at first?
It changes slightly from project to project, but I generally like to score very important scenes first; scenes that sometimes define the entire movie. It helps me micro focus my pacing, approach, etc. I can then go through to other cues and start properly gauging my arching development that gets me to that important, defining moment. Of course, this is assuming that I would get the entire film at once, which is sometimes not the case.
What would you say is the purpose of music in film?
Well it depends greatly on the film! But generally, I feel film music is best when it creates an additional complex facet that is not entirely on the screen on it’s own to help tell the story and/or reveal our character. What’s so amazing about film music, and music in general, is that it’s so powerful at conveying emotion… sometimes emotions so complex that they can’t be easily defined or articulated. You’d be surprised how many different pieces of music you can put up against the same scene, and it all works! But the scene will play differently and say something differently with each piece of music. That’s why is so important to truly KNOW what it is you are trying to say, and to have conviction between yourself and the filmmakers in what you’re trying to say… what kind of movie you want to make. One of the potential downsides to film is that you can’t easily get inside the characters head the way you do in a book. In a book, the characters inner most thoughts and feelings are often laid out right in front of you. I like to think one of the things score can do is help bring some of that into the experience.
Do you come from a family that has a background of music?
Not at all, actually. I pretty much come from a family of actors. Not sure what happened there?
Do you ever buy soundtrack discs by other composers?
Not as much these days, but absolutely. I love score soundtracks, especially when they’re good. If it’s one of my ‘heroes’, chances are I’ll buy the soundtrack.
When a CD is being planned of one of your scores, do you become involved as in the selection of cues etc and the sequencing of the CD?
Very much so. My OCD wouldn’t allow otherwise. I even listen to the entire selection, and will occasionally edit out moments that don’t quite make sense as an isolated listening experience, but served a purpose in the film… such as holding chord that holds too long…a random sting or something… that kind of thing. The CD mix is usually a different mix than what we did for the film, and I also insist on being in the mastering studio. It’s such a delicate balance between getting that large and loud modern sound, but without crunching the life out of it. I didn’t used to go to those sessions, but I learned very quickly that I really need to be there.
How early do you like to become involved on a scoring assignment; maybe at the script stage or do you prefer the movie to be in its rough cut state before you come onboard?
It’s all over the place on a project by project basis. I prefer to get involved as early as possible. It’s very important that the music feel like it truly belongs to that film. Not just themes or stuff like that, but the very soul of score – each note is truly married to the frame it hits. I’m usually most satisfied with the end result when I’ve gotten involved in film while it’s still in the script stage.
You worked on the first three of the BIONICLE films. How did you become involved with this trilogy and why did you not score the fourth film in the series as your music for the first three was well thought of?
I happened to know someone who knew the producer who was actively looking for a composer. I submitted some of my music, in addition to original theme concept sketch (which ended up being one of the main themes). That’s pretty much it. I loved working on those films. For me, it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done. After the original trilogy, an entirely different production team was hired to create the 4th film. I think not seeking me out is probably because they were anxious to make their own mark, so to speak. So, the very fact that I scored the original trilogy omitted my consideration. Someone sent me a couple scenes from that score, and I was flattered to find that my BIONICLE score was obviously the inspiration! Best compliment a composer could have.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a few things going on, but nothing I’m allowed to speak of at the moment. These days, production companies are very nervous, and it’s becoming more and more common to sign NDA agreements the second you come onboard. So I can’t talk about them until they’re already done. But it’s all very exciting stuff that I can’t wait to talk about!
Thank you so much for your time best wishes.
Thank you so much, John. It’s a pleasure.
I gratefully acknowledge the generous help from Beth at cinemamedia in making this interview possible.