An Interview with Nathan Wang by Randall D. Larson
Originally posted on the Music From The Movies web site, 2010
Text reproduced by kind permission of the author, Randall D. Larson
American film composer Nathan Wang is a veteran of Hong Kong cinema, whose music for the films of Stanley Tong has graced a number of popular HK films – at least the versions originally seen in Hong Kong. Many of them were re-scored with new music by other composers when they were imported to American cinemas. Nathan Wang graduated from Pomona College in Southern California, after which he received a Fulbright Fellowship to study at Oxford University. His first efforts were on American television in 1988, but in 1995 he became associated with HK director Stanley Tong, who asked him to score Jackie Chan’s RUMBLE IN THE BRONX. That score linked Tong with Wang for many future projects, and Nathan found himself commuting between Hollywood and the Orient, scoring films on both sides of the Pacific. In the process he won a Cable Ace award for his music to the documentary THE LOST CHILDREN OF BERLIN (1997), and scored the acclaimed horror-comedy, FLIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (2007).
I interviewed Nathan recently about the style and scope of music needed for Jackie Chan martial arts movies, his musical direction on the Zombies-On-A-Plane thriller, scoring TV animation, and about his latest score, the remarkable Zhang Ziyi drama, SOPHIE’S REVENGE.
Your first Asian film score was for Stanley Tong’s RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, but when the film was released in America it had a new score by composer J. Peter Robinson. How did that work out?
I was so naïve in this whole area. I did the score for RUMBLE IN THE BRONX out here in my studio in L.A. The film came out on Chinese New Year , because that’s the big time for all the big releases in Hong Kong and China. I wrote the music for the Chinese version. Then, New Line bought the movie and they were going to release it in the States the following year. I just naturally assumed that they would just keep the same music. No! What they do is they redo the foley, they redo the ADR, they hire American actors to speak English and then they re-release it as an American movie. Yeah, they got J. Peter Robinson to do the music, who is actually from the same agency as I am, and so my agent always laughs about that! I was so naïve… and the funny thing is, too, is that Stanley Tong, who is the director, called me up and said “hey! You want to come out to the premiere?” I go “sure!” I literally went to the premiere thinking I was going to hear my music! That’s how dumb I was!
Of course this is before Asian films had had the kind of international respectability that they do nowadays…
I see the same thing happened with you on FIRST STRIKE and WHO AM I, but your more recent score for Jackie, THE MYTH, survived its transatlantic crossing. That was really a nice score…
Oh thank you!
How would you approach that, because you’ve got Jackie Chan but you’ve also got this vast scope of fantasy and the different time periods that are jumbled together there. How did you approach and come up with your musical design for that?
That was very interesting. You’re absolutely right, there were flashes into the present versus back into medieval China. I tried to come up with a theme for Jackie that crossed both times, the present and the past. I had the opportunity to go to Shanghai to record the score with an orchestra, and I tried to keep the medieval Chinese times very orchestral and really utilizing the orchestra, as opposed to the present time, when I tried to portray Jackie with more electronic material. It was very challenging to try to keep it exclusive like that. But I really enjoyed working in that score.
When you were working on those films for Jackie Chan, what type of music are they looking for in Jackie’s kind of action/comedy presentations?
If you look closely at the Jackie Chan movies that I’ve done over the years, they’ve been with essentially one director, and that’s Stanley Tong, and he and I have had such a long standing relationship that we know each other pretty well. He trusts me and gives me very, very little direction. He’ll give me very broad strokes. He was the one who said “oh, I want it very Hollywood in THE MYTH when we’re talking about the medieval period, especially in the very beginning where the Korean swordsman goes after the princess. That’s the best kind of relationship that you can have with a director, where they give you leeway to think outside the box. I’ve struck gold with Stanley because every single time I have done something with him, he has always been pleased.
What has been most challenging about scoring some of Stanley’s action films?
The most challenging sometimes is when I don’t have enough time to do it. There was one time when Jackie called me up, literally, on Christmas day, for WHO AM I? He called me up and he said, “Merry Christmas,” and we start having a little chat, and he says “hey, you want to do my next film?” And I say, “Sure, when is it?” “Well, it’s coming up…” I go, “So, when do you want me to start?” He says… “Can you start today?” I go “… really? You’re kidding me, right?” He says, “No, no. I know it’s Christmas but you didn’t sound like you were doing anything!” I go, “okay, yeah, I can start… When do you want it?” He goes, “… New Years?” I go, “wait a minute, that’s seven days!” He goes, “… yeah…” That was by far the most challenging score I’ve done! You know how it is with a film, you have basically five or six reels to compose. So on that movie, I had to write at least one and one seventh reel a day! It was a ridiculous amount of music I had to write in regards of the time factor with which I had to write it.
Sometimes people don’t have any concept of how long a composer really needs, because ideally what you want to do is look at the movie, let it soak in, and then start formulating some kind of direction for the score. Ideally you get some help from the director, but you still need time. It’s like wine, the more time you have with it, the better it becomes. And also when you write you have a chance to review what you’ve written before even the director gets it and gives his critique. You want to have your own critique, because sometimes in certain cues you’ll say, “Oh, I can do better” or “I should have done this!” and then you have a chance to actually go back to it. Well, didn’t have that chance on that one, I was just cranking away and giving it to my mixer. The funny thing, too, is that they were trying to save money on all of this. They wanted it on New Years, and they had prearranged that I had to go to Warners Hollywood with a DAT tape of the score (which is what we were doing at that time), and I had to send everything from there. It went to Soundfirm Australia, where it was the 2nd of January but it was January 1st here, and they had to pay someone triple time overtime to actually run the machine at Warners. Back then we used ISDN lines, it was nothing like the speeds of the Internet we have now, and they would push PLAY on this side, and the other guy on their side would push RECORD on their DAT machine, and it would just go. It took about four hours to transfer everything. It was ridiculous! They were trying to save money, but in the end I think they spent more money than they really needed do.
For a time there, back in the mid 1990s, these Jackie Chan films kind of exemplified action films and action scores. What kind of musical approach would you come up with for his films, especially to make each one different?
That’s a very good question. I had an interesting take on it. After I started scoring films, I started falling into the category of Fox cartoons. I started doing BRUNO THE KID, which was a cartoon for Bruce Willis, then I also did FELIX THE CAT and there was also EEK! THE CAT. There was a spate of time where I spent an inordinate amount of energy writing and composing for animation. So when I saw action and true fighting, especially with Jackie Chan’s martial arts fighting, which was always so wonderfully choreographed, it was almost like animation. So, unlike the Tan Dun approach in CROUCHING TIGER, I didn’t just try to create one mood and that was it. For me it was trying to hit everything, and doing it more like an animated piece, like a Carl Stalling thing – the hit on the head and the hit on the shin and he grips his knee and starts bouncing up and down. I try to score all of that. That was half the fun! I have to admit though, I couldn’t do that on WHO AM I because of the time limit. But most the time when I did have a chance to score these kinds of movies, it would be so much fun for me to try and score it like an animated scene so I’d be able to hit everything. That was half the challenge and half the fun for me!
I wanted to ask you about some of the other animated shows you have scored. You did THE SECRET OF MULAN, the sequel to the Goldsmith animated movie for Disney, which had with a much broader canvas that something like BRUNO THE KID or TOONSYLVANIA. What is your overall take on scoring different kinds of animation?
I took the MULAN piece as being more cinematic, more broad, and I tried to score it more like a feature film. With BRUNO THE KID, FELIX THE CAT, EEK! THE CAT, they all fell into the category of half hour shows, and when I did that it was very easy to come up with certain themes for various characters because they come up on a weekly basis. I felt as though the audience really wanted to hear the personality of each character every week, whether it’s an approach that may be one week in a jazz form, or another week in a big band form, it didn’t matter. Each character has its own thematic material, as opposed to THE SECRET OF MULAN where everything is more or less laid out just once and for all. I think the television shows were easier to do, once I got into the second or third season. I tried to make it as challenging as I could the first season because new characters were all popping up sometimes on a weekly basis, but then they would be carried over into the second or third season. Sometimes you come up with a melody and you hear it and it’s very nice, but if you hear it for the umpteenth time, you don’t want it anymore. So it was fun for me to make sure I was walking that fine line, and the score didn’t get too monotonous.
Another animated thing you did, on a wholly different tone which was the “Third Pig” episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT.
Oh that one! I don’t think I’ve ever seen more blood in a half an hour animated show! That was hilarious to me! I was really under the gun for that. Bill Kopp, who was the co-creator of EEK! THE CAT, called me on it and said “hey, we only have a week and a half to put this together! Are you game?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “it’s really bloody…” I said “That’s great, I’ve done Jackie Chan movies!” But I’ve never seen more spilled blood in anything else I’ve done than what they showed in that half hour episode! It was a half hour HBO episode, and it was total gore, and you know that it’s going over the top. I wanted the music to express that as well. There’s no subtlety, you just bang them over the head with whatever you’re trying to do. And that’s when I can just go totally all out, balls to the wall.
I’m assuming the budget made you use primarily synths or samples?
That one, yes, and also because it was so fast. That one I did with synths and samples.
What was your approach to scoring FLIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and how did you get involved with that?
That was also a very interesting tale. I got called by Sidney Iwanter, one of the co-writers. He was at Fox when I was working at Fox, and he was really quite partial to me, saying “oh, yeah this cartoon series, let’s use Nathan, that cartoon, yeah let’s use Nathan.” He really likes my work. Being one of the heads in FLIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, he called me, and he says, “Nathan, we’re sort of in a jam.” I say, “What’s wrong, what’s up?” He said, “we’re doing this movie, it’s very low budget. We hired a composer to do it, I totally forgot about you…” “Oh, that’s cool, that’s alright…” “…but we hired this guy and it was a mistake. He’s not quite well equipped to do what we’re trying to do. Can you do something? We don’t have any money, but can you talk to our director?” So he put me in touch with the director, and the director said “Man, we’re really under the gun, we’ve got to turn this in, in like a week and a half.” I said “oh my god..!” He said “I’ll tell you what, give us four cues, write four cues and we’ll cut them in.” I go, “really? Is that what you want to do?” He says, “Well, we don’t have any time!” And he asks, “What is your schedule?” I said, “You know what, I have to go to China, I’m going to be gone for two and a half weeks.” I was working on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He goes, “We just need four cues, so we’ll cut it in and we’ll make do!” I said, “Okay!” So I did four cues and sent them to him. I went to China and came back, and then I get another call from them, saying “You know what? We waited for you! Those are four excellent cues, but you know what, it’s not going to work!” I said “I could have told you that!” And they said, “Okay, so here you are.” And they gave me the locked picture, I looked at it, and I went to town on it. I had so much fun. I love that movie! The most fun thing was when one of the zombies gets stuck with the umbrella and then they open it! I think I laughed for ten minutes when I saw that. But it was a great time.
What was your musical approach on that score?
When I watched that locked picture, I thought, again, there’s no subtly. We’re just going to bang the walls on this one. So I pulled out all the stops, I used as many fun samples as I could to really write that piece. I also had fun writing the theme music for that – they wanted a song at the top, and a song at the end, so essentially I was playing music editor, I was the composer, and I was the music supervisor in the sense that I had to put the songs together. I was wearing three hats doing that movie.
That has a really nice opening song!
I wrote that with a buddy of mine in New York, Bill Grainer. We looked at it and I said, “it should probably sound like this,” and we just delved into it.
Shayna Zaid did a great job singing it.
Yes! She’s a good friend of Bill’s in New York, so this was sort of a long distance thing. There was that coordination factor, again, where I was doing my stuff here and writing crazily for the movie and he starts writing the lyrics out there. I had to arrange the song here, and then I sent it back to him, since Shayna was in New York City, to have her put the vocals down. Then, if I recall, it was mixed in New York and then they sent us the final version. So it was back and forth. But I like those kinds of challenges, so it’s not necessarily all coming from my studio, but it’s all over the place.
The other interesting thing about the movie is that, while part of it is the over-the-top horror, there’s also this comedy going on. But the score plays straight man, allowing the horror to play through that, letting the comedy play itself.
That was intentional. I spoke with the director about it, and I felt that if I took the other option which is to score it comically, it would be commenting too much on the comic aspects. I felt I could do better justice for the movie if I just kept it straight-faced, and when they are comic moments, I should get out of the way and let them play. I felt I should play it throughout like it’s a real horror movie.
What is your style, on a film like this, to create suspense and terror musically?
One of my all-time favorite composers who I love to listen to is Goldsmith, and he does horror so well and so beautifully. I know his scores pretty well, and I tried to incorporate what he does, which are those sustained chords that go on forever. Sometimes just keeping with one chord can create suspense just by itself – just that one discordant chord that just hangs… because you want it to resolve, you want it to go away, and sometimes when you hear that, it sends tingles up your spine. That’s a very, very easy thing to do, and I was trying to find the best way of composing a moment of tension, and I thought that was one way I wanted to approach it.
What can you tell me about your latest score, for SOPHIE’S REVENGE?
That’s the new movie with Zhang Ziyi. I just came back from Beijing where I recorded it, and it’s turned out really well. I think one of the reasons they hired me is, obviously, I‘m Chinese, but also they gave me the direction that “we want it Hollywood! We want it very Hollywoodish and lush and cinematic!” I think I accomplished that. I was able to talk them into giving me a very small orchestra that I sweetened the score with.
How would you describe your musical and thematic structure of that new score?
I love that movie. It’s a romantic comedy with a love triangle, and I love love triangles. It’s like NOTTING HILL, which is one of my favorite movies. Why? Because I think they incorporate songs really well into the underscore, and I used that as sort of my reference and example. They flew me back and forth to Beijing to talk with them. That was both a good thing and a bad thing. I couldn’t take my family, and that was a bad thing; the good thing was I had these face to face things with the director, Yimeng Jin. I’d told them, “Let’s just use skype? Let’s look at each other and talk on the phone.” They said, “No no no, we want you here.” There’s just something about being there physically, not looking at someone in the computer monitor. So, I went there and the first thing they said was, “We need a theme song.” I go, “Cool, let’s write a theme song!” So I sat down and basically I wrote the whole thing, but it was fun getting the director’s comments. She’s sort of a singer, so the theme song is written by both of us. It was fun coming up with a theme song and ultimately creating a score totally around that theme, so when you hear the theme song, which only happens at the very end of the movie, you’ve heard that theme so many times – but from an orchestral standpoint, from a celesta standpoint, from an accordion standpoint. First of all, Yimeng Jin loves AMELIE, the French film, and there’s a lot of European content in SOPHIE’S REVENGE, and I had a chance to work with the accordion in the score. But hopefully the audience will get sucked in to the movie enough so that they won’t necessarily be conscious and go, “Oh! Here’s the theme!” each time it comes in. Hopefully it’s not that, but the movie is totally saturated with the theme, and I’m very, very proud of that. And on top of that, I was able to tie in everybody else’s theme. Obviously the main title song and the melody is Sophie’s. Zhang Ziyi plays Sophie, and she has her enemy, Joanna, played by Fan Bingbing. She’s also a gorgeous woman, and I created something for her which is very sexy. They both have the same love interest, and he has a theme, but there’s also another guy – it’s more than a love triangle, it’s maybe a love rectangle! There are four main characters, and the melodies of the themes for the other three characters are all tied into a variation of Sophie’s theme. If you really listen to the score you can tell that everything ties together. Usually the end songs are written afterwards, or they get somebody else, an outsider, to write them, but not necessarily the composer. There are exceptions, like James Horner who did TITANIC, but normally they find a pop star and they stick it in. I’m very proud of this score because, again, the musical elements that surround this movie are all really all taken from the main theme.
I would think that would add a special expressiveness to the end title, almost like an epiphany, like we’re hearing it in its full expression now…
Yes, exactly! It was also very interesting because I was told by the producer, “you know, the Chinese public isn’t used to happy endings! Happy endings are sort of for Hollywood movies.” SOPHIE’S REVENGE has a very happy ending – everybody falls in love with the right person and everything’s fine. He was telling me that “this is so different than any other Chinese movie.” I say, “Really? Don’t they ever have happily-ever-after movies in China?” He goes, “Nope! They’re not used to it.” So I said, “well, that’s what you wanted, right?” He goes “Oh yeah, you did what we wanted, because it’s a Hollywood ending!”