An Interview with Neal Acree by John Mansell © 2006
I understand you were a big fan of film music as a youngster and your father was a talented musician. Was it these two factors that inspired you to become a musician yourself?
My father often tells the story that when I was a child, he had all kinds of instruments around the house that he used to dabble in. Guitar, violin, Celtic harp, hammered dulcimer, banjo, mandolin, and more. The whole time I was growing up he held out hope that I would eventually tell him that I wanted to learn an instrument. By the time I was 14, he had given up on the possibility of me going into music and he put away the instruments. It was just after that that I decided I wanted to pick up the guitar.
Some of my first memories are of going to the drive-through theater and seeing movies like STAR WARS, SUPERMAN, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and even ROCKY. Music is a huge part of all of these movies and even as I child I knew that those themes were part of the reason I was so moved emotionally.
I remember seeing a “making of” special on EMPIRE STRIKES BACK when I was very young. To this day, all I remember from it was a segment on sound and score where of all scenes, they played the one where a team of snow speeders searches for and find Han and Luke after they had been lost in a snowstorm somewhat early in the film – first without music, and then with. This is when I first became aware of the impact that music had on the viewing experience of a film.
What musical training did you undertake?
I didn’t have the usual university music degree training but I’ve never seen that as a disadvantage. I did study traditional classical harmony, composition, counterpoint and orchestration, as well as electronic music. As essential as all this is to the process, I have probably learned the most from studying and listening to scores and sitting in on scoring sessions where the actual process unfolds before your eyes. In addition to that, I’ve always felt that the two most important assets of a film composer are a strong dramatic sense and a willingness to experiment and take risks.
Did you set out to become a composer of music for film and TV or did you get into music and then follow this path?
I did a lot of experimental instrumental recording during and after high school. I would use whatever instruments and technology I could get my hands on and put down song after song on my 4 track. I had a lot of fun with it but it didn’t occur to me at the time that I was moving in this direction. In college I took an electronic music class with Mike Watts, a session keyboard player and orchestrator who regularly works with John Debney and Shirley Walker. He opened my eyes to film music and even took me to (among others) the scoring session to Debney’s LIAR LIAR. I knew when I saw that A-List orchestra at Todd-AO that I had found my calling.
I managed to get hold of a sampler of your film music, which contains some wonderful tracks; do you think any of your music from say GARGOYLE: WINGS OF DARKNESS or BELLE will ever get a commercial release, as the quality of the music on the sampler is excellent?
Thank you very much. Getting scores released commercially, even those for major films can be a tricky process. There are manufacturing and promotional costs, re-use fees and licensing issues to name a few of the obstacles. The main issue is that most composers don’t actually own the rights to their scores to do with as they please because they are considered “works for hire”. At the moment I’m waiting for the right project for an album release but I wouldn’t completely rule anything out for the future.
You began by working as a music editor, orchestrator, copyist and programmer, how did you eventually break into scoring movies?
I started out, as many have, by doing student films for next to nothing. This was an invaluable experience where I not only learned the craft but also assembled a demo reel that helped me get further jobs. My first real break was after having worked for Joel Goldsmith for about a year in various capacities when he introduced me to Jim Wynorski. Jim was directing a film called MILITIA starring Dean Cain and wanted Joel to write a theme. Joel convinced him to let me score the rest of the film without him ever hearing any of my previous work.
After MILITIA I went on to do several films for Jim on my own which also led to friends of his and producers from those films to hire me for other projects. It was a fateful meeting.
When working on a score for TV or the cinema how do you work out your musical ideas, do you use piano, synth or in your head?
A little bit of each of these approaches comes into play on each project. For me the process is fairly intuitive and often involves a variety of approaches within any given cue. I generally write at the keyboard, laying down tracks and mixing as I go to create a fully realized piece of music by the time I’m done, but whenever possible I like to try different approaches.
At what stage of the proceedings do you like to become involved on a project?
I’ve always been more visually inspired than anything else. Since my contribution to the film often involves emphasizing aspects of a scene that may not be completely communicated in the script, it helps to be able to react to picture, as the viewer would. Everything from lighting to camera movement to scene pacing can help suggest ideas so for this reason, I like to do the bulk of the work to a locked cut of the picture, even though this often occurs very late in the process. That having been said, I’m currently working on film that required some ideas to be put together at the script level which is an entirely different experience. I suppose the ideal situation for me would be to get involved early on some level but write the majority of the score to some form of picture.
A number of composers have released some of their scores on to promo CDs is this something that you have done, or maybe would consider doing?
I have made some of my scores available as very limited promos as a means of getting my work heard. As far as a wider promotional release, I will probably do so when the right project comes along.
How long do you normally get from start to finish to come up with a score for a motion picture – maybe you could use DEADLY SWARM as an example?
One advantage to lower budget independent films is that because they don’t have a set release date, they often allow a bit more time for scoring. That’s not always the case and with last minute picture changes and visual effects revisions, I’ve seen my fair share of near impossible schedules. I think I had 5 or 6 weeks on DEADLY SWARM which was very reasonable. One thing you have to consider is that on a big budget studio film, a composer has the luxury of working with a team of orchestrators, copyists, assistants, programmers, a mixer, an engineer, music editor(s), a contractor, an orchestra, and maybe even a ghost writer or two. This creates a unique situation for those of us who do it all by ourselves.
What do you think is the purpose of music in film?
One of the fascinating things about film music to me is that it can function on so many different levels, often within the same film, and it is only limited by the vision of the filmmakers. So, the long answer: On its most basic, technical level, music can help smooth out the editing process by drawing attention away from scene transitions, time lapses or montages. Music can enhance the narrative or even be the narrator.
It can function purely on a stylistic level, on a dramatic level or both. It can create excitement or tension where it may otherwise be lacking or propel a scene forward by adding pace. It can help define a time period or location or even illuminate the subtext of the scene. It can tell you what to think and what to feel about a scene and even trick you into thinking the wrong thing. Most importantly to me though, music is the emotional link between the characters and events on the screen and the viewer. There are many ways that film can entice you to become emotionally invested in the characters and in the outcome of a story that you’re only experiencing for a couple of hours of your life, but music is the most powerful of them.
The short answer: The purpose of music in film is to enhance the viewers experience in ways that visual images and sound cannot accomplish entirely on their own. This answer, of course, greatly understates just how important music is in film.
Are there any composers living or dead that you think have influenced you in the way you write music at all?
Honestly, there are few composers that haven’t influenced me in one way or another. There are so many that I admire that if I made a list it would seem ridiculously long and I’d probably still end up leaving someone out. If I had to name one, it would probably be Jerry Goldsmith. Not necessarily just in style, but hearing him talk about the craft really helped de-mystify it for me.
Do you think that the use of a temp track on a movie is a help or is off putting for a composer? I have been told that often the director gets so used to the temp that he is sometimes reluctant to use anything else.
Temp scores can be a blessing and a curse. On the up side, they can give you an insight into what the director is looking for (or not looking for) in a way that words may not be able to convey. I have been fortunate to have worked with a few directors who had great taste in music and created temp scores that not only inspired me but encouraged me to use a different approach than I might normally have. These directors were also open to hearing something that ignored the temp completely, which is not always the case.
Have you a favourite score of your own and why?
I’m probably most proud of my score BELLE because it has always felt like it closest represented my true style as a composer. More people have responded to that score than any of my others and I believe that’s because it came from a place deeper within me than most. 7 SECONDS is another one because I had a lot of fun playing around in the techno/rock/orchestra style. Those 2 scores, despite being very different, are probably the best representation of who I am musically, or at least who I was a couple of years ago.
How about by another composer?
That’s a very tough question because there are so many scores out there that I really admire. James Horner’s LEGENDS OF THE FALL is definitely one of my favorites because it is so rich in melody and emotion. I think it’s one of Horner’s best. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is another, as is THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I love melodic writing as much as I love to hear fresh sounds, textures and rhythms. If you asked me tomorrow I’d probably have a different list.
You worked alongside Joel Goldsmith on various TV projects. What were these and in what capacity did you work?
I started out as Joel’s assistant and this involved everything from managing many of the technical aspects of the studio to orchestrating and eventually helping out with some writing. I learned a lot from Joel about the business, the creative process and most of all the technology. This led to my current involvement with STARGATE SG-1 on which I am a co-composer.
When working on a score do you have a set way in which you like to work, i.e. main titles through to end titles, or maybe you prefer to tackle larger cues first leaving the shorter stabs till later?
I generally try to tackle the main themes first and then work my way through to the end. One advantage of this approach is that as I become more and more immersed in the score, the music develops and branches out chronologically, adding a forward momentum to the music in real time. At least that’s what I tell myself. I do on occasion approach some of the key scenes earlier on so as to establish themes in context and to have places to build up to. It really depends on how and where themes will play key roles in the film.
CURSE OF KOMODO contains a very powerful main theme and a strong score, what size orchestra did you utilise for this project?
Thank you. Actually, the score to CURSE OF THE KOMODO was created entirely with samples.
What is up next for you?
In addition to being in the middle of the 10th season of STARGATE SG-1, I’ve just begun work on a film called JUNCTURE for James Seale, with whom I worked on a film called THROTTLE. James has such a great appreciation and understanding of the function of music in film that every score I do for him feels like a dream project. Music always plays a prominent role in his films and they always give me an opportunity to try to reinvent myself. I feel like this is going to be a very different score for me.
I understand you studied in England at one point – where and when was this?
It was exactly 10 years ago now that I studied in Yorkshire. The program mainly emphasized electronic music but included many other aspects, including multimedia. The best thing about that trip was that every weekend I got to travel to a different corner of Britain and Ireland. I’ve always felt very close to England, and not just because of my English and Scottish heritage.
Many thanks to Neal Acree for taking time out of his very busy schedule to answer my questions.