An Interview with Nuno Malo by John Mansell © 2010
Nuno Malo has worked on many feature films (including THE CELESTINE PROPHECY), several short films, high profile commercials, and has also released 3 instrumental solo CD albums: ‘Cloud and Water’, ‘Star-Crossing’, and ‘Morning Star’. ‘Star-Crossing’ was nominated for a Golden Melody Award (the Equivalent to a Grammy in Taiwan).
In addition to his film credits, Nuno has been awarded with many prestigious international awards and accolades including a BMI Film Music Award/Scholarship (At USC), Los Angeles USA, The Malcolm Arnold Prize, London UK, The Worshipful Company of Musicians Silver Medal, London UK, The Henry Purcell Composition Prize, London UK and the Camões Song Competition, Portugal.
You began by being involved with film making itself, when did you decide to start to concentrate on writing music for film and was being involved with movies something that you had always wanted to do?
Absolutely. I always had a passion for films, from an extremely early age. As a child I watched obsessively as many movies as I could. I did not know I wanted to do music for films then, but I knew that I wanted to be in some way related to films. When I was around 12 years of age I developed a big interest in music, and at 14 it become clear to me that my biggest passion in life was film music and that I would do my best to try to follow down that path, even though at that time it seemed to be like an impossibly hard job to me, and I thought I was miserable at it. But it was then to late to change my mind, as I was completely hooked and heavily obsessed with it.
Where and when were you born?
Madeira Island, Portugal, on October 22, 1977
I think your first movie scoring assignment was THE POLICEWOMAN in 2003, how did you become involved with this project?
At the time, I just had a piece performed in a Young Composers’ Concert, organized by the Lisbon Metropolitan Orchestra. I was not present at the concert as I was already living in Los Angeles by this time, but the director of the film was somehow present at the concert and liked my piece. He then contacted me about working on his film. He came to see me in Los Angeles, and I ended up working on the film. He was an immensely kind person and gave me my first opportunity to score a whole film with an Orchestra, which was something that had not been done in Portugal for many years. Since then I have tried my best to bring back the trend of scoring with orchestras in Portugal and I think I have successfully managed to get a few directors and producers to realize its power in film.
Do you conduct all of your film scores, or do you at times have a conductor so that you can monitor the scoring process from the recording booth?
I have conducted on a couple of projects, but mostly have sat in the booth, as I thought I should humbly learn more about the process until I think I am really ready to achieve the highest quality of performance out of the orchestra. I eventually want to conduct my scores, as I think it is one of the most fun parts of the process, so I would be sad to miss out on that wonderful opportunity. I conducted the whole music of ‘Cloud and Water’ Album in 2004, with the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra, and absolutely loved the experience.
BACKLIGHT is one of your latest projects; will there be a compact disc release of this score, as the samples sound excellent?
Thank you! I am not yet sure about a release of a BACKLIGHT CD, but I had many personal requests, so the likelihood of a release is high, if a Record Label will be interested in putting it out.
AMALIA, is a movie about the famous Portuguese diva Amalia Rodrigues, what size orchestra did you utilize for this particular picture?
The size of the Orchestra was around 55 musicians, plus solo cello, guitars and piano which were recorded separately.
You scored an advertisement for ‘Sagres’ entitled DIAMONDS, which starred Pierce Brosnan, which attracted a lot of attention, it had a definite James Bond feel and sound to it, was this something you decided to do, or were you asked by the director to approach it in this way?
I was asked by the director to approach it that way, and I think it made sense because the whole advertisement was a kind of homage to the films of James Bond, so I think the music had to play along that road, in order to successfully allude to the well known character.
Do you orchestrate all of your own music for film, and do you think orchestration is an important part of the composing process?
I love to orchestrate, and for me it is a very, very important part of the process, where a further personal stamp can be added which helps the music become more personal, and further develop and define a personal style, which is perhaps the most important thing for any composer. I have fully orchestrated most of my scores. However, due to time constraints I have had to use on occasion the help of orchestrators in order to deliver the music on time. But there was never a project or film where I didn’t do at least half of orchestrations.
I really feel that when I orchestrate my pieces, I am still adding compositional ideas, and extra lines, that otherwise would not be there if I had given such a piece to an orchestrator. This is because he would be simply fleshing out from my sketch, and would not adding lines, improving voicings, thickening out certain parts, etc.
I feel that when I orchestrate my music I am given the chance to refine the music, and really take it to the next level by adding things that perhaps in the rush of finishing each cue for the director to hear, there was no time to do everything I intended to do compositionally. I love and treasure this second chance to make the music better!
What musical training did you receive, and what instrument or instruments did you concentrate on whilst studying, and do you perform on your movie scores?
I concentrated on piano and classical guitar whilst studying. However, I am an eternal student! I am always learning a new instrument because I love to learn new things. I collect all kinds of ethnic instruments and I learn every year to play new instruments.
I play several different kinds of guitars, like Portuguese guitar (Ethnic Portuguese 12-string guitar), mandolin, dobro, electric guitar, etc…
I also play gusle (Ethnic Balkan violin) which is absolutely beautiful and unusual in tone plus ethnic flutes and Armenian duduk.
I perform extensively on my scores as I love to do it, and I think that it is an opportunity to expand on the orchestra and add another layer of texture. I think it allows us to create more personal textures and sounds by recording our own instruments, rather than limiting ourselves to using just sample libraries. I often also record my voice on my scores. Sometimes solo voice, and other times multi-layered overdubbed choral lines.
How many times do you like to view a project before you begin to get firm ideas about where music should be best placed and what style of music you will provide?
Once or twice. I like to have a fresh approach to the film, and I prefer to remember my first impressions, than to wash them away by viewing the film too many times. At least in the beginning when I am developing the main ideas or themes of the film. Later in the process, after I have composed the main themes and hopefully have captured the essence of the film in them, I don’t mind watching a scene many times over, to perfect it as much as I can with more details in the music, for instance, by playing around with the exact placement of the music or perhaps by doing some orchestration changes in certain cuts in order to dramatically enhance or subdue a moment etc…
‘Cloud And Water’, is a commissioned album and was released in 2003, who approached you with the idea for this to be recorded and how do you get the inspiration to compose music for such a project?
‘Cloud and Water’ was the second of three commissioned albums by Serena Chen, the first one being Star-Crossing, and the third one being Morning-Star. Cloud and Water is my favourite of the three.
Serena Chen, who was a music colleague of mine in London, is very fond of film music so the stylistic approach for the album was a kind of lyrical, lush and dramatic story-telling. The album is an homage to the Taiwanese Buddhist Master Shin-Yung, who is one of the most well known religious personalities in Asia. Each track in the CD depicts a real situation from his life. So the inspiration was basically his life, which was quite a dramatic one, so it lent itself to musical dramatization. There is a lot of influence from Chinese folk music, which was blended and threaded into a more cinematic orchestral sound, upon the producer’s wishes.
You have utilized a number of orchestras, The Bulgarian State Orchestra being one of them; do you have a preference for any one particular orchestra or any specific recording studio?
I worked quite a lot with the Hungarian Radio Orchestra and liked the result very much. They have wonderful sound stages in Eastern Europe, and these have been my preference until now. Of course where budget would allow I would certainly choose a London Orchestra. I also really loved working with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (on THE CELESTINE PROPHECY). To put it simply, better paid orchestras such as in Los Angeles and London, often work harder, play better, and give better results. Unfortunately due to budget restrictions I can’t always work in these two cities, and fortunately there are wonderful alternatives out there, like Hungary, and Czech Republic, which can produce amazing results in most cases.
When a recording is issued or to be issued of one of your scores, do you have any involvement in selecting certain cues to go onto the CD?
Usually I do take part in that process.
What composers either classical, contemporary or those who write for film, would you say have influenced you?
I have listened a lot, and I really have a wide range of composers and styles that I like and that influenced me. When I was a child Prokofiev was a big influence in captivating my attention to orchestral music, with his wonderful ‘Romeo and Juliet’ score. I also love Mahler, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff.
In the film area, I have been influenced by John Williams, Thomas Newman, Ennio Morricone, Danny Elfman, James Horner, Alan Silvestri. I tend to favour composers who have a very identifiable style, and strong emotional content in their music, and a fair amount of originality.
I have also been very influenced by such artists as Sting, Pat Metheny, Sade, Yellow Jackets, Huey Lewis and the News, and 80’s pop music in general.
Have you ever decided not to work on a project for any reason, or had music rejected by a producer/director?
I have rejected a few films, based either on lack of quality, or inability to agree upon the terms. Fortunately I have never had my film score rejected. However I have nightmares about it, and dread the day it will happen and it probably will, I am sure. If a composer stays long enough in the film industry, as I plan to do, it’s very rare to not ever have a score rejected! Oh, I have shivers just to think of it.
Actually I did have once a pop song for a commercial rejected. But I was working on spec anyway, so it was not totally unexpected. The replacement was an existing American #1 hit song which they probably planned on using all along, so it did not hurt that much. Having a whole score rejected – That is the nightmare!
In your opinion, what role should music play in a film?
I think it depends of the film or on the scene. But my favourite thing is when the music adds an extra layer of emotion or expression. It tries to express something that the movie alone is somehow missing, rather than just illustrating what is already there. However one can’t do that all the time, because it would probably overpower the film. There are all kinds of moments in a film where music plays slightly different roles, and they are all valid, as long as they work to picture. It is up to you and the director to shape a balanced structure that will have subtle moments, and heightened moments. In my opinion the overall story is very important in helping you make decisions about the role of the music on each scene. The idea is to thread a score that takes you on an emotional ride that is unexpected, captivating and fulfilling.
The usefulness or effectiveness of the temp track is a question that I often asked composer about, do you like to have a temp track installed on the movie to get an idea of what the director or producer thinks would suit the particular project, or do you prefer no music at all so that you have a blank canvas to work on?
Most composers always say they hate a temp track! However I think the answer depends a lot on which kind of director/producer you are working with. In general I would say that not having a temp track is a better thing so I have a blank canvas and so the director does not have a pre-conceived idea of what each cue should sound like. I prefer the director to have just a general idea of which type of music genre he would like to have, and to tell me the purpose of music in his film, at a dramatic/emotional level. This way it is more likely that I will be able to compose a more original score, which is usually a better thing.
I always try to compose something that is not derivative from the temp track, and depending on the openness and sensitivity of the director I may or may not manage to influence him into accepting a different musical path from the one he got used too with the temp track.
However on some films where the Director is very inexperienced, or simply does not know what he wants the film to achieve dramatically, it can be of great help to have a temp score, and it might even keep you out of trouble. I have worked on projects where there was no temp at all, and where the director was very unsure of himself, and this lead to having to do countless re-writes because of lack of direction from the director. For a fruitful and pleasant collaboration on a film, I think that a director must have confidence and know what he wants.
Even if not musically at least dramatically, so that the composer can then translate that into a musical language that should result in the director receiving a score that works with the film and that lives inside the realm and vision of the Director. The temp track gives us very good clues as to which direction the music should take, and if a composer if skilled enough it should not be a problem to create something that addresses the dramatic needs of the scene but stays completely away from the temp. Nothing feels better than when a director says, “Your piece is so different from the temp but it works much better”. Even when the director is addicted to the temp, I believe that it is possible to create a piece that will make the director see it differently. “Copying” the temp is easy, but is not a brave decision from the composer, and should be the last solution in a very bad scenario, and it should never be copying, but be inspired by. In cases where the director/producer actually asks the composer to copy or come really close to the temp, I think that is a case where the composer should ask himself if he should remain in the project, and how much is he willing to let go of his own integrity to please the director, or keep the job.
Fortunately, I have never been asked yet to come really close to a temp track, and have so far been able to luckily resolve “temp addictions” in creative ways.
Do the directors/producers you have worked with have a great deal of input into the way in which their movies are scored, i.e. what style of music, how much music etc. is to be used within the film?
It’s a combination. Usually I try to guide them into the right direction, like not over scoring the picture. Not making understatements with the music. Playing against the picture in some scenes etc. Often they have trusted me and followed my suggestions. The one thing that sometimes doesn’t follow is the amount of music. They sometimes, because of lack of experience with film scores, feel uncomfortable with the scenes being left without music, so they ask me to score more than I think is enough. Maybe they feel they are getting more for their money by having me compose more music, but this is often a big mistake that makes the audience become desensitized about the music as there is too much of it. Spotting the film well is such an important part in order to have a score work in an effective way with the picture.
How much time are you normally given to complete a score, or does this vary from project to project?
It varies on the type of film, the amount of work involved, whether or not there is the use of an orchestra, etc. I usually get anywhere between a month and a half to 3 months.
Ideally I like being brought on before the film is completed so I have extra time to develop good themes, this way when the film becomes locked and ready to score, I already have the most important things worked out, which are the themes. The raw material upon which the score will be built and tailored on.
When working on a film score, how do you work out your musical ideas, by this I mean do you use piano, synthesizer or computer?
I use all of those methods. It just depends on the music style that I am working on. I often like at a direct connection to an instrument when starting out ideas rather than having immediately the computer. I think it is better when working on melodic and harmonic material. So usually go to my acoustic piano, or sometimes a guitar when the style lends itself to it. However I sometimes use crazy methods. The main title of THE CELESTINE PROPHECY was composed while playing on a synth patch and singing into a microphone that was heavily processed with reverb and delay. Sometimes I like to play with sound patches that help me feel the mood I want to reach with the theme.
Other times I might create a rhythmical pattern or ostinato and after that I’ll literally sing melodic lines and counter-lines to it. Sometimes I’ve also written entirely orchestrated pieces directly onto score paper in Sibelius, without sketching out anything beforehand. I use several different methods, but one thing is key to me, which is I always follow my intuition, and always follow my heart.
Usually what I am playing on an instrument is just a very small percentage of what I am hearing inside my head. Most of my musical ideas are created first in my head or inner ear.
The musical instruments are just like tools to help get an idea out of depths of the mind into the real world. Oh Gosh, I think this might sound pretentious when I am saying it, but it really is the best way to describe the way I feel about my process of creating music.
Do you think a good score can save a bad movie and vice versa do you think a good film can be spoilt by inappropriate music?
This is a very important question, and very tough to answer decisively. I have thought a lot about this topic over the years and discussed it with friends and colleagues. In my opinion music cannot save a bad movie. It can however make it more watchable and more entertaining. I guess we could say that’s already partially saving it, but it is not turning it into a great film. Equally, I also do not think that bad music can really destroy a film, because I can think of several examples of films I really love, but I did not like the score. The music can slightly spoil my experience of the film, but it cannot turn a good movie into a bad movie. Music cannot turn a film into a great movie or an awful one by itself. But it can turn a good film into a pure wonder, or a bad film into an unwatchable one. I guess this is a grey area and I admit I am not fully decided about this issue and will continue to think and ponder on it.
Have you conducted any concerts of your film music, and if not would this be something you would like to do?
No I have not. This is indeed something I would love to do in the future.
What are you working on at the moment?
I think I am going to work on a Spanish/Portuguese TV series called0 ‘Barcelona, Neutral City’. It consists of two episodes of 90 minutes each. It is a period piece set in the First World War, taking place in Barcelona. The tag-line of the film is “An impossible love in a city shaken by the First World War”. That’s all I know about it at the moment.
After that I have THE GREAT GAME by Leonel Vieira, who was the director of JULGAMENTO. There are also two other American films slated which I hope I will soon be able to talk about.
Many thanks to Nuno Malo, for his time and his patience with all my questions.