An Interview with Pinar Toprak by John Mansell © 2011
Pinar Toprak is best known for composing the film score for BEHIND ENEMY LINES II: AXIS OF EVIL and the Xbox 360 video game NINETY-NINE NIGHTS. Born in Istanbul, she began her music education at the age of five at the Istanbul State Conservatory. While at the conservatory, she studied composition, violin as well as voice and graduated with a diploma in classical guitar. In 1997, Pinar moved to Chicago and studied piano and jazz theory with many master jazz pianists. Later, Toprak completed her Bachelor’s degree in Film Scoring at the Berklee College of Music in two years and received a Master of Music degree in composition from the California State University at the age of 22. Her composing career began as a contributor at Media Ventures (now known as Remote Control Productions), home of the legendary film composer Hans Zimmer during projects such as PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, THE LAST SAMURAI and KING ARTHUR.
Your score for THE LIGHTKEEPERS was recently released on Movie Score Media, this is a charming and haunting work and one which has been nominated for an Award by the International film Music Critics Association, how did you become involved on this project?
Thank you. This film came to me at the very last minute. I knew one of the producers of the film, Straw Weisman, with whom I had worked on 5 or 6 films in the past. We have a great relationship and I respect him a lot, so when I got the call on my birthday at midnight from him, I knew I wanted to be involved in this film. The whole score came together rather quickly. A couple of days after I got the call we spotted it and a little less than 3 weeks after that I had to deliver it. It was a crazy schedule to say the least considering the amount of music that was on the film but I enjoyed every minute of it. There are not many films made like this one these days. It’s a very heartfelt, emotional, beautiful story that was directed and acted superbly. They made my job very easy.
One of your up and coming projects is THE RIVER SORROW directed by Rich Cowan. When you are asked to score a movie do you like to be involved with it as early as it is possible, maybe even reading the script? Or do you prefer to see the rough cut version of the picture before you come on board?
I prefer to get involved as early as I can. Most of the times I read the script, then I watch the rough cut(s) many times. I like being immersed in the film and catching new nuisances each time. I think it’s very important to do your homework both technically and emotionally.
LIGHT OF OLYMPIA was an animated feature, how does scoring an animated movie differ from scoring live action, if indeed it does?
The timeline is the most different aspect I would say. I scored LIGHT OF OLYMPIA almost 3 years ago and they are just about finished with the film now. I started writing for it when they only had some hand-drawn images. They didn’t really even have their timings or the storyline all together. So I had to be very flexible with their changes. I personally love writing in this genre. With the live action films the general approach can be a bit more subtle, but with an animated picture, especially with one that has a talking donkey competing in the Olympics you have a lot more room to go all out. 🙂 It’s really a joy to wake up every day and to write that style of music.
You studied in Istanbul at the renowned conservatory there, at what age did you begin to take an interest in music and what instruments did you concentrate upon whilst studying?
If you asked my parents they would have said when I was 18 months old but I’m going to say when I was 5. Thanks to my father who recognized how much I loved music and signed me up for the auditions for the State Conservatory. My first instrument was violin and although string writing is my favorite thing to do now, at the time I didn’t really like playing the violin… So I switched to classical guitar and got my degree in it. Then I went to Berklee College of Music and got my bachelors in film scoring and piano. These days I’m mostly playing the piano with brief moments of classical guitar.
Were any of your family musical in any way?
Yes, my father was a violinist when he was young. He was very talented but decades ago in Istanbul it was hard making a living off of it, so he had to get a real job. My mother is also a very talented oud player. She performs very often in Istanbul.
When you are asked to score a project, on average how many times do you like to see it before getting any fixed ideas about the music, its style and where it is to be placed?
It depends on how much time they are giving me to score it. If I need to deliver a score in 3 weeks I don’t have the luxury of time to sit and think long about it but if I do have time I watch it many times. I want the film to feel natural to me. I want to know all the details and digest everything. It’s sort of like making a stew :-). I put all the ingredients together, cover it up and hopefully after some time when I open up the lid it will taste right.
When a compact disc is issued commercially of one of your scores, are you involved in the process of compiling what music goes onto the disc?
When we released THE LIGHTKEEPERS Mikael Carlsson was absolutely fantastic. He put together the tracks, I had only a couple of minor notes but that was it. But with BEHIND ENEMY LINES II I had put everything together myself and with NINETY-NINE NIGHTS they compiled it themselves, so it changes each time.
You just mentioned NINETY-NINE NIGHTS, which was for the Xbox 360, does the scoring process differ greatly when writing music for a game as opposed to writing for a motion picture?
It was very different for me. I was involved in this game from a very early stage so I didn’t have much to score to besides the basic story and some still images. Later on I did have some cinematics, which I think is pretty similar to writing for movies but the rest of the process was very different. When you write music for films it’s very linear and what you wrote won’t change once the film is released. But with games, the player changes the course of the game and the music has to follow, so it was fun to write things that loop and develop a certain way. I had a lot of fun.
Do you orchestrate all of your own music, and do you think that orchestration is an important part of the composing process?
Yes and no. I orchestrate everything in Cubase, most of the times down to all the divisi parts, so the sequence is pretty clean to begin with. I often don’t have the time to input everything in Sibelius so I work with a wonderful orchestrator/human being Jerome Leroy. He takes my sequences and orchestrates them in Sibelius. But after that I print out all the scores (when it comes to looking over scores nothing is faster than paper/pen in my opinion) and make all the changes necessary. After many orchestral recordings Jerome and I have the process down by now and it works well.
I think orchestration is the heart of a composition. The right voicings, the right instrumentation are critical to the emotion you are trying to convey. I am very passionate about orchestration and just recently I started teaching an orchestration class for Berklee College of Music online. I am having a great time going back to basics and teaching the importance and the power of good orchestration.
What composers or artists would you say have been influential to you?
This answer has the potential to be very long. Different artists have influenced me at different times of my life. When I was little and I was just being introduced to the world of soundtracks there was something magical about Ennio Morricone, John Barry and John Williams’ music to me. Their music went straight to my heart. Their music was and is not only beautifully crafted but it has a lot of emotional juice in it. When I did my Masters, my thesis was on John Corigliano. I listened to his Symphony No.1 when I was at Berklee and that was it, I was hooked. Then THE RED VIOLIN… what a score! It’s the type of score that if I had written it, it would make me leave everything and move to Tibet. I would consider myself done! 🙂 Joke aside that score really ignited something in me. And last but not least Hans Zimmer. I was infatuated by his music and the monopoly he has created. I find him very inspiring. These are just the film composers; there are many more composers/musicians that inspire me every day and they change depending on my mood. A friend of mine even introduced me to some country artists and I actually enjoyed some of the tracks quite a bit. Who knew? It’s good be open minded and listen to lots of different things. There is so much great music going on it’s unbelievable. We are very fortunate to have quick access to all this greatness.
Sadly not many of your scores are available on compact disc, I know that a number of composers do produce their own CDs for promotional use, do you or have you done this or maybe thought of doing so?
I’ve been getting a lot of requests to release some of my scores and I have thought about producing my own CDs. It’s always on my mind but I have been getting sidetracked by other projects. I will definitely get to them at some point.
LIGHT OF OLYMPIA sounds as if it is performed by a large orchestra, what size orchestra did you utilize on this assignment?
I think the orchestra was 60 piece. But I also added quite a bit of my own MIDI mock-ups to the orchestra at times.
Do you conduct at all?
I did study conducting and enjoy it a lot but with my film projects I prefer being in the control room. I like being with my director and the producer and making sure everyone is happy.
Did you always want to write music for film, or was this something that happened as your career in music progressed?
I always wanted to write for films but I didn’t always think I could actually do it. While in Istanbul, when I told my friends and family that I wanted to major in film scoring most of them tried to push me towards piano performance. They thought the odds of a young female composer from Istanbul making a living in film scoring were slim. Which is why when I first started Berklee I was a piano performance major. I was boiling on the inside. I didn’t want to be a pianist but I was told that made more sense. However one late night after I left my practice room, I went to Tower Records. I only had 20 bucks in my pocket. I was listening to film scores on the listening stations. PRINCE OF EGYPT had just come out. I listened to that CD for almost an hour and bought it with the last of my money – didn’t sleep all night. I got out next morning and changed my major. For the first time in my life I was alone and realized that nobody will be living with my choices but me. I still have that CD in my studio next to my piano, the jewel case is all worn out. Looking at it everyday brings me back to that day when I made the best decision of my life.
When scoring a movie, do you tackle it in any particular order, ie: main titles through to end titles, or maybe smaller cues first etc?
My order is pretty linear. Unless there is a particular reason that I should write a certain cue first I usually start from the main titles and evolve with the film. I do try to write my themes first, but honestly many times when I dive deep into the film I end up writing something else. I like to evolve and progress with the film.
After you graduated you joined the ‘Media Ventures Team’, what projects did you work on whilst you were there?
I was a programmer during PIRATES OF THE CARRIBBEAN 1, THE LAST SAMURAI and KING ARTHUR and some other projects in between.
You have worked on many genres of film, and in a very short time span scored nearly thirty, is there any particular genre you feel happier to be working on, or are you at ease with any subject matter?
I am happy to work on any film that’s well made (or let’s be realistic, if it’s not well made it needs to be well-paid :)). It’s always fun to discover yourself and your capabilities with each genre. That being said I don’t believe that every composer is or should be that versatile. We all have our strengths… It doesn’t mean we can’t all fake it and figure things out along the way but you hear the difference when an orchestral composer writes purely electronic music or when a rock’n roll guitarist writes orchestral music. It doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be good but I think every musician has their comfort zone and for me that’s orchestral music. As for subject matters, I am open to any good story that is told well. It all starts with a good story. If it’s good it makes a composer’s process much more enjoyable in my opinion.
In your opinion, what do you think is the purpose of music in film?
I think the purpose itself changes from one film to another. My general point of view is that the film itself is the main melody. You have to put your ego aside and surrender yourself to the film. It’s teamwork. You have to listen to your filmmaker and figure out what they think should be the purpose of the score. It doesn’t mean we don’t have a voice and an opinion but we have to understand that it’s their film first and foremost. We all know how dull and almost torturous it would be to watch a film without music, so it’s crucial that it gets done and that it gets done right. Sometimes the music says what’s not told on the screen but instead shows what’s felt, occassionally some directors like to do the opposite of what you see, sometimes we lightly support the scene and sometimes a grand musical gesture is what is appropriate. The exact purpose changes but at the end we are part of filmmaking. We are one of the elements of a film, a significantly important element.
When you sit down to write a score, how do you work out your musical ideas, piano, synth, or straight to manuscript?
I play everything on the piano. Even when I orchestrate I play all my voicings on the piano. If it sounds good there then it will probably sound good when it’s orchestrated.
Two of your scores for me personally just stand out, THE SINNER and also SAY IT IN RUSSIAN, both contain some excellent and highly emotional violin solos, do you use a specific soloist?
Thank you. An amazing violinist friend of mine played for SINNER. SAY IT IN RUSSIAN was recorded in Belgrade.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am just finishing up a stunningly shot documentary feature called THE WIND GODS: 33RD AMERICA’S CUP. It’s a documentary about Larry Ellison’s amazing America’s Cup victory. It’s beautifully shot and I had a chance to reunite with one of my favorite people to work with and a good friend, David Ellison. We are a few weeks away from recording it. I can’t wait to share it with everyone. In the meantime I am also starting a really exciting film that has a really captivating story called THE RIVER SORROW starring Ray Liotta, Christian Slater and Ving Rhames. I am very excited about this one.
Have you a favoured studio in which you record your scores, and also do you have a preference for any one orchestra?
I recorded most of my scores in Eastern Europe. Mostly Belgrade and a couple of times in Prague. I recorded lots of overdubs and soloists in LA but I’m hoping that very soon budgets will allow me to record a full orchestra in LA as well.