An Interview with Rick Marvin by Ford A. Thaxton
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.74/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Ford A. Thaxton
Rick Marvin moved through the ranks from session player to composer. With his score to the hit U-boat movie, U-571, he’s gaining a great deal of recognition – not bad for a composer without a single soundtrack album to his credit. Marvin started out as a synth player on film scores during the 1980s, graduating to composition in the 1990s, with such notable scores as 3 NINJAS and ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN.
Interviewed in early May, Marvin described his film music experiences and his work on U-571.
You just finished U-571, which has become a major success at the box office. How did you become involved in the film?
I’ve known the director, Jonathan Mostow, for about eight or nine years. I did his first release, which was FLIGHT OF BLACK ANGEL. It was my first film and his first film.
Was that an acoustic or a synthetic score?
It was a hybrid score. We had about two and a half weeks to do it, and $13,000. It was nominated for an Ace Award at the time. Then Jonathan was in various development deals for the next six years, and in the meantime I scored another eighteen or nineteen independent films and television shows.
The best known of which was a very charming family film, called THE 3 NINJAS.
I did several movies for the Disney family Sunday night Movie of the Week, including GOLD RUSH and ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN (1995), BALLOON FARM, and various other things with the company that had originally done FLIGHT OF BLACK ANGEL with John. And then in ‘98, John Mostow got ROAD END, directed BREAKDOWN, and I was not able to get cleared by the powers that be…
You’re credited with scoring additional music to BREAKDOWN. Originally Basil Poledouris was engaged to score the film.
Yeah, and he did score it.
Then, at some point during the post-production process, you got a phone call to come in and write additional cues… Where is your music in the movie? What were the circumstances from your perspective on that one?
I have about 22 minutes in the movie – one of the major action scenes in the middle where there’s a big chase, and then virtually the whole end of the movie, from the chase on. The action stuff, and a tension cue in the bank, that’s mine. Funny thing, I had been working with John all along, doing some demos and stuff for him on BREAKDOWN, and, when I didn’t get approved by the producers, it was a big let down, obviously. John was given a list of three guys he could hire and they wound up with Basil who, I think, did a great job. It was just not something that John was happy with, so in the end he asked me to redo several things. And, at that point, Paramount had come on board, and they were thrilled with my music and what it had added to the movie. So this time, when the same producer was there, on U-571, there was no problem or anything. He was a fan by that point.
U-571 is a huge action adventure epic set in the ocean during World War II, quite a bit different from the kind of thing you’ve scored before. Was this daunting, because there’s a lot of music, sound effects, and everything else…?
When we first envisioned the score, it was really military oriented. I had done a lot of that kind of music in FLIGHT OF THE BLACK ANGEL, and I had done four other military movies with the same production company, and they were all action oriented. They were airplane oriented as opposed to submarine oriented, but it was not a stretch at all when we first started conceptualizing the score for U-571. Then things sort of changed in the middle of it, and all of a sudden there was a lot of pressure to make it an old-fashioned kind of score, to make it epic and heroic and patriotic, which was nothing that we ever thought was going to be part of the score. So there was a left turn about three months before the actual final, and we had to rethink everything. That’s sort of the good and the bad of the score; it’s come out as an old-fashioned kind of military action score.
The film has this patriotic, very sweeping theme. Now when you came to score the film, did they already have a temp track going?
Yeah. I was actually involved early on in this movie – I’ve been on it for a year – so I had about 25 minutes of my music in the temp, but the larger themes were certainly from CDs of existing music. Actually the picture editor was the one who did the temp, and he… how do I say this nicely… he dictated where the whole score was going.
And then of course you also know that whatever you write in certain sections is going to be completely obliterated by sound effects.
We knew that sound was going to be a big element in this movie. One of the hard things to do is to keep the director focused on the complexities of this, the amount of sound that was going to be present in a lot of these cues. He has a tendency to do the music and do the sound and doesn’t think about how they’re going to relate until they get to the dub stage.
How much music ended up in the movie?
Between 75 and 80 minutes.
How long a time did you have to write all that?
We had an unusual process. I had three months from a “locked” picture till the end of the dub, and we spread out the recording sessions over a two and a half-month period. We’d do a couple days in one week, then I’d take a couple weeks to write, and then we’d do another day. So we had probably 18 sessions over that period.
And you recorded here in Los Angeles?
Was there any discussion about taking it out of town?
Yeah, we were originally going to do it in London. We thought about doing it in Rome also, because they shot it over there. In the end, again, Jonathan Mostow just wanted to stay home. He had the luxury of being slightly under budget, so it was not an issue.
What was the moment in the film that broke it for you? Was there a moment in the film that became the core of what you were doing, that the score took off from?
There’s a scene where the submarine actually leaves the pier for the first time, and that was a big thing for the director, as far as getting a sweeping melody that would compete with the temp. That was a big hump, and he had to be sold on that big time, so once I got a theme that was working, it ended up being the theme for the movie.
What’s your working process? Do you come up with a synth mock-up, and then play it to the director?
Yes. One of the reasons John and I work well together is that he’s very hands-on. He wants to be part of everything, from cameraman to the sound and the music, and the way that we work together is that I mock-up every single thing, and every note is scrutinized by him in my studio; so by the way we get to the orchestra, there aren’t any changes. I mean it may be a little louder, or maybe orchestrational issue, but there are no cuts, no “let’s speed it up, let’s slow it down,” it’s all been dealt with before in minutiae. It’s a very hands-on experience!
Even to the point of “”make that flute a little louder!”?
In the mock-ups, yes. In fact, he was worried about the synth mock-ups, in that they didn’t have the power that he was hoping for. He didn’t understand a lot of the time that we’re going to have a hundred-piece orchestra here, and that this synthesizer mock-up was intended to give an idea of the score, but it should not be judged as the final product! Once we had a few sessions, it was very clear to him what we were talking about.
So what’s next up for you?
I’ve got several things in the works but so far nothing signed. I’m looking to do something that’s not so military and not so period, not to action-oriented.
But if they call, you’ll go?!
I would go, certainly! Obviously, this was my first foray into this level of success on a blockbuster hit, and so we’ll see what happens!
Out of curiosity, now; you really have no albums out there on the marketplace, do you?
No, I don’t! (There will be a promotional album of the score to U571, available in strictly limited quantities through the usual mail-order dealers – LVDV).
Which of your own scores are you particularly fond of?
I always really liked 3 NINJAS. It was done for a director named Jon Turteltaub. It was his first movie, and it did very well. I think it was a top earner based on cost of movie for that year. I really like that score. It’s all synth, which has its limitations, but the way it works with the picture, I’m very proud of it. I would have really loved to have done that with an orchestra… And then ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN I think is a really nice score; that was with a 50-piece orchestra.
How did you end up scoring movies? What attracted you to it?
In the ‘80s I was a session player, and I got started in LA at a very good time when synthesizers were just coming into vogue. I became one of the five or six guys who were doing a lot of the synthesizer work in the ‘80s, modular stuff. I worked with Maurice Jarre on a lot of his classic electronic scores, just part of his electronic ensemble, and also one of my main clients, so to speak, was Mike Post. I worked for all his TV shows, and he was the one who actually got me into keyboards, in fact. When I came out from Indiana University he said “you better get some synthesizer, that’s where it’s going.” And that was like’ 78 or ‘79.
While I was working for him, he got so busy that I started doing some writing for him, as part of his group. So I wrote for him for a little while, on THE A-TEAM, HUNTER, and MAGNUM, P.I., and then this FLIGHT OF THE BLACK ANGEL came along. A friend of mine was the art director on it, and I was telling everybody that I was getting tired of being a session sausage and wanted to write myself. So that’s when John mocked over my tape, and that’s where it all started. And to the early ‘90s I continued to do sessions as a player, until about ‘95 I was still working for David Newman and Maurice Jarre and Tom Newman, a lot of the big guys. It was a great education for me, coming up through the player ranks, because I worked with all the masters, saw all the situations they were in, politically and musically; it always was a dream of mine to be the guy up there, so I worked my way up.
Do you conduct your own scores?
You mentioned the editor of U571 who dictated a lot of the score’s direction in the temp dub. Do you find that editors are more than ever before a driving force, whether you get a job and the musical direction of the movies?
Have you ever gotten a job from an editor just temping you in, and saying “this is the guy you should hire?”
Yes, I have.
So editors are your best friends?!
I was in the TV-movie world and the independent movie world for a while, and editors are the ones who are in there with the directors early. A lot of times there’s no music editor, and the editors are the ones who are putting music in, and they have a lot of clout. It helps their editing look better and it sells them to the director, so, yeah, I can say the editor seems to have a lot of power!
The old Alfred Newman line comes to mind, “everybody knows their job – and the music!”