An Interview with Stephen Warbeck and Director Kinka Usher by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.18/No.71/1999
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl
If you put together a sophisticated high tech advertising director, an Academy Award winning feature film composer, and a cast of mainstream actors and actresses that portray a team of misfit comic book characters, what do you get? You get the craziest and possibly most daring film of this year, the new Universal Pictures motion picture MYSTERY MEN. First appearing in the Dark Horse comic book ‘Flaming Carrot’ years ago, the time had come for Mystery Men’s transition to the big screen. The MYSTERY MEN are the most bizarre group of superheroes to come down the pike in a long time. As director Kinka Usher puts it: “There’s Mr. Furious, Ben Siller, whose anger is his power. Paul Reubens is The Spleen and his power is bodily functions. Janeane Garofalo, The Bowler, her power is her bowling ball. Hank Azaria is the Blue Raja. His power is his fork throwing. Kel Mitchell’s power is to become invisible, he’s the Invisible Boy. William H. Macy is the Shoveler, his power is the shovel. The last one is The Sphinx played by Wes Studi and his power is being mysterious. There are other characters in the film as well, like Greg Kinnear who plays Captain Amazing, who’s a real superhero in this film.”
Composer Stephen Warbeck was born in 1953 in South Hampton on the south coast of Britain. His credits range from his television work in five PRIME SUSPECT episodes, THE CHANGELING, DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, TRUTH OR DARE, THE STUDENT PRINCE, and HALLMARK HALL OF FAME’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL, to his feature films which include MRS. BROWN, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, FANNY AND ELVIS, and HEART. This year he won the Academy Award for his score to SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. Ever since this Stephen’s had non-stop film scoring, composing, and playing with his band back home in England. Kinka Usher, owner of the House of Usher, has a passion for film making, but his real love is creating visual advertising campaigns. In the past he’s worked with composers like Danny Elfman on a big Nissan campaign and countless other commercials. MYSTERY MEN is Kinka’s first opportunity at directing a major motion picture.
Why and how did you get involved in scoring films?
When I was about four we moved near Brighton, we had a piano I used to play. I’d always go into the piano room and make up tunes as long as I can remember. When I attended the University I wrote music for a lot of plays and I was also in the film club. I particularly watched a lot of Italian, French, and Hitchcock films, all sorts of different films. I made a tape at college and afterwards sent it around. One of the directors who heard it liked it. We met and he gave me my first job as a musical director in a London theater called The Theater Royal, Stratford East.
This was in 1977, by the middle of the 80s some of the theater directors I worked with started to do television projects. One director I worked with for a year from a company called Hull Truck directed a film called HAPPY FEET in 1985. I scored this, so I gradually moved from theater into writing for motions pictures.
What do you think about your first score to HAPPY FEET?
I’d probably like it and think it was chirpy and humorous, which is what the film was. I’d wish I had a bigger orchestra because I only had about sixteen musicians. Probably I’d find some of the tempos being to slow because now I’d prefer to compose this faster and chirpier.
How did winning the Academy Award for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE change your life?
Suddenly people wanted to interview and photograph me. Obviously this happens now and then with certain projects, but nothing to the same extent. It’s quite flattering, but slightly irritating because the amount of time it takes up. Also this is rather strange because the person who won the award in this case is me and I’m thinking, “I’m still the same person as I was before I wrote music for film, nothing’s changed. It’s so strange that one event can make you the focus of all this attention.”
The public awareness of a film composer’s role is usually fairly small. Film companies often don’t feel that using the composer as part of their publicity campaign will do them any good, unlike the names of the stars. Most films are not sold on their composers. We’re not invisible, but we don’t have a high profile within the team making the film. Not that I mind that, but winning an Academy Award temporarily puts you in a slightly brighter light. After this I’m sure you slip back again into the place where most composers live, the strange semi-lit area between the pop track and the editor.
What films have you scored since SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE?
I’ve just done a film called FANNY AND ELVIS, written and directed by Kay Mellor. It’s a lovely romantic comedy with a little bit of a strange twist that will be released in October. I scored a film just before SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE called HEART. Also I just scored the television film A CHRISTMAS CAROL for Hallmark Hall of Fame starring Patrick Stewart. We scored it at CTS in England a month or so ago; it should be out around Christmas time.
What’s it like going from SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE to MYSTERY MEN, which is a film about a team of misfit comic book characters? This seems like a stretch!
It’s a nice, exciting, stimulating stretch, but you have to remember that SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE was a different type of film for me than some of the other things I’d done. I’ve done thrillers and films with chases, mysteries, unhappiness, and tragedy. I’ve done a realm of things in films that were not romantic or don’t have a positive ending, so each film often seems like a departure from the last. MYSTERY MEN is a large step in being a departure, from other things I’ve done. It could be described as rather zany with comedy action sequences and I don’t remember scoring anything like that before. It gave me the opportunity to write some music with fresh ideas that haven’t yet been provoked by film. If after SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE I had to score another scene with a man and a woman in a boat, finding it difficult to express their love to each other, I might have thought, “Oh God, I’ve just done that.” You start to artificially find ways of doing something different. In the case of MYSTERY MEN, having not done anything quite like this before, I don’t have to think of a way to do it differently because I haven’t done it yet.
So being flexible defines what a good film composer is all about?
I think one of the main things a good film composer is all about is to help and be a large part of finding and providing an identity for a film. It’s finding what the world of that film is, unifying that world, and giving music to the world of the film. You are a very big part in finding the film’s identity. Quite obviously people will look at a picture differently with different bits of music attached. Even when they do these rather strange test screenings, they often say a scene’s better with a different audience watching the same scene simply because it has a different piece of music on it. They will say it’s either too fast or too slow, so the music’s doing all sorts of things which people watching aren’t aware of how the music’s functioning within the film.
You almost make test screenings sound irrelevant.
I’d like to make them sound irrelevant! Changes are made to the film as a result of judgments from the test screening that doesn’t even have the original score in it. The original film might have worked even better with the real score when it arrived. I’d love it if filmmakers trusted composers and said, “Let’s not be afraid to give them the responsibility for making this sequence work. Let’s not chop it up so that it’s the briskest sequence you can imagine for fear of it not working.” Often music will make things work and it needs a little bit of space. All too often they have snipped all the space away by the time you’ve come to put the score on it.
Is your relationship with the director the key to success when scoring a film?
It’s certainly the central relationship in scoring a film. It’s not necessarily the key to success, because you can have a good relationship with a director and still mess up the film. Equally it’s possible to have a bad relationship with the director and produce a score which works for the film. But you’re absolutely right, it’s the key relationship. The more one person tickles the other’s imagination, the better it is. If Kinka says, “I imagine this having strange little sounds which are a bit culturally divorced from what you’re seeing in the picture, like using a sitar.” Little comments can often spark you off on a journey and you start thinking, “Oh well, maybe I could put a cymbalum on this and add in some little things.” You need the stimulation of that relationship.
When you worked with Kinka, how did he communicate to you what type of score he wanted for MYSTERY MEN?
Because I live in London and he wasn’t in the end able to come over to London for any meetings, I came back over here and played him a lot of stuff on the piano. That was with Kinka, Lloyd and Larry Gordon. Anders Sodergren, another composer in London, had made something which I haven’t done before. He’d made some mock ups of the score, some previews. I brought over eight of those and twenty five cues that I’d written and played on the piano, and then we talked about it from there. I flew off again, wrote some more, and just kept sending Kinka stuff.
So you developed the score with mock ups?
It was partly with mock ups on this occasion because of the geographical separation. Like with John Madden on SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, MRS. BROWN, or all the things we’d done together, he’d spend so much time in my work room with me that he’d get very familiar with the development of the score. I’d be playing this passage and say, “this is strings,” and we’d have a dialog so that there was no need for us to go to synthesized mock ups in that case. In this case, with the geographical divide, mock ups seemed to be quite a useful tool.
Were there any memorable moments when working with Kinka on MYSTERY MEN?
I think the whole thing’s been pretty memorable really. I liked the things he said in our first meeting and found him witty and amusing right from the beginning, but I can’t think of any particular memorable moments except for the end of the spotting day. I’d flown over and it was about six o’clock in the evening and we’d been talking about the film all day. I got to number ninety in my notebook, then it was cue ninety one, then it was cue ninety two, and the film at the end is nonstop music and I’m starting to go to sleep. I just thought, “This is absolutely unbelievable, there is over an hour of music and I’ve got to write it in two weeks.” That was quite funny, luckily somebody brought me in a bottle of beer and then I was temporarily revived, long enough to write down the last few cues before I went back.
What kind of time frame did you have on this score?
Stephen Warbeck: It took me about twenty eight days to write the score to MYSTERY MEN. There were five days of scoring sessions on the Sony Scoring Stage. It went quite fast in terms of how active the music is. There’s a lot of very fast music, so in order to make adjustments, little tweaks and changes, we had to work fairly quickly. There were eight or nine players at the night sessions and between eighty five and ninety pieces the rest of the week. My conductor was Pete Anthony. Pete is incredible, his ears are wonderful, his understanding of how it works with picture, his ability to help you make adjustments really quickly, his rapport with the musicians and the composer is amazing, he’s very, very good! My orchestrators on this film were Jeff Alexander, Art Kimpel, Patrick Russ, me, and I have an assistant called Andrew Green who helped with some of it.
In the past have you ever conducted or orchestrated your scores?
I used to conduct and I always try to orchestrate as much as possible. There have only been three or four films where I haven’t orchestrated the whole score. This is the pressure of time, if you can imagine that this is a lot of music and a lot of it is very fast. It was absolutely inconceivable for me to orchestrate the whole score to MYSTERY MEN. However, I always try to do as much as I can and most of my work I have orchestrated. I used to conduct until one day when I went back into the booth and the atmosphere had changed so dramatically that I didn’t know what was happening, that was one of the PRIME SUSPECTS. I did all of the PRIME SUSPECTS. After that I realized that if I stayed in the booth you could talk to the director and if he gets uneasy about it being too busy or that’s not frightening enough, you can actually see that happening and address the problems, or changes on the spot rather than running back after a take and having to listen to it all through. I loved being in the room with the musicians and I miss that, but I just think it’s a better way of working, to be with the director and making sure that you mold the whole thing with the picture and that being your primary concern.
How did you approach scoring a film with such a vast variety of characters like MYSTERY MEN?
What you hope for is that each character gives you an idea. By watching the performance you get an idea of what you feel about them and what you want to do. Immediately I think of a tune when I see William H. Macy in this role. You watch a performance and you get something from it, it makes you start thinking. If it doesn’t, which luckily these characters did, then you have to start inventing bits of music. Those characters all take themselves very seriously, so I think it’s quite important to make the humor work and make the whole thing work because the music takes them seriously. When one of them speaks to his wife and tries to explain what he’s doing, the music is serious; it’s not goofy, funny or silly. When they are going into a dangerous position with only forks as weapons, the music doesn’t say. “Aren’t they silly? They just have forks!” The music plays their real sense of adventure and danger so that we can laugh at them if we want, but they’re not laughing at themselves, and the music can’t laugh at them.
Was the thematic content of this film transparent because of having so many characters?
More and more I like the idea of films having several themes which you develop and come back to, but this was like somebody piled a load of different characters into a bag, shaken it up, and emptied it on the floor. There are themes there which do recur for certain characters and Situations, but one “Going into Action Theme” won’t work for the many different ways they approach it or the many different things they feel about it when they’re doing it. Each action sequence has a different emotional drive or a level of danger. There’s a lot of new pages turned over in the score rather than, “Oh yea, we’re back to theme one,” or the love theme. It just didn’t work like that. It’s like a lot of small scores all joined together with certain common elements in terms of the structure and in terms of the feel of them.
Was scoring MYSTERY MEN a hell of a lot of fun?
It was a vast quantity of fun because it enabled me to write music I probably would have been put in prison for writing. I’ve never had the opportunity to write music like this. I have a band called ‘The Kippers’ and in that band I can write mad music. It’s been a fantastic opportunity and I’ve had enormous fun doing this.
What is your biggest challenge in film scoring?
Responding squarely and honestly to the material and not going off on a little side trip that you fancy going off on. Making your work respond to the film that you see, not a film you imagine it should be. Being open to the specific and individual nature of the project.
What are your future plans?
There are two British films I’m doing in the autumn. One’s called DANCER, that’s directed by Stephen Daldry and the other is PAVAROTTI IN WALES directed by Sarah Sugarman. I’ve worked with both of these directors a lot, so I’m really looking forward to doing these scores. Also I’ve been working on an opera for the ENO, the English National Opera, a studio opera. However, I’m really looking forward to working here in Los Angeles again with the musicians I worked with on MYSTERY MEN.
Director Kinka Usher
How did you meet Stephen Warbeck?
He was introduced to the producers and myself by his agent. It was his score for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE that came to mind when wanting him to score MYSTERY MEN. I loved the idea that Stephen was from England and had a British sensibility. When I saw SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE I thought this ability to use musical instruments to not only share a sense of sincerity but also to heighten the little comedic moments in that film was exactly what I was looking for in this film.
Did you ever think twice about the bizarre versatility and strange subject matter of the film?
No, because I handled the whole film in a very serious way. The characters are not farcical; they are very sincere about what they’re doing. They’re very interested in being good super heroes, they’re not making fun of themselves at all. They take their job and their careers very seriously.
Did Warbeck’s score satisfy your vision as a filmmaker?
What it did was tie the movie together. He was able to give the film the honesty, scope, and sincerity that I was looking for. I wasn’t looking for a traditional quirky Danny Elfman type Tim Burton score. I wanted something much bigger, more powerful, coming from somebody who is not American.
So you didn’t want the score to be like the temp tracks?
The temp score wasn’t that great. Stephen had a lot mere interesting ideas than what was in the temp score. I think that’s called demo love and I don’t fall for that. I’m not interested just because I have a temp track that works as a demo piece. This doesn’t mean that something else can’t work more effectively. Especially with the vision of a composer like Stephen Warbeck, you know you will get something superior.
Was it hard developing the score with Warbeck, since he was in England?
I just let him go. I wish I had gone to England for a week or so, but I never had the time. We just spoke via phone, he’d send me temp stuff, and we would work it out like that. He really had a good idea about scoring this, so I totally trusted him. I knew he was going to do a great job.
I know you’ve done a lot of ad work, but how do you feel about, directing your first major motion picture.
It was a great opportunity; it was very fulfilling and enlightening. This was like taking my P.H.D. in directing. I look forward to taking everything I learned and putting it back into advertising, as I go back and start up my advertising career again.
Don’t you want to direct another film?
No I don’t know if I’ll make another movie. This may be the only one I make. I miss my advertising career tremendously and I really look forward to getting back to it. This movie just kind, of happened, it wasn’t something I was persuing.
Additional Music by Shirley Walker
Shirley WalkerRescoring the changes to MYSTERY MEN quite often in the world of film scoring today, after all is well and done on the scoring stage, changes can take place in a film which requires parts of the film to be rescored. Because of film editing technology, and the possibility of creating new special effects, changes to a film can take only moments while film scoring with an orchestra takes preparation and planning.The potential changes to a film can be considered overwhelming and their results can sometime leave the composer as the “fix it” man of the 21st Century.In the case of MYSTERY MEN, composer Stephen Warbeck did an excellent job of scoring the picture to everyone’s satisfaction. After he departed the US to return to England, things in the film changed and he wasn’t able to rescore the picture. As his agent John Tempereau explained, “We had an unbelievably great experience with the director Kinka Usher, Lloyd Levin, Harry Garfield, and every body involved, but at the eleventh hour after the score had been recorded I got a call from Lloyd saying they wanted to change the opening sequence and add eighty more special effects along with re-cutting a number of different scenes. This all took place as Stephen was on an airplane on his way back to London. Because of the changes, Warbeck’s music didn’t fit the length of the changed scenes, so the producers went to Shirley Walker for help cutting and pasting the music to fit the changes. I think at the end a little of the additional music, worked out great.”Lloyd Levin, producer of the MYSTERY MEN, confirmed Tempereau’s statement: “We were working up to the last minute in order to complete the movie, dropping in special effects, and in some cases seeing things for the very first time. There were a couple of places where we hadn’t spotted for score, places Stephen hadn’t written for that needed music. We were editing towards the end and also dropping in visual effects that we always had places for but had never seen before.
“Stephen never had the benefit of seeing them, and al/ we’ had were ideas of what they were going to look like. We just didn’t have the time to bring Stephen back over from London. In our final edit, 80% of the score is completely Warbeck’s. I loved Stephen’s work and Shirley did a great job as well. Shirley came in and surgically did what needed to be done. She was very respectful to Warbeck’s work, Stephen wrote a very unique and compelling score for a movie of this genre, I think it’s kind of unexpected given the type of movie it is. It was urgent, we were up against if. We had a real difficult and all too brief post production and we were up against a serious deadline. Everything about it was positive; Stephen’s score is phenomenal and we really appreciated the work Shirley did as well.”
It’s obvious that if Warbeck could have been here to continue the creative development of the MYSTERY MEN, he would have. But logistically and realistically you can’t depend on the original composer to re-finish a film score he already completed, especially if he lives halfway across the world from where the film is being finished. However, it was a very smart move to hire composer Shirley Walker for the final touches of additional music and make it as inobtrusive as it is.
I want to thank John Tempereau, Teressa Mackey, Kinka Usher, Lloyd Levin Deborah Simmrin, and composer Stephen Warbeck for their help in making this article possible.