An Interview with Vincent Gillioz by John Mansell © 2008
Vincent Gillioz was raised in the French speaking city of Geneva, Switzerland. He studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, earning a dual bachelor’s degree – Summa Cum Laude – in Film Scoring & Performance. Upon graduation from Berklee, Vincent returned to Europe to study composition and orchestration at the Geneva Conservatory of Music where he was awarded the Highest Distinctions; the first in his curriculum to receive such an honor in 15 years.
Shortly after Vincent relocated to Los Angeles, he scored his first feature film and met one of his favorite composers, Golden Globe-nominee, Christopher Young (Spiderman 3, Drag Me to Hell, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, Runaway Jury, The Grudge, The Shipping News). Mr. Young was so impressed by his music, that Vincent was the only composer that he recommended that year for the Sundance Composers Lab.
A recipient of many scholarships, Vincent was then selected for the Sundance Institute, where he had the opportunity to work under the supervision of noted film composers Edward Shearmur (Sky Captain & The World Of Tomorrow), Rolfe Kent (Sideways), George S. Clinton (Austin Power’s Trilogy), Mark Isham (Crash), and Thomas Newman (American Beauty), among others. Since then Vincent has been working without pause, scoring no less than 35 feature films, and his music has been rewarded by 9 best score awards. His career has also been the subject of two documentaries.
When a composer conveys the filmmaker’s vision, the collaboration has been successful. Vincent firmly believes that a solid knowledge and understanding of cinema is essential for scoring a movie and communicating successfully with the director. To that end, Vincent wrote a thesis on film music, sharing his analysis of the different fruitful collaborations between legendary filmmakers and composers (Eisenstein/Prokofiev, Hitchcock/Herrmann, Godard/Duhamel, Marshall/Newman, etc.), discussing the multiple, and sometimes remote, functions of music in a movie.
You were born in Geneva Switzerland; did you come from a family that was musical?
No one is playing any instruments in my family, but my father has a very similar profession, he is a creative. He is in the advertisement business, he conceptualizes, draws, paints, designs, structures an ad, a campaign, a product, or a poster following the directions/intent of the client and within a certain budget. And he also has to think about what will be the effect on the audience – all that is very similar to what film composers do. All those professions based on the appreciation are very similar in the way we all think it out; they are all about “composing”, in other words, making decisions on how/what/where/when to place an element with another to communicate an idea.
Did you know right from the start of your interest in music that you would write for film?
No. It is when I was studying the guitar at Berlkee College of Music in Boston that I discovered that my interest was not so much in performing, but in writing music, so I did a dual major in performance and film scoring. Film scoring because I love movies and because I’ve always been amazed by the atmosphere that the music was bringing you in when you are seating in a theater and watching a movie, it’s absorbing.
Over the past few years you have been very busy indeed. I think I am right when I say you have worked on over 30 projects; that is certainly a big workload. How do you maintain a schedule such as this. You must be very organised and disciplined?
Yes, it can be very draining to compose constantly for deadlines. In order to reach them, it is crucial to be well organized. With times I’ve got accustomed to it, and manage much better the pressure, and the way to get the “creativity” flowing.
You were given guidance by Christopher Young, what was he like to work with?
I met Chris a few months after I arrived in LA, at the Society of Composers and Lyricists Christmas Dinner where I volunteered. I went to Chris and just wanted to thank him for the great music he has been giving us for so many years. I know all his scores and the most obscure ones too. And he was amazing; he asked if I had his phone number and said that we should get together. Woooow, I didn’t expect anything like that. Then, he listened to my demo CD and told me I should go to the Sundance Composers Lab, I was the only one he recommended this year, so I was very touched and honored. Since then he has always been inquiring how I was doing, and if he could anything to help me. Once he lent me his studio to record. Chris Young is very supportive of aspiring composers, he is a magnanimous person, he started the ‘The Tilden House Residency’. The Tilden House Residency is a unique residency program offering low cost housing in Los Angeles, California in order to help aspiring film composers and musicians establish themselves in Hollywood.
What made you decide to re-locate to the United States?
Many different reasons convinced me to move to the US. First and foremost as a Swiss citizen, there is no way I could make a living as a film composer in Switzerland; the market is too small for us to have an industry. Then, I studied in Boston; I discovered the USA and loved the mentality here, very optimistic and making things happen rather than talking. Also, regarding film music, there is no better place to be than Los Angeles. The multitude and variety of projects being made is amazing. It is so exciting also to meet all those talented and motivated filmmakers who have the same focus that you have. Out of the pollution, Los Angeles is a great city to live in, the art, the food, the beach, the mountain, the desert, the music, the architecture, the opera house the weather, the symphony orchestra, the museums, etc. The quality of the resources is amazing.
How do recording facilities differ in the States and Switzerland?
The experience is key. Here in the US they are so used to record film music, it’s a daily job, in Switzerland it’s an event.
How many times do you like to see a project before you commence the actual scoring process?
That’s a great question. I tried different ways, I tried to see a project so many times that you know it by heart, and then started to score it. The problem to me is that you lose perspective on it, you start to miss the emotional shape of the movie, because you know what is going to happen next, you don’t react anymore as intensely as you should. So I prefer to watch it as little as I can before I start scoring it. But it is very important for me to know where I want to go and how is shaped the whole movie, so that I know how I will structure the music on the overall. Like a story, the music needs to go somewhere. I don’t like to read script though. If I read the script, I become the director, and it is useless and misleading. Also, the way a movie is edited, photographed, the way a story is told, acted, directed will influence my writing, all those things are not found in a script.
What film music composers would you say have influenced you in the way you score films etc?
I love so many film composers. To me John Williams is the master of all; whatever he does fits the movie and at the same time is inventive, original and great to listen to. He is the ultimate embodiment of a film composer’s goal. I love all the following composers because they have their own voice: Elliot Goldenthal, Marco Beltrami, Christopher Young, John Corigliano, Howard Shore, Thomas Newman, Bronislau Kaper, Jerry Goldsmith, Ennio Morricone, Sergei Prokofiev, Danny Elfman, James Horner, Bernard Herrmann, Alan Silvestri, Asche and Spencer, Philip Glass, Tomandandy, Toru Takemitsu… What influences me a lot is why, when and how the music is used. Sometimes, the music in itself might not be “interesting” or might not stand a listening by itself, but works perfectly for the movie. Also, the way some directors uses music in a very original way is just amazing, among others, I can think of Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jean-Luc Godard, Wong Kar Waï…
What musical education did you receive?
I started to play the guitar with a private instructor; I was playing in a metal band at the time. My first academic studies were at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where I did a dual major in Performance and Film Scoring. Then I went to Conservatory of Music of Geneva in Switzerland to study classical orchestration and composition.
You started out playing guitar in a heavy metal band, when did you decide to switch to being a composer?
I went to Berklee in Boston to study the guitar. When I played in bands, we always composed the music that we played. It’s only when I was studying and practicing so much that I became aware that what I liked was not how well I could play, but which note to put one after the other, which instrument will play it, how, what and when, in other words, composing. I have always loved the atmosphere that the music creates when I was sitting in a theater, and I always had a very strong love for movies. To write music for movies, you need to understand movies very well, it is first about the movie, not about the music.
Most of your scores that are released on CD are on your own label Spheris Records – are these promos only?
Those are commercial releases that are available for sale on the usual soundtrack stores like Screen Archives Entertainment, and Intrada in the USA, Au Paradoxe Perdu, Chris Soundtrack Corner and Rosebud Cinema Shop in Europe, and Ark Soundtrack Square in Japan. The scores are also available in MP3 format on CD Baby, iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster, and many other online stores.
What would you identify as being the purpose of music in film?
That is the first question that I ask the filmmaker at the beginning of each project. He or she will be the one determining the role of the music in the movie. Music can be used in so many different ways. When filmmakers are not aware of all the different kind of use of music in movies, I explain it to them, so that they become aware of the powerful support that it can provide to the storytelling. To experience a complete list of the different uses of music in a movie, I would recommend watching Jean-Luc Godard’s PIERROT LE FOU; you’ll find also the craziest use of music one can ever imagine.
Have you ever declined to work on any project, and was there any particular reason for this?
I don’t decline to work on a project unless I cannot make it fit my schedule. I have become addicted to being constantly working and I developed the phobia of having no project to score after I finish one.
Edward Shearmur and George S Clinton are another two well known composers that you have worked with; in what capacity did you have contact with them?
I met them, Mark Isham, Rolfe Kent and Thomas Newman at the 2002 Sundance Composers Lab. They were visiting us, we had group discussions and one on one visits with them. It was very nice and laid-back.
Do you value the use of a temp track on a project you have been asked to score, does a temp track give you a better idea of what the filmmaker requires for his movie, or does it get in the way of your creative flow?
Just this morning the director of my next movie, Verso (dir. Xaver Ruiz), asked me how I felt about receiving the movie with a temp track, because they are editing the movie with a temp track to help. I said that it doesn’t bother me. It would bother me only if I am asked to copy the temp track; it is something nobody would like to have to do. The temp track helps me understand the filmmaker better than words would. So I watch the movie once with the temp track, then discuss with the director what he or she wants the music to do in the movie, what he or she likes about the temp, if it is a certain instrument, atmosphere, structure, etc. Then, I start scoring and never listen to the temp track again, I completely forget about it.
What is the largest orchestra that you have utilised on a score for film?
It was a 60 piece orchestra on QUELQUES JOURS AVANT LA NUIT if I remember well.
Do you conduct all of the music you compose for film, or do you at times have a conductor?
I prefer having a conductor, because I have only one brain cell, so I would not be able to listen to the whole or sometimes a specific instrument, think about what should be changed for a better result, take notes, and conduct at the same time.
Do you think that orchestration is an important part of the composing process?
Speaking about the real job of an orchestrator, that is to decide which instrument will play the lines, and not the Hollywood orchestrating job that is a copyist job. Personally I cannot conceive composing without knowing which instrument is playing the line that I am creating. It doesn’t make any sense, you don’t write the same if it is a flute, where you can hold a note or a piano, where the note disappear once hit. The timbre, the technique, the spectrum of the instrument will determine the line you are creating; this is nonsense to me to compose without knowing which instrument is playing. And I am much too egocentered to let someone else take a decision on my music.
Your score for THE IRISH VAMPIRE GOES WEST has just been issued onto CD, again on your own label. Do you select all the music that goes onto the finished CD, and how long does it take you from start to finish to produce a soundtrack CD?
I decide of everything regarding the production of my CD, the tracks, the order, the titles, etc. But I let the design of my covers to my great and talented friend of mine, Luis M Roja from Argentina, check out his website for other covers of his www4.webng.com/soundtracklist/index.htm. Since I am doing everything else myself, it takes me much too long to do it, because I am also pressing the CD’s one by one myself, I cut the covers for each CD, and I’ve bought a laminator to laminate each CD, I take care of the packaging and shipping too. Each CD has my “sweat” on it.
Away from film music, what are your musical influences?
I love classical music, mostly 20th (21st) century music, the Russian composers, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Schostakovitch, I also love Ligeti, Corigliano, Bartok, Penderecki, Murail, Hosokawa, Takemitsu… I don’t follow so much the newest stuff in other styles, so I am stuck with my classics, like early Metallica, Paco de Lucia, John Coltrane, U2, early Megadeth, The Police, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Slayer, Miles Davis, Bill Frisell, Charlie Haden, Shakti, early Iron Maiden, Egberto Gismonti…
You have also written for the concert hall. What were these compositions, and did you conduct any of them in concert at all?
I’ve never conducted the concert hall compositions, I wish I had actually. The concert hall music is a whole different beast. I like to do it, because I can use a different “language”. Also the music and the instrumentation can be much more daring, because there is no one who has to greenlight the piece, and who could be afraid that it might be too out of the ordinary and take the whole attention. Those pieces also allow me to know the limits of the instruments because I can push the envelope and develop without any restrictions.
Out of all the projects that you have worked on, do you have a particular favourite?
I will dodge that question. They are all my babies, so I have to like them evenly. Seriously, they all have a particular history, representing a specific moment in my evolution as a writer. When I hear them, they bring me back to the moment when I was writing them. They are my Proust’s Madeleines.
When writing music for a project do you work out your musical ideas with piano, or do you utilise a computer or synth etc?
I mostly use the sound that I am writing for, because it influences the creation. Mostly I imagine the lines first in my head, and then use the keyboard to give life to it. But sometimes I put a piano sound and fool around with it. If the music gets very complicated, I need to write it down, to see everything that is happening at once. It is also very nice to full around with the computer to experiment, for example to apply a different instrument than thought at first to a line, say you wrote a line for a horn, and then you give it to a marimba, or you can mess up with the tempo, keys, applying effects to the line etc.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished LAST BREATH, an amazing horror/drama written and directed by Ty Jones. A story as peculiar as the best Shyamalan ones. I am starting on a Comedy I DO… I DID tomorrow and I will soon start on a European thriller/drama entitled VERSO.