An Interview with Zacarías M. de la Riva by John Mansell © 2012
Zacarías M. de la Riva studied at the Berklee College of Music (Boston) where he accomplished a double major in Composition and Film Scoring (1997). Back in Spain, he began his career with novel directors and composed his first scores for different short films, and his first feature film JAIZKIBEL (by Ibon Cormenzana). In 2000, he moved to Madrid and started his collaborations in the industry with Juan Bardem, Álex Martínez and Roque Baños. He worked as orchestrator in films such as THE MACHINIST, AL SUR DE GRANADA, 800 BULLETS, MORTADELO & FILEMÓN, THE BIG ADVENTURE. In 2003, he began to compose his first scores such as EL CID, THE LEGEND. He met Enrique Gato and Nicolás Matji, the TADEO JONES team, and began the composition for the first short film of the saga, winning not only the Goya Award, but also 2 awards for best music (Dos Hermanas Film Festival and Malaga Film Festival).
The following two years, he continued with the orchestrations (ROMASANTA the werewolf hunt, HEROINA, DI QUE SÍ, MELISSA P), but also with composition works such as THE NUN and BENEATH STILL WATERS. In 2005, he met Mateo Gil (writer and collaborator of Alejandro Amenábar in films such as THE SEA INSIDE, OPEN YOUR EYES AND TESIS) and composed the film score to his movie Spectre, within the project ‘Films to keep you awake’. In 2006, he worked for Elías Querejeta and composed the music for his Spanish Civil War Film, NOTICIAS DE UNA GUERRA (directed by Eterio Ortega). After that, he composed the music for the short film COMING TO TOWN (Carles Torrens) winning the ‘Fotogramas Award 2007’ and being finalist in the HBO Comedy Film Festival in Aspen (USA).
In 2007, he composed the score to THE LAST OF THE JUST (directed by novel director Manuel Carballo) and the second short episode of the Tade Jones’ saga (TADEO JONES AND THE BASEMENT OF DOOM), winning a second Goya Award and the Alcalá de Henares International Film Festival (ALCINE) Award for best music. During the year 2007 he met Marie Noëlle and Peter Sehr and started the composition for his movie THE ANARQUIST’S WIFE, a romantic-drama with the Spanish civil war as background.
In 2008 he composed the music for Brazilian Road Movie, Carmo, directed by Murilo Pasta and for IMAGO MORTIS, a thriller produced by the Italian Pixstar and the Spanish Telecinco Cinema. In 2009, his latest work is the score to thriller HIERRO, directed by Gabe Ibáñez and produced by Madrugada Films and Telecinco Cinema. The film just premiered in Cannes Critic’s Week. He is now working on a documentary directed and produced by Elías Querejeta. Source : MovieScore Media
TAD is your latest assignment. It’s an animated project and has created quite a lot of attention. How did you become involved on the project?
My involvement with TAD goes back to 2004. I wrote the music for a short film that featured the same character, called in Spain TADEO JONES. The short did extremely well in festivals and won the Goya for best animated short in Spain. In 2008 I wrote music for the sequel called TADEO JONES AND THE BASEMENT OF DOOM. It also did really well and won another Goya for best animated short. Since the first short, the director Enrique Gato and the producer Nico Matji have become good friends and it was only natural that I wrote the music for the film…
Will there be a soundtrack CD of the score do you think?
I really hope so. I am really happy with the end result. We spent about five months working on this project. I had a lot of help from my friend and excellent composer Àlex Martínez. We’ve composed about 90 minutes of music, of which about 72 are featured in the film. I have been talking with Mikael Carlsson about the possibility of publishing this soundtrack and he is quite thrilled about it. So I really hope that we can put out the CD soon.
John Mansell: What size orchestra did you utilize for TAD?
Zacarías M. de la Riva: It was an 85 piece orchestra. We did eight sessions with the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra.
EL CID: THE LEGEND was released in 2003; as yet the now long out of print CD has not been re-issued although many collectors have requested a re-press. This was a collaboration for you with composer Óscar Araujo. Did you work together on the score or did you submit sections of the score as individuals?
They were really stressed by time. Óscar gave me the main leitmotif and some midi ideas he had composed and I took it from there. Due to time restrictions we didn’t have time to work together closely so they gave me freedom to do almost whatever I wanted.
One of your latest projects COPITO DE NIEVE (THE WHITE GORILLA), which is an animated feature, has a beautiful score, very lyrical and emotive with a great deal of comical sounding references. What size orchestra did you utilize for the score; where was it recorded and how did you become involved on this project?
It was a 70 piece orchestra and we also used a lot of samples. We recorded the score in Kiev. I had worked before with FILMAX (the production company) in films like EXORCISMUS or THE LAST OF THE JUST. So I was considered among a group of film composers. I had a couple of interviews with the director and they finally chose me.
You were born in Barcelona Spain in 1972 but studied music at Berklee in the United States. When did you relocate to the States and was it specifically to undertake your musical studies or had you already begun to study music in Spain?
It was in 1993. I moved to Boston to study specifically film composing. In Spain I was pretty much self trained. I did take some piano lessons and solfege but it never occurred to me that I could dedicate myself to writing music for film. It was in my first year in Engineering that, seeing that I liked none of the subjects, I started thinking about what I really wanted to do… So I dropped out of Engineering and I started studying music seriously.
Were any of your family musical in any way?
No, not really. My mother can play some tunes on guitar and piano but not very academically…
Was it always your intention to write music for film?
Yep, when I decided to drop out of university and study music it was because I wanted to put music to images. I don’t see it that way anymore though. I am getting more and more interested in writing music for the concert hall, outside the structural restrictions that movie music has. So I am going to try to do both and earn a living!
You have worked on television and also feature films, plus animated projects. Do you find that an animated movie or movie short demands additional music or a greater amount of music or even a greater depth of sensitivity than a live action production and how does scoring feature films and animated productions differ if indeed they do at all?
I think that animated features are the hardest to write music to. Apart from the big amount of music that they normally require, the music has a big weight on the emotional part. It is most of the time quite exposed, and the big emotional structure relies very much on the music. Much more than in any other type of movie.
You worked as an orchestrator for Roque Baños on THE MACHINIST, 800 BULLETS etc, when you are writing a score do you orchestrate it or do you, because of time constraints etc., use orchestrators at times?
I always use orchestrators. Normally Claudio Ianni or Àlex Martínez. It’s true that I give them thorough logic files and much of the orchestration is already there. But due to time constraints I have rarely been able to put that music into paper.
What composers of film music or indeed what composers or artists would you say have played a role in influencing you in the way you write or in the way you approach a project?
Since I was young I’ve loved John Williams, so he’s been a big influence, not stylistically, because he is out of this world, but almost philosophically or aesthetically; the way he approaches every project and how the music stands on its own completely; the way he writes motivically and how he is able to develop those motives through the film and his orchestrations are just brilliant! But apart from the maestro, I’d say that I learnt a lot from Roque Baños when I orchestrated for him. And I admire Alberto Iglesias a great deal for his craftsmanship and unique voice.
Do you think that a good score can improve a movie or do you think that if a movie is not so good no amount of music can help?
It’s a combination of both. I think well written and spotted music can improve a movie, but if the movie is bad it’ll remain bad. Maybe not as bad as it was but bad nevertheless…
When you undertake a scoring assignment how many times do you like to study the movie before you begin the composing process or do you at times like to see the script for the picture?
A few years ago I didn’t want to read scripts or even see rough cuts of the movie. I’d prefer to start working with the final cut or almost final cut. Nowadays I am starting to write music as soon as I know about the project (if I can). I’d read the script and write some music inspired of what I imagine the movie is going to be like. It’s true that sometimes most of that music doesn’t make it into the movie but it is a more musical way of approaching the project than going cue by cue, I believe…
Temp tracks are either a great assistance to the composer or they can be a distraction. How do you feel about the use of a temp track on a movie that you have been asked to score?
I don’t really mind about them. I am not against them if it is something that helps the process.
Have you a preference when recording a film score as to what orchestra you utilize or maybe any particular soloists or sound engineers?
Sure. As for the orchestra, it depends on the budget. I’d love to record in London every time. But with the budgets we have in Spain this is almost always impossible. As I have said with my last project (TADEO JONES) we had eight sessions with the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra, and I have to say that I am extremely happy with the results. I was especially impressed with the horns and the brass in general. As for soloists I’d normally record them in Madrid, so I have some I always like to call; Ara Malikian, Julia Malkova, Javier Paxariño, Juan Cerro, etc.
As for the engineers I have mostly worked with two: Jose Vinader and Jose Luis Crespo. Basically at the start of every project I have to choose between both depending on how do I want the music to sound. Each one has its own philosophy and approach for recording and mixing.
When scoring a movie or indeed any project, do you have a set routine? By this I mean do you like to work through from beginning to finale or do you maybe tackle cues that you think will be time consuming or more difficult to compose first, leaving shorter or less complicated sections of the score till later on?
I start from beginning and go from there till the end, but I like to have at least a couple of themes composed before I start with the first cue. And also I’d have discussed with the director what is the musical approach and general tone of the soundtrack.
Also when scoring a project do you like to establish a core theme for the soundtrack first and build the remainder of the work around this central theme or does the theme come later in the process?
It depends very much on the movie and what it needs. I tend to compose a core theme. I think almost all of the movies I’ve done have a main theme (in IMAGO MORTIS is a two minor chord progression a tritone apart, in HIERRO it’s a simple piano melody, etc.) Sometimes you just need one main theme, and you build the whole soundtrack from that, and other times you need more themes (like in SNOWFLAKE, where there are at least 10 different themes)
Do you conduct at all and if so do you like to conduct all of your film scores or do you prefer to be in the recording booth at scoring sessions to monitor what is going on and that everything is going in the direction that you want it to?
I am not confident with my conducting skills, so I have someone else conduct, normally Claudio Ianni, and I’ll stay at the recording booth. But I am working on that, I really want to put myself on the spot up there sometime soon, we will see…
Have you ever had a score rejected or have you ever said no to any particular movie or project?
No I have never had a score rejected, but I’ve had to work like hell in some of my projects. I remember I did 15 versions for HIERRO’s title credits, in fact HIERRO is probably the hardest movie I have done in that respect. I had to do many versions of almost each cue. Gabe, HIERRO’s director, was really interested in using music in almost any way possible to get from the audience the reaction he wanted. And I worked hard to get as far as he asked for… Another example in that movie is a scene in a caravan where two women are fighting for the custody of a child. I didn’t see music in that scene but Gabe kept telling me that we should do something and I ended up doing a choir and string piece in Mozart’s requiem style. That worked really well with the images…
Out of the movies you have scored is there any one that stands out for you as being more rewarding or gratifying?
Each one has its own rewards and for me it’s a learning process. Every movie I do, I learn something new, and this helps me get better and improve my chops.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am starting a social drama film called LA ESTRELLA. Nothing near SNOWFLAKE, THE WHITE GORILLA or TAD, THE LOST EXPLORER. Not a lot of music in the movie, few instruments, maybe guitar and cajón, and a string quartet. Also working on the promotional material for TAD, THE LOST EXPLORER. There are quite a few things to do, from a short promotional film, to trailers, teaser, editing the soundtrack, etc.
And also trying to get back to finishing my 1st string quartet.
CD releases of your scores are available, so when a record company asks if they can release one of your scores are you involved in the production, i.e.: selecting what tracks will be used for the release or sequencing the cues etc?
It depends on the movie but most of the time I am quite involved in the process. I’d choose what tracks will be used but not the order; I’d leave that to the publisher.
How do you bring your musical ideas to fruition. Do you use keyboard, piano or write straight to manuscript or in this day of technology utilize computer?
I use all of them! My instrument is the piano so I go first to the piano and write themes and ideas, tones, colours, whatever, on manuscript paper. After that I go to the computer and start with the first cue. Sometimes I return to the piano to write a specific cue but mostly I work on the computer, which I don’t think it’s the best way of doing it, but at least is the fastest for me…
What is the normal time you are given to score a project from beginning to end or does this vary from assignment to assignment?
It totally varies from project to project. For TAD, THE LOST EXPLORER we had five months. For EXORCISMUS we had a little less than two months. But it is always less than what is really needed. I guess it’s part of our work…