OSN Exclusive Interview: Geoff Zanelli

Outlander is comming to North American theaters on January 23rd! A big part of that experience will be the musical score for the film. We got in touch composer Geoff Zanelli to tell us a little about his work on the film.

The samples in this interview are courtesy of La La Land Records. The Outlander score CD will be for sale at their website at http://lalalandrecords.com/ in the coming weeks.

Can you introduce yourself to us? Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into the industry?

Well, let's see, I moved to Los Angeles permanently in 1996 after I graduated from Berklee College Of Music in Boston. For a few years prior to that though, I'd been coming here whenever school wasn't in session to work with Hans Zimmer since my focus had always been to score films. He was scoring The Lion King when I first arrived in 1994, I remember. I was taking two degrees at the time, one in film scoring and one in music production but most importantly I had a great work ethic so I was put to work pretty early in my life. I must have been 19 when I started engineering for Mojo Records for the first Goldfinger album which was my trial by fire, the humble beginnings of my career. I couldn't have been happier, and the studio became my home. I still work from time to time with the singer and songwriter from Goldfinger, John Feldmann, doing string arrangements for him when he's producing records.

Anyway, I utilized that experience as an engineer when Hans started using me to assist on his mixes. I did a few movies like that, Preacher's Wife being one I remember but the mix room there was really busy so there was a lot of work for me to cut my teeth on and I was getting exposed to a lot of different composer's work.

In 1996 it turned out John Powell, one of the resident composers who had his writing room at Hans' place needed an assistant and I took that job on for a few years. That's when I started getting a few writing or arranging assignments for films, the first being Face/Off. In those early days I would get to do just a little bit here, a little bit there, but I was hungry for it so over the next three years I built up a few credits and got some exposure, and Hans eventually asked me if I'd like a writing room of my own there. This was in 1999.

Is there a project that you'd consider to be your "big break" into film music?

There isn't really, I have to say its felt more like I've had a series of small breaks rather than one big one. I spent 4 or 5 years picking up more and more writing experience on films with Hans and John, and also Harry Gregson-Williams, Klaus Badelt and Steve Jablonsky. There was a period where I was just surrounded with great writers who wanted me involved in their scores. It was constantly inspiring to see how each of them works, to dig in with them for a few projects so I remember that time fondly. Somehow, seeing how different people enact different methods in scoring a film opened the door for me to realize there are a thousand answers to every question that exists in film scoring. That early experience with so many diverse composers is what makes me versatile, and that versatility turned out to be a huge advantage when I was up against a multi-genre film like Outlander.

Over time, those breaks started to add up and I was getting offers for solo jobs where I'd take on an entire score. House Of D was the first of my films to come out, and then a co-write on Secret Window. After that I scored a miniseries called Into The West which was a huge undertaking, just a massive project. That was a six part miniseries but it was more like scoring a movie and then five sequels all in a row. It was very cinematic.

I had a big hit with Disturbia, and then I did Hitman which had a very tight schedule, three or four weeks tops before the plane left for Paris to record orchestra. That was right before Outlander, which I wrote just before Ghost Town, even though Ghost Town came to the theater first.

You've worked closely for some time with Hans Zimmer's Remote Control Productions. Can you fill us in on which projects you've been involved in?

There are quite a few. I believe I have an Additional Music By credit on 40 films with all of the composers I mentioned before my solo career started taking off so I'll spare you the details and just tell you about some highlights.

There was the Pirates Of The Caribbean trilogy where aside from Hans Zimmer I'm the only composer to have worked on all three. I have a tune in those, Tia Dalma's theme, which becomes Calypso's theme for obvious reasons if you've seen the third film. Also, I wrote the tune for Cannibal Island in the second film.

Some of the other films I worked on were Hannibal, Matchstick Men, The Last Samurai, Shark Tale.

What inspires you most in your job?

It can be anything on any given day. I like working with directors so I'm inspired by the ongoing conversation that goes on when you're working on a film together. I really enjoy that part of the process, the phone calls when someone has a new idea or getting together to play some music for someone. There's this romantic image of a lone composer hunched over the piano, torturing himself to write his score and to some extent that's very true but it's something I try to fight as much as possible by having a conversation going about the film at all times with the filmmakers.

Another aspect that inspires me is the real, palpable energy that surrounds the process of scoring a film where you've really only got this one chance to get it perfect... and there's a deadline looming... and you've got to inspire your orchestra to play with the right energy... and you've got to get the mix just right before you set it all in stone... That combines in a way that makes the process very engaging.

Can you tell us what drew you to Outlander? At what point did you come on board with the project?

I believe it was one of the producers for the film, John Shimmel, who introduced me to director Howard McCain. I had sent them some music when I heard about the project because I thought it was an interesting concept and John was the first to respond to what I'd sent.

What sort of music did you send to him? Was it rough concepts or work you had previously done and thought fit the motif of the story?

It was music I'd written for other films, like my work from Pirates, Hitman and Disturbia.

I suspect they responded to the range of music I sent them, and invited me over so I went to their editing room to meet John, Chris Roberts, the editor David Dodson and Howard. They were still in the process of editing so they could only show me a few scenes here and there, like an early version of one of the Moorwen attacks. I don't want to give any big story points away but how about if I say there was a whole bunch of fire and lots of stuff was breaking, including Vikings. I was sold!

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What Kind of conceptual direction were you striving for with the Music in Outlander?

There were three main elements I wanted to give a separate musical treatment to. It's a delicate balance actually, since it's an ambitious film with so many elements but it basically breaks down to three main ideas.

The first is the Viking music, which I wanted to be rooted in something earthly and familiar. I wrote them a proud yet primal orchestral theme, very acoustic and honest. That tune ended up being malleable in the film, it can be noble, emotional, epic, adventurous, inspiring, tentative, even tense when I needed it. There's a moment where that theme transfers over to Kainan who gradually takes on Viking characteristics in the story, but he has to earn that tune, it doesn't come easy for him.

Did you make any attempt to reference what real Viking music might have sounded like?

Well, even though I don't consider myself a purist or a conventional composer by any means, I did at least think to go and find out what we know about Viking music before I started writing the score. It turns out we don't know much since their musical culture was passed on as an oral tradition rather than a written one. There are a few examples of what historians believe to be Viking music, but it's still disputed so we don't really, truly know what their music sounded like. I thought "Hey, that's great news!" because the handcuffs come off, you know? There won't be any music police showing up to say "that's not real Viking music." So that was liberating on the one hand. We do know from artifacts that have been discovered what instruments were played, most of which are pretty common to a lot of cultures. There was a hand drum, they had an instrument much like a pan pipe, they sang, and there was a lyre which is basically an early, smaller version of the harp. All of their instruments seem to be designed with portability in mind.

So that was really just a long winded way of saying why I used the harp like instruments to handle some of the romantic aspects of the score. It was partly to make it a unique element, separate from the other aspects of the score, but also to retain something earthly and acoustic for the Viking music. And those drums and early woodwind instruments show up plenty as well.

You mentioned three main themes. What was the second?

Before he earns his Viking theme, Kainan is still our spaceman and he gets another musical idea which is where the sci-fi aspect comes in. It had to be some blend of the synthetic, alien world he comes from and the human side of it. He is, after all, a human of some sort so his music is more of a hybrid of acoustic elements and synthetic elements. I didn't want him to have a big, familiar Hollywood tune cause if you latch on to it in that way he loses his mystery. He instead has a more brooding, calculated, maybe slightly military theme that leans toward being synthetic.

Kainan has a deep backstory, so in addition to his brooding music there's another piece of music that tells the emotional side of him. That needed to feel distinct from the emotional Viking music so you'll hear it's got more of a sci-fi bent to it. There's a female vocal that makes it feel haunting, and that's coupled with the more electronic, scientific sound that I use to keep it feeling slightly alien.

The third main idea with the music is for the Moorwen, our monster. There's a big, nasty, oppressive tune that shows up a few times for it and it's unashamedly hideous. It needed to have mass and weight for some of the shots which really highlight that aspect of the creature. Other times it plays more like a horror film. There are some very dark moments in the film, so if you're wondering what to expect for the Moorwen music I'd say expect hideous, revolting dissonance.

You mention dissonance and hideousness. How did you approach the evolution of that theme as the Creature's own backstory is revealed in greater detail and it intersects with Kainan's own redemption arc?

Actually, the creature's backstory is told through the eyes of Kainan so the music for that isn't really informed by the dissonant "monster music." It's more about Kainan's guilt for his role in the Moorwen genocide. I'd call it more operatic than dissonant.

Apart from those three main concepts, were there any other motifs you used to bridge these various elements?"

There's a love story between Kainan and one of the Viking women, Freya. Her theme also doubles as the love theme. It's really the "Kainan's relationship with Freya" theme, if you want to think of it that way.

Also, there's an offshoot of the Viking music I could discuss. Part of the story incorporates the tradition of one king succeeding the next, so there's a noble melody played on horns for John Hurt who plays King Rothgar. It's a cousin of the main Viking theme I wrote, and it too transfers between characters. Without saying too much, part of the redemption story in Outlander has to do with the succession of kings, so this tune helps communicate that by transferring from one character to the next.

One element that has challenged the expectations of some viewers is the mixing of Science Fiction and Period movie. What challenges were there in scoring such seemingly disparate elements?

It's funny, this isn't something I had to give much thought to until you asked me because the blend of genres is very smooth in the film. That's a credit to the writing and the direction, I think. Once you give yourself over to the concept, it just becomes about telling the story through music.

Like I said earlier though, I felt a certain freedom to write the music from a contemporary point of view since there is no definitive knowledge about what Viking music sounds like. I probably would have given it a contemporary slant even if we did know exactly how their music sounded though. I think it's the job of the composer to tell the story to your audience in the present day, so if you're scoring a period film like this one, sure you can go and write period music, that's one approach, it's just not my first instinct for this particular film. I want it to feel relevant in 2009, to have a contemporary meaning.

How does the score for Outlander differ musically from your previous projects?

I usually embrace the raw energy that music can bring to a film with an unconventional approach, so that's a thread that runs through nearly all of my scores. But as far as how it differs, I think I got to bring in a unique blend of different elements. I can't think of a time where I've combined a raw but epic orchestral theme with a synthetic and electronic one in the same movie. Maybe the closest thing I've done to this is the Pirates trilogy but Outlander is more raw, more primitive.

How many minutes of Music did you compose for the project? Was it all used in the final film?

I think it was just over 100 minutes. Everything I wrote for the film was used, but with the collaborative process of working with Howard, Chris and John we'd experiment with elements in the individual cues. That's a big part of my process. It's the reason I like to have that conversation going with the filmmakers. Sometimes, most times really, once you're eight weeks into the scoring process you've learned something that makes you want to go back and address things from earlier.

Kainan's theme in particular underwent a few shifts. I'd originally played him more as an action hero before I came to the idea of playing tighter to his story arc. I started thinking of him as a brooding, self torturing character with inner turmoil and a redemption story. It's still the same theme I wrote in the beginning, just a very different presentation of it once the idea evolved.

There was another concept I wanted to get across with Kainan which is that even when he is still, there's activity going on in the subtext of the music. He's a soldier so he's stoic, but the music keeps him in motion, it describes what's going on in his head. He also has some vulnerable moments which I took advantage of.

How long did the entire process take, from composing the score to recording and mixing the actual score?

Twelve or thirteen weeks, total. I spend a great deal of time in the beginning writing the main themes to use as a jumping off point. I don't like to write to picture in the beginning because I'd think too soon about the edit, the durations of each gesture, instead of concentrating on just writing a good piece of music. So it was probably the forth or fifth week, maybe even later, before I wrote anything to picture. Howard was very engaged in the process, especially once I started writing individual scenes. Chris Roberts and John Shimmel were as well, but I was given plenty of room to go and try my ideas out and present them.

What was the first thing you had to do when assigned? Was there a temp track or a specific jumping off point that the director referenced to get you going in the right direction?

There was a temp track but that was largely just a guideline for the editing process. This was a project where my ideas were invited, so it wasn't about deciphering what did and didn't work about the temp score at all. Howard did talk about some general things he wanted the score to do and we were on the same page early on. I remember talking about what sort of synth sounds would work best for instance.

When I first started, I told everyone that I'd like to just go away for a few weeks and write themes, which is what I did. About a month later I had the Viking theme, the Moorwen theme and the beginnings of what would become Kainan's music. Things gradually fell into place from there.

How would you describe your working relationship with Outlander's director? Some directors are very straight forward about what they want to hear whereas others describe things more in emotional or pictoral terms.

Howard is pretty clear about what he wants to hear but we really were on the same page pretty early on. Once we got going, he'd come by once or twice a week and I'd play him whatever I'd done since the last time we got together. He was always open to any ideas I had, so I'd write something and then present it to him as opposed to him outlining what he was expecting before I went and wrote it. From there we'd maybe make some subtle changes but I don't remember any time where we were far apart in what we wanted the music to accomplish.

Every project has dificulties. What would you say were the greatest challenges working on Outlander? How have you grown (and what have you learned) from facing these challenges?

You know, a lot of the challenges were my own inner conflicts. I'm a guy who stays up late at night obsessively thinking about the project I'm working on. I remember reading about a chess teacher who said "when you see a brilliant move, don't play it. Keep looking for an even more brilliant move." So while I know that was a bizarre chess analogy, I think it's relevant, that really is where my head goes when I'm writing a score. As far as what I've learned, I've taken away a sense of how to balance all these elements that the score possesses. It's more dense and complicated than some other scores I've done.

What would you say was the most interesting scene to score? And the most challenging?

I enjoyed scoring a scene which is a flashback to the Moorwen home planet. That's where I thought the depth of the story really took shape. It sets in motion the redemption story for Kainan and it brings a whole backstory to everything that's going on.

There's a sequence where the Vikings prepare to do battle with the Moorwen that was interesting as well because it allowed me to bring a lot of different thematic material to one place.

The most challenging was probably Gunnar's Raid. This is where a rival tribe attacks the village Kainan has become a part of, so it's pure Viking on Viking combat. You'd think it'd be easier actually. I mean it's an action scene, it's about energy so some of the major questions are answered before you even start writing. It's got to be fast, percussive, loud, energetic. But the challenge is to find what you can do to be interesting within a framework that is pretty confined. When you hear it, you'll see the approach was to take the very acoustic sound I was using for the Vikings, the drums in particular, and play them in a more contemporary and electronic way, organized chaos, if you will. There are also some battle calls on non traditional instruments.

Recording of the orchestral score was done by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra through the folks at Interscore. Can you explain a little how this whole process works?

Sure. The recording was actually done remotely. It's not really the first choice scenario, but I was in Los Angeles during the recordings. We had an internet connection with Budapest where I could speak with the conductor just like if he were in the room next to me and I'd have a live audio feed from their control room on the other side of the world so I could produce the session nearly as usual. It's almost seamless the way that all works now, just slightly odd without any face to face contact.

What's next? What will (and have) you be working on post-Outlander?

There've been a few things. Right after I finished Outlander I scored a comedy called Ghost Town which David Koepp co-wrote and directed. It was the first lead role in a film for Ricky Gervais whom you'd know if you've ever seen the original BBC series The Office. That score was almost the polar opposite of Outlander too, there was still a little string section, but a lot more emphasis was on clarinet, bassoon and guitars.

I worked a little on Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa for some fun. If anyone is dying to know who did the polka arrangement of Morricone's "The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly" for that, it was me! I did a few other things for that film, but as far as interesting writing assignments, it's hard to top polka versions of classic film music themes.

A few weeks ago I finished up another sci-fi/action film called Game. That was a co-write with another composer which looks like it'll be released late summer of 2009. It's about multiplayer video games in the future which are televised and have real humans, prisoners actually, who are controlled by players at home. So Gerard Butler is playing to win back his independence. That's another sci-fi film for me, which is a genre I love working in. The score for that is an interesting hybrid of electronica and rock elements and there are a few 8-bit music moments I loved doing, where I incorporated the sonic elements that early video game consoles were capable of.

Right now, I'm starting a miniseries that I have to keep quiet about for the moment... It's a really, really great project though and it'll keep me busy for a while.

Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

No problem, my pleasure!