Interview – WAMG Talks To WORLD WAR Z Composer Marco Beltrami
On Wednesday (June 19), I had the great pleasure of talking to Marco Beltrami, composer of WORLD WAR Z. It was really a thrill for me to speak to him because I am such a fan of composers and film scores.
A prolific, Italian-born film composer who had his start with the teen horror franchise “Scream,” Beltrami was raised in the U.S. and underwent intensive musical training both abroad and at Yale University, composing music for symphonies and dance ensembles before entering the world of film and television scoring with projects like “Hellboy” (2004) and blockbuster sequels such as “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003).
Outside of his genre work, Beltrami held that contemporary film music should include a variety of musical styles and instruments, which he put to use with his critically acclaimed work on the Scandinavian film “I am Dina” (2002) before returning to mainstream films with his traditional sweeping music for “3:10 to Yuma” (2007). After writing the scores for the long-awaited sequel “Live Free or Die Hard” (2007) and the comic book actioner “Max Payne” (2008), he penned the Oscar-nominated music for “The Hurt Locker” (2009), which propelled him onto the upper tier of Hollywood composers.
During our conversation, Beltrami and I discussed how he was brought onto the film by Brad Pitt and Marc Forster, his collaboration with the star and director, the unique percussion instruments used for the movie and how he was influenced by the great Jerry Goldsmith.
WAMG: So I saw the movie on Monday night, and loved it. And the score was fantastic!
MB: Yeah I actually just saw it last night. I wasn’t able to go to the dub in London, so I wasn’t sure how it all fit together, so it was a nice surprise.
WAMG: What drew you to this project, initially?
MB: Well, I read the script. I went in and had a meeting with Marc, the director, when we started…this was about a year and a half or so, two years ago. And I was just blown away by – they showed me some of the footage – by what a unique take it was on the whole zombie thing. The whole notion of them being like a force of nature, and how they swarm and all that, and I thought it would have neat music applications and I just thought it would be a blast to work on.
WAMG: Now is that sort of your basic approach when you’re doing a project or a film, that you read the script first and get ideas, or do you have ideas in your head already?
MB: Well, the script is good, to know what the story is. You can usually tell from the script if it’s gonna be problematic or not. But you really can’t put musical ideas together from a script. It really is deceiving and you need to see some of the footage or you need to see the movie. I have, in the past, worked on ideas just from scripts and I’ve always been wrong with what I…yeah it was important to see. I mean reading the script was really intense, but it was really important to see the thing.
WAMG: And would that be the same approach to something, say like, Wolverine?
MB: Yeah Wolverine, I didn’t even get the script. (James) Mangold asked me about doing it before he even shot it. We had done another movie, 3:10 to Yuma together so I knew what an amazing director he is, so I didn’t hesitate at all. And just knowing a little bit about the project, I thought it would be really cool, which it is.
WAMG: Now getting back to WWZ, some tracks like “They hear the singing” and “They’re coming over the top”…how did you decide what that should sound like, to create that sense of utter panic and anxiety?
MB: It’s there in the picture, the way its cut and shot and edited…so I was just enhancing what was already there. Like the notion that these zombies are imminently threatening the safety of the enclosure there. One of the things, score-wise, that I thought was important was being able to have a lot of quick, off-beat, odd-metered rhythms, because that type of stuff seems to provide a real unsettling feeling in the audience when they are watching it because it’s something you have a hard time grasping on to.
WAMG: Oh it was absolutely unsettling! You mentioned meeting with director Marc Forster – what was the extent of the collaboration process with him and Brad Pitt – I mean did everyone want to have their input with you or did they just leave you alone and say do your thing?
MB: It started out working with Marc when I came on, and my idea with him was that I really wanted to try experimenting. The first time I saw the movie – it’s not in it now – after the Philadelphia sequence, the picture cuts to black and you hear the emergency broadcast system tone and I thought that would be a really neat place to start, musically, for a basic idea for the score. And also, another big story point in the film was the way these things propagate, through biting, and so there’s the sound of teeth.
So I began to experiment with that and Marc was very encouraging, he came up to the studio with his editor Matt (Chesse) and listened to some ideas that we were putting together and playing around with and they were extremely encouraging and it was a great process. And then the film shut down for a little bit because they went to (re)shoot the whole last third of the movie – I think it may have been a little on the dark side. I think they wanted to make it more of a family film.
After that I worked closely with (President of Motion Picture Music) Randy Spendlove at Paramount and they had music editor John Finklea who was really instrumental in sort of leading the charge on how to…I mean there’s a lot of different factions, there’s the studio, and Brad Pitt’s company…so Brad actually came to the studio and I played him some stuff and he had some really helpful comments about keeping it experimental, but then also balancing that with the notion that it’s a big epic movie and “we have to keep this in the world of summer blockbuster” type of thing.
You know we ended up…in the end what we did was we recorded over in London and we actually had a large orchestra recording some of the big epic stuff at Abbey Road and at the same time had a smaller group at British Grove studios in London and there we recorded more of the chamber, intimate, gritty, rosin-on-the-bow type of stuff, which was unique. I don’t know of any other scores that have done that and the mixers were able to blend it all together and create something that was, that satisfied everyone.
WAMG: I read that you used non-traditional percussive instruments, like animal skulls, and teeth. Was that a first for you? Had you done that before?
MB: Never with the animal skulls. We found that there are these feral pigs in…I’m not sure where they’re native to, maybe Texas, called javelina, and they have big jaws. So we got some skulls and miked them up. Then I have a friend of mine who is a hunter and he gave me a lion skull, and we had some raccoon skulls – yeah it looked like a taxidermist. We just played around with that and it became elements that we later used as percussion elements and you can hear that stuff in the score. We experimented in the studio and then we recorded everything when we went to London. You can hear in the score, in a few different places, these sounds. Sometimes it’s covered up by orchestral percussion and all, but sometimes it stands out and I think it helps add to the tension.
WAMG: You’ve done so many different types of films, from action and sci-fi to dramas and thrillers. Do you have a favorite genre that you like to compose for?
MB: No, not really. To me, if I find the material inspiring then I come up with stuff. I found that the only thing that I think I’m not that good at is romantic comedy, I don’t know, maybe I just take myself too seriously. You know I think it’s because a lot of that stuff becomes like you’re playing musical sound effects, like musical gags type of thing and I tend to like to write longer lines, I think maybe that’s why. Stylistically they all present different challenges and I think that’s part of the real fun of being a film composer is that you’re constantly putting on different hats and working in different areas.
WAMG: Speaking of composers, I also read that among the many places you studied, you studied at USC under Jerry Goldsmith. What was that like, and what did you take away from that?
MB: That was when I first moved here and I that’s why I moved here, why I came out here to learn about film scoring and I had the opportunity to study with him at USC. And you know what was really amazing working with him was that I had come from a world that sort of embraced…the concert music world really embraces complexity and sometimes it almost hides behind that, taking ideas that are not only hard to play, but also sometimes hard to appreciate. When I met Jerry, it was a complete contrast because he really focused on simplicity, on being as succinct as possible, on making things as simple and easy for the players as possible. The music in a film should all come from a simple idea and from there should blossom out and that is what has really stuck with me over the years, and I think it was a very valuable experience.
WAMG: Thanks to Marco Beltrami for taking the time to talk to us!
Here’s a look at the WORLD WAR Z recording session at Abbey Road, London – April 2013.
WORLD WAR Z will be in theaters June 21st.