By Matt Patches, Hollywood.com Staff
A great Hollywood blockbuster score doesn't come around too often after all, no one wants to spend $100 million or more then weave in a risky soundtrack that could derail an audience's reception. Thankfully, Marvel Studios went against the grain and let the legendary Alan Silvestri deliver a rousing, old school score for their 2011 period action adventure flick Captain America: The First Avenger. If there's anyone worth taking a gamble on, it's Silvestri, a two-time Oscar-nominated composer whose works can be heard in such films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, The Abyss, The Quick and the Dead, Contact and the Back to the Future trilogy.
Following up his inspired work on Captain America, Silvestri returned to the Marvel movie universe for another round: The Avengers. I spoke to the composer about taking on the ultimate superhero team-up, everything from the pressures of working under Marvel's calculated master plan, working with Joss Whedon and figuring out how to weave all these different heroes into one musical smorgasbord. Amazingly, Silvestri didn't take too long a break after knocking Avengers out of the park: he already has two other projects in the pipeline.
What was the process of you becoming involved with The Avengers after your work on Captain America? They must have been happy with it. It's a fantastic score, by the way. How did you get brought back onto the Marvel train?
Alan Silvestri: Well, I think it is directly related to having done Captain America. I think it was a good experience for all of us, and when The Avengers started coming around, I think it hadn't even been a year since I had done Captain America. I really think it was a direct result of that film, the working environment and how it all went for all of us. We all thought, 'Well, maybe we should try this again.'
Was there a thematic reason for bringing you back? Marvel has done a fantastic job of keeping their films connected through design and tone, in order to bring all these heroes together. Bringing someone back seems calculated.
AS: I think that is certainly in the mix. I think, for instance, in Captain America well, I don't think, I know for a fact that Joe Johnston wanted, very specifically, a theme for Captain America. And so, that was something that was kind of a primary mission. But even the Tesseract, which is kind of the energy underpinning the Marvel world, had its own theme. Which remained for The Avengers. It was established in Captain America. The way the world of scoring works is, they had that theme whether they had me or not. For instance, the Captain America theme. But I think it was because of the working relationship. They very definitely wanted thematic material for The Avengers, as you might imagine. So I think all things considered, it seemed to them to possibly be a good fit.
That's what fascinates me: they've tried to fit all of these people in the same world and seemingly as a way of doing that, avoided developing themes for their heroes in individual movies. Captain America stands in opposition to that plan. I can hum the Cap theme. Not so for the rest of the Avengers. Was that a plan on Marvel's part to be able to bring them together? Was there ever pushback on introducing a theme for Captain America?
AS: Well, we had talked about the whole range. I think, just in theory, everyone agreed early on that the idea of everyone having their clearly definable theme would probably be more distracting than helpful. What we discovered in Captain America is that there is a blessing and a curse to a clearly definable theme. The blessing is, it's clearly definable. The curse is, it's clearly definable! And so, a little of it goes a long, long way.
You can grow tired very quickly of, every time you see someone, hearing, 'Ba ba-ba ba bum!' [Laughs] No. It's like, 'Oh my God I'll kill myself if I hear that again.' So, we kind of went through the experiment on Captain America. And we discovered that a little goes a long way. And you can reference the theme, you can be a little more abstract with it, and still retain a kind of presence with it. For instance, in The Avengers, the Captain America full-on theme really doesn't appear.
But there is a little twist of fanfare.
AS: Right. The sensibility, absolutely. Now, The Avengers, we knew the Avengers would need something. And Marvel very much wanted that. As did Joss. And so, I remember the first time I saw a screening, early, early on. I was already on board. I had been hired. But I hadn't seen the movie yet. And when we get to the point in the film when the Avengers all assemble in the middle of the street, it's a very unique spot, because they're actually not moving. They're not doing anything. They're standing there.
AS: Yeah, it's the anti-action moment! But I'll never forget in the screening, we get to that moment in the film, and all of a sudden, I turned around and all the heads were looking at me. It's like, 'This is the spot, pal!'
'OK, Alan. This is the part where you do something.'
AS: This is the part where the music has got to do something, because you can see, all of our folks are standing there, shoulder to shoulder, but they're not moving.
It's your action scene.
AS: [Laughs] Yes, exactly! Which was an interesting thing from the point of view of, 'How do you approach a theme for The Avengers?' Because it had to work in that place, and it wasn't necessarily an action idea. More of this kind of heroic statement. And the coming together of something greater than the sum of its parts. So, it's kind of an interesting situation to work through.
Because there aren't really themes for the individual heroes, did you use instrumentation that you linked with the different characters? I'm thinking of Peter and the Wolf, where each character has an identifiable sound or instrument.
AS: It was a combination of basically everything. For instance, the movie opens with the Tesseract theme. That is a very clearly definable theme. It was established in Captain America, and we used it over the very opening of the film. Over the logos and all of that. As soon as we get into the start of the picture, there was a very definite theme for Loki. And it's this low, ominous sequence of chords, but it's used in many places throughout the film, when his presence is either visible or implied. Again, it's somewhat subtle, because it's these long, low tones. But it's very clearly a definable theme.
Midway working through the film or actually, maybe two thirds of the way through I had done some of the scenes with Scarlett [Johansson]. I got a call from Joss, and he said, 'You know, I'd really like to explore something that would be more clearly definable as her theme.' He said, 'I'd like it to have a little bit of a Russian feeling to it.' So, I actually went back and came up with a very clearly definable theme. There are hints of it in the interrogation. There are hints of it in her scene with Loki, where she's basically interrogating him, unbeknownst to him. And then when she's on the speeders flying, we're playing it full-out.
To get back to the idea of instrumentation, Iron Man although I didn't come up with some kind of clearly melodic theme he always has the more contemporary, rhythmic component to a lot of his music. In the beginning, when we first see him in the film, and he's flying towards Stark Towers, there's a very kind of percussive contemporary, if you will rhythmic component to him. Speaking to your idea of instrumentation: brassy ponderously grand. That's always at work. Ways to separate, even if not with an overtly clear, melodic theme.
Next: Teaming up with Whedon, Action Movie Scores and Word on Silvestri's Upcoming Projects!
Find Matt Patches directly on Twitter @misterpatches and remember to follow @Hollywood_com!
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You mentioned something about Joss coming to you for the Black Widow theme. I know you worked with a few people multiple times Robert Zemeckis on nearly every one of his pictures. What is your relationship with directors, specifically with Joss on Avengers and in general?
AS: Joss was fantastic. I think it's Jerry Goldsmith who was quoted I'll paraphrase, but the idea is clear. In describing the first time a director and a composer work, he said it's like a first date. You're together because there's an attraction, but you really don't know anything about each other. So it's always an interesting curve to kind of work your way through the first cup of coffee, the first time you see each other. And the first time you offer something, and the first time the director calls and says, 'You know, I was thinking maybe a little more this.' Especially when there's a tremendous level of mutual respect, it's actually a very lovely process.
Like any relationship, and that's really all it is, you have to go through this continuous process of gaining trust. Like if I expose a kind of a more daring idea to Joss, will he call and say, 'Have you lost your mind?' Or will he call and say, 'Thank you for your boldness. I like mostly what it's doing, but could we ' And then, you find, 'Oh, this person likes me to be me.' So, I can be more me, and he can be more him. And of course by the end of the film, things that took us kind of a fair amount of go-around early on, by the end, I'm kind of hitting the mark on the first round, and he's explaining things very specifically on the first round. We could really feel, both of us, that by the end of this film we had gotten to know each other in a whole different way. And then of course, creatively, you can move much more quickly, and much more effectively and creatively.
Is Joss pretty knowledgeable music-wise? I'm sure, being a film buff, he has favorite composers. Did he come to you with examples, or ideas? Anything specific?
AS: It's interesting. If we go back to the date analogy, you can have all the experience in the world, but your first date doesn't want to hear about, 'I dated Margaret last week, and she did this thing that I really liked! So, maybe you can try that. And I remember Gloria. She was really cool. She used to do this, and that was really great.' You really have to be discreet about how you communicate your needs.
I should stop doing that on dates.
AS: [Laughs] See, it explains everything! Doesn't it? So, yes. To answer seriously, he does have a tremendous background and love of film music. And so, in a very encouraging way, he would be able to say things that would steer me in the direction that he wanted to go in. Because, again, it's pretty endless, the direction one can take. He was very, very comfortable with all of that.
I've talked to composers before about the use temp tracks, how they can be both helpful and hinder the process. Does Joss use temp tracks? Do you see them as an aid? Were there other ways of inspiring you?
AS: The temp track has become a reality. I've been asked many times about temp tracks. Every composer is now. There was a time when it was not quite as mandatory as it has become. My stock answer, if you will and then I will elaborate but my stock answer is, it's like a hammer. In the hands of a craftsman, it's an instrument of great beauty and creativity. In the hands of a homicidal maniac, it's a weapon of death.
So that is a temp track for me. When you have somebody with the intelligence and awareness of Joss, it's a great starting point to begin the dialogue. Because you're talking about music. The director can say, 'I like the pace of this, I don't really feel that melodically it is doing anything. I like the size or the scope of this, but there is a number of ways you can achieve that.' And so you're getting really valuable information. The other aspect of all this now is, directors are compelled to show their movie to the powers that be, and to the advertising folks, the marketing folks, so early on, that they really don't have a choice. They have to be putting music into the movie. So, the sooner the movie starts to play like a movie, the better for everyone.
Do you have a philosophy for writing an action movie score? Is there room for innovation in the blockbuster?
AS: Well, my sense is always that, as an audience, we develop a vocabulary. For lack of a better description I would call it an associative vocabulary. And things start to mean certain things to us, and it's because we've seen them in films, and they become kind of an association. So for instance, if you hear a tom-tom going, 'Bum bum-bum, bum bum-bum,' you know Indians are coming. [Laughs] Okay? You hear French horns playing the big fanfare, you know something very important is happening. It could be the king, it could be Darth Vader. We have these kinds of associations.
I think in action music with pace, instrumentation, with certain kinds of figures, certain kinds of spotting we have these associative words and phrases and settings evoke nobility, action, danger. When you hear the high string cluster, you're prepared for something scary or something tense. Sometimes you can use the syntax for what the direct association is. It also becomes a tremendous tool when you're doing a comedy. When you're doing a comedy, you can use the cinematic aural vocabulary to play against an image. Like when I did Night at a Museum, when Owen Wilson is coming back from the mission. He's an inch and a half tall and he's walking, and I'm playing it like a Roman Emperor.
You get to make jokes, essentially.
AS: Exactly! You get to make jokes. But it doesn't change the fact that what's funny about it is that we have these associative connections regarding scores. They're a real thing. So my philosophy: I don't turn my back on the cinematic vocabulary. A lot of exists because of sheer physical reasons. Normally, if we're talking about an action sequence, there is going to be a battle for real estate and there's only so much sonic real estate available. So if you've got loud crashes and gunshots and engine sounds and every other possible thing, certain kinds of treatments, musically, will have a chance to live in that environment. Others would be so washed away. They won't ever make it to the screen.
What's your actual process for sitting down and penning a score? I imagine a lot of humming, but I'm curious where you begin.
AS: Every now and again I wind up in front of a group of students and that kind of area of investigation often comes up, and I find myself going back to stories from childhood. Walking, moving across the stage, playing army as a kid. I'll start walking across the stage and start going [Silvestri sings a battle theme]. That's how I do it. It's playing. It is humming! It is allowing yourself to respond spontaneously from what you're looking at. Your experience plays a great part. There are certain ways to evoke certain kind of experiences, but spontaneity is important. That's something that can't be taught to anyone.
AS: Right. You can teach people how to orchestrate. You can teach them harmony. You can teach them all kinds of things, but I don't think you can teach them a lot about how to instantaneously converse with a piece of film as it rolls by.
Do you do a lot of listening in anticipation of a movie?
AS: No, not really. My whole sense of working with film is, forgive all the metaphors, like going to a cocktail party. You bring your entire life experience to a cocktail party. You walk in and you meet someone and you're introduced and as your introduced your friend says, 'This is John. He's an avid fly fisherman.' And we may talk for the next 15 minutes about fly fishing. And then you're introduced to Bob and it's 'Oh, Bob flies his own plane.' Well now the next 20 minutes we're talking about flying airplanes. That's how I approach working on a film. The scene starts and it talks to me. And I talk back to it, based on its language and its needs and its interests. The film always goes first.
Did your life experience include reading comic books?
AS: I was not what you would call an avid comic book fan. I did read them, but the thing about a comic book is that it is able to essentialize story in an interesting combination of words and images. In a sense, that's really what a film is exploring only on a much wider range. It's images and sounds. I didn't look at The Avengers as a comic book event. These were characters. It was so beautifully written by Joss I took it seriously. I took it at face value. I was invested. I did my best to track along with them and what they were doing. That's kind of the approach I found. It's my approach for every film I work on. I just watch the movie.
You've done some influential and highly-regarded film scores Back to the Future and Forrest Gump come to mind. Is there a score that you personally look back to and think, 'this is the one I nailed.'
AS: I don't. To me it's like if you have five children, put them in order of your favorites. I look back at every film as a sonic capture of where I was in my life at that time, where I was in my knowledge base. Some of the films that I've done are the worst films I've ever worked on, would even say, 'why would you ever do that?' I've learned tremendous amounts on even the worst one I've ever done. Even if it's learning more about the technology, how music marries to film I haven't done one where I haven't learned. Sure, a movie like Forrest Gump that's so successful, it's hard to not have a fondness for it. But it's tough to separate them.
Is there something specific you learned from working on The Avengers?
AS: Well, there were a number of interesting problems. One of the most specific and interesting challenges was the same one Joss had to deal with. He's got all of these huge stars in one movie and they weren't like other films where you have other huge stars because they'd be more of a cameo approach. This was a situation where there were all these big players and they all had to be big players. The idea of how to weave through all that, give them their due, have all of it be important, was an on-going challenge. Of course, the sheer amount of work in the amount of time one has is an ever-continuing challenge in the film scoring business. So much music and that clock's ticking. The inner-confrontations of being able to work those hours, continuously bringing the energy levels to match the needs of the film for months at a time. You learn a lot about all kinds of things regarding yourself [laughs].
I know that you're knee deep in your next project, working with Bob again on Flight [starring Denzel Washington]. How is that process going for you?
AS: It's going beautifully. I've done so many films with Bob and he just always amazes me with what he's able to do. This is a very different film than The Avengers, in its tone, its style.
The descriptions make the film sound like an unexpectedly smaller movie for someone like Robert Zemeckis.
AS: It's incredibly intimate. Denzel Washington has brought a truly remarkable performance. It's very quiet, so instrumentation wise it's very small. It's a whole other kind of demand. But again, the thing with working with Bob is that he's so clearly able to express himself in the film, that all you have to do is watch what he's done and follow him. It's always great to be asked by him to come back and try again.
Are you already signed on for a film for after you're wrapped with Flight?
AS: I actually do have a film that I'll probably be starting in earnest in the beginning of the Fall. It's called The Croods. It's a Dreamworks Animation that I'm doing with Chris Sanders.
AS: It's fantastic and charming. I did Lilo and Stich with Chris we had a spectacular time. I'm really looking forward to that. I've seen it, they're working for it and it's just lovely. It's basically about the creation of the first family.
That sounds terrifying.
AS: [Laughs] Exactly. It should be!
Find Matt Patches directly on Twitter @misterpatches and remember to follow @Hollywood_com!
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