Gone Girl Guys

Here’s a sneak peek of my interview with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross about their score to Gone Girl. This appears in the October 2014 issue of Film Score Monthly Online.

FSMO Reznor Ross

By Kristen Romanelli

This is not a love story. On their fifth anniversary, Nick and Amy Dunne’s marriage takes a twisted nosedive as Amy appears to have been violently abducted from their home. In the flurry of media attention, Nick emerges as the prime suspect as pundits whip the public into a frenzy and the police slowly uncover bits and pieces of the puzzle of what happened…or of what someone wants them to think happened. Gillian Flynn adapted her bestselling novel for the screen, and the film, helmed by David Fincher, presents an unsettling, unblinking look into the lives of deplorable people.

For a third time, Fincher partnered with composing team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. This time around, their signature ambiance is laced with piano, harp and strings, giving the score an organic—yet rotting—quality beneath its electronic veneer. Even after a few decades of industrial rock and record production experience and with an Academy Award under their belts for The Social Network, the pair feel like they’re still finding their way in this realm of film composition. Reznor and Ross speak to FSMO about their journey and where it may take them.

Kristen Romanelli: One of the things that stood out to me after the film ended was the symmetry in the score. It’s book-ended with “What Have We Done to Each Other”/“What Will We Do” and “Sugar Storm.”

Trent Reznor: We’re learning as we go, scoring films, and what we were consciously trying to do this time was have something that cohesively feels like a whole not only through sonic textures but also through themes that might create some sort of sense of resolution. Our way of working with David and his team—Kirk Baxter, his editor; Ren Klyce, the mixer and sound designer—is that we tend to give them lots of options. We write way more than we need for the film. I’ve really learned the value of collaboration here and with that specific team of people, we have enough trust, understanding and faith in one another. We’ve found that trying things out often sparks ideas and can influence the whole pace of the film and sometimes even which scenes are included. The catch with that is that sometimes at the end of the process—and we felt this with Dragon Tattoo—it can veer away from that goal that we as composers have, which is to have it feel like it’s got a connectivity between things—that it doesn’t feel too patchwork-y. We’re pleased with the way Gone Girl contained that kind of element where it felt like a cohesive, big thing. Because it ends in an odd place for the non-book-reader, hearing that theme you heard at the beginning starts to indicate, in my mind, a sense of resolution and helps the film feel a bit more cohesive.

Atticus Ross: Also, on that end cue, you notice that it’s the same piece of music but at the beginning we don’t quite get to the dissonance that really blossoms at the end of the film. There’s a shot that David uses to connect these two parts and when you get to the end of the film, it’s not exactly a feel good moment.

KR: Now we all know about the “spa music” inspiration for “Sugar Storm” and throughout the film. It’s this weird veneer that is laid atop “the Amazing Amy”—the image she uses to beguile people around her. And when we get to the real Amy, the cue “Technically, Missing” plays beneath the scenes as we see her plan unfold and it’s methodical and cutting and even the layers of the music sound calculated. Can you speak to that manipulation that you present through the music?

TR: Tough questions today. [Laughs] That’s such a goose bump moment in the movie when you realize the first half of the film wasn’t necessarily the truth. You have to rethink, “Ah! Okay, everything’s shifted.” We wanted something that got out of the way of her dialogue but felt empowering and free, but it felt angry. The choice of instrumentation in playing those melody lines was me strumming a guitar all tuned to the same string, multitracked, playing as fast as I can and when you finish, you can smell the pick kind of melting a little bit—your arm hurts. But a single note can feel tense and you can feel anger inside. I wanted that kind of tonality to be part of that thing where it was a freeing, majestic and powerful melody sitting over a repeating chord phrase but at the same time to feel like it is ready to burst at the seams…and stay out of the way of what was being said. A lot of the pacing of that was real collaboration with Kirk and David in terms of how they wanted the scene to ebb and flow and build in the middle and cut down again and build back up because it is a good four and a half minutes or so—a pretty sizable chunk of time. We wanted to lock into something that felt like it kept repeating so it could build and have the tension but get out of the way at the same time.

AR: Yeah, I think it ended up being six minutes if you add on the piece that leads into the hammer, which is, to me, kind of part of that same transformation. It’s also the same piece that plays at the front and the very end.

The full article may be read at Film Score Monthly Online.

Gustavo Is Full of Life

Here’s a short look at my interview with Gustavo Santaolalla about his score (and songs) for The Book of Life. This appears in the October 2014 issue of Film Score Monthly Online.

FSMO Santaolalla

By Kristen Romanelli

It seems like Gustavo Santaolalla is constantly on the move and always working on something new. The Argentinian composer just recently returned from the Medellín Vive la Música festival in Colombia where he participated in a master class and conducted a concert for the Banda Sinfónica Juvenil Red de Escuelas de Música de Medellín—an orchestra of 10- 15-year-old children who live in underserved areas of the city. Santaolalla went directly from LAX to a press conference for the new film, The Book of Life, where he performed songs from his soundtrack. For a composer as energetic as Santaolalla, The Book of Life provided a perfect opportunity to show off the many facets of his talents—from songwriting and arrangement to melding classical sounds with Latin American and rock music.

The Book of Life is an animated fable that blends Mexican traditions—from Día de los Muertos to ancient Mayan legends—with a love story. Directed by Jorge Gutierrez and produced by Guillermo del Toro, the tale is about two rulers of the underworlds, La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who involve themselves in the lives of three mortal children. Specifically, they’ve placed bets on which of two friends (Diego Luna and Channing Tatum) will eventually win the heart of the beautiful, independent María (Zoe Saldana).

Kristen Romanelli: This is really exciting. It’s your first animated feature.

Gustavo Santaolalla: Correct. When I met Jorge Gutierrez, he had this tremendous idea for this great project—great story, great characters. There was a great connection, too, because he grew up listening to a lot of records that I was involved with producing. Part of my career I devoted to producing a lot of Latin alternative music with big, very artistically relevant bands like Café Tacuba, Julieta Venegas, Maldita Vecindad, Los Prisioneros and Juanes. It was funny because when I met [Jorge], he said, “Man, you did the soundtrack of my life. I quit my job listening to this song. I met my wife at a Café Tacuba concert. I lost my virginity listening to this.” So we connected immediately. He was a big fan and I loved his project. I knew I was going to be involved, especially knowing that Guillermo del Toro would be a part of it.

One of the things that really attracted me to the project was that it was a challenge for me. I’ve never done something like this before and I love to leave my comfort zone rather than doing the same thing. Last year, I had a great opportunity to do this while working on a video game, The Last of Us,which became very popular. [The Book of Life] offered me a similar opportunity to tap into new territory. These big, animated movies have certain codes. Usually, they use a big orchestra and wall-to-wall music—all things that I usually don’t do in my film scores. I loved the challenge of trying to stay true to that code and that narrative format. At the same time, I tried to infuse it with things that will make it original. It was the first time I worked with a huge group of musicians.

Another attractive thing was the possibility to work with Mexican rhythms, sounds and timbres. I think that was a big part of what made the score unique and different. For this project, I was not only called to score but also to produce new versions of songs that I really like. Great songs like “Creep” from Radiohead or “I Will Wait” from Mumford and Sons. I was also I was invited to write a couple of original songs! It really made a combination that I couldn’t resist. I really wanted to be part of The Book of Life.

KR: I loved the use of the trumpet and guitar in this score, and even how something like rhythm could convey a musical cultural identity.

GS: Thank you so much. We put a lot of effort into it. Like I said, stay true to that language, that code, but at the same time make something different.

KR: Although the story is Mexican, I did hear a bit of tango in there which is from your country.

GS: Mmhm! Because Xibalba and La Muerte, I thought they were the perfect tango couple. That passionate relationship. Even though it’s a Mexican story, we wanted to infuse it with Latin America, not only just Mexico. Mexico was obviously the center of the equation but we wanted to bring other elements to it and we thought a tango for Xibalba and La Muerte could work great.

The full article may be read at Film Score Monthly Online.

Joined at the Hip: James S. Levine and Ryan Murphy's Latest

Check out a snippet of my interview with James S. Levine about his score to American Horror Story: Freak Show. No clowns allowed! This appears in the October 2014 issue of Film Score Monthly Online.

FSMO Levine

By Kristen Romanelli

Already renewed for a fifth season, American Horror Story made its spooky return to FX, setting the network’s record as its most-watched television episode—ever. Ten million viewers tuned in to the premiere of its fourth installment, Freak Show, starring Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates and Evan Peters. This season takes us to Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities in Jupiter, Florida where conjoined twins Bette and Dot (Paulson) have found asylum as their mother’s murder is investigated. Also lurking in the shadows of Jupiter is the murderous “Twisty the Clown,” played by a menacing John Carroll Lynch.

James S. Levine has been showrunner Ryan Murphy’s composer of choice for over a decade—since their collaboration on Nip/Tuck. Although it’s early in the season, motifs have already been established in ringing glockenspiels, a lonesome piano and strings that evoke 1950s spine tinglers.

Kristen Romanelli: So it’s October, and that means that American Horror Story is back. With this series, you start from scratch every year. That must be equal parts daunting and exciting.

James S. Levine: Yes, definitely. The percentage varies from moment to moment, I would say. [Laughs] Theoretically and intellectually, it’s very exciting, and then when you actually sit down to do it, it’s pretty daunting at first, but it’s exciting. It creates its own set of interesting challenges and it’s fun.

KR: Each season is really musically distinct from each other, too.

JSL: We definitely aim to create something new, fresh and different each season and I think we’re successful with creating a series each year that feels and looks nothing like the previous season. You can’t really imagine Jessica Lange in Season 2 when you’re watching Season 3 or Season 1. Everything stands on its own. We try to do that as well.

KR: It really says something, especially when you’re using the same actors and the same creative team.

JSL: I think it’s fun. I think it’s a self-imposed challenge that Ryan Murphy and the creators really wanted to do this sort of thing, where it’s like, “Hey, we’re going to create a new show every year!” You have a challenge because you have to feed an audience that now has a ripe appetite for what we’re doing now that we’ve done it for a few seasons. So there’s a lot of pressure that we put on ourselves and that’s imposed upon us, but people that love watching the show expect something big.

KR: You only have that 13 episodes to do your thing.

JSL: Yes, which is good. [Laughs] It’s good, it’s plenty. It’s a hard run. It’s dark. You can only be so dark for so long. You internalize it from the beginning. It’s hard to maintain that level of horror for months and months. It’s intense.

KR: The first season was your very first horror score, really. Going into your fourth year, are you becoming more fluent and comfortable with the genre?

JSL: I think so. I mean, I think I have a better understanding of some of the things I need to do and how to play certain scenes, but I think that I really try to create new ways to excite the genre each season. I think that you can scare people a lot of different ways and I think we try to do it in a different fashion. We try to not rely on clichés and the sorts of things that might have worked in the past. I try to really be true to the story even though there might be horror beats or scary moments. You have to respect the world you’re living in in that particular season, with these particular characters and the aesthetics of the show. I’m more comfortable expecting what I have to do, but the actual specific execution of a different scene, I would say I still approach everything sort of fresh. Not, “How did I do it last season?” I have it under my skin a little better, that’s for sure. But I try to keep it new.

KR: That’s really good too because each season is not straight horror—it’s a different genre of horror within each season. In the first one you have the haunted house, then it’s the psychological thriller and then it was a voodoo-zombie-witchcraft genre. Now this season, we have the freak show, and the entire concept makes me think of that infamous Tod Browning movie, Freaks. What can we expect from Freak Show this season?

JSL: I don’t want to give away too much because it’s still early days, but I think it’s a good study in humanity and how what we see informs what we think. It’s going to address what it is we see on the outside versus what is really happening on the inside, and humanity’s need to classify it by appearance and by looks. It’s going to be a study in sort of character and how outward appearance informs our judgment and decision-making about other people.

The full article may be read at Film Score Monthly Online.

Birdman: Scoring to the Beat of a Different Drum

Here’s a preview of my interview with Antonio Sánchez about his score to Birdman. This appears in the October 2014 issue of Film Score Monthly Online.

FSMO Sanchez

By Kristen Romanelli

Still fresh off its acclaim at the 71st Venice International Film Festival, the satirical dark comedy Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is poised to open to a wide audience on October 17. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fifth feature film follows an aging actor, Riggan Thomas, whose iconic superhero role has overshadowed his entire career (appropriately, Michael Keaton plays the role), as he tries to make a comeback on the Broadway stage.

Although Antonio Sánchez isn’t a newcomer—he is, in fact, very well known as a jazz drummer who frequently performs with the Pat Metheny Group—this is his first venture into film scoring. With Iñárritu’s precisely timed style for Birdman, a conventional score would glaringly clash with with the action on-screen. So, the unconventional choice of Sánchez and his wholly percussion score makes perfect sense. The rhythm drives action and dialogue, hitting comedic beats as actors hit their marks. The soundtrack also weaves in classical pieces from Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Rachmaninov and John Adams, providing further contrast against Sánchez’s drums.

Kristen Romanelli: Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you became involved with Birdman. This is your first time composing for the screen.

Antonio Sánchez: Correct. Well, I met Alejandro because he’s a big fan of Pat Metheny, the guy I’m playing with right now over here [in Japan]. Actually, the first time I had ever heard Pat Metheny on the radio was on Alejandro’s show that he used to have in Mexico, way back when—when I used to live there in the ’80s. I was playing in L.A. with Pat Metheny in 2002 and Alejandro came to our concert and we met up afterwards. He introduced himself to me and we hit it off right away. He’s a super-cool, down-to-earth guy. Another thing that we had in common was our love for music and for cinema. So, every time I would go to L.A., I would give him a call and sometimes he would able to come to my shows or whenever he would come to New York, sometimes he would call me and I would go to a screening of his movies. Then, one day last January, he called me when I was in Miami. I saw on my caller ID that it was him and I was like, “Wow, that’s strange. Alejandro is calling me out of the blue.” So, I picked up the phone and he said, “Antonio, I’m doing my next movie and I think it’ll be perfect if the whole score was just drums. What do you think?” I’m like, [laughs] “I think that would be great.”

“Are you in? Do you want to do it?” I said, “Yeah, of course!” But I was terrified. I was like, man, a film score with just drums? I don’t know how that would work but he was confident enough that he knew what he was doing and what he was talking about—that I would be able to pull it off somehow.

KR: Now, Alejandro’s filmmaking process is very meticulous and everything in Birdman is very much choreographed. How did that process work in tune with you?

AS: Actually when it came to how we got started, it was completely the opposite. Knowing how meticulous he is, I started doing some demos and sending them to him. When he sent me the script and I read it, I thought, “Okay maybe I could compose a rhythmic theme on the drums for each one of the characters.” And so every time you would see Riggan, you would hear his certain beat. That was my original idea. When I started sending him the demos, he called me and was like, “That’s exactly the opposite of what I would like. I would like something super-organic, very spontaneous. You’re a jazz drummer! I would like you to basically improvise over what the movie would be.” And I said, “I would be totally into doing that except there’s no movie yet for me to improvise over, so how do you want to do this?”

He said, “Okay, I’m going to come to New York soon to start shooting the film and when I’m there, then we should get together and talk about it.” So, he came to New York and I went to a couple of days of shooting and it helped a lot to see the nature of the film and to see the actors in action. That gave me a much better idea of what it could be.

Then, we got together in a recording studio in New York and we made a bunch of demos but he was still shooting the film, so there was nothing for me to look at yet. What we did was he would say, “Imagine in this scene, Riggan is in his dressing room and he gets up and he opens the door and starts walking down this long hallway and then he turns a corner and he is thinking all these crazy thoughts. His mind is all over the place, he’s going a little crazy and then he gets into the stage door and he stays there for a second—and then he opens the door and goes on stage. What would you play?”

I told him, “Why don’t you sit right in front of me in front of the drums and imagine the scene and whatever you see Riggan doing something, raise your hand so I can guide myself, timing-wise?” That’s how we did a bunch of scenes. He took those demos to L.A. and when the movie was finished shooting, they spliced my stuff and put it all over the film. They then showed me the film and we re-did everything with a more specific intention while watching the actual scenes. The process was kind of backwards but it was really interesting when it was all said and done.

The full article may be read at Film Score Monthly Online.




"Go ahead, make my millennium."

Beetlejuice (1988)

TRACK: In The Mood
ARTIST: Glenn Miller
ALBUM: Single


In The Mood | Glenn Miller


Jazz, Swing & Big Band giants




This is why I hate texting sometimes.

Every text conversation between me and my siblings summarized in a nutshell

This speaks to me on a spiritual level.