Was it easy to go from Pirates of the Caribbean to The Simpsons Movie?
Not at first. You won’t get any xylophone on Pirates! So you got used to working in the same palette of orchestration and also of harmonic language which you’ve got to get rid of really quickly. Instead of just going straight to the movie and writing the cues, the good process for that is just composing suites, six- or seven- minute pieces, away from the picture, just to develop and to experiment. You might write something of no use at all that won’t make it in the movie. But then, the music editor can take these things and chop them into the movie to see if that style feels right and that is very useful. And that’s a really useful way of getting under the skin of the movie before you actually do the cues. Then it becomes clear what is working and what isn’t working; what’s the style that makes you feel that “it is” The Simpsons and what style makes you feel not. We struggled very early about that. We all knew the theme and I started doing the orchestration. And because I’m so familiar with the Simpsons language and it has a language, musically, that’s already established because of the TV show, I was so much in that area, sounding quite like the TV thing.
We were listening to it and Hans said: “That’s cool enough. That’s what people expect. But I think we could raise the bar and do something a little bit different.” So we spent an entire day listening to Prokofiev. But that’s not because The Simpsons score sounds like Prokofiev. His point was: there’s a lot of light, not comedic, light, playful orchestrations in classical music that are a little bit “high-bar”, a little bit more “concert hall” than common TV style music. So we spent time listening to various pieces of Prokofiev that have very colorful, very radical, almost amusing orchestration. It’s typical of Hans to get the bar a little higher. It’s a film, it’s not TV. We should be ambitious. Just because it’s Homer Simpson, it doesn’t mean it has to be goofy. It can be goofy but a goofy-meets-Prokofiev goofy, or a goofy-meets-Prokofiev-Gershwin goofy, as opposed to TV goofy.
So, you were a fan of the series, right?
Yes, I’ve seen tons of the episodes. But it’s a double-edge sword. You know that there is an area that you possibly can go, because, just like everyone else in the world, you know what The Simpsons is. But the downside to it is, if you know it so well, you don’t move away from the original music. And that’s what Hans worried about. It’s not that he doesn’t like the series, but he’s not an expert on it. So he felt quite all right to go away. There is some advantage of not knowing too much about that. Because it’s so unusual to do a movie where there’s already so much baggage that people are bringing to the movie. Because they’ve potentially seen hundreds of hours of these characters, and they’re already familiar with tons of the music and the animation. So you’ve got to raise the bar a little higher because it’s a movie, but you can’t go crazy so that the people can say : “that’s not The Simpsons”.
Why do you like The Simpsons?
I would say that Matt Groening has got kind of a “narcotic” sort of humor. There are so many witticisms and jokes. But The Simpsons Movie being a film, it has to have a story, actually, otherwise you’re not gonna last the 80 minutes of it. But there are so many jokes and a lot of wit, and some of it is parodying the dysfunctional American family, some of it is parodying just general human weaknesses, like a classic satire. Thus, Homer is a hopeless father, he’s selfish and fat and indulgent. I just think it’s a refreshingly satirical look on the American family. But it also has warmth to it, that’s the other thing. It’s not biting and unpleasant a satire that you’re left feeling cold. You can make a list of all the dysfunctions of Homer and his family, but actually in the end, it still feels quite warm and amusing. And I think that’s why it’s universal. There are Simpsons all over the world. It’s not just about America. It’s just about a very average, average family.
Do you know why they hired Hans Zimmer for that film, and not Danny Elfman or Alf Clausen?
I have no idea. That’s a very good question. All I know is that a lot of people wanted Hans Zimmer to do the score. That’s not an unusual thing! But in this particular case, the logical thing would have been to ask Danny Elfman. I may be wrong, but I think that maybe Jim Brooks, the executive producer, took on some directorial role in the movie. Maybe, he and Hans worked together before. Jim has a very strong sense of confidence, like an ability to work closely and express himself with ideas. And he had a very strong sense that Hans would be a good partner for that process. And the fact is that conversations between Jim and Hans were always productive. So I would suspect it has something to do with Jim’s confidence in Hans.
How did you deal with the Simpsons theme?
We used just the one from the original series. It would have been unconceivable to do an entire Simpsons movie without using it. For the opening credits, I took the tune and did a completely different orchestration on it, which was actually really good fun. Then, there’s a rock band, standing on a platform in Springfield lake, so I made like a rock version of the same theme. So we did use it right at the beginning just to establish with the audience : “don’t worry, this is The Simpsons, the Simpsons that you know and love, simply re-orchestrated.” In other parts of the score, we also used it to represent Springfield as a whole. In the movie, when the people are threatened by an ecological disaster, when there is a sense of that we need conceptually a tune to represent the whole community, then occasionally that theme was slipped into the score, representing Springfield in general.
How did you orchestrate it?
It’s not orchestrated a million miles away. I kept the bass, played at double bass and cello in pizzicato because that’s the essence, rhythmically and harmonically, of the theme. Then I deliberately forgot the original arrangement, keeping the tune, that such a recognizable one. I just gave it a slightly big band feel, with some staccato saxes and muted trumpets.