10 October 2007

DISTURBIA/PARANOIAK - Geoff ZANELLI: from Pirates of the Caribbean to Hitman, interview Part 1 by Christine Blanc

C'est une personnalité toujours aussi passionnée, investie et généreuse que nous avons retrouvée lors de ce nouvel entretien avec Geoff Zanelli. Le talentueux compositeur qui a grandi dans les studios Mediaventures a aujourd'hui un emploi du temps bien rempli. Il a toutefois accepté de nous parler longuement de son actualité. Jugez par vous-mêmes! Des jeux vidéo comme Shrek à des musiques de films telles que Pirates des Caraïbes: La Trilogie, Hitman ou encore Disturbia (Paranoïak), vous découvrirez dans les prochains jours toute une série d'interviews tant à propos de ses réalisations les plus récentes que de celles à venir...

Can you tell me about you, training, background...?
Geoff Zanelli: I began as a guitarist, but I got a late start really. I didn’t play until I was around 16 or so, which is much later than most people, but once I started playing guitar it was all-consuming. And so only 2 years later I had progressed to a point where Berklee College Of Music in Boston offered me a scholarship, and that’s where I was educated scholastically. While I was in between semesters, I started interning at Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions. This was in 1994 or so, during The Lion King. That was also a big part of my training, just being around film music, people who were working at such a high level. Eventually I became John Powell’s assistant, and then in 1999 I was offered a room here at Remote Control, which of course I took.

How and why did you come to film music?
Well, I realize in retrospect that at a very young age I was responding to music in films, the original Willy Wonka being one that I remember in particular, so it was a natural progression for me. Plus, I was keen on the idea that film composers get to work in so many styles, and that each project takes you in a new direction musically. I think it’s very hard to do that in the record business, for instance.

Do you have any mentor? Are you inspired by a composer in particular?
Well Hans for one, I’d consider a mentor as well as a friend. Then there’s John Powell, I find him inspiring as well as James Newton-Howard, and outside the film music world there’s a wealth of inspiration for me, from John Adams to Tool.

Do you consider yourself as being part of a “school” of composition?
Not really.

How would you describe or characterize your own musical style?
I haven’t really thought about that. I think I’d rather just write it and leave the characterization to other people, but I tend to rely on my instinct when writing a film score, so I suppose that has some bearing on my work stylistically.

How do you choose a project to work on?
For the most part, they choose me.

I guess you compose on computer. Don’t you miss pencil and paper? Why?
I don’t really miss that, because for me the production side of film music is very important, so I like to have a hand in that. In some ways it becomes a part of the writing process for me actually, in particular when the score calls for some electronic elements.

How do you compose? Do you have a method of working? How do you proceed?
It’s really different on each film, but going back to what I said earlier, the easiest way to describe it is I rely on my instincts. So I watch the film, I respond to it in some way, and maybe I hear something, a sound or a chord or an instrument, and I start exploring from there. I’m not really interested in deriving a formula for how I write my scores, so I try to approach things with some freshness each time.

When you're watching a film, do you feel emotions that lead you rather to orchestra or rather to electronics? How do you use either medium?
I’m not sure that I’d call it an emotional response, but some projects, like House Of D or Into The West, they dictate a more acoustic approach so I use that. But with a film like Hitman, it practically demands a more contemporary, electronic feel. I use either medium exactly the same though, to support the storytelling in the film in a manner that’s appropriate to the material.

What do you feel when you’re composing and what do you like in this process?
I feel all sorts of things. I can usually respond to something in the film, so there’s an emotional response, whatever the scene’s emotional content is. I suspect that’s common to any film composer though. Another common feeling is exhaustion, since I work very intensely.

You said us that you “didn’t really work on the Shrek movies, just the latest video game and a tiny little bit on the amusement park ride”. Can you tell us a little about that?
There’s really not much to say. I did a few song-like tracks for the video game. That’s about it.


How did you come on Disturbia?
After Into The West, the folks Dreamworks were very keen on me and I was asked to submit a CD for the director of Disturbia to listen to. From there, we sat down and talked about the project and it was clear from the start that we would work well together.

May you tell us about the story and the kind of film? What the subject represents for you?
It’s first a comedy with a little bit of teen romance. Then it gradually shifts into thriller territory, so there was great appeal to me, to try to find a way to handle the two sides of the story in a musical fashion.

May you tell me about your approach for this film?
Well I wanted the music to feel honest, genuine, so that’s where I started, especially with the love theme. And to me, if you’re thinking about what it’s like to have your first crush, what teen romance is, you’re taken back to that time in your own life. The music of that time in my life wasn’t actually orchestral as much as it was song-based, so I approached the love theme as if I were writing a song. And in fact it did become a song which plays over the character’s first kiss, when a band called This World Fair wrote the lyrics to my theme. So then I approached the thriller side of the score which I felt needed to be larger than life, and that’s where the orchestra comes in, to give it that mass, that size that you need to tell that side of the story.

Did you use some themes or ambient score? Which? How and why?
Most of it is thematic. There’s the love theme, there’s a theme for the bad guy, Turner, and a theme for Kale, our hero. There’s also a theme for Kale’s father, which is really more about his relationship with him, and what it’s like to have a wholesome life, but you only get that sense of security at the beginning of the film, while his father is still alive.

How much time did you have to compose the score?
I think it was 12 weeks, much longer than I’m used to.

What orchestra and what size did you choose? Did you use some electronic sounds in your score or was it all live?
We recorded here in Los Angeles. 60 pieces, so it was 52 strings, 7 brass, and a harp. Then there was Josh Freese, who is a fantastic drummer as well as George Doering, a fantastic guitarist. There were also lots of electronic sounds in the score.

To you, what is the most interesting, the most successful or the most complex scene you had to score for this film?
That’s hard to say. I think the film is very well directed and so all the scenes feel successful to me. I enjoyed though playing the Turner scenes, like when he harasses Ashley in her own car, or once he captures Kale near the end of the film, I loved doing his twisted music.

What did the experience bring to you, personnally and as a composer ?
It was the perfect film for me at the time. I’m not sure how to put it into words, but I just mean from day one, once I met with DJ Caruso, I knew it was up my alley, and so I think this film for me affirmed a lot of my ideas about film music and how it should be symbiotic and supportive of the storytelling.

Do you have any anecdote ?
I loved that the score lends itself to a song. I don’t get to work with bands very often so that was a highlight for me.

To be continued...

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