Snowpiercer: Composer Marco Beltrami

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After gaining exposure for his chilling work in Wes Craven’s Scream, Oscar-nominated composer Marco Beltrami has become something of a dab hand with horror-action, with scores for Resident Evil, Blade II, Hellboy, The Omen, The Wolverine, Warm Bodies and World War Z to his name.

Yet with films like Soul Surfer, Trouble with the Curve, The Sessions, The Hurt Locker and 3.10 to Yuma, Beltrami’s sensitive abilities transcend any predictable genre boxes. In fact, nothing about his career is predictable – marrying synthetic and acoustic sounds with unorthodox flair, the composer has an ear for the music of real-world textures, with found objects like pig teeth, cactus needles and metal storage containers making the odd appearance in his repertoire.

Marco Beltrami

The latest theatrical release to boast a Beltrami score is Bong Joon-Ho’s wildly inventive sci-fi epic, Snowpiercer. In a post-apocalyptic world frozen to inhabitable temperatures, all that remains of humanity is confined to a globe-circling train powered by a perpetual-motion engine. Beltrami’s score possesses a palpable fluidity that complements the tonal shifts of Bong and Kelly Masterson’s script: the grim notes of tragedy mixed with a Brazil-esque surrealism of humanity on parade. As the “tail-sectioner” protagonists (led by Chris Evans, Jamie Bell and John Hurt) claw their way through the social classes in uprising, train car by train car, frail violins and pianos give way to belligerent percussions and grating metals, triggering the sonic evocations of civil revolution. From steam cars to sushi bars, the journey to the eternal engine is an audial tour de force, giving a voice to both the dizzying opulence of the haves and the fiery determination of the have nots.

Jenna Scott, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Talk about collaborating with director Bong Joon-ho? Did he have a specific musical vision for the film, or were you given freedom to experiment?

Marco Beltrami (MB): He was very open to creative ideas. We actually met a year before he started shooting. He showed me storyboards and images and ideas that he had for the different train cars. And, based on that, I sent him some music I’ve done in the past that I thought he might respond to. Not necessarily for his movie, but just things that might trigger his imagination. He wrote back with the things that he liked. Because there was a little bit of a language barrier, it took a little while just to get comfortable with each other. As the process went on, I would send pieces of music to Bong and he would cut them into the picture, and we’d have Skype sessions where he’d play scenes with the music, noting where he liked it and where he didn’t. There were some things that I had to record before they shot, because they needed the whole thing already in place: the “Wilford Song” had to be recorded so they could shoot to it.

MM: Do you prefer a hands-on relationship with a director, or an environment where you have free rein to do whatever you want?

MB: I think that what’s great about film composing is that it is collaborative, and you have to embrace that as a composer. Having the director’s perspective on your work and him being able to guide you and see things through is really important. That’s what I enjoy doing, that’s what I love. Sometimes with directors – not in this case – but sometimes directors will fall in love with whatever they’re cutting, and that can be its own challenge. But with Bong that wasn’t the case at all. It was a question of pure creativity.

MM: The score has an underlying orchestral quality. Was the intention to introduce classical elements into an otherwise futuristic film? What made you gravitate toward the style that you did?

MB: The setting is futuristic but it’s also sort of backwards in some respects, too. There are people that are on the train with not much technology at all, just old-fashioned tools. I thought one instrument that might be neat was the cimbalom, which has an antique quality to it. The film’s a mix of certain scenes which are more synthetically achieved and processed, and sounds that might be acoustically based but are really electronic, and then some things that are more classical sounding. snowpiercer 3

MM: One of your trademarks is creating music out of found objects. Did you incorporate any non-instruments into this film?

MB: There was one sound that was produced for the second part of the axe fight, where they’re playing sort of slow motion. There’s so much metal and a cavernous quality to this scene, so I thought it’d be neat to take that sound and do something with it. It’s this low, metallic sound and it is actually recorded from a big storage container. We used that sound a few times throughout the movie.

MM: In your liner notes for the soundtrack, you mentioned the sushi scene presented the most difficulty during the scoring process. What posed the challenge?

MB: That’s an example of the collaboration thing. I viewed the scene as the main character just looking out the window, and I used the same theme that I used for the other outside scenes. Bong was like “No, no, that’s not what I’m going for, ” with the language barrier I didn’t really understand what it was that he wanted. He was telling me, “Piano music you hear in a bar,” and I was like, “In a bar? Like cocktail music?” I didn’t know what he meant. Finally he said to me, “I’m thinking of the scene from The Deer Hunter, when the guy’s playing piano in a bar.” Then as soon as he said that, I knew what he meant. It was a very specific reference. He said, “You’re playing inside the head of Nam [Kang-ho Song] here – sort of the life gone past.” The whole scene took on a new meaning to me. If he hadn’t said that I probably still would’ve been struggling on that scene today.

MM: The train cars in Snowpiercer are so visually distinctive: Did you attempt to capture the spirit of each car? What about maintaining a commonality or through-line throughout your score?

MB: There’s definitely thematic continuity throughout the cars, but certain things have their own signature sound. The car where they have the axe fight is distinctly synthetic and metallic, a very processed sound. The school car is based on a kid’s song. The whole thing with that concept was that the music should blend completely with the sound mix and create more of a sonic environment, rather than be a scoring thing. It changes depending on where the characters are in the story and the car itself.

MM: The “Wilford Song” is an eccentrically fun part of the film. How did that come into creation? Was it written in the original script?

MB: Yeah, that was in the original script, and Bong said, “Alright, so we need this, because the actors have to sing it, can you come up with something for this?” There was text in the script, and I took that and was like, “Shoot, well I’ve got to come up with something.” I just tried to follow the storyboards, in terms of timing and all that.I played on an organ and had my kids sing it, and then I sent it to him and he liked it and they all copied that.

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MM: Do you find it easier to score movies that action-packed and plot-driven or movies that are subtler and character-driven, with less narrative concern?

MB: I don’t think that matters. The main thing is whether when you see the movie it inspires you and you feel like there’s something you need to contribute. I guess maybe I’d have a harder time with the romantic comedies that are out there – I don’t take myself too seriously. But other than that, I think it’s about being motivated by the film.

MM: You have your own recording studio. In what ways has this personal creative space affected how you approach your art?

MB: It’s great, because now I can spend a lot more time with Buck [Sanders, composer and partner to Beltrami] – we’ve worked together for a long time. We don’t have to worry about spending our whole budget in studios trying to record things and process them and do all that. We can spend as much time as we want. There’s a lot of space up here to try all different sorts of things. In World War Z, we built this big outdoor piano and made wind-driven instruments to make the sound of animal teeth. It’s great to have freedom to be able to do that.

MM: Did you say animal teeth?

MB: World War Z is about zombies, so we thought it would be cool to have a percussion instrument make the sound of teeth gnashing. We used a wild pig in the Southwest called the javelina that communicates through its teeth. Tommy Lee Jones told me about them. So we got a few skulls and worked with putting contact microphones on them and playing the skulls of the javelinas in the movie.

MM: You mentioned your partner Buck Sanders. You two shared an Oscar nomination for the original score of The Hurt Locker. In what ways do you think composers benefit from collaboration? How do you balance or elevate each other’s personal skill sets?

MB: First of all, working in this business, you work alone a lot. Just having somebody else here to bounce ideas off of makes us much stronger when we play things for a director. There’s a certain level of confidence that we have; we know what works for the picture. Also, we have very different strengths. I was trained in a classical sense with just paper and pencil, and Buck is much more adept with technology and computers and processing and all that. We have very different strengths. On a lot of the movies we’re doing now, we combine those really well into a hybrid thing that’s exciting.

MM: The Internet and advances in digital recording continue to revolutionize the music industry: how we make it, how we share it, how we consume it. Coming from a film composer’s perspective, how does this impact your craft? What are the advantages and downfalls of scoring in the 21st century?

MB: I think the biggest pitfall is that people feel like they can change things up until the very end. There’s such a feeling of insecurity or fear in this business that pervades the decisions that people make, and a lot of that is because they’re able to change things. In the past, it took a lot of work just to make a change; maybe things were thought-out better to begin with. In that respect, technology hasn’t really helped the process. But on the other hand, it definitely has helped in terms of not wasting time doing menial tasks as much, being able to research things faster, being able to access different sounds, instruments and all sorts of different things in a much more immediate way.

MM: How much time do you normally get to compose for a movie, and how do you allocate that time?

MB: It’s not always the same, but I’d say if we got like six weeks to two months, that’s a good amount of time. If it’s too short, it’s hard to fully develop ideas. Sometimes if it’s too long it gives producers and studios too much time to get nervous about it. I think about two months is perfect.

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MM: You said earlier you’re concerned more with the content of a film than the genre, but have you found that you have some kind of preference of what type of film you score?

MB: I definitely like dramatic pictures, I’m not really a fan of horror movies, maybe because I just don’t like watching them that much. There’s nothing wrong with being scared in a movie, but just gratuitous horror stuff, I don’t like. Anything that makes you think, as a watcher, anything that’s pushing it creatively, is worthwhile. I guess I sort of view every picture as a Western, whether it’s a horror movie or not. Even the first Scream can be seen like that. One of my big heroes was [Ennio] Morricone. I learned from his music a lot, with paging instruments that might not be part of the normal orchestra and making them fit in.

MM: If you had to pick a couple films to be required viewing for all future film composers-which would you choose? 

MB: Once Upon a Time in the West, 8 1/2, maybe North by Northwest.

MM: What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to create music for a specific film or scene? How do you begin, with the script, the visuals?

MB: It depends. Sometimes the movie’s shot and they give you a director’s cut or an editor’s cut, but sometimes, like in the case of Gods of Egypt [an upcoming Beltrami project, directed by Alex Proyas], they’re shooting now. They sent me the script a couple months ago and storyboards and I started thinking of ideas for it. It really depends on the project; it’s not the same every time.

MM: What advice about composing would you give to your younger self?

MB: I think one of the hardest things to learn for composers is sort of the social aspects of it, the non-musical things. It’s an abstract language for a lot of people, with a lot of directors trying to communicate ideas and understand what it is that they’re trying to achieve. Learning that communication is one of the toughest things. Just keep working at your individuality, don’t try to emulate any other composers. I hear a lot of music that people write – they try to be like John Williams or whatever they think “film music” should be like. Don’t feel like you have to fit into some specified pattern. MM

Snowpiercer images courtesy of Radius-TWC. Photos of Marco Beltrami courtesy of Costa Communications. Snowpiercer opens in theaters today, June 27, 2014, courtesy of Radius-TWC. To subscribe to MovieMaker Magazine, click here.