An Interview with Chris Ridenhour by Randall D. Larson
This interview was done in November 2009 for my forthcoming book, Musique Fantastique, 2nd Edition. Only a portion of the interview will appear in the book, and I am pleased to provide the entire “author’s cut” edition of my Q&A with Chris here – rdl.
You have composed the music for more than a dozen feature films produced by The Asylum. How did you begin working, almost exclusively, for this production company – and what has been their general mandate for music, in terms of budget, deadlines?
I moved to Los Angeles in the mid ‘90s to get into film music and got to work on several features, such as BLADE and RUSH HOUR. Shortly thereafter I was sidetracked by playing in rock bands for several years. Then in 2007, a mutual friend who was working on The Asylum’s TRANSMORPHERS got me back into film composing mode with that score. But it wasn’t until 2008, when director and artist Davey Jones brought me on board for composing JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH that I pretty much became an Asylum regular, at which point I totally refocused all my energies into a film music career.
For most Asylum films, the timelines are fairly compressed. I usually only have about two weeks to compose, orchestrate, and record a finished score. But with PRINCESS OF MARS I was lucky; I had almost a full month on that one. There is no mandate in particular other than to make the scores mostly orchestral, exciting, and very big, which is what I love to do. The producers give the directors a lot of freedom to achieve their vision, so occasionally I do get some guidance from directors as far as what they are looking for in the score.
Your first score for The Asylum was the horror picture THE HITCHHIKER. What was your approach in augmenting the film’s spookiness with your music – and what challenges did that pose for you here?
My approach to that score was minimal and atmospheric, with an almost film noir tone. My two favorite scenes are the exterior dolly shot outside the hotel – where I have these menacing horns come in, like in a Hitchcock film – and a scene towards the end, when the killer is about to shoot a victim with a shotgun and the tempo of the music slows down to a dead crawl right before he discharges his weapon.
How have you tried to emulate the kind of musical dynamic found in A-movies within the limited budget and instrumental limitations found at The Asylum, especially when sci-fi and fantasy depends so much on effective musical scores to validate and intensity their fantastical environments, creatures, and situations?
I primarily use an emulated orchestra. My rig has over 150 instruments loaded at once, any of which I can play at any given time. I pretty much use all the same samples everyone else uses, but I try to incorporate as many live instruments as possible. I have three amazing vocalists that sing regularly on my scores. On MEGASHARK, I even had my 7-year-old daughter sing for one scene. I also add live cello, which I play myself. I’m learning a lot of new instruments (for example, the duduk) so I can play them in my scores; no matter how ‘advanced’ the sampled instruments get, nothing beats the real thing. Achieving as close to an ‘A-movie’ sound as possible is pretty much essential.
What type of music have you found most effective when scoring “monster metal” films like TRANSMORPHERS 1 and 2 and THE TERMINATORS? Were you asked to emulate the style of music from the original TRANSFORMERS/TERMINATOR franchises or have you intentionally steered away from that influence?
Usually the only directive I get is to make the music is big as possible. Usually 95% of what I write ends up in the final version. In the case of the sci-fi films, I tried to go for something retro and, for lack of a better word, ‘romantic’ – epic themes with a hint of Russian style of scoring; big, simple, brassy overtones with lots of percussion and of course, synths!
In contrast to such “hard” sci-fi scores as TRANSMORPHERS, what kind of music have you found most useful for scoring “softer” fantasies such as Verne’s JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH and Burroughs’ LAND THAT TIME FORGOT and PRINCESS OF MARS?
The fantasy films are so much fun because they give you a wonderful palate to create rich dynamic themes that develop throughout the film, as well as unusual instrumental combinations and textures. Mark Atkins, who directed the dragon movies and PRINCESS OF MARS, has a very refined musical sense and vision for his films, which always makes the scoring process more enjoyable.
What was your musical approach to a film like MEGA SHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS, which generated some pretty preposterous visuals and story points – and yet you are playing it purely straight with your music, investing an exciting and thrilling score that generated a lot of the film’s dramatic power?
That score was a great deal of fun because you could tell everyone was having a great time making the movie. Since the drama is very straight on, I tried to make the score accent those emotions, so that the music would be as entertaining as an adventure with all the trimmings. To me, that just makes it more entertaining and fun to watch, even if a shark is eating a plane. Since the main character is a classical music fan, I thought it would be fun to make the octopus Bach and the shark Beethoven, at least in spirit. There are a lot of Bach and Beethoven references in the film.
There was a screening of that film down in Hollywood one night. It was the most fun I ever had at a theater, and everyone had a blast. There was almost a ‘Rocky Horror’ vibe, with people wearing homemade MEGASHARK t-shirts, and even Lorenzo Lamas himself was there.
When working in a historical period rather than a contemporary environment, such as with DRAGONQUEST, MERLIN AND THE WAR OF THE DRAGONS, and so on, have you also tried to musically delineate the earlier time period in your scores? How challenging has that been for you to get it authentic-sounding?
In those scores, the use of primitive percussion and plucked instruments, such as an autoharp, really helps give it an antiquated feel. Stringed instruments that sound a little tired, worn out, and slightly out of tune, playing simple themes, work wonders. I just love that. It’s like you can directly feel the emotion of a person who lived a thousand years ago and it helps make me feel like I’m going on that journey with them.
What was your musical approach to 2012: SUPERNOVA, in which you had a large ensemble cast to support, musically, as well as a pretty cataclysmic threat to keep on top of? How do you score a monster supernova?
Basically, hit it with a ton of menacing brass, choirs and percussion moving very fast. Does the trick every time! That score was a challenge, especially the ending, where you have these long extended periods of rising tension. To make it work without being repetitive is always a great challenge and quite demanding, but I think it turned out pretty nice.
How would you describe your approach to SHERLOCK – a film which has elements of period, fantasy, and science fiction – and a huge legacy in film and film music?
I look at a film like SHERLOCK as basically a composer’s dream job. It has every element you could ask for: Sherlock Holmes himself, period actors, period sets, and a bunch of monsters running amok. The director, Rachel Goldenberg, is wonderful to work with and very much involved in every element of the production. Plus, I get to score a scene with Holmes and Watson drinking tea! Tea, I say!
Looking back at a relatively short but highly productive period of film scoring, what do you hope for the future? What would you like to be scoring in another five or ten years – and is MEGA SHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS 5: TENTACLES IN TOKYO or something like it should come your way – what would your response be at that time?
When I started that job, I distinctly remember thinking that I wanted MEGASHARK on my tombstone: “Here Lies Chris Ridenhour, beloved father, husband and composer of MEGA SHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS!” (With the shark and octopus engraved on there, too!) The bottom line is that I approach every job as if it’s a multi-million dollar film – I’m a lucky guy to have the opportunity to enhance and add emotion to all these characters and stories. This is what I’ve always wanted to do. I try investing a feeling of excitement, imagination and fun into everything I do, without exception. And, having worked so hard to get to this point, I never take it for granted.
It has been a great experience meeting and working with a lot of really talented up-and-coming people, stretched beyond their limits with multiple obstacles in their path, while remaining focused on trying to make these films as cool and entertaining as possible.
And as for the future, hard to predict, but I’d be pretty happy with a live 90 piece orchestra someday!