Alan Silvestri: From Stuart Little to Reindeer Games

An Interview with Alan Silvestri by Ford A. Thaxton
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.73/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor Luc Van de Ven

Alan Silvestri’s latest scores continue to show the versatility and craft that have made him one of the industry’s leading composers. From early works like ROMANCING THE STONE and BACK TO THE FUTURE, genre favorites like PREDATOR and THE ABYSS, sentimental comedies like FATHER OF THE BRIDE and THE PARENT TRAP, to recent successes like FORREST GUMP, CONTACT, and MOUSE TRAP, Silvestri’s music has been most sensitive, catchy, and dynamic. His latest efforts, the family comedy STUART LITTLE and the action thriller REINDEER GAMES, show Silvestri at his best. Interviewed on February 17th just as REINDEER GAMES was nearing release, Silvestri described his approach to both of these films and the challenges each one posed.

How were you first approached to score STUART LITTLE?
Rob Minkoff, the director, was the director of the two ROGER RABBIT shorts that were done after we did the original film, so our paths almost crossed at that time. And then Rob had been in touch with Bob Zemeckis over the years, so we kind of had this parallel track we were running on. I think maybe it had a little bit to do with that. It’s interesting that STUART LITTLE was in much the same vein that ROGER RABBIT had been, a combination of live action and cutting-edge technology, so in a way this was kind of the same thing again.

At what point did you become involved with the project? Was it early, before they started filming?
Oh, I wouldn’t say it was early, because these things can go on for three years. It was probably close to a year before we actually recorded. But even a year or nine months before, they have to have a tremendous amount of film completed, in some form, in this kind of project.

Now, you had tackled a somewhat similar problem just prior to this when you had done MOUSE HUNT.
In a sense, although on MOUSE HUNT I was brought in very late in the game, so I did not have the luxury of any time on that project. It was like being shot out of a cannon!

And that turned out to be one of your more popular scores of recent times.
I had a great time working on that film. The director was a fantastic guy, and the nature of that film was so unconventional that it allowed room for a lot of fun in the music. That was a blast to do.

What was the toughest nut to crack on STUART LITTLE?
This is a film where there’s so much style – and I’m primarily speaking about the look of the film, it didn’t really take place in a definable place. It wasn’t New York in the ’40s, but it wasn’t New York present day, either. All the colors, all of the costuming – they were going for an effect of feeling like you’re in some kind of parallel universe New York.
The most difficult thing you have to confront when the filmmakers have gone to such great lengths to skew the look of the film is figuring out, number one, can you even go there with the music, and then, if you do, how to you do it? It’s interesting, because I think in some situations it makes sense for the music to be very different, kind of quirky, but in other times it’s just the opposite – the look of a film can be so different and quirky that the music then actually can function more as a kind of emotional anchor. I would say that was the central challenge in this film, to find a way to play the scenes with some kind of sound that would fit into the look of the picture, and at the same time, figure out the psychology of how you play it. I mean, they’re talking to a mouse all through the movie! One of the fun parts of this movie was that they basically didn’t make anything of that. You kind of just ignored the fact that you’ve got this mouse sitting across the table. So it was, as always, trying to find the right tone and psychology for music placement and sound.

How much music did you ultimately end up writing for STUART LITTLE?
I would have to guess maybe 65 minutes, something like that.

They did come out with an album from the film, and there’s only a small amount of your material on it, it’s mainly songs. Was there any talk of doing a score album?
No, not that I know of.

After you did STUART LITTLE, which was certainly a very warm and sentimental project, you had a complete shift in gears when you were called in at the very last minute to score REINDEER GAMES, which is a very taut contemporary thriller. You came into the project because they changed the editorial schedule, and Jerry Goldsmith, who was supposed to score the film, had to pull out to go off and do something else, and you came in. I understand that the schedule on this one was extraordinarily tight.
It was pretty bad, I think I had ultimately about two and a half weeks.

How much music did the movie need?
I would say there was about 55 minutes of music. It was a little tough.

What was director John Frankenheimer looking for in this score, short of getting it done in time?!
Yeah, that was probably 95 percent of what anybody was looking for, for openers! He wanted to generate and maintain a level of tension throughout the film, that was the most obvious aim. Also, you know, in the film there’s a guy who’s an ex-con, he winds up sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend, he lies to her, there’s very little to find about anybody in this movie that’s good, and yet, at the end of this film, he’s walking down the street and he’s handing this money away, and he winds back up with his family. John Frankenheimer really wanted us, in some way, to at least approach some kind of fond feeling for this guy, Rudy, the Ben Affleck character.

What kind of score did you come up with? Was it a straight-ahead orchestral effort, or did they want something a little bit more electronic?
They didn’t really specify. I did quite a bit of electronic work in the score, but we also used a full orchestra. Stylistically, I wound up finding some thematic material that was used kind of as Rudy’s introspective material. There was also a piece where he’s right out of prison, where he meets the girl where it’s very kind of sentimental, almost holiday-esque type of music – once again, just when we had a moment to try and find some emotional response, we did. Most of the score, though, is very kind of effect-oriented, not thematic as much as coloristic and tension music.

Will there be an album?
I have not heard anything about that.

I guess your next project is going to be the next Robert Zemeckis film, WHAT LIES BENEATH?
That’s right, I’m looking forward to working with him again.

I wanted to ask a question about one of your early scores. One that brought you a lot of attention was CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, which used a very uncharacteristic approach to the subject matter, which was prehistoric times, using what was then quite a revolutionary approach of a complete Synclavier score. Did that come about because of budgetary considerations or because the director or producer said, “let’s try something different?” What are your memories of that?
It was born out of a financial consideration, it had nothing to do with any input from the producers of the film.

What have been your experiences dealing with temp tracks, when you come onto a movie (like REINDEER GAMES) and there’s temporary music in it already? How can you sometimes get them to maybe go off on a different angle?
I look at temp scores like a hammer. If you put it in the hands of somebody with a brain, it becomes a very useful tool to build something. If you put it in the hands of a homicidal maniac, it’s an instrument of death!

What do you think was the film that had the worst temp track experience you can think of?
For me? I think probably for me the one that was most difficult, in terms of the temp, was FANDANGO.

Which was really your first big film.
Yeah, after ROMANCING THE STONE. My recollection was that the film had been in the making for quite a while. I think it might have been part of a project that Kevin Reynolds had begun at USC or wherever he had been, and then had been elaborated upon. I know that Kevin lived with that film for a long time, and was very meticulous about how he temped it. He temped it himself, and he really loved what he had temped it with. The cues were all really smart, very good choices, and the film was the way he wanted it, without a score being written.
I don’t know whether it was a business decision or they just couldn’t buy this enormous, varied amount of prerecorded music, but they decided that they needed to score the film. I always had a feeling that if Kevin could have just bought all of the choices he had made, he would have been happy as could be! So, it makes for a difficult environment, but certainly I understood it. I don’t think he wanted to have a score written for the film as much as he wanted to have the temp.

I’m sure you’ve seen films that other composers have scored where you probably go, “hmmm, that sounds like they temped it with me!”
Yeah, now and again that happens.

That must be alternately frustrating but yet flattering…
Temp scores are a fact of life, and everybody has to deal with the whole process, you’re not going to change it. If you look at it from a larger picture, filmmakers really have no choice any more. They’re forced to show the film to studios, to marketing people, way before they’re ready, and they need to temp the film in order for them to survive the filmmaking process. So, it’s here to stay!

Is it any easier when they’re temping it with your own material?
Not necessarily! You’re not going to get away from the temp situation. The one positive aspect that I find is that many times you find a director who is not able to speak about music in a terribly clear way; very often a temp cue or a temp score will at least allow for a level of dialog between the composer and the director in terms of aspects of the cue that they like, aspects that they don’t like, and so on. One thing that I’m finding more and more is that filmmakers are becoming more and more particular about their musical choices in their films. The bottom line is, you’re not going to force something down a director’s throat that he or she doesn’t like or want.

I know many composers are doing a mock-up version of their score as they are going along, so the filmmakers can hear it in a mock-up condition so they can sign off on a cue…
I’ve done some of that on some occasions. There are still occasions where you’ll go in to the orchestra recording session with the director not having heard one note, to a director asking to hear every cue in some form, so I’ve really had everything in between. You just never really know. I think a lot of it often has to do with the time aspects. Certainly in a situation like REINDEER GAMES when you’ve got two and a half weeks to write the score, you’re kind of in a survival mode at that point.

It’s like, “just get it done!”
Get it done. You’re not going to have time to present material, have comments made, and then go back and do it.

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