Clinton Shorter: Welcome to the District

An Interview with Clinton Shorter by Christopher Coleman
Originally published @ Tracksounds: The Film Music Experience
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor Christopher Coleman

Just days prior to the release of the hotly anticipated film, DISTRICT 9, composer Clinton Shorter talks about suddenly being in the spotlight, his long, working-relationship with director Neil Blomkamp, and finding the right musical blend for his original score.

I’m curious about how much attention this project has drawn for you compared to anything else you’ve done up until this point.
It’s not even comparable. It’s been incredibly surreal and I’ve never experienced anything like this. It’s very exciting, and nerve-wracking at the same time. I’m really trying to enjoy it as much as I can, soak it all in and have fun.

Did you realize that the onslaught of interviews and all sorts of requests was coming because of this?
No, we didn’t really know how big this movie would be. I remember when I went to see the first cut of it in January with TERRI TATCHELL (writer), NEIL BLOMKAMP (director), and JULIAN CLARKE, the editor. It was still in its early stages and the first thing I said was “Guys, this movie is the kind of movie that me and my buddies would just be dying to see. It’s a ton of fun”. I knew it was going to be good and they were excited, but nobody thought it was going to be anything like this. I don’t think even PETER JACKSON thought it would be anything like this. [laughs] It’s gone out of control pretty quickly, but it’s awesome.

Well, this goes back to the short film ALIVE IN JOBURG, done in 2005, when you also worked with NEIL BLOMKAMP. Was it a forgone conclusion that he was going to have you do the score for DISTRICT 9?
Well no, DISTRICT 9 wasn’t a forgone conclusion at all because he was penciled-in to do HALO. That was going to be a $120-million feature, and I was very certain that he wouldn’t be able to get me on that gig, so I just wasn’t thinking about it too much. Then when I heard it fell through, and that he was going to be working on his own show, he was on the other side of the globe, so we weren’t talking that much. Just the odd email here and there. But it’s just one of those things where, as much as I’m friends with Neil, I wouldn’t want to impose, or make people uncomfortable, that they feel like “I have to hire Clinton”, because they’re only going to hire someone if they want to. So, I never put too much pressure on any directors I know, but Neil called me in November and asked me if I wanted to score it, and of course I just jumped all over it. So no, it wasn’t a forgone conclusion, and the feature film wasn’t a forgone conclusion, because it’s not too often that a short film gets developed into a feature-like film of this size and magnitude.

Right. When you sat down with Neil, how much did you guys go back and say, “Let’s look at ALIVE IN JOBURG as a template”, obviously not for the movie as a whole, but for what you did, musically?
Not too much. He was really challenging me quite a bit, especially for the first 3 weeks. It was a bit of work. There was a lot of back-and-forth, a lot of experimentation. For the short, we had a female operatic singer, it was orchestrally based, and there was some percussion in there, but this was just something else. He was really pushing me; he wanted it to sound much more African than anything else. But there was a lot of going back-and-forth for us to figure out how to maintain the aggressiveness and the darkness that he was looking for, and keeping it African. A lot of it has to do with the fact that it takes place in the southern part of the continent, and a lot of the music from there is of a positive nature. The rhythms aren’t very aggressive and the drums aren’t very big. For most of the stuff I was giving back to Neil, he just said “It’s not dark enough”, so I finally realized that to keep as much of the African element as we could, it was going to have to be done with vocals and some of the smaller percussion, but we had to take liberties on everything else.

Well, I guess having aliens invade South Africa gives you some license to expand beyond that. [laughs]
It most definitely does. I don’t want to spoil it, but without giving too much away, there’s a bit of a mutation that happens, so we really wanted to take advantage of having a hybrid score, and having something that was going to sound modern. There’s a lot of technology in the film, and we really wanted that to be represented in the score too. So it’s a hybrid score for sure, of orchestra and synths, which is right up my alley.

I can see how that can be a difficult balance between giving it a dark feel, yet having it set in Africa. You can’t have penny-whistles playing throughout a score like that. [laughs]
That’s exactly it! For example, kalimbas and some of these other instruments are tuned in major scales, and it was really tough. I played on so many instruments, and Neil said “Dude, it’s just too high-pitched, thin, sweet and cute”. I replied “Well, I can get this singer in who’s really raw and edgy. We can have that as our lead instrument for the main element, and everything else is just going to have to be liberties that we’re taking.” We tried some stuff from the northern part of the continent, which is much more aggressive. But again we ran into the same kind of problem. There were small instruments, such as a small bowed instrument; it’s almost like a mini-banjo that you play upright. Again, it was too small and high-pitched for him. So what I ended up doing was really treating this thing in my sampler and stretching it down a few octaves. I created a really cool pad out of it, and it ended up being a “bed” for a bit of the movie in quite a few cues. I really had to do a lot of experimenting, which is fun. I love doing that stuff, so it wasn’t like a chore for me at all.

And you had enough time to experiment and get the sound that you wanted?
I did. I had three months; the first three weeks of that was just all experimentation, but after that point, I had to get down to doing a lot of writing. I took one day off in three months. My car didn’t move much, I’d see my friends and they’d say “Wow, dude, you’re pale”. [laughs] I didn’t get out much, and it was a little crazy. I put a lot of time in, but it was all worth it in the end. I loved it.

Excellent. What about PETER JACKSON being involved? I know he gave NEIL BLOMKAMP a lot of creative freedoms in making this film. Of course, he’s a creative director himself, and he knows good film music. Did he have any comments or suggestions about the film score?
Well, after Neil would approve everything, it would have to be sent off to him. I didn’t get a single note back, so it was either him letting Neil do what he wanted, or he loved it, so I’m going to go with the latter [laughs], but I think it had more to do with him just trusting Neil and letting him do his own thing. If you think about it, here we’ve got a first-time feature director, a first-time actor, first-time screenwriter – by Neil’s partner -, talking about the DP, they had only done commercials up to that point, so between me and JULIAN CLARKE, we were the guys that supposedly had the experience. We’ve done a few films and put a few together, but nothing of this magnitude, and this really just speaks volumes to PETER JACKSON’s belief that there are people with talent outside of the system. They’re a real testament to him, and we owe him a lot for that.

Absolutely. It must’ve been great, but was he “looming” out there? You’re still working on a film that’s being presented by PETER JACKSON. What was that like?
Oh, absolutely. There was always that sense, because we were always getting tight for time, and I had to get stuff to the orchestrator. There were other factors too, such as not having heard back from him, and Neil would say “Don’t worry about it, he’s going to approve it and it’ll be good”. There was always that fear for me that all those things would come back and it would all change, then I’d ask myself “What do you do?”. So there was always that looming, but fortunately there was never a peep out of that end so it really allowed Neil and me to do our own thing.

OK. Speaking in more general terms, who would you say your biggest influences are, in terms of composers, or even outside of film music? Who plays a big role?
MARK ISHAM was the one that got me into it, that was the NEVER CRY WOLF score. That was the first time I’d actually heard some score that I could relate to and connect with. I was a big fan of THOMAS NEWMAN, just because I really liked how he was experimenting with instrumentation on his scores, and really pushed the envelope. That was probably my biggest influence when I was really listening, but now I listen to anything I can get my hands on all the time.

I reached out to the Twitter-verse to see if the folks on there had any specific questions for you, and I have a couple of those here. This one’s from hey_frey, and he asks: “What did you use for inspiration for the music of DISTRICT 9,” outside of the movie itself and the indigenous instruments you were trying to work with?” I know we talked a little bit about this already, but maybe you can elaborate. Was there anything else?
It was one of those things where I really had to have it come from the specific creative pool that I have. NEIL really felt that he had a unique film at his hands. One of the things he was telling me from the get-go was that he wanted to hear this music that he didn’t even know what it was, and I needed to figure out what it was, which is pretty much what you never want to hear a director tell you [laughs]. He was really challenging me to make it sound as different as possible. If I could pinpoint something, I really would. It’s not me trying to be some arrogant guy that feels I have no influences and this doesn’t sound like anything else, but there was nothing specific that we were keying on that made us say “Let’s use this as our jump-off point”. They had temp music from all over the place. The amount and types of music they had in there was just crazy. So it wasn’t really even temped by one film that served as a guide, it was just jumping all over the place. I wish I had a better answer.

Back to HALO – when you knew NEIL BLOMKAMP was doing HALO, what was your mindset? Where you thinking, “Man, I hope he gives me a chance”? Because you already said you weren’t going to put pressure on him, but were you hoping for that phone call? I’m sure a lot of guys would be thinking that.
We did talk on the phone, but it was a bit of a pipe-dream to think I would be able to, just because I didn’t think NEIL would have that much control. I know Neil likes working with me, how much he likes my music, and how much I know what he wants, but when you’re talking about a film of that magnitude and scope, a $120-million budget, that would be a serious battle he would have to fight in order to get me to do that, so I didn’t really have any kind of great fantasies of me doing it, but in the end, the fact that it fell through, was the best thing for everybody. We don’t know what would’ve happened with HALO, but in the end, Neil got to do his own film, and it looks like it’s going to be a hit. It also allowed him to get the people that he’s worked with the most in on it, and it gave us all a break. So, it’s a real blessing that HALO fell through, and I’m pretty sure NEIL feels the same way.

NEIL BLOMKAMP has mentioned in some other interviews that he’s already got his next project in mind. Has he talked to you as all, and said anything along the lines of, “Hey, I know what I’m going to do next”, or “I have an idea, let’s hook up again”?
Even if he did, I wouldn’t be able to tell you much. [laughs] We’ve been texting back and forth, and doing the odd email here just dealing with the album and everything else, but as of now he’s just a walking zombie. He’s doing so many interviews and screenings all over the world. I’m going to see him this Friday at a screening, but I won’t be leaning on him about any further work. He’s going to be done with the whole dog-and-pony show sometime in September, then we’ll probably hook up and go dirt-biking or something, and talk it up to see what his plans are. My understanding is that he’s looking towards another sci-fi; that’s something he’s been wanting to do for quite a while. It’ll probably be a bit of a bigger budget, which won’t be an issue for him now. I hope I get the gig. I’d love to do it, but there’s just no guarantees in this business; it’s his film and if he wants to go a different direction, I know it doesn’t have anything to do with me and the what I write, it could just be a different sound for the film. I would say I have a good chance of getting it, but you never know.

Well, you mentioned the word “album” just a second ago, so I’m wondering if there are any formal plans. I’ve listened to the promo music that’s out there for you on DISTRICT 9. It’s quite good, and I think it deserves a release; I think it would do well. Is there something in the works that you could talk about?
Thank you. Yes, SONY closed the deal on Friday last week, and it’s going to be available for pre-order hopefully this Friday on AMAZON. It’ll also be available on iTunes mid- to late-next week; they’re just waiting for approval on some artwork from those guys over in New Zealand, and once that comes through, it’s all good. It’s already been mastered and it’s all ready to go.


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