If the art of composing is akin to being a general following creative orders dictated by the director, then that bigger budget leader must have a stalwart support staff who knows the specific troops need to be recruited, how said formations need to be maneuvered, what equipment is necessary to win the battle. Of the multitudes needed from positions ranging from programmers to orchestral contractors and music mixers, a vital, if often unsung rank belongs to music editor. Helping to set the tone with temporary music, taking down director’s notes, or even creating “new” music from various elements the composer’s already recorded, the editor ensures the battle will be won, or at least make it to safety in some semblance. Hence the historic accomplishment of Alex Gibson, a vital lieutenant in the acclaimed, Oscar-nominated collaboration between composer Hans Zimmer and filmmaker Christopher Nolan that now reaches its metaphoric, Oscar-nominated apex for “Dunkirk.”
Starting his career in the booming LA punk scene as the guitarist and songwriter for The Little Cripples and B People, Gibson made an electrifying scoring debut with the ragingly authentic punk soundtrack for Penelope Spheeris’ 1983 cult film “Suburbia.” After the album “Passionel” and one more score for 1988’s noir satire “From Hollywood to Deadwood,” Gibson segued into a prolific career as a music editor. With Hans Zimmer’s scores to “Point of No Return” and “I’ll Do Anything” among his first credits, Gibson worked with such composers as Elmer Bernstein (“Devil in a Blue Dress”), John Lurie (“Get Shorty”) and Mark Isham (“The Getaway”), working on any number of genres from comedy (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) to musicals (“That Thing You Do”) and political suspense (“Thirteen Days”). Now as an editor at Formosa Music Group, Gibson has established himself as a go-to guy for Hollywood action blockbusters, among them “Live Free or Die Hard,” “Mad Max Fury Road,“ the Transformers” series and the forthcoming Zimmer-scored “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” among his prolific credits.
First teaming with Christopher Nolan on the David Julyan-scored soundtracks to “Insomnia” and “The Prestige,” Gibson would turn from these flowing, suspenseful approaches to the rhythmically hard-driving sound of Hans Zimmer when the filmmaker began working with the composer on “Batman Begins.” Spanning the bat-flapping percussion and atmospheric superhero noir of “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” Gibson would help chart the beyond-complex thematic dream flow of “Inception,” then take an organ-fueled spaceship through “Interstellar’s” wormhole.
With “Dunkirk,” that synergy falls to earth for the first, true time to grasp victory from utter defeat as the British army receives a last second rescue from the shores of France. Time is of the essence to Zimmer’s hypnotically rhythmic approach, as far afield from any traditional war score as one might imagine. But abetting in a composer-director partnership that’s all about defying convention is what Gibson’s partnership has been all about in this case, literally keeping track of a time-jumping structure to help Zimmer ensure musically seamless momentum. “Alex is our creative brother,” the composer enthuses, “’Dunkirk’ was mind-blowingly complicated and stretched us all to the limits of the possible. Chris made a hugely experimental film, and it takes a truly adventurous spirit like Alex to embrace what so often during the process seems to be the impossible. Sometimes the phrase ‘I couldn’t have done it without him’ is far from an exaggeration.”
While Gibson has certainly received numerous professional accolades for his work among industry peers, it’s in the sound design of “Dunkirk” that he’s truly reached above the line with an Oscar nomination for Sound Editing. Shared with Richard King, Gibson’s achievement is a first for recognizing music editing as a vital part of the entire sound process, the kind of achievement made on his dual talents for insuring both invisibility of music cutting and its maximum impact. As the general of his own troops, Gibson now reflects on a partnership that’s helped his profession take its most visible leap yet, very likely on the stage of the Dolby Theater on March 4.
You began your music career in the seminal punk wave of Los Angeles. Could you talk about that experience, and how it led to you scoring “Suburbia” for Penelope Spheeris?
Coming out of art school in the late 70’s, a group of us formed a band that got good reviews but wasn’t a big seller. It was in the arty side. I wrote most of the songs. We were playing a gig on La Brea when Penelope Spheeris approached me and asked if I would score her movie. Of course I said yes.
How did you make the transition from film scoring to music editing? And do you think starting out that way helped distinguish your approach?
I did not transition directly from scoring to music editing. I did try to make the band work. But I needed an income, so an opportunity to get into film editing came about and I took it as an assistant on “Point Break” and “After Dark, My Sweet.” It was from there that I transitioned from picture editor to music editor, because I enjoyed it more
Your initial films with Christopher Nolan were on “Insomnia” and “The Prestige,” which David Julyan scored. What were your perceptions of Christopher, and his taste in film music?
I thought Chris had his own clear likes and dislikes. He’s adventurous, and willing to take giant risks if he believes the music is working for his film.
The partnership of you, Hans and Christopher truly started with “The Dark Knight.” Was there an instant synergy there, and how did it differ from your previous music editing experiences?
The Prologue to the film with the “clowns: robbing the bank was going to dub in two days, and Hans gave Chris a piece of music that he couldn’t connect with, frankly not liking it all. He was going to just put something together from “Batman Begins.” I said I’d like a try with Hans’s new piece,
So they printed it as wide as they could and I cut away at it all night long, using the bits I liked and the ones I thought Chris would like. I totally rebuilt a new cue. It’s what’s in the movie, and that was the beginning of our process.
Hans is known for the team effort that goes into his work. How would you describe the dynamic of his process?
With his team, they can generate a lot of material. And that suits my approach perfectly.
“Inception” was an especially ambitious collaboration that truly started the heavy use of music, and time-jumping framework in your work for Chris and Hans. What was it like finding that thematic rhythm that could hold an audience’s “place” in the film?
That’s Hans’s job. He had the simple piano motif. I suppose the wacky,spaced-out Edith Piaf was a thematic element as well. Really the rhythm of the scenes is also the doing of Lee Smith, who was the picture editor. He went first, and then we danced around that.
“Dunkirk” stands as Christopher’s first film based on true events. Yet it’s also very much one of his movie’s with its narrative structure. What were the first explorations like into how its score would sound?”
The endless rhythmic lines came first and was examined and tested before any tunes came. We also had Elgar’s Nimrod that we turned inside out.
Tell us about your own team on “Dunkirk.”
Well, it was me, fiddling around and Ryan Rubin keeping it all together. It would have fallen apart if he weren’t involved.
What was it like to create a temporary soundtrack for “Dunkirk?”
Chris doesn’t really do temps in the traditional sense. Our temps are suites and ideas from Hans that are used to track it out. It’s actually the beginning steps of the final score, which is just the end result of that first temp.
Hans has often used rhythm as a ticking clock in his scores, but perhaps never to the all-important degree he does in “Dunkirk” to represent the limited time the troops have. How did you help in that pace?
Ryan Rubin and myself laid down these ever increasing rhythms. From there we could see what tempo each “cue” would need to be to remain in sync. Then we had to redo cues if picture changes affected it too much. As we did all that, Hans would be still writing material as we put it together. Remember, Hans hasn’t gotten picture in the last few movies with Chris. He writes to what he remembers in s screening or script. He doesn’t write synchronized cues. We put his music to picture.
What was the most challenging sequence to edit in “Dunkirk?” And would you find yourself creating score sequences from Hans’ material?
The final action scene was difficult, mostly because of where we were in that variable tempo rhythm. A lot of precise cutting was needed to keep sync and hit the action beats. We were not allowed to cheat the underlying rhythm.
How did Elgar’s “Nimrod” come into play for the score?
That was Chris’s idea early on. I then started to see how far we could get cutting it, changing the phrases and having it played 1/4 speed. Once we had disguised it to Chris’s liking, then it went in. “Nimrod” stays hidden until the very end of the movie.
Given how contentious the use of source can be in a score when it comes to determining Oscar eligibility, was there ever a worry that Elgar could knock “Dunkirk” out of the running?
Well, we thought he would not receive a nomination. We were convinced. So apparently the percentage of source to score or whatever they use to determine this, was fine and “Dunkirk” was allowed to compete in The Oscars.
A music editing relationship often leaves the editor out of the actual process of helping to create a score. Were you surprised in how that would differ with Hans and Christopher, especially in the case of “Dunkirk?”
No, I’m not that surprised. That’s been the process of late. Hans writes and Chris and I create the cues to picture. Then Ryan and myself do these ideas with precision (we have to follow that underlying rhythm). There were many scenes that I would work on myself, and then show Chris. Ryan was a part of that as well.
How did you work with fellow nominee Richard King in making sure that the sound effects and music would work in tandem?
We were fortunate to start the final on the first temp. We all had material and having that time allowed us to experiment, discuss and assign the various sounds to either music or sound fx. Richard had tonal elements that sounded like music and carried many different sounds cut to the variable tempo. Boat motor idling was our main one. Those are all in sync with the rhythm, so we could go from boat to plane. Some of the fx stay in sync to our rhythm. The results were interesting for sure.
Music often plays a second seat in the final mix. Given how Christopher likes to favor the score, what extra importance does that give to your job?
Well, it certainly makes it hard to hide edits! Everything has to be properly worked out.
“Dunkirk” marks the first time a music editor has been included in the award for Sound Editing. What do you think that says about your work on the film, and the potential for music editing to become more visible to the general Oscar viewer?
I think my inclusion as a co-sound supervisor is a direct result of how Chris uses music in his films. It seems my style plays into what he wants. I don’t know about the chances of another music editor to follow this specific path because the Academy thought this was an unusual case. “Once in a lifetime,” they said. Hopefully music editors will find paths into the Oscars, because the last I listened, music was sound. We should be a part of the sound-editing award.
In many ways, “Dunkirk” is Christopher’s most popular film with both critics and audiences. Why do you think it’s hit such a popular note, especially given it’s a “historical” film? And what part do you think music and sound design plays in that?
I’m not sure why it was more popular, but sound (music included) plays a huge roll in his movies, and that does translate to audience approval.
How has your work for Christopher and Hans stretched you as a music editor, and where do you see the collaboration going in terms of pushing the traditional boundaries of the editor-composer-filmmaker relationship?
It has certainly given me a lot of creative input. With Chris, anything can happen. He will explore boundaries and will keep taking huge risks in his approach with music. A composer that can work in that way, following the director closely, and still pushing their capabilities, will allow the “team” to go into uncharted territory in film music.
Could you see yourself stepping back into scoring?
I think about that a lot. But having a style that gives me a lot of creative input is enough for me now.
Buy Hans Zimmer’s Oscar-nominated score for “Dunkirk” HERE and take a walk on the wild punk side with Alex Gibson’s score to “Suburbia” HERE
Visit Alex Gibson and the score editing troops of Formosa Music HERE