When it comes to the sound of military heroism, few of today’s movie composers can signal an old-school orchestral brass salute like Alan Silvestri. From bombastically playing the dark march of Stallone’s JUDGE DREDD to capturing the steely commando skills of Schwarzenegger in ERASER and PREDATOR, this one-time synthesist for the easygoing motorcycle cops of CHiPS has become the go-to composer for the epic sound of super soldiers, most recently with the wisecracking adventure of THE A-TEAM and the techno-symphonic gadgets wielded by the G.I. JOE squadron.
For a composer who always brings out the big thematic guns in the field of musical battle, there’s no more fitting hero for Alan Silvestri to suit up with than CAPTAIN AMERICA. It’s taken seventy years for this super patriot to get the true-blue Hollywood treatment after his four-color creation by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby on the eve of WW2. And it’s during this era that the film mostly (and thankfully) stays in, courtesy of Joe Johnston, a director who knows something about Nazi-busting after piloting the beloved period heroics of THE ROCKETEER. Now Silvestri has joined him to deliver everything you’d hope a CAPTAIN AMERICA score would be, namely a rousingly bold exercise in brassy, drum-beating symphonic power, music that’s full of cliffhanging adventure and national reverence, which are pitted against the pure evil of The Red Skull and his Hydra cohorts. But best of all, Silvestri has captured the stuff of legend with CAPTAIN AMERICA, creating the kind of soaring, determined heroism that great comic book-to-screen icons are made of. It’s enough to make any admirer of Steve Rogers stand up and give the pledge for God and Country, not to mention any film music fan wants to see a composer fighting the good fight to continue on the worthy tradition of writing epic melody and themes for today’s action pictures.
Daniel Schweiger: I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but there always seemed to be something patriotic in your action music.
Alan Silvestri: I think you could say it’s “patriotic,” but I don’t think the music is necessarily just being just that. “Patriotic” seems to have a connotation of being specific to some place, where I think of the music’s tone as being romantically heroic. I think the idea of a hero, someone who fights for the underdog, is a very fantastic ideal.
You started out as a synth jazz composer for CHiPS. Now, you’re renowned as a composer with a very strong, brass driven sound. How do you think that developed?
Very often in the entertainment and film business, you’re known for the last thing you do you do. When I was doing CHiPS, I was the rhythm section guy. When I did FATHER OF THE BRIDE, I was the romantic comedy guy. When I did PREDATOR, I was the action/adventure guy. But I’ve always approached what I do in the sense of music as being dialogue that interacts with the picture. If I’m given a soft romantic comedy, then that’s what I will speak about through the music. If I’m given a gritty action adventure film, than that’s what I’ll do. So I think it’s more about collaboration between the music and the film, rather than one side inflicting itself on the other.
Why do you love the brass so much?
There’s a kind of grandeur that comes with the brass. There are also some very simple logistical and sonic reasons. In a film, every body is fighting for real estate sonically. You have to have the dialogue clear and intelligible. And sound effects have a huge presence in action films in order to create a sense of reality. So you have to find a sound that will live in this sonic environment, which brass often allows. Take for instance the middle of CAPTAIN AMERICA’s motorcycle chase, when engines are screaming and there’s all kinds of gunfire. Brass is something that can complete sonically and give the music some kind of presence where it might not have any. But although I love to use the brass, I don’t feel that I start from there. Certainly, in some of these heroic scores like BACK TO THE FUTURE and PREDATOR, the brass plays a huge part.
CAPTAIN AMERICA is your first teaming with the director Joe Johnston. How did it come about?
I got called in late in the game. When I had my first and only meeting with Joe, we were seven and a half weeks out to having to score in England. We said, “Hi, it’s really nice to meet you.” And then we sat down and spotted the movie. Then I got in the car, went home, and seven and a half weeks later, we met again in London to record the score. Through it all, Joe was fantastic, and an absolute pleasure to work with.
Joe’s THE ROCKETEER is one of my favorite superhero films, especially in how it captured the era. Did you get to watch it when you got the gig?
I didn’t actually. There wasn’t time really to do anything, because I was already struggling to make it from the first day on the show. I just had to get to the drawing board and go forward.
What were the main musical ideas that came out of your initial meeting with Joe? Was the approach to CAPTAIN AMERICA already obvious from the start?
It was in a sense, and that all had to do with Joe and his original thoughts about the film. CAPTAIN AMERICA is a very interesting combination of influences. You’re dealing with parallel universes, because it’s a period piece that’s set in a futuristic, high tech sci-fi environment. Joe wanted a full-on orchestra score to allow for movement between these two different genre worlds. He was very instinctive about that, which was great for me. And he actually said the “Theme” word in our first and only meeting. That’s something I have a great fondness for me. To have some kind of musical signature either for a character or some aspect of the film, truly holds the score together. A theme makes the music feel like one piece in a sense.
Were you thinking about any other great patriotic WW2 movie scores like PATTON when scoring CAPTAIN AMERICA?
I wouldn’t say I was thinking of any particular movie score, but for sure there are certain kinds of elements that we have over time, associated with that kind of heroic statement. You can go back to Aaron Copland and his “Fanfare For The Common Man” for instance, which has
certain types of percussive elements, intervals and instrumentation, with French horns playing these types of naked, but powerful statements. When you think of a fanfare, you usually think of French horns, trombones, and trumpets. A bugle call in battle is not usually played on strings, or by the strings. Certainly in these patriotic kinds of events, again there’s a tremendous association we have with the brass sounding the call. So there’s a whole kind of vocabulary that, we as an audience have been associating with this heroic aspect for many years. CAPTAIN AMERICA was a chance to really go right for that. He’s a character that you can be musically bold with, even given his name.
Were you familiar with the character before the movie?
Very little. I was not a very big reader of Captain America, though I’d come across him over the years, I’ve certainly learned a great deal about the Captain in the last three months though!
What would you say was the biggest thing you learned in terms of musically translating that character knowledge to the score?
As I start to do the research, I found that one of his great qualities is loyalty. And since he started in 1941, you’re dealing with a character that has been loved by so many, for so long, that if you really try to consider it, you can become scared to death by the prospect of scoring him. So I really just watched Joe’s movie. And when a filmmaker really does their job, their work will tell you everything you need to know about the character you need to write for.
They toned down the original comic book a bit, especially given the danger that he’d look a little ridiculous given the cinematic context, especially with a name like Captain America to start with. In that context, how important was it for your score to movie audiences take him seriously?
CAPTAIN AMERICA is very bold and bombastic idea, so you don’t need to inflate that in any way. But that doesn’t mean you have to play those elements down either down. It’s just not a slap-sticky kind of film, or character.
What was your approach for The Red Skull and Hydra?
It’s interesting, because the good guy can be stereotypical in his heroism. But if you have a really bad guy, that gives even more dimension to his character. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are good examples of that. And like Darth Vader, The Red Skull was very much a tortured being. He’s someone who’s been scorned and cast out, which makes him an emotionally understandable character. Certainly I played him as the bad guy, and always took him seriously. So when The Red Skull talks about his past. there’s a way to have a compassionate approach for him, even if he’s the arch villain. That made him a very interesting character to write for. He wasn’t just a one-dimensional bad guy.
CAPTAIN AMERICA is your second comic book movie after JUDGE DREDD, which was a troubled movie where your music had to do a lot of the heavy lifting. In that respect, is it a relief to do a creatively assured film like CAPTAIN AMERICA?
It all comes down to Joe Johnston in that regard. When you write music for a film, you are signing on to a crew that you’re not the captain of. So you need to have a leader who can clearly communicate to insure a successful outcome. You have to know what you’re doing, and how to get there, especially when you really don’t have the time to go on a musical exploration. So if you’ve done your job as well as Joe Johnston has, then the film will do all the heavy lifting, and will tell you where it needs you to go.
The patriotic song “Star-Spangled Man” is one of my favorite things on the CD.
The song was written by Alan Menken and his partner David Zippel, and was in the film before I even got on it. It’s certainly different in tone from my score, but when you see where, and how it’s used in CAPTAIN AMERICA, you’ll see how absolutely perfect it was for the mission. I think Alan did a fantastic job, and we both had a great visit together in England, as we were both recording there at the same time.
You’ve consistently scored Hollywood blockbusters when many of your peers aren’t working anymore, especially in an era where it’s much harder to use a big, thematically symphonic approach. What is your trick to surviving into a new musical era, much like how Captain America ventures into our time?
I do my job. And when I’m not working, I also spend my time staying on top of the tools of the job. There’s no doubt that there’s a tremendous technical side to film composing. whether you’re writing an orchestra score or not. But though technology is continuing to change at a tremendous level, I’ve also always loved that aspect of the job. So I’ll continue to embrace the technology and learn. Even in CAPTAIN AMERICA, I used music that was electronically based. If you’re not able to go down all of these roads that the director wants to go down, then you will not be asked back at some point. If anything’s contributed to my longevity, it’s embracing the technology and everything that goes with it. It’s also the fact that I have always felt that I’m there to help the director bring their film to the public, and to assist him, or her, in that task. I tend to listen when I work with a director. That’s not something that’s always very easy for all of us to do. So whatever reason, I’m very happy that I’m still able to work with these fantastic people on these fun projects.
They’re already talking about the CAPTAIN AMERICA sequels. Would you like to be one of the Marvel Universe’s composing answers to The Avengers?
Everyone was fantastic to me on this film, from Joe Johnston to the Marvel people. So that would be great. If I’m asked, I would be very happy to continue the relationship. Absolutely.
Interview transcribed by Peter Hackman
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