If there’s a filmmaker concerned with the American conscience, then it would be Robert Redford. Like another pop movie star-turned-director, many of Redford’s deliberately paced, and deeply dramatic films seek out the bonds of family, love of country, and the adherence to its supposed values- whether it be in the Montana fly fishing of A RIVER RUNS THOUGH IT, the subversion of the nation’s favorite QUIZ SHOW, and the tragedy of our Middle Eastern involvement that switches LIONS FOR LAMBS. These are the four pictures among Redford’s eight films (including THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR, THE HORSE WHISPERER, THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE and the Oscar-winning ORDINARY PEOPLE) that have been graced by the music of Mark Isham. A melody-driven composer who’s as versatile as he is prolific with such disparate scores as THE CRAZIES, THE MECHANIC, FLY AWAY HOME and CRASH, Redford’s work with Isham has brought about some of his most potent and beautiful work, whether it be the bucolic rhythms of fly fishing, the cool of 50’s jazz, or the strains of dark, conflicted patriotism.
The latter tone becomes even more tragic as Redford and Isham reveal THE CONSPIRATOR. In a film that tells us how the themes of the past are more than present, a war hero-turned-lawyer (James McAvoy) finds himself reluctantly defending a lodger of Lincoln’s assassin. But in a trial that’s seemingly clear-cut, his increasing belief in the innocence of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) shows the democratic values he fought for are seemingly for naught against the new administration’s stacked, vengeful deck. It’s a combination of historical epic and courtroom drama that Isham hears with poetic somberness, his heart-rending themes playing a national tragedy that goes way beyond the assassination of a beloved leader. Like Redford’s direction, Isham’s score is subtle and gripping, a dark, lyrical build to one man’s epiphany about just what is to truly battle not only for America’s soul, but one’s own moral core. Lofty musical ideas to be sure. But once again in Redford and Isham’s powerful collaboration, the richly melodic themes draw us in with measured poetry, poignance and soaring high drama that’s anything but age-old.
You first partnered with Robert on A River Runs Through It, where Elmer Bernstein had written a score that he decided not to use. Did that make it a fairly nervous experience at first, especially given Robert’s best-known status as a movie star? How do you think you won him over with your approach?
I was a bit nervous to be replacing the great Elmer Bernstein though. That was an added pressure that I didn’t really want to take on. Consequently, I never listened to Elmer’s score until quite a long way into the process, after I had gained a fair amount of confidence in what I was writing. The concept that I presented to Robert early on was inspired by a piece of traditional Irish music, from a Jean Pierre Rampal recording, that was in the temp track. I realized that the score should feel like a collection of beautiful traditional Celtic songs. And that approach won us both over!
What surprised you most about Robert as a creative collaborator? And how would you describe his taste in film music, and what he generally wants his scores to accomplish?
The aspect of Robert’s process that is somewhat unique in my experience, but not surprising once you think about it, is that he describes his thoughts and observations about his films very much from an actor’s perspective. He talks about the character’s emotional arc, the emotional high points, and the evolution of emotion over the length of the film – all very precisely and elegantly expressed. He has great taste in music. He knows a lot about quite a few different genres. At the time of A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, I remember he was listening to a lot of Sir William Walton. He wants the music in his films simply told to help the emotional impact of the story – using traditional tools such as melodic themes and development.
Did you expect your first score for Robert to lead to your first Oscar nomination?
I did not expect the nomination – quite a surprise!
Robert’s always been attracted to films that are about history, and its impact. The Conspirator deals with the fallout of the Lincoln assassination, which few people are familiar with. What did you learn in the process of scoring the film, and how do you think it contributed to your score?
In THE CONSPIRATOR, Robert is drawing the obvious parallel to our own history of the last decade and this period of American history after the Civil War. I was not aware of this myself until seeing the film. The one thing this convinced me of was not to write a “period score”. Although the story takes place in 1865, its message is timeless and I felt the score could contribute to that concept.
The Conspirator is at once a historical epic, but one where dialogue is equally as important as its sweep. What’s the trick in achieving both musical aims?
Any film that is dialogue heavy, but needs strong melodies, has to have several themes to play with – one that is simple enough to exist under the dialogue and still do its job. Or it can be a theme that can be stripped way down to a simple basic form. I played back and forth with both concepts on THE CONSPIRATOR. There are 4-5 themes used to accomplish this.
The Conspirator is also Robert’s first film outside the studio system. Did that have any impact on the scoring process, or your full, orchestral approach?
This is an independent film with an independent film budget. We did have to cut some corners and use our money wisely. But I feel we got a great product in the end – this is where experience pays off!
Like Clint Eastwood, Robert’s direction uses a measured pace of storytelling as opposed to flashy filmmaking effects. How did you want your music to complement that approach, especially with THE CONSPIRATOR?
I think the more traditional approach to scoring – writing several themes and developing them over the course of the story – compliments Robert’s style very well. It’s what I’ve done on all his films – even QUIZ SHOW.
Both LIONS FOR LAMBS and THE CONSPIRATOR deal with the subversion of patriotism. Could you talk about how your music reflects the tragic nature of The Conspirator, not only in Lincoln’s death, but also in how the goals our hero fought for in the Civil War were abused in the government’s rush to Judgement?
The “main theme” for THE CONSPIRATOR is designed to express the tragic loss our country, and people experience after a series of events such as these. There are other themes that are more personal to Mary Surratt and her family, but the story ultimately is pointing to what happens to us as a nation in times such as these. This was the theme we worked on the most and debated about the most, and the one where I did write several versions.
How important was music in playing the film’s dark mood, while also getting across the characters’ small hope that justice would somehow prevail?
I did try to interject a sense of hope every so often – but music was mostly used to accent the dramatic, which was primarily pretty dark.
Could you talk about THE CONSPIRATOR’s militaristic nature?
I tried to stay away from a clichéd military orchestration. There are drums that are de-tuned and very dark. And no trumpets!
While there’s no “southern” music in this movie as such, how did you want to achieve a feeling for the Virginian backgrounds of the Lincoln conspirators?
I did not want to have any “period” or “geographic” influences in the score. But I did use Zoe Keating and her beautiful cello harmonics as an overriding motif. The initial thought was to help simply establish the dark and rather bleak mood. But after listening for a while, I realized her sound brought a sense of rural Americana as well – a happy accident!
THE CONSPIRATOR’s power is in how relevant its themes are with today’s current events. In that respect, how did you want the score to come across as being “fresh” as opposed to using an orchestrational approach that might sound dated?
I very consciously chose the exact style of writing and orchestration to establish, as you say, a fresh sound, not dated but still orchestral. One of the main ingredients is Zoe. Her looping concepts are so in-tune with my taste. She brings a fantastic color and soulful expression to whatever she does. I also made sure to establish a harmonic vocabulary that is modern, but not atonal – one that would feel modern in spite of cultural shifts, at least for a little while.
You have many different “sounds” as a composer. Do you think the dramatically melodic one you’ve mostly employed for Robert’s films might be your most popular approach?
I can’t say if this is my most popular approach. Lots of people love the approach I took in CRASH, others prefer THE MECHANIC. I like them all!
What do you think your overarching themes are for your work with Robert Redford, as well as the points he wants to get across as a filmmaker?
Robert seems to want to show us that we must learn from life – from history and from the other lives around us. And from those lessons, to try and do the right thing. I think that what music can add to that is to see the beauty in all things – even the sadness.
THE CONSPIRATOR is the second release on your own record label after THE MECHANIC. What gave you the idea to launch your label Mark Isham Music, and what’s the process been like? Can fans expect older scores of yours to appear on it as well?
I started my label as a way of taking more responsibility over the business of music. I want to understand and be a part of the entire process of making and delivering music. I feel it is necessary in this day and age to do so – to get to know my audience and what they want. It also gives me chance to explore how to put a little bit of the “WOW!” factor back into a musical product. In my own small way, I would like to help turn the music business back around! We’ve been learning a lot, and will learn a lot more. We are looking into older scores but nothing specific to announce right now.
As one of the few composer labels out there, you’re taken the audacious step of releasing not only regular soundtracks, but also double ones, and then another “inspired by” album. How does this allow you to keep exploring a score, even when it’s long finished to the studio’s liking?
We release, at this stage, three versions. The full score, complete with unused cues (seven second cues etc). There’s an edited version, (my favorite), designed to play like a symphonic suite – (or alt. rock record in the case of THE MECHANIC). Then there’s a double disc bonus set – both CD’s with some bonus materials. The cover is signed by me and includes either a signed page from the score or a T-shirt. We are having fun coming up with new things to add!
As far as fans go, you’ve made it a point to reach out to them with press releases, newsletters and your own on-line radio station. How important is this kind of pr to a composer, and what have you learned about soundtrack fans in the process?
Our on-line activities are geared to the fans. Film music fans are so passionate. We are having a blast with it all!
Did you think at the beginning that this would be a long-lasting collaboration with Robert Redford? And what’s the key to keeping it going?
After QUIZ SHOW, I realized that Robert and I had similar tastes and that we would always work well together. And as in any relationship, communication is the key!
When you’re turning the dial and come across a film that Robert’s starring in, what’s comes first to your mind now?
Usually, that he still looks the same. Then I marvel at the fact that “I actually know that guy!”
THE CONSPIRATOR opens on Friday, April 15th, with its soundtrack special editions available on Mark Isham Records available for download and hardcopy here
Come and meet Mark Isham to have your CONSPIRATOR soundtrack signed on Saturday, April 16th at 2 PM at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. For more information, go here