Interview with Edwin Wendler

One might say that composing additional music is much like being part of a jumbo jet crew, given the even more hazardous Hollywood conditions of making sure your zillion-dollar vehicle arrives safely to port – usually with far less flight time than you were counting on. Sure the captain deservedly gets the glory for a hopefully soft touch down. But for those who helped with the controls, or outrightly took the wheel when needed, there’s the satisfaction of a flight plan well executed. And just maybe the possibility that said extraordinary assistance might end up putting you in the captain’s chair sooner than later.

But then, it’s not as if Edwin Wendler wasn’t more than capable of flying solo before creating additional music for John Ottman on “Non-Stop.” The Viennese-born composer has been climbing the foot-in-the-door Los Angeles ladder in much the same, determined way as his peers, working on numerous shorts (Wrong Hollywood Number,” “Black Oasis”) and webisodes (“The Interior”) before finally getting that first indie feature (“Broken Angel”) – the one that every bourning composer hopes gets sees outside of the festival circuit, let alone listened to. Without being in the big leagues just yet, Wendler has certainly done well in that regard, especially when it comes to getting indie features that aspire for more than the Netflix Instant Video average, from the religious-themed suspense of “The Mark” to conveying the exotic danger and emotional faith of Westerners kidnapped in Thailand with “Escape.”

Like many composers waiting for the studio golden ticket, Edwin Wendler has also been just as busy paying the bills as the valued Aide-de-camp of an established musician, an often jack-of-all trades position that involves programming, arranging, orchestrating and composing additional cues. First working extensively with Paul Haslinger on scores like “Sleeper Cell” and “Into the Blue,” Wendler has found himself of particular worth to John Ottman, a composer who himself holds the distinction of directing and editing, especially for Bryan Singer and a whole horde of mutants.

Working with Ottman on such scores as “The Losers,” “The Resident” and “Unknown,” Wendler’s particular set of skills have now come into play like never before for “Non-Stop,” Liam Neeson’s new action extravaganza that finds the burly star as Bill Marks, an air marshal on board a flight that’s being tormented by an unidentifiable blackmailer, one who can lethally strike from nowhere. Veering from musical courses of dreamy melodies to raging percussion and ticking time bomb suspense as the suspects are whittled down to Bill being declared the prime suspect, “Non-Stop” is as emblematic of today’s percussion-driven suspense scoring as it is a full-throttle salute to the Neeson action star formula. But this is a pre-determined travel scheme that’s definitely in the first class seats, especially as Wendler propels Ottman’s dynamic score to its exhilarating, heart-pounding popcorn destination at the multiplex. It’s the kind of work that brings that big seat ever closer, as Wendler talks about the personal perseverance to be heard, and the professionalism to be a composer’s favored wingman.

Would you say that a kid growing up in Vienna is around far more music than another budding composer might be?

Vienna is certainly the place to be if you love Classical music, jazz, or avant-garde contemporary music. The concert houses and the opera houses offer first-rate performances on a daily basis. Not one but two radio stations play classical music all day. As a music nerd, it was a fantastic environment for me to grow up in. Unfortunately, film music was looked down upon while I was a kid but it has gotten more popular and respected over the years. The recent James Horner tribute event is a great example of how far Vienna has come during the past decade or so. I applaud what Sandra Tomek and others are doing to further establish film music as an accepted art form for the concert stage in Vienna.

Not many composers can say they’ve been in the Vienna Boys Choir. What were your experiences with them like, and did they play a part in you deciding to become a composer?

Edwin in his studio (Photo by Peter Hackman)

The boarding school aspect of the Vienna Boys Choir is something that forces young kids to grow up really fast. Some of it was a bit extreme: the long tours, for instance; traveling continuously for three or four months, with one or two concerts almost every day. The good thing is that you are exposed to a huge amount of classical music repertoire, and you get to work with some of the best conductors, singers, and orchestras in the world. I definitely learned a lot about the technical aspects of music making. I started composing while I was a member of the choir, opting to write new music instead of practicing the piano. I thought my piano teacher would be angry with me but fortunately, she encouraged my first attempts at music composition.

How did you progress from shorts to features?

Shorts are great when you’re starting out. The risks and responsibilities are on a much smaller scale, and it’s a fun opportunity for trial-and-error experimentation. After composing music for almost 50 shorts, I decided to simply say “no” to more shorts. I felt like I needed to progress to features and TV series in order to make a living. Luckily, thanks to directors Temi Lopez and Helmut Schleppi, as well as composer Paul Haslinger, I got those first experiences. I still work on shorts, occasionally, for good friends and directors I have worked with in the past.

Tell us about your experiences working with Paul Haslinger on “Sleeper Cell” and “Into the Blue.” Did your perspective Viennese and Austrian backgrounds make your collaboration easier?

When Paul first asked me to work with him, he joked that we would have a secret language – German – that we could use when we didn’t want clients to understand what we were talking about. I think Paul wanted me to bring my classical music background to his work, adding orchestral textures. As my work with him progressed, though, he taught me a lot about electronics, rhythm programming, and sound manipulation. Paul has always been on the cutting edge of electronic music, so I am very thankful for the opportunities and the experiences I’ve had with him. Paul also taught me the importance of remaining “current” or “cool” with one’s music.

How did you first get on John Ottman’s radar, and how did you end up writing additional music on “Non-Stop”?

John Ottman (Photo by Iki Ikram)

I sent John a complimentary email about “Superman Returns” when that movie came out. After having scored several dark-subject movies for Bryan Singer, John finally got a chance to write something uplifting and soaring, and I was really happy for him. John learned about my work for Paul Haslinger and listened to some of the music on my website. He was impressed enough to ask me to try some cues when he was very crunched. In the case of “Non-Stop”, he got extremely busy editing “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, and his editing schedule overlapped with the scoring schedule for “Non-Stop”. After years of multi-tasking on his own, it was new territory for John to ask for help. He doesn’t seem like the type to give up control, so he was very reluctant and afraid of his musical integrity being at risk. I’m honored that John trusted me with completing work on the “Non-Stop” score. His guidance helped me tremendously throughout the process.

How do you think John’s ability at temping his own scores, and picture editing, add to his work?

As you know, John edits exclusively for director Bryan Singer. John’s knowledge of film music is immense, and he works diligently to find the perfect temp music for each scene. Sometimes, he even combines different pieces of music so they play concurrently while sounding like they are one and the same. In cases where John is working with a temp score he did not select, he might suggest other pieces of music which work better. John has great musical taste, and in so many cases, his temp music and final score are much more classy and effective than what most other editors might select.

When you’re writing additional music, what’s the trick to make the whole of the score seamless? Did you study the composer’s work beyond being thoroughly enmeshed in the style of the score itself?

I was familiar with John’s music when I first started working with him, but I hadn’t studied it in depth, and I don’t think John would have wanted that. John wants his music to stay fresh, so he would make verbal references to music other than his own. As for making the whole score seamless, John developed the principal themes and sound palette in the initial stages. He would send me an audio recording or a MIDI file of his themes and motives, and he would give me a list of synth patches or samples that he had selected. It was my job then to adapt and develop that musical vocabulary while following John’s directions and addressing his detailed notes.

Having directed Liam in the Ottman-scored “Unknown,” did the director Jaume Collet-Serra want a similar sound from John for “Non-Stop” to “link” these two movies?

Both “Unknown” and “Non-Stop” have elements of suspense and action in them, but it was important to find different sounds for each movie. The main melodic instrument in “Unknown” was the piano, complimenting the nostalgic qualities and the sophistication of the main character, Dr. Harris. In “Non-Stop”, we used almost no piano. The main character, Bill Marks, is kind of rough around the edges. John chose a gritty-yet-introspective sound by using a combination of guitar and synths.

How did you want the music to contribute to both Bill’s paranoia, and that of the passengers around him?

It was crucial to create a presence for the villain through music. Since the villain communicates through text messages, John selected a synth “ping” and some processed rattling noises to be applied and varied each time the villain’s presence needed to be felt. Sustained clusters alter with random, dissonant statements to underline the unpredictability of the villain’s actions.

One of your most effective solo scores has been “Escape,” a thriller about hostages. Tell us about that score, and if the psychological lessons learned in it about suspense played any part in “Non-Stop?

I’m really glad you liked that score! As a composer, you can never have enough “tension builders” in your arsenal. In “Escape”, I had used ethnic percussion to build suspense and excitement. It turned out that, during the later stages of scoring “Non-Stop”, those techniques came in handy due to a request from producer Joel Silver to use more percussion during moments of tension.

There’s particularly interesting, and dreamy use of synthesizers and percussion at the start of “Non-Stop.” What kind of tone did you want to achieve?

The opening slow-motion shots introduce us to Bill as he is starting his day at work. The music needed to subtly capture the emotional haze and sense of frustration that Bill is going through at that moment. Both John and I tried different approaches for this scene. The final version of this cue is John’s, and he did a wonderful job introducing the main theme and giving us a sense of the conflict, but also the nobility, of the main character. I then took those ideas and developed them for the subsequent scene in the airport.

Could you talk about the “ticking clock” aspect of the score? And beyond that, how did you want to help the percussive aspects of “Non-Stop” stand out?

The first time I became aware of the “ticking clock” element as an effective tool to consistently propel a story forward was when I listened to John’s score for “Valkyrie”. This was before I even started working with him. While “Valkyrie” made great use of acoustic percussion, John decided to go for a more modern approach for “Non-Stop”. I spent a considerable amount of time combining synth bass pulses with processed percussion samples. Repeating the same pulse for several measures can get old fast, so I did my best to vary the sounds and use odd meters and avoid anything that might come across like a musical resolution.

Are there any particular sound effects considerations that you need to take into consideration with this being an “airplane” movie?

Without giving too much away, let me just say that there are scenes in this movie during which the engine noise gets extremely loud. While working on one of those scenes, I looked at the waveform of the sound effects track, and it was pretty much maxed out all the way through the scene. In general, any sustained musical element will only be perceived as part of the sound effects, so you need to find something musically agile like runs or a pulse that has little or no release or reverb.

How did you want the music to gradually elevate the suspense to fever pitch excitement?

We worked chronologically on the score, in order to ensure a gradual rise in tension. The writers, director, and editor had already put a great road map in place that allowed for the music to steadily intensify with each new scene. It was a lot of fun to emphasize red herrings and downplay actual clues in order to keep the audience guessing.

What do you think of how most suspense scores have become orchestral-percussive hybrids, and do you think that style is more convincing to today’s audiences than doing something that would be purely symphonic?

I think that most filmmakers and composers have embraced the current hybrid sound for good reason. The style of filmmaking has changed, and all elements of filmmaking have changed along with it. Clichés seem to only work in a comedic context, so before the hybrid sound itself becomes a cliché, most will use it. We did our best to stay current with the music of “Non-Stop”, for instance by avoiding the marcato string arpeggios that may have become a bit over-used in recent action/suspense scores.

What do you think the biggest mistake is that young composers make when going to Hollywood? Or should they take their time before going there?

I think the biggest mistake one can make in this business is to get discouraged too soon: by rejection, by criticism, by financial failure, etc. Turning a negative into a positive is the most useful quality to have, not only in business, but also in life itself.

Do you think that being an assistant is particularly good training ground to see how composers deal with the politics of film composing? What are some of the biggest things you’ve learned on that end?

(Photo by Peter Hackman)

No matter what your job is working with a busy composer, you will see what goes on behind the scenes. You learn that actual composing is probably only a third of what a composer has to do while collaborating with filmmakers and running a small business. You learn about the psychological aspects of decision-making, about the importance of political correctness, about the advantage of always thinking one step ahead, about what to say and what not to say during business meetings and phone calls, etc. Probably the most important lesson I’ve learned is that a good sense of humor will help you stay positive, no matter how crazy a situation may seem. It will help you find better solutions and keep everybody, including yourself, happy.

On that note, what mistakes do you think that some musicians make when working with assistant composers?

I have been very lucky in that Paul Haslinger, John Ottman, and Stephen Trask are all wonderful people to work with: always constructive, positive, fun. I’ve heard some horror stories about other composers who are not very kind to their staff. I think that, in general, it is crucial for any employer to provide an enjoyable work environment that encourages creativity.

You next have a sequel score to the religious thriller “The Mark” coming up. What’s it like to mix your more “realistic” suspense work with the horror genre?

Interestingly, the first “Mark” movie was about a guy on an airplane, with terrorists, explosions, etc. It was almost spooky to find myself in very familiar territory on “Non-Stop”. My score for “The Mark” ended up being quite traditional in that it is more symphonic in nature, with some intentional tributes to Jerry Goldsmith. The music for “The Mark 2: Redemption” had to be much more complex because of the multiple locations and story threads. I wrote 116 minutes of music in a short amount of time, and really enjoyed the rush of writing a lot of action music. While the intensity of the action obviously had to feel real, “The Mark 2” is basically a fantasy story, and I had a big creative canvas, so to speak, which was a lot of fun.

Is there a certain point when any composer who wants a solo career has to say “no” to doing additional music, or should they always be ready to do other gigs in pursuit of their dream?

Saying no will sometimes propel your career forward in unexpected ways. It can also be the kiss of death for your career, at least for a little while. I think, in general, if you have to part ways, it is very important to do it in a respectful manner. Just explain your situation to your employer, face to face, from one human being to another. Most likely, they will understand, and may even be supportive of your next endeavor.

The opportunities being afforded to new composers to break out with a major scoring gig seem to be diminishing, in spite of the come-from-nowhere opportunities given to people like Ryan Amon (“Elysium”) and Steven Price (“Gravity”). Do you think working with a major composer is still the best way to get a break, as opposed to trying to forge a singular path?

The best way to advance your career is still to establish and maintain good working relationships with talented filmmakers. Those relationships might pay off right away, 15 years from now, or never. The important thing is to keep going and to keep having fun

“Non-Stop” opens in theaters and on February 28th, with John Ottman’s score available March 4th on Varese Sarabande Records HERE

Visit Edwin Wendler’s website HERE

Special thanks to Peter Hackman, Victor Kaply and John Ottman

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