Interview with Enis Rotthoff

In the good old days of hunting humans, all it took was an island to privately stage a maniac’s most dangerous game. But now in this age of bloodthirsty, social media insanity, there’s no better gladiatorial ring than an entire city for kill-crazy combatants to get their guns on. But if the dweebish corporate drone Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) thought he could be another trolling voyeur when tuning into the game of Skizm, one insulting tweet too many lands him with two guns bolted to his hands. They’re just about the only small chance he has as a new, beyond reluctant player who’s now targeted by Skizm’s top ranking Nix (Samara Weaving). Hopelessly matched against a psychotic who makes Harley Quinn seem like Rebecca of Sunnybrook farm, Miles has got to dash for his life, not to mention figure out how to go to the bathroom without blowing his member off.

It’s the kind of gleefully oh-so-wrong, visually assaultive and more than satirical arena from the web to the streets that marks “Guns Akimbo” as the work of New Zealand writer-director Jason Lei Howden. A former effects artist for Weta, Howden transferred the who visual flair he’d created for the likes of “The Wolverine” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” into his directing debut with the wonderfully insane, demon-possessed gorefest (and critically acclaimed) “Deathgasm” in 2015. Now that attitude and body count is back, and how, as pushed to the kinetic limit. For a movie where a hero is Pac Man navigating an urban and web maze, any hope for survival comes from the anarchic retro rhythms at his back. 

Said beats are provided in stylish spades by German-born, and now LA-based composer Enis Rotthoff. A musician with numerous notches on his belt from the bodily fluid-obsessed “Wetlands” to the infinitely more family friendly “Free Willy: Escape from Pirate’s Cove,” Rotthoff commands arsenals both symphonic and electronic. Now he’s truly broken out the latter’s old-school safe like Bruce Willis loading up for an action fiesta’s big gundown. Rotthoff spews forth an orgy of 8-Bit arcade grooves, Beastie Boy’s percussion, Vangelis washes of electro atmospheres and enough drum and keyboard bullet splattering to make Sam Peckinpah hit the rave floor. But just pure adrenalin would be meaningless without the themes to back them up, and it’s Rotthoff’s weaving between melody and pure anarchic energy as the bodies hit the floor that makes his soundtrack for “Guns Akimbo.” Not since a Berlin punkette ran to save her boyfriend’s life through multiple scenarios has a score, or film of this type proven so exhilaratingly and objectionably fun. Loud and bad-assed, “Guns Akimbo” is a delirious wake-up to Rotthoff as a voice to watch, way beyond his killer beat. 

Tell us about your musical beginnings, and what drew you to film scoring?

By the time I was 10-11 years old, film scores were already the most exciting part of movies for me. Music in many films is what I thought about long after the movie ended. It still is what immediately brings me back to the feelings I had when I first saw the film. The earliest memories I have of film scores I loved were “Back to the Future,” “Star Wars” and “The Pink Panther.”

I was already taking piano lessons when my interest in film scores turned into a regular game. I would challenge myself to memorize and replay the melodies that I had just heard in the movies or on TV. From that point on, I was drawn to anything, and everything, that would allow me to learn more about movies and film scoring. When I was around 14 years old, I naturally started improvising and composing piano pieces. Improvising always felt like the most normal thing to me. Composing was like journaling my emotions. To captivate these emotions felt and feels very important to me. I was also lucky to grow up at a time when you could already record performances into your computer and then play around with elements and layers. What followed was a scholarship for young composers in Berlin that my piano teacher had recommended I apply to while I was still in high school.

Film Orchestra Babelsberg – Photocredit: Esra Rotthoff

I wanted to learn as much as possible about scoring and filmmaking, so I studied Film Music studies at the Babelsberg Film University and Audiovisual Communication at the University of Arts Berlin. For me, it was always about composing music for movies as I just love how films and the music “melt” which makes them feel inseparable from each other.

You worked with Finding Neverland composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek early in your career. He’s a composer who’s slowly drawn, classically orchestral style couldn’t be more different than “Guns Akimbo.” What was that experience like, and what were the most important things he taught you?

The experience of working with Jan was wonderful. He is a delightful man with a passion for music, movies and life. He was quite an inspiring person to spend time with as well. What I learned from Jan was how to approach bigger orchestral productions and come to understand what needs to be done in order to achieve the highest quality. I learned from him how to think differently about my own work. I also learned many small but important technical and musical things that shaped my own process. I am still in touch with Jan and am very thankful for the opportunity he had given me.

Composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek

What was your experience at the Sundance Composers lab in 2007 like?

The Sundance lab exceeded my expectations on every level and has been one of the most invaluable experiences for me as an artist. I was so impressed by all the other composers that were invited. Each of them has their very own authentic voice and it was inspiring for me to see where their musical approaches would take them cinematically while we were at the Labs. I think the Sundance Team has an amazing sensibility for creating a space for creativity. There is a positivity and seriousness to have your inner voice be heard and get it out there. Peter Golub and Michelle Satter are truly amazing in how they realize and combine the different labs. We were paired with filmmakers that had gone to the director’s labs before, so we got to work with them on scenes they had just shot, as a test for their future projects. From that experience came a collaboration with P. Benoit on her Haitian American feature film “Stones in the Sun” which premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. It is a very touching film and I loved working on it with her.

After doing so many scores in Germany and Europe, how were you able to make yourself heard in English language films?

Through my work as an assistant, I received some attention from indie filmmakers that I ended up working with on their films. Filmmakers are curious people and always open for new approaches or new musical directions. Also through the Sundance Labs and having had two feature films at Sundance and other US festivals definitely helped a lot. To my luck some European films I composed the music for were also appreciated by the international film world. And for some projects the filmmakers had heard my music in films I had scored and got in touch with me.

In a way, could you say that the “suicide” comedy “Must Love Death” was a precursor to this as a lovelorn guy gets himself involved with fanatical “video death” group?

That’s an interesting observation and connection. Now that you point that out I would say that “Must Love Death” was my first introduction to learning how to work within that genre and how to bend it. Yes, it was a precursor and important experience that I was able to build on. 

Another project that gave me the opportunity to bring out my electronic side was “Stereo” by director Maximilian Erlenwein, who is an avid electronic music fan. We wanted to create an electro driven score mostly without beats – quite the opposite to “Guns Akimbo” – but it taught me to drive scenes without any percussion and just electronics and organic soundscapes.

Conversely, were you happy to get a family movie like “Free Willy: Escape from Pirate’s Cove?” afterwards?

I was ecstatic to be asked to score a “Free-Willy” sequel. I had seen the  “Free Willy” films as a teenager and loved the music by Basil Poledouris for the first two films and by Cliff Eidelman for the third film. Their melodic and orchestral work is outstanding. It was a beautiful challenge to bring in what could support the characters in the film and make the whale emotionally accessible. I just truly love composing for the orchestra to elevate the emotional level and intensity. It was a great project to balance the expectation of another “Free Willy” score while injecting some refreshing elements. The director Will Geiger and the editor Sabrina Plisco were awesome collaborators and the team at Warner Brothers were very supportive.

You scored the quite inconceivable excremental film “Wetlands.” Do you think that put you in stead for scoring movies that really pushed the limit?

I think “Wetlands” pushed my internal limits and made me ready for edgier films. I realized that there is beauty in not knowing where the journey will take you and that with the right mindset and the right people there can be endless possibilities. I count “Wetlands” as one of my closest collaborations with a filmmaker so far. The director David Wnendt was hands on, and we had a lot of time to experiment. It was a unique experience. We created a wacky punk and rock inspired score with synth-infused pieces that felt like songs but had no singer to accompany Helen´s experiences, the main character played by Carla Juri.

What kind of rhythmic action scores were you drawn to before “Guns Akimbo?” And were you a fan of old-school electronic scores?

I am a big fan of old-school electronic scores. What immediately jumps to my mind as old-school electronic scores that inspired me was the synth melodies and percussion from “The Terminator” by Brad Fiedel, the haunting melody from “Halloween” by John Carpenter, the warm darkness in “The Thing” by Ennio Morricone and of course the epic “Blade Runner” score by Vangelis.

In terms of recent rhythmic action scores I was very impressed by the intensity Junkie XL created for “Mad Max: Fury Road” and that it surprisingly worked. His score with great synth and drum elements pushes the energy for a big chunk of the movie and keeps the pressure till the end of the film. The other film score that I really enjoyed rhythmically especially in connection with “Guns Akimbo” was “Elysium” by Ryan Amon as it had this mix of interesting synths and drums. 

Why do you think so many rhythm-accented composers have emerged from Germany?

Enis Rotthoff -Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra

As a teenager who wanted to become an orchestral composer I was equally fascinated with electronic music. When going to clubs in Berlin as a teenager (In Berlin you didn’t need to be 21 to go out). Techno and electronic music were the general atmosphere I grew up around. So it very early on became another fascination of mine next to my love for orchestral music. A lot of good musical hardware and software is invented in Germany, so maybe there is a cultural affinity between technology and music that makes one more rhythm-accented? It’s just a guess.

How did “Guns Akimbo” come your way? 

I was introduced to the project by the music supervisor, Thomas Binar who I had worked with in the past on an orchestral score for “The Von Trapp Family – A Life in Music.” He knew about my past electronic scores and recommended me.

I imagine that you watched “Deathgasm” before taking on “Guns Akimbo.” What kind of movie did you think you were going to get?

After my work on “Wetlands” and after seeing “Deathgasm,” I knew I shouldn’t try and guess what“Guns Akimbo” would be like and just be open minded. The film’s logline sounded so crazy. I was just very curious. I had no clue what to expect and when I watched the film I was immediately hooked.

What was your collaboration with Jason like?

Guns Akimbo stars Daniel Radcliffe and Samara Weaving with director Jason Lei Howden

When I was asked to score the film, post-production was already very advanced with tons of visual effects and teams working in the US, Germany and New Zealand. Coincidentally I was in Berlin at that time, so I had to work remotely with everybody. The mix was to happen in New Zealand and several key people next to Jason wanted to be involved with the score as well. So given that I had to deliver over 70 minutes of music within two and half months this collaborative approach involved not only Jason but also the producers and the music supervisor. The music supervisor Thomas was the glue between everybody, and he made sure I would get constant feedback with a clear consensus given the tight deadline. That’s the beauty of filmmaking. It’s a different experience every time and it was amazing how supportive everybody in the production was to keep my creative flow running.

Tell us about putting your gear together for the score?

I wanted to be playful with the film’s score and not too conceptual. In the beginning, I started with buying some old toy synths, connecting my analogue synthesizers and researching what sounds from the last decades I really liked. I wanted to achieve a score that is both retro and hopefully timeless. So in the beginning I was playing around with analogue synthesizers, digital-analogue synthesizers and plugin emulations of the old classics.

It was like creating my own sound palette. I consciously divided my palette into lower and higher sounds, pulsating and rhythmic sounds and percussive as well as weird and unusual sounds. On top I performed some guitar parts, electronic bass parts and drums for the score and started mangling it up. The key to the sound of this score was that I re-recorded and processed almost every sound again. I wanted to make sure the music has my own personal touch with the use of analogue outboard like tube amps and guitar effects to warm up the sound and the distortion of elements by re-recording them with toy samplers or guitar amps.

Could you talk about how you wanted to vary between a whole array of percussion, from delightfully throwback “8-bit” sounds to house rock and scratch rhythms? 

The film has so many layers. Miles, played by Daniel Radcliffe, experiences so many different things over the course of the film that I needed to both help the audience navigate in that world through Miles journey while also making it fun and refreshing at the same time.

I did not want to create a retro 80s score or a retro 90s score. I was more interested in how I could bring in pop cultural references from the last decades and mix up sounds into a weird mashup. For every film I try to create a musical language that supports the understanding of the film. For “Guns Akimbo”, the music is plot and character driven at the same time. I used the idea of contrast in this score through varying with different styles. I really appreciate the leitmotiv-approach for both an orchestral or electronic score. But on this score it’s almost like different “tracks” for different situations and locations. It helps the audience know where we are. Like in a game with different levels or places Miles finds himself sometimes back or advanced in a similar situation. Here the music can help make sense and support leading the film into the right direction.

How did you want the music to differentiate between Miles, who’s haplessly thrown into this kill-or-be-killed experience, and Nix, who gets off on her expertise?

Miles feels like a regular guy. He plays his own computer game called “life.” When he is thrown into that unexpected underworld created by Skizm, where he has to participate in a live-streamed death match against his perfect killer opponent Nix, his only way out is to face her – maybe even just speak with her – if that helps at all…

Nix may be the best player in Skizm and she has this cool, punky and edgy way of not caring too much. So I created a theme, a groove, that does not care too much. A warm analogue Electronic Bass from the 70s combined with acoustic and electronic drums from the 90s was the basis. Maybe there is an essence of 6% Rage Against the Machine meets Beastie Boys in it. But more as a mentality, less in terms of how the music sounds.

How did you want to hit the film’s social satire?

Some moments of the social satire include shots of people all over the world who enjoy watching Miles’ journey as a livestream. His pain is their pleasure. In some scenes I consciously went with the people’s emotions as they are watching Miles and scored their experience of the Skizm fight i.e. the “Stream they are watching.” I went counter intuitive on a moment where something objectively really bad happens but the Skizm audience is excited about it. By doing that the movie’s actual audience may distance themselves from that moment as neither Miles nor us as the outer audience can find something positive in that moment. In a way they might feel even stronger about this being wrong than if the music had commented on it as a moral compass. So it was a juggle between playing along the film’s inner experience and managing the audience’s outer emotions.

Is getting across more serious emotion especially difficult in a berserkly flippant film like “Guns Akimbo?”

There were definitely moments where we went with a more serious tone, especially when “The Game of Skizm” turns out to be as real as it can be. As much as Skizm does not really care about their players, Miles and the audience are shocked. There are some key moments that give the audience a little time to breathe where I went more reflective as Miles realizes the real tragedy unfolding in front of him. These are the darker moments that remind us that although he is playing this “game” to survive he is aware of the very real dark side and the deadly risk everyone is put on.

When you’ve got this kind of jackhammer editing, does having music “hit” cuts seem beyond the point, as opposed to playing through the energy of a scene? 

That was probably one of the hardest things to achieve on this score. Because this film has tons of visual effects the picture had to be somewhat locked when I started working on the score. That gave me the opportunity to create pieces and tracks that would sometimes very obviously hit moments, and sometimes supposedly by coincidence hit moments. That balance is what made the music appealing to me in connection with the film and what I challenged myself with the most. The balance between the obvious and the theoretical coincidence. I love nothing more than when the music just flows with the picture. 

I have found that with beat-driven tracks, it is harder to get out of the grid. Everything has to fit into the beat. The placement of tracks and where to start and end drums, choosing the right tempo and the right pacing, those were the real challenges.

With the explosion in beat-heavy scores, what’s the trick to giving yours melodic content and knowing when to go with a raw rhythm to play with the sound effects?

I was involved in weekly calls with the whole team including the sound team. I would receive sound designs, that were still in-progress, from Greg Junovich, in New Zealand, and they would receive regular updates from me as well. It was ideal to know where the sound effects would lead and where to leave space with the music – not only for the placing but also in terms of frequencies and point of view.

With balancing out rhythmically driven and melodic moments I probably went more with my intuition than I can recall. There are moments when it’s about being as deep inside the movie as possible. And then there are moments when it’s about reflective distance or great transitions where I see opportunities to bring in some more melodic content. With having the actual sound design at hand while scoring the film I definitely went rawer musically in certain moments. I really liked that, as it can be refreshing for the audience.

Given the real-life explosion in gun violence, is it morally harder to score a movie where all of the mayhem is given a decidedly fun and ruthlessly exciting attitude? 

Yes. I definitely thought about that before and even while working on the music for the film. It was explained to me from the start. Before I even saw the cut I knew the film had this social satire element that gives it a different twist and that there was an element of voyeurism – of taking pleasure in watching other people suffer. I would hope the film reaches people in an unexpected way; to reflect on gun violence and on what society should not accept as a spectacle.

What kind of mark do you think that “Guns Akimbo” makes in the explosion of retro synth and percussion scores? And how do you hope to keep pushing those limits?

It would be a huge honor for me if the score made a mark. For me personally it was about using these retro elements with the mind of today. It’s more than a collage. It’s my own painting. Luckily the basis for my scores is the movie itself. And on my next adventure the next film will show me how I can and should push those limits. Sometimes less is more, but sometimes more is also more.

Could you tell us about your upcoming score for “The Sunlit Night?” which premiered at Sundance?

The Sunlit Night

“The Sunlit Night” is a novel adaptation based on the book by Rebecca Dinerstein that plays in New York and Norway starring Jenny Slate, Zach Galifianakis, Alex Sharp & Gillian Anderson. It is my fourth collaboration with filmmaker David Wnendt (“Wetlands”, “Look Who’s Back”). On that score we combined a small string ensemble, recorded in Berlin, with atmospheric electronic guitars and some grinding spherical synths to complement the raw and cold nature of Norway. The score feels slowly playful with a touch of stillness. 

You’ll also be scoring a German take on the classic “Lassie Come Home.” In that way, would you like to keep segueing between mainstream films and outrageous, cult-ready pictures like “Guns Akimbo?” – as well as to stay as busy between your home country and continuing your Hollywood inroads?

Lassie Come Home

That would be my ideal way of working. I almost feel like a method actor who completely submits to every film world. There was nothing more refreshing than writing a big orchestral score with pure emotions for kids after having scored “Guns Akimbo.” We recorded the score for “Lassie Come Home” with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra just before Christmas and it was wonderful to see all the amazing musicians bring the music to life.

On an electronic score the satisfaction comes while producing it as you tweak a sound until you are happy. And what you hear is what you get. On an orchestral score, or with lots of acoustic elements, there are these three phases: composing, recording and mixing. They all individually bring elements of magic to the whole.

Believe it or not, some of the things I learned on “Guns Akimbo” have directly affected my music for “Lassie Come Home.” As with every project, there is always something you take with you from the experience. As I work both in Los Angeles and in Berlin it would be a dream to continue that exciting journey I am already on. Scoring extremely different projects keeps me open-minded and inspired.

How long do you think you’d last playing Skizm, and what would be your tricks to survive for as long as possible if you had to use an instrument as a weapon?

I would not last very long. Just knowing that millions are watching my every move would definitely make me nervous. But what a great idea with the instruments! I would probably go for a piccolo flute as it’s very handy to run away with and who would shoot someone who plays a piccolo on Skizm? 

Play “Guns Akimbo” in theaters and VOD now, and listen to Enis Rotthoff’s score on Music.Film Recordings and Varese Sarabande Records HERE

Listen to Enis Rotthoff’s soundtracks HERE

Visit Enis Rotthoff’s website HERE