Interview with Frank Ilfman

For a beyond cool, violence-is-fun genre of superhuman hit-persons, it seems like there’s a contest among composers to see which score can take down the maximum number of bad guys in the most musically insane way possible. On that body count, it’s the not-so-bad girls of “Gunpowder Milkshake” that just might take the cake for Israeli-born Frank Ilfman. Loaded to bear with Ennio Morricone, Shagadellic Euro spy jazz, Spanish Flamenco, 50’s sci-fi, a raging orchestra and oh-so-sweet melodies in a seemingly endless bag of tricks, Ilfman starts with a delightfully bonkers bang and doesn’t let up for this ladies’ night, topping off the whipped cream with actual emotion to boot. 

Having put himself on the map with his ironic Bernard Herrmann-esque brooding of the Israeli kidnap thriller gone wrong for director and co-writer Navot Papushado’s “Big Bad Wolves,” Ilfman now follows that filmmaker for his major English-dialogue debut – that is when guns and knives aren’t speaking the kind of super-stylish international language that the likes of “John Wick” have made all the somewhat humorous rage.

Taking place in a colorfully skewed reality where you half expect the characters to book into The Continental as opposed to an ersatz Hotel Artemis for a patch-me-up, “Gunpowder” shows how a dysfunctional hitwoman-daughter relationship can end up with a teen growing into a sullen murder machine named Sam (Karen Gillan, making her Nebula seem like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm). Of course given orders by a nefarious criminal organization, a particularly pissed Sam’s act against a frightened accountant ends up with her as mom to a now-orphaned Emily (Chloe Coleman). Pursued by every male scumbag on the face of the earth, it’s up to the biggest mother of them all Scarlet (Lena Headey) to show up for some fireworks therapy along with her righteously pissed BFF’s. Of course, the endless armies arrayed against them never have a chance.

The “Gunpowder Milkshake” string sessions at Air Studios

Unleashing a dizzyingly wacked-out array of instrumentation with a beyond energetic, yet strongly thematic score, “Gunpowder Milkshake” shows off Frank Ilfman’s creative wit in gleefully punishing surroundings, with his energy here turned past 11. With over 100 credits and counting, Ilfman has shown a melodic talent for the creepily fantastical (“Abulele,” “Ghost Stories”) as well as high retro concept for  scheming gone awry (“68 Kill”), deadly serious spying that gives Israel’s Mossad little favor (“The Operative”) and a documentary that takes Nazi whitewashing to task (“Speer Goes Hollywood”). But it’s with “Gunpowder Milkshake” that Ilfman shows himself number one with a bullet when it comes a distinctive musical voice that charmingly doesn’t begin to shoot straight. 

“Big Bad Wolves” co-director and “Gunpowder Milkshake” director Navut Papushado

How did your partnership begin with Navot on “Big Bad Wolves?”

I first met Navot working with him on his first film “Rabies” and we then did the award winning “Big Bad Wolves” and another segment for “ABC’s of Death.” Navot is very music oriented in his films, so music is almost another character. We will always start some sort of a playlist of possible different directions, all of which could be a path leading us to discover what we think the final score actually should be. On “Rabies” I joined on at the last minute to do a rescue job, so I only had a couple of weeks to wrap it up. But on “Big Bad Wolves,” I was already involved from the get-go, so we learned how each of us worked so we could approach and achieve the score that was best for that film.

What do you think it was about “Big Bad Wolves” that made it an international success?

I think the film beside being a genre blender had a very universal story in how each of us would react if it was your child that has been abducted. How far would you go to find them? It combined elements of horror and dry humor in a very cynical way and it seen to go down well with the fantasy and horror crowd. We even won a Saturn Award for both Best Film and Best Music.

What was your experience scoring blackly comedic movies after “Big Bad Wolves,” and how would they lead the way to “Gunpowder Milkshake?”

Funnily enough, it seems that many films had been temped with music from the “Big Bad Wolves” score. Some of those directors came and wanted me to score their movies, the main part of it I think is how dark yet melodic it was and how it seems to fit many temporary soundtracks.

“Abulele” soundtrack on Intrada Records

How did Falcor the Dragon start things off for you in a way that you’d pay forward with the Israeli fur ball fantasy “Abulele?”

It’s a funny story, when I was 13 I visited Bavaria Studios on a kids tour and we were allowed to visit  “The Never Ending Story” film set, that at the time was still in production and that lead to me meet Klaus Doldinger who invited me to see some of the recording sessions while in Munich. Jump forward  to me working on “Abulele”  and to my surprise I discovered that the our German co- producers were the same people who produced “The Never Ending Story!” So for me it’s like closing a circle of an happy ending fairy tale that started many years ago as a kid watching a score being done to a much beloved film.

With “Gunpowder Milkshake,” you’ve effective gone from playfully spinning Bernard Herrmann for Navot to having your way with Ennio Morricone, particularly in his spaghetti western sound. How did that approach come about? 

“Gunpowder Milkshake” is a genre blender between a Japanese assassin comic, film noir, a western and a modern-day action thriller with a twist. We wanted to do the same with the music to get that balance right, which was a real challenge. We wanted to play homage to those old films and spy noir music styles from John Barry to Bernard Hermann and “The Third Man’s” Anton Karas and then blend it with a 60’s French/Italian film music from composers like Ennio Morricone, Stelvio Cipriani, Henry Mancini and Michel Legrand to name a few. So I thought those over-the-top instruments and sounds would give the right color to the film and some of our characters.

Both Navot and I are big fans of those genres and Scarlet’s character is a true old gunslinger in “Gunpowder Milkshake.” The Morricone western style fit her like a glove both emotionally and stylistically and gave her a bigger than life persona. Ennio once told me, “In nature you can find the best sounds,” so I wanted to play homage to those words and be respectful of his westerns musical style in using some of those elements. I also drew from the likes of Franco Micalizzi , I Cantori, Moderni di Alessandro Alessandroni and crazy style vocals. Most of my “spaghetti,” as we call it, was used within an emotional or comical content in the film even during the more modern scored fighting scenes. I wanted to be an authentic as possible and spent many hours creating those sounds using old spring reverbs, delays and amps,  


On that note, what do you think makes for a Morricone score in that genre? And how did you want to put your satirical spin on it, especially when you have a flamenco mariachi going on during the doctor’s office fight scene? 

I think his style made those characters bigger than life and gave it a sense of grandeur. All of those Sergio Leone films, and many Italian spaghetti pictures used to be scored back in the 60’s, so this direction fit us perfectly. There are a few main characters and gangs and I wanted to make sure that each one could have a signature theme, tune or sound. Add to that the way some of those scenes are staged ad it basically landed itself for those different styles. As we were not doing a western per say, I only used it when it felt like it could be a true western homage in a more emotional context and with some of the big elements of the signature sounds. This blend seems to work so well without taking the piss of that style of music. So, in the bowling alley fight it featured a heavy rock band playing lead blended with a catchy whistling tune, soprano voice and full orchestra and choir, while in the clinic flight you have a baroque ensemble blended with a flamenco and mariachi bend.

Gunpowder Milkshake. Karen Gillan as Sam in Gunpowder Milkshake. Cr. REINER BAJO/STUDIOCANAL © 2021

“Gunpower” also has fun riff’s a 60’s Shagadellic music and current electronica. Could you talk about the more outré instrumentation and stylism and the era’s other composers that influenced the score?

I wanted to stay as original to myself yet see how I can take those influences from composers like: Stelvio Cipriani, Morricone, Franco Micalizzi , Hermann, John Barry, Mancini, Les Baxter, Juan García Esquivel even Michel Polnareff and Christophe for those cheesy pop melodies. I used an instrument called Cimbalom and a baroque harpsichord for the main sounds and for Sam theme. Those two were used heavily in Italian French pop arrangements and movie soundtracks in the 60’s. For a lot of those retro vibe I used a vast amount of old synths, drum machines and external hardware like plate reverbs, old space echo machines. For the more out there stuff I used a Theremin, an Elka String machine and an old farfisa doubled with a church organ for the big climax.

I had many talks with my orchestrator Jeff Atmajian about doing some very old-fashioned type of orchestration to some of the cues. We did that on the end title song “Ensemble Pour Toujours,” which was performed in French by Susana Nakatani. We did all of this while we had very modern electronics running under to give it an old-new feel. Jeff even arranged and performed Sam’s Theme on his grand piano live just for the soundtrack album as we thought it would add a nice old feel to it.

From L to R Frank Ilfman, Susana Nakatani and Jeff Atmajian

Where “Wolves” shows the toll of violence, and particularly torture in an ironic, not celebratory way, “Gunpowder” most definitely fits the “violence is fun” mode of “John Wick” and “Kill Bill.” In a way does that free you up as well to really go for musically exhilarating carnage?

Yes, our approach was that this is like a comic book, so the fights as brutal as they come,. The music needed to say “Hey, this is a fun movie and all the violence you see is not really real. So take it with a wink.”

There are scenes that necessarily might not be humorous if not for the music. How important was it for you to put the laughs into the action where it might not be obvious? 

There were a few spots, where we thought the score was working well, but it was too serious for what the film is. So I wanted to make some of those cues lighter or more on the crazy for a more humorous and playful approach. The bowling alley and clinic fights are good examples of that. 


“Gunpowder Milkshake” has some ingenious variations on its action scenes. What were your favorites to score and why?

My two favorites action scenes are the clinic fight also known as ‘La Balada de los Charros,” where I recorded a crazy mariachi band and all those flamenco instruments, which were played by guitarist Riccardo Rocchi. All of us were shouting the word “Sombrero!” I also whistled the main riffs. I also loved scoring the last battle “To the Death” where we played the emotional side of the librarians fighting everyone. It’s based on four repeated chords and a variation of the theme with our 85-piece orchestra and choir getting bigger and louder with every repeat.

Conversely, how important was it for the music to tell us that these characters mean lethal business?

For some of the cues when you have our librarians kicking ass I wanted the action music to be as powerful and sharp as it could be. I utilized our double brass section to play in full force with lots of distortion, trash guitars and massive percussion. I wanted people to feel and that kick in the guts that if those girls don’t hold any punches. The music doesn’t either!


Tell us about your main themes.

“Milkshake’s” main theme is built around a six-note repeated motif and four chords that are also used in part for Sam’s Theme and Emily’s theme, which uses an inversion of those notes. I used a dulcimer doubled with the cimbalom and harpsichord to play the main theme. They’re Sam’s signature sound all throughout the film. Scarlet’s theme has a very Morricone wild west sound to her that’s represented by baritone guitars and timpani. The Firm and Macalister Themes are both played by the orchestra featuring an eight-horn ensemble and cimbasso, Yankee and the goons are a more your clumsy type gangsters, so for them I had a more of a small mariachi band feel. For the monsters I used a four-note motif played by a large orchestra and electronics.   

Gunpowder Milkshake. Chloe Coleman as Emily in Gunpowder Milkshake. Cr. REINER BAJO/STUDIOCANAL © 2021

I particularly love you bring a Theremin-like sound to the monster-masked kidnappers. How did you get to that choice?

When we thought about what to do for the monsters. As they’re in this retro video shop, I thought beside giving them a very old sound with the orchestra that I could also give them an extra edge of a retro feel. And what better way than an old Theremin that brings the monsters an outer space vibe. This also came handy in the monster chase cue where it’s used again alongside all those 60’s surf guitars. 

How did you want to bring out your orchestral weapons in a way that really becomes present in the film’s second half, even adding an organ to the mix?

I used the orchestra and choir in an emotional way until reel 3, so the orchestra became more noticeable with the monsters and started to be more present as the ladies started to get more into the action. So the orchestra just builds more and more from there. I wanted to add a sense of this as the finale moment for life or death, so I had the organ melody playing on another cue that has been now replaced by a song. Navot thought it would be good to bring it in again afterwards and to build from that slowly as the action is getting more intense on the last part of the big battle


How did you want the score in the library fight to ramp up with jeopardy when slow motion takes over? 

I wrote a very upbeat electro rock track with a big section of our orchestra playing via a distortion amp on top of all the drums. There’s bass and guitars and synth until it stops very brutally when everyone gets Sam. Then Scarlet comes to the rescue, which was like a slow-motion superhero moment. So I played the same melody, making it super slow in tempo as if time has stopped when she jumps up. I left it for the full orchestra and choir to play out as if she is flying. 

Gunpowder Milkshake. Lena Headey as Scarlet, Chloe Coleman as Emily, Karen Gillan as Sam in Gunpowder Milkshake. Cr. REINER BAJO/STUDIOCANAL © 2021

Talk about capturing the musical essence of a little girl amidst this insanity. 

For Emily’s theme I wanted something child-like and gentle in terms of a melody that could also work as part of Sam’s theme. It’s basically almost the same chords as the main theme, but with a new inverted melody that is always sung in a very slow whispering voice. That theme is then played in full in “Madeleine’s Adagio” by soprano, orchestra and choir.

How did you want to capture that emotion with the relationships of mother and daughter (Sam and Scarlett) and mother and ersatz daughter (Sam and Emily)?

As with so many characters, we first played with the idea of having a few themes for all those little family stories. But once I had Emily’s theme we started to see that it could work well for Scarlet and Sam, and Sam and Emily as they are connected. We tested it and it worked well. It also made it easier to do some variations on the theme when we share moments between Scarlet and Sam.


What do you think having female leads here brings to the score in a way that male super assassins might not have?

The made it very easy. These ladies are super stylish and sophisticated, I know that even during those mega action scenes I wanted to keep that coolness they have. 

“The Operative” on Movie Score Media Records

Movie Score Media recently released your soundtrack for 2019’s “The Operative,” a far more realistic movie about a woman putting herself into the role of a Mossad spy in Iraq who’s out to subvert their nuclear program. Could you talk about composing for that film, especially given its mostly low-key and incredibly tense approach.

On “The Operative” I wanted to have this sense of brooding  and unease to how her state of mind is in most of the film. So I used a very large orchestra that consisted more towards a very big cello and bass sections and low brass instruments combined with modular electronics like the Bucla, that can give you those very low sub harmonics. We recorded most of the score in Teldex Studios Berlin and did some sessions at Air Studios in London.

“The Operative”

As an Israeli, what’s it like for you to score a film, as directed by an Israeli, where the Iraqi “targets” end up being far more sympathetic than the Mossad? And what do you think it has to say about where the line between the “good” and “bad” guys get crossed – which “Gunpowder Milkshake” also deals with in a bit of a lighter way. 

I never had much issue with that as I don’t mix music and politics. I get hired to write music for a film and I need to convey what the director’s vision is. If it’s something I truly do not agree with, I can always say no and refuse the project, but that never happened yet.

“Speer Goes to Hollywood” on Kronos Records

A score for a film that will be starting the rounds soon is “Speer Goes to Hollywood,” which is also on Movie Score Media and Kronos Records. Having come from the second generation  of Holocaust survivors I did find it hard at times to write emotional music for Speer’s character in order to portray him as the “good” Nazi for the audience who don’t know the story. 

How has the experience of working during the pandemic been for you? 

I was lucky in a way as I had some films that I was working on and needed to be finished. So I managed to record them just before the lockdown started. “Gunpowder” was done over the full year, so I was writing it and keeping up with editorial changes that were made, so we never stopped. When it came down to recording I had to do a few sessions remotely with all the solo musicians and expend our recording schedule, as you can’t have a full orchestra in the room. That was done in section over a full week with Jeff orchestrating in LA and remote listening on the sessions, while the director was on a sound stage in Berlin listening in. Casey Stone mixed remotely, so technology did help in this case to get it all done.

What’s up ahead for you?

I have just finished a film for a director friend of mine titled “Children of Good.” It’s a small score recorded in London with a guitar-based band. I also have a new  Apple TV show that I sadly can’t talk about yet!

Where do you hope that a thoroughly American action film like “Gunpowder Milkshake” takes you and Navot? And how do you think it fits in with the likes of excitingly absurdist movies like “John Wick?”

While I love the “John Wick movies,” “Gunpowder Milkshake” is a more retro noir thriller genre blender. Action wise, we actually only have about twenty minutes of fight scenes in it! The studio has just announced that “Gunpowder Milkshake 2” is on the cards for us. I am sure Navot will direct one of those huge budget Marvel movies in no time given how the scope of this movie turned out! 

“Watch Gunpowder Milkshake” on Netflix and listen to Frank Ilfman’s score on Milan Records

Listen to Frank Ilfman’s scores HERE

Visit Frank Ilfman’s web site HERE