While the films he scores might not have to do much with his homeland of Brazil (even if they’re filled with yellow characters with mad love for a certain tropical fruit), there’s most often a joyous, rhythmic energy that fills the soundtracks of Heitor Pereira. With a surfeit of kids’ movies to his credits, Pereira’s lovably bouncy, melodically eccentric scores are the equivalent of smurfs, chimps and Chihuahuas, all jumping for joy and lapping your face. They’ve got enough unrestrained, clever fun to put an energetic smile on anyone’s face, perhaps most notably one super villain hell-bent on being the bad guy. And perhaps if his nonsensical, fuzzball assistants did a more competent job, then the star of two “Despicable Me” movies would have remained truly despicable instead of becoming the kid-loving Gru with a heart of gold that we know today.
Given a decidedly unfortunate history of job employment, you might not think any band of goofy sidekicks could carry their own movie. But then, you’re not talking about the lovably tormentable “Minions.” Heitor Pereira is now accompanying these nonsensical hench-things outside the safety net of their master, tracing their desperate need for a boss from the ooga-booga beginning of time to the swinging spy jazz of 1960s, where they end up in the thrall of the completely wretched evil doer-ess Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), who’s get her world-dominating plans set on stealing The Queen’s particularly shiny tiara.
Sure we might barely be able to understand any of the delightful, sped-up gibberish of the minions. But it’s through Pereira’s loopy, delightfully rhythmic approach that we get everything we need to know about their screwball desperation to please, and more importantly, belong. Beyond getting inside their loopy, chattering heads with a distinctively eccentric musical identity, Pereira’s brassy, thematically inventive score mashes together 007 grooves and 60s pop with antic inventiveness of sci-fi weaponry. It’s all as fresh as a big banana, with the minions coming into their own chattering, melodic identity, while also reflecting on Pereira’s rise as a big time helper at Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studios (where he strummed and co-composed for “Spanglish,” “The Simpsons Movie” and “It’s Complicated”) to show his own diverse voice. It’s played the tropical drug runners of “Haven” to the sexually blocked author of “Ask the Dust” a teen on the edge of heaven for “If I Stay” and a forthcoming, revenge-fueled “Jesuit.” Though Heitor has now proven himself above all to be the scoring king of kid-friendly franchises with “The Smurfs,” “Curious George” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” it’s the “Minions” who clearly speak for Pereira’s proclamation as a big kid at heart, with lovable retro-deviousness to spare at proving these characters as their own musical boss.
You’d started out as a percussionist, and a guitarist with the band Simply Red. What encouraged you to move into film scoring?
What encouraged me to do this was the possibility of writing and orchestrating more colorful music. I have played with all the great artists in Brazil as well as playing in Simply Red. Then I did many sessions here in the function of a guitar player. Yet I always wrote music – though not necessarily “guitar” music, even though I’ve made guitar records in the past. Something kept bugging me. I would play the guitar and would hear something else coming out of it. Then I started working, still as a guitar player, but now playing in scores for Hans Zimmer. He even wrote “Gladiator” as a concerto for the guitar in Augusta, which I played on as well. We had so much fun in the process of his scoring of films like “Black Hawk Down,” especially because I could hang with him and played him some of my music. Hans said “Man, your melodies and the way you hear music would fit perfectly in a composition for pictures and film.” And that’s how it was. At first, I was collaborating with composers like Hans (“Rango”), and John Powell, for whom I did “I am Sam” and some animation pictures like “Shrek 2.” With Harry Gregson-Williams I did a lot of Tony Scott movies like “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” and “Unstoppable,” and was a featured musician in many of those scores. All of these composers were very generous and always supportive of me getting my own movies. I am very lucky in that way, so when the first movie came out, I already had a lot of training with the best people in the business. So the transition into my own work wasn’t painful. It was something that was very natural.
Right from the beginning of your scoring career you were doing films aimed at kids like “Curious George” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.” What do you think attracted to you about that genre?
What attracts me, is the fact that you can be super colorful with the music in movies for children. You can go places you wouldn’t think of, and everything happens very fast. I like the fact that I can mix the orchestra with some other different instruments and make it vibrant, because with today’s animation, it’s not like everything is completely tongue-in-cheek. With “children’s” movies, you’re writing for adults as well. So there’s more psychology involved in these score. In a way, I find what attracted me to these pictures is that they allow me to be more of a musician. Yet I’ve also done movies that definitely were aimed at adults, as well as a documentary called “Sonic Sea” that talks about the dangers of the impact of oil in the ocean, which really affects the lives of the animals down there. But somehow, people keep calling me for animation films, which I don’t have a problem with that at all. I come from a big family with a lot children. I love children. They are our hopes. And the more that adults don’t do what they should have done, the more we deposit our hopes in our children. I believe they let me write music. It’s honorable, it’s good music, and it has a lot of great musicians featured in them. We can guarantee that families have a lot of fun in the theater as well with the kid’s pictures that I score.
Your membership with the minions began with “Despicable Me,” and continued with its sequel. How would you say you developed their sound through these pictures before they got their own?
It’s hard to talk about the first “Despicable Me” without including Pharrell Williams from the word “Go” – or “Gru!” That’s because the movie was originally going to be scored by him and Hans. Then Hans was generous enough to say, “Man, I have this guy that’s a great musician,” He played Pharrell my scores, including “Curious George,” which I’d done with Jack Johnson. It showed how I could create help create songs around an orchestra. Pharrell and I got along very well. We used two of his songs to play Gru and the girls in “Despicable Me.” I wrote the Minions theme myself. We started differently on “Despicable Me 2,” where I took care of all of the score, and Pharrell took care of songs and that also worked fine. So the “Despicable Me” sound came about by my being very attentive to Pharrell’s songs while writing my own melodies for characters whom I thought need a different musical treatment. And those characters were The Minions. Pharrell and I also worked together on The Minions ride at Universal, for which I deconstructed their theme as they start as one little cell, and then travel through time. I helped to reconfigure the song in the same way. And now it’s all evolved into the “Minions.”
What’s interesting is that while Gru was always trying to be the “bad” guy, his Minions themselves were never “evil” as such. In that way, what’s it like to play sympathetic characters that want to attach themselves to sinister types?
Well, I think it’s because they want to be “mean.” But it just doesn’t work! Now we get Scarlet Overkill coming in, and she’s just a mean, bad character. She really wants the crown and the royal jewels. So she’s obviously worse than Gru. The Minions are all fun and games with little at stake at first, even though they unintentionally killed all of their masters. So Sandra Bullock’s character allows this score to become a little more serious, and a little darker. It’s a little bit of a balancing act, because you don’t want the music to become too horrific with such a bad woman as Scarlett. So I used the continuous quirkiness and lightness of the Minions to counterbalance her heaviness.
There’s also far more of a James Bond-ian element to this score than the “Despicable Me” pictures had.
That’s because I wanted to pay homage to that style, as “Minions” takes place in England during the 1960’s. Yet we also wanted the score to sound as current as 2016. We have many songs from the sixties, so the treatment of the orchestra and the band, has to somehow drink from that fountain of time with the spy stuff, but with some very contemporary filters and crazy things that didn’t exist during that period. We mixed those elements to also reflect the gadget-filled paradise of these super-villains.
When you talk about the idea of “gadgetry,” it really shows up in the fun, futuristically electronic and rhythmic sound of you score. It tells us that the Minions could be androids in a way, almost as if the Minions could be Androids or not human in a way.
I think that feeling comes from Scarlett’s boyfriend Herb is showing them all of the gadgetry that he created, and he’s Scarlet’s husband Herb Overkill, who has this amazing room of weaponry. And then we have the mad scientists. So it just allows the music to really go to different places, which is what I love about animation in the first place. You can really use your imagination. But it’s also important not to fall into clichés during the process.
What do you think your music tells us about the personalities of the minions?
I tried to be as diverse as I could regarding the three different minions. The featured ones are Kevin, Stuart and Bob. They show that we may all look a little bit like each other, but we are all different because of what we have inside of us. So Kevin is a fatherly and heroic, always taking care of the other two. Bob is more of the fragile, and full of infinite heart. And Stuart is the one who can surprise us because he’s a goofball. That’s what I wanted the music to tell us about about their personalities.
The emotional core of the film, and score is that these are characters that desperately need to belong, and be loved, even if they’re often treated badly.
The minions are a tribe, and keep looking for someone to guide them. Kevin does to a degree, but he has in mind what the rest of the tribe wants too. I think there’s a bigger picture about how we ourselves jump from one emotion to the other very quickly. In three seconds we can be having the craziest laughter, and then be on the verge of crying. It’s a roller coaster of feelings, and I dig being able to play that. While I love score live action, animation triggers something in myself, as I still have that inner child. I haven’t gotten hardened in my soul and my heart, and I hope I never will. Maybe that’s why people keep calling me to work on these things. I am not saying I’m an adult and “lowering” myself to write for these kinds of films. I love having them, and the minions, in my life.
In that way, there seems to be a real, joyful spirituality running through all of your scores. Do you think that you purposefully seek out lighter movies like the “Minions?”
I actually did a very dark movie recently called “The Jesuit.” And man, I’ll tell you that it was crazy dark! I remember some of my assistants walking into the room. They took a look at the screen, heard my music, and their eyes turned big. But I was actually having fun, in the same way I enjoyed scoring “Minions.” It’s all about supporting the characters, whether they’re real or animated. In that way, being a musician lets you a journey to places you’ve never visited before – and make them sound new in the process. I’ll never get the time that I spend in my studio composing a score back, so I give every score everything that I’ve got, whether it’s light, or dark.
Do you think there’s an extra importance placed on the score in “Minions” because Gru essentially isn’t in the film?
I don’t remember once writing the music for the “Minions” while thinking about Gru. I love the character a lot, but this was about the Minions being without him. They didn’t know of his existence, and that allowed me as well to completely forget about him.
Have you ever tried to figure out what the minions are actually saying?
That’s an interesting question because many times I have to make the decision about letting the dialogue, or the music be featured, especially as we can’t understand what the minions are saying. But when you follow those “words,” they really do have a meaning. I let the child inside guide me through their vocabulary, and it usually has me open up the music around it. The directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin would say things like, “Oh the emotions could be more clear here.” “ I think we need to make the line a little more heartfelt.” Sure their dialogue sounds like a joke, but it’s always about what the minions are feeling inside. They’re saying meaningful things, even if they’re not using the vocabulary that we normally would. So I think it’s funny, isn’t it? The minions also have a lot of great body language. It’s like when we travel to a country where we don’t speak the language, and have to resort to using our hands and our facial expressions to get across what we’re trying to say. That’s a fun thing for the music to capture. I am very grateful for the opportunity and thankful to the filmmakers who keep inviting me to these things! I hope people like “Minions.” It’s very dear to me.
Special thanks to Catherine Horner for transcribing this interview