With dozens of films and television shows to his credits in a career launched with “Way of the Gun’s” cult explosion, composer Joe Kraemer has scored no end of see-it-to-believe it projects. From daredevil swings between conspiratorial suspense and Lalo Schifrin spy riffs on Christopher McQuarrie’s “Jack Reacher” and “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” to the scary second entries of “House of the Dead” and “Joyride,” not to mention the orgasmic thrills of Skinimax’s “Femme Fatale’s” anthology series and upending a TV spin on “The Poseidon Adventure,” Kraemer’s energetically melodic approach has made listeners believe in the improbable. But perhaps the biggest surprise of Kraemer’s career is not only making us believe that Sam Elliott is “The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot,” but giving these accomplishments dead dramatic seriousness as well the kind of gorgeous thematic resonance you’d expect in a John Williams score dealing with far more earthbound events.
Yet it’s exactly the unexpected that makes this “Man” stand out. Written and directed with slowly paced resonance by Robert D. Krzyowski in his feature debut, taking down an infamous dictator and an unfortunately afflicted primate aren’t the happiest affairs for the history-haunted Calvin Barr (Elliott), who’s most silently tormented by the happier, romantic road his life has not taken due to his special set of lethal tracking skills. Veering between a homespun naturalism worthy of a “Waltons” episode with more ferocious combat one might find in “The Dirty Dozen” and “Evil Dead,” Kraemer’s quite beautiful score effortlessly segues through time and emotion with its striking lyricism, where military action takes a turn into the sad poetry of aging. For if the people who know Calvin quite didn’t realize he had it in him, the same might be said for listeners familiar with Kraemer’s more ferocious music in this most unexpected of stories.
Of course that doesn’t mean Kraemer isn’t up to his sly tricks, particularly with the seditious “Comrade Detective.” Produced in Eastern Europe but made by Yanks, this seditious, terribly dubbed procedural has Bulgaria’s greatest macho detectives taking down the evil pawns of democracy to Kraemer’s over-the-top, spot-on salutes to America cop TV kitsch as well lampooning the iconic work of numerous capitalist film composers. Then with the deliriously fun documentary “King Cohen,” Kraemer gets into a jazz-blaxploitation swing that’s all about the chutzpah of a prolific outlaw filmmaker. It’s music that captures a Deuce decade when anything was possible in the name of memorable exploitation and pure, jazzy moxie. In yet another feat that shows his stylistic dexterity, Kraemer’s lush re-score of F.W. Murnau’s classic 1927 film “Sunrise” again shows Kraemer’s talent with a full, lush orchestra for film music at its purest form, from a time when scoring truly had to tell a story – from a composer who’s shown an affinity for tall tales like never before.
How did you become involved in a film with one of the more outlandishly memorable titles in some time?
The writer-director Robert Krzykowski first reached out to me to score a short film he made, based on a comic strip he drew in college called “Elsie Hooper”. The short film was a black-and-white noir made with life-size puppets and was very unique and personal, so when he told me he had a script for a feature he wanted to make, I was braced for something out of the ordinary.
He sent me the script and some production art he’d done. I read the first 20 or so pages, and emailed him right away and accepted the job. I usually don’t read scripts at all (unless I need to write music for use during principal photography) because there can be such a big gap between what one reads in a pre-production script and how the finished film turns out, and I find this can interfere with the scoring process. But because of this title, I just had to read some of it. When I finally saw a cut of the movie, I was so impressed by Bob’s filmmaking. He made an independent movie that looks as good as a big Hollywood feature, with phenomenal performances from exceptional actors. I was most struck by the emotional heart of the film, which ran counter to the expectations the title evoked.
The film has a surprisingly naturalistic pace in spite of its outré elements. How important was it to capture that feeling of normalcy in a way that you could still plunge into the more fantastical scenes?
I think it was very important. I think if I had tried to fight the feelings and pace that the movie was built on, it would have felt false. As a composer, I always try to follow the film’s lead, sometimes within a specific scene, and sometimes looking at the film as a whole. I have to trust that the movie knows what it’s doing, if you will, and that by following the film, I’ll be able to help the director tell his or her story. Of course, sometimes I encounter a situation where I have to deviate from this aesthetic and help push the film in one direction or another, usually at the director’s request, to help drive home a point that for any number of reasons might be resonating as strongly with the audience as desired. On this film, it was usually the opposite. We were pulling back on the emotion in spots to make sure we didn’t overdo it for the audience.
What kind of gravitas do you think Sam Elliot gives to the film, and your score?
I think he captured perfectly the sense of a lifetime of exhaustion that Barr has endured, disappointment at the way things turned out, and resentment that he didn’t take certain actions when he had the chance.
Again, I try to let the film tell me what kind of music it needs, and with Sam’s performance at the center of the film, it obviously led the direction of the emotional arc of the movie, and the score too as a result.
Can you talk about your main themes, and how they suit the film’s bittersweet, if not often-melancholy idea of aging in deceptive anonymity?
Well, Barr’s principal theme is pensive piano melody, which grew from my reaction to the lonely, quiet life he’s living in the modern part of the story. There is a “Brotherhood” theme, which developed out of the relationship Calvin has with his brother, Ed (Larry Miller), and grows to encompass his feelings about a particular character he interacts with in the back half of the movie. I wrote a delicate theme for Maxine (Caitlin FitzGerald), the love of his life, which is first introduced in the scene in the Hat Shop. They also have a love theme that is heard throughout the film, including a heartbreaking sequence involving letters she has written to Barr. There’s also a theme for the Bigfoot, which also relates to the FBI and the Canadian authorities. Finally, there is a theme I wrote, the purpose of which is more ambiguous, and deals with the desire to hang on to a single moment in time and make it last forever. I hope these themes are composed or arranged in such ways that they resonate with the scenes in question effectively.
The film has an interesting flashback structure between young Calvin (Aidan Turner) and old. How important was it for the music to tie the timelines together?
If the flashback structure is working for the film itself in a narrative way, then the score should also work if I go along with it. I think Bob did a terrific way of pivoting the audience into the flashbacks through visual turns, so the music didn’t really need to help out there. Maybe films like “The English Patient” and TV shows like “Lost” have opened me up to the liberties stories can take now with flashbacks, because it was never really something I worried about on this.
Tell us about scoring the assassination of Hitler?
For me, the key to the scenes with Hitler is a close-up shot of Hitler’s hand, shaking uncontrollably. Combining this with some information Barr gives us during an engrossing monologue about what it was like to carry out that mission led me to score you hear in those scenes with Hitler. Nervous, tense, frenetic, hopefully with a surprising humanity in the subtext for Barr’s character.
What was your approach to Bigfoot?
Sometimes I try to be clever. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, I took the notes B, G, and F and made a musical motif out of theme that became the music signifier for Bigfoot. Not only do we hear it during the brawl with the creature, but also earlier in the film, I used it to foreshadow the involvement of the FBI with Bigfoot, although this is one of the things we pulled out of the film during the mix, as we felt the audience could figure this out for themselves…
There’s a nice John Williams-esque feeling to your orchestration in your score. What kind of feeling do you think that composer brings to distinctly American films, and how did you want to capture that kind of homespun quality here?
I suppose I’ve been such an admirer of John Williams for such a long time that I can’t help but approach some of the situations I encounter as a composer with techniques I learned studying his work. But I also specifically referenced J.S. Bach in this score, as well as making allusions to Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, David Shire, and John Barry. I didn’t specifically set out to capture that homespun quality, as you eloquently put it, but rather, tried to make music that seemed appropriate for the scenes in question.
Onto way more obviously crazy material, your music from Amazon’s “Comrade Detective’s” score is getting an LP release. What kind of opportunity do you think that scoring a “fake” Bulgarian cop show gave you, especially as the villains were the purveyors of Capitalism and Democracy?
The fun thing about that project was that I got to pretend I was someone else. I imagined I was a composer living in the Soviet Union in the early 80’s and I’d been given this chance by the Communist regime to do a big score for their top show. As this imaginary composer, I was given the chance to subvert American propaganda being distributed through their action movies like “Bullit”, “First Blood” and the Rambo films, “Chinatown”, and TV shows like “The A-Team”, “Hill Street Blues”, and such.
Did you do a deep dive into older TV “cop” music in preparation for “Comrade Detective?” And just how goofy did you think you could get with that over-the-top approach?
I didn’t do any specific research per se, instead I relied on my memory of how those shows were scored, which kind of worked as I imagine the composer I was pretending to be would not have seen these shows more than once, and even then as bootleg video tapes smuggled into Communist Romania. But I didn’t purposely try to be goofy with the music. If I got big, it was because I imagined the filmmakers of this 80’s program would have wanted the audience to be invested in the importance of this show.
You pay some hilariously obvious homages to composers like Jerry Goldsmith and John Barry with “Comrade Detective,” not to mention twisting Democracy’s most sacred anthems to villainy. Was that part of the fun?
Definitely. Perhaps the most obvious aspect of my career has been an association with a “retro” approach to scoring, and getting to use techniques that audiences enjoy hearing in Goldsmith and Barry scores was a lot fun. I also love putting clever little Easter eggs into my scores. So using famous American melodies, such as the National Anthem, in twisted kept me amused.
Having scored the adult anthology series “Femme Fatales,” what was it like to get to do a way more kid-friendly “Goosebumps”-esque show called “Creeped Out” for Netflix?
I loved it. I’m kind of a kid at heart, and I really love the late 70’s and early 80’s films and scores, and I keep returning to those when I listen to music or watch movies for fun in my down time. So having a chance to write music for Amblin-esque material, albeit through the lens of the BBC, was really terrific. The director I worked with most on the show was Steve Hughes, who comes from “Doctor Who” and “Casualty”, just to name a few, and together we really wanted to make each episode a sort of mini-tribute to a film or director we loved from the 80’s.
Another thoroughly enjoyable throwback score you did was for the documentary “King Cohen.” How did you want to capture the go-for-broke chutzpah of an “outlaw” writer-director whose career has gone from the golden age of television to today’s Hollywood?
Larry Cohen is such a larger-than-life character, that it was impossible not to go-for-broke with the music. Some of the music we did in the film was driven by effective temp music placed by the director, Steve Mitchell. Some of it was from me, reacting to Larry’s personality. Sometimes it was dictated by the time period being discussed in the film, or the film being covered.
What do you think the appeal of Larry Cohen’s movies are, and how did you want to translate to music an oeuvre where you feel the filmmaker’s personality?
I think Larry Cohen makes movies that are genuine and honest expressions of who he is and what he’s trying to say, and the audience reacts to that. I think writers and directors who try and create a false impression of who they are, or make movies that aren’t really what they love or want to do, end up creating work that is false, and the audience can see through that too. In terms of his personality, I think Larry is a natural-born entertainer who is at his best when he has an audience to perform for. You see it in the movie, I’ve seen it in real life at screenings and signings, he engages the audience and draws them into what he’s doing, with humor at first, and then with sincerity for what his ultimate goal is, whether that’s to scare them with “It’s Alive”, address a social issue with “Bone”, or satirize commercialism and capitalism with “The Stuff”. He has a lot of energy as well, so I tried to create music that had energy, a sense of humor, but an underlying sincerity, and depending on the situation in the documentary, a sense of fear, a sense of justice, let’s say, or a sense of humor. Evoking those senses through music is the job of a good film composer, and I tried to use the skills I’ve developed in those areas as best I could.
With so many film clips in “King Cohen,” how did you want to reflect on the actual scores in his movies?
Documentary scoring can be different from narrative feature scoring in that sometimes the music has to serve a purely practical purpose, such as linking interviews between movie clips. Obviously, music rights prevent us from using the scores from the original Cohen films except in “fair use” clips, so I had to come up with pieces that could segue into and out of the film clips without infringing on the copyrights of the original scores but also without taking the audience out of the flow of the documentary. But any composer who survives in this business has to have some skill at listening to a temp score that a director loves and finding a way to create a new piece of music that satisfies the filmmaker without stealing from the temp.
One of your most interesting projects has been doing a new score for the classic silent movie “Sunrise.” How did this classic come your way, and what kind of musical opportunities did it present to you?
Up until 2016, I had never had anything I’d written for orchestra performed live in concert, and it was a dream of mine I was striving to realize. In March of that year, I got a call from composer Brian Satterwhite, asking me if I was interested in writing a score for a silent film to be performed “live-to-picture” in the fall. I immediately said yes. I have to thank my friend, Beth Krakower, for pointing Brian in my direction. She passed away last year, and it was heartbreaking for me, and my score for “Sunrise” will always remind me of her.
My favorite aspect of the music itself was the freedom to tell the story in the score. I actually really love the balance between sound and music in films, having worked in sound for years while I waited for scoring opportunities. I am always complaining that my score is mixed too loud in some scene, or that we have too much music in a movie, but with “Sunrise” it was all music, all the time. Combined with the very classic look of the film, I felt liberated as a composer to indulge in thematic, emotional writing that had kind of vanished from live-action dramas in the 2000’s. You still hear it in animation, and some kids films, but this was a chance to just go for it one hundred percent.
What’s the trick to writing in the style of a 1927 score, from your way of embodying exactly what’s happening on screen to capturing the jazz age influences?
I don’t know if there was a “trick” per se. I tried to write music that felt honest to the film, music that didn’t clash with what I was seeing on screen. I guess the biggest factor in my decision-making was choosing the instruments to be used in the ensemble. By avoiding any synths or “modern” sounds like guitars or a drum set, the music had a certain accuracy to the film in terms of instrumentation. There is a character in the film referred to as “The Woman” or “The Other Woman” and she dresses in what for 1927 was considered very flashy clothing, a “flapper” haircut and the dress and heels that go with the look. That to me evoked an association with “rooty-tooty” clarinets and Gershwin and such. Another sequence has the central couple of the story dancing at a fancy restaurant to a brass band in a waltz, and the music for that sequence was determined to a large degree by the instruments seen on screen, the tempo the on-screen bandleader sets and at which the couple dance, and the kind of dancing they do. There are plenty of moments in the film where I do something that a composer from 1927 would not have done, things that are more modern than that, but I always tried to make sure those moments felt honest to the emotional intent of the movie.
As an especially busy composer, what’s coming up for you?
I’m planning very soon to score a film for Lucky McKee, who I met when he produced “The Man Who Killed Hitler and the the Bigfoot.” Later this year, I’ll be working with Marcus Ovnell, a Swedish filmmaker, on a fantastic family-oriented film he’s currently editing called “Faunutland.” I also do a lot of work with a British organization called Big Finish, and they make Doctor Who audio dramas. With 50-plus years of history, the Doctor Who universe has endless story potential, and actors from the show’s history come in and do radio plays for CD, Audible and such. I do scores for those whenever I have time, they keep me busy and they give me a chance to work on a property I’ve loved since I was a kid.
Having gotten such a wide, stylistic range of film and television to score, is there any approach you’re still looking to play?
I think I’ve made it pretty obvious over the years that I’d love to score a “Star Wars” movie. I came pretty close with one, actually, but it wasn’t to be. Maybe one day? I guess rather than any one musical style, I’d just like to continue working on films that have something to say for the audience. I’ve been really lucky with “The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot” to have a canvas on which to paint a very emotionally satisfying picture.
Returning to “The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot.” do you think this score shows about what you’re melodically capable of as a composer, especially as its title is about the pre-conception of what kind of movie and score you expect, but then actually get?
I do the best job I can with every opportunity I get, whether it’s a film like this with a crazy title that yields a heartwarming story, or a popcorn-entertainment like “Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation.” Looking back at the past five or six years of my career, I see lots of turning points for my growth. I suppose “Hitler and Bigfoot” feels to me like a kind of fruition of seeds I planted in my work on “Sunrise.” I don’t really have any expectations of where my career is headed, I don’t actually believe one can control that kind of thing, so I just keep studying, keep practicing, and keep working. I trust the universe to take care of the rest.
“The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot” is now playing on Amazon iTunes and other VOD outlets HERE, with Joe Kraemer’s score available soon on La La Land Records.
Visit Joe Kraemer’s website HERE