Interview with Laurent Perez del Mar

Film Music Institute > Film Music Magazine (Current) > Industry Spotlight > Interview with Laurent Perez del Mar

Conjuring a siren call that transports the listener to some fantastical place capable of magic and heartbreak, France’s Laurent Perez del Mar’s ability to enchant is impressively proving itself as a window into a character’s surreal headspace. It’s a place of lush melodies, ethereal atmospheres and hauntingly beautiful voices where both reptiles and giants break into their world. But behind their exotic embodiments lay something far more god-like, or devastatingly personal as a character’s view of reality might have it.

Creating nearly the only sound heard over the silence of one man’s island in the Oscar-nominated animated masterpiece “The Red Turtle,” del Mar now crosses the ocean to his first English language film with “I Kill Giants.” Here Danish director Anders Walter (a co-Oscar winner for his short “Helium”) adapts the graphic novel by Joe Kelly and Jen Niimura, their story centering on the bunny eared, weapon-swinging Barbara (Madison Wolfe). Though she might be scorned in school, and resist the friendship of all who try to get close to her, Barbara is determined to save her seaside town, and earth itself from the rampaging giants crashing from the ocean and into the woods – where she’s placed any number of ingenious booby traps and talismans to stop them.

Del Mar’s score just might be the best friend that this young monster slayer might have. His score sings with moving sympathy and towering danger as his emotional themes sweep into Barbara’s perilously determined existence of taking on creatures and even worse bullies – the biggest, and worst of them given a toweringly fearsome orchestral presence. Del Mar’s score is the clash of this sorcerous, mythical music with the gorgeous tenderness of a child facing what she can’t comprehend. Building upon the soundscape of “The Red Turtle,” del Mar has now conjured a score that’s lyrical as an emo film and as big as a blockbuster fantasy when need be. The captivating approach of “I Kill Giants” soundtrack once again marks him as a scoring force to reckon with for films caught between reality and fantasy, in much the same way as a raging, poignant girl coming to grips with the big difference between both worlds, as well as childish things and the frightening specter of growing up fast.

Tell us about your musical beginnings, and how you found your way into composing?

I started music at the age of five. My parents put me in conservatory because they found that I was very sensitive to music. Where some parents would put their children in front of an iPad today if they had too much energy, my father would put headphones on my ears as soon as I was two, and I could stay still for two hours without moving. I listened to hours and hours of classical music in the way. When I was eight years old, we went to see “E.T” at the movies and I had my first love of score music, then a year later, with “Return of the Jedi.” I told my dad that I wanted to write music for movies at that time.

Do you think melody and lyricism are something that’s innate for the musical language of French composers?

I think that there is a French way of writing music that is delicate, well thought, and I think that the French culture with its fineness and its romanticism guides us naturally towards that. However, a lot of French composers score with textures, without obvious or unforgettable themes.

You caught many people’s attention with your beautiful score for “The Red Turtle.” Can you talk about scoring a nearly silent film, especially given the kind of mystical sound that would later play into “I Kill Giants?”

It is a dream for a composer to have the opportunity to write the music of this kind of film. It is silent but it has such an emotional and existential power. In this context, music can really have its own voice, its narrative role, be sometimes clearly listened to, and other times more discreet and be rather evocative. I had the impression of being able to decide of the feelings’ intensity that Michael and I wanted to share with the audience. And what excited me the most is that this film is universal, it’s a masterpiece. So when you’re offered to be part of this kind of project that will stay in the memories, you can only rejoice.

“I Kill Giants” is your first score for an English language Hollywood film. How did you become involved with it, and what did the director Anders Walter want the score to accomplish?

Anders heard about me from one of the producers, and then he saw “The Red Turtle.” He loved the music and put it all over “I Kill Giants,” as well as music I’d written for other films. Then my American agent told me about the project in February of 2017. I went to Los Angeles for the Oscars, where I was approached for “I Kill Giants.” As soon as I got back to Paris, I wrote what I thought was the theme of the film and everyone liked it so much that I was not allowed to change it anymore – not even a single note! Anders wanted this score to bring emotion to the film, to make us feel empathy for Barbara, to project us into her own world, and to infuse a little bit of mystery too. I also wrote a theme a little “psycho”, to suggest by small touches to the viewer that it is perhaps not quite reality, without revealing anything.

Were there any fantasy scores that proved inspirational to you here?

No, not really, we talked about John Williams, but since it was my scores that were temp tracked on the film, Anders did not go through other references.

Tell us about your main themes in the score.

There are mainly three themes in the film. The main one is Barbara’s theme, Barbara’s psycho theme, and the giants theme. The main theme is simple, childish and very emotional, with a mix of analog textures. It is always on the verge of strangeness and mystery. It’s a thin line. Barbara’s “psycho” theme features an arrangement of instruments such as marimba, prepared piano and cimbalom, that create a “quirky” character. It was a request from Anders to bring the necessary insanity in order for the public to understand that Barbara’s psychic functioning may not be totally normal. This is the theme we hear on the first part of the soundtrack with “I Have To Go.” The theme of the giants includes an octobass mixed with analogical textures in its arrangement that pitches towards the very grave, which all together add to the monstrous side of these characters.

Could you talk about the more monstrous aspect of scoring the giants?

I wanted to make the monstrous side vibrate in the music, especially when Barbara seems brave. But deep inside her, these giants petrify her, and the music should help that feeling that in the moments in which she seems extremely determined and controlling the situation. There is always this quest to feel with music (even physically with infra low) to make us hear what we don’t see in the images.

Barbara is a character who purposefully pushes people away, while trying to protect them from giants at the same time. What’s the difficulty in making her character sympathetic, especially given the chance that she’s a mentally ill girl whose booby traps might cause someone to come to harm?

For me Barbara is not mentally ill. This is circumstantial, given the situation she goes through. Everyone in her shoes would somatise things, each one in a different way, and she expresses it in this way of fighting giants. So I tried to portray as much empathy as possible through music for this little girl in distress, writing a very sensitive theme in restraint.

Was it important for the score to keep the audience guessing if Barbara’s visions of giants are real or not?

Yes very, it was one of my priorities. That’s why we decided to play the card of fear when it was necessary to introduce doubt regarding the peculiarity of Barbara’s psychology, which is shown with tiny touches so as not to reveal everything.

If you have children, does being a father affect how you scored the film, especially being privy to their “world?”

I have three children, and it turns out that my oldest daughter (then 9 years old) was going through a very difficult time when I wrote the music for the film. She was very isolated in her school and was experiencing some form of harassment. Everything is settled today, but this situation made me upset and it nourished me deeply and intimately when writing the music, especially for the main theme. I told Anders right away, after watching the movie about how it really shook me because of that.

Did you want to musically separate the real world from the fantasy one?

No, because I choose Barbara’s point of view and she does not make the difference. The only situation for which I am more grounded in reality is for her sister Karen’s theme.

Like “The Red Turtle,” you have a particularly haunting female voice in this score. What do you think gives this approach so much power?

I use the human voice as an instrument in an abstract way, and I do it when the situations are beyond us, when we touch something almost mystical. In “The Red Turtle,” I use it at a time when life is created, during the love scene allegory between the two protagonists. In “I Kill Giants,” it’s a moment when we think that life will be taken from Barbara. I think that the power of these two sequences result from the synergy between what is happening and the music with the use of the voice.

Another connection with “I Kill Giants” and “The Red Turtle” is that both characters live by the sea. How did the power of water, and what lies within it, translate to your score?

I did a search for analog textures that evoked the aquatic environment, and I mixed systematically with the strings of orchestra. The strings and textures always play the same score and that makes us feel constantly that we are never far from the water, without thinking about it.

Given the often-raging emotions in “I Kill Giants,” was it important for the score to not become too intense?

Yes, that’s why I try to maintain a form of permanent and growing restraint in the music of the film. I always avoid crossing the red line of cheesy, given the increasing emotions throughout the narrative.

In addition to your use of the orchestra, there are also interesting electronic elements to the score. Was it important to make “I Kill Giants” a hybrid soundtrack for a character caught between ancient myth and a contemporary youthful world?

Yes that’s exactly it. I looked for a form of modernity and a form of timelessness. The mix of textures and symphonic orchestra, in this way, made me feel like I was getting both at the same time. That’s also why I talked about London Grammar to Anders for one of the two songs in the movie. They are able to anchor both in modernity, and I think that their songs will not grow old.

In the end, would you describe “I Kill Giants” as a fairy tale score?

From the way it went with Anders, the producers, the post-production team, yes it was really a fairy tale. It was a very kind set, with a lot of enthusiasm. I loved to work with this team. Regarding the music itself, I do not know what we can call “fairy tale music,” I would say that it is a music of a giants’ tale …

Do you hope that “I Kill Giants” puts you on a further path to score fantastical films? And do you think the genre offers a composer more opportunities?

Yes I hope. It’s a kind of movie where you can express very different things, and often with a lot of intensity. It was an extraordinary experience for me and I had been hoping for a long time to have this kind of opportunity, I hope to have other opportunities very soon.

“I Kill Giants” opens in theatres and on VOD March 23rd. Watch it HERE

Listen to Laurent Perez del Mar’s score for “I Kill Giants,” available on Varese Sarabande Records March 30th HERE. Then take a swim to visit “The Red Turtle’s” enchanted island on Quartet Records HERE

Visit Laurent Perez del Mar’s website HERE