Among the genre-centric composers who’ve carried on the torch from Jerry Goldsmith, few stand out for blazingly inventive sci-fi and horror scores like the maestro’s USC protégé Marco Beltrami. Just as his mentor used his memorable thematic talents for orchestrally, and electronically conveying psychopaths, aliens and futuristic adventure, Beltrami has jumped on a similarly imaginative and prolific bandwagon. Since the psychopathic score for the smash 1996 hit “Scream” stabbed Beltrami into the Hollywood map, the composer has used every trick from chilling melodies to thunderous percussion and angelic choruses to embody the fantastical and fearful, music capable of rapturously symphonic ghost stories like the “The Woman in Black” and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” to the adrenalin-pumping supernatural superheroes of “Blade 2” and “Hellboy,” as well as the absurdist humor of playing “Mimic’s” killer cockroaches with a tango or the lovestruck teen cadaver of “Warm Bodies” with alt. music.
The apocalypse in particular has provided ample creative opportunities for Marco Beltrami, particularly, whether he’s ended the world as we know it through the classical Armageddon of “Knowing,” “Terminator 3’s” rampaging action or the evil electric guitar burn “World War Z.” But it’s the ever-speeding, lethally segregated train called “Snowpiercer” that just might be Beltrami’s niftiest way of becoming the characters he plays. Steam-like effects, grinding metal and steading revving percussion give a massive sense of weight and scale to this vehicle as it crashes through the obstacles of a snow-encased Earth, while ghostly pianos, queasy violins and striking themes represent the humanity on board – one class of melodically fatted cows, and the far lower ones an angered mass of percussive attacks determined to tip the perpetual-motion driven scales of justice aboard Amtrak’s worst nightmare.
“Snowpiercer” is the kind of brilliant, crazy-quilt score that can only come from an international production mash – a project born from a French graphic novel, then translated into a Korean film populated with Asian, American and English stars like Chris Evan, John Hurt and Kang-ho Song. And it’s no wonder that sad sack from “The Host” is present with that film’s director Joon-ho Bong piloting “Snowpiercer,” a major step up in scale from his last impressive effort about a monster sewer guppy. Aboard as a producer is The Weinstein Company, whose reputation for scissor-handing foreign movies for American tastes has put “Snowpiercer” in the public geek eye for what could have been a severely truncated pull into the station of our shores. But thankfully for fans of eccentrically striking genre films, Joon-ho has won that battle, allowing audiences to immerse themselves in the 2 ½ hour atmosphere of his frostily amazing visuals and Beltrami’s complete score. It’s a wildly inventive ride for Beltrami on an his genre journey, one that show no signs of putting on the creative brakes, especially when barreling through “Snowpiercer’s’” barrage of glaciers and axe-wielding mobs – all determined to move up to first class, a place where this composer’s score is already comfortably seated.
Among your generation of American film composers, you were one of the first do score foreign-language movies like “I am Dina,” and later “Mesrine.” How do you put yourself out their for overseas directors, and how do you think these films’ musical approach, or appreciation for scores, differs from Hollywood’s?
One of the major differences I feel in working on foreign projects is that there is a lot more respect for the director and the creative process, a lot less on “test” audiences. Without having the pressure of a lowest common denominator (when there are a whole bunch of people you are answering to) you are freer to actually create something new. The film scoring process should be a collaborative one with the director–you both open your eyes to new ways of seeing and hearing. This doesn’t mean all foreign films are successful. Sometimes some outside pressure is good discipline to hone an idea and really bring the film home. But I really do enjoy the freedom of scoring foreign films.
After doing so many genre films, are you always on the lookout for the kinds of sci-fi and horror projects that will encourage an innovative approach like “Snowpiercer?” And how did you step aboard it?
It’s really not the genre that inspires me. Truthfully, I have an aversion to horror movies because I’m such a cheap scare. However, a film like “Snowpiercer” cannot be defined by any singular genre. Director Bong’s vision is one that inspects many aspects of the human condition, in the most creative ways. When I first learned about the project and read the script, I was immediately captivated because the project was so unique. Movies are most exciting to me musically when things don’t fit into a mold. “Snowpiercer” could have been a foreign language film. But the genius is that the whole world is represented on this train and people have these little voice boxes that translate for them. The casting does create a wildly eccentric element that at times even lends a dark humor to the story.
As Joon-Ho Bong speaks little English, how did your creative collaboration go? In that respect, do you think music transcends language?
Music definitely transcends language. I would send pieces of music to Bong and he would cut them in. We would have Skype sessions where he would play the scenes with my music and tell me where he especially liked it or what he didn’t. There was a particular scene where I had a difficult time understanding what he was going for because he obviously had something specific. Finally he referenced a scene from “The Deer Hunter” and then I knew exactly what he was talking about, and everything made sense.
Having done such a powerful job scoring the end-of-the-world movie “Knowing,” how do you think music can aid an all-encompassing sense of apocalyptic doom? Do you think it has a particular sound?
A sound to the apocalypse? I think it would be as individual as the vision of the apocalypse. There is no reason it should be something generic. In “Knowing,” it was the sound of Beethoven’s 7th symphony.
Could you talk about developing the main themes for “Snowpiercer?”
I had three main ideas for “Snowpiercer” right off the bat. The first was, since the train was led by a perpetual engine that would encompass the globe once every year, then perhaps there was some sort of musical representation for that. So the “perpetual motion” theme plays throughout the film in various configurations. Secondly, since the world outside was completely frozen over, whenever they talk about the outside, there is a theme, which is played on icy, harmonic strings. The third idea was to create a theme for the girl Yona, who’s so important because she represents the lasting hope for humanity. After I had these themes, it was a question of how to develop them into a cohesive score.
How did you want music to embody the train? On that note, there are particularly effective “engine” and “steam” effects on board “Snowpiercer?”
The trick, and fun, of the score was that each car in the train is completely different as you move from the back to the front, and this afforded the possibility to treat the material in very different ways. Some, like the steam car, are very textural and the music and sound embody the same world. Buck Sanders got the stems from the sound mixers and we created a musical texture out of the environment. In other areas, the train has no sound at all. In the axe fight scene, the musical inspiration came from the close-up view of the axe, which also became the score’s focal point during it.
How did you want to relay the humanity, and emotion aboard the train?
In the end, the humanity of the lower class passengers and their struggle/drive become the same thing, though when the movie starts you are under the illusion that the characters are there to right a wrong. Although there are different themes, as mentioned, at the end all they all work together because of this. It’s one of the great, ironic storytelling twists of the director, which I tried to achieve musically.
“Snowpiercer” also brings a political subtext to the apocalypse with the struggles of the have-nots to get the privileges afforded to the first class. Did you want that to play into the score as well?
Yes. The musicians sitting in the back row were not allowed to dine with the musicians in the front row! But in terms of the scoring, the music does start out more primal and aggressive and as we move into further cars it get a bit more…elegant? But you’re right. In a nutshell, this movie is basically about trying to get from economy class to first class.
Did you want instruments like the dulcimer, or the use of classical music, to add a decrepit feeling of history as to how long the people have been on the train?
Yes. It’s the feeling that anything or everything could be used, whether or not in their traditional fashion. It’s interesting when you mention “decrepit,” because things have sort of lost their original purpose of use. The technology is jury-rigged.
What do you think it is about your music to begin with that makes you so well suited for horror and sci-fi films like “Snowpiercer?”
I think simply my background of coming from an orchestral approach where a lot of emphasis in training was put on exploring the timbres and extended techniques of the orchestra lends itself well to a creative way at making unsettling musical atmospheres and rhythms. As the years have passed and I’ve been working with Buck Sanders, this has transitioned into the electronic realm as well. Electronics allow you to be able to manipulate acoustical sounds in ways that push what the player can do.
Are you happy that the “director’s cut” of “Snowpiercer” is the version that’s being released after the public battles over its cut? Do you think the movie would have been conceptually, and musically watered down if that wasn’t the case?
Yes, very happy. I wasn’t sure what they had in mind for cutting, but I had heard that they wanted to take 20 minutes out. I can’t see how that wouldn’t disrupt the flow and in my case with the musical integrity. But it would have been a hacked up score nonetheless. I guess the downside is that they’re not releasing “Snowpiercer” in many theaters. It is an art house film, and probably not for everybody.
You’ll be re-teaming with Alex Proyaras after “Knowing” and “I, Robot” for “Gods of Egypt.” Though it’s a ways off, what does the footage look like so far, and what kind of score are you planning for it? What do you think makes him such an impressive genre director at that?
They are currently shooting “Gods of Egypt.” From what I understand it is a 4-6 month shoot and then they’ll be in post for a year before we score! That must mean a massive amount of visual fx!! Anyway, Buck and I saw some of the storyboards because we had to come up with some music for them to shoot to, and apparently it was in the right direction. I’m really looking forward to this one. Alex is such an amazing creative mind!
Do you think genre movies and scores would stick out if they were as offbeat as “Snowpiercer?”
Well Im not sure what the “genre” is for “Snowpiercer,” but yes, if every movie was an original idea and was focused on creating something new rather than imitation, than they would stick out! Even if a movie doesn’t completely work (which is not the case here), it is better to strive for greatness and innovation rather than to repeat someone else’s work.
Where do you think the genre will take your music next? And do you hope to be on that ride as much as you’ve been throughout your career?
I’m not sure. This is such a crazy year with really varied projects. “The Giver” is a teen drama based on a popular book, and “The Homesman” is a period drama that we recorded outside and created aeolian harps and a water tank piano for. My assignments are really all over the map, so there’s never a dull moment wherever film scoring takes me!
“Snowpiercer” opens in theaters on June 27th, with Marco Beltrami’s score available on Varese Sarabande Records July 22 HERE. But if you’re desperate enough to reach first musical class right now, buy the Korean “Snowpiercer” soundtrack HERE
Visit Marco Beltrami’s website HERE