Interview with Nathan Furst

(Nathan gently giving instruction)

Ever since “Fast and the Furious” put racing films back on Hollywood’s map (though most of their courses have remained distinctly off-the sport’s officially sanctioned track) one high-speed entry after the other has been trying to out-maneuver this box office franchise for the pole position of sheer, daredevil spectacle. What makes “Need for Speed” a particularly formidable challenger is that its super-speed mustang has the horsepower of a videogame powerhouse behind it, one that’s been a top runner for Electronic Arts since 1994. Now the bare-bones premise of driving via controller has been fleshed out with Aaron Paul behind the wheel, bringing all of his nervy “Breaking Bad” energy to Tobey Marshall, a street racing whiz with more than winning on his mind when it comes to racing against the evil zillionaire car enthusiast who’s killed Tobey’s best friend and put our hero in the slammer. Now aided by a do-or-die crew, pursued by cops, given “Vanishing Point”-like DJ props by Michael Keaton and partnered with a beautiful girl in the passenger’s seat, Tobey puts pedal to metal in this tricked-out race for payback.

Unlike the many videogame-to-film properties that have crashed and burned, what sets “Need for Speed” apart in both visual and musical terms is that it’s driven by character – while still delivering on the hot wheels spectacle. For where one might expect the regular action scoring tracks of adrenalin percussion and throttling rock guitar that can sometimes lazily power the genre, Nathan Furst goes way beyond the expected to deliver a blazingly thematic old school musical model here. Nox’ing “Need for Speed” with the symphonic stuff of epic heroism. Furst’s dynamically accelerating approach plays these car chases as if these vehicles were spaceships saving the universe, let alone galloping horses hurtling into the big do-or-die showdown.

As such, “Need for Speed” is a hugely impressive level-up for this composer who’s previously given his all to an entertaining, if less ambitious VOD action films full of mega-beasts and macho men. Furst’s fun, symphonically-inspired approach ultimately landed his him in the company of real-life Navy Seals to trumpet their somewhat fictionalized deeds in “Act of Valor” – a hit action film that brought its co-director Scott Waugh this DreamWorks-sponsored vehicle – one whose emotionally-fueled score will definitely come in first for the composer in showing how orchestral emotion and melody can fuel a muscle car film like never before for a career that’s truly passed the checkered flag.

What particularly attracted you to action-oriented scores?

I’ve always loved the bold energy and even fantasy that a good action/adventure score can possess. The scores that really called to me as a young child were often action/adventure and fantasy scores. I think the misconception can be that action/adventure score is simply ‘bombastic’. And while they’ll often have those moments, a GOOD one, in my opinion, actually has a light elegance that connects and intertwines those moments. A good example would be Michael Kamen’s “Die Hard” score, or of course basically anything John Williams has done.

You spent quite a bit of time doing great work in the VOD arena with movies like “Grendel,” “Shark Swarm” and “Lake Placid 2.” What were these titles like as a training ground, and how did you navigate through them to reach a true break out score like “Need for Speed?”

Analyzing the Score

Haha! I guess so! I honestly enjoyed doing those early on because they always left me alone to do whatever I wanted, with no notes! It’s there in that trench that I really honed what I consider MY style and technique. I worked on a trilogy of “VOD” films a while back, and they were really happy with what I did. Someone in that production recommended me to Scott Waugh who at the time needed a composer. Scott and I hit it off, I knocked it out of the park for him, and that’s lead to a very creatively satisfying relationship for the last 10 years. We did “Act Of Valor” a few years ago, which of course became a hit, and that paved the way for Scott to get his opportunities to manifest his ideas on a large scale. I’m very fortunate that he believed in me enough to keep me on his team as the films have been coming. I wrote the “Need for Speed” main theme for him when they were still working on the script. He loved it, and he played it for Steven Spielberg, who I hear gave the thumbs up. It doesn’t get better than that. That’s a career high.

When you got the “Need for Speed” assignment, did you jump into playing the video game before scoring the film?

Not at all. Scott and I already knew the approach we wanted to take within a few conversations after reading the script. The approach was definitely to help tell the story of the film, which isn’t any part of the game. We agreed that the score should never be saying, “Look how awesome these cars are!” Instead, the entire score, including the race and chase sequences are completely about Aaron Paul’s character, Tobey, and what that moment might mean for him. I’m thrilled we were able to keep that vision intact completely!

What do you think makes “Need for Speed” stand out in the realm of video game adaptations? When so many others have failed, why do you think this one works?

Simple. It’s not really a “video game movie.” At all. The film already has a huge advantage, in that the games have no narrative or specific characters. So from the get go, we’re offered a creative blank canvas to build a character and story that makes you really care about why these characters are doing what they’re doing. Scott is a fantastic director who always has a specific vision. In this case, the raw realistic energy of the great car movies of the mid-20th century: “The French Connection,” “Bullitt” and “Grand Prix,” I think, inspired him. This film is also not a CGI fest. Everything is practical, so the action feels intense and visceral, not “shiny,” for lack of a better word. Not to mention with Scott Waugh directing with Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks’ support…. well that’s a very special thing.

What do you think is the biggest difference between the way you’d score a video game and a movie beyond the basic technical qualifications?

Only that I’m a big proponent of truly writing unique music to a project. I always strive for the kind of score where you hear a couple notes of the theme and immediately go “Aha! I know that one!” I’m not sure if that makes me compatible with game scores, but I hope so. I’ve always wanted to do a video game.

How do you think that working with Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh on “Act of Valor” set you up for “Need for Speed,” especially in terms of conveying heroic characters that live on the edge?

I suppose it helped as every film I do with Scott and Mike does – you’re continually building shorthand. I know their aesthetic well. But with every film, you learn a little more. That helps us find magic more quickly. Beyond that, the approach musically of “Act Of Valor” has nothing to do with Need For Speed’s.” We always start from scratch. With every film we ask, “What do we want to say?” “What do we want to do with the audiences’ attention?” And we go from there.

Now that Scott is in the solo driver’s seat for “Need for Speed,” was there any major difference in your collaboration?

Not at all! I consider Scott a true friend and a brother. I believe in him.
It’s all about giving everything you have and more into helping make the best film you possibly can. I’d follow him into hell in back to do that.And that’s how we do it every time!

You could say that the last “race” movie you scored was the motocross documentary “Dust To Glory.” Do you think there’s any difference between motorcycles and cars?

It absolutely was the last race movie! It was also my first collaboration with Scott Waugh. Fans of “Dust To Glory might find a fun little Easter egg in this movie…

Could you tell us about Tobey’s theme?

Tobey is an incredibly talented racecar driver who never really went pro. He’s a good guy who’s had some setbacks. Then he gets an opportunity to work for someone who was a childhood racing rivalry. Things go wrong at some point, and Tobey seeks vengeance through redemption (or perhaps it’s redemption through vengeance) the only way he really knows how. He has a fantastic and loyal crew and friends who will of course help in every way they can. Crazy nail biting fun ensues. But his quest for revenge is the act, but not the “why.” It was important to play the “why” in the score – his hurt, his frustration, and of course, his determination. I created two key themes, one being a long sweeping melody. I spend a good portion of the film using segments and “callbacks” to that theme in a lamenting way, which I hope pays off when we explode in the big moments where the theme just soars over us.

How did you want to convey the rush of being behind the wheel?

The rush and intensity of being behind the wheel is already in the camera, often in the first person, so music didn’t need to do that. For this score, the music is of better service to convey Tobey’s perspective of what he’s going through at that moment.

How did you want your music to “track” the various races, and do you have a favorite among them?

I did want each big “set-piece” to have it’s own identity of sound, yet still use the same motifs and themes I’d established. So that approach was honestly fairly straight forward, cause the moments themselves all look and feel very different naturally, and I’m mostly following the character musically. I’m torn between the cues “Hot Fuel,” “Utah Escape” and the last 2;30 of “Letha Force” (which was a separate cue throughout production). Those all hold a special place for me.

One might not expect such an epic, sumptuous sound in a score like this, one that’s more dominant than other soundtracks that rely more on rock and percussion. How important was an epic orchestra for you, and what did you want it to convey?

“Sumptuous!” I like that! It was very important to us. We knew we wanted to tell a big cinematic story, and not do a “Dude! Look how awesome these cars are!” score that could trap others. It was also important that our score not be gimmicky. It needed to be timeless, yet (hopefully) fresh in it’s own way. For me, that meant staying away from the uber-gigantic percussion rhythms and ticky-tacky synths. I do have guitars intertwined in the score, but I’m always calling on more of an old school sound. But while it’s definitely an orchestrally rooted score, but we knew we also wanted a clear, shimmering guitar, as a character in the score. I ended up buying a Stratocaster and figuring out how to play what I wanted from cue to cue. My sausage fingers are not conducive to guitar playing, but I made it happen! We brought the great George Doering in to replace a lot of my guitars, but my guitars are still in there. A lot more than I would have initially anticipated!

There’s a “western” feeling as well to your score in its sweeping, acoustically galloping heroism. Do you think NFS could be one if you substituted horses for cars?

That’s a very astute observation! There is a classic western energy there…

Did you have any symphonic composers who influenced your style for “Need for Speed?”

I have my own influences of course. Mahler’s always in there somewhere, and others…. The musical language that I gravitate towards is definitely influenced by what I listened to as a kid. We knew what we wanted to do, and it was apparently difficult to find “temp” score with that specific sound and approach as it was being cut. Luckily, I had already given them about 30 minutes of sketches while they were filming, so we just temped most of the film with the sketches for the themes. Of course, that’s always the best way to handle that.

Could you talk about scoring “Need for Speed’s” more emotional sequences, particularly the striking cue “Pete’s Death?”

Funnily enough, I wrote that in almost real time. I was playing the scene with the director in the room and just playing a very simplified version of my theme ideas. We played it through a couple of times, with me just singing out loud to convey what the vocal would do. He loved it, and that’s largely what’s in the film. I added just a couple of elements, recorded the vocals, and replaced the piano with the Steinway on the Sony Scoring Stage, using the same piano they played for “Jurassic Park.” How cool is that?

Composers of car chase movies have always faced their own race with the sound effects. How did you want to pull out the checkered flag in this respect?

It’s the relatively simple solution of working with a bigger musical scope, and broad themes, I find the ear subconsciously stays attached to the music despite the sound FX. When you’re using nothing more than big, stabby percussion hits, the effects will come through more. But then the music gets lost anyway, because it doesn’t mean anything. It basically is another sound effect at that point.

Would you like to do an actual “Need for Speed” racing game after this movie?

I honestly haven’t thought about it. I’d be hesitant, but never say never.

Some might say it’s silly to try and do such a mythic take on a “video game movie” in terms of visual and musical scope. But do you think it’s time that people started taking the genre seriously?

I don’t know that it’s on the public for not taking it seriously, I think it’s often been the filmmakers and studios. Some of these movies seem to be a parody of themselves before it even gets going. When we strive to make a film – franchise based or not – that believes in itself, I think the general public will rise to the occasion and believe in it too.

Do you hope that “Need for Speed” has a pole positional shift on the kind of music, and moviemaking you get from the videogame-to-film genre?

Oh man. I really haven’t thought that deeply about it. I just hope that people connect with the film while having a great time, and hopefully the score plays a role in that.

How do you want to keep your professional momentum up after “Need for Speed?”

I just enjoy trying to do great work with really interesting and talented people. I’m currently writing themes for another project at the moment. It’s challenging and a lot of fun, cause it’ll be a bit of a different sound. I love this stage – just me sitting down at the piano until I get that moment where the lock combination ‘clicks’ open.

“Need for Speed” opens in theaters on March 14th, with Nathan Furst’s score available on Varese Sarabande Records April 15th HERE. In the meantime, get some extra laps ahead by buying his score for “Act of Valor” HERE

And “Dust to Glory” HERE

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *