By: Lucy Sky –
The Toronto International Film Festival kicks off this Thursday with an eclectic slate of films. But what usually lies beneath the radar, are the scores within the films. The score is a true compliment to Downrange composer Aldo Shllaku’s creative instinct. The Canadian composer behind the new Ryûhei Kitamura-directed film grew up with musical training at a young age and two parents who were theatre actors, Shllaku toured with his mother and fell in love with the emphasis music played in theatre and cinema. However, growing up in Albania at the downfall of the communist regime, he felt restricted in what he was allowed to explore creatively, and ultimately felt trapped. However, upon immigrating to Montreal, he felt free and unleashed his creative spirit.
In our new interview, Shllaku chronicles his creative process for the new TIFF film Downrange, coming to Canada from communist-ruled Albania, his dream directors, and more!
You first immigrated to Canada from Greece, after leaving Albania, before making the move to Los Angeles. With the premiere of Downrange at TIFF bringing you back to Canada, do you think premiering the film at a Canadian festival will hold any emotional resonance for you?
Absolutely, of course. First of all, I’m Canadian – I call myself Canadian, number one. That’s because I still have a place in Montreal and my brother still lives there. So if you were to [ask] me what I call home today, even though I’ve been here in L.A. for a few years now, I still say Canada. I came here for studies, I ended up working for someone, and then I ended up staying for a few projects and here I am now – still here. But yes, absolutely, this film at TIFF is great. It’s beautiful.
You and your brother, did you come to Canada at the same time?
No, my brother came later because the whole family was getting ready for the fall of communism. I had to leave Greece, because Greece was just a transitional place for us. I came to Canada for my studies. I was accepted at the university in Montreal and I studied and stayed. It’s a country that we always really wanted to go to.
How would you contrast your experiences between those European countries and then with coming to North America, even between Canada and the United States?
Canada, I would say, especially Quebec because of the french culture and the language and whatever comes with it, the nationality and the origin of these people and what they brought with them when they came to Canada. One of the reasons I ended up in Montreal in the first place was simply that French connection.
When I studied music in Albania, all of the terminology and everything was french. We don’t call them flats or sharps, we call them ‘bemol’ and ‘diese’ like in the french language. When I first came to Montreal, I studied at McGill and the first two weeks were a disaster for me because I couldn’t understand the terminology. It became frustrating and I had a talk with the office of admissions. I said I’m finding this very difficult. I had high hopes and dreams for myself and all of a sudden I didn’t understand what they were talking about. Long story short, they said “how would you like to go take a look at Universite de Montreal?” and that was when I went there, saw it, and had a meeting with the head of department – Dr. Michel Longtin. That was it. After the meeting with him, I said “I want to come here and study with you” and then I switched to Universite de Montreal and I stayed there for the next four years.
So it was kind of a love at first sight thing for that university?
Yes. Even though McGill was a great university, beautiful campus, great program, great teachers and everything – it was just a question of [if it was good] for me as a transition, coming from Europe and entering North America all of a sudden. I think it was the best for me at that time. [A lot of why I did] it actually, was that Michel was the head of the department. It was the meeting with him that actually made my decision instant.
You must’ve had a pretty wide array of influences, having moved around to such diverse countries throughout your life. What are some of your most prominent influences, musically?
If you ask me [what I sound like] and all that, I don’t know. For other people, when they’ve heard my music, they’ve said “you sound interesting, maybe a little bit of…” So I take those opinions as compliments, because it’s flattering and I’m not even near these names. However, I do think that has to do with my upbringing. Being born in Albania and [being] exposed to that type of music, which is very rich, I actually did understand the value of it when I came to Canada. When I was searching for who I am as an artist and as a composer. Of course, the exposure of more Balkan music in Greece, which I used to work in some night clubs, that was my Baptism into popular music. (laughs)
In Albania, it was simply forbidden. Anything foreign was forbidden. Our training was strictly academic, up to Wagner. We’d stop at Wagner, because at that point on, it was not good for the masses. It was in Greece that my eyes started to open a little bit. I started to play that music and different types of pop. Greek-pop, Ethnic, Classical. That’s when I started to see where I actually fit. [But] when I came to Canada and started studying with Michel, that’s when I actually really started finding myself.
Going back to the influences, I guess it’s this exposure that I’ve had. Somehow it became a part of me.
Outside of musical influences, what have been the most inspirational times in your life? Was it just coming to Canada, or were there more?
Every phase in your life has an impact on you, how you see things, how you actually do what you’re trained to do, and what your calling is to do. In my case, coming to Canada around [my] early 20’s, it was actually that moment in my life when I started becoming the man I am.
Actually, one very important moment in my life, which is extremely important for me personally [was] when I came to Canada. The first day, as soon as I came into the airport, I cleared the customs and they put me in a specific office because they were giving me social security numbers, a medicare card, all of these things. To me [it] was overwhelming because there are all of these papers to sign and cards to get. But as soon as I came out of that office, there was a Royal Mountie officer dressed up in his uniform, and as soon as he saw me he said “Welcome to Canada.” That moment for me, it’s still very important. That’s when I had to adjust my brain and my thinking. I can be a human being now, I can be who I want to be, do what I have to do, and that’s it.
I still remember that moment, because escaping Albania, going to Greece, going through a transitional period of time in our lives over there trying to fit… having that welcome to Canada [was] a new chapter. I can be the composer I want to be, I can be the human being I want to be, I can be the man I want to be, I can dream big. It was like the sky was the limit from that moment on and I still remember that vividly.
It sounds almost like him saying that was a “you’re free” to you.
Exactly, absolutely. The chains were cut, there was no more fear. Also, that fear… instinctively I had that fear. In Albania we had to go through things, our family was a prosecuted one. With Greece, we went there and had no idea what was going on, [but were] trying to fit somewhere. “We left, now what do we do?” [It was all] a transition.
Coming to Canada was an eye opener, that’s why I say I’m Canadian. That’s the first time I felt like a free human being. That also reflects my composing approach to things. As an artist and a composer, it was a phase that started right there and then, because before that I was trained academically. Here are the formulas, you have to do this, you can not do it that way, find your freedom within these rules kind of thing. Then I come to Canada, I meet Michel and he says “okay, great, you know this, now forget all of it. Let’s dream.” That was like “woah now.”
(Laughs) It took me about six months to adjust to that way of thinking, but the first quartet was born under that direction and that vision. It’s great that you know all of this, it’s great that you’ve studied all of this, you should still know what the masters have done, however, you’ve got to break loose and aim high up.
Find your own sound kind of thing.
Exactly. Find your own sound, [and] find your own vision. Find your own aesthetics [and] who you are, not necessarily what you’re trained to do. So it was important on a personal level and on an artistic level. I brought the influences with me of course, because they’re a part of me. In other words, I’m still a confused person. (laughs)
Like you said, you’re no stranger to musical education and trained from a young age. In a different way, but when you had those doors opened to you after you’d begun studying the ropes, what sprung your affection for making scores rather than any other aspect of the industry?
Well, I think it was my true calling. Simply because I was actually born in an artistic family. Both of my parents are theatre actors. Of course babysitting did not exist in that time, so when we were growing up and my father could not keep us both while my mother was gone on tour with the theatre around the country, she would take me with her since [I was] one and two years old. She would take me with her and I would sit there and watch these plays night, after night, after night. Most [of] the music in these plays were played at the same time [every time]. They had tapes that they had prepared for the play and then when the moment would happen, they’d hit play and have that music highlight the scene. That was my first moment when I [thought] “wow, what an impact.”
I still remember two moments. One was when they played Schubert’s Serenade in a theatre play where my mother was. That moment was like “oh my god,” you know? I would see it night after night, twice a day, because they had the showings twice a day at times, and it would still melt me. It was part of the upbringing, being with this theatre and music together.
So when I finished my undergrad with Michel Longtin, we had a talk. “So, what do we do now?” “Do you want to do a master’s in composition to teach?” I said “no, I don’t see myself teaching now.” So he said “well you’ve done a feature film here, so what about L.A.?” [I thought] that was a good idea, so we made a master plan. He mentioned that [I could also] be a composer’s assistant. I said “that would be a dream come true.” So I said “why don’t I go and visit all three of these places and see where I fit?” So I came to L.A. first to check out the program. I stayed for two weeks and once I saw what they do here, the recording sessions were being held at Paramount Studios and the musicians were… that was the tipping point for me, the musicians. It was impressive how they could play the music, and that was it. There was no turning back.
Sounds like sort of a series of love at first sight for those things for you.
Yeah, you suffer because of it. (laughs) At times you do suffer because of it, but it’s kind of good suffering. I still am amazed with the musicians here, with the talent that you have in this town. Of course there’s huge talents in Montreal or Toronto, all over the world, but here it’s concentrated. We just had a recording session in the studio yesterday for another film, and I knew only one out of the three musicians. I said bring me a good bass player and I was just blown away. It’s crazy what they do. You [put] the chart in front of them and it’s like they’d seen it for the past six months. It’s just insane. That’s something you feel good about. You think “they’re playing my music to the highest possible level” and you feel good about it. All of the suffering and all of the sleepless nights go out the window.
Which is really a quite beautiful thing about North America. It doesn’t erase the pain, but it sheds light onto it and makes it a little less painful to look back on. It’s more of a “this made me who I am” kind of look on it, rather than I still feel stuck.
Exactly. That’s another thing that most people who are born here don’t see as much as we Europeans do – the discrimination level. It’s at lower levels here than it is in Europe. In Europe because of the culture, it’s part of the functioning. Even though Western Europe is what it is, it’s part of that dark side of things. You go to Greece [and] for some unexplained reason, [even though] Greece is a place that’s given immigrants all over the world – you have huge Greek communities in Canada who cherish their language and their religion and their music – you go to Greece and they’re like “oh, well you’ve got to change your name, you’ve got to change your religion.” That’s when I said this is not the country for me to live in.
I did not change my religion and my name for communism and we suffered because of it. Now I come here, to Western Europe, and you tell me to change my name and my religion? Not that I’m a religious person, but… I didn’t do that. I had to leave. Here in North America, you feel that freedom. Everybody can do what they want to do. It’s the land of dreaming big. You can fulfill yourself. It may never materialize, but at least you have the right to go through the journey.
Yeah, and you have a lot less people telling you can’t because of very trivial reasons.
Of course. I mean, you’re going to have people who tell you you’ve chosen the wrong profession and that you’re never going to be what you think you’ll be, you’ll find them all over the place, but it’s not institutionalized. It’s not a part of the culture to the point where you feel like this is an obstacle and I have to break away and leave.
The very sad thing is that it seems to be making it’s way back in under the Trump administration.
(Laughs) We have no choice but to get into politics, with the situations right now. Look, what has happened here in my opinion, is very strange. On an intellectual level, I don’t understand how something like this can happen. On the other hand though, not to put a balance of the same value with what I just said, but this could happen only in America. For some reason, only here. (laughs)
I think that goes back to the contrast of different people. Like you said, the underbelly in Europe, it’s here as well and it’s just been hidden better, but people are starting to come out and think that it’s okay to let that shine with him in office.
At the end of the day, I’d say, you can talk as much as you want and say as much as you want, but at the end of the day I’m going to judge you by your actions. Today actually, I say that one of the best presidents that we’ve ever had here in America, is Obama. I can say that after Obama left office, that’s when I actually realized that he was great. He did some amazing stuff. Obviously not everything was possible, because of all of the stuff that happens in Washington.
Now it’s a completely different situation. What I actually see as a problematic issue here is simply the decisions that have long-lasting effects for our society. Like the Supreme Court appointees, not acknowledging Global Warming – these major things. It’s beyond a person. You can say I’m not 100 per cent [sure about] Global Warming, but how can you say that? This is where I start saying that this is beyond Republican or Democrat, this is something we should have a Memorandum on. It’s a strange thing that’s happened.
It is. Like you said, when we start going against the signs of nature, it’s a little absurd.
Yeah. It’s very eventful. We hear things that, had they happened during Obama[‘s] [time in office] let’s say, they would’ve moved to impeachment against him or something. It’s a strange thing. I hope that… it’s been only six months, so as the time goes by that things will kind of fall into their place… I hope.
Or somebody steps up and does something about it.
Yeah, I think he’s showing a couple of signs of “once I’m in the Oval Office, things are not as I said on the campaign.” So I think he’s starting to realize that certain things are not just populism and this is not the campaign anymore. So I’m hoping for that I guess, but it’s too late. As I say, the people have spoken. That’s the strange part.
Yeah and it’s crazy to see this sort of contrast, because like you said, Obama did such amazing things and for this to come right afterwards is just baffling.
That’s right. The only thing that I can actually see as my contribution to this strange situation that we find ourselves in now, is to take a step back and actually reflect on this. Take a moment to ask myself “why did these people vote for him?” What was wrong before, that you would go to such a different choice? What made them feel this way? You have to look at the other side of the table to see all sides. [Under] Obama unemployment went down, economy [was] very good, he got Osama Bin Laden, he was fighting terrorism, all of these things. Whatever we needed here in the United States. Now, you vote completely 180 degrees on the other side. Okay, why is that? It’s difficult to understand. My contribution is to try to see why. So that next time, when that decision is made, at least my vote will go in a way that makes sense from both sides.
Well, if you can figure out how this happened, please tell me, because I’ve been trying to figure it out for a while myself. (laughing)
(laughing) Yeah. Well, [where] Canada [is] in this, I was very happy when Justin Trudeau won. With the conservatives being in power for eight years, it was not pleasant. So I guess each country has to go through a phase which is not good for them, as a time to reflect.
To teach them what’s wrong, so that they can learn.
Exactly. Let’s hope that there is no war in between.
And let’s hope this doesn’t bring racism back, with Charlottesville and stuff like that happening.
Yeah, we’ve got to be very careful. Also with what we say whenever we’re asked to say something. Simply because there is something going on, doesn’t mean that we shut up now, that we keep our mouths shut. No. We have to say what we have to say, but there is a good part of this population, let’s say middle America, that voted for him. They’re not necessarily racist, the people who voted for him. They’re hard workers and so on. They were the anti-establishment vote I guess. During the swamp… I don’t know if you know this saying but, then he comes into the White House and he’s doing everything else to what was said during the campaign. I don’t understand. It’s a period of time during which (laughs) a little reflection is needed.
Very much so. If we keep going on about this though, we’ll be here for hours.
So aside from the political aspect of things – you’ve worked on a number of film and television scores and are no stranger to jumping through genres. What was the creative process like for this film, and how did it differ from your other works, if it did at all?
The main difference from the other projects, the one that makes a difference in every project, is [the] appearance and the director. The one that comes in and says this is what I want, this is what I feel, this is what I see, or want you to do. In this case, he’s the one that makes the difference. With Ryuhei, I’ve worked before and the movie that we just recorded yesterday was again with him. This is our third collaboration now. With Ryuhei, he comes in and says “okay, go for it.”
He gives you a lot of freedom on it?
Yes, absolutely. Of course we have to discuss visions and I have to feel him [for] what he’s envisioning with his movie. What’s the target and what do we want to convey and all that. For Downrange, I knew about the film years ago. I’d read the scripts and [thought] “wow, this is insane.” Typical Ryuhei Kitamura and I’m friends also with the other writer and we’d been talking about it.
Once I read that it was about a sniper, [I thought] one thing that I want from now, I don’t know I’m going to do, but I want that gun to be a part of the score. I want the rifle as part of the score. So we started talking with Ryuhei and he liked the idea and said to go for it. It was during that period of time that I said okay I said I was going to use the rifle, that’s a no compromise thing. But I’m not just going to have a rifle in the score, (laughs) genius idea, but I’ve got to do more than that. So I went to the basics. What’s music? Music is melody, harmony, and rhythm. Rhythm was taken care of, I’ve got the rifle. I need harmony and I need melody. So for the melody I actually thought of doing serial music. That was my initial concept and that’s what built the whole score.
So I went for serial music and to get my series, I used the title of the movie. I had four letters from the movie that can be translated into pitches, into musical notes. Which is G, A, D, E, from the Downrange title. I wanted to do a seven series concept, not 11, that’s too much for a score like this. I would’ve needed like a five season TV series to use that kind of concept. So I decided to do a seven series. I picked the O, W, and an R, and I correlated them with their place in the english language. I did this calculus math and I came down with my seven pitches. I did all of my inversions, all of my primes, I had all of my pitches set. Then I was just missing my harmony.
I decided I’m just going to bring in the cast and even the director himself and I’ll do some sound design with them saying Downrange, saying shot, and saying things that had a relationship with the story. Then I had my assistant [do] some designs on the recordings, that are unrecognizable if you hear them today, but they’re part of the texture – the so-called harmony. I had the material and that was it, then we decided to delay the music entrance in the movie as much as possible, because I knew once we start we can not stop. It’s also the structure of the film – once the action starts, that’s it. So we come in at minute 28 or something.
The first half hour of the film we had no music, on purpose. But then once we start, we never stop. We highlight everything that goes on from that point on. The first time we see a bullet on screen, that’s where we start the music. The music is the voice of one of the cast actors completely deconstructed and made with sound design, and that’s who starts the score. Then we just go crazy with it, there’s serial music in there, there’s action stuff, there’s sound design stuff and we end up at the end credits with a track called “Downrange”. Which [is] all the percussive elements that I sampled from the gun. What you hear is basically just the gun clicks and the gun sounds and having recorded every type of hit on it with every type of mallet, metal, wood, whatever. Every type of noise that can be made with that gun, it’s on that track. Every one is on full display and all played once, again on purpose. (laughs)
That’s a pretty unique way of creating. It’s very interesting that you used the actual weapons that were in the film in place of some of the usual percussion equipment. Where did that idea spring from? Was that just a 4a.m. idea, or?
The idea actually came… the sniper is actually this invisible person in the movie and you only see the shots. I don’t want to give away the story here, but it’s the horror, it’s that gun. So I had the weapons guy come into the studio for a couple of hours because I could not use his real gun. He took the working gun and did something to it that made the gun not functioning and that’s when I did all of my samples. That was no compromise from the beginning, I wanted the gun to be my rythym section. Ryuhei was like yes, go for it! That’s what happens, you bounce ideas off of the director and he knows me by now, on a personal level and a professional level. We’re friends and we talk about movies, so that helps a lot. It’s that creative freedom that I get with Ryuhei that makes a difference.
That really shines through in the material as well, when you have that kind of readiness with each other’s material.
Yeah, with Ryuhei it’s not like it’s someone who hires me to do a score. I’ve done another movie for him. Completely different film, Japanese blockbuster, all that whatever. Totally different approach, completely mainstream cinema release. This one is self-produced, it’s very indie, it’s us. No other considerations, we didn’t have anybody over our heads. Forget about the big producer giving ten million dollars for this movie and he wants piano and strings here. Forget that. Let’s be ourselves. We want to do a movie that’s crazy, [so] let’s be good at it. (laughs) I did like the fact that at the end of the day I can say to him, “look, we did serial music, it’s like a drop in the water of the concept.”
It’s not 100 per cent serial music, [because] you have to acknowledge certain things, but at least I do have that concept in there. I’m proud of it because of that, and he let me do it. In one moment for example, where some piano and strings was indeed needed, I told him “we can’t use strings.” He’s like “I know, but what are we going to do?” Again, it was like four in the morning and we were in the studio. So I said “okay, we have to use strings, but let’s distort them. Distort the cello or something. We have a crazy guy shooting innocent people. This is not normal. We can’t just use something normal.” He said yes, to go for it.
Ryuhei is actually very musically inclined, he plays music himself, he sings, he goes to concerts more than I do. He’s very much into music, so it’s a pleasure to work with him, and to get this opportunity to work on his films. It’s one of those relationships [that] you say “I’m so happy. I’m so glad that I got to know him and have these opportunities to score his films.” Each director has a specific way of working and a specific [set of values] when it comes to friendship and so on, but Ryuhei and I call each other brothers. Once you work a lot with each other, you’re going to go through personal things. Our lives have different things and [we are both] a part of that. You forge this friendship that exceeds just the professional relationship. He knows me as a man, I know him as a man. He knows my kids, I know his kids. It’s beyond it and that’s why we work so well together.
It makes it less like work. I find that’s when the best product comes out, when you feel comfortable with the person.
Yeah, I mean it’s hard work, don’t get me wrong. I have to really make sure that he’s happy when it comes to fulfilling his vision, what he wanted to do with this film. Because truth be told, I’m the composer and my responsibility lies in getting an amazing score for him, that he’s proud of, that he loves and can brag about. I’m not the person that has lived with this project for the past 10 years, 5 years, 6 years. The idea, to script, to finding the money and investments, to locations, to dealing with the actors. It’s a huge undertaking for the directors and the music plays just a little part. My job is to simply make something that will elevate that part of the film to the highest possible level. I really understand what they go through to make a movie. It’s hard work for me and times 10 for them.
There’s so many factors that go into it, it’s not something that you can just string together in a few months.
No, you can’t. That’s why in the beginning it’s funny, because when I was studying music for film here, you go to watch a movie at the theatres and you’re like “oh my god, he didn’t do this right, he should’ve done it this way, he should’ve done it that way.” Fast forward 10 years and I [will] never, ever say that again, ever. I can say that about the production, I can say that about the intention that he has on screen and how it was executed. There I can have an opinion as a professional, but when it comes to approach, never again. I know that there are so many layers of decision-making and so many people around that tell you to change this or do that, that you cannot pinpoint it on the composer.
I notice things like that in movies as well and I tend to not point out a lot of things as well. I more so notice those scenes that make me wonder if they sat there for three hours deciding whether to put this little 20 second clip in there or take it out.
Yeah, that’s why every project is very specific. I did another movie right before this, it was a Sony Pictures release with action star, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Again, my relationship with that director was great, we’ve known each other for years and it was his director debut. I told him I will do it like there’s no tomorrow, because you deserve it. He’s been in the industry for the past 30 years, but as a director it was his first time.
We went on forever to tweak [these] little things, [like] where the flute player would breathe and all these kinds of things. We were loving it, we were wanting to do it. Of course we show it to the decision makers and [they’re] like “what flute? Take the flute out.” Let’s say “take this out, change this, do that, here, that’s it, I don’t need ten layers of instrumentation here, we only need one.” I said “absolutely, you’re right.” Me, the composer. Honestly, I was in agreement with him and and we changed the stuff around because they know better than me where this movie is going to go, where it’s going to sell, what target, what markets. In the grand scheme of things, my job is to simply give my best, give all I have, within that context and hopefully everyone will love it.
As I said, every movie has a different taste. Had I said to these people [that I wanted to] get the knives that Jean Claude Van Damme is using in this movie, they would’ve said, “what’re you, nuts? No.” It’s a completely different aspect. I very much enjoyed that score too, because I had a chance to do other things that I could never do on Downrange, but each one is a different species, it’s a different canvas. That’s the beauty of film scoring. Every process, you have a terrifying blank canvas for the first week. (laughs) But they’re so different at the end.
That’s why I always find it so interesting to watch the director’s cut as well. It’s so different and you find those little scenes that could’ve stayed, but for some reason, for the demographic that they’re reaching out to, they cut it out.
That’s right. To give you an example, I just saw a movie the other day on Netflix, Alexander, and I turned it on to watch because it said [it was] the definite director’s cut, or something like that. Obviously it’s a three and a half hour cut, right. (laughs) The original movie in the theatres was like two hours and this one was three and a half. I don’t necessarily like it. The beginning of the movie is all over the place. I like the studio version better, it’s to the point. Maybe I’m used to that version and not this one, but they do know something that we don’t. They’re very good at what they do. The studio knows what they’re doing and to discuss them taking out your flutes is a bit of a joke. I can do my flutes on movies like Downrange.
I find it pretty interesting that you say that about the Oliver Stone movie, because my favourite movie, Almost Famous, some of the director’s cut scenes are just painful to watch and I understand why the studio got rid of them, but there are some other ones that I really would’ve liked to have seen in the studio cut. It’s interesting.
Of course, that’s a great movie. You’re always going to get this [though]. To have seen what art is under a regime, which is simply propaganda. If you say, or if you insinuate the wrong thing, you’re executed. As simple as that. So you’ve got to do something very specific, or otherwise, just don’t do it. When you come here, you do things for other reasons. It’s not because of propaganda or the regime, it’s for money. No system is perfect, however here at least you have the freedom to do other projects that represent who you are more. The studio is the studio. They have beautiful movies, they have great movies. They also have very money driven movies with sequels and prequels and prequels after sequels and all that, but they also have great movies like Saving Private Ryan, or Forest Gump.
Then you see the ones like the Fast and Furious, that demonstrate that sequel prequel grab that you were just talking about.
That’s it. Every project is very specific. That project was for a specific result, which is money [in the] box office. At least here you have freedom, you can pick and choose and find yourself. There’s room for everybody and everybody has the right to find themselves, that’s the beauty of the system here. That’s what I put my focus on, because I’ve seen the other [side and] what it is [like], so in comparison to that one, I think we’re in heaven here. (laughs)
That’s what I’ve always loved about the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s so full of so many different types of film and there are so many things to see. Other than of course your own premiere, what are you most excited to see this year?
Actually I just wrapped up my recording sessions yesterday for another movie that I can’t give you the title for today, so now I’m in the phase of [looking] at the program and putting my calendar down. Where I’m going, what I’m watching. I don’t know exactly what movies are in there yet, but I promise you this week I’ll have a full calendar. I’m staying there for 10 days, I have the badge waiting for me for the full 10 days, so it’s going to be a movie heaven for me.
That’s terrific that you get to go for the whole thing.
Oh, it was a decision I made. I’ve been under the gun for the last three months, I need these 10 days to completely reformat my hard disk. (laughs)
Immerse yourself in the film and let it restart you.
Exactly. Toronto is the perfect place to do it because I know the city very well. I want to visit the Greek town as well, on Pape, and go eat some tzatziki and enjoy what Toronto has to offer too. I’m looking so forward to seeing the reactions [from] people, especially for our film. We’ve watched it so many times, we’ve worked on it, we’ve gotten some great reviews. Even the Toronto Film Festival actually made a review and mentioned the score, which was amazing because the scores are not on the radar very often. So I’m looking forward to actually seeing the reactions of the people. It’s a different experience when you have the people there. Thank god it’s not the tomato season, so there are not going to be any tomatoes thrown at us. (laughing)
If you were given the chance to choose a dream genre of cinema and had your pick of the litter for a director, what would your dream set look like and why?
If I had to pick one genre, I think everything starts and ends with Drama. Every genre, let’s not talk about the movies at all, but every genre of music theatre – be it ballet, opera which is the ultimate seven genres/art forms within one, it’s drama. If you don’t have the drama then you’ve lost it. Even in comedies you need drama, otherwise it’s not [complete]. So I would say Drama for the genre that would represent how I feel about the art in general and where I find my place. Let’s say if I read something or see something, if I can not feel something, I can not release my instincts through music.
Now I’ve been doing thrillers and stuff and from a composer’s perspective, however strange this may sound, horror/thriller is actually the perfect genre because you can be experimental, you can do anything you can imagine and it would actually fit. It’s the genre that fits the highest levels of creativity as a composer. That would be the genre that is the perfect platform for me to just go nuts with it, but if I was to take one step [back] and say let me think about this one more time, I think Drama would be the one that would represent everything that I see as what speaks to me. Downrange is a thriller, it’s not a horror film, but without the drama of what these people are going through, it would not have the intensity.
Speaking of the intensity and the dramatic content, one of the most… I’ve had two films in my life that I’ve had my stomach upside down, two films that I’ve seen. Knowing that they’re films [and] it’s not real life, these two films [still] completely made me physically uncomfortable. One [is] Irreversible by Gaspar Noe, from seven or eight years ago, it’s a drama film and it’s horrifying when you see it. It’s just horrible. The second one is actually the Oscar winner two years ago, Son of Saul, about Auschwitz and what they had to do to survive in Auschwitz. It’s a Hungarian first time director and I was lucky enough to see a pre-screening of the movie here in L.A. and I told him “I want to be the first one to congratulate you for winning the Oscar.” He says “it’s September.” I said “I don’t have to see the other 82, this has such an impact. And guess what, the movie somehow won it. That was an experience. It was horrible, but that was the vision of the director. To make you a part of that horrible, horrible setting. It’s the drama that these characters go [through] and how you elevate it with other things. With action, with horror, with thrillers, mystery, with comedic moments. That’s a different pallet, but you have to have drama in it and once you break it down and find the code to break the drama, what it’s about, then you have it. It doesn’t matter what it is.
Yeah, if you don’t have the drama in there, you don’t have anything to draw you in. People feed off of the connection with the characters and what’s going on in their lives. I think if you lose that, you lose the audience as well.
Absolutely. Thank god film music is an art form that has gone through a century. It’s almost a hundred years now that people and masters have been doing this. From Steiner, to Korngold, to John Williams, to Jerry Goldsmith, to today’s people like Zimmer. For me, from the modern composers, Zimmer is a master of dramatic translation of what’s on screen. He just nails it. Of course we’re so lucky to still have John Williams around, a living legend. The more I do this film scoring stuff, the more I start to appreciate it.
Do you have one favourite score?
That’s a tough one, you got me on this one. I can tell you that [out of] two [of my] favourite movies, the score plays a big part in that, one is Papillon with Dustin Hoffman and Steven McQueen. It’s about these two guys put in prison in French Guiana and all their lives, they try to escape and at the end of the day, one of them gives up and one of them makes it at 95-years-old. It’s a great movie.
The other one is another prison movie, Shawshank Redemption. The score is such a beautiful, intimate, well executed score and the orchestration of it is just mind-blowing. I would say anything from Jerry Goldsmith. You pick one and I’ll go for it. John Williams, strangely enough I’m not going to say Star Wars [or] Indiana Jones, I’m going to say Munich. Such a beautiful score. It shows John Williams in [an] intimate way, with the acoustic guitar. Of course Schindler’s List is well-known and stuff, but for me it (Munich) was one of his best scores ever. Anything Jerry Goldsmith. As you can tell, I’m a big Jerry Goldsmith fan. Morricone of course. Again, you name it from Morricone.
On the spectrum of directors, who would be your favourite director to work with?
There is so many. I would love to have a chance to do a film with Ryuhei that’s given him the resources that he really needs and there’s no struggle or restrictions. Or let’s say of course, who doesn’t want to work once with Spielberg. As you can tell, I’m a bit old fashioned. Saving Private Ryan is the ultimate war film. You watch that movie and you’re like “what else is there?”
If I had to pick one director actually, that would be Mel Gibson.
What brings you to that?
Take a look at Braveheart. The ultimate hero movie. You can be African, you can be Scottish, Canadian, South American, you can be anything. That movie is just the ultimate masterpiece when it comes to a character that becomes David and Goliath basically, but very human and beautiful. Then you move onto Apocalypto and you’re like “wow,” and then you go to the Passion of Christ and you’re like “my god, this guy.” As a director, that would be the one.
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