CLICK THE LOGO ABOVE TO GET BACK TO THE MAIN SITE
Copyright © Kitley's Krypt
2013 RONDO AWARD
Kitleyís Krypt: How did you get started in composing music for films?
Michael Wandmacher: Film scoring in particular, I
guess the easy route would be saying that when I was back in Minneapolis in the
early í90s, I had a gotten out of college and was working for a couple of
advertising firms. At this time I started moonlighting doing television
commercials. After a couple of years of that schedule, I got an opportunity to
do the television commercials full time. I took that and started kind of
learning my craft that way, which lead to working on some local short films and
KK: Have you always been a big fan of movies?
MW: Yes. I just found the more I did the job the more I found it really appealing. From when I was younger, I use to really take notice of the music in the films that I was watching and collect film scores. Even when I was a young kid would go to record stores, where everyone was hanging out in the rock section and Iíd be sitting around trying to find soundtracks. Collecting those and listening to them and thatís kind of stayed with me every since. I probably have over a thousand scores here, and Iím always listening to things that people send me, or stuff from my collection. So Iíd definitely say that I was a fan first before I actually started doing it for a living.
KK: What would be some of your favorite film scores?
MW: Thatís tough to say. I kind of go in phases, so it depends on what Iím listening to. I really like Jerry Goldsmith. I like a lot of classic musical scores by Bernard Herrmann, and Alex North and Hans Salter. Also Akira Ifukube. I love what he did with the Godzilla films. I think that music was actually wonderful. I listened to Jerry Fielding and Dominic Frontiere when I was younger. And as I got more into doing it professionally, I was really influenced by Danny Elfman and James Newton Howard and Alan Silvestri. People like that, who were really kind of masters of working with a theme, building into a score and also have a really specific voice or vision in their music. I still go back to that stuff and listen to it. Thereís still a real spark in that music when I listen to it. Some of the early work by those composers I mentioned. Itís inspiring.
KK: Are there any horror movie scores that really stood out for you?
MW: I really liked The Omen. I thought that was pretty awesome score. I loved the old Universal scores. A lot of those came out of the studio systems so in a lot of cases the composer was un-credited. Because the way the music system was set up in the studios at the time, in the í40s and í50s, there was just a head of a music department that just doled out work to various people who worked underneath him or her. He might have been an orchestrator or composer or something like that. So when you see a movie like The Wolf Man, which has a score that I love, Hans Salter did most of that. But youíd actually have to track [people] down to figure out who wrote most of the music. I love Harry Manfrediniís work. Thereís a certain amount of mayhem in those scores. Halloween. I like John Carpenterís music for its simplicity. Stuff like that. I listen to a lot of it. Little bits and pieces of what I hear stick with me. I could never go, ďThis score was THE score that changed everything for me.Ē But things, motifs or themes or devices, or ideas that came out of it that are really interesting to me.
KK: While doing some research for this interview, we came across a film score review website where they couldnít understand how people could enjoy listening to horror soundtracks, since they are not your traditional music scores.
MW: Horror scores get a bad rap because theyíre not a traditionally melodically driven. They might have something like a really strong central point. Halloween is a really good example. That little riff on the piano drives the whole score. But for the most part, theyíre a lot of noise Ė what you would call ďorchestral noiseĒ Ė and they can be very loud and very grating. For some people itís just tough to listen to, certainly not relaxing to by any means. It can be anxiety inducing. Especially modern horror scores where a lot of electronics or highly processed samples are used that purist would consider non-musical. Yeah, from a reviewer standpoint, some of them donít even think of it as music. Which is ridiculous. Iíve always had a problem with reviewers who are orchestra snobs and canít see electronic music for what it is. Itís very difficult to produce, and to find a sound or a palette of sonic textures that work for the film is really tough. It takes just as much care to do that as it does to write an orchestral score. Sometimes orchestral elements donít work in the context of the film, and vice versa, there are films where an electronics donít work either. Itís just a battle you fight with each movie. I just wish more people who are critiquing the scores would do their homework and understand just how difficult to produce a proper electronic score. Programming is an art and a craft as much as composing for acoustic instruments.
KK: Thatís a great point. Speaking of which, your score for Cry Wolf, that was electronic, correct?
KK: That is one of my favorite scores. I was watching the movie, which I thought was okay. But the whole time, I kept noticing the music. Itís not your typical suspense type of music, since it was very quiet and low key. But it still seemed to build the suspense just as well.
That was an interesting approach. We had some time to work on that. There was
very little resource to work with on that movie. The only thing that we had was
time. So it was a very collaborative thing between me and the director, Jeff
Wadlow, and the producer and the editor, to come up with the palette for that
movie. Iíd write a cue, weíd pick out things that we liked and throw out things
that we didnít, then come back with another version until it was very a refined
set of ideas for that score.
KK: Itís very effective in the film and as I said, itís one of our favorite scores. Granted it was a little tough to find, but once we did find it, we reviewed it on our site and have always mentioned that to people who enjoy soundtracks.
MW: Thanks. Iím glad. Iím proud of it. It was a fun effort. It took time and was very collaborative. Just really experimental. We didnít really have any preconception of about what the score was needed to be. It just kind of evolved on its own until we knew it was in the right place.
KK: How much time to you normally have to complete a score?
MW: Itís funny you ask because it keeps getting shorter. For My Bloody Valentine I had to do in 28 days and that was 105 minutes of music. The Punisher was 65 minutes and I had to write it all in three and a half weeks. Itís just getting very compressed these days. A picture never gets locked rarely by the time the composer sees it. Itís always in flux. So you have to pick your battles in terms of when you want to actually start composing as to how much you feel like the picture is going to change. All the picture elements are digital now so they can change it very, very easily, and that compresses your schedule greatly. Massive picture changes can take place just weeks before a final sound mix and that deeply affects the music. So you just pick your battles, like, ďDo I start writing this really big cue now and think that it might change a lot in the next week, or do I wait and see what they come up with?Ē I would say an average film score now is between four and six weeks to get the whole thing done. It used to be more like eight to ten weeks, but it keeps getting more and more squished. I know plenty of times people have had to write scores in ten or fifteen days and just get it done. If they have the resources, thatís fine. Itís a very expensive way to approach it. But thatís just sometimes the way it works. On average, you can bet about on a month, maybe a little more.
KK: Iím assuming the shorter time nowadays might have something to do with the ease of digital edition these days then back in the old days of using film stock?
MW: Yes, because itís not as expensive to do it as it used to be. If you were cutting film and you had locked your picture and you wanted to go back and make a change, there was a gigantic process involved. You know, handling the film, going back and re-splicing, and outputting it and all that. It was a pretty major operation. Nowadays, everything just stays in Final Cut Pro, Avid Media Composer, or whatever the editor happens to be using. And theyíre changing it daily. They might have a whole team of editors. They do preview screenings, and changes get made based on those. Then once executives high up in the production company see the film, they may want a major story element changed. Just have to learn to roll with it. Thereís really nothing you can do. You never really see a locked picture anymore. Itís very rare, but when the locked date comes, that actually happens.
KK: Do you think the difference in budget has to do with how many changes might be made?
Definitely. Big budget films, ones where thereís a lot of risk involved, in
terms of the financial investment of the studio and the return that it needs for
that investment, they will be cutting that picture down to the very, very, very
last minute. At that point, you may have scored the entire film, and itís the
music editorís responsibility to take the finished cues and edit them into a way
that still musical for the newly cut film, that still maintains the integrity of
the cues. That becomes a very collaborative process between the composer and
the music editor. These are all realistic and everyday sort of things now when
youíre dealing with films in the studio system.
KK: Thatís got to be sort of depressing.
MW: Itís not that itís depressingÖitís daunting! Itís part of the job. I never complain about my job. I love my job. These are all high quality problems to me. You just learn to deal with it. But yeah, itís one of those situations where the picture comes back and everything been moved around and you look at it and think, ďOh man!Ē You just have to go back and make it work. The only upside is that youíve already created all the pieces, you have all the tools to make it work, you just have to go back and rearrange them.
KK: Describe your process. Do you watch the film a couple of times first or how does that work?
MW: Iíll usually watch the whole film two or three
times. Iíll have the whole thing plotted out on paper. The music editor and I
put together a cue sheet, and we just go piece of music by piece of music
through the whole film in chronological order. Then Iíll sit down at that point
and watch one reel of the film. I like to complete the film one reel at a
time. Some times itís linear, sometimes it isnít. Then I just turn it off. I
donít look at it. I figure itís printed in my head. Iíll map out the cue in
the computer when Iím working on it, in terms of really critical hit points. At
that point, I turn off the picture and start to just take the smallest idea,
either melodically or rhythmically, and turn it over and over and keep adding
elements to it until it evolves into something that sounds interesting.
KK: Do you get a lot of input from directors and producers?
MW: Sure. All the time!
KK: Good or bad?
Both. A lot of directors are, and theyíll admit this themselves, in fact they
usually admit this very early on, but they donít have a musical vocabulary.
They just tell you what they like or what they donít like. They speak through
emotional context very often. Or they speak in a visual emotional context, and
you have to learn to translate that. Itís not your job to be a music teacher
for them. Itís your job to listen to what theyíre saying and say, ďOkay I get
that,Ē and try to augment their questions with your own questions to make sure
youíre getting it right, and then take what they said and make that happen. You
become the translator of their ideas into music.
KK: Youíve worked on films in just about every different genre. Any personable favorite genre you like to work on?
MW: I like doing horror films and I like doing
action films. Anything thatís highly genre based, I really liked. Anything
that has to do with science fiction, aliens, droids, monsters, things of the
night, fantasy, sword and sorcery kind of stuff. Thatís what I grew up
watching, and thatís where I feel comfortable.
KK: Weíve heard basically that same thing from film directors as well, where you can do a lot of things and try a lot of things in the horror genre that you wouldnít be able to get away with in the so-called ďnormalĒ genres. So itís nice to hear from fan that enjoys working the genre that most studios consider to be the red-headed step child.
MW: Oh, itís a blast. I wouldnít want it any other way. There are devices and clichťs and stereotypes and every other work you can use like that in every genre of film. But I think in horror and science fiction in particularly, you can get away with a lot of stuff that you canít get away with anywhere else. I mean you could go out in your garage and just record yourself banging on pieces of junk for three hours. Then throw it into Pro Tools and mess with it and make that into a score thatís interesting and will work in the film. Will that work in a mainstream comedy? No. But you could probably make it work in a sci-fi film and have it be pretty cool. Itís just a different way of looking of things. It opens of this whole realm of possibilities that wasnít there before.
KK: Great point. Do you find it any harder scoring an action-based scene compared to something that might be slower and suspenseful?
It depends on if you have the palette developed. Action scenes are by their
very nature more work. Because there are a lot of time things that you have to
be very wary of. Letís just use a car chase as a simple illustration. You have
to be aware of when things are going from seeing the car speeding down the road
and itís a very wide helicopter type shot to all of a sudden theyíll go into the
car and there will be dialogue. Then they cut ahead to a car coming around the
corner, and the chase kind of reaches a new level of intensity and it might cut
back to kind of a B-plotline or different character in a different location
somehow involved in the car chase. There are all these dynamic levels that you
have to be aware of. Thereís a lot of pace. All of this is cut in a very
jilted sort of way. So you may be cruising through some part of the scene and
all of sudden itíll cut away somewhere else for two seconds. Itíll be a
completely different context, maybe go from an explosion straight to dialogue.
So you have to be constantly changing the music and its dynamic level and
density to match all this stuff. Just solving the puzzle that way, musically,
is very intense as a process.
KK: You also did the score for the new Night Stalker series. How does scoring a weekly series compare to a feature film?
MW: Speed is the main thing. Television composers
get a bad rap. They are underappreciated. I guess you donít really learn that
until you write music for television. You have to work really, really fast.
You will usually get a show on Monday and itíll be mixed and ready for air by
Friday. And in the case of an hour-long drama, you maybe are writing 35 minutes
of music in something like three days or less. And you have to do that on a
weekly basis for 22 to 26 weeks straight. Itís tough. So your preparation is
really, really critical in terms of what youíre going to use for your motifs or
your themes, or your palette in terms of your sounds.
KK: That has to be very chaotic, especially if the series is an ongoing series.
MW: Yes, but itís also pretty common after a couple seasons that people start taking ideas and recycling them, rearranging old cues, using old cues from old episodes over again. Law and Order is a good example. If you listen to the big monologue at the end the music is pretty much the same. To me itís planned that way. Itís supposed to be that way. Itís an efficiency that they built into the show so they can get it done. But it gets easier over time. Especially when youíve amassed monstrous library of music that you can draw from to either reuse something or take an idea from an earlier episode or earlier season and use the skeleton of that to create something new. So youíre not just using what I call a blank page every time. After three or four seasons of that youíd go insane from the pressure.
KK: Letís talk about your latest project, the new remake of My Bloody Valentine 3-D. Did you have a chance to see in the 3-D format?
Yes, I did just last week for the first time. It was quite a trip. It was
really exciting. I had seen a lot of 3-D films when I was younger, like Friday
the 13th Part 3, Jaws 3-D, those pretty schlocky ones,
as well the older ones from the í50s and í60s that used whatís called the
anaglyph technology, which is the red and blue glasses. Thatís gone for the
most part. Itís still used on some level in smaller movie theaters that can
only project that type of film. And they still use anaglyph technology on DVDs
that are released in 3-D.
KK: We had just gotten the score for the film a couple of days ago, so weíve only had a chance to listen to it a couple of times. From the music, it seems like the film is very action packed.
MW: It is. I like to say that it starts on furious and ends on insane. Itís like a roller coaster ride from the beginning to the end. You are into it right away. Thereís no screwing around. The story just goes like hell all the way to the end. For the last 20 minutes, youíll hold your breath the whole way. And it was conceived that way. Youíre really kind of into it with the characters. If youíve seen the original, itís pretty true to the whole Harry Warden mythology, the killer miner, whoís a great bad guy. The whole film harkens back to the classic slasher films of the í70s and the í80s, where itís over stylized, itís very to the point, pun intended, in terms of the action sequences and the whatís known in the industry as ďthe kill.Ē When you see the bad guy come on screen, you know somebodyís going to get it. Thereís no overly pretty shots or any torture scenes or any of that extended kind of grit like weíve seen in horror films in the past five years. Thatís all thrown out in favor of just good old-fashioned ďbad guy chasing someone through the woods and youíre dead.Ē
KK: It does sound very interesting and we are really looking forward to it.
MW: Itís a great movie. I have very high hopes for it. I think itís going to take off when people get wind of it. The 3-D part of it really makes a big difference because it was handled in a very serious way as part of the film. It wasnít intended to be a schlock thing or a gimmick. Itís very critical to how the story is told and just the whole experience of the film is utilized in the way that it brings the whole film to another level. All of the mine sequences were shot in a real mine Ė theyíre not sets. During those sequences, the killer will be right up in your face, and youíll see behind him this mine shaft that snaking off into oblivion. And itís a real mine shaft. These shots have an immense depth of feel. That kind of stuff just makes it more fun and more scary.
KK: We definitely need a good remake. So it will be nice to see a good one for a change.
MW: I feel like this movie is going to move horror movies in a different direction, like more they were when I was growing up. Which is more fun and wasnít so grim and hopeless like a lot of horror movies have been lately.
KK: So even though we hate to be asked this question ourselves, what are some of your favorite horror movies?
MW: Iíve always been a big werewolf fan. I love The Howling. I love American Werewolf in London. I can watch those movies over and over and over. I love the original Friday the 13th. I think of the classic horror films like The Devilís Rain and I Spit on Your Grave, which is pretty hardcore.
KK: Devilís Rain showed me just how scary Ernest Borgnine could be.
MW: Yes, this is very true. And just how campy William Shatner could be.
KK: Well, we knew that from Star Trek.
MW: Yes, but he goes one level beyond that in that movie. Still great. I like watching the old Universal films. I just watched The Day The Earth Stood Still the other day, which to me is kind of horror and sci-fi all blended together. I actually grew up watching a lot of Japanese monster movies. I think the original genre experience I had, the first scary thing I saw, was the pilot episode of the original Night Stalker. That was probably my first straight-up scary monster movie type of experience Ė thatís what started it all. So it was kind of fitting to come back and work on that as an adult. Iíll pretty much watch everything. I love John Carpenterís movies. I loved his version of The Thing. He was on a roll during that part of his career.
KK: One last question for you. You mentioned being a big werewolf fan and liking American Werewolf and The Howling. Usually thereís the American Werewolf fans side and Howling fans side. Which side would you fall on?
MW: Boy thatís tough. Iíd have to go with American Werewolf overall because of the humor. I am always amazed at, that movie in particular, how John Landis was able go from humor to horror, real funny stuff to really scary stuff, on the turn of a dime. It all flowed together really well. It didnít feel campy at all. The stuff at the apartment that David goes through right before going through his first transformation, while that CCR song is playing, is really funny stuff, but itís really tense at the same time. One of my favorite sequences in that movie is when they are in the Slaughtered Lamb, just before they walk out and get attacked that first time. That whole scene is very comic in the way itís put together, but itís also very scary. That film blended that together really, really well. I think The Howling had better attack stuff. It was extra creepy because people got attacked during the day.
KK: They werenít the traditional kind.
MW: Right. That made it a lot scarier. It was kind of like seeing the new Dawn of the Dead when all of the zombies could run. That changed the playing field entirely.
KK: Although they were running in Return of Living Dead back in 1985.
MW: Yea, but not like the modern ones where they are like these crazed Olympian winners with all this goo flying from their mouth on a death mission. It was like, ďOh my GodÖI didnít go to the gym today. Iím screwed.Ē Thatís what I felt when I was watching that.
KK: Thank you Michael for taking the time to talk with us. Itís always nice to hear from someone who not only has worked in the horror genre, but also is a fan themselves. Any last comment?
MW: As a horror fan, my recommendation when you see My Bloody Valentine, if you can go to the biggest theater you can, and sit in the front third of the theater. That will enhance the 3-D experience even further. The bigger the better. And you get the best convergence when youíre a little closer to a really big screen so the effects make the WOW factor goes up. It will make a difference.
KK: Thanks again.
MW: Youíre very welcome.
For more information about Michael Wandmacher and his work, you can check out his website HERE.