September 12, 2008
Motion picture soundtracks have always fascinated me. In the Soundtracked series, composers and/or directors offer commentary on their film's soundtrack, and offer insights into the creative evolution that melds music into the final film.
My involvement with Death Race started innocently enough: I received a phone call while driving back from a Friday lunch meeting, summoning me to director Paul W.S. Anderson’s home to watch a rough cut of his most recent project.
Two hours of man-fighting and exploding cars later, I pronounced the most typical of film-composer statements after seeing a film with a temporary music track: “I can do better!”
‘Prove it!’ Paul said, and that was that.
As I see it, the general problem with most action scores today is that they are ‘too nice’, trying to stay out of the way of sound effects; playing around the action rather then representing it. This is the reason why needledrops (songs) have been used for the most impressive action/music moments in recent films.
Personally, I have always felt that filmscores should sound as current as any other piece of music produced today. Obviously, I am particularly interested to work with filmmakers who share this sentiment.
It was immediately clear to me that Paul W.S. Anderson, in directing this film, had chosen a method of deliberate exaggeration to make his point; Therefore, music had to ‘play ball’ – this was no place for subtlety. I suggested to him a style of music that was inspired by bands like NIN and Tool, but adaptable to the specific needs and requirements of his film: To be cinematic while driving hard.
It would require orchestral elements as well as hardcore programming; guitar recordings as well as use of electronica/IDM parts. Ambitious as this plan sounds, we fortunately did not have much time to think about it since we had to hit the ground running. And run we did.
Author Haruki Murakami once explained that he does not start a story with a complete arc or concept. Rather, he starts with an initial idea and lets the story take him places. I feel similar about writing music, having rejected the Western notion of a predefined theme and development as too limiting.
My background really is record production and in this world I learned that every collection of music has to have some give and take, have a chance to adapt and change. I like to work with a cluster of ideas, and let the strongest one emerge through the course of the project.
My process typically starts with writing music ‘across the film’; trial and error. Out of this phase something will crystallize that fits particularly well for any given project. In the case of DR, it happened to be a sequence called ‘Frank Walk’ at the end of Reel 2, the moment Jason Statham’s character gets ready for his first race, being marched out to the race track.
The first draft I wrote for this cue was one that both Paul and his producing partner Jeremy Bolt loved upon first hearing. It remained virtually unchanged through the course of the project; what you hear in the final release is pretty much what I played Paul and Jeremy on their first review:
"Frank Walk" [mp3]
With the establishment of this track, we had also found a language for this score: programmed percussion, industrial/distortion elements, guitars, cinematic scope and size, aggressive production.
Using this as a conceptual basis, I set out to develop the remaining 73 minutes of music. ‘Frank Walk’ also turned into a signature motif for the lead character, Frankenstein, played by Jason Statham. As such, it was adapted for both the Main Title sequence as well as the Epilogue/End Credits.
As with any project, some of the material fell into place quite naturally and some of it needed several rounds of attack. If ‘Frank Walk’ was the most easy fit, the piece following it, ‘Punch It!’ was perhaps the most difficult ‘to get right’. In part, because this was the start of the first full race and quite complicated in film structure, but more specifically: it simply took some experimenting, various trials and fine-tuning exercises to get the attitude, energy, as well as the effect of the music just right.
"Punch It" [mp3]
Interestingly enough, these two particular tracks (Frank Walk and Punch It) lead the download counts on iTunes and seem to generally be most popular with fans of the movie. Making a good point for something I have always believed in: you cannot plan the effect of music. It cannot be calculated and there is no one method better than another. There is only the result, and even that is relative as my own and anyone’s evaluation will change with time.
Welcome to the creative process ;)
Death Race, as a film, is not for all people and the same goes for the music: Andreas Vollenweider fans will not find their fit here. But if you appreciate clarity of purpose, I do think Death Race makes a pretty good case for itself. It does not try to be clever, it does not pretend to be anything other than what it is: a thrill ride, a rush, a spectacle. As Ian McShane puts it in the opening monologue of the soundtrack album: “A hard sport for a hard age.”
Nothing more, nothing less.
Death Race links:
Chicago Sun-Times review
Cinema Blend review
E! Online review
Entertainment Weekly review
Hollywood Reporter review
New York Times review
Sun Media review
Rotten Tomatoes review
Paul Haslinger links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Previous Soundtracked submissions (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtrack)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)