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Composer Interview: Geoff Zanelli

posted Aug 3, 2010, 6:02 PM by Kaya Savas


Originally Posted March 19, 2010

Geoff Zanelli is one of today's most promising talents in the film music world. Working alongside Hans Zimmer at RCP he has been living the success story of separating himself as one of the premiere voices in the score industry. Geoff is an Emmy Award winning composer who has done a number of solo projects such as Outlander, Disturbia, Hitman, Ghost Town & House Of D. He also scored the miniseries Into The West, which won him his Emmy. I recently got the chance to ask Geoff some questions about his work on the highly anticipated HBO miniseries The Pacific. He along with Blake Neely and Hans Zimmer were in charge of the emotional backbone of the series also known as the score.

Kaya: Could you describe the scoring process on The Pacific, mainly how collaboration factored into it? You co-composed with Hans Zimmer and Blake Neely. How did the three of you decide to approach the scoring duties?

Geoff: First off, thanks for contacting me about The Pacific. I'm glad to see the reception our score is getting, and really glad to see how much interest there is in it!

Our process really evolved over time, so it's probably best to start at the beginning. The original idea was Hans would write the Main Title and Blake and I would score the show. We were going to just alternate episodes actually, but very quickly we realized that doesn't make sense since so many of the story arcs go across multiple episodes. It was apparent that we had to approach it as a ten hour film so that one of us could take a particular story arc and see it through from start to finish. This helped immensely with the consistency of our score.

I think the roughest way to describe how it broke down, and please bear in mind that this wasn't a hard and fast rule, but Blake Neely handled most of the Basilone story, I handled most of the Leckie story, and Sledge's story was a combination of both of us. For instance, Blake handled Sledge on the home front. There's a fabulous piece in the final episode when Sledge comes back home which Blake wrote. In fact, I think it was one of the very first things he wrote for the series, and it ties in to his music for Sledge's story which is begun in the first episode.

For my part, I handled quite a bit of Sledge's war story. What he goes through after he lands on Peleliu came mostly from me and you'll hear that in episodes 5 through 7.

Kaya: How much did each of you contribute? Was there a constant flow of communication or was it more “you go score this, I’ll score this and we’ll meet back here and see what we have”?

Geoff: We had a very constant flow of communication. Even though we weren't working in the same building, we'd be getting together to show each other what we'd been up to and listening to every note the other wrote. We'd have playbacks with Hans and then with Gary Goetzman, one of the producers we worked with over the course of the show. And yes, we'd discuss beforehand which of us would write which scenes.

But before we even got to writing individual episodes we were all writing thematic material to try to define the tone of the show. Hans initially wrote a gorgeous and very dark 12 minute suite which we tried parts of for the Main Title. That ended up instead being a very crucial piece on Iwo Jima. Part of Basilone's story is played with that music.

Hans then wrote another piece which was meant to be fleshed out as a new approach for the Main Title. Then Blake came in and he worked very hard on what would become the Main Title as you hear it now. At one point, a very different version of With The Old Breed was the Main Title actually, but that was reworked a bit and lengthened to be used as the End Titles as well as the epilogue for the entire series where we learn what happened to all the soldiers we've come to care about after the war.

As for the episodes, you'd get mired in details trying to figure out who wrote what for each individual scene, but you can look at it this way: Episodes 1, 3, 4, 5 and 10 were cowritten by Blake and myself. Episodes 2 and 8 were Blake's, with one key scene in 8 being the piece of Hans' I mentioned earlier. Episodes 6 and 9 were mine, and with the exception of two one-minute cues, episode 7 was mine as well.

Kaya: Scoring a 10 part miniseries has got to be an incredible challenge. I feel like it would be easy for the score to lose focus. How did the three of you make sure all the mini story arcs held their own yet still applied to the big picture? Were you always scoring in the moment or always kept the entire scope of the series in mind?

Geoff: Ah! I'm glad you can appreciate why it takes nine months to score a mini-series!

Well, we did decide that the story arcs would each be handled by one composer, so that's how we kept multi-episode arcs cohesive. The big picture was always in our minds too. I really mean it when I say we approached it as a 10-hour movie.

The dividing line between episodes started to be less of a consideration for me, especially the big Peleliu arc in episodes 5 through 7. I can't recall which episode certain scenes were in even, cause I was thinking of that whole section as "the Peleliu story."

I really wanted it to all work as a show if you sat down and watched all ten episodes in a row, and it does.

Kaya: We’ve seen lately in war scores a heavy use of ethnic influences to establish setting and atmosphere. Was there ever discussion to incorporate certain ethnic sounds?

Geoff: Only in that we decided early on that this was the American soldiers' story, so we were going to tell it from that point of view. During a few of the battle sequences actually, you may hear a tiny bit of Japanese presence in the music, especially in the scenes where you hear the Japanese soldiers but don't necessarily see them. But really, we are very, very sparse with that.

This was different from my experience on 
Into The West, by the way. There, we had two stories to tell and the success of the score depended on intertwining the musical cultures so to speak. Here, we are very focused with our perspective.

I'll tell you another spot where we considered it though. On Okinawa, Sledge has an encounter with an Okinawan citizen in a very moving and effective scene. I had considered trying an "east meets west" approach in the score there, with an Okinawan flute playing a sort of duet with a cello to try to humanize the citizen there. It's one of the very few times where that really happens in the show and it was a very important moment in the film but the more I thought about it, the more I re-affirmed our earlier decision to focus this score. We never recorded it that way because I thought "this is Sledge's story, we've lived with him for 9 hours and I want this music to give him a voice to express how he feels about this situation."

Kaya: There’s about 1.2 hours of music on the CD release. About what percentage of that is that of the complete score for the series. How much music did you end up recording when it came down to the end?

Geoff: Me personally, I think about four hours. From all of us, about seven hours was written, with just near five hours in the series.

Kaya: This isn’t the first miniseries you’ve worked on. Were you able to take anything you learned from working on Into The Westand apply it on The Pacific? Were the two projects more similar or different?

Geoff: I'd say more different than similar, but I was still able to apply the lessons learned.

Into The West was more like scoring a movie and then five sequels because of their production schedule. They were still shooting or editing the later episodes while I worked on the earlier ones, so it was one after another. With The Pacific, everything was shot and at least in a rough state with the edit before anyone wrote a note, so I saw the whole story and absorbed it that way.

It's a daunting task whichever way you do it though! Much more common for me in my world is a two hour film and two or three months in which to write it. Besides just the logistics, or the practical issues in keeping track of five times as much story, there's an endurance component to the miniseries format that you have less of on a film. I didn't get to take any vacations, let's put it that way!

Another thing I touched on before was 
Into The West had a different musical palette to draw from stylistically cause we had not just the settlers, but the native music to incorporate. And it probably took a broader view of the story as well. The Pacific is, and it sounds bizarre to say this, but it is intimate. It's about the cost to the individual who goes to war. Some die, some live, some are haunted, some make bad decisions. There's a whole lot of psychology to it, especially with Leckie and Sledge. Those are elements that maybe weren't so much inInto The West.

Kaya: For me as a filmmaker/writer I always look to scores to get emotions and ideas flowing and always have used music as my main source of inspiration. Where do you usually turn for inspiration? Is the footage the filmmakers shoot usually enough or do you find yourself looking elsewhere for ideas?

Geoff: Oh it's usually enough, just the film. Especially in this case. See, and I think this is one of my strong suits, I'm told it is anyway... My work [is] very symbiotic and specifically geared to the story I'm working on. I mean you couldn't take one of my pieces from The Pacific, plunk it into another war movie and have it just work because it's meant to co-operate hand in hand with The Pacific, it's for that story only. That comes from being able to find inspiration in the film I'm working on. Well, and the reality is I don't know how to work any other way.

Kaya: Does working in such a collaborative environment like RCP help the creative process? For instance do you ever knock next door and run your early compositions by someone else and get their thoughts, etc?

Geoff: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. All the time. Actually, on The Pacific it was a little different in that Blake works from a different location, so we would send ideas back and forth, get together once in a while, things like that.

But off the topic of 
The Pacific, I can tell you a little about what I've just finished which was working on Clash Of The Titans. A very different score! But that one, there were only 3 weeks from the time Ramin Djawadi was hired to score the film and the dub so he asked me and a few other pals to come and help him. Now that score is a perfect example of the collaborative process, that or the first Pirates film which has already been written about at length.

On 
Clash of the Titans we had the exact situation you talked about. I'd show the roughest versions of cues to Ramin or the other guys and vice versa, we'd throw ideas back and forth. It was "hey, what about that riff from your cue? I bet it'd work here..." or someone would come play a cello part on someone else's cue and keep things interesting. It was some of the most fun I've had writing music in years, working that way! And with that deadline, frankly, I didn't expect that it would be, I expected just three weeks of panic and hard work.

Well, ok, and it was indeed hard work and a little bit of panic, but also huge amounts of fun mixed in.

Kaya: Okay, so Geoff Zanelli is driving in his car alone with his thoughts. What music is playing?

Geoff: If I'm alone with my thoughts, probably no music is playing! But let's see... I like the 
MGMT record, Hans' Sherlock score, James' Lady In The Water, and I have a great recording of Petroushka which I'm listening to cause I just saw it at Disney Hall a few weeks ago.

Kaya: Who is your favorite film composer?

Geoff: Well I wouldn't be at Hans' place if I didn't think the world of him. Can I say a few more? James Newton Howard, my old boss John Powell, Bernard Hermann, and you've got to love Giacchino and Desplat these days, I think.

Kaya: What was the best score not composed by you that you’ve heard recently?

Geoff: I know it wasn't that recent but I only only just saw Children of Men and I loved how the music was used in that. And I loved that heartbreaking sequence Giacchino did at the beginning of Up. Very classy.

Kaya: Which one of your scores are you most proud of?

Geoff: House of D has a special place for me, it being my first score. But I really feel good about that score, and it's a good example of what I was saying earlier. It's so very specific to that story. I'm also proud of how I balanced all the different elements in Outlander, which was a very tricky film in some regards cause it was a multi-genre film. AndGhost Town, I'm proud of how intimate some of that score is. It's not quite what you'd expect from me, for one thing, but that was a score where I was constantly taking things out until just the very core of the music was left. When you think of it that way, it's a pretty risky score. The climax of the film is really just three instruments, piano, clarinet and cello.

Kaya: Which one of your scores do you look back on and wish you could redo completely or erase from your filmography?

Geoff: You know, there's something to be gained from all of them so I don't really want to erase any.

There are scores where I wish I had more time though, like 
Hitman for instance, but I still think that was very solid work. There were some tricky circumstances on that film. For a start, I had just over three weeks from start to finish to score the whole thing, fly to Paris to record it and back to LA to mix it. Then there was a six minute action scene added to the film on the day before the dub finished. The 2nd to last day! So there wasn't time to write, record and mix something. This was the sequence in and around the sword fight, if you're familiar with the movie.

What ended up happening was the music editor John Finklea, who was in France where they were dubbing, would cut versions of other cues into that scene and send that to me in LA to review. I'd give some notes or send a new edit and we just whittled away at it overnight until it was finished. Now, if you were to watch that film and skip that scene you'd find the score feels balanced, but what ended up happening is nearly every minute of action music I wrote for the film's other scenes was edited into this new scene. You heard all of that music twice as you watched the movie! It made the action in the film feel like it was treated the same way for each of the scenes. In a perfect world, I'd have had another day or three and I could have made that into a setpiece to give it its own identity.

Now another one was 
Gamer but here again I think the score is effective in the film. It works well for that story, but I'm not convinced it's a great listen away from the film. The albums I release are edited to contain only the music I feel would work once you take it away from the film, but Gamer was such an ambient score, not particularly tuneful but really dependent on the sonic qualities, the production or the soundscape that it was hard to find a way to build an album. That's for sure been my most polarizing score, and even though I say I'm on the fence about how it worked as an album, I get contacted often enough with people saying how much they love that score. They love the risks it took and that it was irreverent. Definitely not a typical score, that's for sure!

Kaya: Say someone gave you the opportunity to re-score one film that’s already been made, with no disrespect to the original composer which movie would you want to take a crack at?

Geoff: All of them! It'd be hard for me to list just one again, but in no particular order I'd love to have had these playgrounds to play in: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Rosemary's BabyDistrict 9 andLost In Translation.

Kaya: Again, thanks so much it was truly an honor! Best wishes and good luck!

Geoff: Thank you, too! It's my pleasure. I'm so pleased with how people are responding to The Pacific. Glad you got in touch with me about it. Good luck to you as well.
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