After many years I’ve discovered that my features are musically investigative stories that deal with personalities and their circumstances that surround ‘the moments’ of creating great film music. This is accomplished by understanding the views of directors, composers, engineers, players, and performers, who are artistic chameleons that can meet any challenge. Whether it’s a phone call, looking into the composer’s eyes, or the luxury of being on the scoring stage, you have to document information on a moment’s notice whether you’re ready or not. The instances of The Hurt Locker are special; it’s probably the most investigative feature I’ve ever written. It’s like walking on a tightrope, the perfect balancing act that never falls and can satisfy everyone. As I drive through Malibu, past PepperdineUniversity, and up the hill towards ZumaBeach, I arrive for my interview with Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders at Pianella Studios on Saturday morning February 13th at . Italian maestro Marco Beltrami named Pianella Recording Studios after a town in the Province of Pescara in the Abruzzi region of Italy, which is on Italy’s eastern coast. The length of my interviews with Marco are always a mystery, we’ve know each other since he scored Scream in 1996, even before his children were born. Over the years we’d always meet for a few hours to talk about his latest film music, even if he was in the middle of working on his latest score. Marco begins by joking, “Hello Rudy, I think it’s been twenty years.” Yea, it’s been awhile since I’d been here, but it’s nothing compared to Beltrami’s career that includes scoring over seventy projects. My past interviews always involved just Marco, but there was this mysterious intellectual guy that was always hanging around working at the mixer, playing on a keyboard, fooling around with a guitar, or just helping Marco answer some of my questions about his compositions and the orchestration. Fourteen years ago it took me only a few visits to discover that this was Buck Sanders. Since then, Marco and Buck’s multitude of collaborations have been endless on Marco’s films, but the wait is over as Marco and Buck received Oscar nominations for their score to The Hurt Locker. They have become the perfect scoring team as a sophisticated orchestral composer and orchestrator meets the master of a high tech world that creates sounds in the electronic and acoustic realms. From writing great compositions to new ways of approaching sound with keyboards, guitar, and esoteric instrumentation, Marco and Buck are yin and yang, specialists who work together to creatively combine their talents into one mind that scores a film. It’s this entity that embraced the overwhelming challenge to score director/producer Kathryn Bigelow’s Academy Award winning film, The Hurt Locker.
They worked with a director who had specific ideas that were extraordinary, so Marco and Buck let go to embrace a different approach to composing and how their music would be used in the film. Their acceptance is the alternate side of Bigelow’s vulnerability to the scoring process as she points out, “Because I come from a visual background, I find music to be that one gray area of filmmaking that I can’t really access, so it’s always an area that I feel trepidations about. If I’m writing up a shot, I can just quickly draw it out or you can shoot something quickly in digital and throw it up there and say, ‘It’s going to be like that,’ or you can draw a set. This is an area that I’m completely visually oriented in, so I’m enamored and in awe of the scoring process that it also fills me with that kind of trepidation, because I can’t quite control it in a way.”
To satisfy Kathryn’s concept of what the film should sound like, a number of filmmaking techniques were combined to merge the sound design and music into a psychological environment. While Marco and Buck scored the film, Paul Ottosson (re-recording mixer, sound designer, and supervising sound editor) supplied the composers with his sound designs to work with. Any concerns with the composers’ Mock-ups that were sent back to Paul as a hybrid that combined his sounds with their music, could be addressed with Kathryn if necessary. The final results of how everything sounds would be determined at the dub by mixing Ottosson’s sound designs and the film music together. For the dub they requested a recording of the score that would give them access to every track that Marco and Buck recorded separately, so they had complete flexibility to control the music with the sound design tracks for a perfect mix. In the final dub there were hundreds of tracks of dialog, sound designs, and music, being assigned to different combinations of speakers to create a heightened sense of awareness that takes the viewer inside the drama and environment of the film. The music and sound design processes merged to sonically put you in the drama, so you experience what’s happening around you. Creating the music for The Hurt Locker is a maze of processes, approaches, and collaborations, when compared to the basic scoring process, but for Kathryn there’s one critical part of the process that makes the music work, “One of the most important parts of the scoring process is that very first instinct the composers have about the material, fulfilling a particular vision of what that film can be in its perfect realization. It’s those initial moments when you’re putting music written for that film against the picture, the picture will tell you immediately. There is no gray area whatsoever. The picture either just drinks it like water in a draught, or repels it.”
Marco and Buck decided to create the music with soloists rather than a full orchestra. The Hurt Locker was composed two years ago in 2008 starting February 12th and was finished on April 26th. Besides composing music and playing parts or assembling them in the electronic realm, Buck played the guitars and Marco performed on a prepared piano. Their compositions were accompanied by a small ensemble of soloists that included Erhu virtuoso Karen Han, Bass player Mike Valerio, Cellist Andrew Schulmann, violinist Andre Granat, with ethnic instruments (woodwinds) and vocalizations by Yorgos Adamis. Peter Rotter was the contractor for the soloists and the music preparation was done by JoAnn Kane Music Services. The composers sent JoAnn Kane the MIDI files for the string parts and the Erhu, they prepared and printed the music for the soloists to read, except for Yorgos. On the technical side was music editor Julie Pearce, she didn’t work at Pianella; but mainly on the dub during the final mix at Sony. They gave her the score’s tracks and she handled any of Kathryn’s editing needs. Marco and Buck recorded all the soloists’ parts at Pianella studios, while engineer John Kurlander came in to do the final mix for a mastered version of the composers’ final version of the hybrid.
The composers worked very closely with the film and tracked the soloists individually, for instance when bass player Mike Valerio came in and there was more than one part for him, they’d go back and record another track on top of what he just played, and that could be done with each musician recording over and over again with no limitations. After the final dub and the film was printed, the results of mixing the score with the sound design came out great and almost all of the music recorded by Marco and Buck was used in the film.
There were a number of variables that questioned using music in The Hurt Locker. Considering the composers were completely flexible with an unorthodox process and the mystery of how the score would be mixed, their trust and patience paid off when the film ended up sounding close to what Marco and Buck originally had in mind with Kathryn. The results were effective with interesting combinations of sounds created by Paul that worked within the context of the music. The happy results in the future are a contrast to the film’s past, when once there was even a possibility of not having a score at all. At the beginning, Paul Ottosson’s sound design was supposed to dominate the film’s soundtrack without a score. Then The Hurt Locker was temped with Marco’s music for to Yuma, which changed everything. If not for the film editors, the score may never have happened, but using temp music with a film to Kathryn Bigelow is not a great idea, “I would prefer that the composer forgets the temp. It’s so painful, I can imagine, it would be like asking a director, ‘Can you just shoot it like that other movie that’s seen there?’ ‘What?’ Or it’s like asking an actor, ‘Remember that other movie you did? I just want it just like that.’ You want to have a piece to be as pure and true to itself as it can.” It was a number of considerations about possibly using music in certain scenes and how to Yuma worked with so well with The Hurt Locker, which became the convincing factors for a score. If not for the patience and dedication of Marco and Buck accepting the challenges of a different process and trusting how their score would be mixed, the creative pursuit for the ideal film score would be lost. This was an opportunity to work with two open minded composers that are completely flexible. The film cried out for the emotional support of melodic landscapes capturing the moments, moving from scene to scene, sustaining different parts of the drama, and even giving an identity to an object such as a bomb or an IED. It’s fortunate that the cry was heard, giving Buck Sanders and Marco Beltrami the opportunity to compose the perfect music for The Hurt Locker and be nominated for Academy Awards.
The Hurt Locker is a physiologically terrifying vision of living on the edge, an exploration of fear, panic, and courting death, a soldier mainlining extreme pleasure to achieve the ultimate satisfaction from war. Kathryn’s vision is based on the story of Staff Sergeant William James, the leader of an EOD team in Iraq during 2004 (The EOD is a bomb squad of three soldiers that battle insurgents). After Sergeant Matt Thompson, the first leader of the EOD team, dies from the force of an explosion, SSG James replaces him as the leader of the three man team. We discover that SSG James thrives on unpredictable missions and loves to take risks that ecstatically pump him up with pleasure, like when he disarms a bomb and makes this horrific discovery; he doesn’t go to get the help the EOD team needs. After disarming the original bomb, he slowly pulls it out of the ground revealing six red wires running to six more bombs that surround him in a circle. This is a thrilling fix for SSG James; the ultimate rush when mainlining pleasure. By getting off, he forgets his boring family life back home. War is a drug, it’s this premise that the film is built on and the life that SSG James is consumed by.
When you consider the violence in The Hurt Locker, go back to 1978 and discover Bigelow’s first film The Set-Up. This is a student film she made while attending ColumbiaUniversity that explores why violence in cinematic form is so seductive. It features two men beating each other to death in a dark alley, while two professors analyze its philosophy on the soundtrack. Certainly this first film could be considered as a root of violence that grew into a vision of war in Iraq. Over the years the director has worked with a variety of composers including Tangerine Dream, Brad Fiedel, Mark Isham, Graeme Revell, Ryûichi Sakamoto, David Hirschfelder, and Klaus Badelt. When you watch Kathryn’s films, their scores are always interesting, so what does film music do for her movies? “Film music completes the whole picture, without it there’s this incredible sense of something lacking and with it its absolutely complete, yet great score, great film composition, is also like great production design, great cinematography, great story, and great performance.
It has two things, two elements; it must feel as if it was inevitable and be invisible. Film music is a very interesting process, it’s like trapping light in a glass, in other words, you’re trying to put your finger on exactly what is the pulse, the engine, the heartbeat of that particular star point, and then how music can enhance it.” Since Bigelow’s career began, she’s particular about her films. She directed and wrote The Loveless twenty eight years ago and since then directed and wrote Near Dark (1987) and Blue Steel (1989). After finishing Blue Steel and writing the script for the television production Undertow (1996), Kathryn left writing behind to direct Point Break (1991), Strange Days (1995), The Weight of Water (2000), K-19 The Widowmaker (2002), and The Hurt Locker (2008). The director doesn’t make film after film after film without caring about the movie she makes, that’s why there’s a number of years in-between her films. She reflects this philosophy when saying, “I’d love to go from one film to the next, but it’s just finding a piece that you believe in and care about so strongly, that’s what’s hard. I’d start shooting tomorrow if I could find something that I loved and believed in.”
Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders have worked together for over twelve years, more frequently as a team where Buck co-produced, played guitars, sound designed, programmed and prepared synthesizers, and wrote additional music, while Marco is an educated composer who writes scores as well as orchestrating and conducting them. The first score they composed together, where Buck had his first real input, was eleven years ago for Minus Man (1999). Then a year later Buck was credited alongside Marco’s name for their first score to Highway 395 (2000). They both composed the music for Max Payne before The Hurt Locker in 2008 and just finished a movie being released called 13. When Marco and Buck work together, there really isn’t a big difference with their scoring process between a film with shared credits and one with only Marco’s name on it. The main difference with shared credit scores is the amount of processing or design that Buck does for the music. It's not uncommon for him to come up with or develop cues for the films, but when Marco and Buck work as a team, Buck becomes more involved by coming up with thematic elements. The Hurt Locker is actually based on one theme that Sanders came up with on his guitar. For a film that earned nine Oscar nominations including two for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score), just being nominated is an outstanding accomplishment for Beltrami and Sanders.
From the classic opening scene when you see the words on the screen “38 days to Bravo Company Rotation” to when SGT Matt Thompson is liquefied in his EOD bomb suit, you know ‘you’re at war’ as the film’s sights, sounds, and locations surround you, putting you directly into the middle of disorientation as all hell breaks loose. On their fourth mission with only two days left on their current tour, SSG James and SGT Sanborn are called in to assist a situation where a man is forced to wander into a military checkpoint with a time-bomb strapped to his chest. SSG James can’t remove the bomb or disarm it in time, so he’s forced to flee before the bomb goes off and disintegrates the man. As SGT Sanborn and SSG James are driving back to campVictory, we hear the final melody of Buck’s guitar as Sanborn breaks down and confesses to James that he’s not ready to die, that’s where the film score ends.
Next we see SSG James is back home with his wife and child, but obviously bored with civilian life. One night he has an internal monologue in the form of speaking aloud to his infant son, where he says that there is only “one thing” that he knows he loves. All of a sudden he’s back in Iraq, ready to rock as part of an EOD team with Delta Company. From being in uniform to being inside a bomb suit, the addict returns to mainline the pleasures of war. We see him from the rear walking down a road in Iraq towards deaths door. On the screen we see the words “365 days left in Rotation” as the music surges into a hard rock guitar part, with acoustic guitar and electronics being played by Ministry, as the end credits start to roll. By this time Marco and Buck are in the middle of scoring their next film, but they will always remember The Hurt Locker. This was a historical moment for a scoring team that took the challenge and met every expectation that the film required. Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders answered ‘the calling’ with the inspiration to compose melodic landscapes, capturing the intensity of the drama and its environment, with the compassion and emotion that The Hurt Locker’s images cried out for.
How did you get the job to score this film??
MB Kathryn was editing the movie a few years ago; at the end of the movie they were using some music from to Yuma for the temp score. I was asked if I’d be interested in seeing the movie. I had no idea what The Hurt Locker was about until I went in and saw it.
BS We just showed up for the screening and watched it; I didn’t know what it was about either.
Your very first exposure was seeing the film. Kathryn said, “One of the most important parts of the scoring process is that very first instinct the composers have about the material, fulfilling a particular vision of what that film can be in its perfect realization,” so what was your first instinct?
MB My first instinct was that this picture worked great on its own, everything, whether it’s the sound design, the music, or anything else that’s done with it, it’s going to have to be done very carefully to enhance what’s going on in the film. The danger of using music might take the viewer out of the picture if it was scored in a traditional sense. My first instinct was that we can’t score this in the traditional sense, we have to think more about taking sounds from the environment and musical sounds, to process them in a way so that it heightens the feeling of disorientation and the emotionality that’s already present in the movie.
BS I felt the same way, it didn’t need much music. After working on it for a while we ended up composing an hour of music for the film and I think they even used an hour. There was one scene that we scored that they ended up not using, when the EOD go into the abandoned warehouse and find the explosives room with the boy laying there with a bomb in his stomach. The first half of that was five minutes of music, but they decided to just use Paul’s sound design. Other than that, pretty much of the rest of our score was used. My first instincts were that the music needed to be very subdued and subtle, gritty, intense, and we really weren’t thinking about using guitars at first, but that sound ended up being a pretty big voice in the film.
When you started working on the film, did you understand that your score would be mixed with the sound design to create a hybrid or did you go through certain levels of your process to figure out exactly what you had to do?
BS In the beginning we weren’t too sure, we both actually had a romantic idea of what we wanted to achieve and we really had to carve away at big broad ideas to start sculpting a focused idea. We started with the piano and then whatever gesture or phrase that really sparked our gut, we would run with. Then that would influence further sounds; we would take what Marco played on the piano and process it. There’s this pulsating that happens in the cue Man In The Bomb Suit on the CD, that’s all processed piano even though it sounds like a weird drum. It’s from the session where we took the piano and processed it creating new sounds and then we also processed a guitar, we combined white noise with the guitar so that it gives it this windy or sandstorm like sound. It sounds very windy, but it’s tonal and has a harmonic feel to it. I also played the guitar by bowing the strings with a steel rod. You can hear these guitar effects in the part with the taxi cab driver and also when SSG James disarms one bomb and discovers it’s connected to six in a circle around him. I combined white noise with some guitar chords for a few scenes and played the guitar using a slide and a device called an EBow.
Eventually you both learned that Kathryn wanted to integrate your music with the sound design to create a hybrid for the drama and its location. When you realized that this was the approach you had to take, what were your thoughts?
BS Iwas thrilled because I do the sound design for our scores anyway. From the very beginning Kathryn said that she wanted it to be a real merging of music and the sound design. Paul gave us the sound effects to use that he recorded when they were on location filming in Jordan. We were able to incorporate that and with a lot of our cues we designed our score around the sounds they were using. We knew this challenge would be fun, exciting, and we were able to use echoes and process the sounds as well, an approach that I’m a big fan of.
MB I was so overwhelmed that I had a chance to score a light romantic comedy that I didn’t even care (laughter). Actually when we were dealing with the melodic part of the music we worked from the answer to the question, ‘How are we going to enhance this picture?’ because the film sort of works great even without music. The melodic components were a challenge because I wasn’t sure how I could even compose a score like to Yuma, but not copy it. They seemed really sold on that score. Actually Buck came up with the first melodic idea that Kathryn responded to. The idea wasn’t based on the first scene we scored; it took a while before we got to that point.
BS We originally started with a beautiful hymnal that Marco wrote, but Kathryn didn't feel like it quite fit the film. We returned to the drawing board and decided that maybe a slight western influenced theme may be better suited. My melodic idea was based on the sniper scene, there’s a melodic figure that’s played when the three soldiers in the EOD squad first start bonding. I played it on my guitar using an EBow and slide. It’s inspired by Western’s, because of the setting and the fact that SSG James is like a rebellious cowboy. I used this simple melody and chords that were influenced by Ennio Morricone, then I worked with Marco and he developed it for the end of the film where SGT Sanborn and SSG James are in the Humvee.
Did you have any idea of how you were going to approach the instrumentation so it would work with the sound design when you combined them together?
MB It was definitely a process. It was set in the Middle East, so we weren’t going to try to do anything that was anthropologically correct for the region. Perhaps one man’s journey into the Middle East, a stranger in a strange land or one man’s perspective of it, but we knew that we wanted to have some sort of ‘distorted perspective’ of the music from the region. One way we thought about doing that first was not by using traditional instruments, but trying to get similar effects by using Russian instruments, like with the piano. We actually started out by using the piano at my house. We had this piece of Plexiglas and we were tapping on the piano in-between the strings to get the sound of an eastern stringed instrument, a sound like a dulcimer. I also used the Plexiglas as a bow and interwoven between the piano strings for a sharp percussive sound. Who knows where a sound comes from; it just had to be appropriate for the film. As the scoring process developed, there was this Greek guy, Yorgos Adamis, who came into our studio with different various ethnic flutes, sho’s that he played, and vocalizations that he’d express that weren’t necessarily characteristic of Iraq. His vocalizations had a Middle Eastern sound to them, so we used this for more subtle textures within the piece as featured, but the whole thing was a subtle manipulation of music to work in the sound environment anyway, so it all seemed to play out.
The thematic identity of your score is subconscious; it’s not based on a lot of melodic composing.
MB There’s a melodic figure that we developed in a couple of places in the movie, but it’san isolated circumstance. We weaved it through the music in a couple of places, but it’s not a melodic or thematic score, where it’s used has more to do with its original circumstances. There is a Main Theme in the film; the first time you hear it is in the sniper scene. Also we used it where there’s this big crater in the ground that was caused by an oil tanker exploding, a chaotic blast zone with people running around and on the ground badly wounded. You see buildings, trees, and cars that are on fire, the theme is weaved in there amongst the sound effects. It’s a very long cue and the theme had a bit of trouble weaving its way through the music on the CD, but within that cue there is thematic continuity. Of course in the end when they’re in the Humvee when SSG James and SGT Sanborn are talking, it’s used there and then towards the very end of the movie as well.
BS In that scene where the EOD goes in to check out the oil tanker and they split up, you can hear my high pitched guitar. SSG James knows that the explosion was made by a remote, so he identifies a vantage point that the bomber could’ve used to oversee the blast. He orders SGT Sanborn and SPC Eldridge to come with him to search for the bomber. Kathryn’s main interest was creating a really stressed hellish environment with music and sound, that was her main objective, and then there were some moments where it was all about the soldier’s relationships and the bonding of the EOD unit. That’s where the music focuses thematically, when you can hear our melodic approach.
Did all of the soloists read music to perform their part of the score?
MB All of the soloist’s parts were written out for the violin, bass, cello, and the Erhu, the only exception was the Greek guy who sang, Yorgos Adamis. We showed him the spots that we wanted, explained to him what we wanted, and he would try different things. When we heard what we liked we’d just tell him, ‘Ok, that’s good,’ but all of the other soloists read their parts from sheet music.
BS Yorgos did a lot of wild performing; he went right in there and improvised these patterns. There are actually some moments when he played the Main Theme, but he learned it by ear to play it, so we didn’t have to have any parts for him. He just improvised everything he did.
MB At times we also did it with string players as well, we even had violinist Endre Granat improvising.
Kathryn said, “When I say sound, that’s all of it, that’s all the effects, all the detail work, and of course the score, because all of it needs to feel like it’s one piece. It has to be able to be integrated and yet set itself apart at the same time, so it’s a complicated proposition.” Did you sense that when you worked with her?
BS Even with a score like Hellboy or a very large orchestral score, the objective is to do something on a similar level when what you’ve composed can work with the sound effects. In this film it’s like almost taking sound effects and using them as score, creating very effective ambient musical sound effects and trying to combine it with Paul’s sound design. The sound design is like when you hear jets fly over, crazy sirens going by, or ambient textures that Paul would make for a room tone.
MB I wouldn’t call it musique concrete because that’s a completely different thing, but it’s sort of inspired by the same principles as musique concrete. We recently did a piece that was much more in that vein with Tommy Lee Jones when he was directing the HBO movie Sunset Limited; it’s based on a Cormac McCarthy play. That was much more in the vein of musique concrete, but this was inspired by the concept of integrating natural sounds from the real world. The difference here is that we’re not using these sounds by themselves, but we’re actually processing them and incorporating them with the music. We are not creating music solely out of found sounds, but we’re using found sounds, manipulating them, and weaving them into a musical score.
Your music is tonally based, but then Paul incorporates your music with non-melodic sound designs of jets flying over, a bomb exploding, or a processed Erhu that’s unrecognizable. Is mixing these two different elements of sound difficult?
MB We had an awareness of what they were doing. They sent us the sounds that they were working on as they progressed, while we sent them some of the score that we were composing.
For the most part visually, you can have an idea of what those sounds might be. It’s a question of working with awareness around you, that what you’re doing is going to have a slight overlap with what somebody else is doing and that’s one of the reasons that this whole approach is new. I don’t think we’ve been this aware of the sound department ever before. We always say, ‘Oh, you’ve got to work with the sound department, you got to do this and that,’ but in the end on the dubbing stage it comes down to a battle between the sound and the music. On this film, it was more of a hybrid between sound and music.
BS Our sound engineer, John Kurlander, helped us with the final mix of our music before the dub. We presented the cues mixed, what we thought sounded best musically, and then if something within that mix clashed or needed to be adjusted, they have the ability to change it. We gave them such control at the dub; we gave them every track of our score isolated so that they could use a fader for each sound. If there was something that was fighting another sound effect, they had the control to work with it and get the proper balance.
MB There is a scene where SSG James is in his bomb suit, he’s walking, and helicopters are flying over. One of the things we did was to ask for the helicopter sounds so that we could manipulate it and make this drone, it’s almost like you’re hearing this from the staff sergeants perspective inside the bomb suit. It turned out that the sound people were doing exactly the same thing. In that case, we omitted that element from our conglomerate of music and replaced it with their sound, then that sound became part of our musical score.
Did you compose music while waiting for Paul’s sound design to integrate it into the score or did you wait until you received his sound design to hear how everything worked together while you scored the film?
BS Both, we started working on the music and then Kathryn would say, ‘You know, Paul’s got some great recordings of Muslim prayers from the mosques,’ you know, on those crappy little PA speakers they use, ‘It would be great to integrate that into the score,’ I said, ‘Great,’ then I E mailed Paul and he sent them over. Then the creativity started snowballing from there, ‘Can we get that helicopter sound and those crazy sirens that we heard?’ We were able to take those sounds and process them so they could still work with the original audio files that were there, but it was like adding an echo to a sound. We’d process it in a way so that what we created could sit on the original sound effect.
After you combined the score with Paul’s sound design, did you send them a Mock-up of your hybrid so they could hear how everything worked together?
BS There would be a sound effects dialog track on our Quick Time movie files. They’d send us each reel of the film in a Quick Time file and that would have the sound effects imbedded on it, so we could work with the film. That’s typical with every film and then we’d send a Mock-up to them so they could match everything up to hear what we were doing. Kathryn was very aware of what we were doing. The real blending came at the final dub, where they had control over every sound effect and every bit of music. They knew what we were going for before the dub. We told them what we wanted to do and Kathryn was very aware of what we were composing, she came over to our studio quite often, a couple of times a week, and would hear what the score sounded like. She was incredibly involved in the dub, she was there everyday.
When you created your score before they sent you the sound design, did that change anything?
BS Not a whole lot. It’s not like every bit of music has Paul’s sounds in it, it’s just used here and there. Paul already had some very complex sound design going on and we were conscious of that while we were working, so when you take the two elements away, there’s a very definite music track and there’s a very definite sound effects track. If you’re seeing the film it sounds completely different when you watching it, the positioning of where each sound comes from or what combination of speakers each sound uses, from one of them to all of them, changes everything.
What was the very first scene you scored in the Hurt Locker?
MB It was in the opening of the film, when the EOD team with their leader, Sergeant Matt Thompson, sends out the robotic arm with a cart attached to it to check out the location and see if a bomb is there. It was this remote controlled droid with a robotic arm, but one of the wheels of the cart breaks down while it’s being towed, so it becomes immobilized and useless.
BS That scene is an example of really complex sound design going on. You’ve got the rubble, the walkie talkies, the sirens, and the all of the commotion that was happening when SGT Thompson had to put on the bomb suit and go out there by himself. It gets even more intense when he gets to the bomb and SGT Sanborn and SPC Eldridge, who are in radio contact with the Sergeant, see a number of suspected insurgents possibly lurking around inside a building. Sanborn and Eldridge become very nervous and plead with the Sergeant on the radio to return. They both erratically mount their weapons on their shoulders, frantically looking around the area and at the different buildings with scattered paranoid minds.
MB Kathryn wanted the beginning of the movie to be completely disorienting, so while you’re watching it you don’t know where you are, you don’t know even know what you’re seeing, you don’t know if somebody’s attacking or what’s even happening. She wanted the music to give it this feeling of adrenaline and at the same time be disorienting from different sounds, all of this becomes a completely foreign environment before you ride into it right off the bat. Our music is based on the combination of using a swelling cello and bass with a muted drum sound that is slightly distorted, so we have this pulsating underlying drive to it as well as some vocalizations. Face it, the whole kitchen sink is in there.
BSAfter the opening quiets down, SGT Thompson (Guy Pearce) puts on the bomb suit and walks towards the bomb, that’s where we used the processed pulsating piano sound with the equalizer on the echo that’s continuously rising, so it gives the effect of heightened tension. The source is a low piano cluster that has a thick echo on it, which is slowly being equalized over a period of time to give a sort of Sheppard tone effect, and that’s what makes the tension build.
MB That’s the same kind of sound that we used when the EOD unit is called to check out a suspicious vehicle parked by the United Nations Building in Baghdad. SSG James suits up and walks up to the car. A sniper on a rooftop shoots the car, causing it to burst into flames. SSG James uses a fire extinguisher on the car while SGT Sanborn runs to the top of the nearest building to provide cover. Colonel Reed and his men find the sniper, who has been shot in the chest, and even though the sniper has a survivable wound, Reed orders his men to kill him. James opens the trunk of the car and finds that it’s filled with IED’s, while he intensely studies the intricate bombs; SGT Sanborn and SPC Eldridge provide him with cover. During this sequence we used a sound that was similar to the sub-sonic sound we used in the opening. I used a processed piano that was more percussive but deep and throbbing. I wouldn’t call a sound like this a theme, but maybe it’s a motivic device or a psychological element, but not a theme.
The opening part of The Hurt Locker sets the stage showing how deadly one bomb is. The momentum of the tension builds as we hear this pounding subsonic sound that’s disorienting.
BS It’s this pulse that you can actually feel besides hearing it. It's a combination of swelling cello and bass along with a muted drum sound that’s slightly distorted. The opening is the only time that this exact pattern shows up, but there are some other scenes that use a similar sound. We used that type of sound with ambient score and drums when SSG James is dismantling these bombs in a car. When he’s in this car he can’t find the kill switch, so he’s frantically digging through the car looking for it.
Wasn’t SGT Thompson far enough from the bomb so that his suit protected him?
MB The reason this happened is that SGT Thompson was within the ‘kill zone, which is within twenty five meters. He disintegrates in the bomb suit because a pressure wave forms, it has nothing to so with shrapnel hitting him, but everything liquefies inside your body from the pressure wave. Kathryn played that out because you have your main star Guy Pearce, this is another disorienting thing about the film, and everyone thinks, ‘There’s no way the main star is going to be blown up,’ so everyone feels pretty confident that the bomb will go off and he’ll be fine. When SGT Thompson gets blown up it’s like, ‘Well what kind of start is this? Our main character is gone.
When SSG James disarms one bomb, as he slowly pulls it up from the ground six red cables connected to it lead to six other bombs around him. What is your instrumentation and was there any sound design in this scene?
BS It’s composed by using three basses, three cellos, three violins, a bowed piano, and an EBowed guitar, with the soloists being overdubbed. Kathryn asked for us to sting the moment SSG James pulls the daisy chain out of the dirt to give a spine tingling feeling. Within the cue we used one of the mosque prayers that were recorded by Paul when he was on the set in Jordan. All of the other sound effects in this part were Paul's contributions, but it was a string gesture that evolves into the guitar, with very static EBow layered guitars that keep the rising tension going.
MB That daisy chain of bombs is very scary. We took this Penderecki type of approach. In the film SSG James disarms one bomb and all of a sudden it spreads out to these other bombs. Similarly with the music we thought it would be neat to start on a single note and diverge onto a whole cluster pattern, so we’re basically copying visually what’s happening in the music. The scene goes beyond fear, but that’s what SSG James lives for.
Erhu soloist Karen Han was one of the musicians who played on your score. She also worked with Paul so he could use the Erhu’s tone for sound design. This is first time I’ve head of a dual collaboration like this, what was the difference?
BS The scene where they took out the music, where the EOD is going though that abandoned warehouse and you hear this sort of odd wind sound, that was one sound Paul created out of a number of them that he used with the Erhu. Paul also used the Erhu as part of creating very subtle textures. We recorded Karen’s melodic performances while she read the music, while Paul made more processed ambient sounds that could be used as an environmental tone. On the other hand Marco and I worked with Karen melodically on The Main Theme and in other parts, while Paul worked with her in a more intimate way.
There is a night sequence when the EOD venture out into these dark alleys. Where SPC Eldridge kills a man and is shot in the leg, while SSG James and SGT Sanborn search for these two men, finding them shot to death. What instrumentation accompanied this?
BS At first it starts out very light and ambient with the guitar playing the theme and then it switches to a wilder cello performance. We have a guitar that plays the melodic theme that we wrote for the film as he’s walking down the alley by himself, but then after SPC Eldridge gets shot and they are running up to him to save him, there are these wild cello harmonics going on.
Did you ever think about how your score would be mixed at the dub when you were working on the music?
MB I really didn’t think about it. We all knew what this was all about when we became involved with The Hurt Locker, so there wasn’t any reason to be concerned.
BS The work load for this film was completely different and creatively more demanding than any other film we’ve approached. to Yuma has tons of processing in it, so we’re always really involved in each others processes. You can never tell how the score is going to be mixed with the movie anyway, even if you give them a 5:1 mix. On The Faculty, the score that we recorded ended up being something completely different than our original intent. It’s their right and it’s their music at that point when you give it to them.
The sniper sequence, when the EOD go to the desert and meet these British mercenaries, when all hell breaks loose and the insurgents attack them. Three of the mercenaries are killed, but SGT Sanborn and SSG James kill the last two snipers. This is a great moment for the EOD; when they finally bond together and accept SSG James as their leader. Is this the first sign of melody in your score?
BS Up until that point in the film, it’s all chaos and tension.
MB We actually introduced the melody in that part of the film. It’s the first time you’ll hear some harmonic structure with the guitar, the Erhu, and the strings. It becomes more traditional. Using this type of instrumentation was perfect because the music didn’t need to convey the action of the battle. It wasn’t trying to fix anything and it consciously stayed away from big drums and chanting Persian women, it was more of a sense of supplying things that perhaps were alluded to on the screen and could be enhanced. Such as, this becomes the first time in the movie where there’s an emotional connection established between the key players (The EOD Team) and that’s something that music has a good way of bringing up. It’s intimate, and it’s a little alien musically. There is nothing conventional about driving through the Iraqi desert and seeing a group of British mercenaries dressed up as Muslims.
It’s all based on the unexpected, so that’s what makes the war so adrenalin filled. You never know what’s around the next corner, so musically it shouldn’t be predictive. The location supports that idea. How far you from are campVictory and why are you caught up in a battle to survive? That train track running through the middle of the desert is completely unexpected, right in the middle of nowhere.
Can you break down your score into themes or the parts?
MB The whole score for this film was based on one Main Theme. It was based on Buck’s first guitar riff that was written for the sniper scene, when the EOD team bonds together and SGT Sanborn and SPC Eldridge finally accept SSG James as their leader. This is based on the entrance of the score’s melody in the film for the sniper sequence, so it’s the same instrumentation that we just talked about, which includes guitar, Erhu, and some strings, it’s a nice little tune.
BS Since it’s not thematic music, but more of a sonic based score with textures and ambiences, we reuse those styles a lot because it’s like you’re repeating certain themes for a film that has a variety of themes in the score. There are textures that have a harmonic quality to them, like a chord progression that was based on this rising waterphone sound. So there is really only one theme, but there are sounds and chord progressions that we used throughout the score to give it an identity and some continuity. We never really named these ideas like identifiable themes; we’d just refer to a section from one scene to try it somewhere else because it might work.
What are the best parts in the film where either the score or the score with the sound design became one with the images?
MB There’s this part where the EOD goes into a warehouse and finds out that it’s the location of a bomb factory. After they’re inside, they find a boy on a table that’s dead with a bomb implanted in his stomach. SSG James orders SPC Eldridge and SGT Sanborn to remove the explosives so that they can blow up the building. He places charges on the boy’s body, but he emotionally starts to breakdown. SSG James cancels the destruction of the building, cuts the wires in the boy’s chest, and pulls the bomb out of his stomach to disarm it. Then you see that classic shot of SSG James carrying the boy’s body in his arms outside to transport to return to campVictory. Emotionally it’s a powerful moment; an unforgettable image. There’s actually a secondary theme there, a sub-theme. It’s a theme that’s performed by the strings and Erhu. It’s not especially related to the Main Theme, but it has this sad and remorseful melody. It’s not a featured theme, so it’s hard to define it with the word ‘theme’ if you’re only using it once.
BS Artistically and expressionistically the sniper sequence works really well, when the music expands beyond trying to keep it in the subdued realistic sense. That’s the first time the music branches out beyond more of a supportive role and it’s actually is a bit more leading, like trying to lead the listener more than we normally would. For the rest of the film our score is much more subdued, but the film does the heavy lifting. Also towards the end of the film in the Humvee, when SSG James and SGT Sanborn are talking, that’s where Marco really developed the Main Theme of the film. That’s another spot where the music becomes more of a traditional film score. Also I liked the oil tanker scene at night with all the flares going off, that really worked with the images because Kathryn wanted it to sound hellacious. The music and the sound effects really blend well together there as well.
Is this one of the most challenging films you’ve scored because of the process and the dub??
MB Every film is really the most challenging when I’m working on it. In retrospect, it came together really well and had an ease of flow that I didn’t anticipate when I took the project on. On each movie it’s like solving a puzzle, until you know what the puzzle is and you figure how the pieces fit, it’s a mystery, an albatross you have to carry around. After that, it just falls into place. When we scored The Hurt Locker, we had to deal with this ordered sequence. It definitely presented a challenge, it wasn’t a walk in the park, and it involved working with a different process, but when it finally flowed, the puzzle fit together perfectly.
BS We had to work real hard, but we really enjoyed it. It wasn’t difficult because of it being un-pleasurable. We were really into it and luckily Kathryn liked a lot of our initial ideas. By having to compose and combine our score with the sound design, it was like bringing in a new instrument and a different way of thinking about arranging a cue. It was fun, but it was tough even though it was fun.
If you put your finger on exactly what the pulse of a film is, what drives it, should music just enhance it or is there more to it?
MB I think music should enhance the film and at the same time, in order to be a good film score, it needs to have its own original voice and work as a unified piece, so it’s not just a question of one thing, but it involves a few elements.
BS It really matters what the film needs, if it’s a film like The Hurt Locker you know you’re going to take a much more subtle approach than a film like Hellboy. Film music should always support and help out the film, so it depends on what you need to do to make that happen and that involves everything about the film you’re dealing with. It doesn’t require the fantasy and escapism that Hellboy needs or if it’s based in reality, you just can’t be as heavy handed and use what a giant orchestra pounding away might give you.
In the last two days America went to war by assaulting Marjah, Afghanistan. Thousands of Marines made a push into this southern Afghan city and killed thousands of insurgents. The evening news pointed out that the strength of the insurgents is all of the roadside bombs that they planted everywhere as traps. What do you feel about going to war?
MB I don’t think you can have any living organisms without a struggle and part of that struggle takes place in the form of what we call war. It’s something that takes place and it’s innate in us. We’ll never get rid of war, so it doesn’t matter. It’s just one of those things you have to accept. I don’t know if I have the constitution to go to battle, but thankfully there are soldiers who do.
BS I think war is a necessary evil, sometimes it’s just inevitable. Certainly President Bush didn’t have to, but the situation of going to war is very complex, like what’s currently happening in Afghanistan. I really don’t know if I’m qualified or know enough to say if we should be there or not. I wish they weren’t and they could just use drones instead of human beings
What are you currently working on?
MB We’re scoring the movie Jonah Hex for Warner Brothers. Also director John Moore has a project he asked us to work on called Northern Lights, which is about these air show pilots.
BS Right now we’re working with producer Guillermo del Toro on Don’tbe Afraid of the Dark, it’s going to be an all orchestral score that we’ll record in Sydney Australia in April.
Marco and Buck's music for The Hurt Locker was released on CD by Lakeshore Records and the film itself is available on DVD and BluRay right now.