Article and Photography by Rudy Koppl
On it’s opening weekend in the U.S. Marvel’s Iron Man exploded on the big screen taking in a spectacular one-hundred and one million dollars, being the second largest opening during this time period in motion picture history, the first being the original Spider-man. Little did the audience know, but until they see the credits of Iron Man finish rolling, they are treated to a scene that previews the opening of the Marvel Universe to a cast of never ending heroes. Not since Marvel set out to conquer Hollywood with the first X-Men film eight years ago has the excitement of what’s to come peaked. Being a member of The Merry Marvel Marching Society, I know them all and it’s when you realize that agent Phil Coulson in Iron Man is the precursor to a list of films that would make any Marvel fan’s hair stand on end. As Coulson bluntly puts it, “Just call us S.H.I.E.L.D., you’ll be hearing from us again.” S.H.I.E.L.D. originally stood for Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division. It was changed in 1991 to Strategic Hazard Intervention, Espionage Logistics Directorate. In Iron Man it now concluded to be the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, and eventually Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) will become the seventh known executive director of S.H.I.E.L.D., thus leading the way to thousands of storylines and casts of heroes and villains that have never been seen.
Besides seeing the Tony Stark character re-emerge in July when the new film version of Marvel’s The Hulk is released, it’s no surprise that S.H.I.E.L.D. will open up its doors to the super hero group The Avengers and Sgt. Nick Fury. Just consider the title to the upcoming film The First Avenger: Captain America (2011), this leads us into the battle of the titans with The Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, Wasp and Ant Man, all of whom will eventually get their own film series. This is an inevitable prophecy as Nick Fury/ Samuel L. Jackson states to Tony Stark, “Do you think you’re the only superhero in the world?”
It’s Tuesday May 6th; days after Iron Man exploded as I travel to Remote Control’s domain in Santa Monica to meet with composer Ramin Djawadi in the mid-afternoon. His studio is located in a room that Hans Zimmer used to use nine years ago when he was scoring The Prince of Egypt, a place where Zimmer had located all his patchable analog synthesizers. Ramin’s new studio was more streamlined with esoteric instruments in every corner including his electric guitars, which he played in Iron Man. Djawadi is part of a new breed of composers, his experiences have been drawn from working with Hans on films like Batman Begins and The Da Vinci Code, scoring the television drama Prison Break, and the evil Kevin Costner film Mr. Brooks. If Ramin really just sat back in his extremely comfortable couch that he sat on when we interviewed and thought about what the film grossed he just finished working on, he’d probably pass out. Used to the rigors of scoring and it’s brutally fast paced process, Djawadi’s innocent childlike looks show no wear and tear of the years of composing many have endured, but his knowledge and involvement in the process pulls him through. For instance, the key to his success was his collaboration with director/actor Jon Favreau. It’s not often that the crux of the score is solely derived from the initial conversations and ideas between composer and director, this being the rawest form of inspiration and possibly the most imaginary musical journey of all. I sat down with Ramin, whose success has eluded him, and he passionately talked about his momentous collaboration with Jon Favreau, how he approached scoring the largest film he’s ever worked on and the musical concept behind Iron Man. This is the humility of one man’s vision and how it endured an overwhelming success.
Composer Ramin Djawadi
How did you get into film scoring?
I grew up with a lot of classical music as well as rock music in the eighties playing guitar. There were a lot of German composers like Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Beethoven, and then Edward Elgar is actually one of my favorite English composers. In rock during the eighties I started playing guitar, which was great for this movie because I had the guitar chops. It was that whole metal scene, Metallica, Megadeth, Van Halen, and then I studied guitar, film scoring, and jazz, at the Berkeley College of Music, so I tried to get involved with all these different styles because with film scoring it’s very important. I realized that I want to score films when I was in the seventh grade. I was always doing a lot of music, whenever I wrote music it was instrumental. Even when I write songs I don’t write lyrics, then I realized that everything I was writing would work in film. Films like Star Wars and The Magnificent Seven, those were movies where I heard the music I thought, ‘Wow, this is really great; I’d love to do something like that.”
Explain the process you went through when working on Iron Man?
Based on conversations with Jon I began to play with ideas before I even saw the film. Later on we spotted the film and it was temped, but most of it wasn’t suitable for the imagery, so we basically worked off of our conversations. I mocked-up my demos here in my room Hans style, which is very precise so you can hear what the final symphonic recording will sound like. My score is written through my master keyboard using Logic on a Mac. In this film it also involves the guitar because there are so many guitars in this score, so some of it I wrote on the guitar instead of my keyboard. All this information becomes my mock up and then it goes to my orchestrator Stephen who takes my mini mock-up, applies that to the full score, and then it gets extracted to the parts for the orchestra to play. We recorded the score at Air Lyndhurst Studios in London with seventy players for four days. My conductor was Gavin Greenaway and my main orchestrator was Stephen Coleman, while additional orchestrations were done by Matt Dunkley. At one point in the process I had one-hundred and five minutes of music, but it was pared down to actually eighty five minutes for the film. I coordinated my scoring sessions from Los Angeles because the picture wasn’t locked; there were a lot of CG shots that weren’t finished, so I was still writing while the sessions started. We had two and two days, not four days in a row, so after two days of sessions I did some writing and then we recorded again for two days. All the sessions took place at night over here. I used this plug in for Pro Tools called Source Connect, which is basically the same as ISDN, so it’s in real time over the internet. The two Pro Tools systems, mine over here and there’s over in London were locked in together. When they hit record we would be perfectly be in synch and I could see the picture here, read along with my score, and talk in real time, it worked really well. I worked with Jon a month and a half before I saw the picture, but once I got it I had two months to finish it.
Was your score based around a band of four players?
Absolutely, this included Aaron Kaplan and myself on guitars, Ryeland Allison on drums, Greg Ellis on percussion and dulcimer, and Martin Tilman on electric cello. My score was meant to be a hybrid. I see everything as an instrument color, the orchestra is just one color, the guitar is one color, the band is one color, and then I have all these on the table so I can draw and chose from them. I have to credit Jon Favreau with this sound because before I saw the movie and Jon and I talked, I sat down and played with some ideas and they were way more orchestral than what it became. Jon came in and said, ‘Ramin that’s great stuff, but I want this to be much more rock and roll.’ Then the trailer came out with the Black Sabbath song, it was such hype that it really made sense to do that, but it was really Jon who said, ‘I want guitars!’ It was his vision to make this rock and roll, which I thought was great because we knew that we’d be compared to all the others super hero movies, Batman, Spider-Man, so this is stylistically a different tone.
What was your greatest challenge when scoring Iron Man?
It was definitely making the guitar and the orchestra work together, just how the two elements combine because the orchestra has such a big lush sound while the guitars have this close sounding sound when you listen to them on the speakers. When you combine the two, where a guitar on its own might sound huge, as soon as you add the orchestra it sounds small. That was always a fear of mine, how to mix them together properly, that was one, and the other fear was, when we knew we wanted to do guitars I was very afraid of having long lush melodies played on the guitar because I didn’t want it to fall back into this eighties score, so I knew I couldn’t do high guitar melodies. That was impossible, that’s why I fell back into more riff based writing for this one. Sometimes it was a give and take, at times you had to pull out the orchestra or you had the find the right balance between the two. Alan Meyerson (Engineer) played a big part; he would treat the guitar in the way that he would lay it into the surrounds so it would become as wide as the orchestra.
How did you meet Jon and what were your impressions of him as a director?
He was fantastic, very articulate, he always knew what he wanted, yet there was still some experimenting, so when I say, ‘He knew what he wanted,’ sometimes we would have to talk about a scene. I would write a scene, we would look at it and go, ‘It’s going to work,’ and then later we would change our minds, which on a movie like this is completely normal. It was excellent working with him, he was very funny at times, sometimes when I played him something and there would be sections he didn’t like, he’d joke about it. Sometimes when I’d get a little too dark he say, ‘Ok Ramin, this is not Batman Begins, this is Iron Man, you already worked on that movie once, so do something else.’
What did Jon want musically, how did he express it to you?
It was character based. Jon would talk about Robert Downey’s performance and he’d say, ‘Look, he’s thinking this right now,’ more so than the action, but rather, ‘This is what’s going on in Downey’s head right now, he went through this, he just broke out,’ or ‘He just saw this on television and wants to put on a suit and go out.’ Like at the beginning in the cave when he’s sitting at the campfire, when Yinsen says to him, ‘This is a very important week for you,’ then when his eyes go up, you can see his brain start ticking, it’s like, ‘I have this plan, I’m going to build this suit and break out!’ So Jon would give me these explanations of what was going on in Tony Stark’s head. It’s the same thing after he goes to the party at Disney Hall, when he comes back home and he sees those terrorists again on television, that’s when he decides to do something about it when he has the glove on. He says, ‘I’m going to do something about this. I’m going to use the suit and the power of the suit to do something good.’
What sequence in the film did you score first, the part that inspired the complete score?
This is when you see the suit for the first time, the second version, the Mark II. When he’s in his house and he puts the whole suit on and the camera pans around and you see his face for the first time, then he flies out and he has his first flight outside. That was a very important scene for Jon because that’s when you see Iron Man in his full glory. That’s obviously one of the big scenes in the movie where the tune plays out the most, that was always a scene we looked at and discussed a lot, how we should play it out? How I should focus on when you see the eyes for the first time and when he flies out? I re-worked this scene quite a bit because how the camera came around, the emphasis on how you see his eyes, and then when he flies out, this was probably the hardest scene to score. On the CD this is the first cue called ‘Driving With The Top Down.’ This branched out into the whole score because some of the rhythmic elements of this theme, we backtracked them and then the whole development of him building that suit and also the suit in the cave, would just be snippets of that or hints of what it’s about to become. So definitely, the score was moving backwards from that.
If Tony Stark’s different moods were the inspiration for your score, what moods were these and did they define various themes?
Definitely, there are two for Iron Man. One is the more action needed, the darker one when he’s pissed off and kicks ass, and then there’s the other one which is more the heroic one. The heroic one plays when he flies out of the house for the first time, when he’s not doing any fighting, he’s simply having a good time and fun. There is a third theme which has nothing to do with the Iron Man character, which is more Tony Stark the playboy rock and roll guy. It plays both times when he’s in his car just driving, one is when he goes to the airport, the other is when he drives to the party. Those are the three basic themes, but there’s one last one which connects to the Iron Monger, which is the heart theme for the heart that Iron Man built. It’s an arpeggiated motif which plays for his heart, also when Obadiah sees it for the first time in front of arc reactor, it starts playing there as well. That motif carries us through the movie, it becomes the thing Obadiah wants, which then he later takes and that leads him into becoming the Iron Monger and that’s the Iron Monger theme.
What are the best parts of score where the music and the movie work together?
The first one is when we see the suit for the first time and he flies out of his house. Another scene is before he flies to Gamira, Afghanistan, when he puts on the suit, we see different sections of his armored suit come together. Also when Iron Man is shot out of the sky, he drops to the street hitting it with a stunning impact and force, there’s a tank down the street that shoots at him, then he moves to the side and there’s no music there, so he shoots at the tank, just turns around, and the music kicks in, this is extremely effective.
What are the climaxes of your score within the framework of the story?
It takes place in different steps, basically being the three suits. One is when he builds his suit in the cave and then when he comes out of the cave, the second is when he comes home and builds the second suit and he flies out with the suit for the first time, that’s the second climax and the third one is the final battle when he meets the Iron Monger.
With each director you have to concede to something in the process in order to serve the vision, what was it with Jon?
I had to concede a little bit. Jon was particular about nailing the mood, sometimes I would carried away when scoring for the suit, where I would try to make it darker, and Jon would say, ‘It doesn’t need to be this dark.’ When Iron Man flies to Gamira and attacks the terrorists I had this older version that was really dark, Jon said, ‘Let’s have a bit more fun here.’ It’s the same when he flies out of the cave and at the end when everything blows up and you see him coming out of the big explosion, there’s this little tag on at the end before he flies into the sand where it gives everything away and says, ‘Look he’s going to be all right, it’s not going to be that bad.’ It would be things like that where just a little turn in the music would switch the mood drastically, so it was moments like these when Jon would point me into a different direction.
From talking with the director to the final dub what was the key part of the process that made your music work for Iron Man?
It’s definitely our first conversations. Everything is based on what do we want to achieve? Based on that information I sat down and had to create the notation that will work together and achieve what we were looking for. Once you have that you can branch out and apply the theme in many places in different arrangements, but it’s really the beginning that molds the score. We didn’t nail the theme right away, it was a process. Also I really didn’t score to picture for about a month and a half even though I had already started writing, so a lot of it was just simply writing pieces of music that we would listen to and Jon would say, ‘That’s a really cool piece, let’s put that aside and now let’s look at something else.’ We would start creating ideas and once the picture came in we spotted the movie and then we started really working to picture. Just because of what a high pressure movie it was, I have to admit there were definitely still changes being made throughout. Also there were a lot of CG scenes that just weren’t finished until the very, very end. We would actually send stems to the dubbing stage, they received the drums, the orchestra, the guitars, all of this separate, so it was easier to make edits because the picture wasn’t locked until the very last day of the dub. So if there are adjustments it’s much easier for them to work in blocks, it’s easier for them to mix and also edit the score. If you want to keep the string line hanging over and you want to take out the drums, you can. Let’s say the cut ends earlier now, now you can let the string line hang over longer, but with the drums you can move its last hit earlier on in the cut. It sounds cleaner than having to chop the music up, the more control the editor has, the cleaner they can do the musical edits and the better it will sound.
What do you love about film music?
Every movie is something else, it’s a different style. I always try to vary the movies as much as I can. I love it when one score you can do a full orchestral score for an animated film, while on Mr. Brooks it’s very electronic. It never gets boring, there’s always a new product to conquer. I really get a kick out of the emotion with it. I can sit here and just watch the film, work on it, and try to create something that I’ll enjoy.