It’s been almost five years since Alex Proyas finished I, Robot and has now brought his latest sci-fi adventure to the big screen. Knowing is a fascinating film with a mysterious story line, excellent special effects, and one of the best scores I’ve heard from composer Marco Beltrami in a while. After talking to Proyas it’s easy to perceive how critical the composer/director relationship is when it comes to making great film music and his faith in Marco is undying. He’s a director who loves epic scores, Hitchcock and Herrmann, and perceives film music as the life blood of the film, the pulse of the movie. From the in your face music for I, Robot to the insidious functioning Knowing, where it creeps up on you a little bit more, you won’t be as conscious of it. Film music definitely changes the chemistry for each of Alex’s films, where all of his movies are doing similar things even though the music underscores them in very different ways. Beltrami, who is the perfect fit for Proyas’ visions, gives us the feeling of simplicity through some rather complex aspects. It’s the perfect score for a world growing as it moves forward.
The opening of Knowing says it all. It’s 1959 as we see a distraught Lucinda Embry on the playground at school staring at the sun. When you hear the opening temple bells of the score, you know something special is about to happen. Beltrami with Buck Sanders have managed to not only return to their fascinating melodic roots from Mimic, but their musical concepts weave in and out as all sorts of subconscious influences fly around. Though Marco makes it perfectly clear that it all comes from the Beltrami mindset, he can’t escape the great influences that subliminally enter into his writing process. Composers like Herrmann and Stravinsky come to mind during certain moments, but if you read this interview you will discover that Marco’s style is his own with an underlying unique blend of historical influences that enter from beyond.
Knowing is a thrilling mystery from start to finish, the first three fourths of the film develops the storyline into this psychologically roaring tension, then the film takes a turn and the finale amounts to a science fiction based religious experience. Some people have a hard time conceptualizing this film because of it’s storyline and ending, but let’s face it, this is entertainment, it’s not any more realistic than Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Dark City, it’s just a hell of fun ride with a ‘what if?’ premise leading the way. Looking back it’s the fine details, Marco’s throbbing score, the excellent special effects, and the intricacies of how the puzzle was assembled that makes it so real and propels the vision.
On Thursday March 26th I drove up to Marco’s
Alex said, “Because I knew I was going to work with Marco at a very early stage I sent him a screenplay incredibly early, to the point where he wasn’t quite sure at times whether the film was actually still going to go ahead. I had to call him every six months and say, ‘It will happen, believe me, just hang in there.” When did this start happening and was it your faith in Alex that kept you going?
When it came to the temp Alex said, “I tried to get him cut sequences as quickly as I possibly could and we very quickly moved from having temp music in our edits to having Marco’s Mock-ups, his synthetic rough versions. I became so confident in those versions that much to Marco’s horror I would actually end up scoring the film with those versions.” Were your concerned that Alex would actually use your mock-ups for the real score?
Are you going to downgrade your Mock-Ups so they can’t be used for the original score?
What was the first thing in the film that influenced you?
Did you channel this idea into a thematic approach?
You always think that it’s bad, it’s the end of the world and all, but a new world starts from that, so there’s good and bad intertwined all the time. The music had to do that and so this chord, this scale of being both major and minor became the harmonic underpinning for the entire score. That becomes John Koestler’s (Nicolas Cage) theme, it’s a descending thing. You hear it in the Opening Titles and you hear it at the end and you hear it throughout the movie, this is the theme for John and his son Caleb.
In the opening of the film first we see Lucinda on the playground looking at the sun and we hear this ambient sound, what instrument are you using?
Buck- In the opening we hear these manipulated Tibetan bowls.
Marco- We also used the Tibetan bowls in the Main Title, but they’re not as processed. During the Main Title I’m using the John and Caleb theme with that half minor and half major thing. If sounds a bit like Mimic, I think it’s the same composer. The shape or build to it might be similar.
We hear these rapidly striking strings in Door Jam, what part of the film is this and can you explain the technique?
Marco- This is when John is scraping the paint off the door and Diana takes the kids and flees. Again this was based on Numerology and I’ll tell you how. Numerology has this whole twelve tone row being played as pizzicato or plucked strings. When we got to this part it was just a question of how can I apply this? It was a question of applying the same principles as Numerology and Nic to
Then there’s the Subway crash, the aftermath is electronic, what’s the theme when we see the shot of the American flag and it segues into Cage taking a shower?
There’s this sub-theme for Nic Cage, it’s like the B part of the theme with him and Caleb. This is just an expansion of the B Part. It doesn’t get used that much in the movie, but this is one case where it does in the aftermath of the subway crash.
Loudmouth sounds a bit like Stravinsky, what part in the film is that?
That’s when John pursues the alien through the woods, the alien opens his mouth, and that blinding light comes out, it includes the music leading up to this. This continues from that whole sequence. Loudmouth comes out of another cue called 33; it’s a whole long sequence that should work together. They are individual cues, but they are all supposed to work together as a sequence.
On It’s the Sun there are some great dramatic chord shifts.
That’s the cue where the little girl is on the playground with a piece of paper, she holds it up and Nic Cage says, ‘It’s the sun.’ That’s when he makes the connection, he runs to the M.I.T. lab, and he looks on his computer to see the flare that’s going to come off the sun. The theme is based on John and Caleb’s Theme; again.
Moose on the Loose is an avant-garde cue with great brass and percussion. The style is reminiscent of 33, atonal, a feeling of doom, tell me about your approach and that raspy brass sound.
That was just a question of composing for a nightmare. This is a perfect example of scoring the scene and then using elements from it throughout the movie. I introduced those elements in the Main Title and all over the movie. This is the part with Caleb at the window in his room when he sees the forest on fire and the animals on fire fleeing from the forest. At the end of the piece, when Caleb sees the animals running out of the forest it’s similar to a technique I used for Guillermo Del Toro called ‘The Butt Willies.’
Everybody has a different term for it, Guillermo called it ‘The Butt Willies,’ John Moore calls it “Finger Nails on a Blackboard,’ where your stomach drops out, that seasick feeling, it’s all under the same category. We we’re also using the same Tibetan bells from the Main Title, in fact we lifted it and pasted it from one place to another, then when the alien points at Caleb we hear those trumpets. This cue is similar to 33; it’s pretty much identical to some parts from the nightmare sequence in Moose on the Loose. 33 is when Cage lifts up the bed and everyone else has written under the bed, he thought it was 33, but then he realizes that Melissa was writing EE, which means everyone else. The raspy brass part in Moose on the Loose is played by straight muted fluttered thumb trumpets.
What theme are you using in Revelations?
Revelations is an adaptation of the Nic Cage and Caleb Theme, that’s when he’s calling his dad on the phone and telling him to get down, to go underground and his dad says, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ Caleb Leaves is in fact the very same theme again, that’s where we see the spaceship and that graphic sphere evolving from it in the field. Before this we hear Shock and Aww, this is when he first sees the spaceship and the little sphere comes down.
No, they actually used
Alex said, “There’s only the occasional cue that I’ll question about the direction things are taking and he very quickly responds with alternative versions.” What parts of the film did he question?
Actually Buck solved the problem by having this minor/major scale descending in a similar fashion to how they temped it, but it kept the original feeling and that solved the problem. Also we had a similar problem in the ending of Caleb Leaves; it was temped with Underworld: Evolution. It was hard to get the same emotionality, as well as for the Main Title; we had to do a few versions of that as well.
What’s the difference between scoring in
What do you love about working with Alex?
I love working with Alex, his creative spirit, his openness to invention, his own invention and what he does, his trust, sense of humor, personality, he’s just a great guy and I feel like I click with him.
Alex said, “I was joking with Marco about the ultimate idea for a composer, you would have to play one note and that would sum up everything that you wanted to do. For me it’s like creating one shot and when I get really good at this that will actually be the be all and end all.”
That was the goal of Beethoven in his later life, to simplify rather than get more complex. It’s to simplify and figure out what is the kernel of truth, the kernel of creativity, what’s the spark, what’s the whole thing about? It’s like the big bang, it comes from one point and from that everything explodes. If you figure out what that one point is and you’re able to say it succinctly and as economically, with as few distractions as possible, that’s the goal!