knowing composer head

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 Malibu studio where we met to discuss his work with Alex and the mysterious sonic arrangements for Knowing. Buck was also there working on a few things for their upcoming film with director Wes Craven. Buck was about to leave for Tahiti, where he was getting married, while Marco was getting ready for his next scoring adventure. One of the more interesting things that we talked about was an idea brought up by Proyas, the ultimate idea for a composer being that they would have to play one note and that would sum up everything in a score. A one shot deal that could develop into the be all and end all of all scores. Marco was convinced that this was the goal of Beethoven later in his life, 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 can figure out what that one point is and you’re able to say it succinctly and economically, that’s the goal!

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?
Right after I, Robot, four and a half years ago Alex sent me the script. I read it, I loved it, originally they were talking about a different cast, but things got shelved and it got put away. When we heard about it later on we got all excited because I thought it was a great idea. The first thing Alex mentioned is, he said, ‘I want you to think about this idea of backwards music for it,’ that was a long time ago. When I read the script I could see why that could work. There are some backwards things that we did in it, but the concept changed over time slightly. The whole time Alex was in Australia, I wasn’t sure what he was up to but I figured he was working on various projects, he adopted a kid, and so forth. Sometimes life gets in the way of work too. He adopted a girl from China.


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?
No, I never thought that, but I’m always concerned when they use my Mock-up in the testing process with the studio. Even though Alex likes the ideas, the themes, and he gets it, a lot of the studio people are just hearing it as sounding cheap, a synthetic representation of what an orchestra sounds like, and they can’t separate it. In fact we went to a screening where they used all of our demos for the temp mix; it was a problem because it made the whole movie very flat. There is not much of a dynamic shape to a synthetic score. The process is a little scary to me when directors want to have the Mock-ups for their own internal processes and screening. From the standpoint of the Mock-up being able to underscore the picture emotionally before I go to the scoring stage versus using music from other films, its good, but we did deal with some temp in Knowing. The hardest part of it was the end of the film where they used my score from Underworld: Evolution, when the spaceship takes off. I always find it harder when it’s temped with my own music because it’s hard to do what you’ve done before, as soon as you start trying to do something like it you find yourself copying yourself. It’s hard to be like it and be original; using someone else’s music is easier.

Are you going to downgrade your Mock-Ups so they can’t be used for the original score?
I always think that our Mock-ups suck. The electronic material that Buck’s doing, the whole template, that’s non-orchestral, that sounds great and we use that in the final mix anyway. The reason that Alex was having a problem with the orchestral material at the end of the film was because it was temped. It’s a big orchestral moment and when he heard it, it just didn’t have the same power, but when he finally heard it scored with the orchestra he was, ‘Wow, this is great!’ That’s a case in point. Maybe we should do our Mock-ups on a kazoo and a pump organ (laughter). Sometimes my Mock-ups can be deceiving. When you finally hear it with the orchestra its like, ‘Oh yea, now I know what it should really sound like.’

What was the first thing in the film that influenced you?
I waited until I got the images because scripts are always deceiving. The movie works as a whole, the movie to me is a puzzle, and you have to crack the puzzle. What are those elements that are part of the puzzle? One is this element of randomness; whether things are determined or random and how do you make that happen musically? The other is finding the music for this new world at the very end, what would that sound like? Also there are the thematic ideas for the characters as well. You had to work from those aspects. If you can figure these things out you can figure out the landscape of the movie and get into more specific scenes. The part in the film I worked on was where Nic Cage had a few drinks, he’s at his chalkboard and he’s writing down the numbers, we called it Numerology; he’s actually putting the pieces together. This branched out into many other areas. The idea behind this was a twelve tone row, twelve different notes because it’s not in any key; it has this randomness to it. The idea was to have all the notes line up together, when you play them all together you can’t tell what pitch it is, it just sounds like a chord of twelve notes together, there’s no structure to it. If you slowly space them out by each one coming a little bit later, then you end up with an actual twelve pitches and you have an order. From this disorder, from it just sounding like noise, from out of this random noise concept, you get order. That was the concept that spread into everything else.

Did you channel this idea into a thematic approach?
Yes, from Numerology where Cage is at the blackboard, we decided that this idea not only worked as cracking the code or going from what seems like a row of numbers which is just chaos to actually having a pattern and meaning something. This is what Nic Cage discovers and musically it does that, but then it also had its own intensity to it which I felt worked well for Nic Cage’s character when he’s frantically trying to stop what he considers to be that terror threat in New York, the subway sequence. That same idea carries through in that scene and also with his persona, his working moments, the mental concept, when he’s trying to frantically decipher the numbers from the door, when he’s scraping the paint off the door to see Lucinda’s numbers. It identifies with the mechanics going on inside his brain. We also had a theme for this tremendous loss in his life, his wife and that connection with his son, so we needed something that wasn’t overly sentimental, but that had an emotional connection for him and his son and the overall picture in general. I came up with this scale which is a combination of a major and a minor scale, so there’s something positive about it and something negative, which is another theme in the film. You’re not sure, there’s this constant dichotomy between what’s happening good or bad.




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 New York in another direction and then you develop it. Bernard Herrmann used this technique in some of Hitchcock’s films and he has a huge influence on me. In fact one of the reasons I got into this business is that I love Bernard Herrmann, Nino Rota, and Ennio Morricone, I love their music. Subconsciously I’m sure their influences are within me, but I really didn’t model this off of any Bernard Herrmann cue, but this is music I like and I’m sure it creeps into my style, the way I write.
Buck- It actually reminded me of guitarist Robert Fripp and The League of Crafty Guitarists, that acoustic grove they have.
Marco- I’ll give you an example of how I wasn’t thinking about Bernard Herrmann. When we were working on Door Jam Buck even said it sounds like Robert Fripp and I didn’t copy him either, so I wasn’t thinking consciously about any composer.

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.


Are New World Round and Who Wants an Apple linked sequentially in the film?

No, they actually used New World in the film, while Who Wants an Apple? is a different version we wanted to use, but they didn’t. We recorded both pieces so Alex could have an alternative if he needed it. Since they were in a new world my idea was based on the purest way to make sounds. The purest way was to use natural overtones from the instruments, so all of the strings are playing natural overtones and all the brass are playing without valves. Once we had that established then I added this descending pattern, the same descending pattern that we use for John and Caleb’s Theme, the same thing in the Main Titles, this major/minor scale, and we have it descending. My idea was to try to make a sheppard tone out of it, so that once you get to the bottom it repeats again from the top. As instruments are coming down to the bottom others are being introduced to the top. It actually develops longer than it is in the film because the film is limited by the length of the shot, so the cue on the CD is longer and a little bit more involved than in the movie. The piece changes key when the grass comes up, the kids are in the fields on the new planet, and finally the spaceships take off, sonically this cue is different than all of my other scores, using all those major chords. I orchestrated New World, the cue they used in the film, not Who Wants an Apple? I really wanted to do something with the harmonics and I knew it would take a while to explain to an orchestrator what I was trying to do, so I just figured I’d do it myself.

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?

Eden or basically things that were temped with my music, I had a hard time getting around this. There was a scene where Nic Cage puts his son to bed, then he lies down with him, and then Caleb asks if he’s going to die, it’s a father-son moment. They had this temped with something from Captivity and it worked well. I had a hard time fitting the original idea I had into that and it wasn’t working as good as the temp.

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 Sydney, Australia and Los Angeles, California?
They are both places with top caliber musicians. Making changes quickly on the podium probably happens a little bit easier in L.A. Here in L.A. some of the more rhythmical cues come out more precise because the brass are further away from the main microphone and there’s a little bit of a lag time, so here they anticipate that and play a little bit more on top of the beat. From that standpoint things can go a little bit quicker in L.A., but overall the players from both places are top quality. The recording facility in Sydney called Trackdown was great, it’s smaller than Fox but bigger than Paramount. Everyone was extremely professional from the editorial staff to the musicians staff to the conductor to the musicians themselves, they were all interested in the project and very excited to work on it. There was probably a little bit more excitement doing this in Sydney than Los Angeles, this energy, excitement, and enthusiasm, made up for any lack of experience in scoring films. We used two Australian conductors, Brett Kelly and Brett Weymark, they took all the music home, they knew my score backwards and forwards, it was great. We didn’t have to use them, but the problem I’ve been finding lately is with the budgets and all, when trying to record so much music in such a short period of time I have to be in the recording booth. Running back and forth just eats up too much time, we knew we needed a conductor and because everybody had to be Australian on this project we used the two Brett’s.

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!

Marco's score for Knowing is available on the Varese Sarabande label.