knowing director head

Even though Knowing is a completely different film than all his others, the Proyas trademarks are all there. From strange alien observers being darkly dressed to an amazing spaceship with intricate graphic designs to paradise lost and found, many of the visual concepts found in Knowing can remind you of the classic Dark City. This film has a much simpler concept, “The most linear film I’ve ever made,” as he puts it, but the details of his vision as a director are mind blowing. You’ll be watching the aftermath of a plane crash or a subway off its tracks come plummeting into a station destroying everything in its path and you remember individuals standing around disintegrating or burning before your very eyes in great detail. When Phil Beckman goes to John Koestler’s (Nicolas Cage) house and asks, “What’s wrong?” Cage is sitting in a chair drinking scotch from a bottle and in tears reacts, “I can’t go to sleep, I still see their faces burning.” Just an emotional footnote from the plane crash he just witnessed. The realism of this film is stunning and Marco Beltrami’s score is the perfect subtext to sonically communicate it. It’s Proyas’ love of Bernard Herrmann that’s a match to Beltrami’s musical influences. “Anything by Bernard Herrmann is certainly something that I’m a huge fan of and Marco is as well. We often talk about the whole Herrmann and Hitchcock collaboration and how effective that was and how that evolved through the moods of different movies, that for me is really a high point in movie scores for sure,” explains Alex. However a lot of Marco’s technique draws from his collaborations with Guillermo del Toro, melodic work and avant-garde techniques that are much more sophisticated than Mimic. From those maddening plucking strings in Door Jam to the avant-garde Moose on the Loose to the great theme in Revelations, Proyas brings out Marco’s true style, a sound that Beltrami has developed for over ten years and becomes stronger each time they collaborate.

Alex has moved effortlessly between making television commercials and music videos to feature films. His specialty is visually stunning action thrillers which utilize myth and iconography. Born in Egypt to Greek parents, Alex relocated to Australia when he was three years old. He began making films at age ten and went on to attend the Australian Film Television and Radio School with directors Jane Campion and Jocelyn Moorhouse. Proyas collaborated with Campion on two of her shorts, A Girl’s Own Story (1984), for which he wrote and performed a song, and Passionless Moments (1983), which he photographed. His short film Groping (1980) earned him some recognition at festival screenings in Sydney and London. As a student he formed his first production company Meaningful Eye Contact. Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1989) marked Alex’s feature debut as director and screenwriter. In 1993 Proyas signed on to direct the screen adaptation of James O’Barr’s The Crow (1994). After a four year absence, he returned with the sci-fi thriller Dark City (1998), a clever story about an amnesiac who may or may not have been a serial killer. Garage Days (2002) marked Proyas’s return to Australia; a story of a young Sydney garage band desperately trying to make it big in the world of rock ‘n’ roll. In 2004 Alex returned to Hollywood and directed I, Robot (2004), a science fiction film suggested by Isaac Asimov’s story compilation of the same name that starred Will Smith, and now five years later Proyas’s visionary intellect delves into the science fiction thriller Knowing.

Alex had just finished Knowing, but was taking his time contemplating his next cinematic adventure as he explains, “A lot of it’s business oriented, you strike while the iron’s hot. When you make a movie and when it comes out there’s a lot of focus on you and that’s when you do good deals with people, but quite frankly I couldn’t care less about that sort of stuff, I’d rather make a good movie.” He’d been working on a film adaptation of John Christopher’s young-adult sci-fi series The Tripods for years, the first of an envisioned trilogy of films. Proyas was in the first-draft stage of the script and was about to proceed into the second. So far he’s only doing the first book and if this is successful the trilogy awaits. The film is based on the first of three “Tripods” books called The White Mountains while the other two are The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire. The story opens in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by giant three-legged alien machines that place a mind-controlling “cap” on children when they near the age of 14. The storyline is perfect for the director’s sensibilities, but today it was his memories of making Knowing that were the focus point of our discussion. It was 4:10PM my time Thursday in Los Angeles, while it was 11:10AM Alex’s time in Sydney, Australia the next day Friday. Alex called me from his office at Mystery Clock Cinema to talk about his vision, his philosophies of the film music process and working with Marco Beltrami.

Your company's name is Mystery Clock Cinema, did you give it its name and was it influenced by Dark City?

That’s my company and it’s actually been around for quite some time. A Mystery Clock is actually an antique object which usually takes the form of a female figure. Often it can be animals, but it’s usually a female figure who is holding a clock and a pendulum in one hand. It’s very finely balanced so that when you wind it up it just swings and keeps good time hopefully. Visually it’s the closest thing we’ve had to a perpetual motion machine, it’s quite magical the way it works and therefore it’s called a mystery clock because it’s a little bit of a mystery as to how it actually functions.

You adapted Knowing for the screen, what music do you listen to when you’re writing and did that influence the score you wanted?

That’s a complicated issue because of WGA arbitrations, etc…. I did a substantial amount of rewriting on the project and so did a Boston collaborator of mine, a writer by the name of Stuart Hazeldine, he did it even a great deal more than I did, but we’ve been arbitrated and neither of us will actually get a screen credit for the movie. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles unfortunately even though I deserved one and I think that Stuart certainly deserved one, but it’s just the way the arbitration works. When I was writing I listen to a lot of different stuff, I’d go mad considering the years that it takes me to work on a screenplay listening to the same thing over and over again. I’m going through a bit of an Arcade Fire stage at the moment. Flaming Lips are another band that I was listening to and then also a lot of classical pieces. We used Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 in A major, Op 92 (1811-12) 2nd Movement: Allegretto in the movie. At some point in the prep of the film I was listening to a lot of Beethoven pieces for some odd reason and that one stuck and it became Nic Cage’s anthem. He listens to it in moments of reflection and then it’s played in a fairly pivotal moment at the end of the movie. He actually listened to it while were filming, we played it back on the set for Nic and it certainly struck him. We were looking for a piece that could be his theme and originally I scripted it as a piece of blues music, but his character didn’t strike me as that kind of guy, a jazz or blues guy, he’s a professor and lives very much inside his own head. A classical piece seemed appropriate.

In the filmmaking process when did you first start thinking about the music you wanted for Knowing?

I often think of music certainly tonally as we’re working on a film. Each film is different so it’s really hard to generalize. I remember in Dark City where I had a real problem with finding the tone of the music. Trevor Jones was very helpful in determining what that would be. Because I knew I was going to work with Marco on Knowing at a very early stage I sent him a screenplay, incredibly early to the point where he wasn’t quite sure whether the film was actually going to happen. I had to call him every six months and say, ‘It will happen, believe me, just hang in there.” Because of that process I really didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I was in such good hands that the key for me was trying to get Marco material as early as possible. I gave him such a short amount of time to compose I, Robot that I wanted to make it up to him a little bit, so 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. We actually did a test screening with most of that music in place. It served the drama and worked perfectly. Even though it wasn’t up to Marco’s usual standard in terms of being orchestrated and it was purely synthetic, it served the movie excellently. It seemed like a very organic way of working this time. I didn’t spend much time coming up with what I was going to say to the composer, which is what I usually do.


I try to inject the correct inspiring direction into the process. In this instance I really did it more organically and I enjoyed it so much I think it’s the way we’ll continue working in the future. I really trust Marco’s instincts, so I let him run with the ball and there’s only the occasional cue that I’ll question and he responds very quickly with alternative versions.

It must have been interesting hearing his Mock-ups take on a symphonic presence.

His Mock-ups are very effective; they generally give you a very good impression of what it’s going to be like. There’s obviously nothing like an orchestra and I sat in with Marco and Buck for most of the orchestral recording sessions, as much as I could. I really enjoy that process. This incredibly lush, beautiful, and haunting score took shape in front of our ears. Nothing could give me the full impression and breadth of what he had planned. Even though we had a lot of time in this process, as always things change, edits change, something changes, and there were still a couple of cues that Marco had to very quickly re-compose, re-arrange, and re-orchestrate. There were a couple of cues that he had no time with. Because we recorded in Sydney we had to fly him out from Los Angeles, there were a couple of cues that he ran out of time to Mock-Up for me, so I hadn’t even heard a Mock-up for them and I had no idea what he was going to do. I really heard them for the first time with the orchestra on the scoring stage; I was blown away! This included the one cue we played with incessantly right to the very end, the final cue in the final scene of the movie called Eden. The movie takes a bit of a turn and evolves into something quite unexpected. We wrestled with the music and it evolved into something else, which was different than the score for the rest of the movie. We eventually ended up coming back to something quite similar, something that fit more organically into the overall score and it worked really well. Marco must have composed five pieces for that one scene and we recorded them all with the orchestra and had all these alternatives to play with before selecting the final one.

What kind of score did you envision?

The movie is made very strongly from Nic’s point of view and the characters are kind of on the same track with him together. They walk down his pathway, they join him on his journey and then there are the antagonists in the movie. Marco created the perfect world; this atmosphere and a mood. There are themes that define relationships more than specific characters. There’s a very strong thematic device for Nic’s character and his son, which is this very strong relationship that runs through the whole movie, it’s a reoccurring theme that comes in again and again and evolves through the movie right up until the final act of the film and it becomes something quite rich at that point.

When you say “a mood,” it underscores a normal father and son relationship that opens up the door to a growing tension with the son’s discovery.

Yes. Like the rest of my movies it’s a mystery, and it’s a mystery that when it opens up it becomes quite grand in its scale. Pretty much all of my films have the same concept. One of the reasons that Marco and I are so compatible creatively is that he understands those dynamics really well and he’s working wonders at heightening those dynamics, so Knowing is more of a slow burn than anything I’ve done in the past and it really starts off in a somewhat lyrical and very naturalistic style that’s very character driven. It evolves; it takes a step up every now and again and becomes something grander, bigger, and continues to escalate. Marco really heightened that quality in the film and retained the tension extremely well, so he managed to create emotional dynamics, keep the audience on the edge of their seats, and that’s all a thriller director could ever ask for.

Marco is the first composer you’ve collaborated with on two films. What fascinates you about him?

I’m pretty demanding of what I expect from the music and Marco completely delivers each time, he takes it to a whole other level. There’s something compatible about our styles, the music and the image fits really nicely together. When you discover a collaborator like that you totally embrace it. Up until Marco I haven’t worked with a composer on more than one project, but I have collaborated with quite a few other people in other key area of my films, such as editors and directors of photography. Once I find them I like to hang onto them because it makes a short hand and we can build upon the foundations of what we’ve already created. With Marco it’s a much more intense process because music is such an integral part of filmmaking. The way he affects my films is wonderful to behold. As long as I can keep making movies, as long as they keep letting me do them, I’ll certainly keep working with Marco for sure.


What are the key parts in Knowing where the music and film became one, a total fusion of ideas? All of it really, when we made the movie I was really conscious of how important the music was going to be. It’s more atmospheric than anything I’ve ever done and the music really is the life blood of the film. It’s a small cast, there’s not a huge amount of dominated moments with a lot of dialog, and it’s really an atmospherically driven film, so the music was hugely important more so than anything I’ve ever done. To Marco’s credit he serves the drama really well throughout. At times it can even be invisible, there’s a lot of music and it’s very intricate in its construction, incredibly intricate, but sometimes you’re completely unaware of it, which is the classic complement to a lot of aspects of the filmmaking process. It’s something that feels effortless and is invisible, but it adds to the emotional impact, that’s a sign of great mastery in the medium. It doesn’t jump out at you because it becomes so much a part of the fabric of the film it’s part of the whole, it doesn’t stand out as odd music playing in the background, it’s very much part of this organic entirety.

Is that what a score should do for a film?

It is very much the life blood of the film, it’s the pulse of the movie, there’s no question and particularly in my movies I believe strongly that’s the function it should take. In I, Robot I thought it was more a kind of in your face overtly cinematic movie with a little bit more of that technique than Knowing. Knowing is supposed to be a naturalistic, creep up on you story, that evolves into something other than what you think it’s going to start off being, so the music is still the life blood in both films very strongly. In Knowing it’s a little more insidious in the way it functions, it creeps up on you a little bit more, you shouldn’t be as conscious of it. It doesn’t announce itself as much and that’s correct for the movie, which probably results in a more subtle and nuanced score. I’ve listened to I, Robot after we made the film, that’s always a very telling thing, is when you go back and you listen to a score without the movie playing. You’re much more conscious of the style of music. Film music definitely changes the chemistry for each one of my films. All of my movies are sort of doing similar things and the scores are trying to do similar things, but they are doing them in very different ways. Knowing was designed to be a very simple film, it’s not technically, but in terms of its mechanics and emotions, it‘s clear, simple, and refined. I, Robot and Dark City are a lot more complex, busy, and trying to impress. So with Knowing being as simple as it was I really thought that Marco would create a very simple score, but what he’s done is to give the feeling of simplicity, yet through some rather complex aspects. I don’t quite know how he’s managed to do that, but he has. It’s a world growing as well as moving forward. I was joking with Marco about having the ultimate idea for a composer; that they would have to play one note and that would sum up everything that they wanted to do. I said, ‘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,’ we were kidding about it, but in a way it’s a move towards being very clear about what you want. It’s interesting that I’ve sat with Marco now for both orchestral recordings for both films that we’ve done together. It’s been a few years between I, Robot and Knowing and Marco’s scored a lot of films in-between, while I sadly haven’t done as much as he has in-between. Its amazing how short he is in that process, how he uses the orchestra as a big musical instrument that he can play. It was a real thrill to see him work with such certainty about what he wanted to create.


Marco scored this over in Australia, what is the difference between scoring your picture in Los Angeles and Sydney?

Obviously the orchestras here are nowhere near as experienced in terms of performing music for movies as they are in Los Angeles. They just don’t do as much here, but they make up for it with vast amounts of enthusiasm. The orchestra here was so excited to be working on this very special score. It was like Marco had a sort of fan club out there as well as just very good musicians, so that was fun to see that part of it work. They pick things up very quickly, they’ve all scored movies before, and they don’t turn them over as quickly as the players would in Los Angeles. They do a lot of other gigs in-between as well, so that was the difference.

You said, ‘I like to play my music loud in my films.’ That’s definitely the case in The Crow, Dark City, and I, Robot. Most directors mix their scores in the background, does you approach heighten your films emotionally?

That’s true and we still play it loud. Marco at times came into the mix and goes, ‘Don’t you think that the music’s a bit loud?’ I’ve never actually heard a composer actually say that, but there you go (laughter). It’s hard sometimes to find that right balance as to where the music should see it and we sometimes go backwards and forwards a little bit. For me, particularly with big action based scenes, loud scenes, to a certain extent you have to decide whether the sound effects or the music are going to win in the mix. I don’t think both can win often in the final mix, you really have to go for one or the other. Again I think it’s a question of experience, the more you do the more experienced you become, but there are certain scenes in Knowing where I just decided that there are no sound effects, it’s all music or there is no music it’s all sound effects. We made that decision early on.


Could you give me an example with just music?

There’s a sequence at the end of the film where Boston is becoming a wasteland and people are writhing in the streets, which is all music when Nic drives to his dad’s house at the end. Simply because I didn’t want to hear the noise of the writhing and the violence in the streets, it felt like I wanted to be more in Nic’s headspace. There’s this sequence with a train derailment in a subway early on, which we talked about scoring occasionally, but we thought, ‘You know what? It has much more impact if you’re just hearing the crunching of metal, the screaming of the commuters, etc.’ We decided that the music couldn’t compete and it would be unnecessary, so we just went purely for sound effects. In years gone past I would have scored them and done effects for both and then tried to make them both work, but it’s a quest for simplicity and to decide what’s unnecessary. Marco is really good at composing when he knows up front that he’s going to compete with sound effects. Going back to I, Robot, the car chase in the tunnel we did with music and sound effects, Marco designed the music carefully in its dynamic range so that it could actually coexist really well, so he has the ability to do that. It’s one of those things where as long as you know up front and we discovered all these things through our temp versions, so he knew exactly what the intention was and made his music work perfectly for that purpose.

What is the critical part of the scoring process that makes the music work with the film?

It was really working with the Mock-ups, but we had many conversations as the new scenes would be cut. We’d send versions over to Marco so that while we were editing in Sydney he was composing in Los Angeles. It was this regular course that we had, where we went through the scenes and we went through the Mock-ups. Because he was involved at such an early stage the shape of scenes changed quite a bit, obviously things got a lot shorter. Something would start off in a rough cut form and be three minutes long and by the time it’s a finished version it would be one and a half minutes long by compressing it constantly. My editor Richard Learoyd hacked into Marco’s Mock-ups as he was cutting the scenes and still managed to hit all the right points and make it work. Marco would have to go back and redesign the piece to serve the new scene, which I’m sure from Marco’s point of view is a giant pain in the ass to have to do that constantly, but at the same time it informs the film on every level so the music grew with movie. I don’t think he ever had to go back and completely jettison a piece for this compression reason; he managed to redesign it around the new scene. Richard Learoyd is also a very talented guy in the music department as well. Richard was an additional editor on Dark City and he’s cut everyone of my films since then, so this is the third film he’s cut for me. In the early days we did a lot of commercials together as well and I think that’s where Richard’s forte in music comes from because he’s so used to cutting image to music, there are so many commercials that are all about cutting a piece to music as opposed to being dialog oriented. He’s a huge music fan as well, so he has a great deal of empathy for music. He and Marco also work very well together because Richard is sensitive to the structure of the music. Richard and I have even re-cut scenes when there’s a particular aspect of Marco’s music that we don’t want to mess with, but works incredibly well, so we basically re-order the sequence to fit the music, it’s almost like cutting a music video. This time Marco and I were also talking about the prospects of recording the music first and almost shooting to that piece, which has been done with films in the past and it’s something that we’re definitely keen to explore at some point, maybe on the next movie.

What do you love about film music?

I like themes in film music. I’m a big fan of big old fashioned scores. There’s just something about that that really stirs my emotions. We don’t get to do a lot of that anymore and some movies don’t warrant it, but the notion of doing a big old fashioned epic with some appropriate theme playing over the landscape is something I’d dearly love to do one day. To me movie music is about heightening the film and taking it to another level. Just like with Marco, that’s why I’m so pleased to work with him because he manages to do that with my films. When the music warrants it, it takes on its own lifeblood as well and that’s a wonderful thing to behold.

Knowing is available on DVD and BluRay right now.