From Scream to Snowpiercer: Composer Marco Beltrami

At the age of 30, composer Marco Beltrami was the composer on a little film by horror master Wes Craven called Scream. It was 1996, and it was the first horror film he had ever worked on. It was also the first horror film he had ever seen. 

This might explain why his approach to the score didn't follow the typical conventions of horror, and might go some way to explaining how he's built his impressive career on his thoughtful, searching approach to a film without worrying about its' genre conventions. His scores rarely scream for attention; short on bombast, they often act like another layer of the narrative, seeping into the viewer's subconscious. He's been recognized by the Academy for his work twice; he was nominated in 2008 for James Mangold's thrilling western 3:10 to Yuma and in 2010 for Kathryn Bigelow's explosively tense Iraq-war drama The Hurt Locker. Beltrami has lent his singular skills to films across every genre; horror (Scream, Resident Evil, Carrie, etc.), sci-fi (I, Robot, Jonah Hex), fantasy (Hellboy), zom-com (Warm Bodies), drama (Hurt Locker, The Sessions, etc.) and neo-noir (The Drop) to name just a few. Beltrami has made a career of going his own way.

In fact, in one of this year's most surprisingly (and unfortunately little-seen) film, Snowpiercer, Beltrami didn't wait around for a chance to interview for the composer job — he knew the director's work and he petitioned for a chance to score his next film. Not the average method for a well established composer to take, but not out of character for him at all. We spoke to Beltrami at the Middleburg Film Festival, where he was receiving an award for his stellar career, about getting the attention of the South Korean auteur Joon-ho Bong for Snowpiercer, finding new ways to tell stories with music, and the lengths he went to give Tommy Lee Jones' The Homseman it's natural sound.

Snowpiercer was one of the most surprising films of the year, for those of us who actually saw it. How'd you get involved? 

I was a fan of Joon-Ho Bong's movies, in particular Mother, and I wrote to him and I sent him some music. He wrote back and sent me a script on what he was working on. So I sent him some music that I thought would work with what he was sending me, and he was so meticulous in his notes about each piece that I sent him. I felt we really had a connection, and then he came to Los Angeles and showed me some of his drawings, and we decided we would do it together. It was that simple. With some directors I just have a very emotional, visceral response to them and their work. That’s why I’m in this business, to contribute something if I can. The first thing I wrote for him was the school car scene. I wrote that song and I had my boys sing it, and they thought it was really dumb [laughs]. But when I sent it to him he liked it.  That scene is so much fun. You can tell everybody had so much fun making that movie. I mean, Tilda Swinton, come on. She was great.

How were you imagining scoring it once you read Bong's script? 

Bong is so creative. To me the whole story is like an allegory, and it’s surreal in a way, so the music to me had three functions; It had to the momentum of the characters moving forward on the train; it had to have the personal, emotional aspect of their struggle; and it had to represent this outside world that wasn’t a part of what they were and what they longed for [the rich passengers at the front of the train]. These ideas had to be tied up together, and everything else is just coloring on those ideas. Bong was inspiring to work for. He was interested in orginality and creativity, and that’s where I flowed from.

Another under-the-radar film you did this past year was The Drop, which was a real slow burn of a neo-noir set in New York that was clearly made with a lot of care and craft. 

It’s sort of understated, the score. It serves the characters. Director Michael Röskam had a composer in Belgium that he was working with, but the studio wasn’t crazy about the score. The movie is really a slow burn, and if it’s not set up really carefully, with expectation and a dramatic sense of what’s to come, it might not quite make it there. So the studio was very conscious of that, and my first challenge was to score that Super Bowl sequence. They wanted that scored first because there were so many different scenes cut together and the score had to thread them together, so I worked on that and it became the same music as the opening. Fairly simple, a small chamber orchestra and some electronics.

You’re from New York, did you have any special feeling when you do a New York movie?

Usually I do. I still have strong feelings for New York, I’ve been in L.A. for some twenty odd years, but when I go to New York I feel like I’m going home, and that was all shot in Brooklyn. To me it was less a Brooklyn movie than a story about these drop bars, which I’d never heard of before.

I don’t think they’re real, right?

Yeah, but they’re a great invention. And Michael brought a very European sensibility to the film, that dark Belgian style that he developed in Bullhead

You're well regarded as kind of going against of genre conventions.  Do you not think “western score” when you do something like 3:10 to Yuma? Or “horror” when you worked on Scream or “thriller” when you did World War Z?

First of all, Scream was the first horror movie I’d ever seen. I was never a big fan of horror movies, so I approached it without being familiar with the conventions of the horror movie, and I sort of learned them as I was going. I probably approach everything like a western because that was really my favorite genre. I’m not really a genre person, it all depends on the film and what inspires me, but it’s the classic spaghetti westerns that got me into film scoring. That Italian sensibility, working with instrumental tambors, things that might not normally be associated with traditional orchestral writing and manipulating them electronically and bringing them into a scoring session. And working with melody, too. When I was doing 20th century music, we always strived for new ways to approach the orchestra, new sounds, and that journey is what I try to continue with film scoring. Creating new instruments, new ways of recording, new ways of doing things that you couldn’t possibly do in a concert setting but you could do in a studio, to create a performance.

Can you give me an example of a way you defy what can be done in a concert setting for a film?

For instance in The Homseman , [directed by Tommy Lee Jones, coming out Nov 14]the film to me suggested that it shouldn’t be recorded in a warm studio environment. It’s about these three women who go crazy in this very austere environment in the past century, these homesteaders. And the wind was driving them crazy, as was the lack of amenities and not having any neighbors and disease and famine, and to me to record a score in a rich, acoustically engineered studio seem like the antithesis of that, so we started experimenting with recording outside. Letting the sound dissipate into the wind. We built a big Aeolian harp out of an upright piano, where the piano strings went 175-feet up the hill where they would catch the wind, they’d actually tune the wind and make the wind a part of the score. Creating harmonic guitars that only play harmonics, the really pure tone, these are things you couldn’t do in a concert setting. This is conceived to be created for a one-time performance.

Did you built the Aeolian harp/piano hybrid yourself?

Yeah, we took this old piano that was sitting in this old lady’s basement withering away, we put it on top of a metal storage container, then we ran the wires up the hill. I also had these water tanks, so we could record the piano through the wires, which was really cool because from that distance sound travels faster through the water than it does the air, so you get this really neat, reverse echo. It sounds processed but it’s all natural. We also put hydrophones in the water tanks, so we could record the score through the water.

Your scores are often very subtly moving, without drawing attention themselves but rather worming their way into your subconscious. For a film like 3:10 to Yuma, which was so thoroughly intense, especially the last 20-minutes, how do you create a score that adds to that tension without drawing too much attention to itself?

One of the things about a movie like 3:10 to Yuma is, in a sense, they don’t really need music to tell what’s happening on the screen. Often that’s a problem with bad movies, they use music because things aren’t complete on the screen, and they need the music to relate something. With a Jim Mangold film like 3:10 to Yuma, he crafts the tension so well that I think the music’s job is to function deeper, to create an emotional understanding of the characters and the situations that hopefully enriches the experience for the audience at that subconscious level. It’s manipulative, and that’s what I like about it. You can subconsciously manipulate the audience, and I think that’s what we all try to do. I think that’s what Colleen [Atwood] probably tries to do, visually, and it’s certainly why I enjoy doing this. I don’t like writing music in a vacuum, I write it to connect to people. When you’re successful, when the film is successful, it’s a good feeling.

Looking at your career, is that what made you want to be a composer?  Combining your art with the work of other artists, like a Jim Mangold or a Colleen Atwood?

Yeah, when I was in school, the academic world is sort of self perpetuating. You go to school and you learn how to write music so you can teach other people how to write music. It’s sort of an artificial world. Even the people who come to the concerts, it’s very small, select, and it’s almost an exercise. Albeit a lot of great ideas come from it, and I don’t mean to diminish it, but for me, I couldn’t write in a vacuum. At some point it might great to teach, but I feel like at this point I need to connect with people. And I like the collaborative process, I like learning about myself by a director telling me, ‘This doesn’t work,’ or, ‘This I really do like.’ I like the affirmation. It’s a lot of insecurity, to have a big ego, but you’re also very insecure too, they go hand in hand. So you get fueled by personal relationships, by connection. That’s what I like about it.


Bryan Abrams

Bryan Abrams is the Editor-in-chief of The Credits. He's run the site since its launch in 2012. He lives in New York.