Interview: Lorne Balfe
I am talking to the wonderful Lorne Balfe composer for such franchises as “Call of duty” , “Skylanders” or “Assassin’s Creed” . You’ve also heard his music on “Inception” or “The Bible” and currently you are probably still humming his theme for “The Penguins of Madagascar”. I caught up with him at the end of his writing process for his new score “Home”…
Me: What are you working on now?
L: I am doing an animation film called “Home”, for DreamWorks. Rihanna is in it and quite a few more people.
Me: This is the first time we’re talking, I am curious to ask you why film music? Why music in general, what attracted you to it?
L: I wouldn’t say I was attracted to music, it was just… there. It doesn’t make much sense but sometimes you choose a career, and you choose whether to get in medicine or become a lawyer… With music, I was always surrounded by it and I always felt it was something that was a normal job, which it obviously isn’t. It’s an abnormal job to get into the arts really because it’s a minority. So I never chose to get into it, it was just the path I started following.
Me: So the music chose you in a way…
L: Some may say that… I think it stumbled upon me in a way.
M: Lucky for us it did. So you’ve written drama, religion, game, animations… Which is your favorite, what’s more fun to write?
L: They’re all fun. I think that’s the joy of being able to write for film, television or game; is that you’re able to express yourself in different ways. I think one minute you could be working on a romantic comedy or you could be working on a serious drama and it lets you tell a story in different styles. So I think they’re all as equal as each other, they’ve all got the same difficulties and [obstacles] and that’s what makes it more fun. I think if I constantly just did horror films I would get musically very bored.
M: This leads me to another question: how much of the music is you and how much is the subject of the film or of the game? Because I think the music must represent you in some way.
L: That’s a good question, I never thought of it this way. I think when you work on a film, what a lot of people don’t get is that it’s not a case where you write a lovely melody. What you’re trying to do is write what you’re seeing and tell that story. With a film, the characters don’t just exist on that screen for the 1h20 minutes of the movie; they’ve had a whole history. And musically we’ve got to try and tell you what that history is. So I’d like to think there’s a percentage of me in that music but to me, that music never existed before that film was there, so I couldn’t have written the melody without knowing the history of those characters.
M: So this brings me to the current score that you have out, “The Penguins of Madagascar” and I’ve got to tell you that everyone will have that main theme stuck in their heads this Christmas because it’s amazing.
L: Good! (laughs) It’s a hard one, it wasn’t done easily. There were a few other variations of that theme that weren’t quite so successful. It’s a very difficult task because you’re facing the world of the penguins and we’ve had the Madagascar films, so people are used to the penguins. It’s difficult to try to bring a new identity to these characters which have been there for 10 years.
M: Yes, and this new theme is very fresh… So this one wasn’t very easy to write?
L: I don’t think any theme is easy to write because you always have [others involved]. You work with a director who’s been living this project for, sometimes, 5-6 years so they’ve lived with the characters in their mind. Then the composer gets invited to try and give that character a theme and we’ve only been invited for the last 6 months of this journey so it’s always very difficult.
M: Especially with a franchise as successful as Madagascar, where people already have favorites…
L: Yes. Absolutely. It’s just the same as actually creating a character for a film, the music never exited beforehand, you are creating something from scratch and it’s always very nerve racking.
M: So how do you approach writing for a game? Is it the same thing?
L: I don’t treat it any different. The thing is that, with “Beyond two souls”, you spend time learning about the characters, you know their back story, you know more than what you’re looking at on the screen and you want to get the audience to connect with them more. So the role of game music is no different from a film. The only difference is that it’s much more music. I think with “Call of duty” we had 6-7 hours’ worth of music. It’s very complicated because, unlike a film, you know the structure. You know the beginning, the middle and the end, you know the path it follows. The trick with the game is that we don’t decide how it ends; the player decides that so it’s a very hard task.
M: I know that you’ve worked a lot, and still do, with Hans Zimmer and I imagined you learned a lot from him. What is the most important thing you learned from Hans?
L: I think the most important thing I learned is being able to translate musically what people are trying to express. When you’re talking to directors they might not be able to talk musically and actually use musical terms and that doesn’t matter. There’s a sound in their head and your job is to try and get it out of their head and into the instruments… so the whole role of film making is a massive thing I was fortunate enough to witness and learn from Hans.
M: And what do you think is the most important thing he learned from you?
L: I wouldn’t say there was much (laughs). I think when people work together you get a big enjoyment out of it because it’s not [all] about learning something but about having a different point of view. Working as part of a team brings that out because there could be one idea presented and you’re able to experiment with it so that it presents new discoveries that may have been dormant.
M: And how is working for a series with such a deep subject as “The Bible”? You guys did an amazing job. Was it different working for “The bible” than, say, “Call of duty”?
L: Well, it’s a slightly different backstory, but I think “The Bible” was the biggest challenge because it’s the original story of where every single film comes from. Every emotion and every action sequence you can imagine has originated from the Bible because the feeling of love and the need to belong is featured in every film since the beginning of filmmaking. “The Bible” was a big challenge because sometimes there have to be moments when you may go down the epic route and the most important thing was to try to let the audience be able to connect to what they were seeing and not make it too old fashioned or patronizing because it was the first time in a long time when this type of project had happened, probably 25 or 30 years. And telling the story of the bible is a mammoth task. Now I’m working on “A.D.”, which is the story after Christmas, so I’m back into biblical land.
M: So “The Bible” was the most challenging; which was your favorite project to work on?
L: They’re all favorites because even if something’s challenging…Listen, musically, if it was easy I’d probably get bored very quickly so when there’s a challenge it makes it more fun and especially with filmmaking is not just about writing a piece of music, you have to be able to get it to work with the movie, and then the picture gets cut and the movie changes constantly so that means the music has to change and if the order of the scene we were looking at has swapped the music has to change as well so there’s many challenges that don’t necessarily restrict themselves to actually writing a nice melody…it’s a very complicated process but an enjoyable process.
M: So was any project easy to work on?
L: Nothing is easy. If it easy then there’s something wrong. I always feel that if it’s going well something’s going to happen and 9 times out of 10 it does.
M: Do you have a dream project, something you really wish you could work on?
L: No. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it that way. I focus on what I’m doing at the moment and then when something interesting comes along I’ll choose to work on that. I don’t go looking to work on an animation then on a video game, it’s just the way things are planned out really, they’re enjoyable accidents.
M: Is there any project you worked on that you’re proudest of?
L: Well the one interesting thing about writing for film and games is that there’s never enough time. You’ve always got a deadline, it’s not like you can just sit and write a piece of music for as long as you wish. Unfortnatelly there’s a deadline because the film has to get released. I always want to keep working on something but unfortunately I always run out of time so when you record the orchestra then you mix it and I could easily keep working on it for 6 or 7 months after the movie gets released but no, I always feel like I could have done better. But that’s one of these things, if I was complacent and I thought what I’ve written was perfection I wouldn’t push myself to be better in every project.
M: So you’re dream project would be if you would make your own movie and had all the time in the world to work on it.
L: My dream project would be to make my own film and hire myself and then fire myself because my music was bad and then work with another composer and make their lives hell. (laughs) I think every project that I work on I have great memories of and I learned from it. Even if I’m working on a commercial I learn a lot from it because you’re dealing with people, directors and creators and you’re getting more experience. It sounds cliché but every project is a dream project because I get to work, I get to write music and I’m doing what I like. I think sometimes people joke about TV shows and the music not being so good but it doesn’t matter; somebody worked on that, somebody put their heart and soul into writing that and even if it’s a commercial, somebody sat there wanting to write the best thing that they possibly could write and they’re very fortunate to be able to do it and be paid to do it, to be able to have a life where they’re able to do what they like, so it’s very fortunate.
M: So how do you feel when you read about a score being completely destroyed by media, like it happened to Gone girl ? I’ve read a lot of articles saying that that wasn’t film music and so on…How do you feel when you see a composer’s work being treated like that?
L: Who cares? There’s always going to be somebody to say something negative. Even if you baked the best cake in the world there will be someone who doesn’t like chocolate or something…I think it’s something that you just have to not worry about because who are they to say that it’s not music? Every year the taste and styles of music move on because it we didn’t progress we’d still be sitting there with just the sound of a piano playing in the background like they did in the silent movies. I think it’s a bigger film than just music, it’s about being part of this film. It doesn’t necessarily have to be big and loud and big tunes everywhere and standing out; it should be part of this experience.
M: So do you ever read what others write about your music?
L: I used to (laughing) and then I gave up after there were too many bad comments. I’m more interested if someone emails or Facebooks me and says “this piece of music has meant something to me emotionally and I’ll always have the memory from when my child was born” or something. That’s more important than hearing someone just saying that its rubbish because if the reviewers think it’s that easy they should do it. I’ve always wondered that about food critics…if you enter a food critic’s house would you eat the best meal ever? I just think that there’s always going to be oppositions to trying to create new music. We’ve had it not just in film but in the whole way music has ever existed and we look at the last 50 years going for minimalism. Minimalism is now in popular music because the concept of dance music has gone to that and music is not as melodic as it used to be but it doesn’t mean it’s not as justified.
M: So do you listen to film music?
L: I tend not to, because firstly I know there is a narrative story on top of what I’m listening to and I’m always wondering what the dialogue is so I find it very difficult and I listen more to classical music. I think I try to keep away from listening to film music because the most interesting music isn’t going to be the film music itself. It’s going to be when you work on a score that has to include different nationalities, like The Bible which was a very western score. I’m working on A.D. now and I am actually listening to a lot of traditional music and not necessarily listening to film music we think would have been listened to in those times because it wouldn’t be the case. With “Assassin’s creed” we did a lot of listening to Celtic music and music of that time instead of listening to a film score that someone wrote 5 years ago that was giving the impression of being in 1850.
M: Thanks for that score by the way, that main theme is amazing.
L: it was great fun to write and also challenging, especially coming after Jesper…He has a wonderful theme there and that was probably around the time I did stop reading comments because there were so many people saying “Leave his theme alone, why are you writing a new one” (laughs). Rubbish…
M: How much music did you write for that?
L: The thing is I try with games to write as much as possible because the problem with games is that you normally get asked to write an hour of music but the gamer is sitting there playing sometimes for 20 hours straight and it must be annoying to have the same music playing constantly so I try to write up to the last minute, keep writing different variations and ideas and give it to them so they could try it in parts of games I haven’t even seen.
M: Do you listen to game scores or is it the same thing?
L: Same thing. The thing is that game scores now have changed because when I first started doing games everybody was referencing film music…they were looking for a piece of music that sounded like “The dark knight” or “Inception” and now with games, when I did “Beyond two souls” there was no reference to films because the point was we are making something new that has never existed and the music has to reflect that. When you start a project you don’t tend to reference prior musical ideas, you try to bring something new to the table. That’s the aim at least.
M: So are you still able after going through the process of seeing the scenes and all to enjoy the finished product?
L: Sometimes…(laughs). It’s always difficult because just because you write it doesn’t mean it will end up in the film. The whole score might not end up in the film…you could spend two months writing a 10 minutes action sequence and when you go watch it it’s not there because the sound effects had replaced it…I very rarely watch the aftermath of what I’ve done because I always think gosh, I could have had a better performance from that oboe player or I could have written that cue a tiny but slower so I tend to kind of move on.
M: So how was working on Inception?
L: Incredible. I think to work on a film like that is just mind blowing. And to work with somebody like Chris…It’s always great to work with a director who wants to tell a story and be honest about it and it makes everybody enjoy the process far more. So it was a fantastic experience but just the same as any other project…You work with somebody and you spend a lot of time talking, probably more time talking than you spend writing because you are just trying to relate what they wanted…
M: And that’s where Hans comes in, right, because he knows what people want…
L: I wouldn’t say he knows the answer to everything…He’s a very skilled filmmaker and the bigger experience you have the better trained you are. It’s not like he has an answer to everything…it’s just that he’s done every kind of genre or project known to man so there’s always going to be a new obstacle that wasn’t there in the past, there’s always going to be a different way of telling a story so the difficulties are still there.
M: When the scores are collaborative efforts like The Bible or Inception, how does that happen?
L: There’s no one way of doing it. Every situation is different. Sometimes you sit in the same room and write and come up with ideas and sometimes you come up with an idea and then you go to your own room and work on it and then present it together and make something that’s different…I think on the last “Pirates of the Caribbean” we both did a version of “Beckett’s theme” and it was based around three notes repeated in a certain pattern, that was the only rule and I think for about a month we just sat up at the Disney studios up in a room next door to each other writing a 10 minutes suite to see what could we musically experiment with and find from these three notes and all you could hear from each other’s rooms was just the vibration and the tempo and that was it and afterwards we just listened to it… So there are many different ways of working…
M: So do composers in the end have much say in what ends up in the movie?
L: I wouldn’t say that they have 100% say, I think what a lot of people don’t fully understand is that the only way you could write a piece of music that’s totally yours is to write it for yourself and release it to the world. The thing is as soon as you work on a project you’re technically employed by someone and you work for them and like we were discussing the music could be taken out of the film; you could personally feel it was the best theme in the world but it doesn’t matter because the filmmakers don’t feel that it’s working for them it really doesn’t matter what you think.
M: So if a theme like this comes out that you feel it’s the best you’ve ever written and it doesn’t make it to the movie…Doesn’t this mean it’s a piece of music written for yourself that you could release for the world?
L: Well how do you release it?
M: As a rejected album…I mean you said you don’t listen to film music because you don’t always know the action and images but if a theme wasn’t accepted doesn’t this release it from the confines of this rules?
L: If your lead character is a dog and the first theme I write for it I am convinced as a composer that THAT is the theme for that dog, that is the best theme possible and if the director and producers don’t like it then there’s only two options: you do a new one or you don’t do it at all. So you do a new one and the old one, the first theme is now associated for me with that dog in a bad way, so I’m not going to do anything with it. It’s kind of dead to me now. Obviously it wasn’t right for that character so I put it to sleep. I think that is the hard thing because sometime you could write a fantastic cue and because there’s a lot of dialogue the melody is distracting so you might need to take the melody out.
M: So you aren’t a fan of releasing recording sessions or every single piece of music written for a project?
L: I wouldn’t put failed experiments out there. I think the theme for Penguins is the best theme for who they are as a group and I don’t think I’d necessarily go and release my failed attempts because they were works in progress. It’s like keeping a diary. Every day the entry changes and I was trying to musically get to this theme.
M: So in the end every theme is personal to you.
L: Yes because you sit in a studio for 20 hours a day, you have no life and you don’t socialize so yes it’s very personal to you. You’re living and breathing this project and it’s the most important thing in the world so it’s very personal.
M: Do you believe in therapy through music? Do you believe film or game music could make someone get better or feel better?
L: Absolutely! Music does that. It’s not just film or game music. Music is a wonderful thing, it can make you feel happy or sad, and it can make things feel more reflective. It’s a far more accessible medium to get enjoyment from than anything else in the world except for drugs maybe. With art…art is a difficult one but with music…if you heard “Bah Bah black sheep” you have memories of being a child so music is an immediate thing. Doesn’t matter if it’s film or game or opera.
M: So what’s your favorite classical composer?
L: Vaughn Williams. It’s great to dial back and listen to classical music because that’s where all the music we’re listening to know came from. It’s just a vault. It’s the same way that people now, when you watch a very bad film or TV s how they’re still trying to constantly rip off something…they’re just going back to the origins of it all.
M: I’m a big fan of Patrick Doyle because his style is so classical and he just goes all out with an orchestra
L: Oh yes. He is fantastic and firstly he’s a great guy and secondly the emotion that he gets is unbelievable.
M: I can hear that in his music…
L: He is amazing.
M: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me…
L: Lovely talking to you and I liked the question about the music being personal…You do live it and breath it so it is personal…it hits people and it brings so much happiness to people and I think that when there is negativity out there regarding it it’s really pointless because if it brings joy to one single person it’s such a wonderful thing to have in the world…
M: Thank you for this and looking forward to hearing you next compositions.
L: Well look forward to “Home” and when you listen to the last 10 minutes of music, I was literally at 1:05 and we were talking (laughs).