The Canadian composer Christophe Beck, known among many other works for his music for the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the movie Frozen, the Hangover trilogy or the recently released Marvel film Ant-Man and the Wasp, was invited to the festival Movie Score Málaga – MOSMA 2018.
There Gorka Oteiza had the opportunity to interview him for SoundTrackFest, talking about his beginnings, his first film ‘Crossworlds (1996)’, his shift from composing for TV to compose for the movies, the TV series ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, the music of the ‘Hangover’ saga, Disney’s short film ‘Paperman’, or his latest work for ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’, in an article that you can find below.
Hello Christophe and thank you for taking some time for SoundTrackFest.
I remember signing something for you this morning, didn’t I?
Yes, you did. You have a good memory! Thank you again!
And it’s great to have you here in ‘Galaga’…. That was funny (*laughs*)
NOTE: During the previous night’s concert in the festival, Christophe Beck appeared on stage and thanked the audience for being in ‘Galaga’ (a joke with the name of the city Malaga and the arcade video game ‘Galaga’). He also showed a joystick and then was corrected by a member of the orchestra, and “embarrassed” he started conducting the concert.
Wasn’t that funny?
That was funny. Very funny indeed! I know the game. So when you said that ‘Galaga’ instead of ‘Malaga’…
Well, I wasn’t sure about the joke (*laughs*). People have to be a certain age, number one. And number two, they need a certain amount of nerdiness. I think that as long as those two things are true, then they get the joke. When I first started there were a few people laughing, and then as the joke went on more, and more, and more people. I think people were really more thinking like…. ummm… is he serious?
Yeah, and when you pulled out the joystick it was really funny. Did you bring it with you?
No, no. I just borrowed it. I really wanted a helmet. I wanted to find an astronaut’s helmet and pull it out, and just put it on and say, “I’m ready. I’m ready to fight the aliens.”
It would have been a great start “I’m ready to save your city” (*laughs*)
That would have been very funny. Okay. Chris, thank you for being here in Galaga/Malaga. So let’s start with the first question. How did you decide to become a composer for TV/Movies? Was there a moment that you remember, something that snaps in your mind and then it’s, “Yes, I want to do this”? Or was more like a process? Music came, and then one thing lead to the other…
No, there wasn’t really any kind of moment like that. It’s been a lifelong connection to music. As long as I can remember, from the age of three, or four, I’ve always been very excited about music and always felt the pull of playing music and learning about music. As long as I can remember, I’ve known that I wanted to make a living in music, to have a job in music. For the longest time, that took the form of rockstar fantasies. I have to admit, here in Malaga I’m kind of getting to live out some of those rockstar fantasies.
That’s great! So you’re feeling like a “Soundtrack-star” here in the festival?
Well, you step out of the hotel and there’s a giant billboard with my face on it. I often wonder what it would be to just stand next to the billboard and see how long it takes someone to realize.
That would also be very funny.
Well, if you see me standing there, that’s what I’m doing. No. (*laughs*) Back to your question, for the longest time, I did want to be a rockstar. That was a problem, for a couple reasons. Number one, I’m not very comfortable on stage. Last night at the concert for example, I was shaking the entire time I was conducting.
Well, you looked quite confident.
I’m glad that it came off that way, but I don’t mind confiding in you that I was extremely nervous. Even when I was done and I went backstage, I was still feeling the nerves. It took me a while to calm down. I’m already feeling more relaxed for tonight, because Oscar Senén is incredible. He’s going to conduct most of my stuff, and I’m just going to come on and do the easiest piece at the end, which is a piece of cake. Hopefully, I’ll be more relaxed.
So, back to the question again (*laughs*), film scoring was something that I almost fell into by accident. By the time I graduated college, what I really wanted to do was write Broadway musicals. I was hoping to apply to New York University’s program for musical theater composers, but they only took students every two years. They would take a group of students, work with them for two years and then take another group of students. It was a two-year program, and it was an off year, so I had a year to kill.
So you thought “What do I do now?”
Exactly. I thought “Well, maybe I’ll check out this USC program in film scoring.” It had just started. It was the only one of its kind in the country. Now, of course, there’re dozens, and I thought, “I’ll check it out, if I like it…”
What year was that?
’92, so 26 years ago.
Ahhhh… Yeah, thank you for that!
(*laughs*) Sorry! (*laughs*)
It was 1992 to 1993. And of course, I went to USC and never thought about becoming a Broadway composer again. I discovered a profession that suited me extremely well and that I enjoyed very much, and still do.
That’s the most important thing about doing something, having fun.
If you don’t have fun with something, then you have to be paid very well to compensate.
Exactly. And even that sometimes doesn’t cover it.
Indeed! Let’s move on. I want to talk about your memories of your first movie. I think it’s ‘Crossworlds’ (1996) if I’m not mistaken.
That sounds about right, yeah.
How did you feel when you got your first movie? How did you get there, and how was the sensation of… “Oh my god, I have to score this. How do I do it? I’ve never done it before.”
Luckily, I had just done a year at USC, and I had actually done it about 10 times as an exercise, as part of the program.
But not for the real world, not for a movie that was going to be premiered.
Well, more real world than that was another, about approximately 10 or 12 student films that I scored. Now, that’s still not real, real world, but it’s more real than USC for sure. So there you learn how to work with a collaborator, with a client, and learn how to be a team player.
That’s very important.
Extremely important! In fact, it took me really four or five more years to really learn how to be a team player. I remember ‘Crossworlds’ was a job that I got by auditioning. I did a demo. Of course, it was extremely low budget and there was no money. I remember the music supervisor on that film was a guy named John Houlihan, who is now one of the most successful music supervisors around. We both did our first movies together, we were on the same movie at the same time, as very young people in our professions.
Did still you keep the relationship with him?
Yes, he now works at FOX. In fact, I just found out that we’re going to be working together on an animated film there in 2019, so I’m very excited about that.
That’s Fantastic! Looking at the beginnings of your career, you did work on many TV series, like White Fang, Land’s End, Second Noah, or Spy Game. Then you got to Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a big success. But then, you switched to movies and you’ve done very few TV shows. Why was that career change? Did you really want to do TV series at the beginning or that was a way to go into movies? How was that transition?
I think I just wanted to work, at first, really, on anything in any way. Due to the way I was raised, or my brain, who knows, I’m an extremely competitive and ambitious person. Especially as a beginning, as a young composer in my twenties, I was very hungry and always looking for what was going to be next, and always thinking ahead to the next few years, and trying not to ever really feel too comfortable or settled in what I was doing.
Even while I was doing those TV shows, I was hungry for doing a TV show that I wouldn’t have to explain to someone what it was. That I could say, “Hey, I’m working on this show” and they’d be like, “Oh, I know that show. I watch that show. I like that show.” Instead of White Fang, “Oh, you know, it’s this little show in Canada. It only aired for a little bit.”
“White Fang the movie?” (*joking*)
Exactly! People often confused the TV show and the movie. So I’m going to pretend that was a serious question, because people do ask it: I had nothing to do with the movie.
So I got to a point where I had reached a certain level of success on TV. I was doing Buffy the Vampire Slayer and another show called The Practice, which was a hit show, a legal show, and one of the probably easiest gigs in television. Very little music per week, and the music that I had to write, unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was extremely simple and could be turned around very quickly. So I had, really, two of the best gigs on TV.
I had Buffy, which was a challenge but also really rewarding creatively, and The Practice, which was still pretty rewarding but much, much, much easier. So I quit them both on the same day, because I really wanted to announce not only to the world, but also to myself, that it was time to move on to the next step, which in my mind was doing films. In films there’s more time to write than in television, where there’s a real breakneck pace of week in, week out, cranking out music.
It’s still very challenging in film, but at least you get to work on one thing for a couple of months. The resources in film are better. You can work with live orchestras. The cues are longer, whereas in television you’re dealing with 30-second cues, minute-long cues. In a film score, you might have a four or five-minute cue, and you have more flexibility to express yourself musically, in a way that is more like the way a piece of music would be created if it was divorced completely from the film, which is very satisfying as a composer. So, it resulted in about six months to a year of very little, no work. At that time, TV wasn’t like today, where everyone loves TV and everyone realizes how great the work is being done.
Yeah, production on TV is very different now. They are being treated like very long movies.
Twenty-six years ago, people didn’t think of TV that way. They thought of TV as “less than”. That’s why maybe, if I made the same move today, it would take less time to move up to films. Or, maybe I wouldn’t even make the same move today, because there’s so much great work being done on TV.
Many of your colleagues here in the festival, like Jeff Russo and Jeff Beal, are very, very focused and successful working for TV.
Absolutely, and why not, when there’re so many great shows being made.
That’s true! Let’s talk about one TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I’m not going to ask you questions about Buffy, because I think you have been asked all that’s possible to be asked about the show.
Well, you never know.
I want you to tell us something that maybe you haven’t been asked, or something you think could be interesting about Buffy, but fans don’t know about. Could be the music or the show or your experience there… something you would like to tell us…
Oh! I have to come up with the question? No, no, you have to come up with the question. (*laughs*)
Ok! (*laughs*)… What would you remark from your years working in Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Do you have something to say that maybe hasn’t been said yet? Something you would like to point out? That’s the question, more or less… (*laughs*)…
Well played! (*laughs*)… I’m not going to say something that I’ve never said, but I will say something that I haven’t said a lot, which I think, given the popularity of some of the themes that I wrote for Buffy, may come as a surprise to some people. For example, the love theme for Buffy and Angel. I wrote that theme not knowing how many episodes that story arc was going to go. I wrote that not knowing how many seasons or even TV series it was going to span, because they’d actually came back several times in a totally different TV series, Buffy and Angel.
That was just me writing a theme for a scene that I knew was going to be important. I think I knew that it was part one of a two-part episode arc, but that was it. So as far as I knew, writing that Buffy and Angel love theme, it maybe gets played once or twice over the course of two episodes and then, you know, you move on. Now, these days, it’s still something that people remember, it came back many, many, many times, and I’m very proud of it.
So you have to be careful when you compose something, because you never know where it’s going to get.
You know what?… That is so true, and it’s something I need to be reminded of sometimes.
Sometimes you compose a big theme for a character and he or she dies the next episode…. or just the opposite!
Yeah, you can’t just throw anything away, because all of a sudden it’s three years later and you’re doing it for the hundredth time.
Okay, so let’s jump now to your movies. Let’s talk about your work for many funny comedy movies…
Yeah, and unfunny ones. (*laughs*)
(*laughs*) Well, they pretended to be funny, but then they didn’t end up being funny… even if the intention was to be funny.
We all try!
Let’s talk about The Hangover. In The Hangover saga, you have the first, and the second, and third movie. How did you approach the music that had to be in the movie? Because the movie is crazy and it has many of songs and your music has to coexist with it. How was the approach of the music to fit into the first movie? And, did you try to develop that idea in the second and the third movies?
Those are great questions! For the first movie, the whole idea was, and this is reflected in the score, to show something different… We see a lot of scenes of Vegas as a glittery, shiny, glitzy, brightly colored type of environment, and we’ve also seen the darker side of Vegas at nighttime. But we’ve never seen the darker side of Vegas during the day. That was the idea for the first Hangover movie. It was to really feel like you get a new sense of the darker underbelly of Las Vegas. And that was also the idea with the score, to make it a little greasy, a little slimy, a little bit rough around the edges.
And the music was meant to be the same thing. It’s a contemporary, small ensemble score, rhythm section, drums, bass guitars. On purpose, we tried to keep not necessarily wrong notes in. Normally when I record a guitar I try not to get too much finger noise, because it sometimes takes away from the purity of the notes. In this particular case, the more we got the better. I wanted to capture the feeling of a drunk teenager plugging in an electric guitar and not playing very well.
Imperfection, irregularity. You wanted to get that feeling.
Exactly. And then, of course, the challenge in the second film, just as it is in any sequel, including the recent Ant-Man and The Wasp, which is very much on everyone’s and my mind today, is how much of the old stuff do we keep and how much new stuff do we bring in.
Luckily, in the case of the second Hangover, we have a setting change. All of a sudden now we’re in Thailand. I was able to take that same approach, the brightly lit but still really sleazy environment of Vegas, but just move that over to Thailand and what do you end up getting. So, we did a little bit of regional percussion and some string instruments, but took the same approach that we did in the first one, to make it a little bit sloppy and a little bit raw and distorted.
It goes very well with the story.
Yeah! But the third Hangover is completely different, and there’s a reason for that. I think a lot of people felt that the second film was really too much a retread of the first film. Same story, new location. Different jokes, but really the same movie over again. I think there was a reaction to that, and a decision to make a completely different movie the third time. This was basically a crime thriller about Chow, and it was meant to be epic and operatic. There’s chorus, and there’s orchestra, and everything is a little bit over the top.
Okay. Let’s go for one question that I’m not sure you have been asked many times, let’s talk about the short ‘Paperman’. It’s a story I love.
I think it’s a short where the music plays a very important role.
No dialogue, yeah.
So the music drives the story. It has the whole narrative point. How did you come up with the music that was right for the story?
Well, the project was part of Disney’s shorts program, which is sort of like a wonderful minor league system that they have, where they can have filmmakers experiment with different techniques. It’s a wonderful opportunity for people like me to work with Disney animation, as a way of introducing myself to them and them to me, in a kind of lower risk environment than a feature film would be. In fact, that’s what directly led to me doing Frozen, so I’m extremely thankful for that.
So that’s how you got into Frozen!
Yes it was! But back to Paperman. That’s just one of those amazing situations where the director of the film was already a fan of my music, he already knew that he wanted to hire me, and he already knew which scores of mine were his favorites. He liked electronic music and he liked the electronic elements of some of my work, and so he encouraged me to do something a little bit anachronistic. As you might remember, the film is in black and white.
It looks drawn by hand, but it’s not. It’s a computer-generated short most of the time.
Exactly. It’s a hybrid of old and new, but the old really gives you that retro feeling. All the cars and the production design looks like it’s New York in the ’50s or ’60s. But we ignored all that. Except for the faces and the hands, which I believe are hand drawn, the rest of the film is computer generated. So we completed that anachronistic and hybrid idea by doing a score that was totally contemporary. There are synthesizers, there’s almost a dance beat that comes in at the end, but over top of all of it is this mix.
I remember that moment, when all the small paper airplanes start moving, and coming back to the couple. That’s the moment when the music starts driving the story. I love that moment…
Right, exactly, but at the same time it’s still a love story and it’s still Disney, so you’ve got the big strings playing, and the big theme on top of it.
It’s a fantastic ending! We are getting short of time, so let’s finish with one final question about superheroes, about Ant-Man. You’ve scored the first movie and now the second movie, where you composed a fantastic main theme. How do you feel scoring in a big franchise like Marvel, where you get to compose for superheroes? How do you find the right music for such a tiny and also big superhero at the same time? Do you approach it in any special way with the music?
I don’t think I even one time during the writing of the score to either film, thought of it as small music. I think maybe there’s a scene here and there where it’s played for laughs and as a joke. For example, in Ant-Man and The Wasp there’s a scene in a school where Scott, Ant-Man, ends up about two feet high because his equipment malfunctions. He has to do this kind of pseudo heist looking like a little kid, basically. The music, probably that’s the only time in the entire franchise so far, that I made the music sound small on purpose. That was just for a laugh, because it looked very, very silly, and the music sounds quite silly in that scene as well.
The rest of the time… We experimented in some of the scenes where he’s a giant with doing a bit of a trick like what Hans Zimmer did in Inception, taking the Ant-Man theme and slowing it down to half-speed. But that just ended up sounding weird and created really too slow a pace for the scenes.
That reminded me of the most important lesson in film scoring, which is it’s always about story and it’s never about what you see, it’s never about what you hear, or it’s never about what music you want to make. It’s always about the story.
It’s about the narrative.
Yes! So, even though he’s a giant, the moment you try to make the music sound like a lumbering giant, it feels disconnected. Just think about what he’s trying to do when he’s that size, what his concerns are, what his goal is, what his emotional state is. Then the music starts to feel connected again.
Okay. That’s it! I still have some questions left, but I think we’ll have to leave it here for now!
Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll meet again soon…
That’s true! Thanks for your time Chris!
Interview by Gorka Oteiza
Pictures by Josep Ferré
In addition to the interview for SoundTrackFest, below we leave the link to the video that was broadcast live on July 5th, 2018 with the intervention of Christophe Beck at the MOSMA, where he was interviewed by Isabel Vázquez.