film music

The Music by Chris Weigl

I always start work on a new film with an idea of how the opening and closing sequences are going to sound.  When I wrote the first treatment for This is Flyball the only well-articulated idea I had down on paper was the opening sequence.  The cold open of the film is meant to draw the audience into the world of flyball slowly.  The opening sequence is about five minutes long but it shows all the little details that go on before a flyball race.  The idea here is to achieve a feeling of immersion by the time we hit the opening credits sequence and the only audio the audience has heard thus far is barking. 

Music is critical to the art of filmmaking.  Stanley Kubrick thought of 2001: a Space Odyssey as “a sort of machine ballet.”  The music in the film reflects this.  The first ideas I had about the music for This is Flyball revolved around blues music.  If only we could get Joe Bonamassa to score the film.  Ah, we indie filmmakers can dream, right?  I thought the slide guitar element would fit in well with the slower editing strategy that I had in mind for the film.  Once I started breaking the film down second-by-second however I had to change course completely.  Blues music doesn’t move that fast.  Moreover, it wasn’t a sense of sadness or longing that I wanted my audience to feel.  If anything – as we spent more and more time in the field filming – it became apparent to me that I wanted something a little more upbeat.  That’s when it hit me: we need ‘80’s music.

It can’t be ‘80’s music from the ‘80’s though.  People would wonder why a film released in 2016 had a soundtrack that sounded like the 1980’s.  That’s when my co-founder and Producer Heidi came to me with the idea of having a band write the soundtrack.  I have to admit, at first I wasn’t that excited about the idea, but then I thought that if they performed ‘80’s covers that were well done this could be a unique advantage that our film would have.  I mean, who else is going to have a soundtrack filled with 18-20 legit ‘80’s covers?  So, I sat down and looked at the sequences I had filmed and how I wanted the music to impact the feeling of the film.  What I kept coming away with from the editing room was a sense that the music had to have an edge.  It had to be almost rugged like rock n’roll with a little industrial sprinkled in it.  That’s when the soundtrack started to articulate itself to me.

I still have no idea what song I want to use for the opening credits.  Ideally, we’d use a version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Ramble on’ or Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Bulls on Parade.’  The more I think about it the more I like the idea of ‘Bulls on Parade.’  It’s badass in a way you can’t quite identify kind of like the sport of flyball itself.  The only thing about that song is that we’d have to use the original Rage Against the Machine version because no cover could ever do that song justice.  That could – unfortunately – be a financial impossibility.  The next sequence is what I call a regression to the mean.  We opened with an action packed sequence, so after the credits we need to establish what everyday life is like in the world of a flyballer.  Three short sequences introduce us to our main players.  The music: ‘Brandenburg’ by Black Violin along with covers of ‘Just like Honey’ and ‘Steady as She Goes.’  Yeah, if I don’t have your attention now I’m never going to have it.

I wanted to focus on covering the music of three bands in particular: Talking Heads, Fleetwood Mac, and the Eurythmics.  A mix of ‘Rhianon’ and ‘Say you Love me’ make up the next sequence followed by ‘Secondhand News.’  Now, this next part is where things get interesting.  I wanted to use some covers of Britney Spears because there is a badass edge to some of her later music.  ‘Hold it Against Me’ and ‘Do Something’ mark two of the plot points in the film.  It is in these points that having a sound strategy that is largely dominated by – but not limited to – ‘80’s music really pays off.  A nice cover of ‘Go Your Own Way’ transitions us into the second half of the film.  After that we’ve got a nice blend of ‘Burning Down the House’ and ‘Who’s That Girl.’ I like the idea of having a string quartet or even orchestral covers for key points in the film.  I’d like to do a version of ‘Pumped up Kicks’ and ‘Just a Dream” for the climax of the film.

I’ve been debating if we should attempt some covers of Fall Out Boy in here or not.  I think ‘This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race’ would fill in nicely towards the end of the film and ‘Centuries’ packs the right kind of dramatic punch to finish out a middle sequence nicely.    Of course we’ll be using ‘The Chain’ in the third act and ‘Take me to the River’ at some point as well.  I think the Allman Brothers’ ‘Midnight Rider’ would sound good in the film as well, but I’m not sure where I’d put it.  Other notable songs without a place include the Eurythmics’ ‘Missionary Man’ and ‘Sweet Dreams.’  Then there’s the question of whether I want to incorporate some Peter Gabriel into the mix.  I’d like to honestly, but not having all the footage done yet I’m not sure where I’d put the stuff or how exactly it would fit.  I’ve always been a big fan of ‘Games Without Frontiers’ and is there any uplifting segment that can’t be improved with a nice version of ‘Solsbury Hill?’ 

I wish I could say that these ideas just came to me overnight, but the reality is that as a filmmaker you need to sit down and give this stuff a lot of thought.  The nice thing about doing a documentary or rather one of the things that doing a documentary does for you is change which decisions you have to fret over.  Were this a feature film I’d be concentrating on lighting, blocking, set design, and working with my actors, but because this is a documentary I don’t have any control over any of that, so I get a little extra time to think about things like sound design.  When you’re doing a sequence heavy film like we are the soundtrack can make or break the film.  That’s why it’s so vital that we have awesome covers of the music we’re using.  Simply using the original music wouldn’t add any value to the audience’s experience.  They’ve heard the music before and they’ve probably seen dogs run around before.  The goal that I have as a filmmaker is to bring everything together in a way that makes the act of viewing the film more than just another trip to the theater, but an experience that will stick out in their minds as a memorable time at the movies. 

The Passing of James Horner by Chris Weigl

When I was growing up I loved listening to film music.  Keep in mind that I was in high school during the height of the boy band era, so just about anything seemed better than the latest N’Sync, Backstreet Boys or 98 Degrees offering.  There was something about film music that drew me in.  It wasn’t just the orchestral work.  The classic orchestral styles had been utilized by composers from the Baroque era to the modern classical era of the 1930’s and 1940’s.  What made film music especially alluring wasn’t just the timing of it’s emergence, but the unique styles of the mainstream composers at the time.  The 1990’s were about the growth and expansion of Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, and James Horner.  In the late 1990’s we saw the emergence of one of my favorite composers John Powell who came out of the Zimmer school.  Other composers like Brian Tyler would fuse the Zimmer school and Horner school as would Howard in his own unique way through indie films in the 2000’s.

What pulled me in to Zimmer, Howard, and Horner was the breadth of their material and the lofty sound of their arrangements.  It was always a battle for me between Zimmer and Horner.  Horner, in my mind, was the best of the classically trained composers working at the time.  One of his signature scores which came for A Beautiful Mind in 2001 was a mixture of ideas previously thought up years earlier in Bicentennial Man yet A Beautiful Mind also borrowed an idea from Harry Gregson-Williams’ superb score to Spy Game; that of the soprano vocalist over chord scales.  It’s easy to spot it in retrospect, but few would have imagined at the time that A Beautiful Mind would be the last gem in the career of James Horner.  Although 2009’s The Amazing Spider Man built on components that were fleshed out in A Beautiful Mind the score was the most un-Horner sounding score I’ve ever heard.  I could trace elements back to Horner’s Land Before Time score, but everything else was a hybrid of something else he had worked on.  That was the rub with Horner.  He often borrowed ideas and at times even full themes from his earlier works.

I was never a big fan of Horner’s 1980’s works.  The Land Before Time was a spectacular score, but beyond that I just didn’t find much of value there.  Field of Dreams was interesting because the score meanders helplessly until the final four minutes of the End Credits where the strings break out into awesome techniques that – had they been present earlier – would have made for a superb score.  Some of Horner’s later ideas that would be explored in his best works like Braveheart and Legends of the Fall were first conceived for Patriot Games in 1992.  Patriot Games was an oddly Irish-inspired score with a Main titles sequence that didn’t make a whole lot of sense.  When you listen to the album version of the score it seems almost out of place.  This was fairly common during the 1990’s where he would have epic failures like The Devil’s Own and Payback where no matter how good the music was it simply couldn’t save the film.  There were echoes of this in the 2000’s as well with films like the Four Feathers, a film that I still don’t know what it was about.

What made Horner a titan was his ability to stand between Zimmer and the fading glory of John Williams and present his ideas as a viable alternative.  1998’s Apollo 13 is still one of the most haunting scores I’ve ever listened to.  1998 of course also being the year that Williams would begin work on the Harry Potter series.  What made Horner an interesting composer to me was how he adapted to his projects.  I’ll never forget listening to 1996’s The Spitfire Grill, which has to be heard to be believed because the instrumentation is very similar to that of 1993’s Thunderheart, which was heavily reliant on woodwinds and Native American instruments.  What The Spitfire Grill proved was that Horner didn’t need to be working on big projects like Braveheart and Legends of the Fall to churn out amazing material.  It also showed that though his best scores often came when he was working with a polished group of professionals in the London Symphony Orchestra he was just as able to produce great material with a small ensemble.

Horner wrote some of the most complex and satisfying music of the 1990’s.  Although I personally got into the Zimmer offshoots like Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell, I frequently returned to Horner for a more traditional approach.  Even works like Iris where Horner employed the services of the wonderful violin virtuoso Joshua Bell is full of technical mastery.  What proves the worth of a man like Horner is his ability to remain timeless.  You can go back to the Apollo 13 soundtrack and still be entirely moved by the Launch, Splashdown, and End Credits cues.  You can listen to Braveheart and still be moved by the For the Love of a Princess cue.  You can listen to Legends of the Fall and be wowed by the whole thing.  I still think that Horner’s cues for the haunted John Nash in A Beautiful Mind are among the most tragic and heartbreaking cues ever written.  He had that unique knack for nailing an emotion, which is precisely what the electronic geniuses like Zimmer, Williams, and Powell can’t do although Powell’s Forbidden Friendship from HIMYD is probably my favorite cue written in the last ten years.

James Horner defined an era in my life where I was passionate about unorthodox music and for that I’ll be forever thankful.  Those of us who are never satisfied with the status quo in music need an outlet like film music to listen to and there are even more people who need the calming effects of that genre of music to help in a variety of ways.  I actually stopped everything I was doing on Tuesday when I saw that James Horner had passed away.  It felt like an era of my own life had come to an end yet at the same time I was filled with wonderful memories of unique and special moments from my life that I would have likely never fleshed out had he not passed away.  Events like this remind me of how life can be both a blessing and a curse.  It’s a blessing for me because it allows me to show my appreciation for someone who’s artistry was truly magnificent, but tragic because it took the taking of a magnificent life in order to make that happen.