Emmy-Winning Composer GEOFF ZANELLI Shares Score-Writing Secrets and In-Depth Details About Scoring David Koepp’s latest film You Should Have Left!
Emmy-award winning composer Geoff Zanelli’s (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Pirates 5, Into the West) latest project is the soundtrack for the David Koepp film, ‘You Should Have Left’ from Blumhouse and Universal.
View the trailer for the thriller starring Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried here: www.youshouldhaveleftmovie.com
For the suspenseful film, Geoff was given a great deal of freedom from David Koepp, who he worked with on three pervious films (Secret Window, Ghost Town, Mortdecai). The film – about a couple who are trapped in a home that turns into a psychological horror for Bacon’s character – gave Geoff the chance to experiment with Welsh instruments including a crwth, tagleharpa, and psaltery. This is balanced by modern instruments like synthesizers to create the sound of the sterile, geometric location.
Connect With Geoff Zanelli Here: WEBSITE
Read more about Geoff Zanelli in the following All Access interview:
Thank you for your time. So given these unusual Covid-19 times, what does a typical day look like for you? How have you adjusted to these times?
Yes, it’s a different world now. Composing can be solitary to begin with, so there are these long stretches where I’m working and not really even aware of how different the world is outside these walls. But eventually, I pull my head out of my work and of course the world has changed, and I can’t just bring in a bunch of musicians together to play something like I used to.
And meetings are very different now, too, now that it’s all on zoom. I’ve become used to being in the room with filmmakers where you can watch their body language and communicate all sorts of things while the music is playing. You can’t see if someone’s foot is tapping any longer, and sometimes their faces are hard to read even. Much is lost in that sense, so this type of collaborative work now faces a challenge. I’m having to ask more direct questions of my filmmakers to make up for that.
Recording will remain a challenge for awhile.
What has been the hardest/most challenging part about being quarantined? Is your city starting to open up more now?
Yes, it seems almost everywhere in Los Angeles has opened up, but I’m very cautious about the virus so I’ll be one of the last people to emerge back into the world. I know a number of people who have gotten it, so it hits close to home.
Really, the biggest challenge for me is I just love being in a studio with musicians and that’s gone for the moment. Sessions are cancelled or moved into the future, players are recording remotely rather than in large groups all together, and that environment was always my favorite creative space. I miss that very much.
But my writing days are largely the same as they’ve always been. Composers have this dual life. First, we sit in a room by ourselves for weeks on end writing our scores, then we get our friends together to play the score, and that is the huge thrill that’s missing right now.
What has it been like having to reschedule your premiers and other shows?
Well, that’s taking some getting used to. I’ve just had my film You Should Have Left released, and that’s the first film of mine to come out which had it’s release affected by the virus. Not having a premiere where you get to celebrate the film with the filmmakers feels strange, and it’s also much harder to follow the audience’s reaction if you can’t watch the film with them. This film, especially, since it’s about being trapped in a home, would have been cathartic to see with an audience.
I have another film coming out in about a month in a similar way, first to video on demand and then to streaming, called Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs. That one is an animated fantasy film. I feel like that one and You Should Have Left may actually benefit from these release plans.
There are two other films that I did coming out in 2020, probably October, and those too had their releases re-worked. One is called Fatale, and it stars Hilary Swank as a corrupt cop and Michael Ealy as her victim. It’s a fantastic film, and you’ve never seen Hilary Swank like this! My friend Deon Taylor directed it and he goes deep with the thrills on that one.
The other is called The House Next Door, and that’s the sequel to the horror-comedy film Meet The Blacks, also directed by Deon Taylor. Katt Williams and Mike Epps are in that.
I also had a film that was about to start shooting right as the virus hit, so that of course has to be postponed until it can be shot responsibly. So my schedule has juggled around quite a bit! Fortunately, my current project is an animated film in its early stages, so I’ve got something to work on. Not all of my composer colleagues are so lucky.
So the projects I’ve already finished scoring are all likely to come out in 2020 on streaming platforms, and then in 2022 we can talk about the animation I’m doing now. I’m afraid it’s a secret, though, so I can’t say more.
Since we are all desperately missing live music, can you recall a favorite performance of yours from the past? What do you think ultimately makes for a great show?
Great question. And I really miss live music very much. I had tickets to four different shows that all had to be cancelled or rescheduled.
I go to tons of shows and it’s so hard to really narrow it down to a favorite, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about a Prince show I went to at the Hollywood Bowl in 1997 which was just amazing. Prince had that intangible thing that made every show great. It always felt like it was improvised and just happening naturally on the stage in front of you even though you know they rehearsed every moment of it over and over! That was really gripping, though, how immediate that show felt.
But you’ve opened up the floodgates a bit. Other great shows that popped into mind in no particular order were Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Fitz and the Tantrums, Bruno Mars, Janelle Monae, Bebe Rexha…
So you’ve exposed me, and I confess, I am a shameless pop music fan!
Let’s talk about your score for the recently released film, You Should Have Left. I understand that you were given a lot of freedom when it came time to create this music. What was that like for you? Does this happen often?
With certain directors it’s common to have a lot of creative freedom. David Koepp is one of them. Really the process with him is I start writing ideas, usually when the film is just a script, nothing shot yet, and I share those with David so we can start our conversation about the score for the film.
From there, it evolves. In the case of You Should Have Left, he and the editor Derek Ambrosi started cutting the film to the music I had sent, and we could then sit back and watch it, talk about what changes to make to improve it, and start generating iterations of the score.
How did making this score compare to the other David Koepp films that you have worked on? Being that this is your fourth collaboration, do you have a pretty good sense at this point what music he loves for his films?
I have a sense of how David works, and we established a shorthand many years ago, probably right out of the gate on Secret Window, but the interesting thing about David’s directing work is he moves around between genres often. Secret Window was a thriller but more in a retro, almost Hitchcock sort of way. Then we did a romantic comedy called Ghost Town, then a 60’s inspired heist comedy called Mortdecai and now a modern, angular thriller with You Should Have Left.
So the type of music in each of those films is very different from each other! The process was familiar, but the music needed a novel approach.
What was it like working with all the Welsh instruments? Had you ever used them before for a score? How is it that they create such haunting and geometric sounds?
I’d never even held a crwth before this movie! The crwth is a merciless fiddle that I simply cannot play beautifully to save my life, but actually beauty was never the point.
I just wanted the score to have a nod to the location in the movie, but not so much that it felt like handcuffs to me as a composer. It’s not traditional Welsh music, in other words, but the instrumentation informs the sound of the score.
And since all I could really do with them was torture them into making these tense sounds, that’s what they do for the score; they add tension!
So there’s crwth, tagleharpa which is pretty much a large crwth, bowed psaltery and a few other assorted things I have around me to coax into making noise for me.
Add to that some synthesizer elements and keyboards, and I was able to make an angular, geometric score that ties into the idea of this home with modern architecture that doesn’t adhere to the rules of reality. The geometry becomes unreliable in the film, and that was the starting point for my score, really.
Do you find that enjoy scoring thrillers more then other genres at this point in your career?
Mostly what I enjoy is changing genres, actually. So if I go from a thriller like this into an animation, and then maybe a drama, then a pirates movie and on and on like that I’m thrilled. It’s been the luck of my career that different directors call me for different approaches.
I’m curious as to how your work changes depending on the director of the film. What or who inspires the score for a movie the most?
Ultimately, the film itself should be the inspiring thing but that of course is informed by the direction.
I think there’s this bizarre process that happens while you’re making a film, which is that it takes on its own life. You can almost pinpoint the day it happens sometimes. I mean, it starts as a script, then a director shows up with a cast and a camera, then an editor and a composer and another hundred hard working people are working on it and then on some magic day, the film becomes an entity that starts guiding it’s own creation.
I realize how pretentious this sounds… but a great director will recognize this about their own film, actually, and even they start looking up at the film for guidance. The film will sort of tell you what the score should be, and it becomes self-evident when things aren’t working.
All this is to say that in the best cases, film-making is about each person in their particular discipline working toward letting the film be the best version of itself as it can be.
What has been a favorite film to score in your career so far? Is there any kind that you would still like to explore?
Well, it’s hard to deny how important the five Pirates of the Caribbean films were for me. The first one, even as I was working as an arranger for Hans Zimmer, felt important to me as a composer. That film wouldn’t have been the same without me, in other words, and pirates movies have been a long through-line in my career.
The Odd Life of Timothy Green was another one. I always felt like I made the film better, but more importantly, that film made me a better person.
And I’ve had some great adventures with David Koepp, starting with Secret Window which was another early career success for me, so it’s great to continue working with him.
As for a type of film I’d love to explore, I’d say I’m a little surprised that I don’t get to do more sci-fi. I’ve done a few, but I’d love to do more.
How do you think future music is going to be influenced by this incredible and absolutely necessary Black Lives Matter movement that the US and even the world is going through now? Is it inspiring you and your music today?
Yes, it’s definitely inspiring. Forget music for a second; what I’m seeing today may actually be the most inspiring thing I’ve seen in my lifetime, period. It feels like the time has finally come for change.
When the protests first started happening, I did what musicians do best and started listening. There are stories everywhere now, and you can’t ignore them any longer. Those are heartbreaking most of the time, but they’re inspired.
Deon Taylor is organizing peaceful protests, 40,000 strong in Sacramento. That’s inspired.
And as hard as this time is, I wake up hopeful that things are changing, even in the face of obstacles.
Is it hard to believe that you have been a musician and scoring films for as long as you have. Is there anything that you wish you could go back in time and tell yourself?
I’ve never worked a day as an adult doing anything other than music. That’s surreal for me. I grew up in the suburbs of Orange County, California, where there really wasn’t any clear way in to the entertainment industry. I’m not even sure I thought it was possible to do this, so going off to college to study music was me being my most irresponsible, really. There were no guarantees, and I didn’t know a soul who wrote music or made movies for a living.
So it’s hard to believe, yes, that I have this career, but it’s impossible to think of doing anything else. Teenage Geoff had a guitar and for a while that was enough, but I also had a work ethic and a very naive optimism which carried me through the ten cent noodles-for-dinner, 7 nights a week part of my life.
I’ve always enjoyed the process of discovery that this career has given me, and each bit of accumulated knowledge that I have now feels earned, and feels as if it came at exactly the right time. So I’m not sure I’d tell my younger self anything, really. Just enjoy the ride, I suppose!
And I do enjoy the ride. Music and movies have both been such a joy for me.