A brief chat about some recent scores.
Q: You scored GODS OF EGYPT for Alex Proyas. How would you describe your music for this large-scale mythological fantasy?
Marco Beltrami: GODS OF EGYPT is a huge score - two hours and 38 minutes of music. It’s a very orchestral score; there are some processed electronic elements but it’s a very traditional, very thematic, action-adventure score.
Q: How did you treat the mythological aspects – the Egyptian gods and the whole quest of the thief in the show?
Marco Beltrami: They all have their own themes. We did do some processed vocal sounds and even used some of the piano sounds from the hill for the underworld [Beltrami and his collaborator Buck Sanders created some unique instruments on the hill outside his Malibu studio; one of which is an outdoor piano which, when recorded during a mild wind, added an open air quality to the instrumental timbre – see this video for some examples], but for the most part it’s a standard orchestral score. It was sort of refreshing to do that.
Q: Timur Bekmambetov’s new adaptation of BEN-HUR is a film I felt had a lot of merit but didn’t seem to get very fair treatment from viewers or critics when it came out. I felt your main theme was just gorgeous, one of your most emotive melodies. What was the process of developing the theme and keeping it flexible enough to be used in a number of variations across the film?
Marco Beltrami: That was a tough process. There were a lot of people involved – there were two studios, and we’d have meetings with… I couldn’t even count how many people were there! When I first saw the movie I was envisioning doing it more with period instruments, like ancient Greek instruments, but that got shot down pretty quick – although I did have some musicians who specialized in ancient instruments who came in and played. That theme, it’s a simple theme but I wanted to make it almost like it could be songlike and something that could have the opportunity to develop over the course of the movie. In its final incarnation it was slightly altered from my original concept but more or less intact.
Q: How did you define, musically, the environment and time period in which the story takes place?
Marco Beltrami: In the end, I did wind up using some period instruments but they were processed electronically; the drums on the slave ship, for example; there is also some vocal material in there. And for the scenes in the Hur household, instead of using traditional harp I used a lyre, so there is a little bit of that throughout the score.
Q: How did you treat the film’s massive action set-pieces, the naval battle between the Romans and the Greeks, seen completely from Ben-Hur’s perspective in the slave galley below decks, and the climactic Chariot Race sequence?
Marco Beltrami: The chariot race was tough, because it’s very long. How do you build the momentum and the tension when it starts off and it’s already at level ten? Where do you go from there, how do you carry it on? A lot of what I ended up doing had to deal with changing up the rhythm. Using odd metered rhythms that would keep it unsettled, keep some intrigue for the ear, not relying on full orchestra throughout it, changing the focus of it, picking up on visual cues that could either be natural pauses to the music or ins and outs, so it didn’t become just a wall of music. The naval battle was a similar idea. It’s a lot shorter and had more of an arc to it – so our destination was a lot closer, musically. And there, the fundamental rhythm was already established on screen with the drummer in the slave galley.
Q: The film, being a new adaptation of the original book rather than a remake of the 1959 movie, focuses more than previous versions in its treatment of the book’s biblical elements and the concept of forgiveness. How did you treat these story aspects in your music?
Marco Beltrami: The forgiveness thing was associated with Jesus, so I wanted to represent it musically as something more spiritual. I used these prayer bowls as the basis for the sound, almost like meditative crystal bowls; they’re not associated with Christianity but I thought they supplied a good sound. It’s almost hypnotic when he appears and the Romans stop attacking and he has this kind of power over them. I thought giving him that sort of a musical presence would associate with that spirit of forgiveness and of being kind.
Q: I thought THE SHALLOWS was a thoroughly gripping thriller aided immeasurably by its star performance, editing, and its music. Was your first thought, coming into this project, something along the lines of “how do I score a scary shark movie without sounding like JAWS?”
Marco Beltrami: Absolutely! You try to come up with a motive for the shark that is not a rip-off of JAWS, exactly. The director was asking me to keep it sort of guttural and metallic, something animalistic, so over time I developed a motive… at the time we were building these plates to create natural plate reverbs in the studio, and so we had these big 8-foot plates all around, so we’re thinking maybe if we bowed the plates we could get a cool tone out of it and then process the pitch. So we started playing around with that and came up with a signature for the shark.
Q: You worked with Angelina Jolie to score her movie FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER. What was that experience like?
Marco Beltrami: I think that might come out sometime this year. It’s a very textural score, it was tough because it’s not a harmonic or melodic score in a traditional sense. The story is shown through the eyes of a six-year-old Cambodian girl, and it’s been a challenge to channel my inner six year old girl! But Angelina is very creative and she’s made a very personal movie for her, and it was great to be part of that experience.
Q: So what’s next on your agenda that you can talk about?
Marco Beltrami: I’m sort of enjoying not doing too much right now! There’s a couple of things… there’s an AMC show that’s going into its fourth season that I co-score with Brandon Roberts, who actually has worked on all these projects that you’ve mentioned, and then there’s a movie I did for the Dowdle Brothers, called NO ESCAPE, and now they’re filming a 6-part TV show on the incident at Waco, Texas, so that’s coming up. I’m looking forward to that. Buck and I will be working on it. Beyond that, I’m trying to catch a little bit of a breather; it’s been like two years of no break!