Interview: Brian Reitzell
Stuart Barr talked to musician, film and TV composer and music supervisor Brian Reitzell to discuss scoring TV's Hannibal and his other work in film, television and interactive media, as well as his music as a solo artist.
Reitzell is part of a growing group of film and television composers who have come to scoring from outside of traditional classical composition. Cliff Martinez, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Clint Mansell, Jonny Greenwood and Reitzell are all composers who have come from a background in alt-rock, but unlike many previous dalliances with film music from pop and rock musicians they do not approach a film score as a collection of songs (like Bob Dylan for Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) or as an extended jam session (such as Neil Young’s music for Jarmusch’s Dead Man). Instead all these composers, often using innovative technology, approach a film score in a more traditional way, as musical accompaniment to visuals that emphases mood and texture over song structures.
Like Martinez, Reitzell first made his name as a rock drummer and played in Red Kross, a glam/punk band that were mainstays of the US Alt-rock scene in the nineties when Reitzell joined. Later he would go on to play with French lounge-synth-disco titans Air, playing drums on their album 10 000 Hz Legend.
Stuart Barr: How did you come to scoring? You began as a drummer, you’ve been a music supervisor, but how did you make that move to composing for film?
Brian Rietzell: I got into film work as a music supervisor, Sofia Coppola asked me to work on her first feature film [The Virgin Suicides]. Sofia and I were very good friends and she needed someone to pick the seventies music, the movie took place in '74 or something, mid-seventies.
I’m a music geek, i’ve got a big record collection, I’ve collected music since forever, I love music. So while working on that film with her I met the guys in Air. I had quit [Red Kross] and I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do. But I was working on this movie. And then I ended up joining Air, and touring with Air, and making records with Air and I became part of that band. And all the while I was working on films.
I worked on the score to The Virgin Suicides, I did it with Air. So my first steps to working on film was working for Sofia. I’d do anything that had to do with music, so I’d be the guy in the studio with Air saying ‘we should do this, we should do that’ and kind of acting like a music producer, in a way, and I’ve done that with every film. I don’t always give myself credit. On Lost in Translation I brought in Kevin Shields [of My Bloody Valentine] and produced him, and I didn’t even give myself credit for producing Kevin. Because Kevin had been inside this shell for 13 years or whatever. It was Kevin that told me, ‘Brian you are probably the first guy that ever produced me’.
For me as a music supervisor, when I take on a project I start with my ears. I don’t know if I'm going to score it, or if I’m going to use something from my record collection. With Sofia, mostly I’m going to take from my record collection. On The Bling Ring there’s something like 30 licensed tracks. There’s also 40 minutes of score but no-one could probably ever tell because it’s so atmospheric. It depends on the project. And as a music supervisor I usually know what I want, I just have to find it, and oftentimes it’s a lot easier for me to make it.
I will say 10 years ago there weren’t many people pulling music the way I was doing it back then. Now you feel like everybody is going to the same places, the internet is there now and you can go to iTunes and type in a keyword from a scene and there’s your track. I don’t like that, I always did my music supervision by hanging out in record stores. I would spend all day in a record store sitting on the floor and reading the back of the record and really getting into the music and… I don’t know, it’s whatever the thing needs and that’s how I ended up scoring, I knew what I wanted, it didn’t exist, I had to go out and make it [laughs], or I couldn’t afford it.
SB: I was listening to your solo record Auto Music on the way in to work this morning and suddenly become strangely uncomfortable. Of course my generic MP3 player had quietly segued into the music from Hannibal. When approaching commissioned work such as a soundtrack, is there some thing you need to do to get into the correct frame of mind for the tone and mood of the piece?
BR: Yeah, sort of… I just think that with music in general you can’t force it, you can’t force anything, it has to feel right. Luckily for me it is pretty easy for me to slip into my Hannibal outfit. I say ‘luckily’ because I often have only a week to turn around 40 minutes of music. So it has to come out.
It’s not that difficult because I’ve been doing this a while and I just switch everything else off and go into that world. With my studio, the way things are set up here really aids in that. I have a big screen, the lights are low, I live in [Hannibal’s] world. It’s not necessarily a pleasant world to go into, it can take a toll on me, as you were saying it’s unsettling. To work on something like Hannibal, which takes something like five, six months of my year to do a season, you know you are living that every day… it’s trying, yes.
SB: How did you get the gig? I’m presuming it was because you had worked with director (and Hannibal executive producer) David Slade.
BR: Yeah. Once David and I met, we did our first project together and he’s asked me to do everything since. He and I are headed in a similar direction. With Hannibal they had temped the stuff… when they were assembling the edit of the first episode… the were temping with my music from 30 Days of Night, which is a film I did with David. And for that score I’d never done a horror movie, so I invented my own way of doing it. That is to say that I could pull off sounding [like Krzysztof] Penderecki [laughs] without having the orchestra or the money to do it in that way. So with Hannibal I sort of had to do it, because this is something that I invented and David knew how it would get him there.
SB: Although it is dark and unsettling music, it is not what I would call a traditional horror score, it isn’t ‘Screech! Screech! Screech! Dum-duh-DUM!’ Screech! No disrespect to Bernard Herrmann. Were the show’s producers open to letting you explore different ideas than the standard, quiet/LOUD horror music template?
BR: [Laughs] I love Bernard Herrmann, I kinda feel like a lot of scoring ended with the things that he did. It hasn’t grown much. Which is sad. What I draw from is the connection with Pierre Schaeffer who invented musique concrète. He got his money from a French TV studio to do that, to do those experiments. After [Schaeffer] you got Stockhausen, and the BBC Radiophonic workshop, and everything that came after. These sonic adventures really do have a place in movies, and they really have a place in horror movies because I think for something to sound terrifying it should sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before. You have to find new ways, new processes, new timbres, whatever it is, to make something that is truly horrifying.
David and I… our relationship is such that we are both very much obsessed with sound, so much so that David conducts every mix of Hannibal, even though as a director he just does a few episodes a season. He conducts all the sound mixes because it doesn’t work otherwise. We went through a few mixers in the beginning because they couldn’t wrap their heads around the balance of sounds effects with music. With Hannibal it is almost all music, there aren’t the big cliched stings, there’s nobody cutting a head of lettuce on one of my downbeats. Unless I cut it, and I wouldn’t do that, I would find another way to do it.
SB: Did you have any hesitation when Hannibal was presented to you? Although we’ve discussed 30 Days of Night, the other scores you have done are much different in style and content.
BR: I like that, my favourite film composer if I had to pick one would be Toru Takemitsu [he] did everything from comedy to horror to drama. I like them all, and to me they are all the same thing, they are all about emotion. And horror happens to be… you know fear is a really intense emotion. I like to make really interesting beautiful music, and often the most beautiful, interesting music is the darkest music. Whether it be Penderecki’s concert music, or Ligeti, you know what I mean [laughs].
I find a connection from my trajectory of playing jazz as a kid, to punk rock, to Air, to where things are now. It all just feels very natural to me. But Hannibal is rough, it’s rough man. Because it’s TV too, so it’s fast, you’ve got to really deliver. And the idea of it [the show] was something I thought was a horrible idea, until I saw Mads Mikkelson, and I thought if he’s gonna do this, and David’s gonna do this, Bryan Fuller is gonna do this, well I gotta look at it.
So I saw some stuff, and talked to those guys. Bryan’s a very bright guy and he really got it. The fact that he brought me in is… [laughs] to his credit, because he had worked with the same guy quite a bit and yet David convinced him to work with a freak like me.
People are scared to take chances, that’s why studios go to the same five or six composers for everything, because it works. And it’s expensive if things don't work. These people are so chicken shit that they don’t take chances and they need to because I’ve found that the audience is always smarter than the studio gives them credit for, always. And if they’re not they can go watch Transformers.
You’ve gotta have more faith in your audience and give them something really interesting. I mean, c’mon, I love Bernard Herrmann but let’s move on. Let’s keep that, and learn from that, but let’s move on and grow.
SB: How involved in the soundtrack release were you? Its not a conventional set of themes and tracks, it condenses a whole episode worth of music into a single track. How would you suggest a new listener should approach this, are there recognisable motifs for the characters to listen for for example?
BR: [laughs] well first of all I’m responsible for all of it. There are four soundtracks that I had to make. Originally it was just going to be one record per season, so there were two seasons, two vinyl. But the show has fans, and these fans… I’ve met some of them, they’re called ‘fannibals’ and they love the show. I’ve done a lot of soundtracks and I can tell you that the most important thing about a soundtrack is not having a hit song on there, the important thing is that it is the right souvenir for the fan. My job is to make a souvenir for those people.
What I did with Hannibal, since I created almost 25 hours of music for the two seasons that need to be distilled into two CDs - which I found to be impossible, because the fannibals would probably kill me [laughs]… it is challenging, and it isn't your typical soundtrack, but it is the music from the show. And I try to be as honest as I possibly could, so what you have is each episode in chronological order, each piece of music in chronological order, but they are condensed down into suites.
I don’t do any social media, but I did ask the producers on the show and Bryan Fuller to ask the fannibals what they wanted. And I got a list of cues, and nobody knows what anything is called so it would be this whacky description or something. I went through everything, I spent three weeks, nobody paid me, I did it for the fans. At some point I will probably put it all out there just for the people who want to have it. People have told me that the like to listen to Hannibal while they read [laughs] which I think is kind of crazy but… you know… other people like to listen to it for the ambient pieces. Whatever, everybody’s got their own reason. And there are quite a few people who are probably annoyed with it too. But that’s okay. It’s gotta annoy people for it to interest other people on a high level.
SB: Tell us about your studio set-up, you mentioned it in passing before.
I work in a studio [in Los Angeles] that was built in the nineteen seventies, its actually in Burbank near the Griffith Park Zoo, and I live in Silver Lake. So I drive through Griffith Park, about six miles, that’s why I made Auto Music, because I have to drive to work everyday. The rooms here, because of the way they are made, it just sounds incredible. So almost everything is played live and I have my core group of people, I have a keyboard player, a guy who can play anything with keys. A guy that can play anything with strings on it. Then I have my string section. And I have a woodwind guy, and I have myself.
So I do most of it, but this stuff sucks if it’s just one person. I wish I had a whole orchestra, I really do, and I fake it by having one guy do all the difference woodwinds, and then blending it in with a Mellotron, and the same with the strings. I just want a huge orchestra but they don’t give me the money to do it [laughs].
SB: The Hannibal music has a very organic, natural feel, and instrumentation as opposed to the soundtrack to the video game Watch_Dogs which sounds a lot more synthetic, I guess because of the nature of it being a game and a game about tech and surveillance. How do you approach scoring interactive media?
BR: Well it’s interesting, all these projects are different so they are all going to have their own sound palate. And with Watch_Dogs… video-games are in many ways the hardest jobs, because you don't really know for sure that something works because you don't really have the action in front of you. The player’s [leading the action] you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. So that’s one thing. It’s a challenge. But Watch_Dogs from the get go was meant to have influences from early Tangerine Dream, and when I say ‘early’ I mean Phaedra, Rubycon, Zeit, those records, not Risky Business era. The analogue sequencers! In fact I brought in nothing but analogue sequencers and modified analogue synths to use. But over the course of working on the score it did mutate into some thing more contemporary and I did start using orchestral percussion and guitars and things like that. But from the get go it was meant to be an electronic score.
SB: It is hard to tell when you play the game if the music is yours, there are sound effects, there is an in-game radio playing tracks, and so I wondered if you composed for the cut scene animations alone, or if you scored music for in-game play?
Yeah, well this is a trip, I didn’t do anything that plays on the [in-game] radio, not that I know of. They put a bunch of pop songs in there, I had nothing to do with that. I do cut scenes, so with a cut scene you do have a narrative, you sometimes have elements of the picture, sometimes the people are headless, y’know it’s not rendered properly [laughs]. And to be honest those don’t compare with scoring films because they just don't look at all believable when you are working on them.
I’ve yet to play Watch_Dogs, I have it, and I’m looking forward to playing it and seeing just how they did use my music, because it’s hard for me to tell. But I can tell you that the way I deliver stuff… with all these things I relate them to cooking, I used to be a chef and I used to have to run a kitchen, order produce, and dictate things… With video-games it is somehow most like cooking, because you are delivering something a-la-carte, you are delivering an entree, you are doing the intros, then you are going to do some kind of modulation, transition cue, you gotta have your music theory under your belt. You gotta understand classical structures and formulas of music I think, or at least it helps you to do so.
What I try to do is I try to fuck with things. I don’t like loops man, I come from the world of playing drums and being a percussionist. Music to me first and foremost is feel, and I don’t like computer grids, I don’t like perfect timing, I think things need to move, they need to slow down, they need to speed up.
So with Watch_Dogs what I did is I created pieces that would speed up, that would have some life to them. So I wasn’t using a computer grid. But you do have to deliver pieces that can play on top of each other and move around, and I found all these ways to cheat time, to cheat [laughs]… which is only cheating myself, because with a video-game they pay you by the minute. And with something like Watch_Dogs there are a few instances where they only asked for and paid for two minutes of music but I found ways to turn those two minutes into twenty minutes. So the audience wasn’t going to have to have something looping that a computer made, I was doing that for them. Once you have a twenty minute piece and you divide that into sections it can go on for years without repeating. So Watch_Dogs is probably unique in that way that I did cheat time in different ways to deliver more stuff so it doesn’t feel looped.
SB: There seems to be a group of interesting current film scorers who have come from a kind of left-field, alt-rock background and are doing really interesting work. There’s Clint Mansell, Reznor and Ross… do you feel a connection with those guys?
BR: Let’s not forget Cliff Martinez. I talked to Cliff, I just called him up one day after I’d heard Solaris, and I begged him to put it on vinyl. This was back in 2003, 2004, and I told him that I had put out all the scores of the films I had done at the time on vinyl, Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and CQ. Coincidentally Invada Records who put out Watch_Dogs did put out Solaris years later on vinyl.
I do feel part of some kind of collective with people like Trent and Atticus, Cliff, and Mansell. We all came from being in bands, all those guys. I think we all have our own approach. Cliff is a drummer and percussionist like myself, so I probably feel closest to him, but I think I’m a little more old school than he is. I like all the old dirty analogue stuff. But yeah, maybe. I’ve been doing this for a long time, Cliff has, Trent and Mansell might be a little newer to it. And look at Jonny Greenwood, you can look down the line, everybody in a band wants to score.
I’ve been able to bring people in to work with me and do stuff, kinda been doing that since day one with Air. It’s nice to see people who aren’t film school graduates scoring movies because you know they have less baggage. Hopefully. It doesn’t always work. This goes back too… I think of Mike Oldfield with The Exorcist, Cat Stevens [with Harold and Maude], Bob Dylan [with Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid] do many great scores that were done by people outside of composer circles. But now, yeah as you said, it’s valid.
SB: Have you begun work on the third season of Hannibal, are you into that now?
BR: No, but I have done a bit of travelling, the third season each episode is named after an Italian food course, the second season was Japanese, the first was French, and in my travels I went to Morocco and I picked up some pretty interesting instruments. I know some things I want to do, but I’m waiting for them, because with Hannibal I don’t want to overthink it, the minute its ready I want to start working on it. So I’m behind because they have to shoot a lot of stuff in Europe, because Hannibal is on the run. To do that in a cost effective way they have to do pick up shots, that’s gonna really affect me because I’m not going to get it so fast and then I’m going to get a lot of it.
So I haven’t started, I have another project at the moment with is super duper progressive electronic stuff which I can’t really talk about yet, but its going to be more progressive, futuristic and its all electronic. So its great for my brain to do some of that before I step back into the organic world of classical Hannibal sound design.
Thanks to Brian Reitzell and Beth Krakower at Cinemedia Promotions - Hannibal is available for pre-order at Invada