Interview with Nathaniel Méchaly
When it comes to international action scoring, there’s one composer with a very particular set of skills, skills that he’s acquired as a kick-ass house musician in Luc Besson’s factory of fury. For a producer who pumps out a seemingly unending stream of pictures wherein company men, crooks and assassins of all stripes and colors outrace, outwit and outshoot their way from seemingly impossible predicaments, Nathaniel Méchaly is the guy with the backbeat to get the job done. But when the percussive scoring style that infuses nearly all movies of this type are getting more than winded (especially in America), it’s this Frenchman’s melodically interesting, and psychologically-driven approach that not only makes his soundtracks for the likes of “Revolver” and “Colombiana” so interesting, but also show of the stylish touch that doesn’t allow Besson brand to get old- especially when dealing with an aging ex-CIA dude named Bryan Mills, as memorably personified by Liam Neeson in “Taken.”
As Méchaly played just about the last the last guy you want on the receiving end of a phone if you’re kidnapping a pretty young thing into sex slavery, the composer’s throttling rhythms and ethnic instruments conveyed both a bad ass seeking vengeance across France’s underbelly, while also giving Bryan a strong orchestral sensibility that conveyed a father’s escalating desperation to save his only, innocent daughter. An unexpected major hit that invigorated the careers of Besson, Neeson and Méchaly, it was only natural that someone would get seized again. But in another turnabout for the Besson formula, “Taken 2” puts the running shoes on the other foot as it’s Bryan’s daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) who has to rescue her dad and mom from the father of the scumbags he so righteously put away the first time out.
With the chasing taking place in the Turkish capital of Istanbul, Méchaly gets behind the musical driver’s seat with even more assurance, throwing grinding metal and booming hits to make sure Kim finds it within her ability to take on Bryan’s skill set. But given a girl for whom killing isn’t second nature, Méchaly invests real symphonic emotion, if not sadness into “Taken 2”’s heroine, conveying a non-superhero who has to grow up fast, while also finding the human quality for a villain driven by grief-filled revenge. It’s a sequel score that not only satisfies music-adrenalin junkies, but also those who prefer actual music in their shoot ‘em ups as Méchaly manages to put lush heart into the Besson machine once again, landing a percussive pattern across the kill zone with the kind of feeling that sets his approach apart from the action pack.
Could you tell us about how you started composing for film, and particularly for Luc Besson-produced pictures?
Like many of us, I got my start in television – working on music for commercials, TV themes and things of that sort. At the same time I was working as assistant to Gabriel Yared, which gave me a lot of exposure to the realities of working on feature films. One day, Raphaël Nadjari, with whom I had worked on TV jingles contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in composing the music for the Israeli film “Avanim.” This opened the door for me to work on some other films from Israel such as “Tehilim,” which was selected for the Cannes Film Festival and “Ushpizin,” a charming film that I’m very fond of which has since become a bit of a cult classic in Israel. After these films, I started being offered feature film work in France. Jérôme Lateur, the director of the music department at EuropaCorp at the time, became aware of my work and presented me to director Richard Berry for his film “La Boite Noire” (“The Black Box”), which was a production of Luc Besson and Pierre-Ange Le Pogam. Jérôme and Luc were very pleased with my work on “The Black Box,” and that’s really how the adventure started.
Do you think there’s a formula to Luc’s movies, especially when it comes to the sound he’s looking for in their scores?
I think to be honest that there is a formula in all kinds of storytelling, be it cinema, novels or television. When it comes to Luc’s work, if there is any formula then I’d say that he is capable of identifying the target audience for his storytelling without closing the door to creativity and originality. With regards to music, my personal experience has been that he is pretty open to good surprises.
How do you think the first “Taken” stood out? And how did you want to music to reflect that this was a way older action star than what audiences were used to?
I think that the charisma and charm of Liam Neeson had a lot to do with it! I think audiences were pleasantly surprised to see him take on the role of a leading man in an action movie, something about his fatherly presence really just worked. In terms of scoring for the film, I think Liam’s character influenced me to work much more with emotion. I felt that so much of the film’s story hinged on the emotional bond between Bryan Mills and his daughter, so for me I really had to tie them together for the impact of the story to work. We don’t actually see Kim very much on screen, so we needed to feel her presence – to see her in the eyes of her father, so that the drive and passion behind his relentless pursuit of her kidnappers would feel real and painful.
Were you surprised by “Taken’s” success?
Absolutely! It’s always a pleasant surprise when a film you’ve worked on finds a large audience.
How different did you want to make the sequel’s score?
It’s an interesting question, because even though we might always set out with certain ideas about what we want to do for a project, every film always has its own needs so it’s never as simple as just deciding what you want to do. There are also differences in style between different directors, such as Pierre Morel for the first “Taken,” and Olivier Megaton, who directed “Taken 2.” I started working on “Taken 2” before shooting began, and from my experience with Olivier from our previous film together, “Colombiana,” I knew that he would want a lot of music! Looking back on the work, there are many things about this score that are quite different to “Taken.” But the thing that I most noticed personally was the influence of Liam Neeson’s voice on my writing. When I did “Taken,” I was already very seduced by the warm tone of his voice – his dialogue always somehow made me think of an operatic bass such as Samuel Ramey. So when I started working to picture on “Taken 2,” I was very conscious of making my key signature choices and arrangement in such a way as to compliment and enhance the way Liam’s voice worked. I also felt that the vision of this film was larger in scope than the previous “Taken,” so I wanted to bring a larger, more ambitious operatic score to the table.
It’s Bryan’s daughter Kim who now has to locate her missing family. How do you want the score to switch perspectives, especially for a character that doesn’t have her dad’s “set of skills?”
Indeed, I wanted to resist doing something facile such as imposing a more “feminine” sound in the music for the character of Kim who has to step up and be the hero. For me, if there was anything specific to Kim to underline musically, it was maybe just the fear for the situation she found herself in. But when she makes her mind up that she is going to do whatever it takes to save her family, I really felt that the strong, operatic action score I was writing was just as appropriate for her as it was for Bryan.
Where Bryan was after villains who had the impersonal motive of sex slavery, the bad guy Murad here is driven by the grief of losing his sons because of their appalling acts. How did that add to the score’s emotion?
In “Taken,” Bryan’s drive to save his daughter was the key emotional path for my music – this film was really about a father who had almost lost everything, doing all he could for absolution by rescuing his daughter. In “Taken 2,” I wanted to do the same for the revenge of Murad. The passion and intensity driving both Bryan in “Taken” and Murad in “Taken 2” is the same.
What ethnic qualities did you want to bring out for this “Taken’s” settings?
Given the film’s setting in Istanbul, and the fact that the film is about Albanian gangsters seeking revenge gave me a few key flavors to work with in terms of ethnic music influences. For example, I worked with a fantastic player of Arabic violin, Zied Zouari I to record some themes as well as some wonderful improvisation over the orchestra. I also wanted to work with some Middle Eastern percussion that I recorded with drummer Mathieu Rabaté to help the score find a good rhythm. But importantly, I wanted to avoid falling into postcard clichés of “ethnic” music. For example, in the first pursuit scene in the souk in Istanbul, I developed a strong electronic-driven score with my synth programmer Antonio Gambale to give the scene a dark emotionally intensity above and beyond its geographical setting.
Do you think there’s a different, more melodic approach that a foreign composer gives to an action blockbuster, as opposed to how American-based musicians might have handled “Taken 2?”
The films we work on demand a particular style that is strongly influenced by the expectations and tastes we associate with certain kinds of cinema. I’m not sure, but I think that every composer brings his identity from his or her own background. So for me personally, I do think I might bring some different notions of harmony to the table, having a European musical background. But at the end of the day, “Taken 2” is very much an American-style action film so my work was aimed in this direction.
With action scores becoming increasingly percussion-oriented, how important was it for you to have an orchestra in the score?
To follow on from the previous question, composers like Hans Zimmer, John Powell along with many others have definitely brought a certain style to the music we associate with modern action cinema. In many ways this is no different to the style of other genres and eras in cinema such as the influence of Bernard Herman and Jerry Goldsmith on the cinema of their time. For “Taken 2,” I felt that the orchestra, in particular the string section, was very important as a way for me to express my own personal style and musical harmony. However, I don’t see it as being in conflict with a strong use of percussion and electronics in my music. Also, one of the keys for me to be able to work successfully with the orchestra in film music is top-notch music editing. Occasionally I need to detach myself from the picture in order to really take the music where it needs to go. It was very important for me to have a shared vision with my music editor David Menke which allowed me to take these compositional diversions when I needed them, with full confidence that the relationship between the picture editors and the music was totally under control.
There are interesting uses of the guitar in “Taken 2,” both in heavy metal style, as well as folksy one. How did you choose on that instrument?
The thing I find very attractive about the guitar is that there are few instruments that have the potential to create such radically different sounds. For example, the soft acoustic guitar sound when playing solo themes with strings is pure delicate beauty… but when you amplify and destroy a rock guitar sound, you have a tool for creating incredible stress and intensity.
How heavily involved is Luc in the scoring process?
As a producer, Luc has the quality of being someone who doesn’t panic. As a director himself, he also intimately understands the importance of the tight relationship between a director and his composer. So, he seems very comfortable to let us take our work to its full conclusion, and only then does he give us his comments to refine the result.
What do you think are the biggest similarities in how Luc and Oliver direct, and approach music?
I think that their similarities lie in their approach to editing. They both have a strong sense of the relationship between music and the pace and rhythm of a film. When I was a kid and I watched films like “Nikita” and “The Professional,” I was always very drawn to the use of modern rhythmic action music along with tender romantic score that Eric Serra composed for Luc. I think that with Olivier, we’ve found a similar balance in the way we work together.
In between the “Taken” movies, you scored “Colombiana” for Luc and Oliver. How do you think that score played a kick-ass action heroine who’s a lot less merciful than even Bryan?
I think for “Colombiana,” it felt more important to me to try and find a softer femininity behind this scarred woman with her traumatized childhood. However, there is also an incredible focus and precision to the way Cataleya sets out to punish the people who destroyed her family, and we see this in Zoe Saldana’s great physical acting. Her body language, the cold precision to her movements and the way she guards her emotions really inspired me.
Probably one of the most interesting “action” movies you’ve scored is Guy Ritchie’s “Revolver,” a really terrific, and misunderstood picture that plays at a completely existential level. What was that experience like?
Thanks, I don’t often hear from people who understood the movie! I can definitely tell you that the experience of working on this film was one of those awesome, crazy adventures that you remember for the rest of your life! I got the call to work on this film quite late, to say the least. And from there, all I remember is helicopter rides out to Luc’s studios in Normandy and crazy hours with Guy Ritchie writing music at full speed in order to make the deadline. One of the most interesting memories I have is when I needed to record some electric cello and bass for the score that we did live in the final mix studio, with Luc and Guy giving me directions on the fly. I think there’s something to be said for the music you create under pressure when the circumstances require it – you are suddenly completely transported into the creative process and you have no time to question yourself. I’m proud of the music and the film that we made with Guy, I wish it were a little more understood by audiences, but I think it has more than earned its place as a cult film in experimental cinema.
Could you talk to us about the music you’re now writing for Cinemax’s upcoming “Transporter” series?
Early in my career as I mentioned before, I worked a lot in television. But until now I’ve never done a full TV series, so it has been a very interesting experience. The technical realities of TV production impose a completely different style of working and organization than what I’m accustomed to in film. It has been a lot of fun to work with my team on this project because composing for cinema can often be very isolating, working long hours by myself. For this series, the brief has called for a huge diversity in music, so it has been great fun to compose in so many different styles.
You’ve also scored dramas like “Eyes Wide Open,” which deals with gay Hassidic Jews. Do these smaller films provide a respite as it were? And as you become more internationally popular for your action scores, how important is it for you to keep up with more intimate pictures?
Definitely yes, it’s very important – in fact I need it. For me, working on more intimate films is an opportunity to return to the laboratory as it were, which gives me a much-needed freedom to explore and develop new ideas and new approaches. In fact the two worlds work hand-in-hand for me. Working on bigger films forces you to develop a tough skin and very solid work practices, as well as a different style of creativity. I’m then able to bring this experience to smaller films, which I think gives reassurance and confidence to directors. And it works as well in the other sense – the relative freedom of working on smaller films allows me to develop as a composer and bring new colors to the bigger films I work on.
Where would you like to see the “Taken” series go in its undoubted sequels to come, especially in how it can open up further paths for your music?
Maybe the whole family could be abducted by aliens? That way I would get to do a fantastic science fiction score!
In the end, what impact do you think Luc Besson will have on the world of action movies, and scores?
Like many of the big directors and producers the world has seen, I think it’s hard to judge the full impact of their body of work until much later on. In any case, in terms of his impact on the presence of France in world cinema, his influence and importance is undeniable. In terms of his own films, I think that Luc has a very interesting legacy. He’s given us a string of very diverse films that will remain classics for all time, such as “The Big Blue,” “Nikita” and “The Professional” amongst many others. And with films like “The Fifth Element,” I feel that he strongly influenced action cinema by bringing a unique theatrical dimension to a genre that is sometimes very sterile. Another thing that many people might not know is that his casting choices have been a big influence on the films we see today. He helped actors like Jean Reno, Nathalie Portman, Milla Jovovich and Gary Oldman get their start in the business. Finally, in terms of music, I think Luc is a great example of a director who has maintained the long-held and very valuable relationship between a director and his composer.
Listen to samples of Nathaniel Méchaly’s music for “Taken 2” at his website HERE