Interview with Jeff Rona
Throughout the manly genre of “submarine” films from “Run Silent Run Deep” to “Gray Lady Down” and “Das Boot,” the claustrophobic, gear-filled surroundings, depth-charge tension and constant life-or-death stakes have often yielded symphonic scores that sought to be as big as the ocean depths in conveying radar-pounding excitement and the psychological warfare between rival captains. Once again taking the Russian “enemy” perspective in the tradition of “The Hunt for Red October” and “K19 the Widowmaker,” “Phantom” posits an escalating Cold War conflict that threatens to ignite a nuclear holocaust as an old salt Soviet captain Demi (Ed Harris) faces off against the unwanted KGB interloper Bruni (David Duchovny), whose own private mission and titular weapon threatens to wipe out the west- and Mother Russian along with it.
But if there’s one torpedo in the arsenal of filmmaker Todd Robinson (“Lonely Hearts”) that will help make “Phantom” stand apart from its militaristic forbearers, then it’s the mesmerizing pressure-cooker of Jeff Rona’s score. Determinedly going against the usual musical sonar readings, Rona’s “Phantom” gains its excitement from a brooding combination of samples and orchestra, conveying a ticking clock to Armageddon through both the metallic beat of submarine machinery and the deeply felt melodic anguish of the ultimate sacrifice its heroes face. “Phantom” just might be the ultimate “interior” score for men trapped inside a glorified steel tube leagues under the ocean, conveying a darkly beautiful sound for both the environment and the mindset of the enemy below.
A Culver City native and Brian Eno disciple, Rona started out serving under Hans Zimmer’s command as his synth skills helped pioneered the game-changing, pulsating sound of Hollywood scoring that mixed the electronic with the organic. Rona was also instrumental in the hypnotically cold electronic rhythms of “Traffic” and the landmark “world music” score to “Powaqqatsi,” approaches which also playing powerfully into “Phantom.” It seemed only natural that a composer proficient in conjuring textural, often rhythmically exciting musical environments for television series (“Chicago Hope”), film (“Exit Wounds”) documentaries (“Sharkwater”) videogames (“God of War III”) and dance pieces would make his studio scoring breakthrough in 1996’s “White Squall,” another psychologically gripping oceanic tale that Todd Robinson wrote and co-produced. But here the stakes have considerably ramped up from the survival of teen sailors to that of the entire world, an evolution that reveals just how much Rona’s own voice has progressed since in hauntingly conveying both danger, and vulnerability on, and under, the high seas.
Did your work on “White Squall” make you an immediate choice to score Todd’s new film?
Prior to this film I’d only met Todd in passing – long after scoring “Squall.” He’d directed a couple other really great films since, but he thought of me specifically for “Phantom.” He wanted a deeply emotional core to the new film, which there was in “White Squall.” He really liked that score. He also knew I’d done other scores that were less classically orchestral and more textural. So he came to me with “Phantom” and the idea to find a balance between those musical polarities.
Do you think there are similarities between your musical approaches to “White Squall” and “Phantom?”
I think that Ridley Scott’s “White Squall” a different movie. Its perils were very contained inside of a touching coming-of-age drama. “Phantom” on the other hand is a thoughtful but very engaging thriller. Though both are from a psychological perspective as well as some heart pounding elements too. “White Squall” took a very soaring, almost folk-like melodic theme and set it with the orchestra, Celtic instruments, Caribbean flavors, some subtle eastern instruments such as gammon, and some simple abstract sounds to create a lush and haunting score. It was about the open sea as it’s own character. But “Phantom” is often much moodier, darker, and stressful. It’s a more contemporary score that tries to convey what is inside the head, and soul, of Ed Harris’ Captain Demi. So this is an “inside out” score, versus an “outside in,” if that makes sense. It is a very different experience.
How do you think “Phantom” differs from other Russian-themed “submarine” movies like “The Hunt for Red October” and “K19,” and how did you want the score to reflect that?
Both of those films, and their scores, came from a more militaristic, heroic view of the personalities and events they portray. Their view of patriotism, conflict, heroism, and valor, while complex, are at the forefront of those films. “Phantom,” in contrast asks very different questions due to the very different circumstances in which the characters find themselves. So this score is much more ambient, modern, and to me, personal. I didn’t see the film as a historical story. My own feelings about heroism and conflict come through, and Todd was very supportive of a musical direction that did not scream “submarines!”
Did you do any research into the actual story that “Phantom” is based on. And how “true” is it to the events?
Todd based elements of his screenplay on a rather harrowing event that took place with a Soviet submarine called the K-129 uncovered by the Freedom Of Information Act. I really don’t want to give anything away – and there is a pretty significant divergence between them – but to have a glimpse at the incredible facets of conflict from the Cold War, but placed into a very human context, is brilliant. In 1968 a Soviet submarine off the western coast of the US broke off all contact with their command and government. The events that actually took place are shocking to say the least, and we likely came within inches of a catastrophic nuclear war as a result. “Phantom” takes this and moves it into a new realm dramatically. Todd used the story as a backdrop and finds some deep connections between duty to country, bonds with our parents and children, and the concept of atonement for our errors. It’s such a rich fabric to work from.
“Phantom” is about the clash between those realizing Russia is at a turning point, and the Cold Warriors who want to take it to a new, terrifying level. How did you want the score to contrast their psychological beliefs?
Like many good stories, there are multiple conflicting perspectives. If you look at “Crimson Tide”, yet another Soviet submarine thriller, it boils down to a stark and tense difference of opinion between just two men, both with the conviction that their view is the correct one to act upon. But we all know that is not possible. “Phantom” quickly chips away at the notion of “right.” We question not only each person’s motives right from the start, but also what actually constitutes reality, as seen by each character in the story. Everyone onboard the sub here believes strongly in their cause, each believes they are doing the right thing. But we also see how flimsy that grasp of reality can be for everyone involved. If we make critical decisions based on what is “true,” then what if true is wrong?
The music at the opening of the film is sparse, electronic, and lush, with a sense of ‘hopefulness’. Though we know we are aboard a Russian submarine in the 1960′s, the music, just like the film, is not about history or politics exclusively. It is about what makes these people, and especially the ship’s captain, the human beings they are – well meaning, imperfect, some haunted by their pasts, and everyone uncertain of the future the world is headed toward.
How ethnically “Russian” did you want to make the score?
Very, very little – this is not a “Dr. Zhivago”or ‘Red October!” I stayed away from the balalaikas or any traditional Russian instruments. It’s mainly an electronic score – by choice. I worked with my usual arsenal of instruments along with members of the Calder Quartet, a separate cello group, some interesting soloists, ambient electric guitars (played by brilliant Russian musician/sound designer Alex Kharmelov) and heavily processed samples of myself hitting various metal pipes and tanks on the actual submarine used for the film.
I listened to a lot of Russian music to see if anything would inspire me. And I absolutely was. Early Georgian choral music, sung by all male choirs, is some of the most haunting liturgical music I’ve ever heard. In particular I found a thousand year old hymn called “Shen Khar Venakhi”, which translates as “Thou Are A Vineyard.” One of the most beautiful pieces of music ever! Some people might remember hearing part of it on Kate Bush’s “Hello Earth” from “Hounds of Love.” There are some dream-like sequences in “Phantom” where I suggest it ever so slightly. You might be able to hear it floating in a track on the “Phantom” soundtrack album as well.
Though the characters in “Phantom” are Russian, the movie makes no attempt to go for accents and such. Do you think that makes the music’s role even more important in selling the film’s believability?
Not at all. As far as I was concerned, once the submarine starts its voyage, it’s a trip into the pure unknown – much like “Apocalypse Now,”
which had some incredibly abstract music. What made “Phantom” believable to me were the integrity of the story and the incredible range of the actors. By the time we get to the end of this journey, it’s all about emotion, not Russian accents. There was a very conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers not to attempt authenticity through affectations like Russian accents, which might have been very distracting. As a parallel to that the music was entirely about being caught up in the character’s struggles, both onboard this derelict submarine, and in their own damaged psyches.
I did use one exotic instrument to suggest some aspect of eastern music, but it’s actually a strange American instrument called, ironically, a Marxophone. It’s a sort of autoharp/dulcimer with a crude keyboard made of springs. I heard one on an obscure recording, fell in love with it, and managed to find one on the Internet. It’s a great color and imparts some unique moments to the score.
There’s a cool, “submerged” quality to a lot of the music in “Phantom.” What’s the trick to giving the feeling of travelling under the ocean depths?
I never thought about it quite that way. My mind was more on how the music would support the character’s looming problems than on creating a sense of “underwater-ness”, but I’m really glad to know you heard it that way. There is an echo-y (call it “submerged”) quality from some of the elaborate processing I gave sounds that I sampled in the submarine for the score, along with my other electronics. Different sounds do conjure different feelings in people. The sounds I create and choose inspire me to write in a particular way. Any composer writes differently for different instruments. With all the sonic options at my disposal, I have a tremendous amount of choice. Cool things can happen. But I am careful to only create and play with a limited range of colors, so the music feels cohesive.
What gave you the idea to record percussion aboard an actual submarine? What’s the trick to making the samples “musical?” and how did you want them to capture the sounds of a sub?
Todd invited me to see the submarine he was using for the shoot. It’s not a set, it’s an actual decommissioned Soviet submarine docked here in Southern California. He thought it would be inspiring for me to feel what it’s like inside it. I doubt I’d last a day on one if my life depended on it. As I waked around I tapped my fingers on a lot of the hundreds of metal valves, pipes, and hydraulics. They all made these extraordinary sounds! It occurred to me that this could be a really amazing musical instrument, one I’d love to create, and love to play.
I came back later in the shoot with a small handheld audio recorder, some drum sticks and mallets, and started playing as many of the objects in the sub as I could. Back at my studio we built a set of digital instruments from these hundreds of samples and organized them by timbre and tonality. The samples were anything from a single tap to lengthy performances. Some became rhythm instruments and loops, some were processed into ambient textures, and some were made into instruments that could play melodies and harmonies. The technology I used allows sounds to be bent into so many variations, accentuating their color, pitch, shape, or any prominent elements. It was an exiting process. The results became the instruments that inspired certain themes in the score.
Could you talk about the ticking-clock suspense component of “Phantom” as the heroes try to avoid unleashing World War 3?
There is a great quote from director David Mamet where he said, in essence, “To create drama, put your characters in a tree, then light the tree on fire.” The element of time, or lack thereof, is the essential ingredient to suspense and tension. One thing about any events in a submarine – once you’ve begun, you’re committed! There are deep mysteries at the start of “Phantom,” and we in the audience cannot see how they will play out. But we do know there is no turning back. And the tension builds like crazy fairly quickly. Todd didn’t want to let the tension relax very often in the arc of the story. Even when the action slows down, we sense the external elements ready to take us down at any moment. The ticking sound was another use of an instrument I created with the submarine itself.
The captain of “Phantom” suffers from hallucinations through the film. How do you think the music captures his segues in and out of reality?
At certain times the audience knows when the ship’s captain is hallucinating, but other times they don’t. To this day I’m still not sure about certain scenes. The music could not establish reality or fantasy without ruining a key element of the film. In a few scenes we see the captain sitting with his wife and young daughter, possibly in flashback, or a dream, or something else. They are unexpected and tender moments. The audience can ask why he is suddenly there in his home, and the music supports how touching the experience is for him as he struggles to say what is on his mind. There is a simple theme on piano to convey a sense of love, or sadness, or a bit of both. But it’s a light touch. To the captain, these moments are no less real than when he has a torpedo headed right at his sub.
You’ve always explored an interesting realm between electronics and the orchestra in your career. Where do you think “Phantom” takes you in that regard?
There is a sweet spot here, but it leans very far toward the non-orchestral. I’ve never written a score that was either 100% electronic or 100% orchestral. There is always a blend, even if you can’t hear it. There are an infinite number of ways to work with electronic and acoustic instruments together. It always comes down to the experience you want to create with music.
You’d asked before about the genre of ‘submarine movies.’ I’m not sure if ‘submarine’ is an official movie genre, though a lot of people have said to me ‘Oh, I love submarine movies!’ (maybe we could call it a ‘sub genre!’) Most submarine films are noteworthy for the relatively consistent style of powerful, patriotic, dramatic orchestral scores. That would never have worked for this film. I wanted to do something much more personal and unexpected. It’s not about the ship, or Russia, or the Cold War, or the secret weapon they are testing, or any of that. How do you express that in music? Is a violin section better than an electronic instrument? Is the goal to be abstract, to be conventional? This score does feature a lot of strings and other live players, but I really wanted a unique sound here, that never placed you in any country or time period. My approach to the score had no thoughts about the genre. Only the experience I wanted the audience to have.
One of the factors that make “Phantom’s” score so interesting is that it’s surprisingly ethereal and mournfully emotional for a movie of this sort. How did you arrive at that approach?
Fortunately Todd, and everyone involved in making the film, felt at its core this was a deeply emotional story set to a backdrop of politics and warfare, and not the other way around. The early cuts of the film were even more meditative. As the filmmakers continued to focus the film and draw us in to the intrigue, tension, and excitement of the story, they never lost sight if what is different about this film. Ed Harris is a great actor, and he lets us see the weight and gravity of everything going on inside him. The entire cast gives these amazing performances. So while the action does get to a fever pitch, with music to match, the focus of the music, like much of the film is haunting and emotional.
“Phantom” ends with the song “An Ocean Away.” You usually don’t get a tune at the end of a submarine movie. What inspired its tone?
We went back and forth on this. Our music editor cut together a great montage of clips from the score, but that’s pretty normal stuff. We tried the Georgian choral music, but that felt out of place and a bit pretentious. The filmmakers reached out to a very well known band with whom they had connections and asked them to contribute an original, radio-friendly song. What they got was a great catchy pop song, but it was just so jarring coming right from the powerful ending of the film. It made no sense whatsoever.
So I asked if I might try something else based on a track I’d written from the film. I did an arrangement of a cue and adapted it to a song form. I’d been working with an amazing young singer songwriter named Rachel Fannan on an album project, and I asked if she would work with me on a new melody and some lyrics. I was thrilled with the results, but I wanted to push it further. I asked my friend, producer/composer Carmen Rizzo to do his own take on the song’s production and mix, and the final track feels so at home to me at the end of this film, while standing on it’s own two feet as a song.
Tell us about your upcoming projects.
I’m just putting a few final touches on a feature documentary called “Revolution.” It’s directed by Rob Stewart, who did the award-winning documentary “Sharkwater,” which I also scored. Gus Van Zandt is an executive producer on it. I’m also scoring a massive video game now, but can’t say the name. I’m about to start an indie film by a young Brazilian director that looks amazing. All great projects!
How would you describe your own personal connection to the sea, and where music can go in exploring it, especially when it comes to the genre of suspense?
I love the ocean. It is stunningly, terrifyingly beautiful. Standing on the shore it looks grand and serene. But away from land it is also wild and unforgiving. It’s interesting how the open sea is so often portrayed in films as a deadly threat in movies like “Lifeboat,” “Titanic,” “Jaws,” “White Squall,” “Perfect Storm” or “Open Water” – and right up to “Life Of Pi.” People are truly weak, helpless and vulnerable in comparison to the ocean. Yet it is the thing that sustains all life on Earth. It gives everything. When the weather permits, I love to swim in the ocean. It imparts a deep sense of being alive. What more can one ask?
Click HERE to watch Jeff Rona playing in the “Phantom” submarine
“Phantom” opens in theaters March 1, while Jeff Rona’s “Phantom” score surfaces from Milan Records on February 26th. Click on the cover above to pre-order the album HERE.
Visit Jeff Rona’s website HERE