Interview with Brian Reitzell
(Photo by David Slade)
You might argue that the spark for film scores to get industrially dark was lit when the scraping metallic music of Nine Inch Nail’s song “Closer” ran over the unforgettably disturbing opening titles of “Seven.” Now this bleakly transfixing style has become all the rage, from the visceral video forensics of “CSI” to the big screen torture dungeons of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Caller.” But in a media obsessed with churning out serial killers to this alt. rock inspired bump-and-grind, the one psychopath creation that remains unequalled in ghoulish popularity is Hannibal Lector, the gourmand cannibal psychiatrist whose exploits have been told in four cinematic courses. Now, Lector makes his move on network prime time with shockingly good taste for NBC’s “Hannibal.” Cannily defying its “serial killer of the week” expectations, this Bryan Fuller-produced show opens up a whole new disturbing window into the psyches of Lector and Will Graham, the killer’s enemy-to-be who’s far more tormented by visions of evil than his icy, seeming ally. Of course, the du jour musical darkness of the day is being served for episodes playfully titled in epicurean progression. But it’s just how damn creepy “Hannibal’s” sounds of bleakness are that once again show off Brian Reitzell as a composer who knows how to get inside his listeners’ heads and twist, much like the bad doctor himself.
Where horror scores had been becoming increasingly dissonant way before a bunch of vampires invaded Sarah Palin country, Reitzell’s nerve-rip of a score for 2007’s “30 Days of Night”(made by future “Hannibal” exec producer and director David Slade) took the idea of sound-designed “music” to an entirely new, and uncompromising WTF level that conjured the abject terror of being under siege by the decidedly non-sparkling supernatural. If the former Red Kross and Air player’s scores haven’t been quite this insane since, Reitzell’s probing work into the psychological depths of “Peacock’s closeted transvestite, “Boss’” hallucinating politician and even a hip big bad wolf in “Red Riding Hood” have been no less bold or interesting in their noir explorations. But perhaps no work that Reitzell’s done has gotten under the skin like “Hannibal.” Nearly always spoken in a whisper instead of a scream, the tingling, atmospheric music occupies a unique realm between melody and effects with its shimmering, atmospheres that are oft-times barely perceptible. The music’s hypnotic, oppressive effect is much like the hushed command, of telephone tip-off from the doctor that will result in further angst for poor Will Graham. For “Hannibal’s” sinister, beautiful tone poems are quite unlike any score being done for ever-adventurous networks out to carve a piece of the anything-goes cable series pie. Yet, it’s certainly par for the course of one of the most interesting, experimental composers working in Hollywood today.
How did you make the movie from rock music into film scoring?
I never sought out film composing. I was perfectly happy making records and touring with rock bands. Sofia Coppola asked me to help her with the music for her first film, “The Virgin Suicides”. The film takes place in the 70′s so she needed a bunch of 70′s songs. I became the music supervisor but had no idea what I was doing. I learned it all on that film. How to clear music and everything about licensing, etc… I then ended up meeting and subsequently joining the French band Air, whom Sofia had asked to score the film. I did my music supervision stuff then went on tour with Air and then we went directly into the studio and recorded the score. I worked between the band and Sofia like a music producer. This method worked really well so I pretty much do that with most of my films, unless I’m scoring it all myself. Getting into the film world was very natural for me. I grew up listening to, and playing Ennio Morricone, John Barry, Burt Bacharach and The Who. So film music has always been interesting to me and it makes sense that that is what I making. I still make rock music. I just finished a record that will come out in a few months. The record is meant to be listened to in your car, or while traveling. I call it “Auto Music”. Very LA to make a record for driving I know, it’s also very Kraut-rock and would work well on the Autobahn.
How do you think your alt. rock with Red Kross and Air has influenced your film scores?
Well, Redd Kross was my 20′s which was me living out my dream of touring the world and making records in big recording studios and trying to write perfect pop songs. With Air it was my 30′s and it was a natural progression into more instrumental and experimental pop music and playing proper concert halls. It felt very natural, like I was always meant to be doing what I was doing, where I was doing it, etc. I started working on my first film in 1998. I was touring and working on film music at the same time up until 2003, when I decided I could no longer do both. Red Kross is well versed in pop music, especially from the 60′s and the 70′s. I gained a bunch of knowledge from them that has served me well as a drummer and as music supervisor. The experience of playing in Air is very much like going out and playing “Dark Side of The Moon” or Vangelis cues so it’s very connected for me.
Were you a fan of the Hannibal Lector films before taking on the assignment? And how did the producers want your music to help cast these characters in a different light than what past composers like Howard Shore, Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer had done for them?
I love “Silence Of The Lambs”. Howard Shore is always pretty great and really has his thing. There’s some cool source music in that film as well, tracks by The Fall and Colin Newman from Wire. Very well done. There is some Bach in “Silence.” I did use Bach in the show, so there’s some connection. I haven’t seen the others. It will be fun to see them after I finish this. I would like to see the Michael Mann one, “Manhunter.” It’s been on my list for a while.
What’s the approach to spotting in “Hannibal?”
I spotted the first two episodes back to back and then did a few without any spotting. We spotted a couple via Skype since they are shooting up in Toronto and I just spotted an episode, again via Skype, via Paris. Skype is great! We are on a spotting world tour. I once hired an entire band for a film by auditioning musicians in Vancouver via Skype, from my studio in LA. I think we spotted only about half the ‘Hannibal’ episodes. The rest I just did what felt was right to me, and if I missed something, it was always a pretty minor revision. Working with Bryan Fuller (the show’s creator) and David Slade was such a natural process for me. They had the confidence to let me just take charge of the music once we were rolling. They had been working for a while with my score to “30 Days of Night” before I came on board. They had built the tone and sound world for around that score which has a very particular sound to it. It felt more like working on a film to me, which is where I come from. I have only spotted a few of the films I have done. Not that I mind. Spotting can be helpful and insightful but I don’t find it all that necessary. It’s always good to inhibit a composer or a musician. I think the best path with horror music is to not know too much about the scene or where the story is going before composing. I prefer to just sit right down, pick up an instrument and react to the picture as it’s unfolding in front of me. Mapping things out too much kills the vibe but building on top of that first gut reaction in this way is very effective emotionally. It can be physically exhausting working on these projects in this way. That is one of the things I carry over from the way I created “30 Days Of Night”, reaction scoring.
How do you want to balance dissonance with melody in the “Hannibal” scores?
It really depends on what the picture tells me to do. I’m attempting to do the most elegant horror score that I can give the resources and the fast turnarounds. There are many layers in the soundscape and very little sound design in the show. The music does most of the sound FX, so there is a great deal of textural complexity in the score. The music is quite environmental in the show. If we are in one room or one place there will be a specific sound and tone. But as the characters and the camera move the music is always going with it. I try to keep the music as alive as possible. I like for things to be constantly moving. I think the dissonance might be perceived to be a larger part of the score due to the dark things they are putting in front of me.
Do you ever try to embody hope, and humanity, amidst the nightmarish bleakness of “Hannibal?”
Certainly, the first episode ends that way. I love the duality you can put into hitting two different emotions at the same time too. I often do that with source music in the show as well, since I am also the music supervisor.
Who’s your favorite character on the show to play?
I like the new characters that come with the different episodes, like the psycho pharmacist in episode 2 who grows mushrooms out of people he buries alive. I needed to create fungal music, which was a fun challenge. The music teacher that makes violin strings out of peoples vocal chords was a good one too. I like creating new sounds for new characters. Everybody has their own thing on this show. Sometimes it’s quite subtle, more sub conscience but it’s there, woven into the story with the different actor’s presence. I could listen to the score and tell who is on screen and what is basically going on without seeing the picture. Once you have established a particular character’s sound then you are slightly stuck with it. The invention is more interesting than the reinvention to me. You have to be careful to not paint yourself into a corner. Some instruments can be very hard to make sound angry or pissed off but easily can conjure beauty or joy or sadness, etc.
What’s the balance between sampled and live instruments for “Hannibal?”
Everything is played live. I don’t use any outside sample libraries except for the occasional wind instrument or something basic like that. I do use quite a bit of Mellotron, and I do sample myself and make my own libraries. There have been very little samples or MIDI on this show. In fact, I don’t think there has been any. I believe the best stuff is hand made and recorded by an experienced recording engineer in an acoustically sound studio. I love to hear real depth and detail in the instruments and I like to hear very dynamic sounds. I have a full time engineer (Michael Perfitt) and a rather large collection of instruments. My studio was built in the 70′s back when they really knew how to build studios so we do it pretty old school, except for Pro Tools for editing and such. I don’t use many plugins either. I prefer hardware. I have a few musicians that come in regularly and play on the scores with me who have been working with me on films for years. I use my laptop for sending emails not for making music, ha ha!
Is there any improvisation going on with your work?
Improvisation or “reacting to the picture with an instrument in your hand” is the basis for this kind of score. More time is spent editing or rather subtracting than recording. I mostly do only one or two takes of scenes and more often than not, it’s the first take that wins. I want the music to feel what is happening on screen and to be affected by it in that order. I do this with many different instruments. I’m a big fan of John Cage and Morton Feldman. I love when you have big washes of sound that come out of nowhere and leave tons of space behind them. It’s not uncommon for me to have over a hundred voices for just one short scene on “Hannibal.” I also like to take one instrument, typically an analog synthesizer or a drum kit and play down the whole show top to bottom just staying inside the show as it moves along. I may only use pieces of that, but it creates a life that I can build the whole thing around. Scoring is very similar to cooking, except with music you can throw all the spices in to the pot and then take them out one by one to see what flavors arise out of uncommon combinations. If you put too much white pepper in your sauce it’s very hard to take it out but with Protools. You just delete the white pepper.
Do you ever find yourself going into a trance to play a murderer’s motivation, a la Will Graham, to find the inspiration for “Hannibal’s” music?
I certainly go into trances on a daily basis doing this. I work in surround when I record so it’s pretty hard not to get sucked into it. It happens the most between 9 pm and midnight because I’m pretty tired by then.
If you’ve ever found yourself disturbed by the show, have you ever tried to communicate that quality to the listener?
Constantly! The show is very disturbing especially the story. Visually it’s so artfully done and quite fantastical, so I see it like an opera staging, otherwise I might be more disturbed. Listening to the music alone is scarier than in the context of the show. I found the same thing with “30 Days of Night”. Try and put that record on and drive alone at night. The music has to take you where the story and the images go, so sometimes it gets quite ugly and physical. Rushes of multi colored noise and total harmonic distortion breakup can be a very beautiful and emotional thing when part of a score and we go down that rabbit hole every day.
Your use of high, and low-pitched music is quite subtle. Are you ever worried that it might be imperceptible at times, given the nature of television speakers?
My studio is set up to do film scores. Our music is very complex for standard TV speakers so I’m sure some elements do get lost like some of the lower pitched atmospheres and basses. Many people won’t hear all the cool surround stuff we do because they don’t have a surround system. I build it up like I do everything else and once I’m happy with it in here it’s out of my hands. “Hannibal” is mixed a little ‘hotter’ than I send it out. But that’s David’s thing, part of his style. And as a composer it’s pretty cool to have your music that present in the mix. I try not to pander to Lo-Fi TV’s and aim as high and as wide as I can. I have listened to the show on all sorts of different playback systems from older more average TV’s to larger, more Hi-Fi systems as well as in surround and on the computer with headphones. I have been pleased with how it’s coming through.
The character is the most important thing to me in terms of the overall sonics. The star instrument in the show is a custom made tuned solid bronze percussion instrument. I call it the Toru, as it was inspired by the genius Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. Bronze creates the most complex waveforms. I spent some time in a gong factory in Bali a few years back and collected some amazing instruments as well that I use on the show. Listening to Gamelan music really opened up my ears to the sonic power of pure bronze. I am quite sensitive and particular to the timbre of cymbals. I have been playing them my whole life. Cymbals are made out of an alloy that contains several metals, including Tin. The Toru weights 30 pounds and is solid bronze, the sounds can cut through anything, even the tiniest TV speakers. To fully appreciate the massive analog synth low end and the 3D soundstage of the score I would suggest getting the Blu-Ray when it comes out and playing it through a surround system with a sub woofer. Otherwise it works just fine in context of the show on any system with the NBC limiters and all.
What did you think about them ”banning” the serial killer parts of an entire “Hannibal” show “Ceuf,” and only use the doctor office scenes as a “webisode?”
I thought it was the right thing to do. The show will air overseas, and people will eventually be able to see it if they want. I was doing the score for that episode when the shooting at Sandy Hook happened. It felt weird for me to be working on it at the time and was a difficult episode to have to watch over and over again. I couldn’t believe NBC was going to air it even before the tragedy in Boston. Frankly, I have been amazed they have had the balls to play any of these episodes on network TV. It’s a whole new universe right now.
When so many people now are looking for that kind of “Trent Reznor” sound, how do you want to keep your own “dark” approach different?
Trent has his thing and it’s very different than mine. There are a lot of people on his bandwagon! I do my own thing and have been doing it for a while now. What interests me the most is to constantly reinvent my own sound. Part of what makes me different is my music supervision approach of using my record collection as an alternate sonic universe to go to. Sometimes you just can’t beat something from the record collection. Look at Kubrik’s movies. I love the “Shining” so much. The Wendy Carlos score mixed with the classical cues from Ligeti, Bartok and Penderecki is just killer. Not to mention something like “The Exorcist” which has a wicked collage of source music too. I would hate to be pigeonholed, or limited to either a room full of synthesizers, or a room with an orchestra. I’ll take them all, along with my records.
How has being a music supervisor on movies you haven’t scored like “Thumbsucker” and “The Brothers Bloom” influenced the way you deal with other composers?
All the projects are unique. I’m there to do anything I can to help the director get what they need musically. Sometimes I work with another composer or someone from a band that the director likes, or that I think would be cool for the film. Sometimes, like on “Promised Land” I work with a composer whom I never meet like Danny Elfman, and his score goes on when I’m pretty much finished. With “Thumbsucker,” I was working with Elliott Smith who was recording tracks for the film. Elliott passed away during the making of that film and that was very difficult for me. I know it was very hard for Mike Mills, the film’s director too. We just had to stop for a while. Mike brought in Tim from the Polyphonic Spree to finish the score. The sound of the film turned into something that was more ‘up with people’ — like a big youthful rainbow choir. I think we both needed the film to go that way after what happened to Elliott. I talked with Tim a lot during the scoring of that film to help him any way I could, which was often just putting in my two cents about his cues. With the “Brothers Bloom” I came in at the last minute to supervise. I ended up helping the composer Nathan Johnson get some things he needed like finding an orchestrator and some musicians. I have a nice studio so it’s easy for us to record anything here, and to get any kind of instrument or musicians. We did a couple of cues for the film that fell in between supervision and composing. We did a ragtime shuffle and a cover of a track by The Band and a big grand horn fanfare I think. I often come on to fill in some holes that the composer maybe wouldn’t feel comfortable doing. I come from the world of making records so it’s quite natural for me to record a song and for it to be authentic in most any style. I did an Afghani pop song for the film “The Kite Runner”. The director Marc Forster called me up and asked if I would do it as a favor. He didn’t feel confident that his composer could do it or maybe it fell outside his job description.
On the feature end, you next have “The Bling Ring” coming up with Sofia Coppola. How do you think your own scoring and supervision career has evolved with her directorial one, and what can we expect from this soundtrack?
Sofia and I started together with the “Virgin Suicides”. We didn’t really know what you were supposed to do so we made up our own methods. With her next film, “Lost In Translation” we more fully developed our style together. Music plays a very big role in the movies we have done together and “The Bling Ring” continues along that path. The last film we did together was “Marie Antoinette” back in 2007 and I have done a great deal of scoring since then. So I scored it this time as well. It’s the first film we have done where I drew upon contemporary Pop, Club and Hip-Hop music. The principle characters in the film are LA teenagers and the music needed to be a bit personal to them. I spent quite a bit of time listening to contemporary music, collecting the stuff that I liked to give to Sofia before she shot the film. I did most of the score with Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never). He has good ears. His music has taste, emotion and a vulnerability that has been pretty absent in most electronic music for decades – with a few exceptions of course. I had put a track of Daniel’s in the film and to me his music embodied the distillation of the sound of the movie. I invited him into my studio and we spent a few days filling in the holes where the source music wasn’t going to work as well. I did the same thing with Kevin Shields on “Lost In Translation” but to a lesser degree. I also did some treatments to existing songs to score a few scenes. I took the hugely popular dance floor hit and mangled it into a giant granular ambient sound collage. Richard Beggs who did sound and mixing for the film and worked with me on Sofia’s other films, took my stuff and went even further with it in some places. We both did some very adventurous things on this one. This is probably the best work we have done together collectively and that is because of the chemistry between Sofia, Richard, the picture editor Sarah Flack and I. I have to give them all credit for taking the stuff I gave them and working with it the way they did.
You’ve actually done a lot of far less horrific fare like “Friday Night Lights,” “Stranger Than Fiction,” “Shrink” and “Beginners.” What do you enjoy more? Playing deviant behavior, or scoring psychologically well-balanced people?
I really love them all and find it fulfilling to go from one tone or story to the other. I can appreciate all styles of music so it’s really the same thing. I mean one day I’m gonna make some Dub music and the next I’m do a woodwind concerto and then some bloody curdling dissonant death rock. Comedy music is difficult to do well. I have never liked ‘quirky’ pop music. The closest I get is something like the Talking Heads so for me music that sounds silly is really very scary. I love the Mancini scores to the “Pink Panther” films. I have done a few comedies and look forward to doing some more. For me these things are very much the same, they are all about finding a musical character that is unique to the film and getting as much emotion that I can based on what is happening in the story and on the screen. I do find it easier to scare people or make them cry with music than to make them laugh. The best comedies don’t really need much score for my taste. I hate when the music is telling you everything as it’s happening like a musical laugh track. I can appreciate how Woody Allen does his thing — musical interludes between the acts. I think it’s time I do another comedy after all this psycho–horror stuff I have been doing.
What kind of place do you think you occupy among alternative composers. And would you like to do a big-scale orchestral score for a more mainstream project?
I have my own ears and a unique approach to composing. I’m excited and inspired every day in the studio. I truly love music and film so much. I’m not concerned with what anybody else is doing or how I might fit in. I rather prefer to not fit in. I have done a few big orchestral, more mainstream scores and it’s always thrilling to be able to have your music played by a hundred people at once. There is very little imagination going into most of the big mainstream scores and unfortunately those are the only films that have decent music budgets. So I don’t do them that often. I would like to continue to do more and have the resources to push things a bit.
What do you think it says about the state of scoring for network series that you’re essentially able to write new, darkly experimental music every week?
It’s very healthy. TV and films are pretty much one in the same right now. I never had any ambition to do TV. I thought it was the least artistic place to be, but that’s not the case any more. Gus Van Sant got me into it with “Boss” and I thought, “If Gus is gonna do it than I will to.” You know he’s such a ‘film’ guy too. I found the experience to be totally creative and without any real artistic compromise. The time constraints are brutal though! TV is very good for your chops! I do like to keep a balance and like working on things for a long time like the films I do with Sofia where I start while she is writing and finish a year or so later. With ‘Hannibal” we are now turning scores around in a week.
When appeals to you creatively about the darker side of human nature, whether its within a corrupt politician or a serial killer?
I have always been attracted to darkness in music. I think the most beautiful music is some of the darkest. I don’t know why I get these jobs to be honest. I like experimental, emotional soundscapes. I like messing around with the audiences’ head and it makes it fun when you have a character that is hallucinating or having a nightmare or a split personality or some neurosis to play off of. I just love discovering and creating new sounds. I try to create something that I have never heard before everyday. This lends well to horror scores and such. If you were being murdered or observing something as dark as what goes on in ‘Hannibal’ it would feel new, weird, dark, scary etc, so the music goes all those places too.
Watch “Hannibal” on NBC Thursdays at 10 PM, then see episodes online HERE.
Special thanks to Lee Scott