Interview with Matthew Margeson
Most often, the trick to pleasing with a first-time sequel is to give the audience everything they loved about the cinematic origin story, while also providing them with enough new material to give the multiplex a feeling of freshness. In that respect, the sewed-on vigilante spandex of Kick-Ass and Hit Girl are back in the same style after three years, their scoring spiffed up to a terrific new sheen, all while given new musical foes to pummel and vivisect for “Kick-Ass 2.” If fans were righteously pissed that they never got an album of the original soundtrack by Henry Jackman and John Murphy (with additional fisticuffs by Marius De Vries and Ilan Eshkeri), then they’re going to be very happy with the work of the dynamic duo of Jackman and his new Robin – i.e. Matthew Margeson.
Long in the musical batcave of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control, Margeson has proven to be a pianist-turned-boy wonder when it came to assisting that magnate’s composing super-team on any number of adrenalin-fueled scores, including Klaus Badelt (“Constantine,” “Ultraviolet”), Rupert Gregson-Williams (“You Don’t Mess With the Zohan”), Steve Jablonsky (“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”) and The Man himself (“Angels & Demons,” “Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows”), as well as non RC avengers like Brian Tyler (“Dragonball: Evolution,” “The Expendables”). Tirelessly proving his own worth with every task from score advising to synth programming and writing additional music, Margeson more than showed his own worth on the 2010 alien invasion picture “Skyline,” his epic mix of sci-fi rhythm and orchestral grandeur giving an LA high rise apartment the epic grandeur of a showdown between brain-eating E.T.’s and hapless Gen Y’ers.
Since then, Margeson has scored the “Transformers Prime” TV series, an all-star “Battle Royale” for Playstation, the bad behavior of HBO’s “Eastbound and Down” and the gripping music playing over the Universal tram during your studio tour. But if there’s been one fortuitous moment in Margeson’s career, then it was being taken under the wing of Henry Jackman. Now a creative relationship that’s seen him work on such scores for his mentor as “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “X-Men First Class” and “Wreck-It Ralph” leaps off the roof to take down evil with their first officially co-credited score for “Kick-Ass 2.” Knowing full well the movie’s geek-iconic themes after doing arrangements for the first soundtrack, Margeson helps bring back the noble strings, slow-burn guitars, melancholy piano melody and rocking heroics for a post-adolescent team, who are now joined by a whole new squad of homegrown superhero wannabes. Out to bloodily put the kibosh on these often hapless vigilantes is Chris D’Amico, who’s assumed the identity of The Motherfu*er in order to take revenge on our two heroes for taking out his mobster dad.
It’s a musical clash between homegrown justice league and sinister supreme that not only plays both the comedy, and true heroism of people who are superheroes and villains in their own minds (and sometimes ability), but also captures the emotional stakes of costumed shenanigans that net violently lethal consequences. The end result is a “Kick-Ass” score that truly delivers on its title with a real-deal superhero score that’s bigger and better the second time out – as fresh as it is gloriously the same. And most importantly, it’s a masked identity that firmly shows Matthew Margeson as composer of first rank comic book music, as well as being worthy of getting his own film scoring issue as well.
If Kick-Ass had his “a-ha!” moment as a kid where he realized he wanted to be a superhero, what was your similar inspiration to become a movie composer? And how did you get there?
Hmmm…. cue the dreamy flashback music: It would have had to be when I was about 7 or 8 year old or so and my parents took me to see my first Broadway musical. The show was good and all, but I was really taken back by the conductor and the orchestra. It was definitely a ”So what’s that going on down there?” moment. I had started taking piano lessons when I was 5, but I think seeing a live orchestra for the first time was the actual “A-ha” moment. I knew at that point that music in one way or another would definitely be in the recipe for the rest of my life. Getting to the point in my career that I’m at now is probably attributed to the really obvious things: luck, working too many hours, surrounding myself with the right people, and so on and so forth.
What was your reaction to the first “Kick-Ass movie” when you saw it, and did you ever imagine you’d be co-scoring the sequel?
I actually ended up writing a little bit of music on the first “Kick-Ass.” It was a bit of a chaotic situation as there were 4 composers working on the project. They all had written different concepts for the final Hit-Girl vs. Frank Fight. The producers loved different aspects of what each of them had written and wanted all of the ideas to be smashed together in one ultimate cue. The problem was that this decision was made really late in the game. They had already started the final orchestral recording sessions in London. I got a call from Henry Jackman asking if I could help out the team by writing a cue that encompassed all of these ideas. I lucked out, as everyone really liked the cue. I think that was my foot in the door with producer Matthew Vaughn. As far as the sequel goes…. Marv Films definitely wanted to bring Jackman back to the table for his unforgettable theme, and Henry put in a good word for me to bring my ideas to the table based on my contributions to the first film.
Did you and Henry divide the score up in the same way he worked with John Murphy on the first film?
Henry and I had a really fun time working on the score. I wasn’t really involved in the whole process of the first “Kick-Ass,” so I can’t really account for Jackman and Murphy’s collaboration process. The great thing about this time around is that Henry and my studios are walking distance from each other, so it was very easy for us to constantly bounce ideas off each other, come up with variations of themes, new sounds and whatnot.
How much of a traditional “superhero” score do you think Kick-Ass 2 is? And did you study the great ones like “Superman” and “Batman” before going into this?
Like a lot of today’s superhero scores, ultimately “Kick-Ass 2” encompasses a bit of a traditional and contemporary approach. We definitely relied on the orchestra for the meat and potatoes of the score, because really, what would a superhero movie be without big brass fanfares and soaring tunes? Conceptually though, we wanted to really take into consideration that the characters are, for the most, part kids. So we wanted to add an element of fun to the score. To do this, we used a lot of band-ish elements too, like tons of guitars, bass, and drums.
In general terms of sequel scoring, how important do you think it is to give the audiences the music they know and love, while offering them something new? Was it a mission to make the existing “Kick-Ass” themes “bigger and better,” and if so, how did you want to accomplish that?
Wow – loaded question…. There is no denying that there is an abyss of sequels made today. As far as the scores and themes go, I guess the process has to be a real commitment whether you’re going to stay in a similar musical world as the original while expanding upon it, or go in a completely different direction. These decisions are based upon a lot of factors: if it’s a sequel or a reboot, new actors, characters, or sometimes simply whether the film and/or music for the original worked well in the first place. In our case, “Kick-Ass 2” wasn’t at all a reboot; it was a very straightforward sequel. There wasn’t any reason to completely re-invent the wheel. We had a great theme for Kick-Ass from the first film, so that was step one…. done. We did have to push forward with some new ideas however, because we had some new story points: Red-Mist now transforms into the Motherfu*er, Hit-Girl has her own personal struggles, and very importantly, we have a lot of new characters. These new bullet points definitely gave us permission to offer some new tunes and sounds to the Kick-Ass world.
Could you tell us about your new character themes?
There are two main new themes for “Kick-Ass 2.” One is the Mindy Macready theme and the other is for the Motherfu*er. Conceptually, I always thought of Mindy/Hit-Girl as an extension of the Big Daddy character. She’s his daughter and her mission in life is to help his legacy live on by continuing her vigilante work. I wanted to honor the Big Daddy theme from the first film somehow, so if you listen carefully, the first two notes of the Mindy theme are the same first two notes of the Big Daddy theme, only re-harmonized a bit. I thought this would be a simple way to say, they come from the same place and they’re made from the same fabric. As far as the Motherfu*er goes, the idea was simple, after many long chats about the character with our writer-director Jeff Wadlow. He said something to me that clicked. It was “The Motherfu*er has Emimen on his iPod, but he thinks of himself as being as evil as Darth Vader Find some way to make those two worlds collide.”
How did you want your music to differentiate from the “fun” splatter and the real pain these characters go through?
Again, making the decision to include rock elements in the score opened up lots of new doors for us musically. In some moments of the movie we had a ton of fun by having layers and layers of distorted guitars, bass and some really heavy drum grooves. In other scenes we could utilize the orchestra to really tug on the heartstrings when it was necessary.
Jim Carrey later had problems with the film’s jaw-dropping violence. Did it ever disturb you?
The violence in the film never really affected me that much. Seeing and loving the first film, I knew what I was getting myself into by agreeing to be involved with the second film.
While Kick-Ass is happy to be a “superhero,” would you see that Hit-Girl and The Motherfu*er are more tragic characters?
Tragic might not be the best word for Hit-Girl and the Motherfu*er. Hit-Girl’s story is simply one of any high school girl. Kind of a rite of passage really. She’s dealing with figuring out who she is, her self image, fitting in with other people her age, dealing with mean girls, boys, hormones, and all the other bullshit that we deal with when we’re a teenager. She just happens to also be really good at fighting crime and has to deal with that as well. The Motherfu*er’s story is a revenge story. We pick up the saga when Kick-Ass kills Chris’ father. He vows revenge upon Kick-Ass for this. Maybe one could say it’s tragic that Chris’ was once a “good-guy” and ultimately becomes a baddie, but I think at the core, his story is one of vengeance.
How do you think the score reflects how these three characters have grown up since the last film?
The main character differences we’ll see in the sequel have to do with Hit-Girl and The Motherfu*er. As far as the music reflecting their growth, I guess in a way, the first film didn’t really warrant them having their own dedicated theme, and now we do. Especially with The Motherfu*er. We were able to really tell his transformation story by unveiling his musical palette little by little, developing it as he realizes his true destiny as a super-villain.
There’s also a guitar-driven, modern-day “western” feeling to the score with its use of guitar and gongs. How important was a melodic, orchestral presence to your in writing? And how difficult was it to combine that approach with a rock and roll one?
I had this idea to start layering guitars into the score just to give it a little bit of a fun edge amongst the orchestral writing. From the beginning director Jeff Wadlow was a huge fan of this sound – so we ran with it! As far as combining the orchestra and rock vibe into one sound, it can be tricky technically, not to make a 50-piece orchestra sound tiny next to a Marshall stack…. I like to think of the orchestra as one singular player in a rock band, this way a lot of the time it has only one function: it’s the rhythm guitarist…. it’s the lead guitarist, it can reinforce the bass player’s line to give a wide cinematic quality, etc. We also had a fantastic score mixer, Al Clay, for the project. Not only can he mix the hell out of anything you put in front of him, but he’s also a fantastic producer too, and played a very integral roll when we were tracking drums and guitars.
Did you relate to Jeff Wadlow, in that it was both your first time with Kick-Ass?
Jeff, having written the screenplay, had been on the project for months and months before I ever got involved — it was really his baby from the beginning. I guess in a small corner of both of our brains was a “We’ve got pretty big shoes to fill” feeling. However, this wasn’t ever really a point of discussion. We knew what the style, pace, and mood of the first film was, and always had to keep that in mind, but at the same time we definitely set out with our own vision of how the second story should unfold.
“Kick-Ass 2″ has an impressively “full” sound that beats the production value of the last score. How did you achieve that technical end of it?
Well, thank you! I guess we can attribute the sonic quality a few factors. I tend to make writing, producing, and mixing a bit of a homogenous process. Of course on the calendar, we have allocated time to write, time to record, and time to mix – but the whole time, really, I’m constantly going back to cues, adding things, muting things, listening with fresh ears, re-thinking voicings and arrangements, questioning whether the tune is on the right instrument or octave for a scene, etc. You have to constantly second guess yourself and kind of be your own worst enemy. This process molds the score into what the end result will actually sound like. For “Kick-Ass 2,” again I owe a big part of its ‘IN YOUR FACE’ sonic quality to mixer Al Clay. He comes from a pop rock background, having mixed bands like Pink, Pixies and Blur. The man knows how to work a compressor.
You made an impressive major scoring debut with “Skyline.” How important is it to ride the “wave” to the next gig after that kind of exposure?
Very important. There is an old saying that whatever you’re currently working on is the demo piece for you’re next gig. It’s true. Also, a big part of this is the collaboration between filmmaker and composer. I mean, if you look at all of the contemporary greats, Elfman, Williams, Horner, anyone really…. there tends to be very solid director / composer team. Sometimes a composer’s work schedule for the foreseeable future can really be contingent on what his work partners are up to.
Having worked for Klaus Badelt and Henry Jackman, what’s your advice to composer assistants who are hoping to fully collaborate with the boss, let alone get their own gigs?
Learn; soak up anything you can from people that are successful, good or bad. There is so much to this profession that isn’t actually about writing music. First and foremost, a composer’s job to tell the story is just as important as the editor’s, cinematographer’s and sometimes even the actors themselves. Even if you know how to play every instrument in the world, know all the harmony, music theory, and so on – that doesn’t necessarily make you a good storyteller. This takes A LOT of practice. You have to do it over and over and over again to get better at it, just like anything else. Then there’s also the politics: how to make directors and producers feel comfortable and confident, how to run a meeting, sell your product. Working with and learning from people like Jackman, Badelt and Zimmer especially gave me invaluable lessons on this.
What do you think of the style of contemporary action scoring, and where “Kick-Ass 2″ stands within it?
The style of writing action music is DEFINITELY something that is always changing. Whereas 10 to 15 years ago, there was definitely a more traditional trend of writing. The use of counterpoint, call and answer, thematic variation, etc. was very potent. I guess it’s just the natural progression of things, whereas, now we’re filming in IMAX, the screens are bigger, the colors are brighter, the sound fx are harder, visuals are more intense and moving faster…. The music has to keep up with the other aesthetics of the moviemaking process both sonically and conceptually. To keep up with all of this intensity, the natural instinct is to go bigger. Use bigger drums, louder hits, more distortion and crunch across the mix, more players and synths…. make the audience literally FEEL the music as the speakers are pushing air in their faces. The tough part of this is the struggle to not just throw noise at the audience and still maintain the integrity of the art.
What was your Comicon experience like promoting “Kick-Ass 2.” And how the hell did you get into Hall H?
Man, Comicon was AMAZING. I haven’t really experienced anything like it. While I’m not a huge collator of comics myself, I have do admit that there is something really beautiful about Comicon. It’s like 100,000 people coming from all over the world to celebrate comic books, TV, movies and everything fantasy. There is such a commitment and effort made by all of these people with the costumes, the parties, and the panels. Everyone is really into it, which is rad. There was so much love from everyone there especially as there were A LOT of Kick-Ass fans! As far as Hall H — I did in fact end up getting in…. and I only had to sell one kidney on the black market.
As there was no score CD for the first “Kick-Ass,” how important was it for you to get an instrumental soundtrack out this time?
I think it’s always important for a film composer to get their work released. Unfortunately sometimes depending on the type of movie and who’s dubbing the final mix a lot of the score can get buried under sound FX and dialogue. Releasing soundtrack albums is a way for fans to hear the musical contributions to characters, worlds, and ideas. It’s also great exposure for composers, arrangers and orchestras!
Do you have a personal love of superhero movies? And if you were a vigilante, what would your secret identity and weapon be?
Yes – definitely a guilty pleasure of mine. I mean, I was a child of the 80′s. “Superman,” “Batman,” “X-Men” and all of the rest were all a massive part of my youth. Hmmmm….. If I were a vigilante? Oh that’s easy. I’d have the ability to write film must that never get any fix notes or re-writes from directors!
What kind of power do you think music has to fuel the imagination within fans that they can be superheroes? And do you think this score will be particularly inspirational to wannabe vigilantes?
Well, I don’t really think that anyone needs to load the “Kick-Ass 2” score on their iPod, dress up in spandex and go out and fight crime. Let’s leave that to the professionals. Henry and I did however create a really fun and uplifting score that’s definitely gonna make people leave the theaters with massive grins on their faces!
Buy Matthew Margeson’s co-score for “Kick-Ass 2” (available August 20)
And his score for “Skyline” HERE