Interview with Lorne Balfe
(Photo by Peter Oso Snell)
Of the many talented composers to emerge under the aegis of German composing wunderkind Hans Zimmer, a Scotsman with the deceptively Teutonic name of Lorne Balfe may just be one of the most stylistically unquantifiable. Inspired by his dad David (who just happened to produce Echo & the Bunnymen), Lorne’s own musical team spirit came in particularly handy at Zimmer’s convergence of budding composers, where being able to write in any approach was a chief qualification to rise ahead of the pack. Balfe has increasingly been making his own name for himself in the realms of balls-out ballistic percussion for the “Call of Duty” and “Assassin’s Creed” videogame series, the sweet super heroism that lies inside the seemingly villainous “Megamind,” intriguing sci-fact rhythms for “Nova” and “The Science of Superstorms” and recently bringing inspirational wonder to the Good Book itself with the smash TV miniseries “The Bible” (co-scored with Zimmer and Lisa Gerard). And that’s all while continuing on in the composer-filled innards of Zimmer’s Remote Control Studios, where Balfe has written additional music for such films as “Inception,” “Rango” and “Rush,” in between producing scores like “Sherlock Holmes” and his Grammy-winning supervision of “The Dark Knight.”
Lauded for his work on the other side of the pond with such English-centric scores as “The Sweeney,” “Crying With Laughter” and commercial jingles for Edinburgh’s Radio Forth, the one constant of Balfe’s prolific all-media output remains an accomplished sense of melody that can veer from the traditional to the alternative, a talent that’s now on powerful and captivating display with three recent scores. For Shane Salerno’s documentary that uncovers the enigma of “Salinger,” Balfe plays the hunt for the elusive author with all the intensity of an espionage score, while a somber Americana tone reflects how the mystery man’s military service would impact his life and create a tragically classic book with “Catcher in the Rye.” The truth of a real-life Alaskan serial killer makes Balfe’s music for “The Frozen Ground” all the more horrifying to stand on with a dark, gripping textural score that creates an overwhelming sense of atmospheric dread. Then for what might be the most ambitious videogame he’s scored yet, Balfe jumps “Beyond: Two Souls” with a musical connection between a woman and her body-possessing alien compatriot “Aiden.” Combining majestic orchestral warmth with religious transcendence, poignant solo instrumentals and the kind of rhythm he’s killed so many characters with, Balfe reaches an uncommon level of spiritual musicality for a title that promises to be the last game changer for the PS3 platform.
Was it a given with a rock and roll dad that you’d become a musician?
Goodness no! The strange thing growing up was that I was surrounded by musicians, so I really didn’t know anything else. I thought it was normal to be up late in the studio from the age of 5!
Would you say you were a natural to work under Hans Zimmer, given that you’d both started off in the worlds of pop and rock? And what was your evolution at Media Ventures (now Remote Control) like to the point where you were handed off the reigns for your own movies and video games with your breakthrough scores for “Megamind” and “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2?”
I wouldn’t say I was a natural. Actually, I would say I was far from it. I am still learning on every project so nothing is easy. Hans is a rare bread. He really nurtures people and gives them opportunities and I have been very fortunate working for Hans and learning everything I have.
Your first truly epic score was for the bloody good “Ironclad.” What was it like to write on that kind of historical level?
What I thoroughly enjoyed was researching the music all of the time and discovering period instruments that are now long forgotten. Working with the director Jonathan English was also immense fun. We created the score with him in the studio in less than two weeks, which is a very short period of time, but the advantage of having the director in the room was being able to gain immediate feedback.
You tackled your first big crime score with similar aplomb in the adaption of “The Sweeney.” Was there a sense that you could just go for broke with the percussion and orchestra there?
Working with the director Nick Love was a fantastic adventure. I already loved his prior films “The Firm” and “The Football Factory.” So when I heard about “The Sweeney” I did everything I could for the opportunity to work on the project. “The Sweeney” TV show is part and parcel of the British Heritage and has a very famous main theme so we wanted to try and incorporate it into the score subtly. It was also a pleasure to have Johnny Marr and The Hours playing on the score, both of which brought a lot to the music.
”The Bible” was an unexpected TV hit this year. What was your experience like writing for the most famous book of all time?
This was a very intimidating project. Where do you begin writing the theme for the Devil? What got me through the project was the constant support of the producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett. They would sit in the studio and talk through scenes with us for hours. This project was their passion and they lived and breathed it. The main editorial team was in London, so Hans and I traveled a lot between Britain and Los Angeles, spending time writing in both cities. Being able to have Lisa Gerrard sing on the score was an amazing experience. When Lisa sang on the Crucifixion Scene was when the music finally came alive for me. I do not think we could have created the score without Lisa.
Your new thriller “The Frozen Ground” is anything but inspirational, but it certainly is gripping. What’s it like to tread onto serial killer scoring territory, especially one that’s based on a true story?
This was a hard project. Because the characters are real, it was important to the director, Scott Walker that the score didn’t over glamorize the events that occurred. Scott had a clear vision for the score. He wanted a sonic world that reflected the wide landscapes of Alaska. We spent a while making sure the themes for the cop Jack (Nicholas Cage), Cindy (Vanessa Hudgens) and the killer Robert Hanson (John Cusack) didn’t become either too sentimental or overly glorifying. Cindy was a strong character and he didn’t want the music to weaken her in any way.
To convey the Alaskan environment, I wanted to try and create large brush strokes of sound. The music had to also reinforce an undercurrent of tension building.
The final confrontation scene between the Jack and Robert was a hard challenge. Neither Scott nor I wanted to overcrowd the scene with excessive elements. The actors provided a special presence and I didn’t want to intrude.
You were quite busy doing reality television before features. What’s it like to return to a “re-enactment” heavy documentary, albeit a cinematic one, with “Salinger?
“ Salinger was a very difficult but enjoyable project. I was on the score for over three and a half years. A documentary is very much like a film or a game—the challenges are the same. No matter the medium, the composer has to help tell the story. Unfortunately at my school, Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” was not part of the syllabus. It wasn’t until I moved to America that I discovered the importance of Salinger’s writings. But thanks to Shane’s film I am now addicted to the book!
“Salinger” has a very modern sound that one could mistake for a spy suspense film if they didn’t know what the music was from. How important was it for you to give a contemporary, “hip” thriller edge to the score?
It was very important. Working on “Salinger,” I never referred to the project as a “documentary.” I always looked at it as a feature film. Some people have strong feelings regarding what the film discloses and how Salinger is portrayed in the film. The audience was going to be of all ages so it was important to create a musical narrative that the majority could respond to. Shane wanted a nostalgic element from the period when Salinger was living in New York. I also wanted audiences to realize how amazing a life he lived. Even though he was a very complex character. Salinger affected so many people around the world of all ages and social backgrounds and continues to do so.
You’ve continued to write additional music for Hans on “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Lone Ranger” and most recently “Rush.” Is it good to still be connected to that team even as you do your own solo work?
Working with a team is always fun. As a composer, one tends to spend a lot of time in a studio alone. So when I get the opportunity to work with others, I grab it!
Conversely, you’re moving away from genre action with your next intimate feature scores for “Side By Side” and “Red Wing.” How important is it for you to move between the musical worlds of action and drama?
I really enjoy being able to experiment in different genres. I think that if I were constantly writing in, for example, the horror genre, then my musical voice would become stale. It is great to be able to change and try different genres of music. With “Not Another Happy Ending” and “Side by Side,” it was also great to get the opportunity to write some songs, which was wonderful change.
You’ve kept similarly busy with major video game scores for the “Crysis,” “Skylanders” and “Assassin’s Creed” franchises. Would you say there was even more freedom there than in narrative features?
I don’t think there was any more or any less freedom, since every medium has its own merits and disadvantages. Working on games these days is just the same as working on a film. My latest game “Beyond: Two Souls” is visually the equal to any film I have worked on and I was able to approach it musically in much the same way I would a film.
“Heavy Rain” was lauded for being a daring game that let the player choose their own path, even though it wasn’t an action-driven hit as such. Given that, what was it like to score a similarly adventurous game from the company with “Beyond: Two Souls,” with the stakes raised even higher for the game’s success?
The game’s director David Cage has very high standards. His attention to detail is amazing. This was the first time I have worked on a truly cross platform medium. David’s whole team contributed to the end result of the score. Having a devoted audio team is so important on a game to the composer. Because they are constantly navigating throughout the whole game they are able to look at the bigger picture of the music within the game. When I work on a film, I regularly watch the complete film. But this is impossible to do with a game and so having an excellent audio team greatly helps keep the composer in-tune with the game’s narrative. With a story as vast and complicated as “Beyond’s,” David’s team was also paramount to the score’s success.
You’ve scored plenty of violent, percussive action in the genre. But what’s so unusual for “Beyond: Two Souls” is how melodic, meditative and even religious the score is. Was that direction surprising for you as well?
David and I spent a long time discussing the heroine Jodie’s character. The theme had to reflect her journey as a child to an adult and the struggles she faced given her circumstances. I wouldn’t say I found the direction “surprising” at all—more like essential! I knew from the beginning that Jodie’s journey would be very emotional and with the intense participation the gamer would have in directing Jodie’s life, the music was going to have to help pull the player even further into Jodie’s existence and her experiences.
“Beyond: Two Souls” has some innovative game mechanics of “Aiden” flying from one body to the next. How did you want your score to reflect that ability, let alone a sense of “floating” in the ether? And did you play the game itself to get a hand at it?
The sound design team actually achieved this. David had a very clear idea of how he wanted the “Aiden” world to sound. I did write an actual theme for Aiden but it was mainly used in character-based storylines.
Like “Heavy Rain,” “Beyond Two Souls” isn’t so much a game where you shoot yourself from one level to the next, but one where you’re essentially guided along, like a movie would. Does that make it easier to score, or more difficult?
It is very difficult. There will be a lot of music that the gamer will never hear because of the multiple options and decisions the player must make on behalf of Jodie to set her unique path. In a film, it is very clear what the development is of the main character is. But this was not the case in “Beyond: Two Souls.” While the game is visually cinematic and the scenes play out like a film, ultimately the gamer will decide her fate and path in life.
Thankfully the sound team really created the sonic world for Aiden. It was great to have them work round the music and help incorporate the score into Aiden’s unique sound design.
Does the appearance of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe give your score more of a cinematic feeling than usual for a game?
Even if the game didn’t have famous actors and actresses, the game would still be cinematic. The visuals are so realistic it is truly amazing.
Hans Zimmer produced your score. What kind of stylistic influence did he have on it from orchestration to instrumentation?
There were never strict rules regarding the composition of the score. I knew from the first time I spoke to David Cage that due to the complexity of the main character Jodie, I wanted to try and make the music reflect her challenges in life and her constant struggles. Hans is great at understanding the full arc of a story, which was important when crafting the music for Jodie’s journey.
How did you want the orchestra and voice make a particularly strong impression in “Beyond Two Souls?”
Even when the voice doesn’t sing a melody, there is always an essence of femininity in the score. Tori Letzler was the vocalist and to me her voice captured the essence of Jodie’s journey in the game.
After working with Hans on “Inception,” does this kind of mind-bending, sci-fi sensibility come easy?
Nothing comes easy. I wish it did! Working on any project with Hans is mind-bending, though! He understands storytelling just as equally as being able to write music. There are many fantastic composers that cannot necessary portray the emotions of screen successfully, but on the other hand they can write a good tune. He manages to do both.
Does collaborating with such innovative game designers allow you to do your own uninhibited musical explorations into uncharted territory here?
Every game produces its own challenges. This game was different for me because as well as writing the music, I worked on some sound design so that both elements could connect. At times I wanted the music to not be as evidently score and start off as room tones, then after a while become more orchestral score.
Would you say there’s a techo-alternative-rock feel to your score as well?
Sometimes there are. As in all games, the surrounding and environments change regularly so this had to be reflected in the game.
Do you think action games have become more adult in how they mix graphic “shooter” violence with real emotional stakes?
I have never thought of it like that. Games’ plot lines and character developments now match any Hollywood film and I believe they are reflecting the gamers’ demand in much the same way films are.
What do you think the next-gen consoles hold for the future of the games’ music? And do you see a point where movies and video games ultimately merge?
I see the future of game music allowing each gamer to experience his or her own unique soundtrack. Nowadays gamers can design everything about the game, from their characters appearance to the game’s storyline, so what is stopping them from potentially being even more engaged and creating their own soundtrack?
Buy Lorne Bale’s score to “Salinger” HERE, then stalk a killer through “The Frozen Ground” HERE before transferring your musical mind “Beyond Two Souls.” Play the game HERE, with Lorne’s score available soon on iTunes and Amazon