Interview with Zacarias M. de la Riva

By • November 5, 2014

More than ever in science fiction, humans are being proven to inferior, doomed species in the face of the infinitely more compassionate creations they now want to destroy. It’s a message that science fiction cinema has increasingly hammered in, whether the lab-born synthetics were virtually indistinguishable from us (“Blade Runner,” “A.I,” “The Machine”) or had an artificial appearance that led us to think it was impossible for them to have a soul (“I, Robot”). But now, even the most pathetically abused, humanoid-shaped machines are given the grace of God in “Automata,” no more so than in the gorgeous spirituality of its score by Zacarias M. de la Riva. Infused with Latin verse, warm string melodies, and suspended electronics, these robots are truly Children of The Creator in this remarkable soundtrack, and film.

Sure “Automata” is constructed from the scrapheap of sci-fi antecedents, yet in much the same brilliant way that every next-gen genre classic from “The Terminator” to “The Matrix” has been. It’s familiarity taken to the next level of discovery as Antonio Banderas’ burned out robot insurance Jacq is sent from his gloomy, retro-fitted future city to discover what’s behind the impossible glitch in his company’s machines. But when he ends up being seemingly kidnapped through the radiation-baked wastelands by the his products, the emotionally wiped protagonist discovers that these followers of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics have their own promised land in mind.

Marking Spain’s most ambitious English language effort yet into the kind of genre filmmaking that bears the Hollywood bar code, “Automata” marks the most impressive, not to mention musically epic collaboration between director and co-writer Gabe Ibanez and Zacarias M. de la Riva after the far more horrifically-minded “Hierro.” Where Ibanez started off in CGI for agent provocateur director Alex de la Iglesias on “The Day of the Beast” and “Perdita Durango,” the Barcelonan-born de la Riva began his studies in telecommunications before switching into movie composition at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Serving as an orchestrator to Roque Banos on “800 Bullets” and “The Machinist,” de la Riva applied his own, impressively melodic skills to thrillers in particular with “Imago Mortis,” and “Exorcismus,” as balanced with more child-friendly, animated melodies for “Snowflake, the White Gorilla” and “Tad, the Lost Explorer” (with many of his scores available through Movie Score Media).

But it’s the orchestral majesty and memory bank of impressive themes in “Automata” that just might be de la Riva’s breakthrough when it comes to following the Spain-to-Hollywood migration of such other notable composers as Banos, Javier Navarette and Alberto Iglesias. For “Automata” is easily on the level of any studio blockbuster score, though one done with an intelligence worthy of his metallic subjects. De la Riva fuses modern classicism and impressionism as eerie electronics and percussion convey a seeming robot threat, an aching cello linking human anguish to the despair of their cast-off creations. But as “Automata’s” visual scope widens, de la Riva equally broadens his score with a symphonically rhythmic sense of wonder that reaches a striking, religious requiem, all while delivering the dark threat of humans come to permanently put the robots we’ve come to love in their place. But most importantly of all, de la Riva’s score opens up both deadened human emotion as it expresses the feelings within the blank, locked faces of what stand as some of the most realistically believable robots yet seen in film. It’s a conceptual intelligence, firing on every circuit, that makes “Automata” worthy of the Spielberg-Williams “A.I.” crown, especially with de la Riva’s sumptuous orchestral melody and use of voice to convey the holy ghosts within the machine, an emotionally organic technology he now discusses.

Tell us about what attracted you to film scoring, and were science fiction scores a part of it?

I fell in love with movies as a kid. I don’t remember exactly what movie was my first, but it was the time when all those incredible movies were being made. Films like “Superman,” “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters,” “Raiders of the lost Ark,” “E.T.,” “Back to the Future,” etc. It was through those movies, almost all science fiction movies, that I started to love film music and John Williams especially.

How do you think working as an orchestrator for Roque Banos on such scores as “800 Bullets” and “The Machinist” helped prepare you for your own composing career, and how did you make that solo breakthrough?

Working for Roque was like being in the best film scoring school in the world. I would send him my orchestrations printed on paper and he would return them filled with red markings all over the place: “This is going to sound better this way, this bowing here, double that with clarinets, etc.’ Being able to watch and learn from the inside, seeing how he managed to solve scenes dramatically, how he produced the mockups and how he used the orchestra, is one of the greatest learning experiences I’ve ever had. About my solo breakthrough. Back in 2004-2005 I had done some co-composing for Filmax in two movies “El Cid, The Legend” and “The Nun”. And they offered me their newest Fantastic Factory movie, Brian Yuzna’s “Beneath Still Waters”. I probably feel that movie is my solo breakthrough, since it allowed me to continue working for Filmax, which made me more visible to the industry.

How did you come aboard “Automata?”

I’ve known Gabe Ibáñez, the director, for some years now. We worked together in his first feature film “Hierro”. So I was one of the composers considered for “Automata.” When I learnt that Gabe had finished filming and was beginning to edit, I knew it was the time to start bothering him so I began sending him music “inspired” by what I knew about the movie. Then I would drop by to see how the editing was going. I insisted and lucky for me I got the job!

Though you’ve done horror scores like “Imago Mortis,” I believe that “Automata” is your first outright sci-fi score. What was it like tackling that genre?

Well, it’s kind of weird now that I think of it because although it is my first pure sci-fi score, the music came out more naturally than often. Probably because I am a big fan of sci-fi. I’ve done a few horror movies and animation movies as well, and it’s always so hard when I have to compose to those genres.

What do you think makes “Automata” different from the movies that have inspired it, i.e. “Blade Runner” and “I, Robot?”

I agree with you that “Blade Runner” might be an influence, but I think that the biggest influence in “Automata” are those science fiction movies of the 60’s and 70’s like “Planet of the Apes,” “The Omega Man” and “The Andromeda Strain.” “Automata” takes elements from all these movies, but combines them in a different way. I think this combination is what makes “Automata” unique.

Tell us about your collaboration with filmmaker Gabe Ibanez, and how you developed your themes for “Automata?”

The creative process with Gabe is always intense. It is an exhausting challenge, but a useful and immensely interesting one. He is extremely careful with every aspect of the creative process. During our spotting sessions we discussed at length the use of leitmotivs. “Automata” is a movie that moves constantly between two levels. The first and obvious one is the science fiction thriller. The second, less apparent is the sensorial level, the philosophical, the metaphysical, the one that dwells with the essence of the being and its reality, human or robotic. The resolution of this dichotomy was what this movie required musically. Making the coexistence of these two levels possible.

How did the use of “real” robots influence your score?

I don’t think it did influence my music. Although it was really strange to see in the first cuts of the movie all these puppeteers manipulating the robots.

It’s a given in movies like this that the robots are far more human than the humans. In that respect, how did you want to the score to develop into more obviously orchestral, and emotional dimensions as the film progresses?

For me the central axis around which the movie revolves is the spiritual axis. And it’s with accurate use of the orchestra and especially the choir that we can elevate the music to this spiritual world. Around this central axis many other pieces revolve that have their share of importance inside the score: the robotic ambiguity, the concept of technological singularity, the protagonist melancholy and the human violence. All this “themes” keep developing throughout the movie as the emotions they accompany become more and more complex.

Did you want to give “Automata” more of a classical sound then the kind of propulsive, sample-based one that most sci-fi scores have now?

I don’t think I would be able to do properly this type of propulsive sample based music you are mentioning. My belief was that for the music to work in those two levels I was talking about before (science fiction thriller and the spiritual-philosophical) I needed the use of an orchestra and a choir. It’s true that the soundtrack features a lot of samplers, but in most cases it was due to budget restrictions more than anything else.

Your use of the cello gives a particular sense of sadness that suffuses “Automata.” How important was it to play that melancholy, while also giving a glimmer of hope to the movie?

Well, that was probably one of the biggest challenges of this particular score. On the one hand, Jacq, our protagonist, is exhausted of living. We see him walking with his back bent; his face looking tired all the time. He’s had enough of this polluted city. He doesn’t like his job. He doesn’t like the flat he lives in. But on the other hand, we see his dreams of the sea, of a better future. His wife is pregnant, and that gives him a drive to keep going. I thought the cello could portray this two confronting feelings in a proper way.

Do you think the orchestra gives more a “weight” in terms of production value to a relatively lower budget movie iike “Automata?” Did you use any particular approach to get an especially epic impact when you need it?

No, I don’t really feel that way. I am familiar with complete synthesized scores (Vangelis’ “Blade Runner” to mention one) that have the same “weight” as a full orchestral score. I think it really depends on what the movie needs. This score doesn’t have that many big orchestral hits, as science fiction scores nowadays do. It’s probably because this is not the normal type of science fiction movie of today. I do remember one epic impact though, probably one of my favorite moments in the movie in which I feel that the music emphasizes the tone of the movie with proper strength and character. It is a long scene made of two very important moments in the movie, the death of the automaton Bold and the birth of a new robot. The big challenge here was to make the music flow naturally from Bold’s death, which is a slow build up till he is shot and falls to the ground, into a new and stronger musical gesture that is constantly building up through bursts of different parts of the orchestra while the choir delivers those strange syllables ending in a big epic orchestral hit as we see the new robot finally coming to live. That’s, I think, the only big epic orchestral impact throughout the soundtrack.

Was the use of voice important to reflect emotion and character from their “locked” faces?

This exact point I discussed with Gabe extensively. We decided that we needed the viewer to empathize with the robots right from the beginning. To “feel sorry for them.” A very direct way of accomplishing that is by using the choir.

Did you want to give a particularly feminine touch to the robot character of Cleo?

Well, I am not sure if it’s a feminine touch but the first time we see Cleo, is in this futuristic dungeon filled with blue neon lights. Jacq approaches her cautiously, he doesn’t know what to expect from this sex robot. It is one of the scenes I like most in the movie. I underscored it with an airy sampled voice that gives the scene a strange atmosphere; I wouldn’t know really how to describe it. But it’s neither menacing nor innocent.

How did you want to play the particular menace of the humans?

There are three distinctive scenes that feature human violence. Those three scenes are treated exactly with the same music. It’s a percussive piece created using vintage synthesizers. It’s strange sounding, raw, edgy and creates a deliberate chaotic atmosphere.

How did you want the chorus to reflect the movie’s religious metaphors as well, and what was the translation of the Latin requiem that plays over the end of “We Want To Live?”

The choir is used in three different ways:

A) Associated to the robots in a way that the viewer will empathize with them (as we mentioned before). This creates an interesting counterpoint between something genuine and natural, like the human voice and something artificial like a robot.

B) Associated to the concepts of robotic ambiguity and technological singularity. In other words, we used the choir when the robots were doing something out of the ordinary, something they were not supposed to be able to do. Like in the beginning of the album’s third track “Robot On Fire” where a welder robot sets itself on fire.

c) The third one relates to the idea of humankind being eradicated by radiation while this new robotic race takes over. This is portrayed in two different ways: 1) a two chord little anthem that appears in many different places (track 1 at 0:46, track 8 at 1:20, track 10 at 1:18, track 13 at 2:28) and The Requiem. The choir sings: “Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine.” These words come from the “Introitus” of any Requiem Mass. They mean more or less: “Lord give them eternal rest.”

Once Jacq is in the desert, you use some impressionistic writing that has “2001” feel to it. Did you want to convey a weird sense of wonder to this wasteland? And were there any particular composers that influenced the score’s more modernistic moments?

This desert scene you are talking about, when Jacq realizes that he is in the desert alone with this robots and commands them to go back to the city with no success, is the very first one Gabe showed me. It was temp tracked with Goldsmith’s “Planet of the Apes”. In fact, Gabe in our first conversations about “Automata’”s music frequently mentioned this Goldsmith’s score. He loved the audacity and the sound of it. He suggested that we should follow that path somehow. But when they started editing, they realized that this type of music was too “complicated” for this day and age, and that we couldn’t go as far as “Planet of the Apes” type of score. Goldsmith used many atonal devices in that score that would just not work in ours. We also knew that the standard type of science fiction score wouldn’t work also, so I think we did something in between.

Do you think Spanish, and European composers as a whole are allowed more melodic, and thematic freedom than those in Hollywood are? You almost can’t imagine “Automata” getting this kind of lush, lavish approach if it was made here.

It is hard for me to say since I don’t have that much experience in Hollywood. Probably “Automata” is the closest thing, since there is an American production company behind it. Our musical approach in this movie was very much determined by me and by Gabe. And we stood by our ideas even when people from the American production company complained about the path we were taking with the music.

“Automata” is probably the most impressively made genre film yet to come from Spain. How do you think it bodes for its cinema’s bid to appeal to more of an international audience, and how do you think your music here plays a part in that?

In Spain we’ve been making movies with an international appeal for some time now. Alejandro Amenabar´s “The Others”, J.A. Bayona’s “The Orphanage” and “The Impossible”, Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” are a few of those. We have exported horror movies quite successfully, and maybe “Automata” begins a new trend in which we start exporting sci-fi movies. As regarding the second part of the question, I think my music just plays the part it needs to play. It supports the story the movie is telling.

Watch “Automata” on iTunes HERE, with its release on blu ray November 18th HERE. Listen to Zacarias M. de la Riva’s score on Movie Score Media Records HERE

Visit Zacarias M. de la Riva’s website HERE

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