Interview with Mark Adler

By • March 4, 2015

Most Americans might say that the end of the world as we know it is no laughing matter. But then many other citizens ludicrously think that global warming is a myth, much in the same way millions of ignorant people once believed that the earth was round, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Such is the ironically humorous, and altogether disturbing theme of “Merchants of Doubt,” which shows the grotesque, oil money-assured carnival of industry-funded climate-deniers who lead their right-wing flocks astray like pied pipers. Such is also the ringmaster role also given to composer Mark Adler, who deliciously plays Robert Kenner’s documentary as a wonderfully thematic, three-ring circus of sparkling bells, cartoon-esque pizzicatos, calliope rhythms and jolly percussion worthy of a truly ridiculous Fox News-friendly show. Theremin-like sci-fi effects, hayseed harmonica and an organ complement the villains’ gleefully self-incriminating interviews, pokey film noir melodies playing as Kenner insidiously traces the roots of climate-denying to Big Tobacco, an outrageous conspiracy that has much of the same players involved in putting over another global poisoning on the populace that won’t be stopped until it’s too late.

Yet having worked together on the impactful “Food, Inc.,” Adler, and Kenner also know there’s a serious point here for all of the snarky laughter they provide. And as the hugely entertaining “Merchants” reaches its sad, if still hopeful final point for a situation that’s pretty much irreversible, Adler’s once-humorous melodies darken to reveal themselves as serving as poignant food for thought. The result shows the power of documentary scoring to have all of the belief-changing impact of dramatized “fiction” film music, with “Merchant’s” musical impact showing just how well Adler is versed in both cinematic worlds.

Starting out in the jazz and rock realms, Adler’s first jobs were not only music editing “Amadeus” “River’s Edge” and “Godfather III,” but also arranging the sultry source tunes of “Henry and June.” Moving into his own compositions, Adler has varied his narrative work between the absurd (“Slam Dunk Ernest”) to the dramatically impactful (“Picture Bride,” “Focus”) and jazzy sophistication (“Bottle Shock” and the Emmy-winning “Rat Pack”). But from his first score to “Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo” in 1985, documentaries have been a mainstay in Adler’s repertoire, his numerous, stylish subjects for TV and film ranging from “Russia’s Last Tsar” to “Reflections on Elephants” to “Sherman’s March” and the Emmy-nominated telefilm “Forbidden Territory: Stanley’s Search for Livingstone.” But now when PR-blinded Americans are revolting against science itself, not to mention common sense, Adler’s left-leaning ability to capture both absurdity, and true seriousness has perhaps never been more important for a man so used to capturing the music of our seemingly doomed natural world.

Could you talk about your entry into film scoring, and how it led to documentary work?

I was working as a music editor in Northern California in the 1980s, and many of my friends in post-production were also making documentaries and independent features. When it came to meeting filmmakers, the line between the doc world and the dramatic film world was much blurrier in the Bay Area than it might have been in L.A. at that time. My first composing gigs came out of those relationships. I scored “Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza De Mayo and “Superchief: The life and Legacy of Earl Warren” (both Oscar-nominated feature docs) when I was just getting started as a film composer. Around the same time, I also scored two dramatic films; “Break of Dawn” (my first feature, which went to Sundance) and Wayne Wang’s “Eat A Bowl of Tea.” So pretty much from the get-go, I’ve been alternating between fiction and documentary scores.


How did being a music editor on movies like “Amadeus,” “Blue Velvet” and “River’s Edge” help your own education as a composer?

It helped immensely. You kind of go from the micro to the macro (so to speak) in your thinking about film and music. As you look at how the music plays in an individual scene, you also see how that cue in Reel 1 can set something up in Reel 4. That’s when I began to understand how the architecture of the score could relate to story structure and the character arc.

Some of your early fiction scoring was done for such directors as Philip Kaufman on “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “Eat A Bowl of Tea.” Could you talk about those experiences?

The work I did for Phil Kaufman was basically creating source music, since both “Unbearable Lightness” and “Henry and June” used preexisting music for their underscores. I produced and arranged the music that was played in cafes, dance halls, etc., where you could see the players on screen. It was played back on the set during the shoot. Sometimes, I’d enhance it or revise it for the final. In the case of “Henry and June,” I composed some of it as well. The films I did with Phil were shot in France, and I was sent over there to work, which I loved, even with my very bad French! I learned a few terms (for example, the word “piste” can mean both a train track and an audio track – same as for us) – that, and a very cooperative engineer and contractor got me through. I’ve remained friends with the contractor, by the way – Jean-Michel Bernard is a gifted composer in his own right and a brilliant pianist as well.

Doing the music on Eat A Bowl of Tea for Wayne Wang was a great experience. It was primarily a jazz score, which is unusual, as you know. And it wasn’t jazz as source music, but as dramatic underscore. The added twist was that the story takes place in New York’s China Town in the late 1940s, so there’s also a Chinese element in the music. We had some great jazz players as well as wonderful musicians on Chinese instruments – erhu, butterfly harp and dizi. I had to get up to speed fairly quickly with the Chinese aspects of the score, but I’m a pretty quick study. (I had played in a fusion band with Ali Akbar Khan’s sons, Ashish and Pranesh, so I wasn’t a stranger to non-Western music). Wayne was a great collaborator. I’d written a tango as a main theme, and when I played it for him, he said, “I like the melody, but what if you did it as a swing tune?” That’s a pretty astute request for a director to make…and sure enough, the swing jazz version became the main theme of the film. I’ve always been a huge fan of Monk, Miles, Coltrane, and Gil Evans, so I was comfortable with the jazz idioms. (Wayne once told me he particularly appreciated the sense of irony in the score–some of that undoubtedly came from my attempts to channel Monk!) I also wrote a song for the film – lyrics as well as music – called “Spring in New York, beautifully sung by Lynn Ray.

You also contributed to the legacy of Jim Varney on “Slam Dunk Ernest” and “Ernest in the Army.” How was it to work on those movies?

Those films were actually a lot of fun to do. My wife Joanie Diener had been music editor on almost all of the Ernest films, and very early on she helped define the tone of those scores with her temps – which is to say, to play things pretty straight musically and let the comedy happen on screen. “Slam Dunk” was particularly enjoyable–I went for a kind of New Orleans roots-of-funk sound, with a tuba playing funk bass lines. Guitarist Peter Maunu and trombonist Bruce Fowler do great work on that score.

Mark & Robert


Your last project for “Merchants” filmmaker Robert Kenner was “Food, Inc.” Could you talk about that score, and how it influenced your collaboration for this film?

Robby and I have been working together for over 20 years. There’s a feeling of candor in almost all of the interviews in his films–I think that has a lot to do with his own personality, which is disarming. He genuinely likes people, and I think this comes across in his filmmaking. So, there’s a humanistic quality to his work that seems well suited to what I bring to the table musically. He’s also a very creative thinker, and as a result each of his films has an unusually inventive take on its subject, which makes every project a new adventure for me as a composer.

Over the years I’ve started work on his films at earlier and earlier stages, with “Food, Inc.” being much earlier than previous films. I’d often sketch some themes based on the rough assembly of a sequence; then editor Kim Roberts might re-cut picture, using my music; then I’d refine the music based on her cut. I recall doing some of this on my very first project with Robby, “The Lost Fleet of Guadalcanal,” with editor Lenny Feinstein–but not to the degree of “Food, Inc.” We did this even more on “Merchants of Doubt.” Since much of that film hadn’t been shot when I started working on it, the earliest sketches were composed without picture, based solely on discussions I would have with Robby. It’s a challenging process for me, because I respond well to picture and have grown accustomed to doing that. But it was certainly gratifying to be influencing the tone of the film at such an early stage.

“Merchants of Doubt” is an unusually thematic score. Could you talk about developing your motifs?

I’m glad you noticed that! I enjoy writing tunes, so given the chance I’ll often go there. The process of developing themes is fairly intuitive for me, although I did make at least one conscious choice on “Merchants” – that was to use particular harmonic relationships as a way of unifying the various themes. For example, one relationship was that of a minor tonic to a major super tonic. Another was a minor tonic to a minor chord on the 6th degree. This encouraged quite a bit of chromaticism in the melody, much more than I normally use—which led to a kind of snaky feel to some of the themes. In this context, I’m using “snaky” as the opposite of “direct” – and when someone isn’t being direct with you, it’s often because they have an agenda. Not to put too fine a point on it, but all of that seemed to work well with the subject of the film.

Many people with some amount of intelligence view even the act of denying climate change to be ludicrous. In that sense, does that make “Merchants of Doubt” a “comedy score” as it were, especially with the circus-like approach to the music?

I guess so, though I’d prefer to think of it as a multivalent score! The circus quality really grew out of the film’s opening sequence at the Magic Castle, where we’re introduced to close-up magician Jamy Ian Swiss. As a “paid liar” whose audiences know he’s lying to them, he takes particular umbrage at the liars who deceive their audiences without their consent, so to speak. So the circus music that opens the film became one of the motifs associated with that idea. By the way, I’ve found that even people who are quite sharp will buy climate denial, which is a measure of how well the “Merchants” are doing their job.

When drawing on that calliope-esque approach,, complete with organ, were you drawn to Nino Rota’s scores in the genre for inspiration – especially as his Frederico Fellini scores often dealt with outrageous, outsized characters?

When I was around 13, my parents would take my brother and me to see Fellini films, and I completely fell under the spell of Nino Rota. From the beginning, I think I felt a deep, personal connection to his music, almost like the recognition of a shared musical point-of-view. He was one of a handful of childhood influences that made me want to become a film composer. Years later, I was blown away to discover that we share the same birthday! So all of that comes very naturally to me, and I think going towards that sound was fairly unconscious. I hadn’t thought about Fellini and his larger-than-life characters in the context of the film, but I think you’re very right to make that connection. Again, if the music suggests that, it was unconscious on my part.

There’s also a playful film noir aspect to your score here. How did you hit on that approach?

I think that grew organically out of the material in the film. There’s a sequence that uses the sci-fi idea of “parallel worlds” as a metaphor for the contrast between legitimate, peer-reviewed work of climate scientists vs. the fake work of the deniers. Besides Rota, I’m a huge Bernard Herrmann fan, and that kind of dark, low-strings-and-winds-orchestration just seemed to sit well with the noir-ish aspect of the sci-fi.

Do you think documentaries for that matter provide the opportunity to use far more eccentric instrumentation that a “regular” score might, especially when you’ve got Theremin and harmonica as part of “Merchants?”

Well, the Theremin is used in the score as part of an intentionally kitschy sci-fi vocabulary (I actually used an Arturia Minibrute synthesizer to suggest that sound). It’s introduced in the “parallel worlds” sequence. The instrument which sounds like a harmonica is actually a melodica. I think I grabbed it while I was developing some of the off-center, ironic material. I’m not sure that “Merchants” being a doc allowed for more of this kind of thing, though perhaps I am a little more conservative in my instrumentation when doing non-fiction films. Certainly in the case of this film, Robby encouraged me to get a little more out there.


Were you ever worried about the music as coming across as being “smug” in a way that would offend Climate deniers who might be watching this movie? Or do you care if they feel your music is justifiably mocking them?

I constantly worried about that, because I’m not really into intentionally hurting anyone’s feelings! I do have to say that I draw a distinction between civilians who deny climate change and the professionals who are in the denier business. The film really focuses on the professionals, so I don’t think we’re at all mocking the average citizen who denies climate change. As to whether the professional deniers would be offended, I guess I’d have to say that music is pretty useless in a film unless it stakes out some emotional territory. Music that only “energizes” or “percolates” or “provides a bed” is doing a tiny fraction of what it could be doing.

Still, particularly with a documentary, I don’t think you want to come on too strong either, especially when it comes to sitting in judgment of your characters. Robby Kenner suggested the idea of a playfully ironic tone to the music very early on. He phoned me one day and said, “This is a comedy about the end of the world.” I actually scribbled the phrase on a Post-It, stuck that onto my computer monitor, and looked at it every now and then as I worked. I hope I delivered that ironic tone with at least something of a light touch!

On the other hand, how did you want to get across the very serious aspect of this film, especially as we’re likely talking about something that’s likely irreversible at this point?

Exactly – good question – and this is something I struggled with constantly. We didn’t want the film to sink under the weight of its heavy subject matter and turn audiences off, nor did we want to ignore the very real seriousness of the subject. There are these more somber interstitials which recur occasionally in the film, and I treated them musically quite seriously, almost introspectively…so, hopefully there’s always this underlying sense that all is not well at the circus. And almost all of the final reel is quite serious musically, even more heartfelt, which reflects the seriousness of the situation.


How did you pick and choose when the music should be light, and dark here?

I suppose it’s a bit like doing a painting, which contains both bright and dark areas. You feel it out, beat by beat, but keeping in mind the overall story. There were times when I went dark, and Robby would say, “I can tell you’re writing your personal attitude about these folks, and that’s not what we should be doing here!” So I would adjust. He’s very good with this. It was particularly tricky on this film, since the music and the editing were happening simultaneously. Because I began work on it very early on, while the shooting was still happening, it was really impossible to get an overall sense of the story arc for quite a while. As I mentioned earlier, there was a lot of back-and-forth, with the score helping Robby and editor Kim Roberts find the tone for the film, and then with me responding to the emerging structure and making adjustments.

What’s the biggest difference between scoring fiction and documentary?

I was asked this question recently, and it occurred to me (after years of scoring both types of films), that every film is different, and I think that, finally, the differences among individual films can be much more pointed than any broad differences between those two genres, if that makes sense. For example, I scored a documentary right after completing “Merchants of Doubt” and that score felt more like big, dramatic feature film music. Having said that, I approach all films in a similar way – that is, in response to the story-telling requirements of the film, whether dramatic or documentary.

Do you ever get worked up, let alone mad, by the documentaries you’re scoring. And if so, how do you translate that emotion into music?

I do get worked up, and am often mad about many of the issues in these documentaries! But strangely enough, that doesn’t happen while I’m actually composing. I must go into some sort of professional mode, where whatever emotion I might be feeling about the subject gets completely channeled into the work (which is fortunate, both for the work and for my blood pressure.)

In that respect, what kind of “push” do you think music can give a documentary when it comes to convincing their audience on the point it’s trying to make?

Music can provide the stuff that makes the film more engaging, more enjoyable, and that helps create an attentive atmosphere in which the filmmaker can better get their message across. Beyond that, music can shade our perceptions of what we’re seeing and hearing. Sometimes it can slyly comment on a scene, making clear that there’s more going on here than is on the surface. Other times it can deepen the emotional resonance of a scene, making it more deeply felt.

Are there any documentary subjects that you simply won’t take because of your political convictions? And on that note, have you ever been approached to score them?

Interesting question. I’ve never been offered a doc that was at odds with my convictions. I once interviewed for a TV movie where the subject was somewhat political. I was very reluctant about the film, and that must have come across in the interview because, thankfully, I did not get the gig!

For you, what’s the biggest proof of global warming? And do you think it hurt that cause when the recent blizzard back east was overhyped by the media?

The biggest proof for me is the huge agreement amongst climate scientists that this is happening. That consensus was documented by Naomi Oreskes, who wrote the book that inspired the film. There’s also an on-going confusion over climate and weather (“It was freezing this morning! Where’s the global warming?”) and you can bet that confusion is promoted and exploited by the professional deniers. So, the recent blizzard you mention was “weather.” But if you look at the statistics over a period of decades, the trend is very clear.

Do you think it’s even more important for a composer to be doing films that advocate social, and in this case, global change, as opposed to working on films that are only concerned with entertaining their audience?

I would answer by saying that my favorite docs are entertaining, and my favorite “entertainment” films have something else going on. A documentary will fail as social change advocacy unless it’s engaging as a film. And I would say that for me, at least, no fiction film works as “pure entertainment” unless there’s something else that engages me at a deeper level. It’s been said that Francis Coppola saw “The Godfather” as a metaphor for American capitalism—so, it’s that, as well as an entertaining gangster film, and a compelling drama about families. And of course, there’s that great score!

Your next documentary will be about Dr. Haing S. Ngor, whom people are familiar with his portrayal in “The Killing Fields.” What can you tell us about the movie, and your approach for it?

This is a film by Arthur Dong–like Robby, a director whom I’ve had the good fortune to work with before (and also an Oscar-nominated one.) It’s a biography that traces Dr. Ngor’s extraordinary life from his childhood through his medical practice in Cambodia, his torture under the Khmer Rouge, and his escape to the U.S. where he was cast in a supporting role in “The Killing Fields” for which he won an Oscar. After that, he used his newfound notoriety to become a tireless advocate for the Cambodian people. He was killed in Los Angeles in the late 90s during a robbery. It’s a huge story, and Arthur used graphic novel-style animation to reconstruct much of it–a very effective approach. I did not know much about Cambodian music before I started working on the film. As it turns out, traditional Cambodian music utilized Gamelan, a color that I ended up using in the score, along with flute.

Are there any documentary subjects you’d like to see get made, and especially to score?

I’d love to see a film made about the influence of the military-industrial complex on foreign policy. It could be viewed in the context of the following saying: “When you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I’d like to see a film made about the U.S. Navy sailors who brought disaster relief to Japan during the 2011 Tsunami, and are now suing TEPCO for radiation poisoning following the Fukushima meltdown. (They’re being hampered in their efforts by the DOD, who claims the radiation exposure was too low to account for the cancers, tumors, brain defects and premature disc degeneration many have experienced since.) I’d be interested in a film that examines Carl Jung’s concept of the Shadow, and how it plays itself out geopolitically. That’ll do for starters.

“Merchants of Doubt” opens in theaters on March 6th, with Mark Adler’s score available digitally on March 3rd, and on CD April 7th through Lakeshore Records. Buy the “Merchants” MP3 album HERE

Visit Mark Adler’s Wesbsite HERE

Leave a Comment