Interview with Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian

By • March 2, 2016

It’s a perhaps not-so brave, cold new world of warfare, On the side of evil is Islamism’s terrifyingly personal brand of terror, waged with fanatical human bombs that ran indiscriminate death on the first world powers they despise – and every other society at that. On the side of good are far more sophisticated governments that have reigned in their own military casualties by having unfeeling drones as their weapon of choice, targeting terrorists above the clouds, with civilians often distressingly killed to stop a far higher body count. Yet behind these unmanned planes are very feeling humans, bound to meet a stringent series of calculations before raining down death. Such is the all-seeing conflict of director Gavin Hood’s powerful “Eye in the Sky,” a contrast that also speaks for the clash between cold rhythmic calculation and ethnically-accent human emotion that effectively targets the score by Hood’s fellow South Africans Mark Kilian and Paul Hepker.

Set in the far more unstable and terrorist-stricken African country of Kenya – as viewed from the drone pilot center of Las Vegas to military command centers in England – “Eye in the Sky” hears the innocent warmth of Aylah, a nine year-old girl unfortunate enough to be selling bread right in front of a house wherein terrorists are about to launch a devastating attack. As pilots and officials go through the checklist as to whether or not to drop the bomb and certainly doom Aliya, Kilian and Hepker work in powerful musical tandem, much like the increasingly distressed drone operators who are bound to do their awful, yet necessary jobs. Orders are followed up the chain of decision-making command wit pulsing percussion and lethally determined strings as the trigger gets ever-closer to being pulled, rhythm that conveys a weapon of lethal, all-seeing technology. All the while, tenderness and concern become not only the physical devastation they’ll unleash on a little girl, but the devastation to their own souls as well.

It’s the drama of seemingly unavoidable tragedy with a keen sense of African place on the greater world stage that makes Kilian and Hepker’s score at once as relentlessly suspenseful as any soundtrack in the terrorist-fighting genre, but also one with a poignant realization of the collateral cost of natives who barely rate the margins of a daily drone strike story in the news, their voice crying out on the soundtrack as they’re silenced in a sacrifice they never dreamed of making in the war on terror.

Having worked with keenly honed timing on numerous projects since venturing from the South African music scene to becoming part of the greater Hollywood globe, Kilian and Hepker have collaborated with Hood on the director’s Oscar winning 2005 film “Tsotsi,” which told of the poverty-stricken desperation of a local black youth, then played the cost of torturing an innocent for Hood’s “Rendition.” Just as impressive when flying solo, Kilian’s diverse film and television work includes “Castle,” “The Ward,” “Bless Me, Ultima” “Trust Me” and “Pitch Perfect,” while Hepker’s scores have range from such high impact TV documentaries as “Deadliest Catch” and “IRT: Deadliest Roads” to the “Kite’s” action heroine. But the composers are no more impactful them where they’re collaborating for Gavin Hood’s powerful, and thoughtful sense of morally-driven drama in a battle where even the right side finds it tragically hard to claim “Eye in the Sky’s” high ground.

Could you talk about your respective musical upbringings in South Africa, and how you made the trip to scoring in Hollywood?

Mark Kilian: I had a mild bout of piano and guitar lessons growing up but never took it seriously. It was only while serving in the military that I realized how much I wanted to be in music. So after my military service I enrolled to study jazz piano with Darius Brubeck at the University of Natal (at the time) in Durban, South Africa. However, a few years later while still studying I saw Oliver Stone’s ‘Platoon’ and it blew my mind, especially having been in the army. The Samuel Barber sequence specifically made me realize how powerful film music could be and how it can make you connect something to your own experience. It was perhaps the most exciting thing I’d ever felt musically and I knew from then on that that’s what I wanted to do.

Paul Hepker: I started playing piano very young – probably when I was about 3 or 4 years old, in Zimbabwe. We moved to South Africa when I was 11, where I was lucky enough to be taught by an incredible 87-year-old named Adolphe Hallis. Interesting story: Hallis was taught by Leschetizky, who was taught by Czerny, who was taught by Beethoven, with whom I share a birthday! Another curious side-note – Hallis composed the music for two early Hitchcock movies, “East of Shanghai” and “Number 17.” I did my Grade 8 (Final) exam at age 12, so I was a bit of a prodigy back then. It was all downhill from there…

At University I started playing in pub bands to pay off my fees. Then I started doing musical theatre, where I got to hone my skills as an arranger, conductor, and bandleader. I was the keyboard player for Johnny Clegg and Juluka/Savuka for a few years, and toured and recorded with a number of the international artists who started visiting South Africa as apartheid crumbled, such as Shirley Bassey and Ice Cube.

In the mid-90s, Mark had moved to USC to do the Film Music course We were already close friends by then We’d speak often on the phone, and eventually he convinced me to come across to the US. Luckily I was able to get a green card, so I started working for composers in LA like Dan Licht, Christopher Young and Lesley Barber. I did arranging, playing piano sessions, assistant orchestrating and eventually (ghost) writing- the usual stuff. I leapt at the chance to be my own boss and compose for the newly born and burgeoning Cable TV market; I worked as a series composer on a bunch of shows for Discovery Channel and National Geographic, such as “Deadliest Catch” and “Ice Road Truckers.”

Mark, how do you think working in various departments from programming to editing to conducting for Christopher Young and Don Davis helped you make the leap to film composing?

Kilian: Christopher Young taught a class at USC in the filmscoring program and was one of our favorites. Not only was his music fabulous, but he was a truly giving teacher and kind of a crazy and eccentric character. We just loved him. Due to the South African exchange rate tanking soon after I got to USC, all the money I had to complete the incredibly expensive course became half of its value and I basically ran out of money in the middle of the course. So I asked Chris for work and he immediately hired me as his assistant. I was with him for about 3 years and I honestly learned more from him during those years than any studying I had ever done. Don Davis was nice enough to let me conduct the pieces I had orchestrated and put together for the “Matrix: Revolutions.” I also worked with artists from the recording world as well.

How did you first meet, and decide to compose together?

Kilian: We first met when Paul came to a jazz club I was playing at in Durban, South Africa. He came from the classical world and we just hit it off and became fast friends. After Paul moved to LA he had a mutual friend that knew Gavin Hood and they became friends. When Gavin started talking to Paul about his movie ‘Tsotsi,’ Paul though it would be great to score that together. We subsequently did ‘Rendition’ together for Gavin and now ‘Eye In The Sky’ and we’re all very good friends.

Hepker: My brother was at the same University as Mark, and was a big fan of the jazz band Mark played for. I was working in a club band in Johannesburg at the time. I would come and watch Mark play. But I refused to sit in with the band because I was terrible at, and terribly fearful of anything “jazz.” I was strictly classical/ pop at that stage. I wanted to be Billy Joel! Eventually I broadened my horizons through an exposure to Keith Jarrett while I was living in Switzerland. Mark and I then worked on a number of musical theatre shows together like “Joseph” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” We we would spend hours improvising together, in the dark, between shows, on the amazing concert grand pianos at the State Theatres in which we were performing. I think that played a crucial role in preparing us to work together as composers. We developed an almost extra-sensory connection that never left.

Could you talk about your first experience working with Gavin on “Tsotsi?”

Kilian: It will always be one of the special experiences of my professional life. We both moved back to South Africa for 6 months to do it and working on a movie with friends is an incredible treat.
Hepker: It was an incredible, intense, emotional experience. We knew we were working on a unique and powerful film, but we had no idea that it would do as well as it did. After being dealt disappointments at the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes, we were prepared for a huge sucker punch at the Oscars. When Will Smith announced that “Tsotsi” had won for Best Foreign Film, the elation that we experienced in that moment will never be matched.

You’ve dealt with Islamist terrorist-related subjects before in “Rendition” and “Traitor.” What was it like getting back into the subject here?

Kilian: It’s a subject that fascinates me on a political and social level. It is the issue of our times. I think and working on projects that touch on this seems somehow more important than doing a show about fantasy characters or light-hearted comedy.

Hepker: On the surface, these movies seem to be about terrorism – but they are really more universal themes: “Rendition” is a Romeo and Juliet story, coupled with a wrong guy/wrong place tale. “Eye In The Sky” is really just a complicated ethics story at heart: it’s the Trolley Problem on overdrive.

Given that there’s almost an establish “sound” for this sort of pan-African / Arab terrorist genre, how did you want to get across your own voice in it?

Kilian: We tried very hard to develop a unique sonic landscape using primarily the iPad. We worked with a software developer who had built an app that allowed us to do some crazy sound building and manipulation in a very new kind of way and he made it suitable for our particular requirements. We used the material we made this way as the sonic basis for most of the cues and then used orchestra and melody and percussion to build the emotion as needed.

Hepker: The iPad instrument(s) were born out of a desire to give the title character a ‘voice’, a presence in the movie, especially since it is ‘there’ but barely seen. We also wanted to explore mechanical/cyclical sounds for the many UAV/drones that are used in the film like birds and beetles. We found that lower/slowed- down versions of these granular sounds worked very well in representing the ‘wheels of war’ – the big machine that rolls into action as the drama unfolds. Giving the different ‘eyes’ a sound of their own really helped in the story-telling – knowing how you are seeing what you are seeing, as so much of the action in the movie happens on computer screens.

Mark, having respectfully scored action films in this territory with way less shades or moral grey, what was the challenge of dealing with one as thoughtful as “Eye in the Sky?”

Kilian: It was a challenge in that you have to be as detached as possible from judgment while being as engaged as possible with emotion. It’s not a ‘good guy bad guy’ scenario so the music couldn’t attach itself to characters and then comment on them. It had to weave a tapestry of emotion and empathy and extend that to the entire world of the film without pointing fingers at anyone. But also, we had to find a voice for the machines in this story. That was perhaps the most challenging thing about the score, because the drone “music” had to be completely neutral, as the machines are not acting on anything but the orders from humans. It sure was an interesting process!

Kilian, Hood and Hepker

Hepker: The key word is ‘subtlety’. We tried to say what we needed to as simply and quickly as possible. I think that has been true of all of Gavin’s films. He really knows what he wants, and where. He has a very powerful ‘bullshit radar.’

Tell us about your collaboration with Gavin Hood? Does him being a fellow South African make your partnership easier?

Kilian: Yes, that does make it easier. Much in the same way as you can’t bullshit your old friends too much, because they know exactly who you are. We have developed a shorthand between us that circumvents any of the nonsense that can sometimes come up in these high stress working environments, when ego and power can dictate the relationship.

Hepker: Once Mark and I have scored a scene, the four of us (Gavin, Mark, myself and Megan Gill (who edited “Tsotsi,” “Rendition” and “Eye In The Sky”) generally weigh in on what we love or hate about it. There is a tremendous amount of respect, coupled with honesty and car. It is a safe environment to speak your truth. Arguments are often heated because we are all passionate and sensitive artists! Yet we always find a middle ground that satisfies our varying sensibilities. As in any collaboration, there is a lot of give and take. But ultimately Gavin has the final word. Luckily for us he is very flexible and generous!

Do you think there’s something naturally mournful about African and Arab instruments, and how did you want to deploy them here?

Kilian: No, not necessarily. These are just not sounds you might hear everyday and therefore evoke an immediate sense of mysticism. The Duduk we used in “Eye In The Sky” is actually an Armenian instrument so has nothing to do with the Middle East. The harp we used is actually an ancient Hebrew instrument called a Nevel harp. So what is so wonderful about music is that sometimes nothing is what it seems. When music isn’t representing something onscreen in a literal way and rather playing its own character, there is so much more depth to the connection. We were taught at USC that the old adage “see a dog, hear a dog” is the death sentence of the creativity of sound in cinema.

Hepker: These instruments are only “exotic” and mystical to us westerners. As long as they retain their “exoticism,” they have a certain power that can be useful for composers. They can set a tone, a mood and a location, very quickly and very simply. There is a danger, however, that they could become overused and clichéd, something we are very aware of.

How did you want to bring in a western orchestral approach to the score’s African music?

Kilian: It’s interesting you say “African” music. There really isn’t much that’s based on African music. Except to say that the electronic stuff we developed has a distinctly multi-textured and non-linear sensibility to it, which is what tribal African music has. So we’ll take that as a compliment that it came across!

Hepker: We recorded a 50-piece orchestra in Budapest to enforce some of the more traditional “Hollywood-y” themes that come in toward the end of the film. But we also had the orchestra imitating the iPad sounds we had created, which further added to the other-worldliness of the pads and rhythms.

How important was it for you to embody the innocence of Aliya, a girl who has no idea about the international crisis she’s causing?

Kilian: The innocence and the tragedy. Children hurt or killed in war is disgusting, and it’s far too prevalent in todays world.

Could you talk about the colder electronic “pulse” elements of the score, and how it captures the idea of people making life or death decisions in front of a computer?

Kilian: I spoke already about the ‘tribal’ nature of that electronic stuff and how it repeats patterns with very slowly changing elements. This was to achieve the sense that these machines, while extremely precise and impressive in what they’re able to do, are told what to do by humans. They can’t or rather don’t act by themselves. We wanted to play the world of the drones as a neutral world.

Hepker: And also accentuate the idea of being “cogs” in a machine that in some ways has a life of its own. The bizarre thing is that these “eyes” can see so much, and yet so little at the same time.

What’s the trick to holding long, suspenseful “spying” sections in the score?

Kilian- I think simplicity and calculated repetition.

Hepker: Yes. What Mark said! We would introduce a sound that seemed obnoxiously “present,” but by keeping it repetitive, it would disappear into the background – adding tension without demanding attention.

There’s a sly, darkly humorous element to “Eye in the Sky” when it comes to passing the buck as to making a “kill” decision. How did you want the music to capture that tone, or play against it?

Kilian: Well, it’s humorous only in how ridiculous it is. We didn’t play the humor because it speaks for itself on screen and it didn’t need our contribution. We thought it would be better to let that alone and not touch it musically.

Hepker. Yes. And to a large extent, we stayed out of COBRA – the room where the talking heads debate Aliyah’s fate.

How important do you think the music is to punctuating the level of frustration that the characters have, and to finally releasing it?

Kilian: The challenging thing about scoring this movie was that there are so many long scenes of back and forth debate punctuated by just a few rather explosive moments. The music was trying to help to provide a “ticking clock” idea through all these long sections with tons of dialog. It helped to pace these scenes together so as to build up the drama of the frustration that we also feel as an audience.

Hepker: The cast was superb, filled with great stage and character actors. There was very little we had to do to add cadence to their performances. They were very powerful and economical – masters of a sly glance or a roll of the eyes. Subtle. We just had to stay out of the way, really!

“Eye in the Sky” gets across its musical emotion in an unusually subdued, but powerful way. Was not making it too big, or “Hollywood” something on your mind?

Kilian: In fact we started out not wanting any of the big emotional string stuff nor the melodic Duduk moments. But we found that the music had to go there in order for us to feel the emotional impact of the tragedy on the ground. And especially how that affects all the players involved in some way. To bring that all together as a human experience needed the big emotional writing, but we really wanted to keep the language of the music out of the “blockbuster” action type of score.
Hepker: Exactly. We spotted very little music to start with, and there was no temp to work with. Music got bigger and more-er as it went up the production ‘Kill Chain’! Not everybody is comfortable with silence, as powerful as it can be.

What are your own personal opinions about drone warfare and its collateral damage? Do you think those emotions came into play when scoring the film, particularly when it comes to tragedy?

Kilian: Perhaps it did. For me, nothing about war is black and white. There is no good guy/bad guy scenario, at least not anymore. Drones are a part of our future and there is nothing we can do about that. Are they effective? Well, yes. Do they minimize collateral damage? I don’t buy that. But what is especially worrying is that we as a nation are ok with remote flying warships assassinating people unseen from the sky – and often getting the wrong people. Very often kids, as it happens so often in Pakistan. And the other worry is that the type of PTSD these drone operators are experiencing is off the charts. How could it not be? They’re just kids basically who are given an executioner’s tool. Interestingly enough, drone warfare and the basic concept behind it is the polar opposite of suicide bombing. The suicide bomber willingly gives his life blowing shit up. The drone pilot doesn’t have to get within thousands of miles of the death and destruction he causes.

Hepker: I am quite strongly anti-violence. And I am not fond of the logical fallacies that generally accompany justification for War. You can hear a lot of them in the film. (I guess my personal beliefs align most strongly with those of the character Angela.) But I don’t think that my beliefs affected my decisions in how to score the film. As I mentioned before, war is the backdrop, but these are stories about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. That’s the sensibility I think we try and bring to the process.

“Eye in the Sky” is a rare film that basically asks the audience to make their own final judgment as to whether the military’s actions are right, or wrong. Was it important to keep that balance as well in the music?

Kilian: Yes. I think we tried to not have the music judge anything. Just to comment on the tragedy of it all.

Hepker: We definitely tried to avoid any of the “see dog, hear dog” traps that Mark mentioned earlier.

Having started out in South Africa before the fall of Apartheid, how do you think the country has changed now for the better, or worse, especially in regards to the music scene?

Kilian: Well Paul lives there now again and I just visited recently. I love it there and even though there are serious problems for the country to overcome, the fact that up until just 21 short years ago, some 80% of the population was legally forbidden to vote, swim, shower, sit or dine at establishments marked ‘whites only,’ its a miracle that we have the country we do. And we really have Nelson Mandela to thank for that.

Hepker: The music and film industries are thriving. South Africans have found their own voices, after having been told for years that ours weren’t good enough. We grew up being spoon-fed American and British art and culture. Sanctions meant that our own artists had no outlets. And there was no incentive for local companies to promote talent from within. Why spend money on A&R when you can sell a million Michael Jackson albums without lifting a finger? “Tsotsi” was at the vanguard of a movie renaissance, I think it has really given artists and writers in South Africa a tremendous hope that it IS possible.

Though you’ve done many purely “Hollywood” scores, will you always be looking for the chance to team on movies like “Eye in the Sky” where you can bring our your musically ethnic abilities?

Kilian: Speaking for myself, an absolutely resounding “YES!” I’m my happiest when working in music with ethnic sensibilities.

Hepker: I am looking forward to the day that Mark and I can work on a movie that doesn’t demand an ethnic score. We came close twice – on “Wolverine” and “Ender’s Game,” two Gavin films that were scored by other composers. We both love electronic music and obviously we have solid foundations in jazz and classical music, so the thought of working on something different is quite exciting to me!

As terrorism and our response to it only becomes more violent, how do you think films, and scores covering the conflict will change?

Kilian: I don’t know that it will. But for me I always try to look at the things that bring us together and not the things that separate us. I hope I can continue to paint things grey with music, and not black or white.

Hepker: I think the movies may change to reflect our changing loyalties. But the music will always remain the same.

Do you think your work together has respectively made you better solo composers?

Kilian: Yes.

Hepker: Absolutely. And better people too!

What advice would you have for composers working together, especially when it comes to creating a score with one distinctive voice like “Eye in the Sky?”

Kilian: Working together requires more patience and compromise than working alone. And it takes longer. But the clear benefit is that you will be challenged to not just do what comes into your head. Or rather, what does come into your head might get put on a table and played with in so many ways that something else will come out of that which neither of you will have come up with alone.

Hepker: Collaborating allows you the opportunity to wear many hats: producer/editor/performer/critic. You have to develop your listening muscles, lose any sense of attachment or ownership, and most of all, you have to be able to communicate in non-violent terms! It’s all about pro-creating, and there is no room for destruction. It forces you to be continually present. One could presume that it is constrictive, but it is actually incredibly liberating. Since Mark and I have a single rule – that we compose each and every note together in the studio – we both feel very connected to, united by and proud of the music we have written and produced together.

“Eye in the Sky” opens in theaters on March 11, with its score available HERE on Lakeshore Records.

Buy the soundtrack for Tsotsi HERE

Buy the soundtrack for Rendition HERE

Visit Mark Kilian’s website HERE

Visit Paul Hepker’s website HERE

Leave a Comment