Interview with Mark Isham
One might expect composer Mark Isham to have had a tender musical upbringing that resulted in a soft-spoken composer who carried a powerfully blown trumpet. No doubt he was given some very different life choices than Chris – a highly functioning autistic youth with a natural gift for math and an equally big bullying target on his back, one that makes his military dad train Chris and brother in the killer skills that mature a budding genius into “The Accountant’s” cross between Rain Man and The Punisher.
Certainly one of the crazier Hollywood films to give socially challenged characters a shot at equal screen time, filmmaker Gavin O’Connor’s follow-up to the macho sibling dynamics of his “Warrior” is a story that shouldn’t work. But given the absolute commitment of O’Connor’s vision, the silent charisma of star Ben Affleck and the subtle scoring of his returning “Warrior” composer Isham, “The Accountant” pays off as one of the odder avenging “superhero” films to come down the action hero pike in quite a while, especially as given Isham’s rhythmic, melancholy score that gets inside of unusually unique headspace, where figures are put down with just as much brutal efficiency as the villains who dare cross Chris’ code of honor.
With scores numbering well past the century mark since his film debut with 1983’s beautifully soulful “Never Cry Wolf,” Isham has played just about every conceivable genre, including the sweeping, Oscar-nominated vistas of “A River Runs Through It,” “The Cooler’s” crime noir, “The Longest Ride’s” country romance, “Crash’s” ethereal intersection of prejudice, “42’s” noble sports plays and the enduring fantasia of ABC’s “Once Upon A Time.” Hard-hitting action and suspense have long kept Isham delivering justice and a body count, including “Time Cop,” “Nowhere To Run,” “Point Break,” “Don’t Say A Word,” “Homefront” and two entries on “The Mechanic’s” kill list. But what makes Isham’s approach to good guys making mincemeat out of legions of highly armed villains is the propulsive, atmospheric intelligence he brings to these big gun downs, especially for “The Accountant.” Wielding a unique fusion of orchestra and electronics that say much about the composer’s jazz fusion background, Isham gives a deadly match magician not only a propulsive joy in putting numbers together, as well as steely, stealth militarism. But most importantly, Isham brings a haunted, yearning emotion for a man cursed to remain in his own world. It’s a mix of real world and crime avenging skills that constructs this Affleck dark knight out of a wholly different musical suit.
Starting out on such peaceful, ethereal scores as “The Life and Times of Harvey Milk” and “Never Cry Wolf,” did you ever figure out you’d also become in demand for the action genre, particularly when it came to violent thrillers?
No – in fact I was a bit standoffish about those sorts of scores. I really enjoy those type of films but at the time I had no idea how to score them, having never studied film scoring.
What was your stylistic, and philosophical adjustment that you took to get so adept at it?
I basically just decided to rise to the challenge and dive in. I remember studying some other composers – Toru Takemitsu I think, for dissonant energy etc. And working diligently on my percussion programming!!
As you developed your skill set in that particular field, how important would you see the especially hard-hitting score of “Time Cop” was? And were there other films that toughened you up as it were?
“Time Cop” was definitely a big learning experience for me. Learning ‘on the job.” “Point Break” was probably the biggest challenge and most successful new adventure for me. Kathryn Bigelow was great at getting me thinking the right way and helping me create the right energy and vibe.
“The Accountant” successfully walks a crazy tonal tightrope as a cross between “Rain Man” and “The Punisher.” How important was it for you to help keep the film on balance without slipping into a parody that some people might object to – i.e. playing Chris as some superhero?
It was crucial! And Gavin was very clear on that point. Chris is a VERY unique character and his abilities as a warrior were NOT to be glorified. His violence is a very efficient means to a very precise end.
“The Accountant” marks your second score for Gavin after “Warrior.” He’s a filmmaker whose themes often deal with the idea of manhood and brotherhood. What do you think makes you his go-to guy, and what’s your collaboration like?
Our collaboration has always been fun and fruitful – a real adventure. Gavin is very meticulous and communicates extremely well about his films, the storytelling and how the score should enhance and support it. He encourages experimentation and is open to any intelligent idea! I think what makes us work well together is a mutual respect for each other and agreement on the value of open, honest and continuing communication. He loves my music – I love his films!
You’ve often dealt with “outsider” characters, especially in “Nell” – people who communicate in their own language as it were. Given a character with more than highly functional autism, how did you want to capture Chris, especially given how the music has to “speak” for a lonely, isolated man who’d rather not talk at all?
The score is very eclectic – partially because of Chris’s character. There are times when the music represents the turmoil in his head and times when it communicates his experience with the beautiful abstraction of mathematics. There are several times when he has to face “real life” and interact with others, in tender ways and in tumultuous ways. So the music has very complex moments and extremely minimal moments. It represents and supports other people’s view of Chris as well, adding to further diversity.
How did you want to use percussion to play Chris’ mathematical genius?
I ended up basing the big ‘math scene’ on the piano. We used three! The instrument has the advantage of being percussive and melodic – it can communicate great precision and great beauty at the same time. This was the hardest nut to crack in the score. We went around and around trying many ideas. I started out very electronic but it made him too robotic. A big orchestral approach didn’t work at all. But the effect that three pianos created worked beautifully.
There’s an interesting, almost classical sound that comes to the fore in such cues as “The Accountant” and “The Trial of Solomon Grundy.” What inspired that approach?
As I mention above, there’s a beauty and precision that wants to be communicated with Chris. In “The Accountant,” the rhythms of classical minimalism really worked, along with a very simple theme that could grow and expand. Likewise in “The Trial of Solomon Grundy,” very classical harmony seemed to bring the right gravitas to Chris undergoing a life changing experience. That is our biggest cue, as it uses orchestra, choir, and a solo cello. It has a high emotional impact when he decides as a young boy not to be a victim anymore!
How did you want to capture Chris switching into equally analytical, and militaristic killer mode?
Gavin did some experimenting with temping those scenes. There is no gratuitous fighting here. If Chris needs to get into a house guarded by bad guys, he goes in absolutely the MOST efficient way possible! So the music is VERY EFFICIENT! Sometimes just one BIG hit! I had to go back and thin out my first pass quite a bit to get this right – and record special BIG drums!
The flashbacks to Chris’ childhood and what makes him into the unique accountant he is are a driving force in the film. Given that “Warrior” also dealt with highly dysfunctional family, how did you want to play that idea here?
The dysfunction is represented by the cello – and a unique theme. It is a more melodic approach than I used in “Warrior”. That was done with low overly compressed guitar notes and very little motion. A very stultified feeling. With Chris, it’s more heartbreaking. People are desperately trying to make good decisions in a situation they can’t grasp the meaning of. We want the audience to empathize with him in that way.
While “hybrid” scores are the rage now, you were doing unique combinations of electronics and orchestra from the start with “Point Break.” What do you think of how that sound has become a big part of action scoring, and how did you want to make it unique for “The Accountant?”
I have always loved blending sounds from all sorts of genres. It makes it possible to create a very unique sound for each score one does. I’m sure that’s why it’s caught on – “ear candy” for the audience! It allows the score to feel “contemporary” as well. “The Accountant ” is unique for me by its eclecticism. The score has many different sounds but holds together as a whole by its use of themes and motifs. There is a simple idea of overlapping rhythms that appears in every cue somehow. A pattern of 2 out of 3 – overlapped with a pattern of 5 out of 7 for example. Sometimes in different tempos….
In spite of its action, do you think there’s also the soul of a “little boy lost” to Chris’ musical character which reflects a skill set some people might think he never should have been given that irrevocably altered his life – a poignancy that really comes across in the cue “A Unique Remarkable Young Man?”
There is definitely a sense of his character starting out as a “little boy lost.” But the film actually allows us to see into his life and learn that he has in fact found a rich and fulfilling life – even though he denies himself certain human pursuits and pleasures. The cue, “A Unique Remarkable Young Man”, not only refers to Chris but to others as well who are equally unique and remarkable.
When it comes to lethally proficient antiheroes, you recently returned to the “Mechanic Resurrected,” a sequel that I enjoyed even more than the original, especially as it took pains to humanize Jason Statham’s character. What was it like returning to a cleaner who’s now given a love interest that drives his assassinations?
The “Mechanic” movies are fun – with a comic book type character that allows you to score in an over-the-top style. He’s a poor man’s James Bond! So it was fun to write a theme and score in that tradition. The new one does add a touch of romance to the equation – a perfect chance to channel some John Barry moments!
We recently lost Curtis Hanson, a director most widely known for intense film noirs like “L.A. Confidential.” Yet you scored the soft and lovely “In Her Shoes” for him. What was that experience like?
Curtis was lovely man. Very much like “In Her Shoes.” He was very thoughtful, weighing all his options. Curtis was a wonderful artist and a pleasure to work with.
Another, recent and quite lovely score you’ve done was for “Septembers in Shiraz,” about the desperate escape of an Iranian Jewish family during that country’s revolution. What made that film, and soundtrack particularly moving for you?
I really enjoyed Adrian’s performance. And the story was quite compelling. And it’s always fun to score with a touch of some ethnic influence.
“Once Upon A Time” stands as the most popular, and enduring series you’ve worked on. Why do you think it’s caught on, and what does the opportunity to embody this modern-day fairy tale (and now literary) characters give you?
OUAT is so much fun! I never studied traditional film scoring. I don’t think I’ve ever written a theme for a character like Indiana Jones. It’s always been for the idea of the film – betrayal – family – etc. But with OUAT, when Prince Charming comes on the screen, you hear his theme! Snow White, Red Riding Hood? These are iconic characters that I have a chance to write for. But there’s a twist – the creators did write “Lost,” remember? So it’s a very cool story line and plot at the same time. The scoring style is very traditional. Melody is desired and appreciated! And ABC is very supportive and we have an orchestra every week!
On that note, you’re taking on your first, fantasy-oriented YA score with the angelic romance and battles of Scott Hicks’ “Fallen.” What can you tell us about your score?
This was a fun one as well! Scott Hicks is a fabulous director and such a pleasure to work with. The score is pretty big – piano solos, soprano soloist – but with orchestra, choir, and LOTS of cool electronics. It’s epic but modern at the same time. Big choir and orchestra moments all under a pounding Tangerine Dream-ish type sequence! Beautiful moments of soprano and strings followed by Throbbing Gristle!
Given how uniquely powerful “The Accountant” is for the action genre, where do you hope it takes you with these films, while showing Hollywood just how far you can dangerously tread with this idea?
I know that the unique quality of this score comes from the unique quality of the film, and the desire and willingness of the filmmaker to search for a different and unique approach. I always try to create a score that helps tell the story the best I can. And that usually means finding a unique and special voice for that particular score. When you have the support of your director, producers and studio to do so, it’s an ideal situation to explore new ideas.
As a musician, do you find it more interesting to dwell in light, or darkness after the musical body count that you’ve accumulated?
When I started, I found the darkness easier and more rewarding. But as time went on, I realized that that is partially because our culture tends to look down on the brighter, lighter emotions and sees them as not as “artistic.” It seems to be harder to communicate those emotions at an artistic level. Certainly in concert music dissonant music has reigned supreme for years. But in the last decade or so, tonal music has re-emerged. (John Adams, my favorite example). These days I love the challenge of writing a great victory piece! And I work hard to bring to it as much innovation and artistry as I can muster!
“The Accountant” counts October 14th as its opening, with Mark Isham’s score available on WaterTower Music on October 7th HERE
Visit Mark Isham’s website HERE