Interview with Geoff Zanelli

By • May 23, 2017

In the franchise world of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” one rises up the ranks from deckhand to captain by scallywag subterfuge, mutiny and murder. In composer Geoff Zanelli’s case, it’s the far more mild, if no less impressive traits of hard work and talent to get ahead as part of Hans Zimmer’s crew. A mate on the very first ship named The Black Pearl, and dexterously jumping from one darkly enchanted sea craft to the next over the course of three more pictures, Zanelli is now having a not-so motley band of musicians answering to his beck and command with the rousing “Pirates” saying of “Dead Men Tell No Tales.” As overseen by Norwegian directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (who commanded the positively sedate journey of “Kon-Tiki” in comparison), “Dead Men” reprises the series’ stalwart, alternatively dead and undead characters as they combat the vengeful Spanish spirit of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), a pirate-hating ghoul and his crew with a particular mad-on at Sparrow for afflicting them with their unholy condition.

Just as this film puts the band back together with a freshly villainous spin, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” arms Zanelli with a booty’s worth of memorable themes gathered from past “Pirates” scores, which abet his own hip, adventurous voice for the allegedly last adventure of Jack Sparrow. The Zimmer-commandeered series rudely re-invented all the wonderful clichés of pirate scoring into devilishly fiddling, jigging and brass-blasting in-your-ears rambunctiousness – yet still grandly paid off those clichés anyway. If anything, Zanelli’s swabbed these decks with just a tad of refinement for a terrifically exciting and fun score that delivers on the “Pirates” mish-mash of horror, excitement and punch-line humor – all of his gigantic musical cannons blasting with chorus, cellos and orchestra ablazing, and with some particularly gnarly and cosmic new themes for Salazar and Poseidon’s Trident to boot.

But then, one might say that Zanelli’s ascension to his biggest score shares much of the fateful destiny that drives the “Pirates” mythology. Composing on no end of soundtracks for Zimmer and his crew like “Antz,” “Pearl Harbor” and “The Machine,” Zanelli created a twisted Johnny Depp with his first major score for “Secret Window,” His prolific scoring career has since ranged from the arthouse (“House of D”) to thrillers (“Disturbia,”” “Hitman”) sweeping, Emmy-winning and nominated TV miniseries work (“Into the West” and “The Pacific”) sci-fi adventure (“Outlander”), charming romance (“Ghost Town”) caper comedy (“Mortdecai,” “Masterminds”) and the creepily kid-friendly (“The Odd Life of Timothy Green”). As hard to peg down as a pirate leg in his styles, “Dead Men” now shows just how rockingly adept Zanelli is at making a sizeable ship his own as he impressively sails into the Memorial Day weekend multiplex with music that excitingly hits all the notes of The Enchanted Kingdom’s singularly seditious movie take on their most beloved ride.


As a California native, I imagine you’ve been to the Pirates ride at Disneyland as a kid. What impressed you about it, and what effect did it have on you?

Pirates was a favorite ride of mine, for sure. I loved how immersive it was, and that each scene had some sort of punch line, or story point. You’re being taken through a whole narrative at a pace where you can absorb it all. There’s a spirit of adventure in that ride, and that same spirit was in all of my favorite films as a child growing up in the suburbs. Those films, like “Indiana Jones” or “Clash of the Titans” and the rides at Disneyland are all part of that daydream, and they feel very much like they’re a part of me. That’s why “Pirates of the Caribbean” was such an easy thing for me to get involved in.

Tell us about becoming a mate at Hans Zimmer’s studio. And what does it take to survive, and learn from an experience that’s caused other less hardy souls to jump ship?

At this point, the only person who’s been at Hans Zimmer’s studio longer than I have is Hans himself, so yes, that means it’s an environment I’ve thrived in for quite a while. But “survival,” that wasn’t really the word that was on my mind. The very first professional studio I ever walked into was Hans’ place back in 1994. I was 19 years old when I came to Los Angeles without knowing a soul in music or in film. I don’t even know if there was a recording studio in my hometown, but even if there was, there still wasn’t much film music going on, so I had to make a move. I was really working against all odds, if you think about it. Somehow I talked my way into an internship at Hans’ studio and once I got that I just never went home. I didn’t get a foot in the door, or even a toe, it was just my toenail! Hans was writing “The Lion King” at the time and I was pouring coffee and cleaning the dishes so I could stay after hours to hear Alan Meyerson as he mixed, or absorb technical experience from the staff there, or my favorite: bringing coffee into Hans’ studio and walking back out of the room as slowly as possible so I could hear one or two more notes, or one more comment from a director as a meeting was going on. That was my early education, in addition to all the stuff I was doing during school months at Berklee.

I think over the years I just became a fixture at the studio. I don’t even recall a formal introduction to Hans or most of the people there; I just made myself trusted and dependable. Two years after that, I became John Powell’s assistant, which was really my first actual job in music. John was my mentor for three years and I wrote more and more additional music on his projects, and then one day Hans approached me to ask if I’d work on “Hannibal” as an arranger. So I found a little broom closet of a room there, set up shop and then for a few years, I was Hans’ arranger on all sorts of projects. We always worked well together, and you can imagine how much a young composer can learn from guys like John and Hans.

What’s the trick of writing in tandem to create a cohesive score, especially at Hans’ studio?

Scoring assistant Zak McNeil, additional music composer Anthony Willis (rear), additional music composer Phill Boucher, composer Geoff Zanelli, music editor Pete Snell (rear) Photo by Dan Goldwasser

The cohesiveness of a score that’s being written as a collaboration, in my opinion, is the responsibility of the main composer. All I do in the role of additional music composer is respond to the film, write something I feel strongly about, and from there it becomes a matter of Hans or whoever has their name is on the poster to direct it. So often, and Pirates is a great example of this, I’ll write something in isolation that works well or is compelling, or undeniably right for the film and then that starts to inform other aspects of the score. Tia Dalma’s theme, for instance, or the Cannibal Island music I wrote in “Pirates 2” are examples of something of mine taking on a life of its own. The score becomes cohesive as all those elements expand from their original form into other scenes. You can go find Hans’ original demos of “Pirates” themes and track the evolution of some of them through the film, to see another example what I mean. This is a testament to how Hans works, and how he collaborates with people. He never says, “Make it sound more like me” but he does say things like “I don’t know how you write strings like that. They’re very ‘Geoff.’”

How did your work on the “Pirates” movies evolve to the point where you captained your own ship in the franchise? And given that this is your biggest film to date, was that responsibility at all daunting?

I did find it daunting, but I found the first four daunting as well. There’s a lot at stake with every movie I work on and I commit fully to everything I do, so they all feel important to get right. This is a blessing and a curse, though. The work really does keep me up at night. The evolution of my role felt natural, though. Since I threw myself into the world of “Pirates” from the very first film, the commitment was identical on all five films. Being the composer of record was an organic extension of that, and in a funny way it was almost a non-issue. I was ready for it.


How do you think the first “Pirates” film upended that particular genre? And do you think its score did as well?

The score for “Curse of the Black Pearl” was one of a few crucial elements that elevated the film from being a very good adventure movie to being a franchise-launching, iconic and influential blockbuster. It was hard to know at the time how people were going to respond to it, but at least for me, as it was coming together, it really did feel like we were right out there on the edge as far as how you could write a pirate movie score. If you look at pirate music tradition, so often you arrive at flourishing woodwinds or sea shanties or something like that. We got more into the grit of it all, the splinters under the fingernails, the body odor and the muscularity of it. It’s really an orchestra treated as if it’s a rock band. As for the rest of the film, you can see Johnny Depp arrived at a similar conclusion. A lot is made of his using Keith Richards as inspiration. The cellos are our rock guitars, and we’re not afraid to put them through the guitar amp when we need to! And Gore Verbinski’s direction was crucial here, too. He talked about Elizabeth Swan being “Cinderella at a Metallica concert,” so it all adds up to the same thing. We were all approaching the whole thing with a rock and roll attitude, a sneer and a gallon of rebellion.

On the other end, did you want your “Pirates” to recall the more traditional sea adventures of yore?

Not so much, no. I think the strength of “Pirates of the Caribbean” is in that self-indulgent attitude. There’s a way of playing the romance of the ocean, or the mythology of the sea within that rock context. If anything, I pushed it even farther in that direction, particularly with Salazar’s music.


Given the rich history of the “Pirates” scores, did you do you own digging to see what old themes you wanted to bring into this score? And conversely, how “new” did you want to make your take on the music without rocking the boat too much?

I know and worked with all the themes already on the first four movies, so I didn’t need to go digging. Those are all part of my blood by now! But it was important to break new ground. There are so many new elements with characters like Carina Smyth and Salazar, a bigger focus on mythology, Poseidon’s Trident, plus Jack’s origin story that I really had to go experiment for a while to get those all to feel fresh. I didn’t think about rocking the boat or not rocking it. I just wrote what felt right for the film, and since I’ve been on board for all of the first four films my perspective is already part of the sound, enough so that it won’t feel like a departure.

Do you think that scoring such epic television series as “Into the West” (along with Blake Neely) and “The Pacific” put you in good stead for handling a movie with this kind of expansiveness?

I think my experience on the other “Pirates” films, as well as other Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer films was really what prepared me for this one. Actually, my work on the first “Pirates” film is probably what positioned me to take on “Into The West.” That additional music credit on “Curse of the Black Pearl” made a big difference, and people who worked on it were pretty vocal in praising my work, so there was more awareness of what I was really capable of after that. I don’t know that I’d have been entrusted to take on a huge miniseries like that on my own, if I hadn’t already succeeded on a big project already. I was still in my 20s when I got “Into The West”, and it’s hard to put into words how validated I felt to get a Steven Spielberg project.

A definite bit of fatigue had set in with the last film. How important was it to restore faith in the franchise, especially in terms of the energy the score could give this far better reviewed entry?

Well, I had a different experience with “On Stranger Tides” because I got to be involved with a lot of new material. I worked with Rodrigo y Gabriella on some of the legacy themes, and the Spain theme was mine, plus the mermaids’ sequence. So from my perspective, I was trying to get to a novel place with the music. Really all I did was carry that approach over to this one where the aim was to break new ground whenever we can, for instance with Salazar and Carina since they are crucial new characters. And then when I go and use themes from the earlier films I was trying to find a new way to play them.

Jack’s origin story comes to mind for that. That sequence starts with Salazar’s music that is new, but then it weaves through all sorts of things including many re-imagined versions of the iconic music from the earlier films. There were only a few places where I’d go and use the original arrangement of the earlier themes. That happens when you first see Jack, though. It turns out you really do want to hear Jack’s theme, pure and simple right then. Another cue comes to mind, which is actually the very first thing I ever wrote for a “Pirates” film all the way back during “Curse of the Black Pearl.” The one that’s called “Barbossa is Hungry” on the album, that was actually me working up a variation on “He’s a Pirate,” but it took on a life of it’s own. A version of that gets used twice, and that’s a great example actually of how my voice came through on the earlier films, without many people knowing it’s actually my voice.

One particular shot of freshness comes from the saga’s new directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, who’d done the far artier sea adventure “Kon-Tiki” before this movie. What kind of sensibility do you think they brought to “Pirates,” and what was your collaboration like?

We had a great collaboration, right from the start. Both Joachim and Espen are huge fans of “Pirates,” and they poured themselves into this film in a big way. I think they made a smart choice in aiming the tone of the film, the story, the look, the attitude squarely at what made “Pirates” great in the first place, which is a concise but interesting story that deals with a few characters involved in a larger than life plot. “Pirates” isn’t really about giant armies fighting each other; it’s about a few people whom we get to know intimately over the course of the film, set in a world that’s enormous. And it’s not afraid to be emotional, or scary. Espen and Joachim recognized those things and it really shines in this film. They were with me every step of the way.

Given the long time that this “Pirates” was in post-production for, did that you give more room to experiment with the score?

We did have a good schedule for this film, and yes that allowed me to experiment for a while longer than usual. I had the gears turning before they even shot the film, though, cause I got to read the script and carefully consider things. I think where it helps the most is in the architecture of the score, the way the themes are laid out and how they can each progress from scene to scene. That’s the job when you’re getting the main credit, and it differs from the earlier films where I was working in support of Hans. What I try to do is look at the big picture, figure out what each theme is going to need to do, break that all down into smaller and smaller problems, and only then do I start writing the theme.

Tell us about your theme for Salazar and his particular curse?

Salazar has a big story arc in the film, so his music gets to evolve in the score. We meet him in the present day and he’s just a vengeful, hateful creature bent on destroying all pirates, so that music is raw, muscular and dangerous. That’s where I started layering all sorts of twisted sounds, like Adam Peters’ cello through a horrible guitar amp, plus Martin Tillman’s acoustic cello just digging in with such malice and attitude, layered with a choir, the orchestra and some bizarre woodwinds. They all add up to a single minded, nasty sound! But we also see his backstory where you can learn his history and how it intertwined with Jack’s, and there he’s a mortal Spanish captain, a military man. So all that music plays later in the film, and you can hear where his theme came from, but only after you have already heard where his theme and character ended up.

This “Pirates” gives us the origin of Jack Sparrow. What kind of musical opportunity did that provide in showing a perhaps more grounded take on him before turning into the eccentric scallywag we know and love?

Actually, in the same way that you hear Salazar’s musical origins in retrospect, you hear Jack’s, too. The sequence, to me, is really about the actual moment in Jack’s life when he becomes Jack Sparrow. It’s the defining moment for him as a young boy. It’s also the same moment when Salazar becomes the twisted, cursed version of himself. A double origin story! And their stories are intertwined of course.

This sequel also brings back a lot of fan favorite characters. How did you want the music to show their growth?

Jack, in the present day scenes at the start of the film, is down on his luck, so his music has undergone a turn for the worse. It leads him to set in motion some pretty drastic, bad events, so that all had to be played with enough seriousness that you can believe Jack would be desperate enough to make some questionable choices. And then you have Barbossa, who goes through some amazing revelations during the film. I took the approach that he becomes a legend in this movie, part of the overall “Pirates” mythology so his music is actually informed by what I would call the “Myths of the Sea Theme,” for lack of a shorter name for it. I mean, if the constellations were named after “Pirates” characters, this is the film that would immortalize Barbossa in the stars, let me put it that way. So while there are some nods to the old themes we used for him, there’s a lot of new material, and it even ties in with the mythology of other pivotal characters in the series. I don’t want to give away too much, so I’m tiptoeing around the answer right now, but I think of Barbossa as the quintessential pirate and I wanted the music to embody that. He transcends his own character. He becomes lore in this one.

How did you want to embody this film’s central mystical object of the Trident of Poseidon?

The trident is part of the myths of the sea as well, but in a different way. It’s a tangible object, and the thing that everyone is trying to get to throughout the film. There are puzzles to be solved, and it’s all linked to a hidden place called Blackrock that Carina thinks she knows how to find. Carina, being a scientist, thinks of it as a problem that science can solve, but as she learns more about the world she lives in she finds there are things that simply can’t be explained by science. Once she’s armed with that knowledge, she can combine elements of both approaches and arrive at the answer.

What’s the importance of balance contemporary instruments like the rock guitar with more ancient ones like the Duduk in creating the pirates sound?

I think the only time we used an electric guitar was the third film, but I’m definitely abusing some cellos by shoving them through guitar amps this time around. The whole orchestra even gets put through that mayhem from time to time. The thing is, with a world as colorful as “Pirates,’” you can really use any instrument you want if it helps tell the story. I used to say things like “it is the composer’s right to go looking for new sounds” when people would ask why there are synthesizers in a score about “Pirates.” Now, I double down and say, “it’s the composer’s responsibility to go looking for new sounds!” Anything that helps convey story is fair game, as far as I’m concerned. You’ll hear a Duduk in this score when I’m dealing with ancient ideas, like mythology or Poseidon’s trident. But when we get supernatural, like with Salazar, I’ve gone and searched for something distinctly contemporary.

What’s the challenge of balancing the often eccentric, wisecracking humor of a “Pirates” movie with suspense, often in the same cue?

The film really leads the way with that. I’ve always been good at making sharp turns as the movie dictates, and that’s why I wrote so much action music in my early career. I’m pretty energetic as a person, so it’s natural for me, and easy to understand when and where the gears are shifting. So the challenge really isn’t in knowing when to make certain moves with the music, it’s really more in designing the detail that I want to have in there, the stuff that makes me feel like I’ve finished the cue and there’s nothing left that I can do to improve it. And the guiding principle in all of that, always, is the story. In action sequences, the story might be divided up into tiny little slices that each need to be acknowledged. It’s different from building or sustaining an emotion, where you are writing a much longer gesture, and the “Pirates” films are full of examples of both approaches.


This “Pirates” also gives us a return to the more horrific elements since the first skeleton-filled movie. How did you want to convey the unholy forces at play here?

We might scare some people this time, I’m glad you point that out! Carina is really the audience’s entry point for that, I think, since we witness her whole world come crashing down. She’s spent her whole life believing that science is all you need to explain the world, and she learns that things can be supernatural, unexplained, and just plain terrifying. For all of that, I wanted a larger than life sound and a lot of that relates to what I do with Salazar’s music, looking for a combination of sounds and instruments that makes it distinctive and specific. I’m layering all sorts of sounds, some which are easily identified and some that are not, in hopes that it adds up to people wondering “what is that sound?”

Given how fast and furious the action and effects get in these movies, what’s the trick to scoring their action sequences?

Detail, and giving each setpiece and identity are two things that come to mind. And again, it’s about telling the story the best way possible. The filmmaker David Koepp (“Secret Window”) once told me that every person who works on a film in any capacity should have on their business card “assistant storyteller.” Music is crucial for that, it’s the thing that exists in the air in the movie theater, it bridges the gap between the audience and the movie, and that applies not only to action sequences but anything that you’re playing music for.

The chorus also gets a particularly stirring workout here. How did you want to employ it?

There isn’t an instrument that exists that’s as expressive as a human voice, so I find it’s a very direct way to involve the audience in something, particularly something extraordinary. If there’s a moment of awe, something that’s hard to process cause it’s so large in scale, I use the choir to keep you engaged. It’s also something I use for creating discomfort or mystery, so the trident and Salazar get some pretty odd usages of the choir. And of course it just sounds huge to have a mass of voices all singing.

Nick Glennie-Smith conducts the string session. Photo by Dan Goldwasser

You’ve got as much of a massive sound for this “Pirates” with its orchestra and chorus. What were the recording sessions like?

We had a huge group for this, nearly 200 musicians all told, and sometimes multiple orchestras layered on top of each other so there was no shortage of size at my disposal. That’s a rare luxury in this day and age, but I have Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer to thank for that. They’re the ones who understand the value of putting together an enormous session like that, and they really do help musicians by remaining committed to recordings at this scale. Right now, I think film music is doing a lot to keep orchestras alive and I feel privileged to be part of that.

Recording this was just a joy. Scoring sessions are like the World Series for me. They are tons of pressure that only goes away if you work as hard as you can in there. But one thing you have to know about the musicians that come and play on “Pirates” scores is that they just love to play this music. If you add up all the experience for all 200 musicians you’re looking at something like 4,000 years of practice, blood, sweat and tears, probably more! And all they want to do is make the best recording they can, day in and day out. So I get great results from them, I just talk with the players constantly about what the scene is about, why I wrote what I wrote, and then I leave space for them to come meet me, so to speak. And every single time, they lean into it and play their hearts out. Plus, Pirates has a unique angle, what with the rock and roll orchestra and some amount of irreverence. They get to loosen up a bit, play rougher, let the edges show a little bit and that’s exciting for all of us to get to hear.

One important musical voice that’s back is cellist Martin Tillman. What kind of voice do you think he brings to the “Pirates” scores, and particularly this one?

"Pirates" cellists Martin Tillman and Tina Guo

Martin is Jack Sparrow. It’s as simple as that. In fact, you have to look to Itzhak Perlman playing “Schindler’s List” to find as good an example of a piece of film music being inextricably linked to a specific musician. I got in touch with Martin when I started writing to make sure he could join us, and my blood pressure went back to normal when he signed up. I had Martin play the Salazar theme as well, but in a very different voice and attitude. It was just nasty, really scrape-y and it argued with Adam Peters’ electric cello, which was recorded first, perfectly. I love the idea that Jack and Salazar were both voiced by the cello, but Jack was just one guy and Salazar was layer upon layer of electric and acoustic celli, more massive, more dangerous and threatening.

But why stop at two when you can have three? Tina Guo also played on some of the Salazar music, in particular the crazy and fast stuff in the shark attack sequence and what we called the cannon fight. So there’s three distinct cello voices in this film, and sometimes they play nice together, and sometimes their sounds clash in such beautiful ways! Tina Guo, by the way, goes on tour with Hans and she plays the Jack Sparrow melody when they play “Pirates”, but she does a smart thing with it. She makes it her own so it’s not a Martin Tillman impression, which would cheat both the audience and her. That music plays great in a live setting. it brings the house down every time!

How do you think this “Pirates” film stands in the franchise, and your score along with it?

That’s for the audience to decide. I know that Joachim and Espen were as devoted to “Pirates” as Gore was, and that it wasn’t lost on me how important it was to really try and deliver a score that lives up to the legacy I was already a part of. I reminded myself from time to time that this really is going to be a lot of people’s favorite movie this year, or maybe ever, and it had to be fully committed. I meant every note of it.

Special thanks to Dan Goldwassar at ScoringSessions.com


“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” opens on May 26th, with Geoff Zanelli’s soundtrack available on Walt Disney Records HERE

Visit Geoff Zanelli’s website HERE


See Geoff Zanelli live, and get your “Pirates” CD signed at Creature Features! For more info, go to www.creaturefeatures.com

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