Interview with Alan Silvestri
(click on the cover to buy the “The Avengers” soundtrack)
If you’re looking for a composer whose genre soundtracks seem to be printed in four colors as opposed to written with musical notes, then Alan Silvestri’s scores would be equivalent to the bright hues that compose comic book art. From the brawny militarism of “Predator,” “Eraser” and “Judge Dredd” to the mythic exploits of “The Mummy Returns,” “Van Helsing” and “Beowulf,” Alan Silvestri’s talents have grown from the disco motorcycle beats of “CHiPs” to becoming the embodiment of do-gooding orchestral might. It’s music that captures any big kid’s dream of fighting cosmic evil, role-playing that’s accomplished with massive symphonic themes and melody, as well as the nobility of combining forces for the greater good.
Having brazenly played those kinds of popcorn gatherings for “G.I. Joe” and “The A-Team,” it was only natural that Silvestri’s symphonically larger-than-life universe would make him a perfect match for the Marvel one in last summer’s “Captain America.” The composer’s rousingly patriotic embodiment of The First Avenger helped provide the final key to this season’s long-awaited superhero mash-up, a battle royale that comic book fans have dreamed of since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first put the print band together in 1963. Now genre god Joss Whedon has delivered an exuberant Geek-asm that’s not only just about everything you could ever want from an Avengers movie, but “superhero” music as well.
Playing these comic-to-film icons with larger-than-life melodic sinew, Silvestri also pounds in vulnerability for the people behind the costumes, or the giant green beast one becomes. It’s this emotional nobility that fuels the wonderfully expected strains of imposing evil, percussive city bashing and a proud theme that practically shouts “Avengers Assemble!” Silvestri’s massive, yet always cohesive score exceptionally suits Earth’s Mightiest Hero’s. However, the Herculean gig was no less daunting for a musician whose most enjoyable work has been in the company of titans.
There’s the famous Marvel saying that “With great power comes great responsibility.” With the expectations of an “Avengers” movie building ever since the first “Iron Man,” let alone the first issue of the comic, did you feel the level of responsibility in doing this right?
I absolutely did feel that, and it was a little frightening. There was so much music in the film, and so many people had so much riding on this. It would absolutely flash across my mind that, “Oh my God, this is a really big movie for these folks,” because the accumulative aspect of the Marvel movie universe was all kind of directed towards this film. But fortunately, because there was so much to do, I couldn’t dwell on the larger perspective. I just needed to get to work. And the whole thing seemed to come together beautifully. Joss was the right guy for this mission.
I can only imagine the amount of composers who wanted to do this film. How did you get the job?
I think the fact that I had done “Captain America” was a tremendous part of it. Joe Johnston was very specific in how he wanted a clearly definable theme for the film, which was also in the mix for “The Avengers.” Marvel, and Joss, wanted some thematic material that would clearly identify various aspects of the film, music that would put all of these characters together.
Oh yes, absolutely. However, there weren’t many places where it was completely literal. But it’s interesting that we even used the theme that way in “Captain America,” because a little of his theme goes a long, long way. We wanted to really walk that line without falling into an overt use of his material, but still have it there as a resource when it was appropriate, for instance when he leaps out of a plane to confronts Loki for the first time. There were also little places when Captain America makes his entrance, or when he’s in the middle of a fight scene, where there will be references to his theme, yet not using it fully. Again, a little of it goes a long way.
Was there any talk of referencing other Marvel movie composers themes in “Avengers,” like the ones that Patrick Doyle and John Debney had written for “Thor” and “Iron Man 2?”
There was never a conversation about any of that, or even the Captain America theme for instance. There were only conversations about the desire to have a definable theme for The Avengers as a group. We knew that if we were to have a theme for every character in this movie, the music would get very clunky and intrusive. So I stayed away from all of that. I did come up with a motif for Loki, but that’s because he was the principle villain in the film. Midway through the writing process Joss had seen some scenes with The Black Widow where he wanted to explore music that was a bit more thematic for her, which I did. But the one moment that everyone was anticipating was the scene in the middle of New York City, when all of The Avengers are standing there. We all knew that whatever The Avengers theme was going to be, it had better work in that spot!
What did you want to convey emotionally with your Avengers theme?
It certainly, first and foremost, had to have a heroic aspect to it, as well as a kind of grandness. And it all had to be generated from that scene when they’re all gathering for the last great battle. But the interesting thing about it as the “big moment” of the score is that they’re not doing anything. They’re standing there, which allowed me to move away from the idea of it being an action moment. Instead, it’s like this moment where it’s like watching chemicals kind of swirling together, to become something greater than the individual elements.
Tell us about working with Joss.
Joss is a tremendous student of film, and he has a tremendous cinematic vocabulary. I found him to be very easy to work with, because he’s very clear about what he’s looking for. Like certain directors, Joss doesn’t have to talk to you a lot about what’s going on, because it’s all beautifully expressed in his work. The best part of Joss’ communication is “The Avengers.” I really felt there was a great deal of synchronicity between us in terms of what the film needed musically.
How can you tell at this point in your career if a comic book adaptation is going to work, or if it isn’t?
There was a range of emotion and humor in “The Avengers” that you will not find, I would wager to say, in most films of this genre. This credit goes out to Joss in terms of designing this wide a palette for a type of picture that very often doesn’t enjoy this. As you’re watching it, you realize how the scenes are so beautifully written and conceived on top of what you’d expect in an action/adventure film. Even early on. I could see that there was something special about “The Avengers.” From what I’m reading from people who’ve seen the movie, it seems like folks have enjoyed the fact that they’re not just going to see a simple approach to a ‘superhero’ movie. They’re getting to see some real cinema.
What’s interesting is the build this score has, where the crescendo is the big battle at the end. There’s really an arc to your music.
That was something that Joss was very clear about. We have a long way to go in the film to reach the final destination. I can even say it was daunting to begin in reel one, and to know just how far and relentlessly you would have to go. It was certainly part of our perspective as we worked forward to that goal. It was a tricky path to navigate, and hopefully we did it pretty well.
How important was spotting the big battle?
Spotting is always one of the most difficult parts of the job. If you understand the mission of the music, it will be revealed in the spotting. And if you don’t, then the spotting will be confused. We were certainly looking for places where we could take breaths so that the music didn’t loose its value. On the other hand if we had to go for nine minutes nonstop, then we weren’t shy about that. Like the whole score, I don’t think we approached it from the point of view of making any “rules.” We did it by feel, and Joss and I were always in complete agreement as we went forward. It all made sense to us.
One of my favorite cues is how you essentially turn a classical piece by Schubert (String Quartet Opus 29 in A minor, first movement) into an action cue for a theft by Loki.
Originally, the string quartet was played all the way through the entire sequence, with a little bit of overlaid temp score for when Loki starts to do his thing. So I thought, “Wow wouldn’t it be great if we’re playing the string quartet and when Loki hits the guy with his cane, we continue the string quartet, but now we have the entire orchestra playing the piece?” That’s what we did, so it’s an absolute continuation of the idea. But now you have this string quartet being done for the entire orchestra. It’s kind of a fun idea. You’d never hear that piece played like that!
How much of a “military” element did you want to bring into the score, as opposed to your approach for movies like “Judge Dredd” or “Captain America?”
One of the things that Joss talked about early on was that he wanted to make a film that had some very clear aspects of being a war movie. On the other hand, Tony Stark at one point in the film says, “We’re not soldiers.” So you didn’t want to turn it into a score that had soldiers coming together. But obviously there are times where they were absolutely functioning as this paramilitary unit. So little of that approach had its place. We just had to find where to apply that military “seasoning” to the score as we found out way through it.
I never thought I’d hear a guitar in an Avengers score. How did you get away with that?
That was a moment in the film where it was an isolated, special case. I think the guitar in that sense functions in a way that allowed us to really make a complete sonic break from everything we’d heard before it as people talk about The Avengers on a newscast. Joss accomplished that scene with a lot of humor, which gave us a natural way to solely bring in the guitar there. Then we segue out of it and get back into the movie. It was an interesting idea that seemed to work.
Intrada Records is putting out your “Avengers” score on physical CD, while Disney simultaneously has it available on iTunes. In older days, you might see it put out on both formats by a studio label, as opposed to a fan favorite one that specializes in older scores What do you think that says about the whole nature of contemporary soundtracks as going digital for the most part? It seems we’re lucky to be even getting a “hard copy” at this point when it comes to contemporary releases.
We can be positive. We can be negative. But in the end, you’re talking about the strategy of the marketplace. In most instances it’s the market trying to follow the public. Certainly with a movie like “The Avengers,” where it’s connected to such a huge heritage in terms of the comic book world, then there will probably be some value in having something in your hand. It’s like what we used feel when we held a vinyl album. We’d sit there and look at the album cover. We had this “thing,” this record in our hands. There’s a whole world of loss, and need for that these days. That speaks for the idea of CD’s, as opposed to just a digital download. Yet that’s so far out of my control. So I think the fans have to speak, and let their wishes be known, because that’s what will influence the marketplace overtime.
Why do you think your music is so well suited to the idea of heroism, particularly larger then life heroism?
Maybe it has to do with my kind of optimism. I’ve actually never been asked this question, but sitting here thinking about it, I believe that the heroic inclination is one of the most hopeful aspects of humanity. It’s happening every day even though you don’t often read about it. Those heroes are usually people who find themselves in a situation where they act immediately, without thinking about their own safety first. I just seem to respond to that. And of course it’s fun when your hero is in a suit. They don’t save one life, but 10 million. Yet that’s still just the extrapolation of simple day-to-day acts of heroism that we all know about and witness. Scoring “The Avengers” is like having a chance to celebrate that kind of heroism, as much as anything else.
Interview transcribed by Peter Hackman