Interview with “Savage”‘s Adam Peters
(Photo by Jefferson T. Jones)
Oliver Stone may have started out as one of the cinemas great agent provocateurs. However, over nearly the last two decades, the frenzied abandon of Stone’s work has felt more long in the tooth than anything- just plain tired if you will. Yet if we were expecting Stone’s auspicious career to end with a mellow Hollywood wipeout, leave it to “Savages”’ border-hopping tsunami of sex, drugs and violence to mark the return of celluloid excessiveness’ Big Kahuna. And playing musical wingman to the wildly entertaining ride is another seasoned rebel named Adam Peters. A major force behind the raucous rhythms of the legendary English band Echo and the Bunnymen, Peters has been given his first chance to truly shine as a solo movie composer with “Savages.” Sojourning in the desert when not arranging for the likes of Chrissie Hynde and Souxsie and the Banshees these past few decades (with some time in Hans Zimmer’s film scoring boot camp to spare), Peters has taken his time under the blazing sun and turned it into the distinctive Latin-flavored, drugged-out and turned-on sound of “Savages.”
If Peters’ post punk compatriots like Trent Reznor and Atticuss Ross are changing the language of film music in their new scoring careers with the hip, hypnotic rhythms of “The Social Network” and “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Adam’s mosh pit of alt. irony is another blazing shot in the arm that’s changing the sound of film music- like it or not. For “Savages” is the sound of youth going nowhere fast in style, in this case, it’s a ménage a trois of hip, pot-dealing gringos, two of whom get their mellow harshed by their not nearly-so-nice compatriots across the border. Adam’s catchy work is that purple haze of sex, drugs and violence, catchily fashioned from surf Zen, spaghetti westerns, and the trance of tasty buds. As it plays both the killer suspense and existential moral wastelands between Laguna Beach and the Mexican badlands, the unsettled, rhythmic power of Peters’ creative grooves seamlessly mesh with Stone’s surreal visuals, as well as the directors’ taste for a potpourri of source tunes. In every department, “Savages” wows you with an audaciousness that’s as cruel as it is beguiling. And Adams’ score is the innovative buzz that fills Stone’s thoroughly entertaining bad trip.
You started out in the great 80′s group Echo and the Bunnyman. Do you think your journey of “rock star to movie composer” is typical of others who’ve taken the journey from that era like Yes’ Trevor Rabin and Oingo Boingo’s Danny Elfman?
I’m not sure that one can describe the events that go on here in Hollywood as typical in any way! The Bunnymen’s music had a spacious horizon to it, and within the band there was always an unspoken feeling of reaching for something big, invisible and unquantifiable. I think that’s always stayed with me in my journey. I imagine the other composers who were in bands have brought their own set of circumstances and feelings with them.
How do you think your work orchestrating on quirky movies like “I Love You Philip Morris” and “The Joneses” for Nicholas Urata of Devotchka, and Hans Zimmer on “Rango,” set you up to do “Savages?”
Every time I work with different people I learn something new and unexpected. So, yes, I learned a lot from being around Hans and seeing the level at which he works. He deals in concepts in a way I can relate to very much. With the more quirky movies it’s just a lot of fun to sit down and jam out some cello stuff with Nick Urata. My orchestrations turned out really well on “Ruby Sparks,” and I think what I learned from that was not to worry or stress about it all too much. When I was a kid at music school I put in all my hard formative work, playing in orchestras, listening with highly tuned open ears to all sorts of music, then playing in the band. When I did my first orchestrations with the Bunnymen I would write everything out by hand, just at the piano. The first time we used an orchestra was in Paris, recording “Ocean Rain,” and I had an old French copyist come to the studio, and then the cafe where I was writing. We sat with a constant glass of pastis, a few hundred cigarettes and knocked it all out. Turned out he had been Stravinsky’s copyist. I think it was that kind of early grounding that gave me most of my confidence with orchestrations, which tend to be a little left field, but still rooted in the classics.
How did you first partner with Oliver Stone on the documentary “South of the Border?” And what do you think gave him the confidence to give you the shot on “Savages?”
I had only just moved to LA and hardly knew anyone here. I met a very talented, lovely documentary editor called Elisa Bonora, who asked to hear some of my music. Elisa played it to Oliver for “South Of The Border,” and he loved it, so I wrote some music for him. “Savages” was an altogether different proposition. Oliver had already asked me to write some music for his History series, “The Secret History of America,” that he’s been making for the last three years. As I spent more time with him I realized that his feel for picture and story accepts my music when I really write from the heart. I had a really strong gut premonition of how “Savages” could sound, so I went to see him to talk about it. We talked about the feelings he was trying to get to, about the different aspects of the story and the way he saw it all. Oliver talks in broad terms about the atmospheres, and I find these conversations to be the most evocative and inspiring moments to write from. I can then visualize it. I create a place in my head that I can go to where the music feels right. I then wrote for a few weeks without any picture. We carried on like this for a couple of months whilst he was putting together the first rough edit of the movie. I would occasionally go in to editorial and look at what was evolving with the edit, which was a great way of working. It meant I was free to write without picture, but had a feeling of how the film was beginning to work. For me, this is a great way of staying creative and open, which helped the music find itself in a very natural way in relation to the picture, the heart and the drama of the situation.
“Savages” is a welcome return to Oliver Stone’s far more visceral and “far out” style. Did it strike you that he was going back to “basics” here?
It’s definitely a visceral film. I don’t know about “far out” he’s moved beyond that and just naturally incorporates it. I think he was going back to the basics of great Hollywood. He told me he wanted to make a classic thriller, a dark romance. Oliver and his editors just rolled up their sleeves and got into some down and dirty classic and modern filmmaking. It was a great thing to be part of.
What were your initial musical discussions like?
We talked in general terms about his vision for the overall feeling of the movie — the idyllic Laguna life and the dark cloud that comes up from over the border. When Oliver starts shooting a movie he normally likes to play music on the set and this creates the atmosphere that he works off. This time he didn’t use any music on set and I think it was cool of him to let me just write and come up with ideas.
Could you talk about your main themes?
I wrote the two main themes, just on piano, quite early in the process in my initial sketches. Both of them are minimal and simple as there was no time in the picture where long broad themes could play out (of which i wrote a few!). The five-note theme has a yearning to it that fits Blake’s character of “O.” It took well to all situations, so it actually begins the movie on a beach guitar sound then morphs into a piano, then synths and vocals. It’s one of those themes that work on any instrument, so I was able to use it on the orchestra, as well as use it as ambient bass lines in the pulses. It’s also simple enough that it never hits you over the head. The second theme is the Cartel theme and it has a dark semitone rub that gives me the quality I was looking for. My themes seem to come to me best when I’ve been playing the piano or cello and just messing around. Something will stick in the back of my mind and then start to form itself, usually when I’m doing something else. As soon as I can hear it clearly I’ll hum it into my phone and write down the arrangement idea as I hear it in my head.
I imagine you had some mis-spent youthful days in your time in the rock and roll world. Do you think that helped you in capturing our protagonists’ trippy rock and roll lifestyle?
I’d have to say yes.
Do you think there’s a melancholy quality to your score that shows the cost of the pot trade on lives, and relationships?
There is for sure a melancholy to the score. We’re dealing with a messed up world in this film. I used to read a lot of Russian poetry. I loved groups like New Order and Abba, and I feel that the kind of uplifting melancholy in their melodies is actually deeply entrenched in the soul of a lot of European music. And in the states, Dylan has it too. These are all important things to me. Just listen to Brahms symphonies and there you have it all.
How did you want to contrast the seemingly secure paradise of Laguna Beach with the violent badlands of Mexico?
That was the easy part. For Laguna I used a slack key beach-y guitar sound. I always record my meetings with the director so I can review what was discussed. I used a recording of Oliver talking to me about his feelings on music and art and life, and then sampled it and processed it. I turned it into a background keyboard sound that gives the Laguna cues a weird, spacey quality behind the guitar. For the badlands of the Cartel, I used synths and nylon string guitar, mixed with a liberal helping of low distorted electric cello that gives it its dark resonance. I used a lot of my old analogue synths mixed in with the cellos to get the grit of the pulsing.
You yourself spent two years as a desert “hermit” in Joshua Tree writing music. How do you think your experience there played into “Savages?”
Most definitely yes. The colors, the environment, the shamanic qualities and other worldliness that I found out there have all dug themselves deep into me. I found the ability to write from inspirations in nature. These things have been important in my progression as a creative person. I was glad to get outside the limitations of pop culture, though glad to get back to it as well! I think that’s why we went there in the first place.
“Savages” is a riot of tones, going from brutal realism to comedy and sexy romance. How difficult was it juggling those sensibilities?
Once you’ve made the decision to vary the sound of the score then it’s just a question of spotting it right and staying open to how it is all will evolve, and then trying to keep balance. I had a great music editor named Carl Kaller, and all the picture editors were 100% behind me. So I was able to experiment freely. Oliver likes things to move forward through the scenes, and if anything ever gets dull, he’s the first to throw it back at me for change. That will keep you on your toes.
How did you want to combine the score’s more alternative rock sounds with a more conventionally melodic orchestra?
The score just grew like that. Originally we hadn’t planned an orchestral score, but it just seemed to go that way in certain parts of the film. I kept the orchestrations quite simple, as I didn’t want a flashy score, more just using the orchestra in a textural role, apart from the title cue that gives such a broad cinematic feeling at the beginning. I’m equally at home writing for orchestra or with more left field sounds. These days I think it’s all blurred together. I use whatever palette feels right for each project. . I’m ok with just a string quartet or a nose flute for a whole score if that’s what it needs- or five thousand tracks of synths. Or just one. That’s the beauty of technology now. It’s down to your own imagination and perception. You can do anything…there’s no excuses either
You could argue that “Savages” is a narco western, especially with its shootouts and standoffs that reference movies like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Wild Bunch.” With its Latin and guitar elements, as well as whistling, do you think “Savages” is a modern western score?
Yes, I’m glad you picked up on that. Let us all take a moment to bow down at the altar of Sergio Leone! When I started writing I had on my wall in front of me a photo of Laguna beach, a still from “A Fistful Of Dollars,” a picture of Blake Lively, a Stravinsky photo and a recording of the Rodriguez guitar concerto. There is a history of European composers writing western scores. I think we see the western myth and landscape in a different way that is quite interesting. We bring the remnants of the old church with us. More like whistling coyotes with Bach.
Like John Hughes, who used your “Beat City” for “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” Oliver Stone has a great way of employing a riot of song choices for his soundtracks, which is truly creative here as he uses everyone from Massive Attack to Peter Tosh and Jeff Lyne. How did you want your score to fit in with all of these diverse pieces, and did you ever want to score sequences that he ended up using songs for?
Well, it all fits because we weeded out anything that wasn’t working. I have no problem with making quite radical turns in a score so I just kept going till I felt it worked. Some of transitions were tricky, and for the end song, I actually ended up writing an instrumental section that sounds like it’s part of the song, so that the film would merge into it effortlessly. There’s also some parts of the score that people will think are songs. For instance, every time I tried writing the hijack scene, it didn’t work as it was sounding like “action” music. So I ended up writing a storming techno track that just feels more like the scene plays through the two young kids’ perspective. Once that was working, I added some touches of theme to bring it in with the movie.
How do you think alternative soundtracks like “Savages” and “The Social Network” are changing movie scores?
I think that people are now probably open to a newer sound if it has the right dramatic qualities. I still want to be transported when I’m in the cinema. My own instinct when everyone starts chasing the same new idea though is to try and stay as far away from it as possible. I think there’s a place for all types of scores in movies. I’d like to think that my role as a composer is to write the relevant music for each filmmaker and help them hit all their dramatic levels. There’s room for alternative scores and for classic orchestral scores. I loved the score for “The Social Network,” and I also love the scores from “Once Upon A time In The West” and “The Battle Of Britain.” Wildly different scores. It’s not about style or musical fashion, it’s about the statement, the drama and the feelings underneath it all.
After scoring “Savages” for Oliver, what do you think is the biggest insight you’ve gotten into him as a filmmaker?
His bravery and imagination are a great combination. Oliver is a classic filmmaker with a giant heart and a complex grasp of structure and drama.
Now that you’ve truly scored your first movie, what’s your game plan for staying in the league of “Savages?”
The gods laugh when we make plans. I try to take each day as it comes. I love writing music that speaks and touches a raw feeling. The film community here seems to be the best place for me to do that.