Interview with Marcelo Zarvos
In the haute world of writers, elegance, fashion and intellect are oft-used words when it comes to getting the keys to the kingdom of literary intelligentsia. It’s a gilded, lionized place that many have cheated their way into. And those seemingly fortunate con artists will oftentimes do anything to maintain that position, even at the cost of their relationships and mental health before the guise ultimately crumbles. “The Words” is one such tale (or multiple tales) of young Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), whose prized novel is unmasked for another’s when the real Old Man author (Jeremy Irons) comes calling. However, the resulting self-guilt of Rory’s career couldn’t sound more beautifully refined than through the music of Marcelo Zarvos. For his hypnotic, lushly dramatic rhythms keep up Rory’s appearance, even as it details the sorrow he’s barely able to hide. Tender melodies are carried through piano and strings, delicately soaring with poignant regret, all making for a classy tone poem that both plays how appearance is everything while shining a captivating light inside a man’s soul, and the multiple stories within it.
Like his moving score to another angst-driven author drama called “The Door in the Floor,” “The Words” impresses with its classical sound, music that draws on the Brazil-born Zarvos’ own training in the genre. Learning to encompass jazz, rock and ethnic music into his repertoire, Zarvos steadily rose through the indie ranks with the offbeat sound of “Tully,” “The Mudge Boy,” and “Kissing Jessica Stein,” a film that began his ongoing creative relationship with actress /filmmaker Jennifer Westfeldt on “Ira & Abbey” and “Friends With Kids.” Zarvos’ wide-ranging styles have also captured “Strangers with Candy,” the noir-drenched “Good Shepherd” and “Hollywoodland,” the black hitman comedy “You Kill Me” and the alt. comedy sound of “What Just Happened,” “Please Give” and “The Beaver.” As busy in features as he is on the cable with work for “The Big C” and such HBO movies as “You Don’t Know Jack,” “Too Big To Fail” and the channel’s upcoming Phil Spector biopic, Zarvos remains a consistently surprising and engaging composer who’s equally capable of alt. scores as he is smooth orchestral melody. Now the latter reaches new levels of accomplishment in “The Words,” even as its author’s theft of another man’s words, and life, turn his hoped-for world upside down.
One of your most powerful scores was for another author-driven drama called “The Door in the Floor.” How do you think “The Words” contrasts, and compares with it?
I think they have a lot in common. “The Door in the Floor” deals with a different aspect of writing but just as deep. Both scores are traditional orchestral scores, but “The Door in the Floor” is more intimate. The story is not as sweeping as “The Words” with its various time periods, etc but I think equally powerful. Both films have some of the favorite music I have written. I also think there is an even more important parallel that these are both adult, romantic dramas basically for grown ups and the music can function as such.
“The Words” has an interesting “Chinese Box” structure to tell its stories-within-stories. How did you want your score to reflect that?
We wanted the music to be a unifying element. My experience in multi-story lines movies such as “The Words,” “Hollywoodland” and “The Good Shepherd” is that, while of course, we need to respect and if possible clarify time cuts, flashbacks, etc, the music can also serve as a wonderful glue to the picture. At first we thought the larger orchestral moments in “The Words” would happen only in the post war Paris section, but it quickly became obvious that the music was telling the whole story with all it’s layers and therefore we could take more of a “view from the top” approach. Everything is really coming from Dennis Quaid’s character, who is reading the story the whole time.
“The Words” is just about the last kind of movie you’d expect from the co-writers of “Tron: Legacy” to make their debut with as co-screenwriters and directors. Could you talk about what Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal wanted the score to achieve, and what it was like to please two filmmakers as opposed to one?
Well that goes to show you people can surprise you and do many different things. I didn’t know Brian and Lee before I started to work on the film. They knew the music had to work hard and be both operatic, intimate and build a lot of tension. This is a tragic but also life affirming story. As far as working with two directors I guess thought of them as a unit the whole time. We mostly spoke on the phone so it made it easier for me to look at it that way.
There’s a beautiful, neo-classical sound to “The Words.” Do you think that captures the elegance that some associate the literary “aristocracy” with, a world that Rory suddenly finds himself in?
I would say the sound had more to do with the love story of the young man in Paris. In many ways that was our starting point. As I said before initially we thought only that section would have an orchestral sound, but as it is often the case once you use an orchestra it’s hard to scale back, particularly towards the end of the film when a smaller sound may deflate things a bit. We did however keep the repetitive ostinato based music mostly for the present day stories.
You make particularly good use of lushly romantic, repeating orchestral rhythms in “The Words.” What attracts you to this style when it comes to dramas?
I guess I look for music that has the driving intensity of modern scores and the lush, lyrical feeling of older ones. I do think in the drama realm directors who want to work with me are often looking for those same things. The films I tend to work on have often deep undercurrents of darkness and the sound has to also reflect that. But each score can, and should be different. I try not to have any preconceptions when I start, but also to remain true to my own ever-evolving style.
How did you want to music to capture the suspense, and loneliness that Rory has within himself as to whether his plagiarism will be found out?
The directors talked a lot about that dilemma. The true tragic part of the story is not so much that he stole a man’s work, but that he recognized that he would never write something as powerful as that manuscript. As Brian and Lee put it the moment Bradley Cooper’s character realizes everything he will never be is also the moment he becomes a Man. Of course there is also a strong suspense element of whether he will be unmasked. But I think the point of view of the filmmaker comes through in the end when Dennis Quaid’s character explains his motives (or lack of).
Have you ever felt like Rory on the occasions that you might have been asked to get closer to a temporary soundtrack than you would have liked to, but were essentially commanded to by a producer or director? And if so, how do you think you captured that emotion for this score?
I’ve been lucky in that respect that I was not put in that situation. My approach it to try to understand what is working about the temp, write something way stronger and really blow it out of the water. At best temp scores can be a wonderful way to expand one’s musical universe and do something different that you might not have tried before. Ironically the hardest temp to replace invariably is my own. I guess knowing why and how you wrote it can be a hard thing to shake off sometimes.
Could you talk about your musical upbringing in Brazil, and what made you want to be a film composer?
I feel in love with music though film scores and The Beatles. I remember as a really young child watching “The Sting” and being so enamored with the ragtime music of Scott Joplin via Marvin Hamlish that I simply had to learn to play it. My first public performance when I was nine years old was playing “The Entertainer.” I played rock through my teenage years in a band that was quite popular in Brazil and quit right before my senior year of high school to get back to my music studies. I knew I wanted to be a film composer and came to the U.S. with the intention of studying that. Ironically when I got to Berklee College I felt that it was too soon to focus on film scoring so I took a long ten year detour of playing and writing classical music and jazz. These years were incredibly important as I was honing in my craft without necessarily being restricted by picture and deadlines.
You made your American big break with “Kissing Jessica Stein,” and have since continued on as Jennifer Westfeldt’s composer of choice from “Ira and Abby” and “Friends with Kids.” What do you think makes the creative relationship work?
I think Jennifer trusts me and also know I can work very fast when needed. It has been a real treat seeing her blossom from actor and writer to the director chair, where she definitely belongs. I think the sky is the limit for her. She loves source and score so one of the tricks is to make sure whatever I write will blend or somehow fit with the songs being used.
How do you think you “indie” sound led you to your score for a studio movie with “The Door in the Floor? And how important was it to prove yourself to Hollywood on it?
“The Door in the Floor” was the score that changed everything for me. I hadn’t done anything orchestral at that point, and the director, producers and studio took a big chance. I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and treated it as such. I guess I had just enough credits at that point to convince the director Todd Williams that I could do it. We also really hit it off. Another reason I worked on that film had to do with my friend and long time collaborator Affonso Goncalves, a wonderful picture editor. We had worked on “Tully” and “The Mudge Boy” together and he was instrumental in getting me the meeting for “The Door in the Floor.”
Two impressive “mystery” scores of yours were for “Hollywoodland” and “The Good Shepard,” which you co-scored with Bruce Fowler. What was it like to make this kind of stylistic leap in your career for that film noir genre?
“Hollywoodland” came first and our idea for that one was not so much to do a noir score but rather a tip of the hat to the genre. The thing about composing for me is that even if I am trying to recreate a style, I can’t help but bring my personal take on it. I don’t think I’ll ever be one to completely disappear on a score even if I try. Some people are really amazing chameleons but I feel my strength lies in interpreting in my own personal manner a particular style. As for “The Good Shepherd.” it all happened so fast that I could barely think. Robert DeNiro loved my score for “Hollywoodland” and that was got me the job. We had very little time and an enormous amount of music to write but it remains one of favorite films I have worked on. It was such a rich and epic story to score.
What’s it like for you to return to your Latin roots on “Sin Nombre?” as well as the upcoming “Art of Losing?”
It’s wonderful to incorporate my Brazilian roots in my work. Not long before “Sin Nombre” I had also done “Last Stop 174” with Bruno Barreto (who is directing “The Art of Losing”). It’s funny that it’s taken this long since my very first score was for a wonderful Brazilian short film called “A Soccer Story,” which went on to be nominated for and Academy Award in the short film category. That score had a very Brazilian sound but after that I got deep into the indie scene in New York in the late 90s and my first feature “Tully” was as far from Brazilian sounding as you could get.
Do you think there’s a necessary “quirk” for indie comedy scores you’ve done like “Please Give?”
“Please Give” was a really thrilling experience. We had 10 days from spotting to recording and towards the end I was literally writing on the spot and playing certain cues live on the piano for Nicole Holofcener. I enjoy putting on a very different hat for something like “Please Give” and other comedies I scored like “You Kill Me,” “Boynton Beach Club,” “The Big C,” and to some extent “What Just Happened.” The idea is really not so much to emphasize the humor but more to stay out of the way and allow for the irony and humor to come through the words.
Did “The Beaver’s” controversy make it particularly important for your music to make Mel Gibson’s character sympathetic in it? And were you worried that the film would even come out?
We all felt that the film success hinged on us being sympathetic to Walter Black’s character (Mel Gibson) . It was a lot of work to find the tone in that one. I don’t think I ever worked on something quite like it. It starts as a comedy and ends up as a tragedy. My initial marching orders from Jodie Foster was that she wanted a tango score. That worked very well for the first half of the film, but we needed to transcend that by the end, much as Walter Black does. I was never worried that the film would not come out but I did realize that all the negative publicity was going to make it harder for people to see the film on its own merits.
You’ve done several scores for HBO movies like “You Don’t Know Jack” and “Too Big To Fail.” Now have a score for their Phil Spector biopic coming up. What do you think the challenge is of scoring for real-life characters, and do you think HBO is looking for a specific sound in their projects?
The sound varies a lot according to the director. My collaboration with HBO has been on predominantly orchestral scores and if there is a common thread in those scores is that the studio wants smart, thematic music. But as with all great studios, they really leave it up for the directors to decide how this should be achieved. It’s an interesting challenge to write about living characters. I remember having the chance to meet Jack Kevorkian during production of “You Don’t Know Jack,” and it was so inspiring to hear him talk and witness his sharp wit and intellect. He was also a great music lover and a composer himself. Another common element in the HBO films is that they really are commenting on something larger in American society and the world. I remember when I worked with Robert DeNiro on “The Good Shepherd” (not an HBO project) and he told me the film was about witnessing historical events through the eyes of an individual, as well as looking at an individual through the eyes of history. That’s how I try to approach the HBO films. Whether they are making statements on war (“Taking Chance”), end of life and freedom issues (“You Don’t Know Jack”) or the financial crisis (“Too Big to Fail”) the prism is constantly shifting from large to small and I think that is one of the keys to their success.
Do you hope to score more mass-marketed Hollywood films, or would you be content to stay with smaller, “quality” character-driven projects like “The Words?”
I hope to score both quality and mass marketed films, particularly if they are one and the same! I certainly don’t feel these things should be mutually exclusive, although needless to say they often are. What I look for in a film is of course the quality and power of the story telling, but also how music is used. Is there a new different approach here that I have not done before? Each film, even on repeating collaborations should inhabit its own world. That was one of my most valuable lessons from working with Barry Levinson. Each of the three films we did (“What Happened Was,” “You Don’t Know Jack,” “Phil Spector”) had radically different themes and styles and I found it really challenging and inspiring to find that musical truth, whatever it may be. As Barry often says, the film will spit out the music it does not need or want. And we as composers and filmmakers have to listen very carefully.