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ALAN SILVESTRI

In 2007, Erin Clark and I were given the chance of a lifetime – to watch legendary composer Alan Silvestri score the blockbuster Beowulf at CBS Studios in Studio City… The following article first appeared in Artworks Magazine that winter. In October 2009, Silvestri also graced the stage at our inaugural Carmel Art & Film Festival, where he gave an impassioned speech about the business of blockbuster movie making and his funny and inspiring rise to become a Hollywood A-lister. He wowed the audience with stories about working with Spielberg and Zemeckis and demonstrated the role of music in film by showing the director’s cut without a score and the final product with his added brilliance.

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Hollywood (Artworks Magazine) With a flick the red light goes on. The house lights dim. No one breathes. And for a half second everything is still. He raises his bow and then it starts. The low rumble of the timpani sets the stage. He points to the right, and the deep sounds of the bass and cello add anticipation. Then the horns. The staccato notes push the tempo. The crescendo builds. Symbols clash at the peak of the action. The violins burst in with texture and tension – bows race across the strings. It’s full-throttle drama now. A hundred piece orchestra immersed in the music and the magic of one man’s vision. Composer Alan Silvestri waves a frenzied wand as they work as one. The energetic outburst lasts only a minute or two. The melody ebbs and flows, and then it stops. The red light clicks off, and Silvestri knows he’s got it.

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There’s a lot at stake here. Silvestri’s scoring a $200 million blockbuster directed by Hollywood heavyweight Robert Zemeckis. Together they’ve been down this road before, but with a budget this big, the pressure is suffocating. “Beowulf” is revolutionary on many different levels and Silvestri knows the music is crucial. So now he’s assembled the best musicians money can buy to score eight minutes of film in four hours. For the players, this is the first time they’ve ever seen the music. But Silvestri’s not worried. “It’s as difficult to play any instrument in that room as it is to play shortstop for the Yankees,” he says. From first to final note, Silvestri expects them to hit a homerun. And they do.

The scoring stage is one of the oldest in Los Angeles, tucked in the back corner of the CBS lot in Studio City. Wood floors stretch across 20,000 square feet, sensitive high tech microphones hang like spiders dropping from the ceiling, a command center anchors the back wall where the music is recorded, mixed and played back. Scenes from the movie are projected on a gigantic paneled screen along the far wall and the orchestra is arranged in a semi-circle around the conductor’s platform where Silvestri runs the show. This is a working session. After each piece of music is recorded, Silvestri goes back to the booth, meets with Zemeckis and sometimes changes things on the fly – eighth notes become sixteenth notes, a little more oboe and a little less French horn – nothing fazes these guys. With pencils they scribble the changes on their sheet music, nod their heads and are ready for take two.

“Beowulf” is the ultimate action flick, so from a musical standpoint, it’s mostly brawn mixed with a little ballad. And like that contrast, each section of the orchestra has its own personality as well – the casual and cool percussionists, the inquisitive horn players, the sophisticated pianists with ties to Streisand and Sinatra, and the isolated harpist tapping her pedal with bare feet as she sensually strokes the strings. The pitch is perfect, the melodies sound like a million bucks and execution is flawless. Watching all this work in perfect harmony, it’s easy to forget how challenging it has been to get to this point.

Based loosely on the 11th century epic poem of the same name, “Beowulf “is a familiar tale about an ambitious young man who makes a deal with the devil – the story may not be ground-breaking, but the movie making is. To make “Beowulf,” Zemeckis turned to a new technology called motion capture – “mo-cap” for short. Think of it as a high tech hybrid – a combination of live action and animation. That’s the simple explanation. In reality, it’s complicated, time consuming and expensive, but it gives the director almost total control over every aspect of the movie. The actors, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich and Ray Winstone, among others, were put in specially designed rubber suits full of tiny sensors that recorded all movement. Even their faces were covered with thousands of so called jewels that captured all facial expressions and eye movements. The actors performed a scene, much like they would on a theatrical stage, and the digital information from the sensors recorded it all and transferred it to a computer. At this point, all that existed was a maze of dots coded for each actor. There were no sets, costumes, cameras, lights, props, or even sound – just dots. Every detail, down to camera angles, had to be added later. “It blows your mind,” says an excited Silvestri, who talks about this technology like a kid talks about a new toy. He is as animated as any one of his movies. Tall, lanky, quick to laugh, and always up for a good story, Silvestri is as grounded as any Hollywood superstar you’ll every meet. He’s never lost his sense of wonder or excitment about what he does. In fact, he is always looking for the next challenge.

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“When I see a piece of film, I hear music,” Silvestri says. What he hears in his head becomes a score for a movie, but with “Beowulf,” initially, there wasn’t much to see. “After they’ve done the motion capture, they have to go through the long process of computer rendering. So it takes awhile before you have something to look at,” Silvestri explains. “What you first get is what we call the Michelin Man. You see these characters, but they just look like plastic things with heads that don’t have any expression. We got real close to our deadline and there was still a meaningful amount of film that I couldn’t look at. I could see the Michelin Man and generations past it, but I couldn’t see the performance clearly. It’s critical, but I couldn’t afford to wait for the film to be finished to get to work.” It took a little imagination, but he got it done.

Silvestri’s talent for marrying music with action actually started when he was a kid. “On Saturday morning it was cartoon time. Long before I had a drum, I had a little black notebook, one of those hard three ring binder notebooks, and a pair of chopsticks. I would sit and watch cartoons, and I would just play along.” And while other kids played army and added shoot ‘em up sound affects, Silvestri added music. “That’s exactly what I still do for a living,” he laughs. “Only now I write it down.” Over the years Silvestri mastered the drums – a real set – and got pretty good at the guitar, too, but it’s still hunt and peck on the piano – the main instrument he uses to compose his scores. He doesn’t really consider himself a great musician. He thinks of himself as a filmmaker who writes music.

His first big break “writing it down” came in TV, creating music for the series “CHIPS,” but he quickly moved on to movies. The blockbuster “Romancing the Stone” was a huge hit, but perhaps more importantly, that film marked the beginning of a legendary Hollywood partnership. Robert Zemeckis was the director, and from that day forward when Zemeckis needed a composer Alan Silvestri got the call. With that critical relationship secured, Silvestri had one more Hollywood rite of passage to navagate.

The movie was “Back to the Future.” Zemeckis was the director, but Spielberg was executive producer. Silvestri was recording with a 105-piece orchestra when Spielberg’s office called – the man himself wanted a meeting. Silvestri was sweating bullets. “I know the implications. If he doesn’t think things are going well, I’m done. So, I walk across the lot to Universal. A receptionist brings me into this room with a flatbed editing table and two stools in front of it. Steven comes in and sits on one stool. I’m on the other stool. He says, ‘Al, I thought it would be fun to just tool through the movie. I’ve got all your music in, and we can just talk about it.’ Well, we go through the whole movie and he’s fantastic. He’s just great. He says things like, ‘I love this theme, I’d love to hear it again here.’ It all goes fine, I think. Steven says goodbye, we shake hands, and I’m still sitting there on the stool. After another ten or fifteen minutes, I get another call to go to Amblin (Speilberg’s production company). So I walk back across the lot to the boardroom at Amblin. There’s a whole beautiful buffet set up. All the filmmakers are there, including Bob (Zemeckis). He pops a bottle of champagne and says, ‘Congratulations, you’ve made it!’”

Then there’s that famous floating feather. As it travels through Alabama on a Fall afternoon, a piano slow dances with strings creating one of the most iconic and beautiful melodies in modern cinema history – a ballad as poignant as some of the movie’s classic lines. Of course, when Zemeckis first pitched that opening scene of “Forrest Gump” to Silvestri there was no feather at all. “I walked into the cutting room and Bob is standing next to this small screen and says, ‘Here’s my idea for the beginning of the movie.’ I’m looking at it and it’s just the camera moves, nothing else. Bob goes, ‘Here’s the deal, Al. I’m going to have this feather, a real white feather in here, and it’s going to come down like this,’” (Silvestri imitates Zemeckis in a quick voice, as he points and traces the track of an imaginary feather). “‘And see this guy here on the corner, Al? I’m going to have this feather right on his shoulder, and then he starts to walk, and I’m going to have it blow off. Then it’s going to fly some more, and then I’m going to have this shot of Tom (Hanks), and it’s just going to come right here and then land right on his shoe. I don’t know, this piece of music has just gotta’ like sum up the whole movie somehow. So, I’ll see ya.’” Zemeckis walked away, and at that moment, the score in Silvestri’s mind was like a box of chocolates…
With his marching orders made clear, sort of, Silvestri went back to his Carmel Highlands studio. The next day, he sat down at his little, upright piano and the magic simply poured out of him. In just ten to fifteen minutes, the “Feather Theme” was written. “I just thought to myself, ‘This has got to be about innocence, it’s got to be about purity, simplicity, serendipity, chance and just la, la, la, la,’” he says morphing the words into music as he hums the theme. His body and the melody bounce along like the feather across the screen. Silvestri knew he had something special. “It was wild,” he says. “I did a little demo and brought it down to Bob, and I played it for him, and he said, ‘Hey guys, put that in the movie.’ And that was it for the whole preview process of the film – that little demo was it – piano and a couple string sounds.” Zemeckis and Silvestri used the “Feather Theme” as bookends to the movie. It, along with the rest of the score, earned him his first Academy Award nomination.

Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump

“Forrest Gump” is a great example of what’s called “spotting” in the business. It’s when composer and director sit down and choose where the music comes in and out during the course of a movie. Zemeckis and Silvestri excel at this art form. Not that they always agree, but it’s a professional give and take that has woven some all-time cinematic classics. “Cast Away” is as brilliant for the introduction of music as it is for the lack of it. In fact, there’s less than fifteen minutes of music in the whole thing. “When we finally got around to spotting the movie,” Silvestri says, “we were watching it and this plane gets into trouble, then there’s this amazing crash and he’s alone on the water, and Bob looks over at me and he goes, ‘You’re not hearing anything Al?’ I go, ‘Yeah I’m not hearing anything Bob.’ We go and go and go, and now we’re on the island. It’s the whole movie, and he’s looking at me like, ‘You’re not hearing anything Al?’ I didn’t hear anything until he left the island, and that’s where the first music cue in the movie comes in, after he cleared that wave and he looks back at the island, and he’s just made the decision that death would be better than the security of that place, but he’s saying goodbye to it.” The short string, woodwind, and piano theme blends into the action at just the right time and is consistent with the less is more philosophy in “Cast Away.” The score seems to help Tom Hanks get through his harrowing ordeal at sea and somehow put his life back together.

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Tom Hanks in “Castaway”

The journey for Silvestri and Zemeckis is somewhat uncharted in Hollywood – a filmmaker who works exclusively with one composer. But both have proven themselves to be chameleons in the industry, building on each other’s strengths working in so many genres. “There’s a very physical component to making films, and you have to develop muscles for it,” Silvestri explains. “Beowulf “ is their 12th collaboration, and over the years they’ve tackled comedy, drama, action, romance, animation, adventure and now mo-cap. Silvestri has, and always will, appreciate a big stage and watching people excel on it. A couple years ago, he got the chance to meet Alex Rodriguez at Yankee Stadium. He watched A-Rod warm up with Derek Jeter and his jaw dropped. In the middle of the chaos of reporters, pre-game singers and meet-and-greeters, the men were in their own world throwing a ball. At first they were twenty feet apart and later backed up to nearly both ends of the stadium. As the ball whizzed by people’s heads in a b-line for each other’s gloves, Silvestri seemed to recognize that kind of incredible chemistry. “There was something about it that was so deadly serious, there’s so much at stake with these athletes, and yet I had the distinct impression that they were just enjoying their art. They were playing catch. I’m fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to practice my art over a period of years with somebody like Bob Zemeckis. It’s a give and take that gives us both a real sense of enjoyment. Essentially, I get to play catch with Bob Zemeckis.”

Robert Zemeckis

Zemeckis is the ship’s captain. When he looks at props, character renderings, costume drawings and set design, he sees camera movements and direction. Silvestri helps him steer straight. It’s his job to capture the essence of Zemickis’s vision and transfer it onto sheet music – a language that very few understand. As Silvestri processes a movie in his mind, he hears music and sees notes. It’s a completely different kind of communication that still has three-dimensional time. “You can create visual space with music in a very real sense. If you have bases on a low and sustained note and strings on a very high note, you’ve created a kind of vertical space.” (Silvestri illustrates the point by forming parallel lines with his arms and hands spread wide). “And so within that canvas you can put little blotches. If you put a cello line that plays very softly and then you put in a line for the oboe that plays more loudly, you now have a sense that the cello is further away and the oboe is closer. So now you’ve created depth and distance. It’s become a three dimensional event,” he says, making the shape of a box with his hands.

Within the musical box Silvestri just created, each scene of a movie has its own pulse. As drama builds, the line of that rhythm shoots up. As things calm down, the line heads south. “So you can think of the scene as being a scale removed,” Silvestri explains as he draws what looks like an EKG. “Each scene has to have its own emotional arc. It’s like looking at the clock – sure it’s an hour, but it’s also five minutes, and within the five minutes, it’s one minute, and within the minute, it’s 60 seconds. When I look at scene in the movie, the music also has to be broken down that way.” In other words, a movie has a heartbeat, and if a line were drawn throughout it, the music must follow suit. As for what that line means and how to interpret it: “It could be volume; it could be density of texture; it could have something to do with melody; maybe it has a sense of space where every time you go above the zero line the music stops; it could be a combination of all of these things,” Silvestri says. If a composer can put his finger on the movie’s pulse, the pictures and the music should be interchangeable. “That is one of the real fun things about scoring films…when it’s done well, you can recall the movie just by hearing it, like the ‘Feather Theme.’ You play that and people see the feather, or Forrest, or maybe people are able to remember the whole movie in a flash. That’s a wild idea.”

In 2007, Silvestri conducted his first ever full-length concert of his own music in Madrid, Spain. “Beowulf” opened nationwide November 16, 2008. Silvestri and Zemeckis completed their next blockbuster a year later, “A Christmas Carol” starring Jim Carrey. Also in October of 2009, Silvestri gave a passionate and inspiring speech as keynote speaker at the inaugural Carmel Art & Film Festival. When he’s not composing music, he’s making Silvestri wine in Carmel Valley, flying his own plane and spending time with his three children and his wife Sandra. In honor of their son, Joe, who has diabetes, the Silvestri’s helped co-found the Monterey branch of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to help fight the disease.

Written by: Ben Bamsey & Erin Clark

www.alansilvestri.com

One Comment

  1. Nazim says:

    Hi Mr. Alan
    I am writing from Turkey.I admire you.You have a request is.Van Helsing full movie studio work I’d like you to send me the dvd please. I’ll be very satisfied. I want to keep as a souvenir. You are the master of music.I love you so..Thank you,thank you,thank you.
    Nazım AKPINAR
    My: Letter Address: Cumhuriyet Mah.Siteler Cad.No:22
    55200 Samsun-Turkey

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