E-notes: SWINGING WITH THE COMPOSER OF SPIDER-MAN 3
Scoring the third SPIDER-MAN film is the charm for Christopher Young
Each month, iF Magazine brings you Internet conversations with Hollywood’s top composers. This is E-Notes.
Christopher Young has always weaved a mean scoring web since his melodic talents propelled him from such low-budget films as PRANKS and AVENGING ANGEL to the big Hollywood leagues on such soundtracks as RUNAWAY JURY, SWEET NOVEMBER, SWORDFISH and THE SHIPPING NEWS.
Along the way, Young has specialized in demonic horror (HELLRAISER, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE and two GRUDGE films) and high-octane action (THE CORE, SWORDFISH, SET IT OFF). Now like a team-up worthy of any comic, Young’s abilities at both sounds have made him a superhero composer to reckon with. It’s almost hard to believe that the composer had never scored a superhero picture until his GIFT director, and GRUDGE producer Sam Raimi asked Young to come aboard to compose additional music for SPIDER-MAN 2, most significantly providing the thrilling subway battle between Doctor Octopus and the web-slinger. Now with the super-powered successes of the Young-scored GHOST RIDER and SPIDER-MAN 3, this Halloween geek has become the composer to beat in the comic book genre- especially with the runaway box office of the new Spidey film.
Given numerous new characters, massive action sequences and a studio to please, Christopher Young has avoided the film’s potential stylistic and political pitfalls with a dexterity that Spider-Man would admire. Coming up with his own spin on the franchise, Young’s own voice is heard in the powerful theme for The Sandman, the devilish villainy of Venom, as well as the emotional web between Peter Parker, Mary Jane and Harry Osborne. Even with the studio’s decision to incorporate Danny Elfman’s themes into the movie, it’s still Young’s melodic voice that’s the strongest one the soundtrack, with music that gets across the triumph and tragedy that has made Spider-Man the screen’s most successful superhero.
IF Magazine: What do you think that Sam Raimi sees in your music? Would you describe yourself as his “go-to” composer?
Christopher Young: I can’t speak for Sam because I don’t know what he really thinks, but I’d like to believe that in my music he sees the kind of aggressive, dramatic music that compliments the aggressive, dramatic nature of his movies. Anyone who knows his work knows that he’s in your face, his movies are in your face, there’s no pussyfooting. I think we’re cut from the same cloth, we have the same kind of nightmares. I knew after seeing EVIL DEAD for the first time that this was a director who lived in the same world as I did, so I think there was this connection that had to be made. I know that Sam is a melody man, he loves to be able to hum themes from his films, and I too like the idea of being able to come up with instantly recognizable and humable themes. I guess it was just the right mixture of aggressive drama in both of our approaches to what we do, a mutual love for instantly memorable melody and a like-minded way of seeing life via the world of twisted images. Am I his “go-to” composer? It appears, knock on wood, that at this moment I am. Not only for him as a director but also as a producer at Ghost House Films. I’ve done both THE GRUDGE and THE GRUDGE 2 for him as a producer, two films for him as a director, THE GIFT and SPIDER-MAN 3 and little portions of SPIDER-MAN 2 Hopefully this will be the beginning of a long lasting and eternal friendship and “good vibes” working situation.
iF: Do you have as much of an affinity for superheroes as you do for horror?
Young: To be honest,I wasn’t sure that I had it in me for superheroes. This is a new venue for me. As it turns out I’m thrilled to say I have a complete musical affinity for superheroes. The language for superheroes and especially the villains that they battle are not too far removed from the gothic horror world. A lot of what I did in SPIDER-MAN 3 and GHOST RIDER can be compared to some of the scores I did for some of my bigger, more gothic horror films like HELLBOUND and moments of SPECIES. They’re kind of next-door neighbors so I feel lucky that I have just found out I have an affinity for both.
iF: Were you into Spider-Man comics as a kid?
Young: I cannot tell a lie, no, not really. I’m sure the fans will be disgusted that the guy who wrote the score for SPIDER-MAN 3 was not a Spider-Man junky as a kid. I certainly had tremendous admiration for comics but I just didn’t read them. I mainly read magazines that were in the fantasy domain like Eerie and Creepy and Famous Monsters From Film Land, Forest Ackerman’s magazine. So I was more a monster comic/magazine fan.
iF: Could you talk about how you became involved with the SPIDER-MAN movies?
Young: It was at the very end of SPIDER-MAN 2, close to the release date, that I got a call from Sam asking if I could come in to fix a few cues because Danny Elfman wasn’t available to make the fixes that Sam felt the music needed. So on very short order I was asked to rewrite one of the big moments, the scene in which Spider-Man and Doc Ock are fighting on top of the subway and the train goes off the ledge. That was a 4 and half to 5 minute scene. Earlier on I was asked to score the scene where Doc Ock’s experiment goes bad and he turns into the monster. So, based on my success re-scoring those two scenes I was asked to do SPIDER-MAN 3.
iF: With so many characters in SPIDER-MAN 3, which ones did you want to give themes to? Was it difficult weaving all of them together?
Young: I wanted to give new themes to all of the characters. The biggest challenge on this movie was that there were so many different characters. I remember when we spotted the film we realized there was the potential to have 14-15 unique themes. I said to Sam “You know, I think we may have a problem here because that would be overloading the film. You don’t want to have the audience lose touch with the bigger story line by having too many themes and fragmenting the film.” Still, there were a ton of themes in the movie and coming up with memorable themes was a challenge. They needed to somehow not only seem connected to each other but they had to be in the same ballpark as Danny’s themes from the previous movie so that they would blend together. The ones that were crossovers from the first two movies were the Spider-Man theme, the Green Goblin theme (which I mutated a bit to make it the Son of Green Goblin theme) and the “fate” themes, those were the three main themes that I used throughout the picture that were Danny’s. On my end, I recall that some themes came quickly and some took a lot longer. The one that came the quickest was actually the one for the Symbiote Spidey. Usually the first ideas end up in the trash, but I got it on the first go around and I was quite surprised. Of all the new themes that I brought to the picture I would have to say that that one is probably my favorite. I liked the Venom and Sandman themes as well but they were more obtuse and not as accessible as the Symbiote Spider-Man theme. There were a few themes I wrote that didn’t make it in the movie, three, ultimately, that were replaced with Danny’s themes from the first two movies and those were the love theme for Peter and MJ, the Aunt May theme and the sad MJ theme.
iF: One sequence where your music really stands out is where The Sandman rises from the dust to discover his powers. In a way, would you describe it as a similar musical approach to your famous “Resurrection Waltz” in HELLRAISER?
Young: Absolutely, they had temped the film not with the “Resurrection Waltz” but with a cue from Hellbound that was mysterious and sort of tragic. It was very much like what I ended up writing for Sandman. That was one of those moments where Sam had a very clear concept of what he wanted to do with the music and he felt the cue from Hellbound perfectly demonstrated that so I used it as my model. This was a situation where what ends up in the film is directly influenced by a past film and that was a great idea on Sam’s part. If I had not heard my own music I probably would have written something totally different.
iF: How “monstrous” did you want to make Venom’s music?
Young: Pretty monstrous. It’s a pretty fat theme, its got 8 French horns screaming the line and a choir on it as well. Its interesting, in the original cue I wrote for when the Venom body dies, as well as Eddie Brock, I did a big version that was not used. So what you hear was as big as it was enabled to get. We decided it was better for the scene if I didn’t have thematics but more weird ambient music, which is what I ended up doing. But I did want it big and unfortunately its biggest moment did not appear in the film.
iF: What kind of spin do you think you put on the traditional “superhero” score here?
Young: In that I come from a horror, thriller, suspense background, as does Sam, I think at those moments where I was allowed to “go dark” I may have brought the score to a new level of darkness for superheroes. I think that my lust for massive music and ultra high drama may have contributed some of the heaviest superhero music.
iF: How did you want to balance the film’s action with its emotion?
Young: With the emotional music, the challenge I had was whether or not I was supposed to treat those dramatic moments as if they’re happening between two people that had real lives and had nothing to do with the fantasy of a comic book movie. When I saw Peter in tears with Aunt May I thought to myself “Well if this scene was in any other movie, this is how I would score it,” and then no sooner would I write the cue I would think “ or should I twist it around to make it more for a comic book movie?” That was the tough part but ultimately I decided I would keep it straight. I know Sam was very happy with it, he was glad that I didn’t make it sound like a comic book movie.
iF: What kind of pressures do you think a film of this size brings on a composer? How do you deal with it while keeping your creativity (and sanity) intact?
Young: (Laughs)A lot of pressures, the biggest one being that this is the third installment in a very successful franchise and more than anything else the franchise must be maintained. It was an odd place to be because the composer who had been successfully attached to the first two movies, which had done extraordinarily well, was not going to be involved in this one. I think of the major participants on the previous two movies, he was the only one to leave and the music is a major contribution to both of those movies, and everyone knew it was going to be a major contribution to the third movie. Now, someone entirely new is coming in. They’d had brief experience with me on SPIDER-MAN 2 doing the fixes and that sort of paved the way, but it must have been nerve racking for them and I knew it was like “Is the kid going to be able to do it? Is it going to be like Danny’s? Is he going to be disrespectful to Danny’s stuff? Will he honorably embrace it and do his best to do it justice?” Of course I was going to do that, there was no way that I was going to mismanage myself and not treat his themes the same way I would treat my own. I remember the first show and tell I was a nervous wreck. I wasn’t sure if they were going to like it, but fortunately they did. Sam fell in love with the Symbiote Spiderman and Sandman themes especially. He was great to work with. He made me feel so much more comfortable. There was a certain point at which I finally got the thumbs up from him and that moment certainly made it a lot easier. I didn’t sense that he had any regrets that Danny wasn’t available so it wasn’t like I was walking in as a second stringer. Everyone in my office was a little edgy because they knew that I was a little edgy, very worried about whether or not I was going to pull this off. I guess the only way you can keep yourself from tipping too far into the super anxiety zone is by knowing you have to get some music written. So you have to shut that down for the time that you’re writing the music and the minute the cue is done you can immediately move back into that place of panic. The whole thing about surviving in any aspect of movies is maintaining an even keyhole. Certainly when Sam was here it was always smooth sailing, I was always joking with him and relaxed.
iF: How did other composers become involved with this score? How did you make sure all of the music stayed cohesive in the end?
Young: At the end of the postproduction period it was decided at the last minute that more of Danny’s themes had to be included for continuity’s sake and to that end some of his principal assistants and arrangers were brought in to work his themes into the picture. Their job was trying to figure out a way to have it coordinate successfully with what I had written. So, say a romantic moment came up in the middle of an action cue, the arranger was asked to figure out a way to insert Danny’s music but at the same time maintain cohesiveness so that it would sound organic to what I had already written. I really had nothing to do with it. I wasn’t there at the recording sessions when that was being accomplished. The first time I heard it was at the premier. But it had to be done and there was very little time. Had there been time I would have done it myself but I was still writing all the finale action music.
iF: You’ve joined the pantheon of composers like Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Hermann, who’ve had their close-up in a film they’ve scored. Could you talk about shooting your role as a rehearsal pianist? Did knowing that you’d be in the film make you even more determined to deliver the best score possible?
Young: I was stunned when I got the call from Sam to do a little acting. I knew that he had used Danny Elfman in a cameo in THE GIFT playing a fiddle out in a swamp, so the concept when it came up wasn’t completely out of left field. I knew he liked to include real musicians playing real musical parts that he might need in the picture. I was honored, thrilled, scared s**tless because I’d never done this before and my greatest fear was if I flunked as an actor was it going to reflect on his opinion of me as a composer? There are three scenes of me in the film, two you’d never know, the first being when MJ walks down the staircase for her debut, you can see the back of my head as I’m in the pit conducting. Then shortly thereafter, my second appearance is backstage after the opening performance of the musical when Peter comes back to congratulate MJ I’m directly behind them talking with some people. But the most prominent scene is the one in which she comes the following day to find out she' s been replaced. Now, I’m actually not the rehearsal pianist there, that was someone else, I’m the one standing. All in all it was great to be on set, the scenes were shot at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles and just to be able to walk around in that theater for a couple of days was a complete rush. Sam’s directions to be were minimal, he just said “Okay, in your close up look uncomfortable. She’s just shown up and everyone in the room knows she’s been fired. How is she going to make it through this gracefully?” So those were my instructions, it was like one take as far as I can remember. Probably in a subconscious way it made me want to deliver. Whether I was in it or not I knew I needed to deliver the best score possible. I guess being in the film made me feel like I was really a team player and therefore had to come through with that much more pizzazz on the score.
iF: Are you signed up for more SPIDER-MAN pictures after this? Do you think that the film’s likely mega-success will set you up for more superhero scores (especially any future GHOST RIDER sequels)?
Young: I have not signed up for anymore SPIDER-MAN pictures after this however if they make a fourth one, which I’m assuming they will, I’d be thrilled to score it. The question is if they bring another director in, should Sam Raimi not direct it, would another director want to have me on board or would he want to bring in his own guy, which is normally what happens. But that aside I would be delighted to do another SPIDER-MAN movie, I would be in heaven. This films’ success hopefully will open up the door and allow me to continue to do superhero movies. I know the feeling is that I succeeded on both SPIDER-MAN and GHOST RIDER and, like I said, maybe this will be a superhero period for me. I would be so thrilled to continue to do this genre of films. I don’t know if they’re doing a GHOST RIDER, I suspect that they might want to and I would be dying to do another GHOST RIDER. I feel insanely blessed that I was able to do both of these movies and I want to continue to do more of them and if they knock on the door I’ll go running back.
Interview arranged and transcribed by Samantha Barker and Heather Maupin
To hear Daniel Schweiger's extensive audio interview with Christopher Young, go to www.filmmusicradio.com