Interview with Composer Elia Cmiral


IGN FilmForce interviewer Kenneth Plume recently had an opportunity to talk to composer Elia Cmiral.

In his conversation with Ken, Cmiral discusses moving from Czechoslovakia to Sweden and then to L.A., his composing debut with his father's production of "Cyrano de Bergerac," the difference between composing in Europe vs. composing in the States, his first U.S. job ¿ the cult film Apartment Zero, getting his big break on the first season of Nash Bridges, and moving on to Ronin, Stigmata, and Battlefield Earth.

PLUME: Well, let me start from the very beginning¿ Tell me a little bit about yourself¿

CMIRAL: I was born in Czechoslovakia and had a short study at the Musical Conservatory before I escaped to Sweden. I studied electronic music in Stockholm, Sweden and later got a grant to study music at USC in Los Angeles¿ To study film scoring. After finishing schooling, I scored a small movie here, and then returned to Sweden for three years. After that, I decided to move to Los Angeles forever.

PLUME: At what age did you escape from Czechoslovakia?

CMIRAL: In 1980 ¿ I was very young, but should have left earlier.

PLUME: Was music always a passion of yours?

CMIRAL: In one way or another, yes. I was always a very creative kid. I was into books, theater, films, music, drawing¿ Anything creative, from a very early age. I grew up in a very cultured home. My mother was an actress and my father was a stage director. My grandfather was a professor at the Music Academy in Prague. My life was just books, music, and theater¿ I didn't know anything else. I remember that I tried to write my first symphony when I was 11 years old. I bought a big piece of score paper, wrote the first eight bars, and then I didn't know what to do. My father gave me my first composition job, to write music for his theater set-up in Prague.

PLUME: Was that for a full orchestra?

CMIRAL: No, no¿ It was small. It was for "Cyrano de Bergerac." It was just a couple of solo instruments: organ, a guitar duet. I was too young. In Stockholm, I studied electronic music for just one year. It was a lot of fun, because we didn't have these things in Prague. A large part of contemporary western music was forbidden, more or less. It was kind-of weird¿ My eyes were opened when I came to Stockholm. I heard music that I'd never heard before in Prague, both in popular music ¿ rock n' roll ¿ and older music.

PLUME: It must have been like a flood of new experiences¿

CMIRAL: I couldn't believe it. I remember it being really, really interesting. Another kick came when I came here to Los Angeles and I met people here, I met composers, I heard music¿ It was another kick that I heard real big scores. I thought, "Wow¿ That's what I want to do."

PLUME: What was the first film that you composed for?

CMIRAL: The first film that I ever composed for was short stories on TV in Prague. I did my first feature a couple of months before I escaped from Prague. Then I did a couple of features in Sweden¿ I don't even remember how many I did. It's actually not important, because what counts here is only what I did here.

PLUME: What was the first western score that you did?

CMIRAL: I did Apartment Zero after I finished USC. It was directed by Martin Donovan and starred Colin Firth. It was an interesting independent film that became kind-of a cult film. I even released a soundtrack that got great reviews.

PLUME: What was the difference between scoring in Czechoslovakia and Stockholm and the stuff you did in LA?

CMIRAL: The first impression of scoring here is that it's very professional¿ Very organized. Filmmaking in Europe may be changed now ¿ I don't know ¿ but in those days, everyone did some part of the whole production. We don't have the function of music editor in Europe. Here, you have all the functions necessary to do a really nice score. I love to work with other people, instead of doing everything myself ¿ writing, recording, mixing.

PLUME: You've also done some TV work, right?


PLUME: Do you find it easier or harder to do, as opposed to film?

CMIRAL: I found it to be completely different. I did a lot of TV projects in Europe, and I did only one here ¿ I did Nash Bridges. I found it to be very interesting¿ Very intense, but completely different from the world I know. I kind-of like films more than TV. Also, I like big scores ¿ loud music and a big orchestra, and that's more for movies.

PLUME: When you approach a project, what is your process for writing the score?

CMIRAL: I watch the movie a couple of times. I approach the movie like a viewer ¿ very emotionally. I try to think like I am in the audience¿ What do I need here? Do I need the theme? Something big or something small? I try to see what I would miss if I were in the audience. Then I have a lot of long days and nights working in the studio improvising on the piano or the computer and writing down little ideas and meeting people. Everything needs to crystallize to find the concept. I think the concept is very important to me ¿ to find the concept for the whole score and not just one cue.

PLUME: How would you describe the relationship you've had with the directors you've worked with so far?

CMIRAL: I think I've been very lucky with the directors I've had. I got great direction from John Frankenheimer, and it was a great, wild ride with Rupert Wainwright on Stigmata. It was also great falling in love with a project and director on Six-Pack ¿ the French thriller I did. The director was not even here ¿ he was in Paris.

PLUME: So was that done over the phone?

CMIRAL: Yeah, it was done over the phone.

PLUME: How do you construct a score over the phone?

CMIRAL: It's very funny, because I don't speak French.

PLUME: That's got to complicate matters some¿

CMIRAL: The director actually speaks English very well, but the funny thing was that the tape I got was not dubbed, of course, and it didn't have subtitles. My engineer speaks a little French ¿ he's Canadian ¿ so I called him, but we still had some difficulty understanding what they were talking about.

PLUME: I'm assuming that has a lot of bearing on how you would score something¿

CMIRAL: Yes. I called the director, and I told him, "I don't understand what they're talking about! This is a scene¿" and I put the phone in front of the speaker, and he translated it. It was a lot of fun. In one way, it was very easy project, because he loved my music ¿ he loved what I did on Ronin ¿ and he just came to Los Angeles for the scoring, and he was very happy. That was followed by another project, which I did for Showtime with a friend of mine ¿ director Ivan Passer ¿ called The Wishing Tree. It was very easy fairy tale music. I did it very fast¿ I think the whole score took 10 days. Then came Battlefield Earth, which was a great experience ¿ working with John Travolta.

PLUME: How closely did you work with him on the score?

CMIRAL: Very, very close. Basically, he was in my studio every Monday at 9:00am for two months.

PLUME: What were the difficulties in scoring Battlefield Earth?

CMIRAL: It was a very ambitious score. This was my first science-fiction adventure movie, and I thought this was the opportunity to write for a big orchestra. I loved John and I loved to work with him, so from the beginning, I wanted to write something really exceptional. The main theme came very fast, and the whole concept came very fast. It was a dream job. John was very supportive and the director was very supportive ¿ all the people I worked with were great.

PLUME: What was the concept in the film that you based your thematics around?

CMIRAL: When I get a picture, the next step after that is to try and find a concept. I try to put together themes and elements that belong to each other, so I build a couple of thematic groups. Then, my next step is to test myself and the director to write representative ideas for every group. In Battlefield Earth, I wrote the opening titles ¿ which was the main cue ¿ then I wrote the cue for the first meeting between the human beings and the monsters. Next was the revelation, when Jonnie realizes that he's going to lead the revolution. Those three cues were the first cues I wrote at the end of the first week in January, and I presented them to John Travolta when he came back from the east coast. He liked it a lot, and there were basically no changes, so I just continued from there for the rest of the month. Usually, I had about 8-10 people coming to my studio on a Monday, watch my demo, and make little changes¿ It was great. I'm already missing Mondays.

PLUME: Has there been any more discussion about the proposed sequels?

CMIRAL: They offered me the sequels, but I don't know what will happen. The movie got really bad reviews. I don't think they were really fair¿ I think a lot of reviews were politically orientated instead of talking about the movie.

PLUME: So, what's next up on your plate?

CMIRAL: I got a couple of offers, but nothing is signed. I'm consulting with my agent. I took a vacation with my family and spent time with my three-year-old son, who I haven't seen for months. I see my friends, which I missed a lot¿ Sit in the back yard and read¿ Jump in the pool with my son¿ Try to go back to life.

PLUME: Do you have any hobbies outside of film composing? Do you write music independently?

CMIRAL: I did in the very beginning of my career, and then I basically gave up. I don't do it anymore. I don't listen to any music except when I'm driving in the car, and then I'll have soundtracks as inspiration for the coming project. I enjoy being with my family and reading. I practice Tae Kwon Do ¿ I will get my black belt in a couple of months.

PLUME: Do you still have family in Czechoslovakia?

CMIRAL: Yes. My mother, sister, and a couple of relatives still live in Prague. I talk to them every week. My mother has been to Los Angeles three times, and we went to Prague once. I have a lot of friends in Sweden, but it feels far away. My life is here now. I have a nice home with my studio in it, and I enjoy my family ¿ maybe we'll have another kid, you know?

PLUME: You're pining for another one¿

CMIRAL: Our son is three years old now, so my wife¿ I mean, I don't know if I'm so crazy about it. Music is so important to me in my life, and Battlefield Earth was over fourth months of production, and I have 3-4 productions a year¿ that is my life.

PLUME: So it's difficult to juggle the two¿


PLUME: Right now, would you say you're happy with where your life and career is?

CMIRAL: I am very happy. I am very pleased to see my credit starting with Ronin and then to Stigmata and so on¿ What happened to me is like a miracle. I got Ronin, basically, out of nowhere. I think I am very blessed.

PLUME: Is this anything you could have dreamed would happen while growing up in Czechoslovakia?

CMIRAL: From the very beginning, I dreamt of becoming a film composer. From the first time I was touched by theater and film, I was thinking, "Wow¿ I want to be a Hollywood composer." But frankly, I don't think anybody has any idea of difficult it is to get work here¿ How difficult and competitive it is. It's a completely different world. When I went to Sweden, I was planning to come here. If I knew what I know today, I'm not sure I would have done it. I was just an adventurous person, but frankly, it's really, really hard. How many composers on this level really make it? Maybe 40?

Ronin was like a Cinderella fairy-tale for me. Jerry Goldsmith was signed to write the score for Ronin. At the last moment, when the movie was completely edited and done, he walked away. The studio asked Michael Sandoval, who was the president of the music department, to put together a list of available "A" composers. Michael knew my music, but ¿ of course ¿ I was far away from being even a "B" composer at that time. But Michael had a lot of guts to put me on the list with three Oscar-winning composers available at the time. John Frankenheimer was interested in my music, and he wanted to pick me, so I went to meet John and watched the movie with him. There was no music in the whole movie ¿ not even temps. I liked the movie a lot, and I saw my great opportunity ¿ it was a Robert De Niro and John Frankenheimer movie. I asked John to give me footage of the beginning, and I would write the opening theme ¿ which I did over the weekend and sent it to New York. After three days, I sat with him on spotting sessions.

PLUME: That's quite a Cinderella story¿

CMIRAL: It is, it is. For this, I will always be grateful to Michael Sandoval, because he was the guy who had the guts to put me there. It was no friends or agents, but just Michael and the quality of the music that I was able to write that brought me to the project. It was a dream project. John Frankenheimer is an unbelievably great, very articulate, knowledgeable director ¿ he was a dream. Imagine¿ What did I do? A couple of video tapes and the opening season of Nash Bridges, and suddenly I get to work with John Frankenheimer!

PLUME: You can't ask for a better story than that¿

CMIRAL: Again, these things can happen only in this country.

PLUME: Where do you see yourself in five years? Still doing film music?

CMIRAL: Oh yes. Absolutely. I hope to get big, epic, dramatic ¿ maybe romantic, adventure, science fiction films ¿ whatever picture inspires me to write the music, and I wish to work on the same level and with the same kind of people that I work with today.