The worldwide release of Non-Stop, with Liam Neeson, for which he is credited as additional composer, and his recent nomination to a GoldSpirit Award for his beautiful music for the documentary The Right Of Love: An American Family led us to meet Hollywood-based composer Edwin Wendler. Certainly a name to follow…
Congratulations for your recent GoldSpirit Awards nomination. How did you enjoy your nomination?
BSO Spirit notified me of the nomination, and it took a while to sink in. I had read about the GoldSpirit Awards for quite some time, and I remember thinking several years ago how nice it was to finally have an award with a comprehensive list of film music categories, and to honor nominees from a truly global pool of composers. I knew that Asier G. Senarriaga had written a very positive review of The Right To Love, but I would never have hoped that other folks would take notice so it might end up being nominated. It is a surprise of the best kind and a real honor. Director Cassie Jaye and her co-producers were very excited when I gave them the news of the nomination. This documentary has been the most personal experience of my career, and the recognition means a lot to everybody involved.
You were born in Austria in 1975. Can you describe your musical education? Did you learn to play an instrument?
Both my parents are musically trained as singers. My mother plays the piano quite well, and I took five years of piano lessons, although my playing today is quite bad, just good enough to compose. Vienna is known worldwide for its classical music concerts and education of the highest quality. My five years with the Vienna Boys Choir taught me a vast amount of classical music repertoire, and we got to share a stage with some of the most renowned musicians in the world. Most importantly, I learned about the process and the logistics of preparing for a concert, and the dynamics between the performing artists and the audience. On tour, we would always perform the same two, alternating programs. Sometimes, the audience’s reactions were ecstatic, other times, they were lukewarm, for no apparent reason. So, you just learn to do your best every time, knowing that your control over the outcome can be surprisingly limited.
How did you become aware of the power of film music? Can you name your favorite scores and composers?
The first movies I remember seeing in a theater were Disney movies such as Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, The Fox And The Hound and Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. You can’t help but be enchanted by the music. Those tunes are so strong that all it takes is one listen, and you’ll remember them forever. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was a soundtrack album I memorized as a little kid, and I would sing the songs to my parents. The score that made me want to become a film composer was Krull, by James Horner. That music is so majestic, exciting, and melodic! I knew that that was what I wanted to do when I grew up. Interestingly, most of contemporary film music sounds nothing like Krull, but you always need to adapt as a composer. I would say my favorite score of all time is Brainstorm, also by Horner. He and Jerry Goldsmith are probably my all-time favorite composers.
How and why did you decide to leave your country to go to Hollywood?
Even though I dreamed of working in film music, I followed the advice of my parents and studied law at University of Vienna. While that was interesting, I just had absolutely no motivation to become an attorney, so I tried studying subjects that interested me more, such as psychology, musicology, theater studies, even Japanology. But nothing was a good substitute for composing music, and my parents saw how depressed I became, so eventually, they agreed to finance my studies in film scoring and screenwriting at UCLA Extension. I am very grateful they supported me because I absolutely loved that program and the teachers.
What was the main change in your life when you arrived in the United States?
Aside from my uncle Carlos, who lived there at the time, I knew no one in Los Angeles. My support system was thousands of miles away, as was my lover at the time. That was extremely difficult to deal with. Email just started to become more common, but I was still writing letters, which took at least two weeks to arrive. Sometimes, I had to wait more than a month for a response. International phone calls were very expensive. The positive aspect was that I got to make new friends at the dorm and through the various classes I attended. I met director JoséAntonio Danner at a writing workshop, and we have remained the best of friends ever since. The easiest adjustment was probably living with the fact that film music was much more accepted and appreciated as an art form than it was in Vienna at the time.
How did you manage to find work on movies, arranging and composing music?
While attending UCLA, I scored dozens of short films for students at UCLA, USC, and AFI. As a young composer, you hope to form long, lasting relationships which eventually will lead to bigger and better projects. Unfortunately, most student directors don’t end up directing features, so I tried a different route. I sent out hundreds (I am not exaggerating!) of demo tapes to movie production companies thanks to an industry publication called Back Stage West (now Backstage), which listed new movies in production and the production companies’ addresses. Even though this method of getting work was extremely inefficient, it did get me my first feature as a composer, which was Home: The Horror Story. Shortly thereafter, JoséAntonio directed a short film of the highest caliber, using professional camera equipment and film stock. He worked tirelessly, slept in his car for many months, and encouraged me to fight alongside with him until we had a score performed by the London Metropolitan Orchestra. That short film was called Wrong Hollywood Number. The recording found its way to composer Paul Haslinger, whom I had first met at a film music symposium in Vienna. Paul listened to the tracks, invited me to visit him at his studio, and eventually asked me to work with him. This gave me my first opportunity to receive arranging and programming credits on a network television series (Fear Factor) and a studio feature film (Into The Blue). I learned so much from Paul, not only about music but also about how to interact with clients and with the talented people on your music team.
Your first major composing assignment was Escape. Can you describe your work on this movie?
That movie was an interesting hybrid of drama and action. The story was a very personal one of internal struggle and growth, but the framework had chase sequences and human traffickers in it, so both of those elements needed to be addressed through music. In some spots, it was easy to strike the right balance, but in other cases, the music needed to be adjusted several times before it felt right. The most difficult portion of the work is usually the beginning: getting the tone right, finding the right themes and sounds for the characters and situations. What feels too big, and what feels too insignificant? Once you arrive at a musical blueprint that works for everybody, then the rest becomes about logistics: how many minutes of music do I need to write each day in order to meet the deadline? How do I best handle the budget in order to maximize quality? Is there enough time to try a different approach for a specific scene?
For what kind of films would you love to write?
Fantasy movies have always been my favorite: The Dark Crystal, Willow, Krull, Return To Oz… I loved those as a kid, and I love the Lord Of The Rings movies, so I would certainly jump at an opportunity to work on a fantasy feature.
What is important for you as a film composer?
To feel like you’re working with somebody who trusts you. I work hard at being on the directors’ and producers’ side, to help turn their vision into reality, or to present them something that they didn’t even knew they wanted, to surprise them in a good way, to put smiles on their faces. You can only do that if your client trusts you. Music can be a strong component of a movie that directors often feel they are unable to control. It’s our job as composers to let the directors know that they can definitely shape the music to their liking but that, at the same time, it’s okay to trust us to do the right thing for their movie.
You are credited as additional composer for Non-Stop. How did you collaborate with John Ottman?
John is a lot of fun to work with, always making hilarious comments in order to maintain a positive work environment, which is so important, especially on a tight deadline. John can multi-task with the best of them, and it is important for him to retain control over his creative output, whether that is in picture editing or music composing. I am very thankful for the first opportunities John gave me on some cues for The Losers, The Resident and Unknown, and I feel honored that he trusted me to complete the composing work on Non-Stop. John got very busy editing X-Men: Days Of Future Past, and at the same time he guided me through the composing that still needed to be done for Non-Stop. I did my best to listen carefully to his cues in order to maintain cohesion in the score. John’s incredible experience and great taste were instrumental in helping me shape my portion of the work to the client’s satisfaction. John developed the theme for the main character, Bill Marks, a troubled-yet-noble individual. He also set the tone for the mostly-unseen nemesis, using string clusters, a synthetic rattling sound, and a sonar-like ping. It was my job to develop those ideas for specific scenes, which was truly exciting.
The main sound is more synthetic than orchestral. Can you explain the purpose behind these aesthetic aspects?
John’s musical taste always veers toward the classy, the sophisticated. One way to achieve that is to add complexity and interesting layers. Another more obvious reason for this approach was the fact that the villain in this story is very elusive, very intelligent, always one step ahead of Bill. The music almost always needed to project a sense of foreboding, and it needed to make the audience feel the constant presence of an unknown, sophisticated nemesis. The strangeness of synths seemed to work best in that context. John really wanted a contemporary-sounding, always shifting, score, and I spent a considerable amount of time finding variations of pulses and rhythmic elements that never sounded resolved. At the same time, those synth elements also needed to keep the tension going.
What was the most satisfying aspect of your collaboration with Ottman? And the least satisfying aspect?
I had the most fun working on the action music. Many composers dislike writing for action sequences because the sound effects mostly drown out the music anyway. Of course, I prefer the music to be audible, but sometimes, that decision is simply outside the control of the composer. I just love action music, especially Jerry Goldsmith’s work, with its inventive use of mixed meters and syncopations. It’s simply exhilarating to listen to action writing of that caliber. I am so glad that I was able to meet Mr. Goldsmith at UCLA in 1999 and to tell him in person how much his music meant to me. Regarding the least satisfying aspect, I would say that, on every project, the part I look forward to the least is the exporting of pre-lays (synth elements) for each cue. Depending on how complex the cue is, that can be up to 40 or 50 separate audio tracks per cue, all of which have to be recorded and exported separately. On this project, I was lucky to have Peter Hackman help me with the pre-lay recording and exporting. You may know Peter as the organizer of the annual Fans of Film Music events. Originally, Peter wanted his credit to read « export expert », which would have been funny. I feel very lucky to now call Peter my partner in life.
How long is the score in the movie, and how much of it ended up on the soundtrack album?
There are 96 minutes of score in the finished film. The soundtrack album runs for 54 minutes. Almost all tracks on the album have been edited so they are shorter than their movie counterparts.
How would you describe your job as synth programmer?
Synth programming can mean anything from creating new electronic sounds to adapting and altering pre-existing sounds using various filters and effects, to applying combinations of synth patches to picture. It’s basically a fancy term for what we do alone in our studios all day long.
You have also collaborated with Paul Haslinger. How would you compare it with your work with Ottman?
Paul knows everything there is to know about electronic music. He is always on the cutting edge of current trends and anything that’s cool. He knows several software programmers in person and is really interested in developing and improving music software. John seems to be happier in the world of orchestral scoring, although he is great at synth programming as well. Both Paul and John are very detail-oriented. Personality-wise, I would say that Paul comes across as highly intelligent, always willing to share useful information, and he has a calm, stoic demeanor. John is extremely articulate, funny, friendly and likeable.
What are you working on currently? X-Men: Days Of Future Past?
Yes, John has asked me to help out a little on the new X-Men movie. It’s beyond exciting, and the movie has a couple of very cool surprises in store. I feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to do a little bit of work on a big franchise. Other than X-Men, I am working on a couple of smaller projects and possibly a horror feature, but that’s very tentative at the moment.
Interview conducted by Olivier Soudé.
Transcription : Olivier Soudé.
Photography of Edwin Wandler by Kaya Savas.
Thanks to Peter Hackman and Victor Kaply.