Alan Silvestri’s music has been pacing the Hollywood scenery for over three decades. Many public and critical achievements can be found in his filmography, including legendary relationships with directors James Cameron, John McTiernan, Sam Raimi and especially Robert Zemeckis, having composed the scores for all of the director’s movies since Romancing The Stone in 1984. What strikes you immediately when you meet this great composer is the obvious resonance that exists between the man and the uniqueness of his music: enthusiasm, energy, a wonderful sensitivity, an innate understanding of the movie language… Among several events celebrating the 30th anniversary of Back To The Future, a symphonic concert of his music during the Ghent Film Festival and the release of The Walk, his latest collaboration with Zemeckis, Alan Silvestri kindly took the time to answer our questions for an interview among the clouds with a composer as passionate as exciting.
If you look back 30 years ago, when Back To The Future was being made, how do you feel?
Well, we were certainly much younger then, and we were working: we would get up and we would just chase, chase, chase, and try to do something good. But certainly, this is one of the rare occasions where I think I can speak for everyone: I don’t think anyone had the smallest idea that 30 years later, this movie would still be finding young audiences, expanding in the way it’s been shown. They did a one-night release of the film on the 21st October, and I think the worldwide gross was just about 4 million dollars, for one night! (laughs) This is really a testament to the audience, and the love people feel for the film. 30 years ago, we knew the movie was great, and the guys, Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis, are two of the finest people you will ever meet. But who would have thought this would happen?
If you were able to go back 30 years in a DeLorean, would you change anything to your score?
I can tell you that I wouldn’t because I actually got the chance to time travel to the score for Back To The Future. When the idea of doing it in concert came to me, not that long ago, one of the difficulties was that the whole first part of the film really didn’t have enough music. And by enough, I mean: you go into a concert hall on a Friday or Saturday night, you’re going to have this magnificent orchestra, and they’re going to be sitting there and watching the movie for the first 25 minutes! It wasn’t really the right way to present that. So the idea arose to write more music. Of course, that sounds like a great opportunity for a composer, now 30 years older… That is, after you get passed the part where you have to go to Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale and ask them if you can do one thing different to their classic iconic movie! (laughs) And so, it made sense and both of them said: “Yes, just do it.” But then, when I started to work through, what I discovered right away was that this wasn’t an opportunity to start writing music. The real mission, I think, was to make this feel like this material had always been there. So I went back to the original films, and I found material from all three films that would be appropriate. But I did it just the way it was done back then, I didn’t change it. It was almost like when my wife and I went through the process of renovating a beautiful old home, with always in our mind this idea of not changing anything that we didn’t have to change. And so, when I say that I wouldn’t do it differently: it is what it, it is what it was, and it really should be allowed to be that. So no, I wouldn’t change it.
You have a very strong relationship with Robert Zemeckis…
Relationship is really the perfect word, if not marriage! Everything that comes with the idea of relationship and marriage applies: you have to get to know somebody, you have to be attracted to each other, you have to think about many things in the same way, and ultimately you have to trust each other. Romancing The Stone was our first film together, it was a very difficult film, very important career wise for Robert Zemeckis, Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny de Vito and, somewhere down there, Alan Silvestri! (laughs) It was my first real studio picture. We worked our way through, it went well, and like many things, if something works, there is a tendency to go revisit: “The first date went well, I’ll call again! We should have dinner again!” (laughs) And so we had dinner again, and it was Back To The Future, and then again, and it was Who Framed Roger Rabbit… And we just had dinner again after 19 films, and it is The Walk. And we have a reservation for July of next year, to have dinner again, on Bob’s next film which is this fantastic story that takes place during World War II in Europe, with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. The reservation is on the books! It’s an amazing thing to have that long relationship with someone in this business. Very rare. I have done every one of his films since Romancing The Stone. He has never worked with any other composer since we started. There is something about a long-term relationship that is really powerful. I have been with my beautiful wife Sandra for 37 years, and there is something that happens over time that is different: the way you emotionally interact.
And so with Bob Zemeckis, I can’t imagine a more wonderful collaboration for a composer. The reason is that he does his work. Any of us who have done this job have had the experience of a director describing a scene that we have just watched, and the feeling is: we don’t know which movie he’s talking about! (laughs). That never happens with Robert Zemeckis. He does what he would hope, he shows you what he has done and what he wants and what it is. And then one may simply do one’s work, which is: “Follow our leader.” And then, of course, this is the way a leader leads. And Bob will allow, in a sense, a kind of complete freedom, and yet when you bring your brilliance to him, he will look you right in the eye with love and go: “God, it’s beautiful Al, but I don’t get it.” And that is the Zemeckian code for: “This is not going to be in my movie.” (laughs) When I was younger, I would kind of going into a salesman show up to that point…
And this is another thing about a long-term relationship: I have learned about Bob, and one of the most important things that I have learned about him over the 33 years is how truly brilliant he really is. How when you have any kind of interaction with him about his movies, you better be listening and you better understand that everything convey information to you. I really felt that I grew up in my profession through my interaction with Bob. For many of the first films we did, there was always one cue in the movie where I got that response: “Al, it’s beautiful, but I don’t get it.” And looking back, it was really a kind of passive-aggressive thing on my part. It was in large part because I didn’t really believe he was as brilliant as he was. I had to learn about this! We don’t have these moments anymore, not for the last five or six films, and I think it is because of something that I have learned through this long-term relationship, so it’s been an amazing thing for me, he has changed my life creatively, financially, and in every way. If you have one of these in your career, you are the luckiest folk.
Zemeckis is known to be very creative, inventing new ways to shoot movies. Do you feel that you have to do the same musically?
The advancement of the tools that are available has changed many things about the physical process of putting a film up on the screen and telling a story. There is no question about that. As a filmmaker and a director, Bob has a level of facility that didn’t exist just a short number of years ago, even five years ago. As a composer, the same thing applies to me: I have the ability to show Bob musical ideas in a very clear way, to allow him to assess them and get a sense of how they work on his movie, in a way that was impossible when we did earlier films. Theses things are real. However, the real ultimate objective, ultimate mission, hasn’t changed: it’s ultimately about telling a story in film, it’s about having 600 people, 1000 people or 3000 people in a dark room, who don’t know each other, and having the lights go out, and they’re in the dark, and then something happens: they are all engaged and being taken by the story. I don’t think that will ever change. So, new tools? Yes. New mission? Absolutely not.
Your music can often be described as muscular, even ballsy, if I may say so…
Thank you! Well, it’s organic, in a sense, because I began as a drummer. And then I became a guitar player because it was fascinating that all of a sudden, the black dots went up and down, not just moving horizontally! (laughs) So my musical entry into life was through rhythm and time. I can listen to a fantastic rhythm section, for instance a piano player, a bass player, a drummer just play in time, and tears will come spontaneously in my eyes, because there is something about people who can find something in common: rhythm is there all the time. The question is: can you get a group of people playing musical instruments who can find it together? That has always been the heart of what I think originally attracted me to music. All the rest, all the up and down of the notes has really been an extrapolation for me. I literally said to someone, two days ago in an interview, that I basically took the orchestra and turned it into a big drum set! (laughs) I’m getting even so slightly more refined maybe, with experience and age, but in my heart, the pulse has always been what has spoken to me. So I take it as a great compliment that you find my approach to be ballsy and rhythmic because that is really my entry point into music on every level.
Talking about ballsy, you did work with John McTiernan on Predator…
Predator was a very unique challenge, musically. During the scoring process, we have theses streamers that indicate when a cue begins and when a cue ends. When it begins, we have a green streamer, so we play the first piece of music. When it ends, there is a red streamer and you’re finished. In Predator, every time the green streamer came across and we played music, and then the red streamer came across and right with it was a green streamer! Every ending of a cue was the beginning of the next one. And of course, nobody says anything for a very long time in the movie! (laughs) So it became a very interesting kind of jungle ballet: there was lot of music, an incredible pile of possibility for a composer, but also by sheer quantity a daunting kind of task. Working with John McTiernan, we all knew that jungle sounds and things falling in the jungle only could get you so far, but in terms of keeping tension, moving narrative… We didn’t even see the Predator for all this time, we heard little sounds once in a while. Of course John Williams taught us everything we will ever need to know about having music remind us that there is something bad around, with Jaws. (laughs) So music had a big mission, a big challenge there. I remember McTiernan being very clear about where he wanted to feel the tension and keep it moving. From that point of view, it was kind of simple, although with many cups of coffee, to know what had to be done. You just had to be able to get it done.
Another badass director you worked with is James Cameron, for The Abyss…
Well, the world knows now most certainly that James Cameron is an absolute genius. I can tell you that when you work with someone like that, you are immediately presented with a challenge. And the challenge is not anything that has to be spoken of, it’s the sheer amount of effort and thought that has come before you even are invited into the room. And James Cameron is certainly one of those people: if you should be so lucky to be invited into the room, you would immediately discover that you’re going to have to dig deep here. And you’re gonna have to bring something, the best you’re absolutely capable of. And yes, Jim has a bit of a reputation for being demanding, but as a composer, somebody who works with music, you must maintain a sense of playfulness, and I mean that in a very broad way: you have to be able to be whimsical and to let your imagination run. If you ever feel a kind of pressure, you can’t really do the job. Jim was able to present the challenge and gave the heat through his effort. And he really let me do what I could to his film. So it was a very good experience in that way, and that is the best way for a director to communicate with a composer, by doing his work: if the story is clear, I will know what to do, I won’t need to be told. Some may tell you: “Everybody thinks it’s a dog, but it’s really a small horse: you have to help us there.” You don’t have to do that with Jim Cameron, and you don’t have to do that with Bob Zemeckis.
For The Quick And The Dead, did you feel free define your own take on the western genre?
There was a tremendous sense of fun in that film. Sam has this very interesting range and he expresses it in simultaneous moments: there is darkness in this movie, but it is funny at the same time. In terms of the western aspect of it, I have been asked now and again about film composing and how we do it. One of the things that always come to mind is that we have all grown up now, especially our generations, with films. And we have been taught, through the history of films, which is not that old, to have associations. Filmmakers have used certain kind of orchestral settings, devices, certain rhythms, to express certain things. These things may have nothing to do with the music, but we’ve always heard certain kinds of rhythms in westerns or music played for westerns. And when we hear (he sings the first bars of How The West Was Won) we hear: let’s go! And when we hear (humming a tribal rhythm) we know the Indians are coming, because Hollywood has taught this to us. This goes to high strings sustained, when we’re supposed to get nervous, to sweeping strings to feel romantic… We’ve learned this vocabulary, so it is the language we use when we speak to an audience through music on behalf of a film. So when you add comedy to western and to Sam Raimi, you can actually have a lot of fun, because the slightest little rhythm or phrase sends a huge history of favourite moments in films, iconic moments. And that’s all part of our tool box when we score a film.
With Captain America and Avengers, you helped define the sound of the Marvel Universe. But then, they went in a different direction. How do you feel about that?
My sense is always that, and I am not talking only about Marvel, these are not my films. I am someone who is asked to come along into a project. If all of us are lucky, there is a captain and there is a ship. And we are the crew and our mission is to help the captain get us where he wants to go. So there could be many reasons why someone crewed on the ship on the last voyage and wasn’t invited back. I wasn’t invited to crew back on the second highest gross in film history, but I can say this: there had to be very good reasons. What they were, I don’t know, but there is a lot of money on the table, a lot of relationships, a lot of interactions between creative people and financial people, studios, producers… There is just a lot there and if that becomes the ultimate decision, I respect that. They must have the freedom to do what they think is best for their project. If I am invited, wonderful, if I’m not… Believe me, I don’t think anybody who is sitting there in an office is looking for a way to really make a mistake, and do something that is not good for the movie. That is not how anybody is thinking. The decision was made and I am fine with it. I primarily worked with Joss Whedon and I had a spectacular time with him. And based on things he had said to me, the sense was the same for him. Joss is a young man, I used to be a young man, and we might have a movie in us together somewhere out there. We will just see how this all moves forward.
Last year, you came back to TV with Cosmos, a huge project with a huge amount of music. How did you got involved?
I am very proud, happy and tickled by how I got into that. Many years ago, I got an invitation in the mail, from Seth MacFarlane, to attend some event for Family Guy. I don’t know if it was the 100th episode… Whatever it was, I never met Seth. My two sons were quite a bit younger then and they were insane fans of Family Guy. And for anyone who is a dad with teenage sons, anything that would make you look cool in the eyes of your sons is worth going to the ends of the earth! (laughs) So here it was: this was the Rosetta stone, the Holy Grail! I had an invitation from Seth MacFarlane that I could show my sons, going like “See? See? Seth wants me here!” I couldn’t make it, so I wrote a note in reply saying: “Dear Seth, I’m devastated I can’t come, but we are all huge fans in the family.” Next thing I know, I got a phone call from Seth, who is the most lovely, smart man… He is like a burning candle, but even a candle is not bright enough, I don’t know what kind of light could possibly do! It comes right through the phone line! And he starts to talk about Back To The Future: it turns out that he is a crazed fan of the movie. The next thing I get is an e-mail, and it’s the one sheet from Back To The Future, with Doc and Marty coming out of the DeLorean, only now it is Seth MacFarlane. He had actually recreated the one sheet, with the sunglasses and the life preserver, but with him instead! And then, he’s telling me that he actually had a DeLorean built that look exactly the way it does in the movie, and when you push the buttons, it plays the theme of the movie!
So we are like mutual fan boys, it is how this all turns out. So we are talking together every couple of months, a text or a phone call… And we do that for years now. But one day he called, talking about this project he had and asking me if I would do something on it. I said I would do whatever he wants. A year went by until the phone rang again and he told me about Cosmos. I did Contact with Ann Druyan, it was Carl Sagan’s book, with Bob Zemeckis. And so I gave Seth the same answer: I’ll do whatever you want. We talked, and I talked to Annie whom I hadn’t met since Contact. The schedule was insane. But my answer to Seth is yes, if I can do it, if there is a way to do it and you want me to do it, then I’m doing it. That’s how all that happened! It was not like working on a movie that Seth was doing, because he was a sort of shepherd, the godfather of Cosmos, but I was still working with him. So the answer was of course yes. It was fantastic, I think the world of this guy. And my offer stands with him: if he wants me to do something, I’m in.
Can you tell us about your last score for Robert Zemeckis, The Walk?
This is a story that Bob was attracted to literally ten years ago. There was an amazing documentary done, about 8 years ago, called Man On The Wire. It won the Academy Award. It is the story of a young man, I think he was 24 years-old at the time, who decided he was going to stretch a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and walk. It was an interesting challenge for me. Bob, as I mentioned earlier, is always very direct, and when we were spotting this film, he was certainly very passionate about it. And the walk itself he was extremely passionate about, he even described that when Philippe Petit wire walked the World Trade Center, he did it early in the morning. They had been up all night, planning and actually stretching the wire, and he was on the wire for 45 minutes. Some stills were taken but no one ever got it together to have a movie camera, or even begin to shoot any kind of film. So there is no film footage of this walk. So we had the spotting sessions, which we all normally have, and we get to the walk, which is really the last third of the film, and Bob turns to me and he says: “You know, Al, I don’t have a lot going on up here. I mean I’ve got Joseph Gordon Levitt, who is doing great… Once in a while we have a little wind… So I’m gonna be looking to you to help me.” And I said: “OK Bob”. And then he ends by saying: “You and I are gonna get this right.” That is when your stomach rises up to your shoulder somehow! (laughs).
Anyway, I did the normal thing: I went home and got scared and nervous, and did the normal thing by doing everything I could to not get on the wire! I started with the source music, the street music and the first cue, that was going to be a promise of whatever thematically was going to happen on the wire, and appeared in the first reel. I did something, and it was nice… And I sent it to Bob and I got the worse response I could imagine: I got a message that said: “We should talk about this.” (laughs) So I called him: “What are you thinking?” And he says: “I don’t have a comment on this.” “What do you mean exactly?” “You know, my sense is that what happens on the wire is going to be brought forward to here.” There is this kind of pause and he says: “I think you’re gonna have to get up on the wire.” And that is really what I had to do, I had to skip all the way through the film, and I had to go to the place where Philippe takes his foot off the building and begins to go. That was a six and a half minutes sequence. It was difficult for me. The worst part was, once we got to the other end, he was going to cross 5 or 6 more times. So we were just getting started here! Anyway, it was interesting because in all the action sequences I have done with Bob over the years, we’ve always have horses, guns, cars, noises and stuff… And here, this was the action sequence of this film, and it was basically silent. So it was a very different kind of experience, but we didn’t die! And it’s always great when you don’t die during this job! (laughs)
Balance is the main theme of The Walk. How did you find balance yourself for your music, between all those different styles?
That is one of the best question I’ve ever been asked. I’m saying that because obviously, that entire film, that entire event (not necessarily the film), what Philippe Petit did, had to be about balance. But this was someone who basically displayed no balance in his life: everything about how he was, from what I hear, was about not being balanced. And yet, if we look at the net sum of balance in life, if you’re going to need the most amount of balance to do one thing, then everything else will be unbalanced. I hadn’t heard anyone speak about the fact that this was an absolute display of balance. There was nothing else, other than his body, on the wire, that was balanced. And the music is basically all over the place, because Philippe is all over the place. He is not balanced, and you have to go where he is musically. You have to go where he is, as a storyteller, which Bob Zemeckis is. You have to go with him, but in the end, he has to be balanced. So, I didn’t have to deal with balance, I could let Philippe take care of that, I had to be with him and the ride that he took. And what a ride that was! It was the 19th film we did with Bob Zemeckis, and probably the most incredible thing about working with him is that he does his work. And then when he hands it to me, I have a very clear path to follow. It’s not easy, because what he has done is so extraordinary, but it is very clear, as the wire stretched between the World Trade Center towers. It’s very simple, what you need to do. You need to get on the wire and just walk on the other side. It’s right there in front of you, no mysteries! So that’s how it’s like, working with Bob Zemeckis!
You seem to be working a lot less lately. Is it to take care of your vineyard?
Writing music for films is my priority business. Anyone who does this job knows what the answer is: the phone hasn’t rang for me to do as many movies as maybe I did ten years ago. But that how life goes… That being said, a year ago, I had the busiest year I’ve had in the 45 years I’ve been doing this. And it all comes like in a big wave: Bob Zemeckis is going back into action at the beginning of the year with this spectacular film… And there are all kinds of other things floating around out there that are, as usual, probably going to arrive all on the same day. And then it will be another crazy two years. But that’s really how that works. And yes, we are making wine, and we are loving that. We have just planted another six acres within the last month and a half, and we are loving the idea of experimenting with what can grow in this environment, in this place where we live. One of our most successful new wines is a Barbera that comes from the place in Italy where my family comes from. So for us to bring something from that part of my past into where we live is breathtaking, it is spectacular. You know, I have always felt that if I were to be asked about my aspiration, it wouldn’t be to be an artist of music, but to be an artist of life. That has to do with having a spectacular relationship like I do with my wife Sandra, my relationship with my children, my father who lives with us (he’s 97), I write music for films, we make wine… And we live! That seems to be how God has dealt the cards to me: I’m supposed to be that guy, who does all that, and I’m fine with that!
Interview conducted on 23 October 2015 during the Ghent Film Festival (answers to questions 8 and 11 come from the October 24 master class by the composer).
Transcription : Stéphanie Personne
Many thanks to Alexandre Tylski for his invaluable help, to Alan Silvestri for his kindness, his spirit and the time he granted us despite his exhaustion and jet-lag, and to the lovely Sandra Silvestri: without her kind help, this interview would’nt have been possible.