Edge of Tomorrow: Christophe Beck on Over-Scoring, Frozen and Buffy
Most of us became familiar with Christophe Beck’s music on “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.” The show’s score ranged from an entire musical episode to the heartbreaking theme from “Passion.” Since “Buffy,” Beck has had a lucrative movie-scoring career, including last year’s Oscar nominated Frozen. This summer, Beck scored the Tom Cruise event movie Edge of Tomorrow, in which Cruise plays a soldier repeating the same day over and over, resetting every time he dies. We got to speak with Beck about his latest score and get his thoughts on some trends in film music, as well as pinpoint some of his classic scores.
CraveOnline: Do you geek out over seeing movies early, pre-music?
Christophe Beck: It depends on the film. I think in the case of Edge of Tomorrow, I totally did for a couple of reasons. One is the film is really good. It’s funny and the time travel aspect, unlike many other time travel movies where you end up just kinda scratching your head halfway through the movie wondering what the hell’s going on and how this is all working, somehow the characters and the story are so strong in this film that as you’re watching it, the inevitable paradoxes that come with time travel stories cease to be any kind of a problem and you’re just enjoying this really fun ride. Second of all, this is the first time I’ve done a really big action movie, a big summer action movie. I’ve done lots of comedies and lots of big summer comedies, but never a movie like this. So for me personally, I geeked out.
So it still worked before the music?
I never saw it without music. Of course, I saw it with temp music. Rarely when I see a movie for the first time do I see it stripped of all music. There’s usually a temp score there but this comes with experience. You sort of learn to tune it out and imagine what it might be like without music. That can be pretty exciting.
Are some movies over scored?
All movies are over scored. That’s probably an exaggeration but I think in general, the Hollywood style of filmmaking involves a little bit too much music. I think filmmakers sometimes use music as a crutch and as a result, there’s too much music in too many scenes in general. There are plenty movies that come out of Hollywood that are tastefully spotted, but for my own personal taste, I much prefer the more European style or even Asian style of more minimalist spotting. I don’t live and work over there. I work in Hollywood.
So how do you balance reining it in with what the filmmakers’ want?
Well, you make your case as strongly as you can as an artist that’s been hired, presumably, for your expertise. Hopefully the filmmakers will keep an open mind and listen, but for the most part you just have to embrace the Hollywood approach to spotting. Otherwise you wouldn’t have a very long career.
What were the temp tracks they used for Edge of Tomorrow?
The only pieces that I could remember being there were from, I believe, Battleship. Honestly, I don’t remember. The temp score was never something that the filmmakers were that excited about. Nothing against the music from Battleship. It’s just in this particular film, they always knew they wanted something a little bit more unique and not generic. So as it developed, the temp score was not talked about a lot. I was on the movie for quite a long time and a lot of that time was spent, frankly, struggling to find the right tone and the right sound for the film. A couple times I brought up, “Can we look at the temp score for inspiration? Is there anything in the temp that’s working for the filmmakers?” The answer was always no, forget about the temp. Don’t worry about it.
Do you have some pieces that weren’t used in the movie?
I have a lot of pieces that weren’t used in the movie. I wrote an awful lot of music for this film, most of which did not end up in the film.
Could those show up again somewhere else?
Who knows? I try not to reuse material from other films, even if they didn’t make it into those films, simply because I like to approach each film as its own sonic universe. I think going back to different films that have different needs works against that.
If you have a bunch of unreleased music, could you put it in an album?
I could. It’s not really recorded. It’s in demo form but I’m not sure I would want to.
Does the music in Edge of Tomorrow tell us when the day is changing?
Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. I tinkered a little bit with the idea of repetition. The structure of the story is such that the main character progresses a little bit further each time the day is reset. So I played a little bit around with that idea. For example, you can have a theme and you could play the first couple of notes and then go back to the beginning, and then add another couple of notes and then go back to the beginning, and then add a few more to kind of mimic the structure of the film.
I think I only managed to do that in a couple places because it was just too restrictive a concept for what you need to do when you’re scoring your movie which is pay attention to what’s happening on the screen. A lot of times that structure just would not support what was happening on the screen. The day is reset dozens of times in the film and it would get very repetitive to approach that musically the same way every time.
I think the device that’s used most often to reset the day is a kind of hard, abrupt cut to silence with both the sound effects and the music. He basically dies every time right before the day is reset. That’s what causes the day to be reset. So you see a few scenes where right at the moment of death, whether it’s a fiery explosion or an alien killing him or a fall, right at that moment we cut back to the beginning of the first day. The sound effects abruptly cut off and the music abruptly cuts off. So it’s a pretty effective device, but you can’t do that every time or it would be too repetitive.
Is there a battle theme for the beach invasion?
No, there are only a couple of what we call traditional themes in this film. The main one is for Rita (Emily Blunt) who is I guess sort of a love interest but mostly she plays a character that has gone through the same thing he has so she becomes his mentor and partner. She’s just a badass but the initial battle scenes at the beginning of the film, and there’s three or four of them, they’re really more about setting a tone in a very subtle way and let the sound effects take center stage because we really wanted to make the audience feel like they were there on that beach with them to make it feel as realistic as possible.
The music really starts to take center stage when he, over the course of his repeating the day over and over again, gets to become a better soldier and he starts training. Eventually he becomes this crazy super soldier. At that point in the film, the music definitely takes more center stage but it’s not a traditional theme in the way we normally think of themes. It becomes more of a badass rock n’ roll approach.
You might have become the most prolific artist out of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” even more than Joss Whedon himself.
Well, that’s not a fair comparison because it takes Joss a lot longer to start and finish a project than it does me, but yes, I’ve done a lot of work.
Do you feel TV scores have been stepping up since then, like “Lost” with Michael Giacchino’s music?
I’m a huge fan of that show and that score, or those scores for all those episodes. And yes, I think TV, particularly cable TV, has become the new place where really creative folks and artists do their work. There’s been some amazing work done in TV. I watched “True Detective” on HBO and was blown away by the score, which I believe is credited to T Bone Burnett. There’s many other examples of great work being done in TV, in film as well but I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to say the quality of the musical scores is better. I can remember being blown away many times by Mark Snow’s “X-Files” scores from the mid-90s.
In “Once More With Feeling,” I always wondered, the last song, “Where Do We Go From Here” fades out as Buffy and Spike go off on their own. Was there a full recording of the cast singing further verses of that song?
Oh, now you’re really testing my memory. I believe not, but like I said that was a long time ago.
Do you remember creating the theme from “Passion?”
I do. That was a particularly inspiring episode. It was the first time, at least in my time on the series, that the death of a major character occurred. It was a great opportunity to write a very heartfelt sad tune.
With something like Frozen, who goes first, the songwriters or you with the score?
Definitely the songwriters. In a good musical, the songs are an integral part of the storytelling. They’re not just filler. They advance the plot. They reveal character and as a result, the songwriters, Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez were involved for probably a year or two before I ever came on. Even after I came on, before I wrote a note of music, I would sit in on the meetings that they would have.
I believe the filmmakers and Bobby and Kristen met via Skype because Bobby and Kristen are from New York, every morning for an hour or two going over story and where songs would be and what the songs would do so that they become a really integral part of the story. In fact, if you pay attention to the end credits on Frozen, you’ll see Kristen Anderson-Lopez, one half of the songwriting team, gets a story credit. I believe that has to do with the way “Let It Go” came about and how that was very transformative for the character of Elsa. It changed her from a traditional villain like the original Hans Christian Andersen “Snow Queen” story into a much more sympathetic character, more of a misunderstood heroine as opposed to a villain.
Is it a similar process on The Muppets with Bret McKenzie?
That’s a little bit different. The difference, I think, between The Muppets and Frozen as far as musical structure goes is that The Muppets songs are less about advancing the plot and more about just having fun and being silly and being entertaining. So I don’t recall there being quite as involved a process with the songs and the story with The Muppets, but then again I wasn’t there for that. I’m sure they had extensive discussions very early on about what the songs would be and what they would do.
But do you still hear one of those show stoppers and think that could be useful to the theme for the score?
Yes, I try to do that whenever I work on a film with original songs. I think it’s very important to give the whole experience a certain cohesion musically. I did that a lot in Frozen, a little bit less so in The Muppets because The Muppets is less dramatic than Frozen. Again, it’s more about having fun and that’s reflected in the score as well. So there were fewer opportunities to quote the tunes from the songs.
When you get a movie like All About Steve or R.I.P.D. does it all seem promising at first?
I’ll say this. Every movie is promising at first, regardless what I think the movie will do commercially or regardless of whether I even think the movie is great or not. Because for me, what gives me satisfaction in writing a score is being part of telling a story and being part of a team that tells that story. How rewarded I feel artistically has more to do with what I do than what the film does.
What is the music for Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day going to be?
I really had a great time working on that score. Miguel Arteta was a director who I’ve worked with before. He’s just one of the sweetest gentlemen you can ever hope to meet. His sensibilities are pretty quirky. I mean, he comes from a more edgy indie film background and here he was tackling a mainstream family comedy for the first time. So at first the temptation might be to score it like a really mainstream family comedy, pizzicatos of bassoons and plinky, plinky, plinky, help the audience know when it’s okay to laugh, but that’s not Miguel’s taste, so the ensemble is much smaller. It’s a much more quirky sound. The string section we used was already reduced in size and even that string section was sparingly used. It’s mostly chamber strings like quartet along with a small ensemble of rhythm section guitars, drums, bass, things like that.
It’s funny you say “help the audience know when to laugh” because when you’ve done as many comedies as you have, if the filmmaker wants to be that blatant about it, do you have to just oblige?
Yes. That’s the job. My job is to take what the filmmaker says he or she wants and take what I can glean from the filmmakers’ tastes and create something musically that fits that. There’s a certain amount of leeway for me to argue a case if I disagree or if I feel strongly that the music should be a little different than I’m asked to be doing. Most of the people I work with are happy to listen to me make my case and then either tell me, “Sure, that sounds okay, let’s try it.” Or, “No, I really want it to be this way.” Film is a very collaborative medium. Film is made by a huge team of people. The director is at the helm of this team and it would be foolish to ignore the vision and taste of the director.
Was Elektra a chance for you to do a big superhero score?
Absolutely, still one of my favorite scores. I got a chance to do some very expensive experimenting with an orchestra. I basically did a day of recording with a full orchestra at the outset before I even started scoring to picture, and then I would take snippets from those recordings and manipulate them and create new pieces out of them. I haven’t been able to do something quite like that since, though I would love to. Still one of my favorite scores and I think it has a very unique sound that holds up to this day.
Why didn’t you get to get more into Marvel world?
Well, I think it has to do with a bit of a taint that the film just didn’t do very well. As something I’ve heard ever since I was at USC in film scoring school, as goes the project, so goes your career. If you’re lucky enough to be on a project that’s very, very successful, that can be great for your career, but of course the opposite is true. I still hope to one day come back and do another Marvel movie, which may or may not happen, but I’m definitely being optimistic about it. That movie did pretty poorly at the box office, even though I enjoyed the film very much. Like I said, it’s some of my favorite work personally but I think for Marvel, they just don’t even want to think about that film.
Does the success of Frozen mean you’ll be entertaining a lot more animation offers?
Yes, for sure. I’ve already been talking to some other people about some other animation films which I can’t really talk about yet, but there will be more big animation films in my near future.
Do you remember working on “F/X: The Series?”
I sure do. That was a Canadian based project and I’m pretty sure they needed to hire a Canadian composer for that and that helped me get the gig. That was really my first series gig at all, so you always remember your first one very fondly. I learned so much and I’m still in touch with one of the producers of that show who has kind of gone on to work in films. You always remember your first time so I think of that very fondly.
Would you still want to get a TV series gig and have something steady?
No. The schedule’s too intense. I don’t mind dabbling in it now and then, and I’ve worked on some pilots, but the schedule is so different that you forget just how crazy the TV schedules can be. For example, if I get a phone call while I’m working on a movie and there’s a request, “Can you look at this scene? We have a screening coming up and we don’t have anything for this scene. Can you do that one next? Let us know as soon as you have something for us to hear.” I can say, “Sure, give me a few days” and nobody bats an eyelash. Sure, you can have a few days.
The same phone call on a TV show is a few hours. So you really have to be on call and ready to just drop whatever you’re doing and solve a problem if there is one on a TV show, week in, week out for a whole season. It’s just a grind. I really enjoy the film pace of composing which is one to three minutes a day, at the most three. It’s more like one or two. Versus TV where I was writing seven, eight, sometimes 10 minutes a day. It’s just not as much fun when you can’t spend time on it.
Who are your favorite film composers?
Ask any composer who their favorite composer is, they’ll probably say John Williams. He’s definitely at the top. He’s the master, but I’m a huge Jerry Goldsmith fan. He was my teacher at USC when I went there 22 years ago. I remember classes with him very, very fondly. I’m also a big fan of Hans Zimmer. I think he’s great at many different things but in particular he’s master of the big concept. He really tries and succeeds every film to have some kind of defining high concept that you can really hear imbued throughout the score. He also does something that Jerry was really good at too which is he’s incredibly economical. He can write these nine-, ten-minute pieces that are basically on one idea and somehow hold your attention throughout the entire piece. I’m a big Thomas Newman fan as well. He’s incredibly influential and inventive, and really invented entire sounds that have been widely imitated since he invented them.