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Interview with Jeff Rona (1)

May 1, 2013

Not that the orchestral score is being threatened with extinction, still, electronic instruments are becoming more and more important in the composing and performing of original filmmusic. Think of David Arnold or Graeme Revell or Craig Armstrong. Think of Jeff Rona, the Media Ventures composer who has scored the Ridley Scott epic White Squall and the popular television show Chicago Hope . “Sometimes it’s okay to let a sound be normal, but usually I look for a way to turn the obvious into something abstract”, says Jeff Rona.
(From the Archives – by Peter Simons)

“I was never serious about becoming a composer”

Rona’s fascination to distort sounds began at an early age. “From a long time back I was always tinkering with things that make noise. I remember when I was very young, my family had this weird telephone amplifier. It was basically a speaker phone, but it was old and crappy. I took a great a deal of modifying it so it screamed and squealed. It drove my parents absolutely nuts! My father had a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which had a sound-on-sound button which meant that it could shut the erase-head off. So with this telephone amplifier and this tape recorder I wrote my first compositions. Just completely horrible obnoxious music! Basically it was all feedback.” During his childhood his interest in electronic musical instruments would only grow.

Jeff’s first instrument was a recorder that he had inherited. He studied the instrument and by the time he went to high school he started writing his own music. But Rona was never really serious about becoming a composer. “I took the flute lessons pretty seriously actually and played classically all through school. By the time I got into high school I developed an interest in writing music. I just – sort of self-taught, noodling – started writing music for my school band and I wrote some pieces for a local community orchestra. But I really was never serious about becoming a composer. I wanted to pursue my real interest which was to be a photographer. In fact, when I did go to college I was an art major although I did study a lot of music there. But I was a very poor student, I routinely would get D’s and F’s in music, but then again I would get D’s and F’s in anything else”, he laughs.

It was a small university with a very good music department and one day they got a grand to pursue a digital musical instrument before such instruments were really known. “They installed it in the school and it was kept under lock and key. It was a machine by a company called New England Digital, which would eventually become the synclavier but for this one you had to learn a great deal of acoustics and mathematics. And I loved it! I ended up getting a copy of the key to the building and the room where it was kept in. I would sleep there! The school closed for winter vacation and I slept there and wrote these electronic pieces”, Rona tells. His interest in electronic music and digital instruments eventually lead him to develop the sound library for the Fairlight which would become the main instrument for artists like Peter Gabriel and Thomas Dolby.

“I was sitting at the elbow of some really good composers”

Sometime in the 80’s Jeff Rona makes his way into filmscoring. Though not as a composer but as an instrumentalist. “I was doing sampling and I became the synthesizer programmer and ‘samplemeister’ for film composers. I was working with a lot of film composers here in L.A. and this became what I consider my apprenticeship in filmmusic. I was sitting for weeks at a time at the elbow of some really good composers. It is the only school there is! Eventually that lead to composers saying: gee Jeff, we are a little behind here, could you do a couple of cues for me? So I would ghostwrite.”

He was still writing his own music, mostly serious concert music that would get performed, but Rona was really enjoying filmmusic. “Because it was a blend of experimental music and pop music in a really fun way. It was a chance to use what I know about technology and my ability to create atmospheric textures and incorporate them into more traditional musical forms. But still having a sense of what makes music fit to a picture and using music to tell stories

One day he was introduced to Hans Zimmer to do some work for him. “He liked my music, I liked his music, we became very close friends in a short time. He was the person who probably helped me the most to get my own career going”, says Rona who helped Zimmer on Toys , a satiric comedy by Barry Levinson. When Levinson went on to produce the hit television series Homicide he took Jeff Rona with him as a composer. Later other series like Profiler and Chicago Hope would follow. “This lead me to add new elements to my music than just textures and electronics. My music had always been very atmospheric, but what I was starting to learn was the incredible importance of melody in my music.”

Turning point in his melodic development was the film White Squall. Directed by Ridley Scott is tells the story of a group of teenagers who sail around the world under supervision of Jeff Bridges. Jeff Rona was not Scott’s first choice. “An other composer had already composed and recorded a score, one that Ridley hated and threw out because it was too close to the temp track. Ridley then turned to Hans Zimmer for help, and Hans said: I don’t have the time but I know just the right guy. I had three weeks with a full orchestra. Hans said to me: Here’s what you need to know about Ridley Scott: write a good memorable tune and the rest will go easily. And I thought back to Alien and Bladerunner and I couldn’t even begin to remember there was something melodic in those! But it is true that Ridley does want a strong simple theme to tie it together. I took very special care to write something simple but very melodic for White Squall and it worked well.”

Still, filmmusic seems a bit underrated. On soundtrack released the original score often has to make way for pop music. “That’s interesting, because you are talking about the music without the film. There are some score that are truly astonishing music. But there are a lot of score that are astonishing only in context. If you have a beautiful painting and you remove all the red and put it in a book and say – look, here’s all the red from Picasso. Isn’t it amazing? No! It is only amazing when it is on the canvas with all the other colors. With filmmusic there is no apology needed for music that works because of its context”, says the composer. “Besides, our satisfaction comes from the fact that the music is in the film and it sounds good and makes the movie great. Not so much from selling cd’s or a cd having a life of its own. When it does it’s great, but it is icing on the cake.”

“Hans just stared at me. What’s this?!”

At first Rona wanted to write a typical Hollywood score for White Squall. “I came up with this very lavish melody and sophisticated harmony and I said: Hans, let me play you my idea for White Squall. So I sat down at the piano and I noodled out this idea and Hans just stares at me. And he said: Jeff, I recommended you because your style works for this movie. What’s this? And he was right. So he steered me away from that. I was so nervous about doing this large movie, which has amazing cinematography, and I thought I needed to keep up with that. But I was wrong. The point is not to keep up with the cinematography or editing, it is about being true to yourself. To do what comes from inside of you that fits the film, but isn’t dictated by the film musically. Because there are so many styles that would work. I scrapped it and wrote something that was meaningful to mean but was still connected to the structure and the feel of the movie and it was an entirely different thing. Far simpler.”

On White Squall the temp track ‘killed’ the first composer. How does Rona feel about temps? “I am completely comfortable with them. I think the process of temp music in a film helps the director to find a direction. I love when a good temp score comes up with some clever and unexpected ideas just to be inspired. The temp score, if nothing else, is a good catalyst to a detailed conversation about something that is very hard to talk about. Producers and composers don’t speak the same language. Producers don’t understand musical terms, but the music itself is a language a composer and director can share. In that regard I have no problems with it. I like it better when the temp score is my music, but only a little bit. Then I know what they found attracting about me. So let me use that as a springboard, but still try to surprise them.” Some composers say it is really hard to beat your own music. “Oh, I find beating my own music the easiest thing in the world. I love it when I’m writing it, but when I am done with it I am tired of it. I think: I could have done that better”, says Rona.

“The stranger it got, the more she liked it”

Sometimes producers get scared by their own movies. The producers of The In Crowd were afraid that this erotic thriller would not be commercial enough and so they cut out a lot of film – and score. “Those were my favorite scenes”, Rona sighs. Luckily Rona could get along very well with director Mary Lambert who had worked with Elliot Goldenthal and even Miles Davis on previous films. “She wasn’t really sure what she wanted for The In Crowd, but she was looking for something edgy and electronic, but not too techno. Not anything you’d hear at a rave, but still along those lines”, Rona explains. “My approach was to write dark suspenseful, a little bit funky music. I came up with a couple of themes which would help me to expand on some of the characters in the film. I created my own drum loops by running drum loops through processors, chopping them up, reassembling them into different orders and coming up with a palette of sound that I could use to write this score.”

Rona liked working with Mary Lambert. “She just has a wonderful perverted sense of drama and she gave me an opportunity to do whatever I wanted. The stranger it got, the more she liked. But the producers were very upset about some of the things I wrote. And they called the shots, so I had to tone down a lot of it and be a little more traditional. That happens, it’s very normal. The biggest trick is to find a musical approach that is interesting and personal, but doesn’t scare people away. In the end the movie is not about the music! It’s about story and character. The music has it’s place, but if it is too interesting in the wrong place it draws attention to itself then you have actually made a mistake”, Rona says.

Even though Rona loves working with distorted sounds, he has learned that sometimes it is okay to use normal sounds. “On this recent film ( Exit Wounds ) I learned to let things be a little more normal in the rhythm department so it wasn’t always the most interesting thing in the music, so it wouldn’t keep drawing your ear to. What the hell is that? Oh, it’s a drum! Sometimes it’s okay to let a drum sound a like drum, but in general I don’t like to do that. I like to come up with some technique or process to take the obvious and turn it into somewhat abstract. Otherwise, what’s the fun?”

“We are the holders of the only true magical thing in cinema storytelling”

Jeff Rona has worked with a lot of different artists in a lot of different musical genres. What does he think is the beauty of writing music specifically for film? “Filmmusic is still the most free thing you can do and still get paid for. As long as you are willing to apply what you do to the vision of other people you have a tremendous freedom, because you are not bound to things that you are bound to in commercial music. Filmmusic is a unique craft: in every other part of making a movie – acting, special effects, editing – are all designed to make a movie seem real. But the filmscore is in the only thing in the whole project that is not real. There is no music on a battlefield or when two people kiss. We are the holders of the only true magical thing in cinema storytelling. Take a scene before the score, it just sits on the screen, nothing happens emotionally. Put some music in it and suddenly it is filled with emotions that will touch the audience. Nothing is more satisfying than that astonishing blend of what I know how to do and the film which cries out for that immediate emotional engine.”

“On Mission Impossible 2 it was hard to have fun”

Since Toys in 1992 Jeff Rona is part of Media Ventures. “Most of all it is a community of people who share certain ideas about filmmusic. We share facilities and we support each other creatively, but ultimately everybody is an individual. Of all the people who work here I have probably collaborated the least.” One collaboration Rona did take part in was the M:I-2 score. “Yeah, I was in the Mission Impossible-band” he laughs. “This movie happened very quickly and Hans had come up with some basic theme ideas that were very sketch like and then he had a couple of guitar players in one room, a couple of other musicians in another room and me in my room. And we passed hard drives around. We would each do something to flesh out these sketches and turn them into full ideas. I worked with a Swiss electric cellist named Martin Tillman. A couple of cues we did on our own. The need to create a theme for the virus itself, which appears in two or three spots in the film. We basically worked for two or three weeks, twenty-four hours a day. I slept here! When I left my studio to go home, the sun was already up. It was an insane schedule, but it was fun. Well actually, it was hard to have fun on Mission Impossible . I did enjoy talking to Tom Cruise about Stanley Kubrick at 3 a.m. in the kitchen. But that doesn’t sustain you after ten days of sleep deprivation.”

Jeff also worked with renowned jazz composer and trumpeter Mark Isham on the popular drama series Chicago Hope . “Mark was interested in doing a theme, but didn’t have time to do the whole show. He called me up if I was interested. Now, I wasn’t really. I like working with Mark and for Chicago Hope Mark wrote this cool tune and I helped him arrange it to make it sound much more contemporary. It seemed to be a blend that the producers liked. It was very melodic, but not too traditional. Although it probably is some of the most traditional music I’ve written in my life! Actually, they changed  producers at some time, and they wanted a more conservative approach musically and I wasn’t interested in being a composer on a soap opera! I enjoyed writing music that was dramatic and melodic, for oboes and cellos. I used a nylon string guitar as the theme sound. They wanted something more traditional and I couldn’t. I can’t literally! I don’t know anything about that kind of music. I can not do music with to many woodwinds. So it was time to move on.”

His latest film is called Exit Wounds and was – at least for a week – number one at the US box office. The film stars Steven Seagal and is directed by Andrej Bartkowiak who did Romeo Must Die two years earlier. “I had a full orchestra and an awful lot of loops”, Rona says about the score. On Exit Wounds he worked together with a hip hop producer to create authentic hip hop music, but that collaboration was not as fruitful as he had hoped. “Many things have been written times. Some big pieces of music we tried it three or four different ways before we nailed it. Sometimes we worked apart, sometimes together. Eventually we did get it down, but the schedule was brutal and the producer is a demanding guy. It was very dramatic”, Rona sighs.

It seems a bit of trend that composers have to write more music in less time. “In this case, Exit Wounds , they had hired a composer many, many weeks before. Just assuming that everything was fine. I can’t understand that they couldn’t figure out something was wrong, when this guy wasn’t writing anything! To my knowledge he never wrote a note. Schedules have tightened up, but not all the time. This was an occasional situation. You just put your head down and do it. Ultimately no one cares how long it took you to write, all their care about is that it sounds good in the movie.”

Exit Wounds
was, according to Rona, easily the most difficult score he has ever written. Asked about what in general is the hardest thing to do the composer answers: “The hardest thing to do is a bad movie. It terms of content helicopter crashes or gunfights are actually pretty easy because you can’t really hear the music anyway. You can get by with energy and attitude. What is hard is a beautiful tune that meshes well with complex emotions and that makes people care. That’s hard. Then it is really is about the music.”

Special thanks to Jeff Rona.

From → Interviews, Jeff Rona

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