ScoreKeeper Shakes & Bakes With TALLADEGA NIGHTS Composer Alex Wurman!! He Scored MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, Too!!
Published at: Aug. 23, 2006, 11:03 a.m. CST by staff
ScoreKeeper here with another filmic interview, this time with TALLADEGA NIGHTS composer Alex Wurman.
Aside from this and that other Will Ferrell comedy ANCHORMAN, he also garnered attention for his liquidly composed soundscape for MARCH OF THE PENGUINS released in the US last year.
His proclivity for scoring Will Ferrell comedies has certainly made him the new name in laugh-out-loud scoring but his diversity in a range of genres may solidify his name in a throng of stand-out composers.
Here’s the ballad behind the ballad of Ricky Bobby.
Vroom-Vroom! Start your engines!
ScoreKeeper: With ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGANDY (2004), and now TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY (2006) under your belt, you are now officially a veteran of scoring Will Ferrell comedies. How do you score a Will Ferrell movie?
Alex Wurman: Subtly and completely over-the-top. I don’t know if that makes any sense.
SK: Oh, I think it does.
The music in this film reminds of a lot of the great screwball comedy scores of the late Elmer Bernstein. There are moments where the music is scored very seriously highlighting the comedy, and there are moments of musical spoofing, and there are moments where the music itself is comical. With so many different ways to approach scoring a comedy, what factors let you know how a particular comedic scene should be scored?
AW: That is a really good question. It’s so tough to answer that question because we’re always flying by the seat of our pants and we’re always just responding viscerally to what we’re doing so we don’t really have a chance to theorize too much about it as we’re doing it.
It’s really a balance thing. It’s so much fun working with Adam McKay because he’ll come up with a zany idea and he’ll just start ripping and making jokes about it and that’ll trigger all sorts of musical ideas for me. John C. Reilly in the hospital was such a complete “Guiding Light” moment. In ANCHORMAN, the battle was WEST SIDE STORY, SPARTACUS, PLANET OF THE APES, and some sort of Mahler. It just sort of comes out of an improvisational response to what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing Adam McKay rip on.
SK: So it’s largely instinctual?
AW: Yeah, it’s funny because at my age now, I'm finally starting to be able to comment on this stuff. I was watching comedies that would use this kind of technique, like IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD (1963), or BLAZING SADDLES (1974), and I was too young to understand the jokes. Then I started understanding and loving the jokes but wasn’t able to make the jokes. So now I’m at the age where I can start to make these referential jokes.
SK: Comedy has to be one of the more difficult genres – not just for scoring – but just to create a comedic film is very difficult.
With Will Ferrell’s performances, the music goes such a long way to add additional dimensions to it. Without the variety of angles the music provides, such performances would come off as two-dimensional. I’ve always been fascinated when listening to comedic scores… when to play the material straight, and when to allow the music to be comical, too.
AW: Yeah, it’s very hard to go back and analyze that for me. It really is just a response. If you do it wrong you can tell. So you just adjust. There is a lot of experimentation. That’s what they’re doing with the movie too. They go in with the script and then leave the cameras rolling. They start improvising and they end up with hundreds of hours of footage. Then they try all the jokes in all the test screenings and they go with – not always the joke that gets the most laughs, because sometimes it's a matter of setting yourself up for the next scene.
Will Ferrell’s comedy is different from say Jim Carrey’s comedy…I almost liken him to Robin Williams in the sense that Robin Williams is like stand-up. There is so much improv and referencing of genre and era and things that weren’t supposed to be funny that now are funny. You have to get on the wave – it may be fifteen or twenty seconds – and ride it for that long and then flee the ship.
SK: While you were working on the film, did you find yourself needing to experiment a lot in order to get it right or were you nailing it on the first try?
AW: Well, it’s usually three or four tries at something and sometimes the first try is the best one but you still have to go through all the other tries just to determine that you really got it right. It’s always so much fun and we’re always laughing so we realize when we really did it right. Then we try something and laugh less. That’s when we realize we hit it right the first time.
SK: So it sounds like Adam (McKay) is very involved in the scoring process.
AW: Yeah, he doesn’t give me a whole lot of specific direction but he’s got a great sensor that says ‘This is correct’ or ‘This is not correct.’ Sometimes he’ll just paint the picture of what is funny about what we’re doing and that’ll give me a musical idea.
SK: Was there a particular scene that gave you a lot of trouble?
AW: Yeah, it was the underpants. (laughs) We tried a lot of stuff on that and ended up just taking it out. I still think what I did was awesome! It was definitely better to take it out but you had to try because it felt kind of naked. But then we realized that he’s naked why not have the scene be naked. (laughs)
SK: One of the things that struck me most about the music is how much variety there is between each individual cue. Did this make this project more fun or more of a challenge?
AW: Definitely more challenging. It’s fun also because I’m getting to write different styles of music that I would never have a chance to write in a contemporary film.
So in that way it’s really fun but the hard part is that because every cue is different – it’s not just hard for me, it’s hard for everybody on my team. It’s hard for the musicians because every single time you start to work on a new piece of music, you’ve got a whole new language you have to deal with. With a normal score, you’d have at least ten cues that are in the exact same style with the same motifs, so a lot of what you’re doing is altering that a little bit. In this case, every single cue is picking up a new palette and having to learn it real fast and get it done.
SK: How did you convey your musical ideas to the musicians? Was everything completely written out? Were they simply charted out? Were there any moments for improvisation?
AW: There was a lot of orchestral music and there was some small rhythm section stuff. I had a guitar player and a harmonica player come over here and play in my studio and just hummed them the stuff and we just put it together like that. The orchestral music had all their stuff written out and the small group stuff was charted out note for note.
SK: What would you say is the best thing that you’ve experienced being the composer of TALLADEGA NIGHTS?
AW: For me, the thing I find most rewarding, is that I’ve worked on a film that people think is funny – that I think is not only funny, but has some important…I don’t want to get sappy, but there’s some good stuff in there. There’s issues like tolerance and personal best, forgiveness, self-awareness. I think those are all really good things to be laughing about. If anybody can laugh about it that wasn’t laughing about it before – like the homosexual French guy winning in an American NASCAR race. That’s a step up.
Being able to work with Will and Adam and laughing and having fun doing something that I not only think is hilarious but strong…that’s a thrill.
SK: So after all the times you’ve seen this film while you were working on and even after you’ve completed it, when you watch it is it still just as funny?
AW: No. (laughs) Actually a lot of is. Some of it will always make me laugh. I quote it a lot.
SK: NASCAR is not just a sport in America, it’s an entire culture and way of life. Do you follow it at all? Are you a fan? If not, did you dive into it for the sake of research on this film?
AW: I flirted with the idea of doing some speed metal music and had to do a little learning on that. I’m pretty into motorcycles. I have a bunch of motorcycles and I race on and off road with them. The Speed Channel is one of my favorite buttons on my remote. I probably increased my NASCAR viewing by about 25% during that period but I’m actually more into two wheels than I am four but either way the need for speed is something that I can identify with.
SK: Your name first became prominent to me after MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (2005).
I find it fascinating because MARCH OF THE PENGUINS couldn’t be more different than your work on the Will Ferrell films. It turns out though that this small French documentary about penguins has garnered you a fair amount of public attention, more so than possibly your mainstream Hollywood films. Can you talk about the difference in success you achieved with MARCH OF THE PENGUINS in comparison to that of TALLADEGA NIGHTS?
AW: Well, the major difference is that most people really don’t care that much about the music that I wrote for TALLADEGA NIGHTS. They just go there and they laugh. Where as in MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, it’s sort of undeniably such a big role in the movie. It’s a different listener. It’s a listener who pays more attention to the artistic value of the interaction between the film and the music.
In that way, I’ve caught the ears of people who really want to utilize me as an artiste kind of composer, as opposed to a craftsman who can get into a movie like TALLADEGA NIGHTS and help to make people laugh. They’re both really fun to do although I don’t think I could live just doing one or the other. I think with ANCHORMAN and TALLADEGA NIGHTS, and some of the movies I’m working on right now, I’ve pretty much got my comedy career off the ground.
MARCH OF THE PENGUINS has done really well by me. I’ve got some really cool projects coming up in the future that will allow me to be that sort of “off-the-center” kind of melodic-harmonic composer that I really want to be.
SK: It really seems like the complete package as far as success goes. You have the small art film that’s critically acclaimed and the music is a major component and then you have the comedy that’s number one at the box office for the second week in a row. So it’s really the best of both worlds in a short period of time. Congratulations are definitely in order for that.
AW: Thank you very much. Yeah, it’s feeling pretty good at the moment.
SK: If you’re agent came to you today and said you had your pick of projects to choose from, what genre film or possibly what director would you choose as your ideal dream project?
AW: That’s a tough one. I think I’d like to get into something that has some romance and drama. I’d love to work with somebody like Wes Anderson – he’s really into Mark Mothersbaugh which they’re a great match…(thinking) I wish I could think of a director I’d want to work with. This is sort of the opportunity…
SK: Well he might read this so this is your opportunity to put the call out.
AW: I’m going to go look on the IMDB (laughs).
SK: We’ll come back to it (laughs). I’m curious…are there any hints as to whether or not you might be scoring either LAND OF THE LOST(2007) or STEP BROTHERS (2008)?
AW: Is LAND OF THE LOST an Adam McKay project?
SK: Yes, as it stands right now.
AW: Well the only hint is that I’ve done two with him and they’ve both been real good. I have not spoken to Adam since the movie came out or since those movies were announced so I’m not sure at this point. I certainly hope so. Adam is a pretty loyal guy. He called me up for TALLADEGA NIGHTS having made his decision already. We’ll see.
SK: What is next for you?
AW: I’m doing a movie for John August (Writer, CHARLIE’S ANGELS, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY) who’s a writer primarily. He wrote BIG FISH and CORPSE BRIDE. It’s produced by Dan Jinks who did AMERICAN BEAUTY.
I’m going to do another nature doc for National Geographic and Paramount Pictures.
I’m doing a British film called THE BAKER (2007) directed by Gareth Lewis starring Damian Lewis and Kate Ashfield.
I’m excited! I was on the phone with Bob Balaban about a movie he directed starring Ralph Fiennes and Susan Sarandon. That promises to be a really cool flick. There’s no contract yet but it was a really nice phone call. There’s a lot of stuff going on at the moment.
SK: So are you completely booked for 2007? That’s a lot of projects.
AW: Oh gosh! I don't even want to talk about what the schedule actually is…it’s just horrible.
SK: Horrible in a good way, right?
AW: I guess so (laughs).
SK: Well, Alex that’s pretty much all I had. Once again, congratulations on all your recent success. I’d love to see that continue for you. Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to speak with me.
AW: Great man, thanks a lot!
Thanks again to Alex for the interview and also a special thanks to Tom Kidd for his assistance.
Coming up next…an interview with a thrice-nominated composer just as adept at scoring the mind of Stephen King as he is the drama of ancient civilizations.