ScoreKeeper With Composer Christopher Young Re: The Challenges Of Scoring SPIDER-MAN 3, Omitted Music From The Film, And More!!
Published at: June 7, 2007, 1:30 p.m. CST by merrick
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here with a captivating interview certain to tingle your spider senses.
Christopher Young is a prolific and talented composer who has been scoring films for over twenty-five years. Having penned compositions for such cinematic treats as A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE (1985), HELLRAISER (1987), HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II (1988), THE FLY II (1989), SPECIES (1995), THE CORE (2003), and THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005), he recently found himself the musical inheritor of Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN franchise stemming from a brief experience as cue doctor for SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004).
I was eager to talk with Chris about his experience working on SPIDER-MAN 2 and how that led him to one of the most coveted scoring assignments of the summer season, SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007). His candor, forthrightness, and brilliant sense of humor made this one of the standout interviews I’ve done here at Ain’t It Cool News.
ScoreKeeper: First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the success of SPIDER-MAN 3. Before I dive into 3, I want to go back and touch on some questions involving SPIDER-MAN 2.
I’m assuming that you snagged the scoring assignment for 3 because of your involvement with 2, which was scored by Danny Elfman. Since the release of 2 there have been a lot of stories and rumors floating around regarding your role. Can you go back and briefly outline how and why you became involved with SPIDER-MAN 2?
Christopher Young: I first worked with Sam (Raimi) on a film that he directed called THE GIFT (2000). It was a dramatic suspense film with Cate Blanchet, Katie Holmes, and Keanu Reeves set in the south which was originally meant to be scored by Danny Elfman. He actually has a cameo part in the movie as a fiddle player in the swamps. At the last minute he wasn’t available so Sam’s picture editor, Bob Murawski, who was always a big fan of my music, promoted the concept of me being the next composer in line.
Now, I should add that when I saw the very first frame of Sam’s very first film, EVIL DEAD (1981) my eyes rolled and I said “My God! This guy’s doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to do.” I said, “This is a guy I’ve got to work with! I have to work with him!’ I think I tried to approach him a few times but to no avail because he is pretty much settled on Danny.
I wrote the score to THE GIFT while Sam was in pre-production on SPIDER-MAN (2002) so he wasn’t really all that available to work with me on the music. I was left with Bob (Murawski) who is his trusted right hand man and the score was recorded without Sam at the sessions. He was too busy.
He was ultimately thrilled with the music…so thrilled that when there were a couple of key moments in SPIDER-MAN 2 that needed to be fixed and Danny wasn’t available to do them, I was called to replace him.
The two scenes I scored were the subway fight sequence between Doc Ock and Spider-Man…it was the scene in which the subway almost goes off the ledge and Spidey saves the day. The second scene I scored was the misfired experiment and the creation of Doc Ock.
I had a very short period of time to write those. We recorded them, got them into the picture and then they were immediately shipped out.
When it came time for SPIDER-MAN 3, Sam thought of me and ultimately gave me the green light.
SK: When did that actually happen? Did you get the green light pretty soon after 2 ended during pre-production on 3 or did that happen later?
CY: No, no. I didn’t get an immediate commitment from him. It wasn’t until three months later when they were in production on SPIDER-MAN 3 that he finally gave me the green light.
What I had heard is that he actually did a blind fold test and I think six composers were played for him and he ultimately chose me as being the one he really wanted.
SK: Interesting…Those two scenes that you mentioned scoring in SPIDER-MAN 2 doesn’t really apply to this question but in the case of SPIDER-MAN 3 you incorporated significant portions of Elfman’s thematic material into your music. How much time did you spend studying Elfman’s scores from the previous films? Was it a fleeting moment in your creative process or more involved?
CY: Oh, no! It was definitely more involved. I had to familiarize myself with the scores from both the first and second film. I actually got copies of Elfman’s scores and looked them over. It wasn’t until we sat down to spot SPIDER-MAN 3 that we decided which of Danny’s themes we were going to use and when and where we would use them.
I then proceeded to do my absolute best to honor the material and figure out a way to – and this was the toughest part of the job – come up with my own material that was trying to be true to myself, but at the same time acknowledge what Danny had done in the previous two films. When there are moments that require that I move from my themes to Danny’s themes then back to my themes, I would try to do it in a seamless way.
That was the big task and I’m sure they may have been worried that I wasn’t going to treat his themes with the same kind of devotion that I was going to treat my own. Quite the contrary. I definitely did my best to preserve his ideas.
SK: You mentioned earlier about deciding where and when to utilize Elfman’s themes. Who was responsible for that? Was it a collaborative process between you and Sam or did he just come out and say where he wanted to hear them?
CY: I let him tell me for the most part where he thought they should go. I’m sure at times I must have made some suggestions like maybe we should start a little bit later or maybe we should start it sooner…but for the most part he had that pretty well mapped out. My job was just to do my best to implement those ideas that he was solid about.
SK: I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time and I also really loved Elfman’s scores for the first two SPIDER-MAN films. When I heard that you were on board for 3, I was very intrigued. I knew I was going to miss Elfman’s music in 3 but what I discovered is that you composed a fresh score evoking the spirit of the previous two.
It effectively incorporated Elfman’s previous themes like a good sequel probably should, but still it’s not an Elfman score. It’s a quintessential Chris Young score and I was impressed by how big a challenge that must have been for you to accomplish that.
CY: You know what, I think you’re the first person I’ve spoken to that’s actually made a comment about that. He’s a tough act to follow. There are a lot of passionate fans for Danny’s music. Understandably so. It’s really top flight stuff.
But I was scared shitless! How do I win those hardcore Elfman people over? There’s always some concern there’s going to be this…revolt amongst the fans no matter what I did.
CY: This is the first time I’ve actually had someone say to me, “Yes. You accomplished what you set out to do – you’re using Danny’s stuff, you’re not being disrespectful to it, but yet you seem to be able to have integrated your own personality, it’s distinctively you, but somehow magically the two of them work side by side.”
SK: One of my favorite aspects to this score are your original themes and the material you brought to the picture. I think if you had tried to just write a score in the same vein as Elfman did…try to pass it off as an imitation Elfman score, I think it would have failed miserably. Instead it’s still a SPIDER-MAN score but also something new and refreshing.
CY: Yeah, there would have been no point for me to have done an Elfman rip off. It would have failed miserably.
SK: Aside from incorporating Elfman’s themes, what would you say would be some of the principle goals you wanted the music to achieve in the film?
CY: I had just finished doing rewrites on GHOST RIDER (2007) and I must say, I was a little burnt out. I said to myself: 1) What is the first and most important thing I must achieve on this movie?...To make it the bloody best score I’ve ever written in my life, for crying out loud! And it better be!
Or I better do my damnedest to make sure that it makes Sam happy because I realize this is a big, big, big opportunity and I adore Sam. He’s been so good to me. I scored THE GRUDGE (2004) and THE GRUDGE 2 (2006) which he produced through his company, Ghost House Productions, and he really facilitated that. So, 2) I was going to make sure he was happy.
3) Now we get into the music. I must say in all honesty I never as a kid was a big comic book super hero fan. Rather I was sitting around reading monster magazines like Famous Monsters From Film Land; creepy, and eerie and other kinds of things like this. Not so much comic books. I did read them. But not religiously.
I went out and bought some comics and got a feel for the material. I wanted to be respectful to the genre and to the history of that comic book series.
How does that translate to music? I know that Sam really was encouraging me to come up with instantly identifiable melodies or motives for the new sets of villains. My first job was to come up with something for Black-Suited Spider-Man, something for Sandman, something for Venom and the Black Goo and other moments for each of these characters.
I wanted to write catchy themes that had a distinctive personality. They had to be aggressive! I think the Black-Suited Spider-Man theme was the first one I wrote and that came out really quickly.
Usually when I’m writing themes I have five, six or seven, sometimes thirty false starts. But in this case I do believe that was my very first Black-Suited Spider-Man theme and its kind of scary. I went with my first one. It first makes its appearance after he had those nightmares and transforms up against the wall in his new black suit.
I wanted to make sure the Sandman theme was low, aggressive and heavy! That theme was scored for two contrabass saxophones, two contrabass clarinets, two contrabassoons and eight very low French horns.
Venom was different. Venom was supposed to be vicious. My instructions on that one were that he’s the devil personified. His theme is much more demonic sounding.
So the third goal I had for the music was to have these aggressive themes and highlight the aggressive monstrosity of the whole thing. Yeah, I guess that’s it.
SK: When you work with Sam and you’re coming up with these themes, do you lay out a menu of choices and have him choose which ones he likes or do you simply present to him your favorite?
CY: That’s originally what I suggested to him. Why don’t I write a bunch of different themes and we sit down at the piano away from the picture and I can play you option one, option two, option three of the different Sandman themes.
I think he said, “No, there’s no point in doing it on the piano. I need to see it against the picture.”
I said, “Ok.”
I just put all my chips on the table and said, “Ok, this is my preferred Black-Suited Spider-Man theme. What do you think?” Interestingly, he approved all of the themes that I wrote on source listening. There was not a single revision to the Sandman theme, not a single revision to the Venom theme, and he loved the Black Goo sound. They were all approved as-is.
SK: During the scoring process, was he a very hands-on director?
CY: This time around was much different than THE GIFT. When I scored that film he wasn’t available so I rarely saw him. He came over to my studio I think twice and that was it.
This time around he was very hands-on. He would come over for show-and-tell for virtually every cue in a mocked up format before we went on stage. He made comments on them but he didn’t make a lot of changes on them. By the time we got to the scoring stage he’d heard maybe 80% of the score and already made comments about the changes he wanted.
SK: I want to talk a little bit more specifically about the music. Among my favorite moments in the score is the music for the Sandman.
CY: The birth of Sandman?
SK: Yes. Especially that scene. It’s such a unique approach to scoring the origin of our central villain. It’s so sympathetic and tragic even though we don’t learn the reasons behind this pathos until much later in the film. How would it have changed the dynamic of the film had you played this scene in a more traditional, perhaps menacing way?
CY: It would have completely altered the perception of the moment. No question about it. I must be honest with you here…I may not have taken that course of action had Sam not directed me down that path.
He said, “This is our one window of opportunity to really develop a sense of sympathy for the monster.” Indeed this is a tragic character not too different from the Frankenstein monster. We have to, as an audience, sympathize with him because he’s going to go around and start smashing a lot of things when he’s the Sandman. But when he comes back to his human form we have to forgive him.
Yes, indeed that was a unique way to have handled the theme. Had I not necessarily been guided I may have gone in the direction you just mentioned which was scoring the theme with a lot more tension, dissidence, and expectation that this was the birth of a monster.
As a matter of fact, I think my first go around on it, Sam rejected it. That’s the very first cue I showed him actually and it did not go over extremely well because he thought I made this guy look too villainous. He would say, “No, no. Let’s shape this down and think tragedy.”
SK: So that’s probably your worst fear come true; playing him the first piece of music and having it be rejected?
CY: Oh, I was shaking in my shoes! It was so sad. I was scared shitless that this was the beginning of the end. Fortunately the next cue was a home run.
SK: Which cue was that?
CY: You know, that’s a very good question. I can’t recall. I don’t remember which cues I showed him the first day. I wish I had an answer for you.
I did a film called HELLRAISER (1987) years ago and there’s the “birth of Frank scene” in that movie that I scored in a manner that unexpected. I composed this waltz which ultimately took an ugly moment and turned it into gothic beauty.
You look at that scene and you would have thought, “OK, the birth of this disgusting creature…lets make this dissident scary stuff,” but again, I had to attribute that to the director, Clive Barker. He set me off on the right course.
SK: The action music in SPIDER-MAN 3 is some of the more powerful and muscular music that I’ve really heard in a while.
CY: Oh, excellent.
SK: I think is opens up new ears as far as action scoring goes. Especially the first Harry and Peter segment early in the film. It’s hard for me to imagine. I’m listening to this and just the sheer workload involved in that one piece of music alone seems staggering.
Was that action cue as laborious as it sounded?
CY: That action cue was a royal pain! I don’t mean that in a bad way. It was just really hard for me to get through that.
Action cues are…needless to say, they’re extremely complicated to be successful. There are lots and lots of notes and constant forward motion. Very rarely are you able to release this sense of high tension and drama.
What normally happens with a composer when writing action cues is they lose sight of the big picture…the big arc of the scene and they start focusing in on chunks. This eight bars, these sixteen bars, these thirty-two bars, whatever.
Then you start at the beginning and you put in your full energy. It’s like you’re doing a marathon. You start at the beginning. Bang! The gun is fired and you’re off and running and you get through the first thirty seconds of the cue and boy it’s been really hard to get through those but you’ve still got four minutes to go. I was thinking in blocks and my major concern on that cue was that the blocks would not coalesce into a seamless whole.
I was writing that upstairs and creating an orchestral sketch for it. What happens is that sketch then gets shipped downstairs into my recording studio where one of my synthesists started inputting it into the computer. I didn’t want to go down to hear it but my constant question to him was, “Is it making sense? Is it holding together? Does it flow from beginning to end?” He gave me really positive reports. He said, “I think you’re going to be surprised.”
I never really got a chance to go through the cues from beginning to end in my head. You see, with action cues I always force myself to review them by just playing them through in my head from beginning to end before I send them off. I was so exhausted at the end of this one I said, “I just gotta get off this thing.”
SK: You hit the nail on the head for me as far as what I find lacking in action scores these days. It’s very blocky. It sounds like you’re being fed this chunk, then another chunk and they don’t have a continuity or cohesive shape when they’re experienced as a whole.
During Peter and Harry’s first fight sequence, I could sense the bigger picture. And another thing that…
CY: It has a beginning. It has a middle. It has an end.
CY: It’s all going somewhere. The worst thing you can do with an action cue is have it peter out, you know?
SK: And the one thing about your action music in this film that really struck me – and this is something that I’m seeing less and less of these days – is you actually scored the action. You’re really contouring the shape of the action on screen. It might just be something subtle…a punch here, a swipe there, and the music is there scoring it. It’s an unfortunate thing to be impressed with because it was the standard once, but again, it just seems to be happening less and less…
CY: Oh, definitely it’s happening less and less! But that’s the way it used to be all the time.
The synth/drone/pulsing-rhythm stuff is the kind of score that has an aesthetic approach that has minimized the need to be catching things.
But this is a super hero comic book story where you have to catch things.
The magic is to know when it is valuable and when it is not valuable to be catching things. When is it the right thing and when is it the wrong thing because composers have a tendency in action cues to feel like they either need to hit nothing or everything.
Especially first time composers.
In that first fight sequence I hit a number of things but I didn’t go overboard. It could have been even more mickey-mousey if I had chosen to.
SK: Is there a moment in this score that you are most proud of?
CY: A moment in the score I’m most proud of? Ah, that’s a very good question. I haven’t been asked that one yet. Um…Oh, God! That is a very good one.
Um...Oh! It’s been awhile since I’ve done a movie where there was such continuous action at the end of it. In action films sooner or later you’re working your way to the climax of the picture and usually the shit hits the fan at the very end. It’s just how long is the fan running for and how much shit’s getting sent through it.
CY: In this movie, the last twenty minutes has continuous action. That was the tough thing. When I look back on it, I go “Wow! I got through that” and “Yes. It holds up as a fifteen minute continuous entity.” There’s a cohesiveness to it. There’s an ebb and flow that never lets go but never seems to drive you crazy because it’s too relentless.
Hopefully it puts the audience on the edge of their seat.
SK: I’m already starting to hear rumors and what not about the post-scoring issues in SPIDER-MAN 3 - much like what happened with SPIDER-MAN 2. Were there any situations where other composers were brought on board to rewrite certain things?
CY: That is very true. A lot of the themes that I had originally written to cover some of the old characters in the previous two films were ultimately dropped.
Now why were they dropped? They were dropped because Amy Pascal and Sony and Columbia at large, quite understandably felt concern that there’s not enough of the themes from the first two movies which the audience may have gotten used to hearing.
To withhold or maintain continuity they felt these themes needed to be brought back in. What did that include? They included the love scene. I had written a love scene for SPIDER-MAN 3 which appeared in numerous scenes and Sam loved it, but ultimately that was replaced.
The Aunt May material that I wrote was ultimately replaced. The sad MJ material that I wrote was ultimately replaced. I would have done the arranging myself and would have taken care of that new mission myself if I had the time but I was too busy doing the action music at the end of the movie.
The way we recorded this score was that we did it sequentially. I started writing and recording I think reel one and worked my way through the picture so I could chase the dub. So while I was working on the final action sequence at the end, they called in people to take care of adapting and arranging Danny’s love scene, Aunt May’s scene, and the sad MJ material from the first two movies and insert them in the middle of my cues.
SK: Do you know who was brought on board to do these things?
CY: I know Deborah Lurie was brought on board…and John Debney. I think that’s it. You know, I’m not even really sure.
SK: Let me ask you this…
CY: Those two were brought on board and you know, at the end of the day – I want to make sure that you understand this – I understand exactly why they did it, why they felt they had to do it. That’s just…
SK: Does that mean you agree with them or you just understand?
CY: Well of course…do I agree with them?
CY: I love the stuff I wrote. Of course I miss not having it in the movie. I like what my stuff did. That’s a tough question to answer. Do I…do I…Fine. Yeah. Yes I agree…with what they chose to do.
SK: Based on your experience working on SPIDER-MAN 3, how do you think your chances fair being asked to compose the score for SPIDER-MAN 4 if there is one?
CY: Well, I certainly am hoping that if Sam directs SPIDER-MAN 4 – which he may or may not do – he would call me back. I have a good feeling that he would. I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t.
If they get a new director, you know, I don’t know what the policy is. The director will come in with his own crew of people he had worked with before and it may turn out that someone new is brought on. This is kind of how this happens.
I certainly would love to do it. Same thing with GHOST RIDER 2. I would love to do it if that happens.
SK: You’ve been around for so many years and have composed a mountain of great film music. It seems weird to ask this question, but do you think SPIDER-MAN 3 is your breakthrough score?
CY: You know…I’m not one to say that. How it affects my career ultimately, I can’t say. I’ve been around long enough so I’ve discovered that sometimes strange things happen.
I remember after I did JENNIFER EIGHT (1992) I thought that was going to be…”Oh! Yeah! JENNIFER EIGHT!” I thought that was the one that was going to really make a big difference.
After I did THE SHIPPING NEWS (2001) – an Oscar contending drama with Kevin Spacey – everything went dry. I didn’t get a phone call for months. Ultimately though it’s going to change the way I’m perceived. The outcome and benefits may not be immediate but in time, definitely.
SK: Will there be a score CD for SPIDER-MAN 3? I haven’t heard anything about it anywhere.
CY: You know what? That’s an extremely good question. That just came up again today. Initially there didn’t seem to be much of an interest. During the past 48 hours…there seems to be an interest now. With fingers crossed this may be happening. I can’t say for sure now, but at least there’s interest sprouting up again.
SK: I would just figure it would be one of those automatic releases. Not a matter of “if” but “when.”
CY: Yeah, well. You know? I don’t know. It’s all about money. I don’t know how many copies were sold of SPIDER-MAN 1 and 2 or whether they made their money back. I’m sure they didn’t lose money. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Danny is more of a name guy than I am.
We used a huge orchestra so the reuse fee on it is not cheap. That’s the main concern…the reuse fees.
SK: Well, I’ll definitely keep my ears open.
CY: I’m praying to God it comes out too. But if it doesn’t commercially then I’ll have to do some sort of promotional thing. I do a lot of promotional stuff (laughs).
SK: So what’s next for you?
CY: I have nothing lined up at this moment. I would have to say it’s readjusting to the world without being connected to a film score, which is good. You know, traveling and spending more time teaching and advising young composers which is something I love doing.
SK: Ah! That segues me beautifully to my final question. I’m glad you brought that up because aside from being a composer you’ve also been active in the industry as a leader and a mentor. You recently relinquished your post as the president of the Film Music Society after serving six years. Do you have any other goals or aspirations within the industry apart from composing?
CY: Yeah, sure. As my career starts to peter out – which it does to everyone sooner or later – I want to segue my time commitment to turning my office here or some other space into a sort of composer’s halfway house; a place for composers who are just moving into town trying to get their careers started.
I also teach at USC but that’s a very expensive program and it’s for a select few.
I have a free class that I try to keep teaching when I have the time. I had to shut it down during SPIDER-MAN but I’m about to start that back up again. I get into motivational speaking and I get a real high when a composer walks into the office and is feeling down on themselves or on their potential of becoming a successful film composer and I try to send them off with a smile on their face.
I’ve got this space right now, which you can certainly make your readers aware of if they’re interested or thinking of moving to Los Angeles. They should e-mail me because I have a space that I make available to incoming composers and musicians. I wish I could make it free of charge, but it’s a very, very, very cheap rent.
CY: It’s a four month lease. You get to establish yourself while you’re staying at this place for four months.
SK: Chris, you’ve been most generous with your time and I’ve really enjoyed talking with you. I wish you continued success and will be looking forward to more great music in the future.
CY: Thanks. It was my pleasure.
On behalf of Ain’t It Cool News I’d like to thank Christopher Young for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with us. Not many composers are eager to discuss their music and experiences in such great detail. Chris was not only eager but excelled at it as well.
I’d also like to thank Tom Kidd for his assistance with this interview.
If anybody would like more information about his film scoring classes - or his composer halfway house - you can drop him an email at CYoung4700@aol.com, or visit his official web site HERE.