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ScoreKeeper With Composer Aaron Zigman, Who Discusses THE NOTEBOOK, TERABITHA, And Utters The Words "Gotta Eat"!!

Greetings! ScoreKeeper here high-flying my way through the clouds over Terabithia to swoop upon you an interview with an emerging star of Hollywood film scoring. A relative newbie to the world of film scoring, Aaron Zigman has defied mainstream labeling with creative and eclectic scores to films including JOHN Q (2002), THE NOTEBOOK (2004), ALPHA DOG (2006), AKEELAH AND THE BEE (2006), and FLICKA (2006). His rousing and inspirational score for BRIDGE TO TERABITHA (2007) highlights the composer’s orchestral prowess and signature use of melody. This Walt Disney Studios picture was just released today on DVD and to mark the occasion I chatted with Aaron about his score, his compositional process, and what we can continue to expect from him in the years to come. Come fly with me and Aaron!

ScoreKeeper: I’d like to go back a little bit and talk about your history. What struck me most about your evolving career is that you had already established a diverse musical career well before you scored your first film. How did you end up getting involved with so many different facets of music? Aaron Zigman: I grew up as a pianist and was exposed to many different styles of music. I started with classical music first for a year and then segued into jazz. I started making my living as a studio musician and then a producer and arranger. That gave me some exposure to many more styles of music because one minute you’re arranging a pop tune, R&B the next, or maybe a rock situation playing with a metal-head band. So I’ve had exposure to so many different things. I was into tune writing. I think any form of music is always an eye opener when there’s something that’s recognizable. I was always drawn to anything – whether it was a melody, a singer, or a piece of music – that had an attitude or style that was unique or interesting. That could be Louis Armstrong, Ron Williams, Maurice Ravel, or it could be Robert Johnson. Though I was typecast mainly in pop music as a producer and songwriter I was also typecast as a pop arranger at times and sometimes an R&B guy. I was into everything. After I had had it with pop music – because it only let me write the short form – I was into listening to classical music and writing classical concert music because the orchestra gave me a big, wide range of color. I’ve done a lot of different diverse movies because I’m able to handle those kind of styles. I feel like I’ve been able to go from a movie like THE NOTEBOOK (2004) to ALPHA DOG (2006), which is completely one-eighty. That’s where I think a lot of people have that ability and get typecast as one particular genre. Look at Ennio Morricone. He did about a dozen spaghetti westerns at the beginning of his career before he got taken seriously as a melodic writer.
SK: Even the biggest name composers at some point in there career battled a bout of typecasting. AZ: Yeah, like John Williams was doing TV.
SK: Or Elmer Bernstein’s crop of screwball comedies from the 80’s. AZ: Yeah. Look at TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962). Anybody could be surprised. I mean, I’m working on a film right now called THE JANE AUSTIN BOOK CLUB (2007). It is absolutely the most fun thing I have ever done. It’s really intelligent, it’s quirky and it’s scaled down. I’m using melotrons, weird guitars and a small chamber orchestra. In BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA it was awesome! That was fun because I love big orchestra writing, On JANE AUSTEN CLUB…I have to play it on the piano, but this is the tune I wrote today for the main theme that the director flipped out over…
SK: That’s awesome. AZ: I’m gonna take that and break it down and put melotrons in and a squeeze box. That’s a tune, you know? And that’s what I write – are tunes. That’s what I love about writing for film. I’m pontificating only because film music allows me to take all that stuff that I learned as a kid about songwriting and how to write the melody and how to write a hook and write something you can remember.
SK: All of these things that you did earlier in your career, did they just lead into each other and then eventually to film music or was film music always… AZ: I always wanted to do it. I had developed a love for the orchestra in my teens but songwriting is what I got into and playing on records is what I was into. So we go through different phases of our life. I think like anything else we grow and tastes change and tastes develop and get more complex…or I don’t know if complex is the word, but we just change seasonally and everything that I’ve done is a testament to how I think now and I continue to realize how little I know. Certainly having a background in pop music has helped me in my diversity because I’m not locked into one genre and I understand groove and the essence of feel besides just writing different difficult rhythms or simple rhythms with an orchestra. You gotta deal with the rhythm section too. That’s why pop music is really a great training ground for any film composer who understands that and there are a lot of other ones who are good at it like John Powell and Tommy Newman who understand the idea of groove and rhythm besides just writing the straight melody and hook as well.
SK: Before Nick Cassavetes approached you to score JOHN Q (2002) had you made attempts to get into film music? AZ: Yeah. When I was about twenty-six years old I had already produced and wrote a few hits and arranged a few big records and I was getting a little bit of recognition in town and so I approached a few people. One guy – I don’t need to mention his name but he’s the head of a big studio who I’ve already worked for – kept telling me “You need a reel.” I said “Oh. Well, how am I going to take the time to put my music on a picture and get a reel?” I was making my living making records. It was tough for me to make the transition until I said “I am a composer.” Not film composer. I am a composer, period. I write serious music and I’m an artist. When I stopped working for everybody else that’s when it changed for me and then Cassavetes gave me my break. So that’s how it all happened. I said that I wasn’t going to do producing/arranging/songwriting anymore. I produced one cut and arranged a cut on Christina Aguilera’s big debut album and I was cold for about a year. My manager at the time, Terry Lippman said, “Dude, you can get a lot of work now.” and I said, “You know what? I’m done. I can’t do this anymore. I love you. You’re the greatest, but I gotta follow my heart and I’m either going to get a gig scoring a film or I’m gonna teach at some college somewhere or quit!”
SK: So do you feel like you’ve made it? Have you finally arrived and found what you’ve been looking for all these years? AZ: Yeah, but I’m in that sense right now where I’m still trying to prove myself. I’ve had a little bit of success and I take it lightly. I have such a long way to go, so many things I want to do, and so many quality films I want to work on. I’m like a fearful “What have you done lately?” kind of guy. I don’t get caught up in anything. I just get caught up in the present and what I’m working on just like I played you that little piano piece. I’m excited about that because it’s a film I’m working on and I’m happy about it. There are some other films that I’m working on that are just…they’re OK, but I’m grateful to be working, let’s put it that way.
SK: The crop of scores that you’ve worked on up to this point are all pretty diverse. Not just the music that you write for them, but the films themselves are all quite different. Are you instinctually seeking out such diversity or do you think it’s a natural occurrence considering your diverse background in music? AZ: I’m actually starting to pinpoint and be a little more selective. I’ve done a total of about eighteen pictures. By the end of this year I’ll have done probably fourteen or fifteen that have been released. Four that I’ve worked on haven’t been released and so at this point I’m being careful about what I take. Not to be a highly picky snob but I just don’t want to stay in one genre unless it was orchestral. I would never turn that down. I’m being a little more selective in my process rather than take everything that comes my way. I have to be happy…and it has nothing to do with money. It has to do with the quality of food that I’m eating in my music. And I gotta eat good food at least once in awhile.
SK: (laughs). That’s a great analogy. So BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA comes along which is a major motion picture from Walt Disney Studios. What were the circumstances that led you to be hired for this project? AZ: Well, I did STEP UP (2006), which was a big hit for them. It wasn’t necessarily a big score but it got me in the door there and it was a big hit. They knew of my orchestral prowess from THE NOTEBOOK so I already had that behind me. I believe people started to take me seriously as a writer, not just a pop guy who crossed over. Even JOHN Q had a lot of big orchestral moments as well but I really believe THE NOTEBOOK was a turning point for me. STEP UP worked out good because it did some good numbers. I had the head of the studio pushing me for BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and the director wanted somebody who also had a hip quality besides just orchestral writing. He wanted somebody who could do things that were rhythmical and not just straight thematic music.
SK: Were you familiar with the book before you starting working on it? AZ: Nah, I actually wasn’t. I still haven’t read it.
SK: Can you talk a little bit about the story behind TERABITHIA. When you see the trailer it looks like this overwhelming fantasy film and it’s really not quite that at all. It’s got more to offer than just being a fantasy film. Can you plug the film a little bit by talking about the story and why this is a film people should see? AZ: I think people should see it because it’s not only a fantasy but it relates to real life and doesn’t skate around real problems. You’ve got a tragedy that happens. You’ve got a dysfunctional family and that’s a parallel of American and also worldly life. It’s real life. It’s real drama. It’s heartfelt and the kids tell a real story – an honest story.
SK: What idea in the film did you latch onto the most that you really felt inspired the whole score? AZ: Images. When I write I see color. When I write music, I sit down at the piano and a lot of times I see motion. I see color. That was my first reaction when I wrote the main theme of the movie which is this…
I felt children flying, wind, images, people moving, motion, and that’s the first thing I wrote for the movie. This theme came to me late at night at the Fox Scoring Stage when I was by myself on their piano. I went out and I wrote that theme. It just came right away. I just started playing that little motif first in the left hand and I thought about motion, the wind, the earth, and things moving.
SK: Can you walk me through your compositional process? You’ve written this theme. Where did it go from there and how did you eventually get to arriving at the whole score? AZ: Well, that moved everybody. That first piece of music there – and I didn’t play you the B section which is when you hear the voices come in…
I made up these Celtic words that don’t mean anything.
SK: I was going to ask you about that. AZ: The language is a TERABITHIA language that I came up with. I had an actual Celtic singer come over and write in Celtic – I think it was Welsh she actually wrote – and she came up with some words which I didn’t use because they were too literal. I didn’t want it to mean anything. I made up my own language from what I was hearing as if I was writing a song. So the choir becomes the voices of angels and the voice of something higher that’s bigger than them running. You have the melody which grounds you and then you have the choir that comes in that takes you to a higher plane. Voices can always bring an extra added emotion to a score if it’s done right. I use that as a secondary color. So that’s the main theme and then I wrote other themes. There’s the romantic theme, which is actually on the CD in the cue called “Entering the Forest.” That has (hums melody) in there and choir too. After that I was off to the races. It’s like THE NOTEBOOK. I wrote five main themes for THE NOTEBOOK.
SK: Do the different themes come naturally or do you find yourself toiling over them to get them tweaked to perfection? AZ: I’m pretty quick at figuring it out. As long as I stay honest. I find it natural to write something that’s memorable and the images of the movie help. Once I had the main theme, the first thing I played you (hums)…that was TERABITHIA. I do that on every movie that has pathos of that nature. Even in THE NOTEBOOK which is…
…you know, that theme. That solo piano piece at the beginning of THE NOTEBOOK, that entire piece of music is THE NOTEBOOK and everything else are secondary themes. Same thing in FLICKA (2006). Whenever I work on a movie, I write what we call an overture, or a collection of themes. In my overtures I usually write the main theme and then when these little B’s and C’s that come out of it. If the director likes the whole piece of music, then I’ve got something to pull from. I pull the melodies from those interesting B and C sections as other characters’ themes. Sometimes I’ll write an overture and the director will go “Oh! I like that part for this character.” I go, “Hmm…OK” even though maybe I had not intended for it to be that character. That certainly has happened to me. But most of the time I write directly about what the character is and I go for that particular person.
SK: Composers from a pop background and who are strong tunesmiths generally focus so much attention on melody and rhythm while their harmony remains relatively simple. You have this rich pop tradition when it comes to melody but your harmonies are far from the standard simplistic pop harmonies. AZ: My harmonies are very complex.
SK: They are. Where did you learn your harmonic language and how has it evolved throughout your musical life? AZ: I’m a pianist and my chords are (plays music), you know? Impressionism is my thing. I love Ravel and Debussy. I love the old masters and I’ve studied them so my harmonic approach is always key. To be honest with you, my harmony usually comes before the melody. The harmony starts in and then the melody just becomes obvious to me from what I’m playing harmonically. That’s my process. I sit down and improvise on the piano. Everything starts with improvisation. Any writer will tell you that – songwriter, whatever. It’s a free form and it’s all about my soul and my vocabulary. Harmony starts first. It’s not just hacking out or whistling a melody. I’m not one of these guys that sings a melody into a cassette recorder. I sit down and start playing the piano and I just see where it takes me and it’s usually driven by the left hand before the right hand comes in.
SK: Hearing you talk about your compositional process it seems that you come up with a lot of material for each film that you work on. Do you usually find great material left out of a score for particular reasons? AZ: Oh yeah. It’s happened. I felt there’s been a few lost good cues but the good thing about that is…they come back. You use them for something else. In THE NOTEBOOK, I probably wrote an additional 40 minutes of music. I would say 30-40 minutes of music didn’t get used.
SK: You said you came up with five themes. Are all five themes in the film? AZ: Yeah, they are. They’re fairly evenly distributed. I feel as orchestral works, THE NOTEBOOK and BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA are my best scores but in THE NOTEBOOK the scenes were evenly distributed and they are interweaved together throughout the whole movie. There is a purpose going on there. Nick told me he wanted five themes and I wrote them. If you listen to the CD there’s a piece of music – I think it’s the opening cue – there’s an overture than intertwines all the themes. It’s about a five and a half minute piece. They’re all major keys.
SK: Are there any plans of releasing a score only CD of BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA? AZ: Oh, man, I wish we could!
SK: I’m surprised they’re not. It’s certainly worthy of its own release. I mean, they pretty much release everything now a days anyway. AZ: When Disney releases a soundtrack album they generally won’t let anybody else release the score record. They gave me fifteen on the soundtrack but I wish they had let me do a score record because there’s a lot of stuff on there. There’s three or four cues that didn’t get used in the movie that I didn’t even know were being pulled out in the end. It’s cool. I certainly got a lot of air time but I felt the score would have been better suited in those spots.
SK: How many minutes total did you write? AZ: I wrote about fifty-six or fifty-seven minutes. I think about forty-eight minutes wound up in the movie.
SK: Can you talk a little bit about what you are currently working on? AZ: I just wrote a really interesting score for this movie, PRIDE (2007) coming out in March. That’s pretty cool.
SK: Is that going be an all orchestral score? AZ: Big orchestral score, yeah, in a lot of the scenes. I did it in Abbey Road in London. Then I have a score which I’m really, really proud of – one of my top three favorite scores – a movie called MARTIAN CHILD (2007) with John Cusack coming out in October. You’ll see a totally different approach for a modern film. I’m really excited. I think I wrote my most restrained, sensitive, dramatic, emotional score I’ve ever done. I’m also working on THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB and a film called GOOD LUCK, CHUCK (2007). It’s a romantic comedy with Jessica Alba and Dane Cook. Those are the two now that I have going on.
SK: Cool. I’m looking forward to them. Well, Aaron thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about your career and your music. I’ll keep my ears open for more great scores to come. AZ: Thanks! I appreciate that.

Several interviews I’ve done for AICN have not only been entertaining but also educational for those interested in the study of composition. This was one of those interviews. Aaron’s in depth understanding of his work and compositional process sheds light on an interesting perspective that I feel many budding composers can benefit from. Around the time I conducted this interview with Aaron I received an independent short film called THE ATTACKMEN (2007). It’s a powerful and thought-provoking film enhanced by a mesmerizing score by Aaron Zigman. Upon the conclusion of our interview when I asked Aaron about the film, he commented that it was a worthwhile project he did for a friend. It’s admirable that while Aaron was toiling away over big budgeted scores like BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA he continues to take time to hone his craft on personal projects less likely to garner comparable audiences. Aaron Zigman is not as well known nor is his name spoken as frequently as the other usual suspects in film scoring. This is rapidly changing. Aaron is making a solid stand toward tackling the upper echelons of the industry ladder and we’re getting some notable film music along the way. On behalf of Ain’t It Cool News I’d like to thank Aaron Zigman for taking the time to talk with me and share his thoughts. I’d also like to thank Tom Kidd for his assistance with this interview.


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