STRANGLED NOTES

I am a film music junkie. If you were to venture into my basement office, you would find the wall near my desk covered by an obscenely large CD rack stuffed almost entirely with film music albums. Not just the obvious stuff, either, like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. You'll also find the scores to old classics like Ben-Hur, unlistenable horror like the Alien films, and complete oddballs like Brazil. You'll also find strange collectibles and promos that freaks like me fawn over like dog lovers and their four-legged friends, and even, for the truly brave, scores rejected from the films they were written for. Some people are classical music snobs; I might be a film music snob.


If there is one single element of filmmaking that led to my desire to make films of my own, it was the scores of my favorite movies growing up. When I was a kid during the VHS era, my dad used to take old submarine movies and use deck-to-deck editing to create a shortened version with just the subs and ships that was appropriate for my young eyes and ears, and one of my earliest memories of this is Leigh Harline’s theme for The Enemy Below. If that score had been available for purchase back then, I would have begged my parents for it. In my early teens I started collecting film music before I started collecting films, beginning with mainstream staples of the time like Star Wars (of course), Dances With Wolves, and Rudy, before moving off the beaten path to more challenging works.


Maybe that's why I was more worried about Voyage of the Chimera's musical score than any other element. Not having a circle of fellow filmmaker's around me at the time, nearly every minute detail of the production was tightly in my grasp. I was used to having direct control over everything. The one place I knew I would not have that was the music. While I knew just enough to be dangerous in a lot of areas, I was not, and am not, a musician. An avid listener, yes, even a connoisseur, but not a musician. I played trumpet for a few years back in my early teens, but today I've forgotten how to even read music properly. With this in mind, I knew I would have to hire a composer, but I also knew we could never afford the kind of robust orchestral score I wanted. Whatever ended up on the soundtrack for Chimera would have been a compromise of some sort. I imagined finding a composer who understood the needs of dramatic scoring, but would have the creativity and resourcefulness to work within our tight budget. My sister, Kathryn, is a trained (and amazing) opera singer -- maybe she could provide some vocals for the score?


Whatever score we ended up with, I did not want a modern one. 15 years ago, I found music to love in almost every major release that came along and eagerly waited to see who was scoring each new film coming to theaters. Today, the landscape has changed completely. Maybe I’m just getting older, but these days film scoring seems to just be about providing musical wallpaper. Sound design that functions as basic support and nothing more. Even the big orchestral soundtracks these days seem emotionally muted to my ears. I compare the power and feeling of Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings with the big films of today (almost anything Marvel-related, for instance) and to me, it's as though the two works aren't even trying to accomplish the same things. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large, I find almost no interest in modern film scores. For Chimera, I wanted something that spoke to me emotionally the way film music of the past does; I wasn't sure how to do that on our budget, but I was convinced it was possible.


To my surprise, composers began reaching out to us before we even had money to make the movie. However, most of the sample pieces I was hearing were largely keyboard drones and semi-musical sound design -- a pretty far cry from what I was looking for. A New York-based composer named Martin Mahoney reached out to us during our original crowdfunding campaign, having simply run across our posting on Indiegogo. He was still a student at NYU at the time, but Martin’s music was different from the ambient and textural demos I was being sent. His pieces were melodic, orchestral sounding, and emotional. They were fully orchestrated, using sampled instruments, but had a robust sound that went beyond the usual “mock orchestra” sound. I asked him to score our conceptual trailer, and he came through with a dynamic piece for full orchestra that blew my expectations apart. We initially released the trailer with production library music in it, with the final version with Martin’s music coming out a couple of weeks later. The difference is night and day. Martin’s talent for melody, orchestration, and, of course, drama was immediately evident.


Eight months later, the movie was in the can, and editing was well underway. I contacted Martin and began the process of figuring out what kind of score we could have. I saw Voyage Of The Chimera as a broad canvas that could be approached in a variety of musical ways, but I definitely had some specific ideas on what I wanted the score not to be. I sometimes hear people say that a movie, a story, should not tell the audience how to feel. While there is something to this argument and, I think, a place for that approach, my favorite stories usually have a firm point of view. They actively work on your emotions and tell you a story as opposed to simply giving you an experience. There is, I think, a difference between telling a story and presenting a story. With Chimera, I wanted to tell a story and for the music to be an integral part of that. Beyond that, I wanted to avoid the modern scoring clichés of overwhelming, noisy drum tracks, endless repeating string ostinatos, and especially the foghorn-like synthetically augmented brass blasts that have been so prevalent since they first appeared in trailers for Inception – that spectrum-filling explosion of sound known in film music circles as the “Horn Of Doom.” I wanted themes, melodies, motifs, and unique instruments and techniques. Interesting musical colors and unexpected approaches. Since our budget was low, I talked about possibly indulging in a form of minimalism, creating strong musical phrases, and repeating them with slight variations that build on each other. In various contexts, I referenced a host of personal fascinations and interests that I felt might provide points of inspiration: classic mainstream composers like Williams and Goldsmith, less known but highly regarded composers like Wojciech Kilar or David Arnold, and totally out of left field artists like Vangelis and Ryuichi Sakamoto. My temp track was an eclectic mix of orchestral, electronic, retro, and yes, even a very few modern pieces. I talked about Christopher Young’s rarely referenced score for Swordfish and its strident, sometimes almost horror-like thriller score for an action blockbuster. I wanted parts of the score to have a surprising edge to them.


If Martin thought these ideas strange or contradictory, he didn’t show it, but instead considered everything I rattled off, and then sought to write what he felt was appropriate for the film with those ideas in mind. Occasionally we disagreed, but I consider that one of the best parts of the process; disagreements force you to talk it out and really dig into what the scene is about; confronting a disagreement from a position of mutual respect and trust often allowed us to not only solve musical problems in a way we both were happy with but to find things that neither of us had considered. Martin began by writing several major themes, the first being one for the ship and its crew. I told Martin I wanted something expansive, but not overtly heroic or steeped in cliched militarism. Martin’s simple 5 note phrase opens the film with a blast of epic brass that encapsulates this idea perfectly.


Martin agreed that an orchestral approach would be ideal if we had the money, but since we did not, he convinced me he could use sampled instruments to do it. This would mean using live recordings of actual instruments playing single notes, sometimes solo, sometimes in groups, but having software "perform" those recordings according to his music. Large sample libraries are readily available today, giving low-budget projects, and even individual artists the ability to have their work played by an “orchestra.” Still, I was nervous -- what if it sounded cheap? Making sampled orchestra sound good requires a composer/orchestrator to tweak individual notes to create a performance, otherwise the music sounds mechanical and fake, and even then, there is nothing that compares to a real, live orchestra. This was a very real concern to me, but Martin’s confidence assured me he knew what he was doing. He did.


Hearing the finished pieces was startling, to say the least. Martin used electronic tones and textures along with his orchestral samples, melding them into a musical tapestry that flows in and out of the picture. Early in the film, Martin’s score launches into a mammoth 11-minute piece that covers the entire opening action sequence. He showed it to me in pieces as he wrote it block by block over a period of weeks. I was astonished to realize he was not doing minimalism, but a complex, fully orchestrated action piece. The sheer number of notes involved in creating it was staggering to a layperson like me.


This period of scoring the film may have been the purest fun I had making the film. Martin provided a theme for our protagonist, the young, out-of-depth captain Marcus DeVol, that was melancholy, thoughtful, and sympathetic, first heard when he is alone in his cabin opening his orders. A new, more ominous theme steps in as he reads them and they confirm his fears that he is being tasked with running down the mysterious and dangerous "White Ship." In an interview I conducted with Martin after he finished the score, he noted that this theme "was intended to signify something that is not just dangerous, but sort of awesomely dangerous." We agreed that where this theme appears and conspicuously doesn't appear, would be important to the story of this first film. Another major theme is the "open space" theme that speaks to the loneliness and eerieness of the void. For this, Martin did indeed use Kathryn's voice, singing in a haunting soprano that we felt lent something very unique to our soundtrack. I'm particularly fond of how she's joined by the full orchestra and (sampled!) male chorus about halfway through the film when the camera pulls back to reveal the Chimera against the backdrop of an enormous gas giant.


Comparing the film's two bookending action scenes is a study in contrasts on all fronts, including the score. For the opening, I had some heavy, straight stoicism in mind for this lighter sequence, which, in hindsight, might not have worked that well, and perhaps would have been a little bland. Martin's approach was to start the opening action scene in a kind of naive, almost jaunty matter that wouldn't be out of place in a pirate film. A good collaborator can surprise you with ideas like this that you've never considered.


The confrontation with Voltairine begins with a very different tone: instead of a procedural scene of military men going through their routines to capture an unarmed freighter, this sequence begins with suspense. In addition to his mysterious use of subtle orchestra, Martin broke out a large number of strange and unsettling electronic tones. The sequence explodes into something like horror eventually, as Voltairine disables Chimera with an electronic incursion that causes her systems (including the elusive A.I., Claire) to go haywire, and begins pounding her with railgun shells. Martin's first instinct was to approach it as action, but I begged him to go after it like a horror film, treating Voltairine like a monster about to eat our hopeless heroes. Despite some misgivings, he responded with a truly startling piece of grating atonality and stridence. In his words, Martin had gone to school to learn how to make music that "makes sense" technically, whereas I was now asking him to create music that "doesn't make sense." By breaking the rules, you can create some genuinely disturbing sounds, and this new piece, I feel, gives the crew's panic a terrifying edge. The music in this scene reaches an absolute fever pitch before climaxing not once, but twice, first as Chimera manages to score a direct hit but the outcome is unclear, and second when she fires one more last-chance shot that rips Voltairine in half. I feel privileged just to have been a part of creating a sequence with music like this, using nothing but computers, off-the-shelf samples, and the talents of an amazing young composer.


It has been said that making a movie is a series of rewrites: after the final draft is turned in, the casting writes the movie again, production writes it once more, and the editing process rewrites yet another time, and so on. Music is the final rewrite. And Martin’s score does just that: it provides colors, emotions, and excitement that can be added no other way. It draws you into the world and the plight of our characters and allows you to experience what they go through in the course of the story.


Martin's score is beyond anything I could have reasonably expected. From the beginning, I wanted a “real” score, but hardly dared hope we could have one. Because of Martin’s efforts, Voyage Of The Chimera has one.

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