Featured Creator: Chris Bacon
Bacon Sizzles Major "Source Code" Debut
When moviegoers sat down to the opening titles of Duncan Jones’s Source Code last year they were treated to one of the most impressive big screen debuts of the past decade: Chris Bacon‘s scintillating, wildly exciting main title music incorporated everything a filmmaker could ask for in terms of generating a sense of make-or-break tension, large-scale mystery and heart-pounding anticipation over the span of two and a half minutes. Bacon delivered on that promise with a score that propels and defines a brilliantly complex, time-hopping adventure that might have overwhelmed and confused the audience in the hands of a lesser composer.
If Source Code sounded more like the work of a top-rank, veteran composer instead of a newcomer, there’s a good explanation: Chris Bacon has been at work for at least seven years in Hollywood, serving on an exhaustive apprenticeship with composer James Newton Howard on a laundry list of major movie productions including Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond, the George Clooney drama Michael Clayton and the record breaking blockbuster The Dark Knight. Laboring behind the scenes programming synthesizers, doing arrangements and engineer duties and finally providing additional music cues where necessary, Bacon got a world class course in writing and producing music for some of the industry’s biggest players.
Breaking out on his own, Bacon’s work on animated films like Alpha and Omega and Space Chimps showed him able to write tuneful and charming orchestral music and to apply some perfectly-aimed pop takeoffs when satiric necessity demanded it. And the hit Gnomeo and Juliet gave Bacon (working with James Newton Howard) a golden opportunity to riff on Elton John’s classic songs. But Bacon’s work on two fascinating documentaries also shows him to be capable of writing music that is enormously inspiring, with a razor-sharp focus that allows remarkable real-life drama to register most powerfully onscreen. In Waking Sleeping Beauty, Bacon helped chronicle the artists and executives behind Walt Disney’s resurgence in the late ’80s with hit musicals like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, and in the upcoming High Ground he follows the moving story of U.S. veterans of the Iraqi and Afghan wars who take up the challenge to climb peaks in the Himalayas as a way of overcoming the physical and psychological wounds of war. Throughout both these fascinating films, Bacon’s music enhances but never overwhelms the drama, giving the viewer insight into the hearts of both artists and soldiers. It’s the work of one of the most promising new film composers on the scene today.
JEFF BOND: First thing I wanted to ask you is if you remembered what got you thinking about the idea of, even if it was when you were very young, what got you interested in film music and maybe gave you the idea that it might be something you want to do someday.
CHRIS BACON: My first real recollection of listening to movie music and thinking, ‘wow’ was Willow. I was 10 years old and I had that cassette tape. I remember my dad took me to see Indiana Jones In The Temple of Doom when I was really young and I remember loving that theme, and so as the years went on I loved seeing movies and the music always stuck out to me. I very clearly remember Jurassic Park, watching that and buying that score. I very clearly remember Sneakers, and I remember loving that sound. And so I would just start buying these CDs—my friends were buying CDs of Def Leopard and Mike and The Mechanics and I was buying soundtracks, as well as the other CDs and so I would make these mix tapes for myself of favorite cues and scores and just listen to them.
JB: And what is it about movie music in particular that you love? Why this and not Def Leopard?
CB: I also own the Def Leopard Hysteria album, but I just think movie music is designed to tell a story and I think the best movie music tells that story when it’s away from the picture. That’s just always resonated with me, the ability of a piece of music to have a narrative to it without lyrics. As much as I love “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and you know I’ll crank that up, there’s just something different about following the narrative of a piece of music that can stand on its own, but when put to picture becomes magical. And also the emotional component can be there as well. You know when watching the movie dry, it often doesn’t have the same emotional impact as when you put that music in that can inspire fear or melancholy or joy or heroism. Its ability to convey those emotions so powerfully is something I have always been drawn to.
JB: And do you remember a point in your career where you felt like you were a film composer for the first time?
CB: I think the first time I started to feel that way was the first movie I ever had music in, King Kong. I was working with James [Newton Howard] and it was such an experience being able to go to a theater and on this giant screen with a billion watts of power, hearing something that I wrote—especially in such a gigantic film. It made me realize that this is exactly what I want to do. I thought there was no turning back now, good, bad or whatever the future brings I’m just going to have to find a way to do this.
JB: You’ve worked a lot with James Newton Howard and you’ve worked with Danny Elfman and Harry Gregson-Williams on projects—what do you learn from collaborating with people who are at that level?
CB: It is really interesting to get to work with people so respected and who have such strong careers, because they all have such strong independent voices and they are all completely different, both in their personalities and their writing styles. They all definitely share an attention to detail that can sometimes be bordering on the neurotic, but in a healthy way. Something I’ve learned from being around them is how much focus, and a certain level of healthy paranoia there is about every aspect of what it takes to get a score finished. All three of them are conscious of that and do it very well and their work ethics are nothing short of amazing. All three of them have gotten to the place they are in their careers by paying their dues and having kind of maniacal work habits.
JB: What do you like about collaboration and what are some of your favorite stories about working with some of the different people you have worked with in your career?
CB: Collaboration can both be exhilarating and frustrating sometimes but ultimately everybody has the same goal of creating a great product. The biggest change from being a composer to a film composer are the rewrites, because you are writing in collaboration and so you can have what feels like the greatest piece of music you have ever written and if they don’t feel it, or if it’s not communicating what they feel like it should be, then you have to be willing to step back and say how do I fix it. It’s not so much about doing it until you think it’s done right but doing it until the filmmaker thinks it’s done right. Source Code is a great example where I came in very late in the game working with Duncan Jones, and he was a very clear communicator. He doesn’t necessarily talk music well, but he had a way of communicating what he wanted the scene to say that made it pretty clear what I needed to do musically. The best experiences are the ones where the directors are able to communicate clearly what they hope the music will say and support the scene.
CB: I think it’s important to have face time with the director, and with schedules getting the way they are and technology being the way it is, it is becoming easier to do these projects without ever actually meeting, because you can make Quicktimes and send them out to however many people you want at the same time, have a conference call, talk about it and go back in and do the whole project without ever having a face-to-face meeting. But nothing replaces the face-to-face interaction—being able to be in the room with the director, editor and producer, because a lot can be said just by how the room feels and facial expressions. Sometimes demos are derided as hurting film scoring because samples can be somewhat convincing and anybody with a sequencer and a set of sounds can write movie music, but when you get to the point where you are adding music to the movie, even with budgets declining, you are still spending a lot of money on an orchestral score. So I understand why demos have become important and I try to make them as convincing as I can before we even get to the scoring stage, so that all the kinks are worked out and it’s just the joy of making music on stage.
JB: What’s your experience on working on both big, large-scale movies and smaller budgeted movies and what do you like about each of those experiences?
CB: I think creatively they are not that different, just a different set of tools. If you have smaller budget movie obviously you are going to have to have a smaller ensemble, but I think the bigger the budget, the more choices you have, which can help. There is nothing that replaces the experience of having a 100-piece orchestra or a 40-piece choir but it’s not always necessary and sometimes it’s overkill.
JB: What is your dream project? Something you have not done yet or a type of a film or score that you have not composed yet that you’d really like to do?
CB: I would love to do a Pixar film and I will take a number and get in line on that one, just because I think as well as any other studio or production company they tell great stories and universally have great opportunities for music.
JB: Who would you say are your influences as a composer?
CB: First I have to say James Newton Howard, just because I spent so much time in the room with him through every stage of the process, from the meetings to the thematic writing to the changes to the last second rescores. I don’t think one can be around a voice that long and not pick that up so I think James is certainly an influence. I’d like to say John Williams, only because from a melodic standpoint I try to write themes, I try to write a melody that is recognizable and I think he is the best that ever did it as far as creating themes that are inseparable from the movies that they are written for. I think there are a lot of subconscious influences because I have listened to a lot of film score and a lot of classical music and a lot of music in general. One of my composition teachers said that a composer is the sum total of all music he has ever heard and I think that is probably true of me, sometimes things come out subconsciously from music I have heard before and I hope that my job is to take those influences and those voices and combine them and manipulate them into something that sounds like me.
JB: What’s something about you that people wouldn’t necessarily guess or something that people don’t know about you?
CB: I did a project recently where we talked on the phone a couple times and we were setting up a meeting time, and they said all right, we will meet you in the lobby of the post facility they were at. I hadn’t met this producer before. I see this man and after a couple minutes he comes over and says, “Are you Chris?” and I said “Yeah, nice to meet you.” As we are walking down the hall he says, “Chris, I’ve got to say after 25 years of doing this, you are not what I would imagine a film composer to look like.” He didn’t go any farther than that but I’d like to think maybe it’s because I’m tall. But that’s just always stuck with me that I am not what someone would expect a film composer to look like.
JB: You just did a documentary that involves Mt. Everest, High Ground. Tell me about working on that.
CB: The director’s name is Michael Brown, who is an adventure filmmaker and he is just crazy but in the best kind of way. He does these amazing physical feats, he has summitted Everest five times, he goes spelunking in the ice caves in the middle of Greenland and expeditions to the South Pole and he makes movies about these experiences. In this one he collaborated with Don Hahn, who produced it and I’ve done several things with Don. They took a dozen or so veterans who returned home from Afghanistan and Iraq who have had difficulty re-assimilating back into civilian society whether because of serious injury and posttraumatic stress. They take them to the Himalayas to summit a 20,000-foot peak over there. It’s kind of amazing to see—there is a man with a prosthetic leg below the knee climbing this 45-degree snowy, icy slope at one point. They did it for several reasons: one, to help these veterans see that they still can accomplish amazing things, and hopefully to help them see that with this accomplishment they can come back into civilian life and make a worthwhile contribution. You really get to know these veterans. My wife went to see it with me, and one of her comments was that you hear the term ‘veteran’ and a lot of times you think of a veteran as an older person. You see these people who are college age kids and you realize they are your peers or even younger, and so you put yourself in their place and see what challenges they face after people stop shooting at them. There is a lot of talk about veteran appreciation and it’s easy to say we love and appreciate the people who defend our freedom so much, and there are bits of the movie that mention that. One of the characters says they don’t know how to deal with you when you have posttraumatic stress—it’s almost like a phantom ailment. People will say thank you for your service but don’t get too close, stay away, and they deal with that a lot. People say thank you, but don’t realize the toll that it takes on their lives and how much help they need or deserve to show our gratitude for what they do.
JB: So what did your music have to do in that, what was the job for the music?
CB: Well there is a lot of talking and I mean that in a good way, it’s the characters themselves telling their stories, so we wanted to support what they are saying but we didn’t want it to be so dramatic and say, ‘Oh, he’s talking about when he gets hurt and so we better make it dangerous,’ or ‘He is talking about when he is sad so we have to make it sad.’ Sometimes it just had to provide a sense of propulsion to keep the story moving; not that it needed help doing that, but there are so many characters it could be difficult to follow who’s who. We were trying to find some subtle thematic material that could connect the stream of thought between characters, or connect that this is the same guy who was talking about his experience 15 minutes ago. There was a lot of emotion to what they had to say and some of the music had to support that and provide a little extra weight to the silences when they would pause, especially at the end. The last 15 minutes is the climb and many of them summit, so the music had to provide a sense of accomplishment and heroism to that experience because there is not a lot of talking while they are climbing. We even needed a little sense of danger because as the director said, these mountains can kill you just as quickly as any bomb can.
JB: How about Waking Sleeping Beauty, the Walt Disney documentary tell me about that one.
CB: That was another Don Hahn film. I’ve done I think four with Don, and he is so great to work with because he has been around and he has seen just about everything, especially in the animation world. He is such a great producer and filmmaker and he has very strong opinions and a sense of direction, but he is also collaborative and surrounds himself with people who he trusts. This was another one where there was a lot of talking, but the talking was all done through archival footage, or Don would narrate from time to time and you have these old home videos.
It’s about the resurgence of Disney animation from the mid ’80s to the mid ’90s when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg came in. Really it was Pixar before Pixar, where they had this string of hits that was unprecedented with Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, Lion King, Aladdin and the collection of people and opportunity and talent and egos and money and everything that was involved in making Disney what it was at that time. People who don’t like documentaries like Waking Sleeping Beauty because it was such a dramatic story itself, and the characters were larger than life: Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, Peter Schneider and the young people who were directing these films and Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. There is an incredible scene of a funeral, Frank Wells, who was kind of the peacemaker between Michael and Jeffrey, and just feeling the tension that was there even at the memorial service. You can hear as Roy Disney is introducing Michael Eisner, there was so much drama there and it made it such a very entertaining project to watch and to write music for. I didn’t feel like I needed to do a lot emotionally because it was so dramatic as it was, but it was a great opportunity to get in with a smaller ensemble. I think we used a couple percussionists, a couple marimbas, a couple guitars and harp and bass and drums, and a small string section to do something that would connect with the story and try to provide a motor as well.
JB: Tell me about working with Taylor Hackford on Love Ranch; what was it like working with a director who was so experienced?
CB: Originally James Newton Howard was going to score that, but things happened with budget and schedule because it was right around the time the financial world blew up, and it was a small independently-funded film so funding came and went on that and it became a big drawn out process. James was going to do it, then I was going to work on it, then James and I were going to co-score it. It got to the point where James was so busy with other things that when it came to the green light to go. It just became my project. I met with Taylor and his editor Paul Hirsch and just started writing things for them and we hit it off. We didn’t actually have the official meeting that said ‘Yes, we would like you to score the film,’ we just kept going. The experience was great because Taylor is one of those directors who is very opinionated, has a very strong point of view but is also very collaborative. He calls the shots and ultimately makes the final decisions but he will consult with other people that are around and trust them to do what they do. Paul Hirsch is such a great editor who is also very opinionated and has a very strong sense of story. I remember early on we had a meeting and in the room and there were four or five Oscar winners and me! It was one of those early surreal experiences for me but it was a great project. It takes place in the late ’70s and the score was kind of a desert rock band sound: a couple guitars, bass, drums, keyboards and a little bandonian, an argentine accordion. I wasn’t trying to be period with the sound but it conveyed that sense that this happened a little while ago, but still got to be very thematic within that rock band element.
JB: What would you say is the skill-set you have to have to work as a film composer today as opposed to 20 years ago?
CB: You have to be adaptable to both people and to technology. There are a lot of people who are very musical, who are very talented, but I think the ones with the most staying power are the ones who can be a chameleon musically, technologically, dealing with people, dealing with situations and circumstances. This is probably what I learned most from James because I spent the most time with him—he always finds a way to give people what they want and have it be an enjoyable experience. I think the guy who said, ‘Love what you do and you will never work a day in your life,’ I never thought that was totally true. I understand the sentiment and I appreciate it but it’s still work and you still have to be able to sacrifice to get it done—sacrifice your pride or sacrifice your stubbornness or your will to bend to the will of the project.