| John Beal is the most sought after
composer for original trailer music, and the reason for his illustrious
the trailer industry is readily apparent with the release of Coming Soon! The
John Beal Trailer Project (Sonic Images, 1998). Like a "chameleon"
character actor with incredible range who can be immersed in any role
requested of him, Beal is be able to create virtually any style of
music on demand. This trademark versatility is not only
imperative in scoring the wide range of musical genres used in
also instrumental in recreating old or lost scores for new releases,
as his performances in James Horner's compilation, The Heart of the Ocean
(Sonic Images, 1998). No matter which style he chooses to
use, his music always speaks with a melodious passion and celebration
that makes it not only
an effective marketing tool, but a joyful listening experience.
Let's start by talking about scoring trailers. How does this process work?
My clients usually send me something at the last minute on three quarter inch video tape, and say "Help, we either don't have any music or the music that we have temporarily tracked in (hence temp track) is something we can't license. So we need to do something in the style of this." Sometimes they ask me to do it simply in the style, sometimes they ask me to get as close as possible, but keep them from being sued. And that is about the sum total of conversation we get to have any more. In the old days, we used to sit down like a regular film, and spot every scene, and discuss every part, every nuance of the trailer. Now, the time factors being what they are...
What is the reason that things now get done at the last minute, unlike the old days?
It's an evolving paradigm. We have a new generation of executives, who have less of a demand for musical creativity and more of a sense of cost effectiveness, and therefore tend to not want to spend time and money on the creative process. We also have computerized technology which allows for fast editing. This enables the trailer vendor, my client, to show the studio, within seconds, what a scene change will look like. The studio executives therefore assume that the music can be created as quickly, not realizing that the film editor is editing an existing product, whereas a composer is trying to create an original one.
You said in an interview a few years ago that there were only a couple of composers who scored trailers full time. Are there any more now?
My understanding is that there are probably a dozen people who legitimately call themselves trailer composers. But when I try to find out what they are doing, it is one or two projects here and there. There is nobody I know that does this as their sole career.
Apparently so. The few other composers who were extremely active are doing fewer trailers and relying more upon their libraries created for the industry.
We went from about 250 films a year being released, 50 of which had trailers were scored by me, to about 400 films, with fewer major but more independent films. They're only putting original scores in about 20 of those trailers every year, so the competition is pretty stiff. There are nearly 100 films being released this holiday season, and very few of them have any original music in their trailers. Since my wife died after a lengthy illness, the number of trailers I am accepting has reduced dramatically, concurrent with the lower number of trailers being scored. I have done a lot of television advertising campaigns for theatrical releases lately. I've also spent a lot of time gathering and processing material for the release of my new cd's.
Let's talk about your new hot release, Coming Soon! Is this the first album to be completely dedicated to trailer music?
This release from Sonic Images is the first and only one that I've ever heard of. There are lots of TV theme type albums out. TVT has done a wonderful job of bringing out all those old themes. But as far as I know, there is no compilation of original scores for trailers.
What inspired this groundbreaking project?
I was in the process of putting together a library for the trailer industry to use, and Ford Thaxton came to me and said, "I've got this great idea. Why don't we present this to Sonic Images and see if they're interested in releasing it commercially?" They were, and we spent oh, almost two months going through 1200 pieces of music. They wanted a single album and the closest I could get was enough to fill 2 cds. I didn't know what else to get rid of. I was just incredibly thrilled to have the opportunity to release this to the public. I had been getting so many requests over the years to do it, but it just wasn't economically feasible to do it on my own.
How did you choose the lucky 68 tracks?
Committee. (laughs) We sent them out to several people. Sent out probably 150 cues to several people and had them choose the ones that they thought would be most interesting to have on the CD. Mark Banning and Dan Goldwasser were extremely helpful in this process. Some cues that I have in my library tend to be knock-offs of themselves. Just as we have to do temp tracks, and work to those, a lot of times, people will temp with my own music, and say, "Can you do something just like this for our next trailer?" So some of the questions I've gotten from fans have been, "Why didn't you include this piece of music," and it's because it went through various incarnations and knock-offs. We think the representations we put on the album were the better parts of the evolutionary process.
What is the reason some of the track listings only allude to the movies they were composed for as opposed to naming them outright?
That was a legal issue. One of the studios requested that if we used only a piece of the music in the final trailer, or if the music wasn't used in the final campaign because they had gone a different direction in their promotion, that we not include the title of the film. And since one studio requested that, we figured that we would be courteous and do the same thing with the other studios. In some cases, two thirds of the cue was actually in the trailer, but the ending wasn't, therefore it is not representative of the actual final product. So we leave it up to the fans to try and guess what the films were. We think we made it clear which films we were working on.
Well, I was called in February of the year to do that portion of the trailer for Titanic, where the ship leaves the harbor and we see the romance and the famous shot of the two of them standing on the bridge with their arms in the air...that sequence in there was to be an Enya style tune. They wanted to know what it would sound like if I did it in an orchestral manner, but with voices. So that was the demo. Once we completed the piece, they said, "That's a great idea, let's have James Horner do the trailer." They sent our music to James Horner, and he composed a trailer score. They ended up using a portion of the trailer music that he wrote, and I think they also tagged it with two other pieces of music. So even his music didn't get used for the entire body of the trailer. But a lot of people have said, "Gee, it sounds a lot like what James wrote." James and I both listened to Enya, the inspiration for that, so it is hard to say where things came from. I know they had wanted Enya involved in the score itself for the film, and that didn't work out. So their second best thing was to see how they can pay homage to her without actually using her material.
I also wanted to ask you about the track called Karen's Love Theme. It is the only track that isn't a trailer cue. Tell us more about your inspiration for it.
Well, it was from another score which will be released in the future, and was included because a number of people who heard it thought it was very special. I was pleased they did, because it goes back to the very beginning of my romance with my wife. She came to London with me, while I was recording that score. That was the love theme that I dedicated to her at that time, and it became even more "our song" if you will, as time progressed. So when we lost her in March, it seemed appropriate to find some way to put a little piece of Karen for the CD, and that was definitely a cue to do.
You said this would be released as part of an upcoming project?
We have two projects coming out over the next few months. One is the soundtrack for a film called The Funhouse, which was directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Mace Neufeld. The other is the score from a film called Terror in the Aisles, which was a compilation film with clips from all the best terror, suspense, and horror films from early on, kind of a historical documentary. It was narrated by Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen. It had all the great clips from the early black and white films all the way up through then, when the film was done in '84, which included The Fury and films like that. With a few exceptions, I got to rescore all of the scenes. There were some scenes where we said, "There's no way we can rescore these, such as the Psycho scene, Jaws, and Halloween." It would have been ludicrous to do that. But the other films were things like the early Abbott and Costello films, the early Frankenstein, Dracula, and Werewolf films, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, the Alfred Hitchcock films, including The Birds, and various other films. I got to rescore in the style of the genre, so it was quite an exercise. There was a lot of music, it was a lot of work. It was also a lot of fun.
This is going to be quite a gem for horror music fans.
You mentioned The Funhouse. I read that The Funhouse was kind of a famous score. Can you tell me more about that?
It appears to have become a cult classic. It is one of those little B-horror films where they spent more money on the drool budget for the monster than just about anything else! Producer Mace Neufeld was fabulous to work with. I have been getting letters from around the world ever since it was released, begging for a copy of the score. Douglass Fake from Intrada had been trying desperately to get me to track down the masters on that so we could release it. To our horror and dismay, we found that Universal had lost every single bit of recording involved with this score.
What did you do?
What we were able to find was a 7 1/2 IPS quarter inch stereo tape with the oxide falling off in a box that had obviously been through water. Douglass took it and electronically restored it. I understand it came out wonderfully. I cannot wait to hear it.
The miracles of modern technology!
Oh yeah, to the point of, where at some places there were notes which had dropped out of the oxide, going back to a different spot in the score, picking up a spot with the exact same note, and replacing it. Only somebody with Douglass' musical knowledge could probably pull this off.
So you did not have to recreate this score after all.
Right. It is the original score salvaged brilliantly by Douglass Fake.
So when can we expect The Funhouse and Terror in the Aisles?
Soon! We're getting so much response right now from the Coming Soon! album and we have the other album Zork: Grand Inquisitor, which just came out. We'd like to see people continue to discover what's out there now. But we're very close.
Zork was one of the most fun projects I have done in a very long time because I got to work with a bunch of young, creative talent who were still fresh and excited about what they were doing. They weren't jaded and tired and worn out and beaten over the head by the film industry. I was called in at the last minute to take over from Mark Morgan who had done the previous Zork games. I met with the director Laird Malamed, who is a film score buff and has quite a collection. He was very specific about the stylistic approach he wanted to take in the various sequences. Now, the computer games of today are obviously not like the old Pacman games. They have a lot of actual film or video scenes. So they would send me sequences that we would spot, discuss, and score in the same way you would a movie or television show. There was a lot of humor involved, a lot of whimsy involved that kept reminding me of Baron Munschausen and the whole Terry Gilliam approach to film making. So even when we were doing a serious or action cue, there had to be some sense of whimsy or quirkiness to it. It was a lot of fun to do.
One thing that struck me about Zork was that it had both synthesizer and orchestral elements in it.
That entire album is all done in my home studio. There were no live musicians.
It SOUNDED like full orchestra.
That is what I am supposed to be able to pull off. My original concept was to have a keyboard and a couple of electronic modules to kind of give hints at what things were going to sound like for my clients. As technology progressed, it grew until they were asking for orchestral realizations. Then it grew beyond that to where they wanted to be able to sit in the my room, hear the whole orchestra, make a change, make an edit or a cut, and have all the orchestra parts there. So I couldn't do it by multi-tracking. I had to build literally, a virtual orchestra with a large number of samplers, playing live sampled instruments. So you'll find me occasionally in my room waving my hands in the air like a conductor conducting all these electronic boxes, attempting to make sure that the feel is right. I seriously miss the opportunities I used to get with live orchestras. More often than not, my clients say, "Well gee, you know, there are explosions and dialogue in this scene, we really don't need to hire orchestras for it--we should do it with samplers."
I know that you performed a number of tracks on the Heart of the Ocean CD.
I was thrilled to get involved with doing James Horner's music. Our composing careers started about the same time. Obviously he was able to parlay his up into a much more noticeable career than mine! (Laughs.) And his body of work is amazing. I think his music is wonderful, and I especially enjoyed the challenge of Commando. All we had to work with was a videotape of the film, which included the sound effects of the village and all the exterior shots that were going on while the main title was being played. So we fooled with equalization and various things to try to pull out the sounds, to try to identify what was going on with the score and recreate it from that. There was no written score available at the time.
So you recreated it completely from the movie?
From what we heard in the film, by listening to the VHS tape. And for The Name of the Rose, we did a takedown of the existing synthesizer score that he had done and just redid it with what we thought were better string samples. The most difficult from a performance standpoint was the track for Vibes which has Andean flute and high strung guitars and various ethnic instruments in it that were difficult to do and recreate. I spent days, if not weeks, working on that one to make it as close as possible.
And you did it all yourself!
Well I had people come in and consult with me to make sure that I wasn't missing something. But yeah. Mostly I had woodwind players come in and talk to me about articulation so I could score it as close as possible. We discovered it was impossible to have a player exactly do the articulation, so we did it close and then went back and used the sequencer to do the duplications.
You really DO compose and play it all.
Right, but not by choice. We have sequencing programs that allow composers to do multi-track note on and note off performances. Kind of like you would have with a typewriter or word processor. We are able to do it with multiple tracks, and in each of those tracks, the computer signals a box to play. Then we can edit the sequence by cutting and pasting, same as you would a word processor, only you're doing it with multiple layers at one time. The difficulty of working with sequencers is that you have to go into the program and change the attack and release and volume and vibrato of every single note in order to bring as much of a human quality into it as possible. For instance, the hardest thing about doing strings is that if you just play a string sample on a big chord, it would sound more like an organ than it does a string section. So one of the things that we need to do is to go in and play each individual part as if we were that musician who could never quite get his finger up the finger board to the right spot and plays one note out of tune, or the other player who plays with more vibrato than the other guy next to him, or the person who makes the mistake on the third bar, and all those little things to make it sound more human.
A lot of people come from electronics and try to learn the orchestra. I grew up in an orchestra, and so I know what it's supposed to sound like. My challenge is trying to get the the electronics to respond in the same way. It's the tedious part of the craft. It's a lot more fun to write it in an afternoon, send it to a copyist, show up the next day, and stand in front of a huge orchestra, each of whom is bringing their own personality and personal problems, their lifestyles, their training, and their gift of music, to breathe life into a performance. That's a lot more rewarding and satisfying.
I wanted to ask you about mimicking other composers when you are requested to do so. How do other composers respond to your imitations?
So far, everyone's been lovely about it. They all understand the demand of the marketing people that I work for. I've been very careful to try and do exactly what that composer did in the temp track but make it different. I don't like having to get as close to as I am required to sometimes. There are times when I tell my clients that they have crossed the line, and that if they want to continue down this path, they need to get permission from the owner of the copyright, 'cause it's just ridiculous. There are places even on the album where I try to acknowledge the composers whose work I got so close to where we were legally different, but inspirationally the same as the composer.
What's your secret to mimicking a particular piece of music without actually duplicating it?
Gee, that's tough. I try to listen to every single ingredient of their product, capture all the colors as exactly as I can, and then once I've done that, I try to not ever listen to it again. And move on. It gets difficult especially with clients who want the same oboe note under the same explosion, things that you'll never hear. Sometimes it gets hard to achieve what I really want to do, which is to capture all the color and essence but write my own melody. So far so good. I am probably the only one who hasn't been sued yet. (Laughs.)
You are extremely versatile.
I love doing the trailers and love working in this musical arena because I was raised by the older composers who said that to be a true Hollywood composer you have to be able to write anything that comes through the door, whether it's gypsy music or whether it's a ballet. I worked very hard to learn to do that. About the time where I felt I was ready to start selling myself in the marketplace, the marketplace decided that they really didn't want composers who were versatile. They wanted composers who would write with the same style every time, so they would know exactly ahead of time what they were going to get. It made it difficult for my agent who said to me, "Could you just pick one style and write in that so that we can sell you as the next so-and-so?"
If you HAD to pick a favorite style that you were most comfortable with or that you would like to develop in feature films, which style would you pick?
Uh, I can't answer that! Every time I start to, I say "well gee no," because another one walks in the door and I say, "well this was the most comfortable." I tend to gravitate towards orchestral works cause that is what I was raised in. And I have a sense of melodrama, from years of watching and loving dramatic film. So the first requirement is that you have to absolutely love film if you are going to write for it. And as far as style, there are some styles that I am weaker in, but I am not going to tell YOU what they are. (Laughs.) I would love to be doing longform. I seriously miss the ability to take some of these themes which people have pointed out are wonderful themes but are way too short and turning them into something that is elongated and develops from a child into a full grown adult. I always feel like I get these great little inspirations and I have to stop them after 30 seconds.
I think Hans Zimmer said it, that it takes a lot of guts to write a melody. Most of us can underscore pretty well, in this town. One thing I try to always introduce into a trailer is a sense of melody, so even if it is not what the ultimate film is going to end up like that, there's a sense that this is a film with a theme. There is one thing that I would like to point out and that is a misconception that a lot of people have. They think that I am trying to score a trailer to fit the film and really, my job assignment is to score the trailer and the essence of a trailer as a stand alone piece of craft that really has nothing to do with what the actual film is going to end up being. So I have to approach the trailer as its own little mini-film and follow the creative input of the people I work with to score that little mini-film. It is not my intent to do what I think James Horner is going to do or what John Williams is going to do or Alan Silvestri is going to do in film down the road. There are times when I am being called after the fact, after the composers have worked on the score in the film, and it doesn't cut well for advertising purposes. My clients will ask me to write something totally different to sell the film with a whole different scope. So to those critics, who would say, "He didn't write a trailer that matched the film," or "He really missed on this one," you've got to remember that my assignment had nothing to do with what the ultimate result of the film was going to be.
I can't help myself. I always want to introduce a theme, a melody. Sometimes I'll have to go back into what I am doing for a longer form piece and strip that melody out, because what you are really doing in longform is making the dialogue the lyrics of the song, you are just supporting it. In a trailer, it used to be that way. But we are now in a new style of trailers where the music has to be as wall to wall as the sound effects and as exciting. The interweaving of music to dialogue is not approached with the same care and concern that it used to be. Possibly it is just a necessary evil because they create so many versions of a trailer that there is no way they can score them all, so what they are really looking for is a style of sound.
Are there any other changes in the trailer scoring industry that have affected your work and the way you compose?
Well, it's painful to watch some of the product go out with what we call the MTV school of editing. If it is on a screen for more than 2 and a half seconds, it's been on the screen too long. Therefore the music must also change. To me one of the greatest things that an original score can do is to bring cohesiveness to what would otherwise be jarring cuts of nonrelated scenes and tie it all together in one thematic approach. I don't know--I think of original scoring as a necessary part of a trailer. Many people approach music last and with the least amount of thought. They just want something that kind of works. They take any piece of action music and throw it up against any action picture and enough things are going to land on the cut that you're gonna say, "Well gee, that works." But to me there should be a seamless integration of music and the dialogue and the effects working all together and not conflicting with each other. I kind of liken it to getting all dressed up to go the Academy Awards, going to the most famous hairdresser and wearing the expensive diamond jewelry, wearing a designer dress, and you're just perfect from top to bottom and then you drive up in a used car. So I think the use of preexisting scores or library tracks should only be done when necessary and should not be the first choice.
Is there any style that you haven't tried?
I am sure there is a country somewhere! I am still exploring how to utilize the different genres of contemporary dance music. There are probably 20 different divisions of hip hop, rave, dance, and electronica that are an area I am trying to explore. I want to find a way to not offend those people who are die hard fans of a certain genre, but utilize them for film scoring. As far as all the ethnic styles, I love delving into music from different countries.
That is all fascinating to me. All music is fascinating to me. My son is a hip hop deejay, and I am just as excited about hearing what is coming out of his room as what I hear when I turn on the station. If it's good music, it's good music, no matter what the style is.
You seem incredibly resourceful with all the styles that are out there.
It kind of came about without planning. Instead of spending my life studying about all these different kinds of music, as they would come in the door, I did crash courses on them. I discovered that along the way, I had already been exposed to almost all of them. A lot of them had been embedded somewhere in the back of my brain, everything I've ever heard has been stored. So when I need to call up an Arabic scale, I don't just think of it in mathematical terms, I think of what I heard in the past in my life.
Now a question completely unrelated to music, just for the fun of it. What is your favorite type of pizza?
Oh, now you got me...something that has olives and mushrooms and lots of garlic and lots of dried tomatoes and things like that on it.
Many thanks to the very gracious John Beal, Michael Hoover for photos, Ford Thaxton for his support at Sonic Images, and last but not least, Scorelogue Web Magazine for making everything possible. Visit the Official John Beal Page for more information about his work.
(Interview Date: November 11, 1998)
Helen San's Reviews of other CDs by John Beal:
Zork: Grand Inquisitor
Coming Soon! The John Beal Trailer Project
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