Elia Cmiral : a natural sense of pulse.
Hello Mr. Cmiral. First, what are your musical backgrounds?
I was born into an artistic family, and from my childhood I was surrounded by theater, music, books and art. My grandfather was a composer who took composing classes with Antonin Dvorak. As a teenager I played guitar, piano and drums in bands. After that, I went to a music conservatory where I took composition and a double-bass class. In Sweden, I was studying electronic music in studio EMS. When I came to the U.S., I was in the famous film scoring program at USC in Los Angeles.
How did you started to write film music?
Back in Czechoslovakia, I actually started writing for theater. The transition between writing for theater and writing for film was very natural. I moved to Prague and was hanging out with an artistic crowd. It was very attractive to me to move into the film world as it reaches a much larger audience. I was fascinated by the complexity of the film media where it combines many creative layers over and above the plot and acting: cinematography, music, sounds design, set design etc. It is kind of a modern “Gesamtkunstwerk”.
One of your first work was for the famous thriller APARTMENT ZERO by Martin Donovan.
Could you tell me more about this tango-based music from your beginnings? Did you learn tango during your music studies?
I was hired shortly after I finished my studies at USC in Los Angeles. The original composer, Astore Piazzolla, was complete the score. I didn’t study tango at all. Frankly, I only had a very vague idea of it. The producersm though, needed somebody to write the music immediately as the final dub was just 10 days away. I told them “Of course I know tango !” I went out and got some CD’s of tango music. Over night I studied them, and then started to write. Part of the score is very ambient. I did it myself using my knowledge in electronic music. The whole score was completed in just 10 days.
Is there a chance to see a release of the score for APARTMENT ZERO?
The score was released on the DRG label and later re-released on compact disc. A while ago I found a CD with my score in an English store.
Your first scores were written for Swedish movies. You’ve also composed music for the argentinan APARTMENT ZERO, the czech action movie CESTA PEKLEM and the french thriller SIX-PACK and now, you’re writing music for Hollywood movies. Your career seems to be a great trip all over the world. Are you interested to compose for different countries and kinds of cinema? Do you think it’s important to be ‘open’ as a (film music) composer?
Absolutely. I am always open to any challenging project. In the future, I would like to write for more European projects.
Sometimes, critics reproach to some hollywoodian composers to be totally closed in their universe, over-standardizing their musical styles each other, laking in creativity or imagination. And yet, there is a lot of way for doing music and different universes, classical, jazz, modern, rock, songs, country, electro, world music, etc. And now, with the use of temp-track music, film music in Hollywood seems to go stale. What’s your point of view about this subject?
First of all, it is important to understand that Hollywood has been and still is a great magnet for creative, talented people from all around the world. I am sure that every composer, irregardless of talent, experience or genre, always tries to write his or her best. But we also know that the direction of the score is dictated by the director or producer or studio. The composer is “a gun for hire” and tries to do his or her best within the given parameters. We meet the challenges of different forms every day: producer’s directions contradicting director’s, budget problems versus unrealistic demands, time constrains, 18 hour work days and much more. So everyone who wants to criticize should consider all this. And yet, with all above mentioned, have you ever heard a score by John Williams which is lacking in creativity or imagination?
Did you had already troubles working with temp-tracks on a movie score?
I don’t have any trouble with temp tracks. It’s just a simple way to establish communication with the director ; to discover what he likes and dislikes and what he expects from the score. The only tricky part for me is if I have my own music on the temp track.
Now, could you tell me more about your music for the TV Series NASH BRIDGES (1996). I think that it was important for the rest of your scoring career? No CD release of it ?
I knew some people involved in post production who pointed out my demo from the hundreds of others submitted. My music caught Don Johnson’s ears. It was my first encounter with the American TV world. It was intense, new and interesting to work with Don. I believe that every little step and achievement in writing experience counts. You always learn something. I haven’t heard any plans regarding releasing a CD of my music for Nash Bridges.
The same year, you met Martin Donovan again on the movie SOMEBODY IS WAITING (1996). Did you explored another kind of music on this movie after having composed tango for APARTMENT ZERO?
Yes, that was a completely different film and required a completely different score. It was a family drama, very moody and dark. I had a large string ensemble, solo piano and female voice. It was very exiting to be reunited with Martin and to be able to work with him again.
In 1997, you’ve written music for the video game THE LAST EXPRESS by Jordan Mechner (director of the very cult video game PRINCE OF PERSIA). You used for this score electronic music. Did you involved in all your sound design for this soundtrack?
No, I was not involved in game sound design. I wrote just the score. It was not a purely electronic score as I also had a string quartet and a girl singing one of the themes. I think I was one of first composers to use live musicians for the score for a video game.
Since scores like THE LAST EXPRESS, you seem to use intensively electronic/synth music in your works, like in RONIN, SIX-PACK, BONES, THEY, WRONG TURN, BATTLEFIELD EARTH or your recent score for PULSE, etc. Is electronics give you something particular to your music, like creating other universes, other ways of thinking music?
For me, electronica and synthesizers are an extension of the orchestral pallete. I usually write for orchestra and do synth programming/sound design at the same time. I want to have an organic sound of both worlds with both integrated into a new and exciting form.
What do you think about this new generation of film composers as Hans Zimmer and the Media-Ventures team who always use electronic music in a lot of their works? Do you think it’s the future for film music or just a fashion effect?
Electronica has been used for quite a while. I don’t think it’s just a fashion anymore. It has become a part of our musical pallete and is more or less in every score. Sometimes it is more dominant and sometimes less. Today, all sequencers and synths are powerful tools in hands of a creative composer. It gives us a great sound pallete, opening new horizons, but I think the emotional depth of an orchestra is unbeatable.
In 1998, you’ve made your first big break in Hollywood with your score for John Frankenheimer’s RONIN. Jerry Goldsmith was the director first choice. Could you tell me more about this excellent action/suspense score, for example: the use of duduk, electronics, orchestra, etc.?
What I’ve heard is that Jerry Goldsmith left because of a scheduling conflict. I did a demo for John Frankenheimer and basically scored the first nine minutes of the movie with a duduk theme. The next day, I had the job and sat with John at the spotting session. To work with John was extremely exiting and I learned a lot from him. He had a complete vision of what he wanted. He was articulate, knowledgeable, generous and gave me absolute freedom to work within the frame of his vision. He became my mentor and I cannot express enough my gratitude for his courage in giving me this opportunity. I worked hard to meet the deadline, wrote every single note anmd programmed all the sound design in the score myself. Every other day I played my fully orchestrated demos for John and Michael Sandoval, who was at the time President of the MGM Music Department. When I started to write, I felt that the location, France, was irrelevant to the story. When I discussed with John about the quality of the main theme he mentioned “sadness, loneliness and heroism”. I am always looking for new sounds and listening to different instruments just to satisfy my own curiosity. So I knew the sound of the instrument, which has already two of these three qualities, and also this sad tone of timelessness
How did you managed to write music for the french thriller SIX-PACK (2000)? Was it a consquence to your excellent work on RONIN?
Yes, the French director Alain Berberian liked the score for “Ronin” and offered me the job. I had a great time scoring the movie and I hope I will have an another opportunity to work with Alain again soon.
About temp-tracks again. In your score for SIX-PACK, I’ve noticed influences from Christopher Young’s COPYCAT score (particulary in your two main themes, for the serial-killer and the Chiara Mastroianni character). Was it a consequence of the use of temp-tracks in the movie?
It is possible but not really intentional.
Did you met personnaly the director Alain Berberian for this movie? And did you saw his cult movie for LA CITE DE LA PEUR (1994) with ‘Les Nuls’ (a famous group of french humorists) ?
I have great memories of working with Alain. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to see La Cite De La Peur. Alain sent me “Six-Pack” from France and all spotting notes and discussions about the direction of the score were done on the phone. I wrote the main themes and sent them back to him. He liked it and I started to write. Sometimes I didn’t understand the scene because unfortunately I don’t speak French, so I called Alain in Paris, put the phone in front of the speakers to let him listen to the dialogue. He would tell me what the scene was about so I could score it. The first time we met in person was in Seattle at the orchestra scoring day.
Is there a chance that we’ll hear you again on another french movie?
That is my hope and it’s definitely on my dream list. I am a native European and I love European movies.
You seems to have a solid penchant for thriller/horror movies, like STIGMATA, BONES, THEY, WRONG TURN, SPECIES III, etc. What these kind of movies give you as a composer?
Every project is a challenge and requires a different approach, has different structure and the directors have different ideas about the music. The thriller/horror score offers to me the ability to utilize extended 20th century harmony and orchestration combined with a great electronic soundscape. There is no limitation for my sound design when the electronics are combined with orchestra. I love it. I am challenging myself to find unusual solutions and avoiding clichés and always try to find some cool different sound flavor specifically for the project. My ideas often come from the movie’s plot itself.
The website IMDB (Internet Movie Database) credits you as ‘additional composer’ on RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE (2004), with composer Jeff Danna. Do you were the first composer choosen by the producers of the movie?
I was asked by the producers to write a couple of cues to help Jeff’s score and to support the producer’s idea of the score. It is not such an unusual situation nowadays.
What do you think about this generation of horror/thriller composers as the fabulous Christopher Young or the young Marco Beltrami? Did you already heard some of their works?
I am by nature curious and if I have time I like to check out what my colleagues are doing. I have a special bond with Chris going back to the very beginning of my carrier. And I love his music. As for the others, I especially love works by James Newton Howard and Gabriel Yared.
You were also recently involved in the music of the movie of two action star doing their coming back, THE CUTTER (Chuck Norris) and THE MECHANIK (Dolph Lundgren). Was it just a coincidence?
Yes, just a pure coincidence. I went for the meeting with the producers for “The Cutter” to the studio lot and I saw Doplh walking around there. I asked him in Swedish if he had a composer for his movie. The next day, I sent him a CD and the next thing I knew, I had the job. It is a paradox that we finished “The Mechanik” before “The Cutter” was even ready for scoring.
We’ll speak now about your big action score for BATTLEFIELD EARTH (2001). The film, directed by Roger Christian and produced by John Travolta, was a major flop and a big financial disaster for the producers, considered for many as one of the worst movie ever produced (we know for example that the actor Forest Whitaker expressed recently his regret for participating in this movie). The controverse about the author of the original novel BATTLEFIELD EARTH L. Ron Hubbard (founder of the Church of Scientology) was really inconvenient for the movie. I’ve three questions about this score:
1 – It was your first big hollywoodian sci-fi movie. Was it so different to work on this kind of movie, after having scored a lot of horror/thriller scores?
Yes, it was different. I had my biggest orchestra so far with choir. I enjoyed writing for it a lot.
2 – Is the fact to have composed music for a such big cursed flop was very restrictive for finding your next projects in Hollywood?
For the first when I was writing the score it was not a “big cursed flop” as you put it. As you know there are way worse sci-fi movies. That’s a fact and I am not trying to defend our movie. And if a weak movie affects somebody somehow? I am not sure about that. Our carriers always go up and down. And about the music for “Battlefield Earth” I have heard only good things.
3 – What memories will you keep about BATTLEFIELD EARTH ?
To work with John Travolta was a great experience. He was fun, supportive, inspiring and very knowledgeable about music. The score recording in Seattle was an unbelievable experience. To hear my music played by such a big orchestra was a blast.
With IOWA by Matt Farnsworth (2005), you returned to a more intimate kind of drama movie. Could you tell me more about this score? No CD release of it?
It was a very nice intimate drama. I love this little movie and I loved being able to work with Matt and his wife Diane Foster. Since the plot is located in the state of Iowa, I did some research there so I could use some local flavors such as slide guitar, mandolin, hammered and bowed dulcimer. I mixed it with some cool simple techno and retro Fender Rhodes all tied together with a string quartet. Regarding releasing the CD, I haven’t heard so far any plans, though that can always change.
Now, a few words about your new horror score for PULSE, produced by Wes Craven. You used intensively electronics in this score with orchestra and choir. You show again your taste for atonal music, dark synth atmospheres and weird noises. Could you tell me more about this dark and aggressive work?
The approach to the score was a challenge from the beginning. The producers wanted the orchestral, classical horror score. They didn’t want a cheesy rock and roll or electronic score. First I thought how can I do it? How can I create a score for a movie about wireless communication technology, paranoia and phantoms? Then I saw the Japanese film “Kairo” on which “Pulse” is based. I realized it’s actually a great idea, but to make it work I had to invent my own soundscape and seamlessly incorporate it to the orchestra. I am not talking about electronic mock-ups of the orchestra where sampled strings substitute for the real ones, but inventing the original sounds supporting the nature of the plot. And these sounds would be part of the orchestral pallette. So, in the very beginning of the process, with one of my programmers I developed a number of significantly recognizable sounds which I used throughout the whole score. For example, one of them is an extremely low single pulse tumbledown– Hey this is for the Pulse movie!--which shakes subwoofers in the theater. Director Jim Sonzero loved it we used it much more then I originally planned. To work with Jim Sonzero was a great experience. The work was intense. Jim made me explore every possible or impossible musical and sonic corner. He was always very open to suggestions, especially unconventional solutions. He was very detail-driven, like myself. I loved it.
To finish, my traditional question: do you have dream projects?
There are many dream projects and wishes to work with certain people. The list would be too long. I always have an appetite for a great epic movie, drama, mystery or action film.
The director I would most have loved to work with is, sadly, no longer with us. John Frankenheimer passed away a couple of years ago. I still hope to have another chance to write a ballet. An orchestral suite is also on my dream list.
Thank you Mr. Cmiral for having accepted to do this interview with me for the french website Goldenscore!
You are welcome.
Interview by Quentin Billard
Thanks to Tom Kidd from Ray Costa Communications.