October 20, 2010 | By

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With the 2006 release of Columbia’s remake of the underrated 1979 cult film, When a Stranger Calls, composer James Michael Dooley has taken another step in furthering a solo career, amid his continuing involvement in high profile projects with Hans Zimmer, such as the recent film adaptation of The DaVinci Code.

Dooley’s fruitful and collaborative association with Zimmer might give the impression of another action specialist in the making, but for anyone whose heard the music for the American remake of The Ring, it’s clear the cues written for that film were composed with an unusual affinity for strings; beautifully mining the vibrato of the instruments to create bass-friendly tension, and enhance the film’s algae-coated photography and slow progressions, as static and normal images become contorted and well-timed shocks for theatre-trapped audiences.

The producers of When a Stranger Calls originally sent out an open call to agencies for young and aspiring composers, or as Dooley regards, “People who didn’t have as much experience, which is kind of odd, when you think about it. Why would you want to take your shiny new $15 million dollar movie, and give it to someone who didn’t have a hundred movies under their belt?

“They told me later on that they were having lots of problems getting it just right, and they knew they were going to go through a lot of revision processes in trying to get [the film] exactly the way that they wanted; because it needed to be scary enough, and there wasn’t much action in the beginning. They knew it was going to be a great challenge, and they wanted somebody who would be really eager, and really dig to prove something.”

Having worked on The Amityville Horror (2005) with chief composer Steve Jablonsky, and The Ring, with Zimmer, Dooley knew his experience within the horror genre would be a major asset to an already glossy production – even though the target audience was the youth market.

“I was really happy that they wanted a classical score for this elegant movie. Thank God they kept it consistent… Sometimes when it’s done well, songs tell story,” he explains, but often the proliferation of songs means a movie ‘strokes a particular demographic,’ thereby limiting a film’s exposure to specific theatrical and home video audiences.

In the original film, the first twenty minutes follow the babysitter’s arrival, the increasingly threatening phone calls, the realization of the caller’s whereabouts, and the arrival of the police, before the film jumps almost a decade later to the child-killer’s recent escape. The entire narrative is tied together by a superb, close-miked score by Dana Kaproff, who used a chamber orchestra, and cool metallic percussion.

For the 2006 remake, the filmmakers chose to focus only on the babysitter’s terror in the luxurious, spacious, and isolated house, and open up the film by showing the friends who later become her distant support network when the calls, and trauma, begin.

The decision to elongate the babysitter’s crescendo of fear and isolation from 10 minutes to almost 40 in the remake later became a bit sticky for preview audiences. “In the beginning,” Dooley explains, “the movie is very beautiful. It has this really great sheen to it… and there were temp cues that they used off [my demo CD] – these long melodic cues which were profound in Ring, and had this haunting quality to them- [but] when they got the preview numbers back, people were saying that the movie wasn’t dark enough in the beginning; so we went in and revised that.”

The film’s closing music, Aftermath, alongside the mordant version in Fateful Drive, are perhaps hints at the more melodic and overtly tragic thematic material that existed in the original score conception; but a decision was made to acknowledge the film’s innate, if not obvious qualities: be less subversive, and “go dark right at the beginning,” as the composer recaps.

Dooley acknowledges that the mood, tempo, and shocks in a horror film are always in need of surgical tweaking, and if a film fails to affect audiences during test screenings, one of the first casualties is the film score. “It’s easily by far the cheapest thing to fix. You don’t want to go and open that scene up and get all those people back… [so the approach is] ‘Just re-write it. Make it better.’ It’s a lot easier, especially when you’re in post, [to fix] all those scares that might have any kind of flaws in them.” As he pointedly admits, it’s often the music that’s the first thing to be adjusted.

The final score for When a Stranger Calls, represented by an hour of music on Lakeshore’s soundtrack CD, is regarded by Dooley as “pretty much a melting pot score. Before I started writing, I watched the movie, and I was saying, ‘Oh my God, I’m in trouble. I have no idea how to mock this up to do any kind of demonstration of a cue. Because there isn’t a sample library on the planet that could handle it, I went to Prague and recorded string effects for eight hours.

“In addition to all the things that we did in Prague, [we went to Seattle and recorded] all the big hits and all the big tunes and all the scratchy stuff” – essentially the refined, chilling orchestral effects horror fans love in a good score. In cues like Exploring, elements from both recording sessions, sweetened with synth effects like “bells, booms, glassy effects,” meld into the kind of atmospheric underscore Christopher Young employed in his classic early work, and in more recent gems, like The Haunting of Emily Rose.

At NYU, Dooley studied the specifics of orchestra, earned two degrees in classical composition, and had the good fortune of studying under Young, whose own work bubbled with ideas from modern composers, including Krzysztof Penderecki, and György Ligeti.

Dooley also developed a keen interest in minimalism, a movement that sought to explore diversity through restriction, as within specific rhythmic patterns, notes, textures, and tempi. “I’m a big minimalist fan, especially in things that you’ll hear in Mars Underground, where obviously you’ll see that I’m a big fan of Philip Glass and John Adams. The genius of making that work [goes all the way back] to Erik Satie, the French minimalist who’s also very appealing to me, and is part of the things that I’ve been most actively studying lately.”

“It comes down to this idea of craft: that music is [trained] art and skill and emotions. When you have an 80 minute score, of which I’ve been facing 6-7 of them a year now, how do you do it, and get all the emotions out and get all the material to relate? It’s not like, ‘Okay, I have to write another cue and get something done.’” Dooley feels a composer must stop and ask, “‘How do I take the material that I have, and stretch it to make it more cohesive?’

“[Minimalism] always has this very integrated thematic material that’s played with. Obviously, if you listen to Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, [you’ll find] there’s a small amount of material, but used very, very well. Once you come up with a good idea, use it; hammer it home. If you look at a movie like Casablanca, it’s got one theme in it, and that’s because there’s great skill. Suspect (1987) is amazing, too.

Indeed, Michael Kamen’s Suspect is largely comprised of a percussive, eruptive suspense motif, and a fragmented melody that’s left incomplete until the End Credits. Not dissimilar to Dooley’s own efforts in minimalism, Kamen heavily employed tangential variation and recombination after some intriguing exercises in deconstruction.

Like Glass, whose minimalism figured in the documentary and visual narrative works of Errol Morris and Godfrey Reggio, Dooley is perfectly comfortable in drawing inspiration from the movement in non-fiction projects, like The Mars Underground.

“It’s funny,’ he says, a little bemused by the feature film’s odd continental predicament. “No one has seen this movie, and I’ll tell you, it’s a great documentary. It’s been released worldwide in every place, except, I believe, the United States… There’s lots of European markets that have picked this thing up,” he says, including Discovery Channel Italy.

Mars Underground combines high-definition animation – like the launching, landing and unraveling of the Martian land rovers, terraforming, and human colonization – with various interviews. As Dooley explains, “It also touches on all the political and scientific [aspects]: stories about how to get to Mars and the government’s response to withdraw funding, NASA’s plan, the disgruntled ex-NASA people who say NASA is too bloated to do it because of their infrastructure,” and cheaper ways to accomplish the mission, via private sector funding.

“It is quite critical, but it’s done from an equal playing field. There is a Mars Society, who gets together and talks about the plans and the research; it’s kind of like going to a Trekkie convention, [but] there are so many people who have put great ideas forth on how to make this happen.

“The movie was done in this Errol Morris documentary style… Originally I was like, ‘Oh God, I just don’t want to be Philip Glass light,’ but it was a great opportunity to take that minimalism… and try to do this with some contemporary edges on other sides. There’s this great big fast build, [whereas] minimalists have a tendency to be a bit slower… I was trying to take those ideas – of the Satie and John Adams – to another light.”

James Dooley’s involvement with Mars Underground came through a friend who had worked on the screenplay, and although the composer was searching for a needed break in his busy schedule – i.e., a real vacation after a taxing schedule – the film left a very potent impression.

“That day I was writing, and I’m still very proud of [that opening piece],” which pretty much follows Dooley’s style in writing a memorable, propulsive minimalist theme with a contemporary feel. Because he owns the music outright, the composer was able to release a soundtrack album, via outlets like CD Baby and buysoundtrax.com, and was stunned when it sold more than 500 copies, “and for a movie that nobody has seen. It’s a little bit fantastic. I’m still kind of in awe at the response.”

Dooley also confesses the film fell within his broad interest in science. “I’m a huge science freak… In school I was going to be a doctor; I went pre-med at NYU in addition to my classical music studies. I realized that just because you love something doesn’t mean you should do it for a living, but I still read a lot on physics; [those subjects] calm me down in some bizarre respect after a work day of toiling over notes and harmonies… It’s very relaxing to me.”

For Sony’s PS2 video game SOCOM 3: U.S. Navy SEALs, Dooley used his analytical mind to apply organized, logical concepts to what remains one of his toughest projects: writing about 3 hours of score.

“It was pretty intimidating,” he says. “When I first got the cue sheet, I said, ‘Oh, wow… Look at the cue sheet… It’s a lot of music… Okay guys, I’ll see you tomorrow.’ I actually had to go home, and have a private panic attack, because I didn’t want to freak out in my studio – so I freaked out at home. It was hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cues.”

When he first approached the score, he thought, ‘This is not going to work if you beat someone to death with heroicism; it’s too much,’” and he chose a model James Horner had successfully established in his own militaristic-themed scores.

“If you look at movies like Clear and Present Danger, or Glory, there’s always a passive side to the military, because that humanizes the whole thing,” he explains. Sony responded favorably to his design, in which a character’s insertion into the game is initially scored with aggressive material, yet a player’s demise (or extraction) by another teammate yields a passive cue, giving the massive score for multiple players and game levels an important balance.

There is a wee bit of irony as to how video games evolved into sophisticated productions, with specially commissioned scores and album releases (although Dooley’s music for SOCOM 3, as of this writing, remains unavailable on CD).

During the early years, video game creators lived under the large, dominant shadow of filmmakers. Dooley muses that it’s as though they were quietly saying among themselves, “‘The film guys have all the money, they have all the good-looking people, they have all the power. We just make these little things that go blip-blip, like Combat,’ and as they started to make money, they said, ‘Wait: we want those big things too. We want the big cinematic orchestral thing, too.’”

And as elements from big screen entertainment systems were being adopted as the standard for gaming, so too did the incorporation of layered Dolby 5.1 soundtracks, with dynamic sound effects, and music to power the home subwoofer.

“I think the video game industry understands now that they are really leading [parts of] the entertainment industry,” continues Dooley, “and I also think they’re trying to get those big themes and big talent, now that they have bigger money, and also create a bit of an emotional attachment to their games, just as films do. (Not that video games need to get more of a fan base; they seem to be doing quite well, and people are very passionate about their products.)”

Whether it’s a commercial product or a personal indulgence, creativity brings forth a strange mix of dissatisfaction, melancholy, and the need to transcend the average.

“Most people who make art are not happy where they are,” he theorizes. “For example, you work on a TV show, but don’t think of it that way: make it feel like a film. Or, if people are on a video game, don’t write it like a video game: write it like a film. And on a film, don’t treat this like a film: treat it like a play.’ It’s kind of weird; rarely do you get something like, ‘This is a film, so score it like one.’”

Whether it’s a coping mechanism or an earnest desire to boost the quality standard of a specific creative work for a commercial product, the final results must fulfill practical requirements, yet make it distinct from the competition. When core elements exceed those rudimentary standards, you ideally get an engrossing game with characters, an existing mythic past, and plenty of sophisticated sounds and visuals that support You as the star of your own Choose Your Own Adventure epic.

As an orchestrator, arranger, and composer, James Dooley’s lighter side has recently been associated with several animated projects, including Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-RabbitMadagascar, and the seasonal spin-off short, The Madagascar Penguins in a Christmas Caper, released in 2005.

In 2006, the composer returned to the animation realm via the new DreamWorks short, First Flight, about a bird’s attempts to get airborn; and the German animated feature Urmel aus dem Eis (to be released as Impy’s Island to English language audiences), which deals with cute dinosaurs on an isolated tropical island.

Based on the children’s books by Max Kruse, the feature film required cheerfully melodic material from Dooley. “I love these movies… where things are heavily thematic. When I first got the movie, I listened to all my James Newton Howard animation music; I was really trying to get my head around doing things with good themes. James’ music is tuneful and meaningful, without being overtly cartoony. I was going to try and do my thing, but you’re always kind of paying homage to someone else, as far as when you study to get better.

“So I went in and did all these really great pieces, and then a couple of them got thrown out – of my first 5 pieces, I think 2 got thrown out – because [they said they wanted] no music in the beginning. I thought, ‘What do mean, no music in the beginning of the film? Let’s put song there.’ So then I went and recorded songs, and it was tough, because we were just trying to find the tone of the movie, and once we got it, it was pretty smooth sailing.

“When the evil king is there, you play the evil king theme; and when the happy dinosaur gets rescued, play the rescue theme.” But as he carefully points out, “the key to getting a movie like Impy to work is that you have to set up a couple of the themes to be misleading: they’re on an island in the South Pacific, so I wrote an island theme which ends up becoming the rescue theme later on.” While thematically cohesive to the score as a whole, a contextual change – perhaps not on a conscious level – can evoke surprise, and through specific variations, connect relationships, or add discreet subtext. “Those are the things that you really have to plan ahead before you just go in, and [not] just start writing tunes and putting them all over the place.

Dooley’s score is currently being mastered for an August CD release. “I think there’s some good writing in there,” he says, “and it’s a really great chance to flex your muscles and make things a bit sprightly and enthusiastic. When you’re working with kids’ music, of course you need your tender themes and your big broad themes. As far as my thematic material… I’m very proud of the score.”.

KQEK would like to thank James Michael Dooley for speaking about his latest work (and for letting 5 minutes become 30), and Tom Kidd at Costa Communications for facilitating this interview.

For more information on James Dooley, visit the composer’s website.

To read a detailed interview with the composer concerning SOCOM 3, visit GameZone.com

For more information on and screen shots from Urmel aus dem Eis Impy’s Island (in German only), visit the Falcom Media Group.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This article and interview © 2006 by Mark R. Hasan


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

CD:  Mars Underground, The (2005)The Ring / Ring Two (2002)

DVD/Film:  Mars Underground, The (2005) —  When a Stranger Calls (1978)


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