October 20, 2010 | By

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For his feature film directorial debut, Scott Stewart hired John Frizzell to compose the music for Legion (2010), and while it’s ostensibly a theological thriller, the music goes against the grain and contains few of the familiar stylistic approaches of the sub-genre. There are chorales and a big orchestral sound, but they’re minor components in Frizzell’s palette, which also includes electronics, and processed organic sounds.

As in prior conversations with Frizzell, there are comments on the music, but things eventually branch out into scoring aesthetics, as well as the potential shift in returning to the organic roots of fillm scoring after a good twenty years of sound samples and pre-programmed keyboards.

Mark R. Hasan: When you create themes and motifs, do you base these on the script, or do you wait until there’s a finished cut before you start creating those score elements?

John Frizzell: I hardly ever write before I see picture, and I’m rarely hired before there is picture. That’s just sort of the way things work. I think that waiting for picture is a good idea, because a huge amount of the influence comes from the actual look of the film; not so much how a character is dressed, but how the colours are emphasized, the tone, the brightness, the darkness. These types of things have a massive impact on the score, and I’m really guessing in the dark before then…

MRH: The film does have a striking colour scheme.

JF: Absolutely. Scott Stewart is a brilliant visualist. He’s really got some dark, rich tones in the film, and it’s a great palette to work off.

MRH: In Legion, the moments of large orchestra and choir are a natural for a theological thriller, but your approach felt atypical.

JF: Well, one of the things I wanted to avoid in the action sequences was a choir that was so heavenly in the ‘Ooo! Ahh!’ sense of the word. I wanted to work more with the idea of these angels being warriors and passionate. Because there’s a lot of anger to them, there tends to be more of a chanting or quasi-yelling tone to it, which I really had a good time injecting into it, and I think it sort of propelled things along.

MRH: Because you’re renowned for creating unique sounds, do they emerge as you’re scoring, or do you sometimes have in advance an idea you’d like to use, or do early ideas get transformed when you come across a certain kind of scene or character?

JF: Well, the main experimental sound that I played with in this film are these things that I call ‘frozen sounds,’ where I take a very short audio recording and stretch it like a conventional piece of gum, and sort of stretch it across the whole room. I did make some of those before I started on Legion, and I wrote a couple of cues with those sounds and realized how well they worked with the film.

There’s quite a bit of that sound in the score. I found them really interesting to work with because they are neither synthesized nor electronic purely; they’re really stuck in the middle of ‘purgatory.’ You can’t make a decision as to which they are, and I like that.

MRH: How do you ensure that when you take an organic sound and make it more malleable that it doesn’t degrade in the process?

JF: Degrade can be a good thing or a bad thing. A lot of the things I’m seeking for them to degrade. It’s almost like a zombie character where you imagine there was this beautiful living person, and their skin is kind of falling, off but you’ll see a little bit of the living beauty that used to be there, and I find sounds like that really creepy. That’s part of it; you can hear that this was once beautiful, but it’s not – it’s wrong – and that’s what I’m invoking.

MRH: Because you’re familiar with a lot of digital effects, it makes it easier to create these sounds faster, but I wonder if you prefer the whole exploratory process where a lot of time is spent noodling around with different effects, and it doesn’t matter if it takes several days or longer; it’s just part of a process you enjoy.

JF: Yeah. If I have the time on a film, I may create a whole new process. If I’m on a real short schedule, there’s usually some processes that I’ve been playing around with that I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to expand into a score, and there tends to be a sort of ‘laboratory’ at my studio, where there is a bunch of half-cooked sounds and ideas… When a film comes in, I’ll look through the laboratory and go ‘Ooo, wow. These two would get along really well,’ and that’s really a fun part of it.

MRH: With so many sounds available from synth libraries, why do you go through the trouble to create your original sounds, because I know you do record your own organic sounds and then build up a library of your own?

JF: Why go through all the troubles of being unique? It’s sort of self-explanatory. I think it goes back to Alien Resurrection (1997), to be quite honest. There was a sound that I used probably four or five times in that score that was from a purchased sound library, and over the years since that film came out, I’ve heard that same sound on so many films, so many TV shows, and so many this-and-that, from commercials to everything, that there isn’t a day where I get mad at myself for using it.

That isn’t to say that someone’s going to catch me doing it again in the future – I might just find something cool – but I really try to steer away from that… I’m here to make unique tones, and it’s something that I really enjoy, too, and just as much as making the melodies and the concrete musical ideas….

MRH: I guess from a composer’s standpoint, each time that stock sound is used by another, it weakens the impact of it’s first or early appearances..

JF: Yeah. I’m not being hired by filmmakers to go buy a $400 package of sound to be pressed on a keyboard. That’s not what I’m here to do. I’m here to develop a unique character for their film and hopefully the franchise and give it a permanent uniqueness that will let it stand apart. I don’t always achieve that, but that’s certainly where I set out.

MRH: With your familiarity with music technology, the way that it has evolved so fast in the past ten years, how do you see thing progressing in the next five? How do you see even the way that you compose changing in that time?

JF: It’s at a very exciting stage right now. The 64 bit version of Logic just came out about ten days ago [and because] we can use vast amounts of RAM now, we don’t have to think about it for the next generation of machines. It’s really a full game changer.

We’ve hit a point now where it’s so flexible to record everything, and there’s so much you can do to a recording… I think we’re on the edge of phasing out synthesizer patches; at least for me, I’m really close to that now. I’m really not playing a synthesized sound from the keyboard. It’s where most things are going back to being recorded and then manipulated, and that’s a big deal because we’re really leaving MIDI and the whole last 25 years, and it’s because of the power and the facility of the software that we’re able to do this, and come full circle, back to being organic, but still with a firm focus on experimentation.

MRH: I guess it’s kind of similar where you can get a violinist to play a certain sound, but getting something new from an instrument is dependent on the player’s own skill and personal style. Digital technology is the same where you also need the skill of the person behind the computer and the keyboard to manipulate things like a virtuoso violinist and create something that’s new and fresh.

JF: Absolutely. I think that there’s been a leveling of the playing field. In the mid-eighties, if you had half a million dollars you could buy a Synclavier, and by owning that Synclavier, you would get work, and it had nothing to do with the amount of talent that you were going to put into the music. There was some horrific music that came out of that ability to buy the technology.

Owning really good technology now is about as unique as owning a piece of paper, so it’s completely level. If you think what Beethoven could do with a piece of paper, or as opposed to what someone who had no musical training could do with that same piece of musical paper, that’s how level the playing field is. I’m excited to see it weed things out to the people who are really serious about sound.

MRH: Going back to the Synclavier and other iconic synthesizers of the eighties, in many cases those sounds have dated the TV shows and the commercials and the films that they were used in, but if you go back further, maybe into the seventies where people were using older synth equipment, those sounds were really unique, and they stand out much more than the stuff that came out in the eighties.

JF: Absolutely. [Let’s] compare in terms of synthesizers how an analogue Moog worked. You turned the thing on and it was kind of like having this crazy uncle: it would never really do the same thing twice; it would go out of tune; it was always this volatile machine, but when you hit the Roland D-50, you had this very precise, simple computer-controlled thing that when everybody hit it, it always sounded the same, and it really inundated music in a negative way.

I was very guilty of using the thing on (luckily) nothing anyone ever heard or saw, but I really learned a lot from those years about being inventive and digging in, so yeah, I think that it’s absolutely, totally true that the early analogue stuff is probably going to hold up over time better… I’m conscious of trying to keep things holding up over time. I’m sure there’s going to be places where I err in that, but I try to keep sounds which are innately musical, and I think that if you’re just true to that, most of the time you’re probably going to get it right… The really great synthesists and manipulation of audio come form people who try to be in touch with true musical sensibilities.

MRH: And one last question. Has Frederik Wiedmann (The Hills Runs Red, Return to House on Haunted Hill) been an active and important component in the way that you explore sounds?

JF: Freddie’s around a lot and he mixed Legion and Whiteout (2009), and he wrote some cues on Whiteout. We’re very, very close and always talking about new ideas. Sometimes we have sampling sessions where we come up with these crazy ideas; some of them work, some of them don’t, and I really enjoy knowing Freddie and supporting his career, and he’s just an amazing talent. I consider Freddie like a son. There’s a new guy working here called Haim Mazar that probably in a couple of years will be the next Freddie, so we try to keep ‘Frizzell University’ moving.


. would like to thank John Frizzell for his generous time, and Beth Krakower at CineMedia Promotions for facilitating the interview.

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This article and interview © 2010 by Mark R. Hasan

Related interviews with John Frizzell: The Reaping (2007), Primeval (2007), Stay Alive (2006)


Related links:

BR/Film:  Legion (2010)


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

CD:  Legion (2010)

BR/DVD/Film:  Whiteout (2009)


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