October 20, 2010 | By

Return toHome Exclusive Interviews & ProfilesComposers


As Richard Marvin explains in the beginning of our Q&A, he’s a veteran musician from the eighties when keyboards and synthesizes rose to prominence in orchestras, and for a period, became the signature sound on television and in countless films.

Whereas younger composers today have countless options to choose, shape and create new sounds, the palette during the eighties was more limited, and as Marvin progressed from session musician to solo composer, he’s taken that knack for innovation and applied a careful group of sounds for his latest film score, the sci-fi thriller Surrogates.

The film’s murder mystery element takes place in a future where humans use robotic surrogates to deal with work and unnecessary social interaction, as well as a detective’s decision to leave his cozy anti-social life and handle the investigation first-hand.

To some, letting robots deal with daily monotony sounds like a fantastic fantasy, but there are trade-offs within a marriage, particularly the emotional issues when there’s the loss of a child, and neither half wants to deal with the tragedy and push on.

Those unique conflicts, as well as the futuristic setting are some of the challenges Marvin faced in his first feature score after working for several years on some of TV’s most successful series.  Chances are you’ve been hooked on at least one of the shows Marvin scored or worked on during his early years, and in our conversation the composer talks about his latest project, working again with director Jonathan Mostow, and electronic elements in film scoring.



Mark R. Hasan: How did you get into film scoring?

Richard Marvin: Originally I was a studio musician in the eighties in Los Angeles, playing synthesizers, keyboards, piano – anything with keys – in the film and television score arena.

I worked for such people as Mike Post, David Newman, Thomas Newman, Maurice Jarre, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams – all the big composers of the eighties when synthesizers were really very popular. I worked on some great electronic scores like Ghost (1990) and Fatal Attraction(1987), Jacob’s Ladder (1990) – some really great scores of Maurice Jarre.

In the early nineties, as I was also doing most of Mike Post’s TV work as one of his synthesizer guys, he gave me an opportunity to help write on a couple of TV shows that I think wereHardcastle and McCormick (1983), and the A-Team (1983) and Magnum P.I. (1980), and I sort of got my first little experience with composing to picture.

Shortly after that, a friend of mine was a production designer on a small direct-to cable movie called Flight of Black Angel (1991), directed by Jonathan Mostow, and that was my first score on my own.

Gradually, I sort of stopped doing sessions; I think the last sessions I did were with Thomas Newman on The Horse Whisperer and Meet Joe Black (both 1998), and by then I was doing a lot of TV movies and direct-to-cable things. I also did a couple of things for Disney – the 3 Ninjaskids movies – and in the late nineties I stopped doing sessions and was writing and composing full-time, which led to getting into Jonathan Mostow’s second movie, which was Breakdown(1997), [and his third], U-571 (2000).

Then I got into doing TV series, with Six Feet Under (2001-2005), The O.C. (2005-2007),Without a Trace (2008-2009), In Treatment (2008) and Three Rivers (2009).

That’s a brief history!

MRH: Because you’ve worked with Jonathan Mostow on 4 films, you must have an established shorthand, and a special understanding of his use of score.

RM: He and I have a shorthand and an understanding of what works, and what we like. Obviously one of the big things with a director is that you have the same aesthetics; when you look at a piece of music against picture you get the same sort of feeling and same reaction, and I think John and I are really in key in the that respect, and in tune with each other, and thankfully he keeps coming back.

MRH: It’s interesting that you mention that you had a strong background in synthesizers. During the ‘synth heyday,’ a lot of synth scores were written for films and TV, and there were some attempts to transpose a more classically written orchestral score to the electronic realm. One of the earliest examples of that approach was Jerry Goldsmith’s Runaway, which doesn’t really hold up as well as it initially did when it came out.

RM: Yeah, I agree with you. I think the other one that I worked on that was another attempt was Witness (1985) with Maurice Jarre, when he tried to do the whole orchestra with Kurzweil synthesizers.

MRH: Witness has aged better. It has some really unique sounds.

RM: That’s an observant thought. I think it’s also musically a classic score, with classic melodies. The Barn scene [“Building the Barn” on the soundtrack album] is something that will stand the test of time. Now that we went through the synthesizers scores and went back to the big orchestras stuff, the hybrid thing is the norm, which Hans Zimmer and his troops [helped pioneer and advance].

Surrogates could’ve been an opportunity to really go for an electronic kind of score, but I really didn’t feel (and neither did John) that that was really the essence of the movie… We took an orchestral approach, maybe in the style of Bernard Herrmann or something, updated with modern rhythms and percussions, and [in spite of] big drums and things for all the chases and stuff, some of the string effects that I did were really very old fashioned.

MRH: There are certain sounds that do put audiences in a ‘futuristic’ mindset, and there’s that danger where you can make it too spacey, and the score no longer has any links to a reality, which allows the audience to bond with the characters. How do you create a balance in the music that hints at a different time period, yet remains accessible so the drama and characters feel contemporary?

RM: I don’t think that I was aware of trying to really make it sound futuristic at all because it was sort of a modern day future; it wasn’t fifty years in the future.

Maybe the challenging thing about the movie for audiences was to understand what time frame we are really in. Things seem very present day but [Surrogates is] supposed to be set in an advanced futuristic society, so I was never asked to make it sound anything more in the future, or electronic…The interesting thing about the story, which hopefully came across, is that there was an emotional quality to Bruce Willis’ character and his wife that I don’t think would’ve been served well with no electronic approach.

MRH: In regards to Willis’ character, there’s one cue – “I Want You” – that I think is the only really gentle cue on the album, and what I liked about that particular track is its warmth, but at the same time, every so often you drift into chords that are a bit dissonant; they’re a little close to being uncomfortable and hinting at a lurking danger, but they don’t quite cross-over into that, and I thought that it was a very clever cue because you’re  obviously expressing a moment of affection and longing, but at the same time you’re also hinting at some surrounding danger.

RM: I’m glad that that came across, because that was exactly what we were going for. Willis’ character is just longing for his wife to not be in her surrogate form but as a human; he just wanted her to be herself.

In her story they had lost their son, and as a result, the human wife did not want to come of a room except in surrogate form, so there was a real tension between them, and a longing for Willis to just connect with her in a human way, but John also wanted to make sure that there was tension always between them. We felt that there was some sort of ominous quality underneath their relationship.

That was a tricky little cue… We added piano at the very end of the scoring process because some of the people involved didn’t feel that it was warm enough; they felt that the tension was there, but it didn’t have enough emotion, so I added that little piano melody late in the day.

MRH: One aspect that’s very strong throughout the score is a driving ostinato that’s primarily played by the strings, and it seems to remind audiences of an unstoppable, almost mechanical force, whereas there’s some sly, groovy rhythms that seem closer to the dogged, independent-minded FBI character, and both converge in the powerful action cue “Warrant and Foot Chase.”

RM: The idea behind the ostinato was that there was always what we call ‘the motor’ going through everything. That was a long, long chase…Trying to keep it so it didn’t sound monotonous was a real challenge. I don’t know if the piece really stands up on its own, but underneath all the cars and helicopters and explosions and everything, I think it held up really well.

In that case in that cue, all the percussion – all the hits and everything  – was done electronically…There was no live percussion on this score at all. It was all generated electronically.

MRH: I noticed in some recent scores – Tyler Bates’ Doomsday (2008), for example – where composers have gone back to some vintage synth sounds. Bates’ followed director Neil Marshall’s desire for a retro John Carpenter sound, but there were also a few moments where you heard a bit of Tangerine Dream, and I think it’s perhaps a testament to the original musicians who created these sounds that they still hold up well in a dramatic context, if not selectively.

RM: I think that’s something I’d like to get into. I used to have racks and racks and keyboards all over the place. Everything comes in a box now, but I agree with you. There’s some value to theJupiter 8’s and all those Prophets and all those things that we used to have. That’s just interesting and great that they’re still around. It’s hard to keep all those things working, though.

MRH: My next to last question deals with your flexibility in working in various genres and formats. Do you find moving between films and TV refines your skills in tackling various genres and dramatic situations?

RM: Absolutely. I haven’t done a film in several years – I’ve been in TV land until Surrogates – and what I found is [because of] the pressure and the nature of the TV businesses, I create probably thirty minutes of music a week, and I’ve gotten very quick.

I remember in the early days of Surrogates, when we were doing our temp and demos and stuff, John would come over and say, ‘I need a three minute cue for a preview screening’ or something, and I said, ‘Okay, you’ll have it this afternoon,’ and the music editor and he were just amazed that I could create that stuff so quickly.

I actually think that TV has been really great for me, as far as perspective of maybe going to things that I know are going to work, and one of the challenges of working on a film was to sort of slow down… and try to not go to the tricks that you know. That was a big luxury to do. Six minutes in a week was a total luxury.

MRH: Lastly, will there be a soundtrack album?

RM: Yes. We’re right in the midst of getting ready to master it. Looks like Lakeshore is going to be releasing it. They’ve released a couple of scores of mine along the way, so hopefully this good relationship will continue.


. would like to thank Richard Marvin for discussing his latest score, and Melissa McNeill at Costa Communication for facilitating this Q&A.

For more information on Surrogates, visit the official website HERE.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This interview © 2009 by Mark R. Hasan


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

CD:  Surrogates (2009)

BR/DVD/Film:  Surrogates (2009)


Tags: , , ,

Category: Uncategorized

Comments are closed.