Elia Cmiral Interview

Escrito por , el 3 abril 2012 | Publicado en Entrevistas


Hi Elia. First of all, in the name of all the members of Asturscore, we’d like to thank you for your time to give us this interview. And now… the questions….

1) What’s your first memory about music? The moment when you realized this is it, this is what I want, this is what I want to do.

I have child memories of my grandfather who was a composer, organist and professor at the music academy in Prague. He played for me on his big, black Steinway. I remember the sound of the piano was magic, but it came much later maybe in the Junior high when I played in school rock band I realized I really love to play and create music.

2) You’re son of an actress and a theatre director; your blood is full of genes related with the world of cinema. How does this influence in your career?

As a child I was surrounded by theater, literature and music so I guess it had to leave some footprints in my mind and soul. Later when I started to write myself many things got slowly connected. I approach to writing emocionaly so these connections come in a second plan but it is always good to be able to see and discover another, intelectual point of view and understand different links and layers. It is getting better and better with age and my own experiencies.

3) Talk us about your beginnings, when you composed for the stage in your native country Czechoslovakia. What are your principal memories of that time?

I wrote a number of theatre music for my father’s theatrical set ups, later with other directors as well.  It was great opportunity he gave me to check the grounds. When I saw a theatre piece set up with my music on the stage for the first time while sitting at the audience I felt such a kick to see how everything gets together that I think that might have been the moment I felt that’s what I want to do.

4) After Czechoslovakia, you decided to go to Sweden. There, you composed ballets and television films. For that time, you began to work with electronic music, in fact, you began to experiment with this kind of music. Compositions like Battlefield Earth, They, Pulse or Journey to the End of the Night would benefit for your fantastic domain of electronic music. What kind of motivations led you to experiment with this kind of music?

In Stockholm, Sweden there were courses of electronic music held in formal radio Stockholm locations, called Studio EMS. The sound of electronica and music concrete were new and irresistible for me. At The Prague Conservatory and in the country in a total isolation in the communist era we didn’t have these tools or even not many chances to hear contemporary music, especially by composers around the world they didn’t fit with their profiles to the Czech political propaganda.

In EMS I was exposed to very different aesthetics, different thinking and musical values. I could hear in my mind how I could combine my classical/rock background with these new colours. The first opportunity came fairly soon. I received a commission for a full-length ballet from Swedish National Theatre dance group led by the father of Swedish ballet Ivo Cramer. The ballet was based on Don Giovanni tale, while the first half of the ballet was set on earth and second in the Hell where Don Giovanni ended up tortured for his bad deeds on Earth. So the first part was played by traditional orchestra the second one, in Hell, was all electronica. Hope this is not our faith to end up in Hell with samplers and synths, ha ha.

5) When you arrived to USA, you began to study film scoring at the University of Southern California. For that time, you had got your first major composing assignment: Apartment Zero (1988), a psychological thriller placed in Buenos Aires about two men who live together in an apartment, and one of them is a psycho-man. How was your experience about this score?

After already working as a composer in Sweden I was completely taken by the very different approach to write music for film in Hollywood, the skills of composers and musicians and people working in this field as the orchestrators, music editors and others, that I thought I came to music heaven. I don’t mean that musicians in Sweden are bad. Not at all, they are great! But while in Stockholm we were a few people writing for films,  here I suddenly found a large composers community. I remember how many people very helpful, open and happy to share their experiences.

When I got the movie after the main composer who turned out be Astor Piazzola, I was speechless, haven’t any idea how to write a score with Argentinean tango flavours nor how to put together the whole crew, recording studio, musicians, and organize the whole process from the spotting session until delivery in Los Angeles. I received a great support and help from people in industry and I got successfully through. Apartment Zero is my first American movie and I have very special dear memories about this production.

6) Is it possible that Apartment Zero marked the way for future musical approaches, like your films of horror (They, Pulse, Wrong Turn) or thrillers like Journey to the End of the Night?

I don’t know if Apartment Zero itself marked my way for the future but I am naturally drawn to drama, suspense and action. Later I discovered I also love to write for a black comedy and scores with opportunities to write a lot of thematic material.

7) The action of Journey to the End of the Night (2006) was placed in Sao Paulo (Brazil) along all night, with Scott Glenn and Brendan Fraser as protagonists. Which was your inspiration for the fantastic leitmotiv, one piece full of dramatic intensity (an advance of the final tragedy)? Why did you include the female voice of a singer? It’s a brilliant idea.

I often indentify myself emotionally with the main character, or even sort of falling in love with the female protagonist. Knowing every single frame, unnoticeable smile or wink. The leitmotiv in Journey is a theme for Angie and her revelation, tragedy, new life that is ahead of her with her son and Wemba. The human voice is closest “instrument” to the soul, it just felt right in the context.

8) I think Journey to the End of Night is a great score, mixing melodic ideas, ethereal moments (related with the fortune teller) and fantastic percussion for the action in the streets of Sao Paulo. Is this score one of your favourites?

I loved to write this score, it was very creative collaboration with the director Eric Eason. Sadly this dark, emotional movie drama is not much known to the audience. The director and I designed the scope of the score for the theatrical release, but this was later change by the studio. All the score elements were carefully chosen, it was a great opportunity to build the score using a strong theme, ambient elements and in action using Brazilian percussions. I was also strongly inspired by the cast performances, Sao Paulo dark atmosphere and affected by Erik Eason passion.

9) From 1988 to 1997, you worked in several documentaries, movies and series of television, and finally, a videogame called The Last Express, who used the technique of Rotoscoped Cartoon. By the moment, this had been the only time to work in this genre. How did you focus your work for this new medium? Have you had more freedom to compose the music?

I received a lot of freedom and support from the producer and the director of the game, Jordan Mechner. The writing technique for this game and a new media was not much different from writing scores in Europe this time, meaning we didn’t use the same synchronisation technique for the picture and music, but rather concentrate on score structure, characters and essence of the music and how the score over all works to help the movie.

10) The Last Express was a videogame placed in 1914, in the Orient Express train, with the World War I in the horizon. Your music for the videogame is a fantastic mix of classic (specially strings) and electronic music. How was the creative process for this score?

There were not any temp tracks in the game but it turn out that Jordan understands music and its function in drama and he was able to communicate easily with me about music. The direction and the score structure were in detail discussed and I went back to my studio and started to write ideas. Jordan visited me to follow and to hear the progress. The score was computer generated and I suggested doing some sweetening with life musicians on some of the main tracks. Jordan agreed and I’ve got a string quartet to overdub the sample orchestra. I’ve been told that this was the first time live strings were used in video game.  Of course this was a long time ago in a games “Stone Age” and long before all these great orchestral video games score we have today were written.

11) From this last years, there have been many composers working in this medium, like Michael Giacchino or Christopher Lennertz. Would you like to return and work in the world of videogames again?

Yes, absolutely. As a matter of fact I finished just recently a score for video game Spec Ops “The Line” with German developers Yager for 2K. The game will be released in the end of June this year. The score is rock oriented, and I had a great time writing and producing it. I would absolutely love to write more scores for video games especially with epic, dramatic, suspense or action direction.

12) In 1998, you participated in one of the best action films of the decade, Ronin, directed by the legendary John Frankenheimer, and with actors like Robert De Niro, Jean Reno or Jonathan Pryce. How did you arrive this project? Tell us your experience with the creation of the score and your relation with John Frankenheimer.

In 1998 Michael Sandoval was the president of music department at MGM.  He is a very knowledgeable gentleman who was familiar with my music and when Jerry Goldsmith left the project Michael, on the film producers’ request, put together a list of three well-known available composers to be considered. Because Michael liked my music and was brave enough he included me as a number four.

My schedule was very open this time and I could meet John Frankenheimer and watch the movie the next day. Because there were naturally doubts about me at MGM board, I haven’t have many credits at this time, so I did a demo for the opening of the movie, and after a few days I was hired.

The theme for duduk I used at the demo and the whole structure of the opening is the same as in the final film version, now of course with orchestra.

John Frankenheimer was a great director, communicated with me on a high musical and artistic level encouraged me to be creative and original, there were no temp in the movie so there was no template of the score.

John’s notes, I dare to say were very few and minor, and were always only about the structure of the cue, its start or end.  He never restricted me in any way in thematic material or orchestration. The whole writing process was like a dream to work on daily bases with John were we overview the entire score as in demos form. I had John’s maximum artistic support and trust and the whole process of recording, mixing and dubbing was very smooth. The producer Frank Mancuso Jr., turn out be very supportive and creative producer. I later did with him another two projects.

After finished my work on Ronin I was regularly seeing John, he become my dear mentor. Shortly before he passed away he asked me to write a score for his next feature, his unexpected passing left me devastated.  I truly miss him every day.

13) Ronin is great work, with big action music and a fantastic leitmotiv (Ronin Theme). Do you believe that Ronin could be the best film in your career? Have you missed another big opportunity like this film?

There are a number of good movies released every year, and I certainly hope I will do some of them in the future.

14) One of your first works of horror was Stigmata (1999), about a priest who investigate a young woman with signs of stigmata (the wounds of Christo). In this score, you share the labour of composition with Billy Corgan. Why was the reason to hire two composers? Problems of Time?

Billy Corgan was hired to write music for Stigmata long before I was hired. It had to do nothing with the time and schedule. Later the producers realised that a film of this scope needs a large orchestral score besides contemporary grooves Billy could have provided. So when I came on board the score was divided to two parts, one for Billy and the other for orchestra and me. In the beginning I was thrilled of the perspective to collaborate with Corgan but unfortunately this didn’t happen. Besides one meeting with Billy I didn’t have any contact with him I was hopping for. I wrote about 40 minutes music for the orchestra not having any idea about the key or tempo of Billy’s cue in case our cues segmented to each other. In fact the first time I’ve heard his score part was at the dubbing of the movie. During the dubbing the producers and the director felt that the orchestral part of the whole score should be expanded. This was done by music editors who also added my orchestral elements on top of Corgan tracks. It worked really well in the end but process to get there was not a simple one.

15) In this fantastic score, we can observe your personal touch for horror stories, mixing melodic and beautiful ideas (for the young girl, with strings and piano, including the use of a female voice) with tense and scary music (electronic music, great use of percussion and some ethnic elements). How do you focus, in general, your work when you’re going to compose music for horror films?

Each film and the score for it is different and requires every time different approach and the composer have to find a unique approach to it. There is no uniform recipe how to score a film, this makes this job so great and creative. I don’t think there is a real difference how to score a horror or drama or comedy. Each genre has of course different musical language and aesthetics and cliché. But I think that a good composer can score any kind of movie and deliver a great score regardless its genre.

16) I think, honestly, that there are few composers who make good music of terror. You’re one of them, next to composers like Christopher Young, Alfons Conde, Fernando Velázquez or Marco Beltrami. It’s a present, for people who love music of cinema, to see a composer preoccupied to avoid the typical cliché of the genre, offering beautiful melodies in contrast to tense and horror music. Do you think you’re too typecast in this genre?

I am thrilled you compare my work with the composers you mentioned. Each of us tries to deliver scores with flavors of the genre and trying to avoid the obvious clichés. I write different kinds of score, maybe the horror or drama prevails.

17) Talk about your experience in Battlefield Earth (2000), other of your best works, with a heroic leitmotiv for the fight of the human race, including fantastic and exciting music for the battle (The Dome, Air Battle, Dome Explodes, Commence Revolt).

To work with such a legend, artist, and communicator as John Travolta was an amazing experience. I was given a great artistic support and his understanding of my ideas during the process of making demos, recording or mixing phase was amazing. I had a great time writing the score and having until today probably the largest orchestra with a choir was a great experience.

18) Many people (including me) believe that Battlefield Earth could have been your great opportunity to consolidate your career in Hollywood next to Ronin, but the film was a complete failure, and perhaps your work was forgotten for the negative critics of the film (something completely wrong, in my opinion). Which is your opinion about this subject?

I had a great time writing and producing the score for Battlefield Earth and I am quite satisfatied with how the score turned out. That the film received negative reviews by the critics, it was, in my opinion, based on the politics and not purely the quality of the movie, as one would expect. Unfortunately scores are undoubltly affected by the success or failure of the movie, there is nothing we can do about.

19) About this subject, What is your opinion about the actual situation of the film music? Many People think that films are increasingly worse, and many score follow the same way.

This is very a complex question, I don’t want to generalize but in a climate of a weak economy and all the problems we have around the world there is no surprise it effects the film business – the studios and the producers prefer to play safe. We see many sequels, prequels, remakes, and spins on the same stories. It might be even difficult to make a movie like The Field of Dreams today.

The middle size projects almost don’t exist, but there are many low budget movies and a number of big blockbusters. Of course this applies for the scores, there is less room for a new, unique musical approaches and many score are variations of other scores. But of course there are exceptions.

20) Returning to your filmography, from Battlefield Earth you had worked in many films of horror (specially Serie B), like Bones (2001), with the rapper Snoop Dog like a resurrected man to take revenge against his killers (20 years ago). Which was the approach to compose this film, mixing your scary and tense score (with the use of a disturbed voices of children), with many songs of the rapper Snoop Dogg? It’s a big and strange contrast!

The movies gave me an opportunity to mix together different elements in the score, suspense, action, horror as well as the child jumping rope song. I wanted to make sure that the score and Snoop Dogg songs are in great contrast to create an interesting soundtrack mixture.

21) Other relevant work in the genre of horror was Wes Craven’s Presents: They (2002), directed by Robert Harmon (the same of The Hitcher). For this score, you composed a beautiful motive for Julia (the protagonist of the story) and violent and aggressive music for the attack of the nocturnal creature, mixing both ideas (where the evil win the final battle) with tense and environmental music.

But this score had some problems related with numerous changes (re-edits and re-shoots), with a delay of 4 months, possible negative signs about the performance of the film. How did these problems affect your composition?

I don’t recall that the score for THEY had a problem. Most of it was written, signed off and recorded before the studio decided to do reshoots and re-edit the film, especially the ending. The score was then adapted to the new film version by the music editors under my supervision. I think the editors did a good job, but of course it is not the same as having originally written score. Keep in mind that it is never an easy decision for the studio and producers to make to reshoot. They are well aware about the expenses and consequences in the post so these decisions only come as the only way to put the movie on the right track.

The composer is not part of these decisions and only tries to do his or her best to make the score work for the new, final version of the movie.

22) Wrong Turn (2003) was another prominent score, where you mix different ideas; melodic motives, a touch of south folk, percussion rhythms for the action or tense music for the moments more scary. Which was your inspiration for all this thematic mixture?

My inspiration comes always from the movie. I think it is very important to watch the movie in the beginning of the scoring process a few times with or without temp track and let movie to “talk” to me telling me what it needs, once I know what it needs the music comes naturally to me.

23) In the new wave of remakes in Hollywood, you composed the music for Pulse (2005), remake of a horror film from Japan called Kairo (2001), produced by Wes Craven. In fact, you composed the music for all the trilogy; Pulse 2: Afterlife (2008) and Pulse 3: Invasion (2008). How did you arrive this project? Was it related with Wes Craven? Did you compose a complete set of music for all the trilogy, developing in every film?

The picture editor and friend of mine, Bob Lambert, introduced me to Pulse project. At this time there was a composer who did a few demos for the project but his demos were apparently lacking some important required elements. I did a demo and got the job. To work with the director Jim Sonzero was very inspiring and creative process. Jim was very supportive, artistic and had a good vision what he needs from the score.

One of Pulse’s producers, Joel Soisson, became the director for Pulse 2 and 3. I completed the whole trilogy with Joel. The music is slightly different in P2 and P3 than the first one as movies are different but certain elements going thru out all episodes. I’ve never worked with Wes Craven on this project, but hope this might change in the future.

24) In 2005, you composed additional music for Resident Evil: Apocalypse, where the labour of composing was done by Jeff Danna. How did you arrive this project? Was it related with scheduling problems?. How much music did you compose for the film?

I knew one of Resident Evil’s producers who asked me to rescore a few sequences. I don’t recall scheduling problems, the movie was dubbed in London, I was not in person at the dub, but heard that our scores were re-edited to fit together.

25) You composed music for two films related with the After Dark Horrorfest in 2007, called The Deaths of Ian Stone (done in the style more classical of terror music) and Tooth & Nail (essentially electronic music for this tale of horror post-apocalyptic, including cannibals). Which was the approaching for both films?

There are both very different movies and the scores are also very different. The Death of Ian Stone is primarily an orchestral score.  It was my first collaboration with the director Dario Piana, who is himself a musician so we had a total understanding about music. With the producer Stan Winston and Brian Gilbert I did Wrong Turn so it was like coming back to a creative family. I miss Stan tremendously.

Tooth & Nail was an interesting project and my first collaboration with very creative director Mark Young. Very dark and aggressive score, mostly electronic with electronically manipulated orchestra. A major colour is a cello playing layered choral harmony along with electronica and grooves.

26) You have been collaborating (along with composers like Christopher Lennertz or Dave Grusin) in the Symphony for Haiti event, raising funds after that terrible disaster. Tell us about your experience in this philanthropic efforts.

I think the whole idea and the project of the Symphony of Hope is beyond excellent. Not only as a philanthropic and human effort but also putting all of us composers, musicians, orchestrators, editors and all tech personal together with one idea – to help others with our crafts. Chris Lennertz should get a gold metal for it. The recording session was an incomparable event and a blast of creativity and high spirit. I am very proud to be part of this project.

27) This year you have composed the music for Atlas Shrugged Part I, based in the novel of Ayn Rand, a story of philosophy and science fiction placed in the EE.UU. The music for the movie is fantastic, highlighting the great and melodic motive for John Galt (based on piano and strings), and a fantastic theme of action (Colorado Train). How do you focus the creation of this fantastic and emotive score?

Atlas Shrugged Part I is one of my happiest projects. I was extremly inspired by Ayn Rand’s books, I read a few of them, and producers creative and practical support was beyond my expections. I wrote the whole score very quickly and enjoyed every minute of it. The recording of the orchestra and mix was also very smooth and without “surprises”. To write a melodic score without virtually no electronica was a dream job, I can only wish to write more orchestral and emotive scores in the future.

28) Talk us about your future films; Piranha 3DD and Rites of Passage.

At this moment both projects are completed and again the scores are very different. This part of my job I really love, to have an opportunity to write different kinds of scores. Rites of Passage utilizing shaman’s voice, different ethnic wood winds and percussion instruments mixed with electronic suspenseful and rock background all with a creative direction by the writer and director Pester Illif who is also an accomplished musician himself.

Piranha 3DD was a challenging project to create an eclectic score, to mix rock with over the top dramatic orchestra, melodramatic classical arias for soprano, spaghetti western trumpets, sound design etc, etc. I had a great fun writing and producing this score and hope it is just as fun watching the movie.

29) And wrapping up… some very quickly personal questions… You have to say just one. Ok?

  • A movie… too many good ones to mentioned
  • An instrument… piano, double bass
  • A composer… too long a list
  • A book… now reading a good one by Murakami
  • A city… hmm, hmm Stockholm, New York, Paris
  • A Song… any of The Beatles’ songs
  • A TV Show… hmm, hmm,

Again, thank you very much for giving your time. We want see Elia Cmiral involving in more films every year, and continue enjoying your music like the first day. Thanks Elia!


Special Thanks to:

  1. Gorka Oteiza: For the translation of this interview.
  2. Beth Bobo Krakower: For all the efforts and support in the interview.