Exclusive interview with… LORNE BALFE
Hi Lorne. 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, and this is what I wanna do.
My first memory of music was trying to play a Hammond keyboard in my fathers recording studio. I must have been 5 or 6 years of age , and my technique was simply to bang it due to the fact I was unable to actually play the piano ! I don’t think there was ever an actual moment when a ray of light hit me and I realized ” this is what I want to do !” As a child , I was surrounded by musicians and composers , so it was the norm to me to want to be involved with music .
2. You’re native of Scotland (Inverness), but now you’re placed in the USA, inside the industry of Hollywood. How were your beginnings as a composer? Which was the moment you decided “hey, I’m going to look for my future out of my land”?
After school I moved to London. I slowly realized that if I wanted to get into film then at that time , I would have to move to LA . This is not e case any longer . Europe has a fantastic film industry and the Internet makes it possible to be based anywhere.
3. There is an important moment in your career, when you meet Hans Zimmer, and you start working with him as a composer and producer, being linked to a large part of his musical production. How did you meet Hans Zimmer, and became part of the Remote Control (Mediaventures) factory?
I began working at Remote Control due to the fact I was working for the film composer Henning Lohner. I went to Remote as an intern . I had constantly harassed the studio manager at the time Tom Broderick for an internship. Finally , he caved in and I moved over . I then worked for Rupert Gregson-Williams also. After this period, I began writing for Hans . I never understand the term “factory”. The word factory gives to me the impression of a building producing the same end product and not encouraging creative end products. The last time I checked , this was not the case with Remote . The studio is full of very creative people in all aspects, and everyone has their own unique musical approach.
4. How is working with a composer like Hans Zimmer, responsible for a musical trend like Mediaventures, whose musical work schedule is always fully packed? What did you learn from working closely with one of the most valued composers by the industry of Hollywood?
It is a training that you would and will never get in any music college. To be able to learn from one of the best is a privilege . Also the luxury of being able to meet and work with directors that at my stage , I would never have the possibility to go.
5. Within this collaboration with Hans Zimmer, you have composed additional music for several of his films (such as Inception, Sherlock Holmes, Angels & Demons and Frost / Nixon), and even for other composers like Steve Jablonsky (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) or Ramin Djawadi (Iron Man). How do you face this work as “additional composer”, a figure that is becoming more established in the industry? Do you follow the line clearly marked by the assigned composers, or you try to imprint your musical touch?
Im not the type of person to follow the line. I’m not classically trained, so my style of writing is what I have learnt from fragments of different musical experiences.I obviously listen to the themes and the style then take it from there.
6. Tell us about your recent work in the comedy The Dilemma (¡Que Dilema!, 2011) where you have shared composing work with Hans Zimmer (as you did in Megamind). How was the experience of working with one of the most prestigious directors in the industry as Ron Howard (whom Zimmer had previously collaborated on Backdraft or The Da Vinci Code)? How did you share music composing work with Hans Zimmer? Or did you work together to develop the score?
I actually recently was working with Ron Howard on his produced project Imagin8ion . Ron’s daughter Bryce directed a fantastic film. Composing the score to The Dilemma was hard due to the fact there didn’t need to be much score due to the amount of actual songs. We also wanted the score to creep in and out and blend into the songs so it did not feel intrusive .
7. Looking at your music producer side, you have produced several titles, such as the last two Oscar nominations of Hans Zimmer (Inception and Sherlock Holmes), in addition to winning an Emmy for the production of Batman Dark Knight. Do you feel comfortable producing records for other composers, or you prefer to run away and jump into writing and producing your own music?
I prefer working with other people. I find sometimes if it is just myself making decisions it become rather boring. This job is supposed to be fun and having different points of view makes the process more interesting. Even if you are right at the beginning , it’s interesting to see someone else’s opinion on the track .
8. You’ve worked in all the known media: film, television, shorts, documentaries, video games and even ads (like the White House spot: Joining Forces, where you can find Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks). In which of those media do you feel more comfortable and why?
I feel as nervous in all projects ! I do not think it makes a difference if it is a feature film or a 25 second commercial. You are trying to do your best and write a piece of music that is your best and that helps the projects aim…..wether that is a political message or video game. The end result is all the same.
9. Reviewing your work, I notice that you’ve worked on several documentaries of scientific or humanistic character, including The Science of Superstorms (2007), Megastructures (Port of Rotterdam, 2004) and recently Harry Welcomes Artic Heroes (2011), both in the UK and in the U.S. Is it a coincidence or documentaries are a media that you particularly work for, because you enjoy them? How do you prepare the job for a documentary?
I personally feel that documentaries are difficult to score due to the fact, I do not think that music should intrude too much. There is a lot of dialogue and information to be taken in . Far more than in a film. With Harry Welcomes Artic Heroes , this was also a very important charity and cause. Writing the music for charitable organizations is a great privilege. To be able to help and give something back is a greet opportunity . I have done a few documentaries not because i enjoy watching them but because the subject matter interests me. It is the same as a film. If the subject creates interest in you , then you know you will write good music.
10. Currently, if I’m not mistaken, you have in post-production the documentary Salinger (based on the life of the famous writer of The Catcher in the Rye), directed by Shane Salerno (writer of curiosities like Armageddon or the series Hawaii 5 0), and where he has interviewed actors such as Edward Norton or Philip Seymour Hoffman. Tell us about your new job. What kind of composition can we find in Salinger?
I think I am at the moment most proud of this project. I have been on the documentary now for well over 2 years. It has been a labour of love. Shane has a fantastic knowledge of film music. Far more than any person I actually know. Working with Shane is fantastic because he knows his music and can very clearly discuss what intention he is wanting. As well as being very to the point when it comes to a cue not being to his liking ! I do feel we both created a fantastic score her. Without his ideas and direction, it could have been a very linear score, and we have made something that I am very proud of and can not wait for people to hear the score.
11. Within your compositions for short films, stands one directed by actress Jessica Biel, called Sodales (2010), which tells the story of two warrior princesses fighting for their freedom, an action story with some comic touches. How did you get to this project?
Now that is a long story! My friend Rachel McDonald knew Mike Rizzuto at Sony. They both managed to recommend me to the producers Kevin and Francesca. It was a hard short due to the fact there was nearly no scenes without music. It is a beautiful short film and was great fun working with Jessica. It is always interesting see the point of an actor when they direct.
12. The short film, which is 15 minutes long, contains a wide variety of themes (from the dramatic and melodic themes with mystical touches, to the action and epic themes), using choirs, electric guitar riffs, electric violins and even some kind of electronic cimbalom that reminds me of Sherlock Holmes. How did you choose to compose with such a varied musical palette, when the most logical approach would have been to take another route?
I simply wanted to make the score sonically as interesting as possible. Also, Jess had a clear point of view with the colours of the score. The whole point of the film was a magical world , and the more interesting colours we could introduce , the better so we can imagine her world.
13. Back to your land, you were nominated in 2009 with the prestigious Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award in addition to the World Soundtrack Awards in the category Discovery of the Year for Crying with Laughter, a thriller that won the Scottish BAFTA for best picture. Was 2009 one of your best years? Many times, a composer must go abroad to earn his living, but I guess it’s always nice to come home and see that your work is recognized.
I think every years that happens is my best year. This year has been the busiest yet.
It is always nice to be recognized in what ever field you are in . I am very proud of being Scottish and would love to be involved more in Scottish films.
14. Ironclad (Templario, 2011), another European production (set in the thirteenth century in England), meant to go breaking that umbilical cord with Zimmer for the film industry, and continue composing solo. Tell us about your experience in the composition of this action and epic score, where curiously, or at least that’s what I think, you highlight melancholic and dramatic parts, with the use of choirs or ethnic music.
Crying With Laughter was in fact my first solo film score actually. Ironclad was a fantastic work process. I think I managed to write the score in 2 weeks. Jonathan English came to the studio and sat with me everyday whilst I wrote. I had written all the themes months before when I first saw clips from the film and had my first meeting with Jonathan. Even though I had worked on a few films before hand, I had to prove that I was able to write not as an additional composer but as the lead. So, I basically pitched for the film. I was able to also work with a great collection of musicians from all over the world. Paul Brady in Ireland, John Kenny in Scotland, Corvus Cantus in Germany, choir in Budapest and an Orchestra in London. Doing the research of the music from that period of time was very interesting. I wanted to take the essence of music from that period of time but give it a western and 21th century approach . It was fun to also simply let go musical and write big choral pieces.
15. In recent years, the video game market has become a real treasure of scores for the amateur. If I remember correctly, your first approach took place in 2009, with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, alongside Hans Zimmer. How was the experience of working for this medium? Is it really a genre that lets you experience more and compose with more freedom?
This my first ever game. I do not think I had played a game even since I was 8 years of age on a Spectrum ZX. It was a fascinating insight into a different medium. The sheer amount of music was overwhelming compared to a film . Ever project we work on has a certain amount of freedom. Actually having some restrictions does make it more fun though because you have to figure out how to beat the rules set !
16. This year you have been involved, if we’re not mistaken, in up to 4 games: Crysis 2 (where we can find several composers), Rango (based on the film), Assassin’s Creed Revelations and Skylanders Spyro’s Adventures. Have you personally been looking for those projects, or are they the result of your good work on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2?
I never went looking for games. I do not think they came to me because of the other games I had worked on. I’d like to think they came to me because they simply heard music that they liked and it did not matter that it came from a game. Before , game music was composed by solely game music composers. Now, bands, film composers etc are all now writing for games. The pool of talent now is far greater.
17. In the case of Skylanders Spyro’s Adventures, I could hear a promo, and I find both the central theme composed by Hans Zimmer and your theme development, frankly fantastic, highlighting how fresh and dynamic the music is. How did a game like this, aimed at children, inspire you to compose such a rhythmic and melodic score?
I did not want to make the themes long and complex so decided to compose more short and fun motifs. It is meant to be fun and not too serious. I treated the cues more like pop songs. Motifs that could be developed through out the game. The actual game play was a totally unique world, so sonically I wanted to introduce something fun and different. Weather it was gamalans, dulcimers or Indian Violins etc. I think long melodies would not work with this type of game , so very compact thematical structures was my plan.
18. In Assassin’s Creed Revelations, you’ve worked with composer Jesper Kyd, one of the most veteran composers of the medium and main supporter of the series since its beginning back in 2007. How was the experience of working with a composer so established in the video game world? Did you enjoy the freedom to create freely your music or had some kind of imposition to use the material in the series created by Jesper Kyd?
We have never actually met or talked ! I love Jesper’s music though. When I began on the game, I on purpose did not listen to any of the other scores from Assasins franchise. This was Jesper’s world, and we didn’t need me trying to get into that world. My job was not to use any of his themes. It was to create new ones. For example, the Templar theme , Sophias Theme and of course the Main Assasin’s Creed Theme.
19. You and Hans Zimmer have been collaborating to write the music for a video commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of Amnesty International. Tell us about your experience in this philanthropic effort.
This has been a wonderful and meaningful project. This project came about to the fact he has recently started a foundation. It is run by the wonderful Bonnie Abaunza . She had previously worked with Amnesty. We firstly began working on a short animated film that was directed by Carlos Lascano. We have on and off been working on the project for nearly a year now. Ujam.com have also helped with spreading the word. There is a contest happening at the moment for people to actually perform and arrange their own versions of our theme. It is a fantastic web site and lets everyone be part of this very important cause.
20. In 2011, you’ve participated in the television film Five, divided in five segments with different directors (some of them are Jennifer Aniston, Demi Moore or Alicia Keys), exploring the impact of breast cancer on people’s lives. How did you get to this interesting project, of humanistic impact?. Watching projects like the short of Uganda: Friends of the Gorillas, the previously mentioned documentaries or the music written for the 50th anniversary of the founding of Amnesty International, are they the type of compositions you usually seek?.
I do not have a particular type of project. I take everyday as it comes. The Gorilla project was a great cause and fun project. Musically I had never written anything geographically like that before. So it was a challenge, and challenges is what we should all face regularly. If not, then we become complacent in our art.
21. And wrapping up… some very quickly personal questions… You have to say just one answer. Ok?
- A movie… The Goonies
- An instrument… The Bagpipes
- A composer… Vaughn Williams
- A book… Martha Stewarts Guide to Entertaining
- A city… New York
- A Song… Any thing by Depeche Mode
- A TV Show… Arrested Development
Thank you very much for your time and good luck in your new projects Lorne.
Links of Interest:
- Lorne Balfe’s website
- AsturScore.com also offers you the spanish translation of this exclusive interview… check it out!
Special Thanks to Gorka Oteiza for the traduction and to Beth Bobo Krakower for her support in the interview to Lorne Balfe.