Interview with Edwin Wendler
The recent premiere and success of the action film Non-Stop, directed by the Catalonian Jaume Collet-Serra, has put John Ottman in musical control of the airplane, where Edwin Wendler, collaborator on several Ottman’s scores, has become his right hand writing additional music for the project.
And because of this circumstance, AsturScore, with the invaluable help and constant contact of Peter Hackman, has conducted an interview with Edwin Wendler, covering his beginnings as well as his recent work in Non-Stop.
Thanks to Edwin and Peter for their kindness, and to Oscar Salazar for the translation (without you we could not have got the hell out of here, Colonel Trautman).
During his four years as a Vienna Choir Boy, Edwin Wendler toured the world, singing in hundreds of concerts and dozens of opera performances. He earned Certificates in Film Scoring and Screen Writing from UCLA Extension in 2000, and was accepted into the prestigious ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop in 2004. Mr. Wendler’s feature film credits as a composer include Home: The Horror Story (2001), The Interior (2007), Christmas With A Capital C (2010), Escape (2012), and The Mark: Redemption (2013). His score for the documentary The Right To Love: An American Family (2013) was nominated for a GoldSpirit Award in 2014. In 2010, Mr. Wendler won a “Best Score” award at the Los Angeles International Film Festival, for his epic score, Azureus Rising (CG short).
Mr. Wendler composed additional music for the Liam-Neeson-thriller Non-Stop (Universal/StudioCanal, 2014). He worked as an arranger, programmer, and orchestrator on movies such as So Undercover (The Weinstein Company, 2012), Unknown (Warner Bros., 2011), Little Fockers (Universal/Paramount, 2010), The Losers (Warner Bros., 2010), Turistas (Fox, 2006), and Into The Blue (MGM/Sony, 2005). Mr. Wendler’s television credits include arranging on the 2006 Showtime series, Sleeper Cell: American Terror, as well as composing additional music for NBC’s popular reality series, Fear Factor.
Concert commissions include the choral/orchestral piece, Consolatio (1999; broadcast on Canadian television), choral works for the Illumni Men’s Chorale (Wendler is currently their composer-in-residence) and Kentridge High School Concert Choir, as well as instrumental arrangements for the Hollywood Soloists. Wendler’s critically acclaimed string quartet, The Marriage, has been performed in Canada and France.
1) What is your first memory about creating music? The moment when you realized: This is it, this is what I want to do.
I must have been 17 or 18 years old. I had composed a few, short pieces, nothing major. I was in one of those states where you are lying in bed, not asleep yet but not quite awake, either. I imagined myself in an unfurnished room with a view to a beautiful lawn and trees. I had to remain there for a long time, and I was allowed to furnish the room any way I wanted to. I immediately wished for a desk, a chair, pencils, and score paper. I instantly and effortlessly knew that composing music would be the one thing that I was really happy doing for hours on end. It took me a few years and a few false starts to get there, but now I am truly happy doing what I do.
2) You’ve toured the world as a Vienna Choir Boy, singing in hundreds of concerts and dozens of opera performances. Your DNA was musical from the beginning! How was that time?
Both my parents have backgrounds in music, and my father was able to have a long career in music. As a member of the Vienna Choir Boys, I was in an environment which allowed me to learn about the inner workings of music, about the logistics of rehearsing and performing, and about the unpredictability of an audience’s reaction. I was never happy with the boarding school aspects of the organization, but I’ll always be grateful for the artistic opportunities I had during that time.
3) In the fantastic interview done recently by Underscores, we read that you decided to take a different way, far away of the desires of your parents. Was it a difficult decision? How did you feel when you decided to follow your dreams?
Thank you for the kind words about my interview with Olivier Soudé! My mother always wanted me to become a doctor. Given my desire to do well, no matter what the task is, I would have probably become a pretty good doctor, but I would have been awfully depressed. As you know, I started studying all kinds of interesting subjects but all of them left me feeling vacant and useless. From the beginning, doing music was really more about avoiding depression than anything else. It’s the same feeling that all artistic persons have: You do art not because it makes business sense but because you couldn’t function otherwise.
4) Any advice for aspiring composers?
Don’t let anybody discourage you. Surround yourself with people who know what you’re going through. Keep experimenting, and never lose a sense of fun and exploration. If making music isn’t exciting, then maybe you’re not doing the right thing, or you need to find ways to get that excitement back.
5) Before you got your first feature film assignment, you worked on several shorts. What do you remember from that period? Which is your favorite short?
I remember working a lot, and for no money! Another composer jokingly referred to me as the “king of shorts” at the time. Shorts are great if you’re looking for experience. Every director has a different personality, so you start to develop an understanding for how to successfully address directors’ notes, even if they don’t make any sense. My favorite short is probably Wrong Hollywood Number. Director JoséAntonio W. Danner taught me so many amazing lessons in the process, and we got to record with the London Metropolitan Orchestra (contracted by the wonderful Andy Brown) and engineer Mike Ross-Trevor. We mixed with the incomparable Dennis Sands. Everybody involved was just so kind and encouraging. It was a dream project.
6) You composed Consolatio in 1999, a great symphonic piece for choir and orchestra for the 150th anniversary of the University of Ottawa. Was it difficult to compose for something without images, to strictly do an homage and pay tribute to the anniversary of a university? Is this work one of your best compositions, in your opinion?
Artistic director Laurence Ewashko took a risk when he gave me the commission to write a 12-minute, uplifting, symphonic piece. I had never written anything like it before, certainly nothing of that scale. Laurence knew that I loved composing more than anything, and he believed in me. I was very lucky to get that commission. In general, I feel as comfortable writing music away from picture as I do writing in sync to picture. I love telling stories through music. Those stories might originate with a movie, a written text, a memory I have from years past; it can be anything, even something abstract. The most satisfying experience on Consolatio came when I visited the choir and orchestra during rehearsals, and I saw how passionately the musicians responded to the music. Many of them thanked me in person, and that meant the world to me. Under Laurence’s guidance, they brought the piece to life in ways that exceeded my hopes and expectations. As for whether the piece is one of my best, I’ll leave that up to you. Consolatio is available as a free download on my website.
7) Your first important work for films, after a large number of shorts, was the crazy film, Home: The Horror Story (2001), a mix of horror and comedy. The score is equally crazy, mixing all kinds of styles (circus music, suspense, whacky effects, …). What do you remember about this funny composition?
Thank you so much for listening! Director Temi López found a truly unique way to tell his story, so the music needed to reflect the outrageous and often absurd nature of the story telling and the wild images which often used saturated colors and distortions. He asked me to listen to Pérez Prado and Bernard Herrmann for inspiration, and I basically went crazy combining elements from different styles and giving them cohesion through a centralized main theme and a limited assortment of samples and electronics. We did record some live percussion and nonsensical vocals, which was a blast. Temi encouraged me to go overboard with the music, and I was happy to oblige.
8) In 2007, you worked on the web series, The Interior (soundtrack released on Perseverance Records). What was it like to deal with webisodes which were only 4-7 minutes in length? Were you given time to develop your ideas as a composer?
The ins and outs were sometimes tricky. Of course, there were cliffhangers (sometimes in mid-scene) at the end of each webisode because the goal was to keep people watching. Then, at the beginning of the next episode, I had to immediately set the tone for the scene without doing something too on-the-nose. Especially during the later episodes, though, director Helmut Schleppi and editor Radu Ion gave me several opportunities to make longer musical statements, and I embraced those opportunities. This series also gave me my first opportunity to write a rap song, which was a wonderful collaboration with Maximo who did the lead vocals and wrote the lyrics.
9) Azureus Rising (2010) is an animated short, placed in the future, full of action, and your music is doing exactly the same, powerful and epic, pure adrenaline. Is animation a genre which provides you more freedom to compose? Do you want to work again in animation in the future? Maybe a large film instead of a short?
I love fantasy and sci-fi, in both live-action and animation, and I would say yes to pretty much any project within that genre. Working with David Weinstein on Azureus Rising felt like playing with the coolest, new toys when I was a kid. There is a heightened sense of heroism, danger, fate, etc. which allows you to make bold statements in music, something you could never do in a contemporary drama, for instance. So, it was just incredibly fun to work in a genre that I had fallen in love with during my childhood.
10) Escape (2012) may be your biggest assignment yet as a composer, and it may also be your best work, with a beautiful and melodic leitmotiv, first heard in the main title cue, Andaman Sea. How was the creative process composing Escape?
Many thanks! Escape was unusual in that the director had left the movie, and I communicated with producers James Chankin and Chad Hawkins about the direction of the music. As all of us are aware, many producers and directors tend to react negatively to lyrical themes nowadays, mostly for understandable reasons. In this case though, we all agreed that a main theme was the best way to support the beauty of the Thai landscape, the nobility of the main characters’ charity work, and the inner journey those characters were embarking on. Concluding the journey with the 7-minute-long cue, The Shore, was by far the most satisfying part of the composing work. I think the City of Prague Philharmonic played beautifully and with the perfect amount of emotion: moving yet not overtly melodramatic.
11) It’s great to listen to Escape because you can discover a brilliant score, full of beautiful melodies, dramatic moments and thriller/action music, all very well balanced. Did you have freedom to do your work? What can you tell us about the fantastic palette of ethnic instruments (including Thai hand cymbal)?
James and Chad gave me a great deal of freedom. They had struggled to find the right temp music because of the tricky balance between the drama, suspense, and action sequences. It was the music’s primary job to tie those elements together seamlessly and to not go overboard one way or the other, in terms of tone. At the beginning of the story, it was my goal to use ethnic instruments in a lyrical, playful way, almost to the point of sounding somewhat clichéd because the main characters are touring Thailand for the first time, with hopes and aspirations that are noble but may be a bit naïve. Later, the ethnic elements become more ominous, even a bit sick and twisted in places, starting with the cue, Chase and Abduction, underlining the disconnect between the main characters and the people around them.
12) Is The Interior, in some ways, a little sister to Escape? Both explore some similar, exotic places (Thailand and Panama, with jungles, for example), and both share excellent passages of thriller music and beautiful moments, too. And both were released by Perseverance Records!
Yes, in some ways: Both stories share a fish-out-of-water scenario and exotic locales. The Interior was darker in tone: My music was primarily electronic, although we used some ethnic woodwinds, and the soul of the music was Mike Ator’s vocals, not only in the main title song but also in portions of the score which are more mysterious or mournful in character. And yes, Robin Esterhammer of Perseverance Records was kind enough to give both those scores a chance to be available away from the images, for which I am very thankful!
13) In 2004, you began to work with Paul Haslinger on some projects (Into the Blue, Turistas, Sleeper Cell, etc.), and from 2010 until now you‘ve been collaborating with John Ottman (The Losers, Unknown, etc.). Did you feel comfortable working with these composers and following their instructions?
I have such high respect for Paul, John, and for Stephen Trask (with whom I have collaborated twice). They are so good at what they do, and I have learned so much in the process. Also, all three of them are really nice to work with: They all have a great attitude about the work, and they have a great sense of humor, which comes in handy during times of crazy deadlines.
14) I suppose working for other composers is an interesting method to learn many things about the world of composition, and to make contacts too, isn’t it?
Yes, I have been able to make great contacts with musicians, music scoring mixers, music editors, etc. All of those people help so much in the process of making a score sound great, and I feel honored to have worked with them.
15) When Non-Stop was released in cinemas worldwide, it became an instant hit at the box office. How do you feel about being part of this big success? How was the creative process on Non-Stop?
When you work on a movie, you obviously give it the best you can, so hopefully, it will end up being successful. However, there is no way of knowing in advance what the reaction will be. All of us were pleasantly surprised when the movie opened on #1 at the box office here in the United States. The creative process was very enjoyable. My job was to provide continuity and to help finish the work while John had his hands full editing X-Men: Days of Future Past. John, like most artists, wants and needs to be in control of his work and the way it is presented and perceived. Giving up even a little bit of that can be very scary. I am so thankful that John trusted me to provide music that would satisfy the needs and complexities of this score.
16) You are credited with writing additional music on Non-Stop. Did you have creative freedom on your cues or were you in any way limited by references or directions from John Ottman or others? Where were the boundaries of your creative freedom?
John set the stage with his wonderful, introspective-yet-noble main theme, his selection of sounds, and all of his cues. John and I carefully coordinated what work I would do. We spotted scenes, and I took John’s theme and sonic palette, and basically applied and developed them as needed. I never felt limited in the sense of having to hold back anything creatively. Quite the contrary. John was always very encouraging and helpful during the entire process, especially when it came to incorporating notes from director Jaume Collet-Serra and producer Joel Silver.
17) I like the Non-Stop score, especially the thriller and tension music. It reminds me of some of film music’s classics (Jerry Goldsmith in the 90’s, or The Fugitive by James Newton Howard). Was this something deliberate or accidental?
Those are very flattering comparisons! I think the score, much like the movie, is telling a somewhat traditional story (Agatha Christie comes to mind) but it is doing so with contemporary means. The movie looks slick and modern, and the music needed to sound modern, too. We achieved this through the use of electronics: processed percussion, bass pulses, filters, etc. Some of the ideas in the score may be traditional in concept, but the sonic packaging, if you will, needed to feel current.
18) Escape, Unknown, Non-Stop… You are comfortable in action music, aren’t you? I read on your website that you absolutely love writing action music. Which composers are your musical influences in action music? What do you think about contemporary action music, which sometimes veer far away from classic composers such as Goldsmith, Horner, Broughton, or McNeely?
I definitely love writing action music. Many composers complain that action music always gets buried under sound effects anyway, no matter what you do as a composer. I still believe that there are ways in which music can either stay out of the way of, or compliment sound effects. There are several movies which demonstrate that sound effects and music can happily coexist in a mix. I love the action music by the composers you have referenced in your question, especially Jerry Goldsmith’s creative and ever-changing use of mixed meters and syncopations. Action music can easily become boring if it relies too heavily on the same tempo or the same riff. On the other hand, too much variation can stop the momentum of an action cue by splitting it up into too many individual sections. It is always my goal to find the sweet spot between those two extremes. Current action music can have as many strengths or weaknesses as action music from the past, I think. One action cue in recent memory, which I really liked a lot, was the Canyon Battle from Oblivion: great use of mixed meters and great variety!
19) You also worked on the documentary The Right to Love: An American Family. I think this is one of your best works beside Escape. Can you describe your work on this documentary?
I really appreciate the kind words. The Right to Love: An American Family holds a very special place in my heart because it looks at how unaware or even ignorant society can sometimes be about something profoundly unjust. My parents, especially my father, have raised me with a strong sense of fairness, of standing up for the right thing. The compelling way, in which filmmakers Cassie Jaye and Christina Clack presented the events in their documentary, really hit close to home. Cassie and Christina asked that I use cello in the score, and I thought it was a wonderful idea. We were very lucky to get Jakub Mayer’s exquisite performances, thanks to music contractor James Fitzpatrick.
20) About the future… what projects do you have in the pipeline?
I recently finished a little bit of arranging/programming work on X-Men: Days of Future Past, for John Ottman. I’ve also been working on two short films. One of them features a string orchestra, which was another wonderful, emotional experience. Next week, I’m scheduled to begin work on a horror feature, which I am excited about.
21) You own a large collection of soundtrack albums. As a collector, what do you like or dislike about film music?
Learning about, and creating film music has given me a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for the genre. There is a visceral component and a cerebral component to what we like or dislike. Some scores might sound dated or cheap, yet I love them inexplicably. Others might have all the best ingredients, but they leave me emotionally cold. I think what I am looking for as a listener is the perfect balance between familiarity and originality. I think James Horner is probably among the best when it comes to hitting that sweet spot. We are all familiar with his sound but whenever he comes up with some unexpected harmonic shifts or original use of melody or sounds, his music soars and usually gives me that “goosebumps” feeling that I think all of us are looking for when we explore new albums.
22) And finally, some very quick personal questions… The first thing that comes to mind. You only need to provide one reply. Ok? Let’s go!
A Movie… Raiders of the Lost Ark
A Musical Instrument… bansuri
A Composer… Prokofiev
A Book… Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea
A City… Vienna
A Song… All You Need Is Love
A TV Series… South Park
Thank you very much, Edwin! And we wish you the best of luck on all your projects!
I thank you, Ruben, for the opportunity to share some thoughts with you, and for the well-prepared questions! You take your research seriously! All my best to you, too!
Special thanks to Peter Hackman and Victor Kaply.