ScoreKeeper recently enjoyed a very interesting chat with composer Klaus Badelt.
Badelt’s credits include the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN film, an exceptionally stirring score for the woefully misguided TIME MACHINE remake, the effectively understated 16 BLOCKS, and Wolfgang Petersen’s recent POSEIDON redux.
ScoreKeeper spoke with Badelt about his work on WU JI, aka THE PROMISE, which is now in theaters. Some fascinating thoughts from an intriguing composer.
AICN extends its sincerest thanks to Klaus for his time and consideration, and to ScoreKeeper for his exceptional (and ongoing) efforts to bring film music coolness to our nutty little site.
ScoreKeeper here bestowing another edition of film-music-goodness for the faithful AICN congregation.
I recently conducted an exclusive hour-long interview with film composer Klaus Badelt about his score for THE PROMISE (2005), which was directed by Chen Kaige. Although this film was released in China last year it just hit American theaters earlier this month. Klaus was supremely amiable and proved to be the consummate interviewee. I was fascinated with his insight and anecdotes. I hope you will be as well.
Look for my review of Badelt's score for THE PROMISE following the interview.
SCOREKEEPER (herein "SK"): You’ve got two films that are currently out, THE PROMISE and POSEIDON, which is already your third film of 2006. First off, I want to congratulate you on both scores and to an already very successful year.
I would like to focus on THE PROMISE which I think could very well be your best film score to date. Although the film is out right now in US theaters, it was actually released in China last year. Did you know right away when you started scoring that it would get a release in the US or were you thinking that this might only be seen by audiences in Asia?
BADELT: I didn’t know at the time. What we wanted to do, both the director and me, was to create a film which can be felt by a global audience. That’s actually why he asked me to do it. You must know that Chen Kaige, the director, is maybe here not quite as well known…but in China, he’s a superstar more than any Steven Spielberg is in this country. He’s on TV everyday, he has a very famous actress wife, and wherever I went with him in any restaurant in Beijing, there’s a long line of people waiting for autographs.
This guy is a major VIP there. He’s a guy who doesn’t need the Western world. He’s perfectly happy and fine over there. That’s why I asked him too, ‘I’m very honored, but why you ask me to do it?’ This is exactly what he said, he said ‘Klaus, I want this film to reach an audience that goes beyond the Asian world.’ And he actually mentioned, which is funny, that ‘we already have an international cast’…and what he meant was we have Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese actors, and Hong Kong actors. I thought it was funny. For them, the Japanese have more trouble speaking Chinese than the Germans and its all done in Mandarin.
I tell you it was an unbelievable life-changing, and very inspiring experience. I met, with (Chen Kaige), one of the most inspiring human beings – not just as a director. For example, the least time we spent was talking about the film and even less about the music. It was always about social life, about China and the change about people’s lives, cultural revolution, a lot of politics. He’s a very unpolitical man, and that’s certainly true, but there is always so much social criticism.
If you look at the film, it’s hard to understand for a Western audience, but every shot in a way is symbolic for so much more. In a way you have to watch the film a few times to actually fully understand it. There’s probably a lot of people here who watch it as a film and they wonder ‘why does the story break there,’ or ‘I don’t understand this or that,’ and I’m not surprised. That’s just not the way they make films there, at least not him. It’s a very symbolic way of making films.
SK: There are a handful of Asian film composers such as Kenji Kawai, Yeong-Wook Jo, Masamichi Amano, or Tan Dun, just to name a few, who are quickly making their names known around the world for writing great film music while helping put Asian filmmaking on the map. With such a high-profile Chinese film such as THE PROMISE, how did you get this coveted scoring assignment?
BADELT: Oh, it’s funny how this always works…a friend of a friend kind of knows the producer and that’s how it works. And I have somebody in Europe taking care of me in the way of getting together with interesting people in Europe, even though I live here in America. Many films in London and Paris have more freedom because they have smaller budgets so you can try out interesting new things. I’m certainly not known for these kinds of films that I do there, but that’s where I get my energy from and my inspiration. To then do a film like POSIEDON, it’s a whole different kind of way of making a score.
So I met the producer who happens to be a European who lives in America and has done some interesting films. He was there doing his second film with Kaige and so I jumped on it like I couldn’t do any more. He then invites me to meet the director. It’s being at the right place at the right time. You have to be lucky sometime. I met (Kaige) and we really hit it off, you know I can only rave about that man as a person. It’s just like you sit there with him and you just want to listen to him all the time. He’s such a great story-teller and such a wise man…just an incredible person.
I insisted on actually going there, which he of course liked, and writing (the score) there. So I moved my whole studio and shipped it over there. In the end it actually turned into a real big film and it was a lot of work. I didn’t think that before I went over there and actually saw the film. Because knowing his other films, they’re quite minimal in a way, they’re gestures, not what this film is like. Unfortunately, I seem to have the luck that I hit these films that have wall-to-wall music and there’s at least 120 people playing on it all the time. It was a lot of work.
SK: You must talk a little about what it was like recording with the China National Symphony Orchestra in the Beijing Concert Hall. Was that the experience of a lifetime?
BADELT: Well, it was as you can imagine, quite an adventure. You don’t understand them. They don’t understand you. Very few people speak English there. My Chinese is certainly not good enough. It’s a very different culture so you have to get used to many things taking much longer because you just don’t know how it works there.
This hall is the concert hall of the old China National Symphony which was founded by Mao in ’56. It’s just across the street from the government state right next to the Forbidden City. When you get there you’re already in this certain mood. Then it’s a brand new remodel of the finest kind, probably one of the best halls I’ve ever recorded in. The acoustics there are just incredible. I think you can hear it because we didn’t add anything to the recording, it’s a pure recording. It was so new we had to build the control room. Every day we would roll in a couple more pieces of furniture while we were recording. Our engineer was just working super-shifts to get this all done.
There is this unbelievable beauty and this attitude of the people there and their lifestyles are expressed in how they play their instruments. The conductor for example, his German was brilliant and his English was fluent. He goes to Salzburg, America, everywhere.
You can’t imagine what highly skilled, trained musicians they have. Surprisingly a lot of western style orchestral players, probably some of the best violin players in the world are there, and the cello players are just incredible. I recorded so much drums and dizi flutes and different instruments which I had never heard of. And these people, they dedicate their lives to it. I’ve never had, for example, such an amazing ethnic flute player in my life. It influences the way you write.
SK: How much time did you actually spend there?
BADELT: I was there short of five months. At the end we went to Australia to do the final dub which for me was the first time too. It was amazing!
SK: You talked earlier about some of the ethnic instruments that you used, were you able to work with those musicians during the compositional process or did you just write what you wanted to hear and then bring that to the scoring stage?
BADELT: Well the way I work is I record the instruments before I start writing. I create samples. I want to be influenced in my writing by the sound of the instrument. I had them play not only long notes, so I could use them later on in my sampler, but I had them play free improvisation as well. I had days of just being with the instruments and musicians.
We rented a small rehearsal hall and they came by one after another and introduced me to their instruments. Then I recorded them, had these samples programmed here in America, then they were sent back so I could use them in the writing process. At the end we record them all over again. But at least I could work with the samples. Having these samples under your fingertips is almost like being able to play the instrument and knowing exactly how you want to write for it.
SK: What were some of the ethnic instruments that you used?
BADELT: Wow, let me remember them. There were a lot of flutes. Most of them are called dizi flutes. One of the instruments is called a xiao, a wooden flute, very haunting instrument. And the xun, it’s like a clay pot with three holes. This guy was actually able to play western scales on it even though it was physically impossible. It has this very hollow tone. I recorded with my little cell phone while they were playing and it was so amazing. So I wrote it in one cue in the film.
To remember what he did I tried to then use my samples that I recorded and nothing was as haunting as his original playing. So I put this into the score from my cell phone and then had him play this. He could never play it as haunting and wonderful as in this recording. This certain recording was such an interesting sound because it was so…bad, in a way. It was like coming from a different world. And honestly, I kept this recording in there. So there’s a little piece of my cell phone recording in the score. You can hear it on the album.
And then I did a lot of drums recording. I recorded in two different studios: the Beijing Studios and a very big military hall. I had a group of about thirty drummers with their big gu drums, which is like a Chinese version of the Japanese taiko. And they’re all hitting this thing at the same time. It’s an earth-shattering sound. If you have thirty guys hammering the shit out these drums, the power they hit with is incredible. I did a lot of recordings that used different gu. They call it datangu, tanngu, banggu, there’s all different sizes of gu. I’ve become a major admirer of Asian instruments.
Then they’re these plucked instruments that are quite amazing. One of these instruments is called the guzheng. It’s like a piano but on the side with the wood taken away. They play it in this incredible way that you’re fascinated with it. I used that instrument quite a lot in (the score) too. Then there’s an instrument called the yangqin which is very similar to (an instrument) that exists in the Eastern European countries too. It’s like a zither you hammer. We had this virtuoso player who could play Western tunes that was amazing. Again, these guys, their lives are just their instruments.
SK: That brings me to a question I had about the melodic vocal line featured in the end credits that also opens the soundtrack CD. I found this to be so hypnotically gorgeous. I find myself listening to this piece more than any other on the CD. Was this a Chinese folk tune, originally composed or improvised by the performer?
BADELT: I wish I could write a tune like this. This is an old, a very old – I mean really old tune. I’m not talking a hundred or two hundred years old. It’s delivered through generations. It’s a tune from the Yunnan Province. The Yunnan Province has about fifty-something nations, they call them minorities, in the Yunnan Province. From the Yi people, which is one nationality there, is one of the songs they sing.
To be honest, I was given it by the governor of the Yunnan province. They went into the provinces and to their own countryside and recorded old songs. They went to these people and said sing what your grandma taught you. It was one of the recordings he gave me. I was, just like you, so fascinated with this piece I actually used it in the film. The director was so fascinated too but we could not use it in the actual film. It’s at the end of the film but I thought it was too beautiful of a tune not to put it in there.
SK: Well, I think it’s really the perfect piece for the end credits. I like it in when the end credits try to say something instead of just recap the score. I think this is a great example because it does say something about the entire film.
BADELT: You’re totally right. I wrote a piece for the end credits and that’s on the CD called “Wuji”. That was the main theme played out in different variations and it was written just specifically for the end to sum up the idea of what “wuji” means. The word “wuji” doesn’t exist in English. We call it “the promise” and that’s actually the literal translation but you know, it’s not even that. “Wuji” means actually also destiny. What happens in the film is the little girl meets a goddess and the goddess says ‘Do you want this? But you have to give up something else and this will be true for the rest of your life.’ And the girl says ‘yes.’
That is actually “wuji.” If you asked ten Chinese people what “wuji” means you’ll get eleven different answers. It’s one of these words that means so much to them…we just don’t have.
SK: It seemed to me that “The Promise” was sort of a two-dimensional translation of what I expected was a much deeper meaning.
BADELT: Exactly. It’s untranslatable but it’s certainly better than “Warriors of the Crimson Armor” which came up. You see some martial arts in there but it’s not about that at all. It’s not like HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS or something. It’s a very, very different film and for us it’s easy to say ‘Oh, it’s one of those Chinese films.’ It also has nothing to do with CROUCHING TIGER which is purely to me all about…an artful way of displaying action.
SK: That brings me to the next question I wanted to ask you, regarding the action. One of my two favorite moments in the score was when the General first encounters Snow Wolf by the old tree. Although there is a fight sequence happening, you scored it very slow and beautiful which seems like a traditionally Asian way of approaching that scene. You saved the more bombastic music for when Kunlun comes to rescue the General. When it came to the action moments in the film, how did you balance when and where to actually score the action and when not to, since it really isn’t an action film.
BADELT: Thank you. I love your questions, by the way. You’re very deep and they really connect with what you have to live through as a composer when you write a piece on a film like this. First of all, it’s a long process to be honest. Once you get beyond the obvious it’s hard to find what this is all about. At the end it was pretty clear to me but, you know, it’s a long way there. So to write this action scene, like the one you described in the dark wood, it’s almost like a theater piece to me. It was like this one tree in this weird, dark environment and the assassin is such a deep character.
To me it was one of the best performances anywhere in the film. So I felt just sad when I saw it. He is a very sad man. He just wanted to do the right thing. He could not do right in his life. There was only one time he does the right thing. So for me, the first time you see him it’s a character introduction so I played the character and suddenly the fight had a mythological meaning.
SK: It’s interesting because you introduce Snow Wolf with that beautiful, sad music and that continues to escalate throughout the film until it climaxes on the flashback sequence when he’s on fire running through the snow, and he gets the cloak for the first time. But in the end when he does make that sacrifice the tone changes from this sad, tragic character to one of redemption.
BADELT: It was very difficult for me too, to be honest. To hit the right tone when it gets positive and not fall into the heroic, ‘he-made-it’ sound. But you know, there is no real bad and there’s no real good in this film. There’s no real hero even though they are all very selfless and heroic. That scene is actually one of my favorite scenes anyway – the flashback when you see the Duke of the North and the history of the Snow People. It also stands for so much for the director.
SK: Probably my favorite moment in the score was the solo violin as the General and the Princess, while on their horse, leap over Kunlun as they exit the chamber gates. There are many climactic moments like this in the score where instead of the music getting bigger, as one might be inclined to do, it significantly drops down or even drops out altogether. Was this approach the result of your collaboration with the director or purely instinctual?
BADELT: Honestly, I don’t know…It was always clear to me that this moment with the horse jumping and the slave looking up seeing basically true love. That’s what it’s about. He sees true love – a flower coming down. So suddenly this action scene, turns into something very different.
It’s breathtaking. Look at the pictures. The imagery of the film is breathtaking anyway and that scene especially. I wanted to stretch the moment as long as I could and make the audience feel like, ‘look…look…do you see what’s happening, do you feel with them? To just hold your breath here for a second.’
SK: It was definitely one of the stand-out moments of the score in the film for me.
BADELT: Thank you.
SK: This isn’t a heavily “Asian” sounding score although the few subtle moments it does creep in it is very effective. How were you able to keep the balance between utilizing Asian influences while avoiding the obvious clichÃ©s?
BADELT: I couldn’t agree more to what you are saying. The hardest challenge was to not fall into the Chinese clichÃ©s, especially what us Westerners think what Chinese music is. He could’ve hired Tan Dun or any other fantastic composer – they have fantastic composers there. But I just wanted to make it a world approach so you feel a global issue happening. This is why I used these instruments. They are so intimate and feel so much like home.
Honestly, what really helped was the director who really dislikes traditional Chinese instruments used in film. He couldn’t hate the erhu more and didn’t want me to use it at all. If I used them differently, then he totally agreed. I had them play different tunes. I wrote a tune I would’ve written no matter what the instrument was. Then I had this instrument play it and that he could not only live with, but that he liked.
SK: And yet there is still just enough Asian influence in the score to acknowledge the culture without completely abandoning it.
BADELT: Thank you. It’s wonderful that you say that. It was so hard to do.
The biggest compliment I had was when the director told me later after the film came out, he said ‘Look, many people try to attack the film and there are critics and reviews’ he said, ‘but remarkably nobody in China attacked the music.’ That means to me it was great. My biggest fear wasn’t actually the European or the American critics, my fear was the Chinese audiences and the Chinese critics…that they would feel some kind of cultural imperialism like ‘Look, he’s hiring this Hollywood composer now. He’s not doing our kind of music, we don’t like it.’
SK: Was there any controversy in China when you were first hired to score this film?
BADELT: No. Not at all, interestingly enough. I was a little scared that people would think ‘What’s he doing?’ and ‘Why is this Western guy trying to write with our Chinese instruments?’.
SK: You’re no stranger to scoring big films (THE RECRUIT, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, POSEIDON), but THE PROMISE is being touted as the most expensive Chinese movie ever made? I’m sure the expectations for this film in China are enormously high. Did this place an unusual amount of pressure on you and if so how were you able to deal with that?
BADELT: I tell you though the highest pressure, for myself, came from…(pause)…when you meet (Chen Kaige) you would understand what I mean. You have this director who, when he talks to you or when you talk to him, you have one thing on your mind…you cannot disappoint him. You put yourself under such pressure. You work so hard just because he inspires you so much you just want to try to keep up. And that was more pressure than anything else I’ve ever had. Of course, you try to please the director, you try to please many people, and do a good job. There the ambition came from somewhere else. It came from much deeper inside.
SK: So would you then consider Chen Kaige the ideal type of director to work for?
BADELT: Absolutely. He’s a master of putting raw emotion onto the screen. He can make you feel really good about yourself yet you know you have to work so hard to get anywhere close to where he is and where the film is. I love that. I felt similar things with this one film director, Werner Herzog (Invincible, 2001), when I did a film with him. They’re not demanding at all, they’re actually very understanding. You want to be better and prove yourself. That’s maybe a sign of a good director, I think, to get really the best out of the people around him.
SK: Scoring THE PROMISE sounds like an amazing, life-changing experience for you. Were there any down moments for you? Any moments of utter frustration or maybe strong doubts about yourself?
BADELT: Oh my. I’m very good at doubting myself anyway. If I would love what I write I would be done much faster in every score. I would be going home to my kids and would have a good night sleep. I start off hating everything I do but it bloody takes so long. It comes to a point where I just basically run out of time and have to like what I do in order to move on.
But no, in a way there were tons of moments of frustration there. Not frustration rather, but fear. Like ‘Wow, can I actually do this? There is so much at stake.’ Again, it’s not about the budget or expectations from the people there. It’s more about ‘Wow, this is so symbolic, there is so much in it, can I actually keep up in putting this all in music?’.
SK: How do you work through that? Do you ignore it and just trust yourself or do you have a method to help you through that?
BADELT: I once heard what Sarah McLachlan said – and it’s like she could read my mind – when she said ‘Look, I don’t know the way to write a good song but I know when I’m there. If I only knew how to get there it would be painless.” That’s exactly the way I feel. Every time is different, how to get to that point. But when you get to the point, you suddenly realize, ‘Oh ya, actually, this is…this is wuji. This feels wuji to me.’
I worked on this love theme so much. Probably two weeks. And trust me I didn’t only have one theme, but I only played (Chen Kaige) one theme at the end. And then you know that it’s actually alright. The way I write also is that I don’t write to picture until I’m sure I have all my materials together. So I detach myself from the film completely. I don’t even watch it. I just try to find the vocabulary, meaning playing the themes, and the colors. For me, production and sound is as important as the tune even though it’s always about a tune. It’s about how you make it sound and what you use for that.
I don’t know how I get through these frustrating phases. At least I now have enough experience to know I can get out of it. That doesn’t help you much when you’re in the middle of it.
SK: Was there anything you wanted to do in this score that you didn’t or couldn’t do?
BADELT: Yes. You might laugh because I had four months but I was running out of time at the end. I wanted to record one more vocal choir and I could never do it. I have some choir in there but it’s not exactly what I wanted. There is this group of around fifty girls in the Yunnan province. I heard a performance of them when I was there and I said ‘This is the most intense sound I’ve ever heard in my life’. I really wanted them in actually several spots. During the flashback, when the slave runs back and sees through time, I wanted to have these voices calling back to basically lead him the way. I wanted to do that but never had time for that. Hopefully on the next time I will do this.
SK: What single moment in the score are you most proud of?
BADELT: Well, first of all, I’m never proud of anything really yet, to be honest. There is one tiny moment. It's the moment where the General is alone trying not to have the leaves and their blossoms fall off the tree. We had this incredible violin player who lives half in New York and half in Beijing.
When I met him he was 23, he came back from a rerecording of some extreme Paganini piece because he had recorded it already when he was 16 and people asked him to record it again because he had grown up so much. So he played this short piece. I almost cried myself even though it was my music, but the way he played this piece higher and higher…He put everything in there. Maybe that’s one of my favorite moments in the score, I think.
SK: Asian filmmaking in general is continuing to make a global impact on cinema. What makes THE PROMISE such a unique film and why should audiences go see it?
BADELT: There’s more than one reason. The film has the most beautiful pictures you could ever seen in your life. To me, every shot is like a French painting. Stunning visual effects which you don’t realize as such but it’s all creating this world you have never seen before.
If you want to know more about what destiny and love means in your life, if you could change your destiny, or if you know where you are…I hope that people who see this film, come out of this film and start thinking about your life and being suddenly aware of setting priorities in your life. So if you want to learn something about your life go and see the film.
SK: Very cool. So what’s next for you?
BADELT: I don’t know yet. I have a couple of things that I’m talking with the director about and I’m just waiting to see something. Both are much smaller pictures than the last ones I just did. I’m very excited about it. It’s maybe too early to talk about names and numbers but honestly I’m not rushing into the next one. I just spent five months on POSEIDON and I’m happy to just kick it and do nothing. Honestly, I really want to wait for something very interesting now. I’m in this wonderful position and I’m very privileged that I can actually sit back and wait until something good comes along.
SK: Thank you Klaus for your time this evening. I very much enjoyed talking with you about your score for THE PROMISE. This has all been very fascinating. I’ve got about another page of questions but we may have to save those for another time.
BADELT: Yes, let’s do it again another time, if you want. I love your questions. I think this was really cool…I really appreciate it. Thank you. Let’s do it again soon.