Harry here to do what I love most in life... Turning the stage over to this mechanical monstrosity that... Well, he's really quite adorable. He bakes brownies in his chest... It's really amazing, much better then those Star Trek thingees that make food appear. These taste just like those from home. None of that... Plastic flavor. Amazing. Well... Here's Robo...
ROBOGEEK CHECKS UP ON "MYSTERY MEN" -- AND INTERVIEWS OSCAR-WINNING COMPOSER STEPHEN WARBECK!
Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to visit the set of "Mystery Men," after which I wrote a small story chronicling the experience. (In case you missed it, check out the following links: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.)
And, as most loyal readers should be able to attest to by now, I am a serious film score junkie. I was going to say "aficianado" or "buff," but let's not kid ourselves -- I'm a junkie. I admit it. And admitting you have a problem is the first step, right? I thought so.
Anyway, knowing this, the producers of "Mystery Men" took pity on my pitiful Robo-soul and invited me back to the wondrous world of "Mystery Men" -- this time to witness a scoring session. Words cannot express my unbridled giddiness upon receiving said invitation.
I'd been very enthused to learn that Stephen Warbeck had landed the gig. Like many people, I was first exposed to Warbeck's work on the BBC series "Prime Suspect." However, it was his score for "Mrs. Brown" that really made me sit up and pay attention. However, what put him on the map was that little movie called "Shakespeare in Love," which earned him an Oscar earlier this year.
Once I found out _how_ Warbeck got the "Mystery Men" gig, I got really excited. Basically, what sold the filmmakers was his theory that all the Mystery Men go through their lives hearing their own theme music in their heads, and _that_ is what the audience should hear. So rather than a silly, camp approach poking fun at the ridiculousness of the characters and their situations, the music will be a noble reflection of the characters' idealized self-image. Beautiful. As someone who is similarly (and gleefully) self-deluded, I whole-heartedly appreciated this approach.
If you recall from my set visit story, what struck me most about this film is its sincerity of tone. It treats its characters with respect, and the actors all play it straight -- well, okay, not _straight_, but _sincerely_. They approach their characters as _real_ people with dimension and humanity. And this is why we, the audience, are going to care about them, and be invested in the story. If the score was going to reach for that same tonal integrity, then this was certainly something to be excited about. At least in my book, anyway. If it doesn't excite you, then you're reading the wrong web site.
[FULL DISCLAIMER ALERT: The producers of "Mystery Men" not only graciously flew me in at their own expense, but also spoiled me with transportation and accomodations -- which happened to be within walking distance of Stan's Donuts, by the way (which I surmise was no coincidence, given my infamous donut fetish). A goddess named Terra Abrams in the Mystery Men office handled all my travel arrangements, and she has my eternal gratitude. END DISCLAIMER!]
I arrived bright and early at the Sony lot, to be greeted by some of the friendliest studio security I've yet encountered. I took it as a good omen. I took careful notes, which I later transmitted to Moriarty, so he could infiltrate the premises the following morning while I recovered from partying a little too hard with the Hong Kong Cavaliers at the Sky Bar. But that's another story altogether.
Anyway, I found my way to the scoring studio, and was greeted with the following awe-inspiring plaque...
It was about nine-thirty in the morning, which is a bit early for old Robo, except in Austin time it felt like eleven-thirty, so I was feeling chipper. The musicians were just setting up in the expansive sound stage, and I took a stroll around, just soaking up the ambiance, breathing in history. For a film score buff it was like entering a great cathedral. Truly a religious experience.
I made my way to the conductor's podium. It was like approaching the captain's chair aboard the starship Enterprise. I heard the bells. (If you don't get that reference, you're in trouble!) This is what I saw...
After wandering around a bit, I made my way into the adjacent control studio, all decked out in uber-cool technology and big-ass speakers. Oh, yeah. And there, on the phone, was composer Stephen Warbeck, eyeing me oh-so-suspiciously...
Anyway, once the opportunity presented itself, I made my introduction, and then did my best to stay out of everybody's way. My first impression of Mr. Warbeck was that he reminded me of a soft-spoken combination of Stan Laurel and Albert Einstein. And while I doubt my photos can support such a bizarre assertion, I assure you it's not that far off.
Once the musicians were all warmed up, Stephen took to the podium to address the orchestra, and say a few pleasantly charming things. He then handed it over to conductor Pete Anthony (shown above at right), while he returned to the control studio, located behind the conductor through a broad expanse of glass. The whole set-up is a very weird contrast of old and new -- a classical orchestra in one room, and a high-tech studio adjacent.
The score is broken down into various cues of various sizes, many of which will be seamlessly linked together in the film. First, the orchestra runs through the cue, and they check it against the timing (everything has to be perfectly timed). Then they put it up against a playback of the scene itself, and usually nail it in a small handful of takes, which are recorded. Throughout the whole process, Warbeck may tweak something here or there, and then have the conductor try it out. Every once in a while the director or one of the producers gives him some "notes" (suggestions), but for the most part they seem to stay out of his way and trust him to do his job -- which, I come to witness, he does extraordinarily well. Once it all comes together, it's absolute magic. Then they move on to the next cue. I think they did about a dozen or more the day I was there.
conducting to film
The atmosphere at the scoring session was not at all dissimilar to what I found on set months earlier -- highly professional, well-organized, upbeat, and smooth. Warbeck fit right in, and I couldn't help but notice how often he used the word "lovely" in describing the situation. In fact, I wish I had used a DAT or something to record the interview so you could hear his voice. It's hypnotically soothing. But then, if I _had_ used a DAT, I'd be oh-so-tempted to post bootleg mp3 files of this fantastic score. So I guess I should be thankful that I stuck to good old-fashioned analog Robo-technology.
Anyway, I was really taken with how calmly cordial Warbeck was during what could be a very tense and stressful process. For instance, when ready to hear another take, he would politely ask something like, "So are we beautifuly situated to have another go?" -- or say something like, "It's all looking very exciting for another take." Similarly, upon hearing an insightful suggestion from (superb) composer Pete Anthony, he would respond, "That would be handy, wouldn't it? And prudent." -- or -- "We love it. We haven't heard it yet, but we we're going to love it." Warbeck won major cool points in the Robo-book.
And besides, the music is _gorgeous_. The next day, I came back to the studio to try and steal Warbeck away for a brief interview during one of his all-too-brief breaks. Luckily, I was successful.
ROBOGEEK: First of all, belated congratulations...
STEPHEN WARBECK: Thank you.
RG: I'm very curious what the most interesting and immediate repercussions of the events of a few months ago were for you personally as well as professionally.
SW: On a personal level, not a great deal... Sarah and I came out for the thing itself, so we had a little short holiday, although it was rapidly filled up by an awful lot of meetings. For some reason people are more interested in meeting somebody who's won something than somebody who hasn't, although the person is actually exactly the same. I still write music the way I wrote it before I won the Oscar, so that hasn't changed. I can't remember if I'd be doing this [Mystery Men] if it wasn't for that; I can't remember if I met with them initially before I won or not, so I can't answer that bit of the question. So I think on a personal level it hasn't made a dramatic difference, but I think that perhaps it opens the door to some projects which wouldn't have come my way if it wasn't for the Oscar.
RG: This [Mystery Men] looks like a fun chance for you to stretch in some very different creative directions that you haven't really explored before. I was wondering how you've enjoyed that, and what the experience has been like for you.
SW: Well "Shakespeare in Love" was billed as a comedy, but it's a very different kind of comedy from this. There's a whole aspect of writing that this has made possible which doesn't come my way all that often. Because this is an action film and it's a comedy at the same time, you can really have fun with different textures and fast pulses and exciting things and tense things. I've done thrillers before, but I've never done anything which combined all these different elements.
RG: You're using a huge orchestra, but with some interesting quirks in terms of the solo guitar, and a variety of percussion, for instance. Can you tell us about some of the specific variations to the standard studio orchestra that you've brought to bear here?
SW: I usually try and involve a few individual voices -- I don't mean human voices, I mean individual elements in a score so that it has an identity that's not simply that of a large or small orchestra, so that there are some special bits to it that give it an individual character. And on this, because of the character that Geoffrey Rush plays, Casanova [Frankenstein], which I suppose he does as a German, we decided to give it more of a European or Eastern European flavor...
RG: Kind of a gypsy feeling.
SW: Exactly, a gypsy sort of feel to it. But I was quite liberal in the choice of instruments, because I've chosen a couple of Hungarian instruments, the tarogato and the cimbalom, and also a Greek instrument, the bouzouki. And those are the quirky, extra voices in that set. And then also a selection of hand drums and rattles and so on. We specified quite a few of them. And then Mike Fisher and the other percussionists have brought along an exciting range of stuff which are so interesting and varied that we keep picking bits of those and adding them in.
RG: One thing I noticed immediately was that you're following the classic heroic scoring tradition by assigning different themes to the main characters. So while Rush's employs gypsy motifs, Bill Macy's character's [The Shoveler] theme has a very Americana kind of feel to it, while Ben Stiller's [Mr. Furious] has this more rough, cool twang guitar thing happening. Can you talk about some of these themes and the inspirations you drew on for them?
SW: Well, I mean, the character you mentioned with the more Americana style of things -- he's just got such either a ridiculously or delightfully absurd view of how simple life is and how simple right-and-wrong is. And it's quite nice suddenly to be able to write a bit of music which is so uncomplicatedly positive or patriotic or certain of what's right and what's wrong. And then the slightly more atmospheric, moody gypsy style for Geoffrey Rush's character, which contrasts with Greg Kinnear's...
RG: Captain Amazing has a fantastically grand theme.
SW: Captain Amazing epitomizes the overblown heroic and, again, the simple ethical approach to things, and his music reflects that. It's very stirring, and I'm using some bits of music that were written for "The Dam Busters." It's very straight-ahead music that celebrates the simple positive vision that he has of how crime can be sorted out just by being a wonderful superhero. Of course life is more complicated than that, but only Casanova Frankenstein realizes how complicated life is.
RG: I know you have to get back to work, but I just wanted to ask you one other thing. As a composer for film, what is it like to finally see it all come together -- particularly on this stage, given its history?
SW: I think the thing is that there are two or three different things that happen. One is that it is terrifically exciting to meet a whole new group of people, and find delightful new people to collaborate with on the work. That's really thrilling. And the second thing is that it's almost like you have a clean slate, because you're not working in your usual environment, so you can break your patterns. And I find that this is a very wonderful bunch of musicians, and the room sounds great. I have nothing but admiration for them, and it's a great pleasure to be working here.
RG: Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Warbeck.
SW: My pleasure.
And with that, he went back to work. Soon after, I boarded a plane to return to the Republic, my head filled with the themes of Captain Amazing, Casanova Frankenstein, Mr. Furious, The Blue Raja and The Shoveler.
See, there's this one scene I watched them score that just killed me. The Mystery Men are sitting around a table somewhere. Maybe a basement, I dunno. And The Shoveler is standing over there on the side, doing something. It looks like he's making mashed potato sandwiches. I know that sounds crazy, but that's what it looked like on the monitors, I swear to God. And as he's making those mashed potato sandwiches, he addresses the rest of the Mystery Men, talking to them straight. I can't hear any of the dialogue, but I can see Bill Macy's noble eyes, his heroic visage. And I hear Stephen Warbeck's music. And I see how the Mystery Men look at the Shoveler. And I know what he's telling them. He's giving one hell of a speech. He's telling them that it's up to them. He's reminding them what it means to be a hero. At least that's what I think he's doing, because I can't hear what he's saying, but I can _feel_ what he's saying by the look on his face, and the music in my ears. And it gets me. It really, really gets me, hard and deep, pushing those Robo-buttons, and my eyes tear up without me even realizing it.
And damn, if _that_ isn't a sign of a great score, well, I don't know what is. Before I left, I made a point to tell the producers they'd better release an entire CD full of Warbeck's score, not just a few mamby-pamby tracks on the pop album, because I want to _buy_ that CD RIGHT NOW. I want to drive to that music in the Robomobile!
But more than that, I'm more anxious to see this film than ever. It's been weird, getting glimpses of it as a work-in-progress -- but it's also been very encouraging, given how wondrous said glimpses have been. Thus far, they've propelled the film to rank among my personal list of Top Three Most Anticipated Summer Films, right alongside "Eyes Wide Shut" and "The Iron Giant."
In the meantime, if you haven't seen the 30-second TV spot they recently started airing for the film, you can download it at www.mysterymen.com (it's in the "Media" section). It's a very sharp ad, though I _hope_ Universal goes all the way and cuts a series of 15-second spots focusing on each of the major characters (they could even do a very fun tongue-in-cheek take-off of those gorgeous Fox "tone poem" ads for "Star Wars," which were more emotionally resonant than the film itself). I also saw the new trailer, which is hysterical and _far_ better than the somewhat disorienting teaser; hopefully that'll be posted online soon (hint-hint!).
Anyway, that's all for now. Pretty soon I should be getting around to doing that "Fantasia 2000" story I promised awhile back, as well as some surprises. In the meantime, I'll leave you with the words of Mr. Furious...