Hi-ho! ScoreKeeper the Geek here bringing you a one-on-one interview with the latest composer to enter the pantheon of Muppet movie music. Christophe Beck is no stranger to the silver or small screen having composed tunes for BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (1997-2001), ELEKTRA (2005), WE ARE MARSHALL (2006), THE HANGOVER (2009), and the latest additions to his filmography, THE MUPPETS (2011) and TOWER HEIST (2011).
At the start of 2011, THE MUPPETS was a big question mark for me. As a serious fan of the Muppet universe I truly wished the film be good but with so many variables at stake it was hard to ascertain its potential before viewing. I was tickled red to discover that I absolutely adored the film and it indeed brought back a wave a nostalgia that was welcomed after many years of Muppet-less entertainment. It felt like an open love-letter to The Muppets and was genuinely one of the funnier films I saw all year.
Supporting the success of this movie lies a cleverly crafted score penned by Christophe Beck. Comedy scores are not easy and Muppet scores are even more difficult. Part of the Muppet aural lexicon consists of music of infinite varieties, genres, and styles. Nothing is off-limits when you're scoring The Muppets.
Beck did a bang-up job and really helped infuse a heart into this film. Along with Bret McKenzie who penned several of the song-and-dance numbers from the film, the music from THE MUPPETS remains strong amongst a company of assets.
I was able to chat briefly with Christophe Beck about his experience scoring THE MUPPETS and Bret Ratner's TOWER HEIST (2011). Here is how our conversation went down…
ScoreKeeper: Let's talk about THE MUPPETS. Tell me about your personal history with The Muppets. I'm holding out hope that the man chosen to score the film has a passion for these characters.
Christophe Beck: Well you know, I grew up with The Muppets, but as they faded from pop culture they faded a little bit from my own experience with the movies. So I hadn’t really thought about The Muppets until the opportunity came up to possibly score the new film at which point I went out and bought some CDs and DVDs and re-immersed myself in The Muppets. In fact, I re-watched a couple episodes of the show with my family and the first movie right after I got hired which was really interesting. There’s a lot in common between the new Muppet movie and the original Muppet movie. But there’s a lot that’s different as well.
SK: Did you go after this project or did it come to you?
CB: No, I’m kind of pleasantly surprised to say that they came to me. To be more accurate, Disney had me meet with James Bobin, the director, I assume along with some other composers as well. But this was not something that I aggressively pursued. Of course when the opportunity came up I jumped at it, but it wasn’t something where it was my mission to go out and get.
SK: Talk to me about the genesis to your approach for this score. There were some original songs written in the film. Did those songs take your lead or were you left to come up with your own ideas first? Tell me about that process.
CB: My first taste of the filmmaker’s decision for the music in the movie was when I screened it with a temp score and the songs were already written and temporary versions of each song were in the movie. There was a normal temp score in the film that you would have for any film and I was especially surprised by the elegance and the refinement of the temp score. It was definitely a score that treated the characters as real characters, as real people, and didn’t play down to the fact that they are puppets. I think that was the key, to really treat their characters like they are real characters in real situations and try to make that relatable to the audience. To that end, this was a musical and I feel if you are going to make a musical, the best way to have a musically coherent experience is to weave the themes from the songs in and out of the instrumental pits that happen in between. So that was very important to me and I think we really succeeded in that. There’s one particular tune from the opening number that serves as a main theme, almost like a traveling theme for The Muppets, and there are a number of bits and pieces that I was able to use in the score as well.
SK: Did you have any contact or collaboratate with Bret McKenzie or any of the other song writers? Or were you left to your own accord?
CB: Mostly with Bret. There were a number of songwriters on the movie, but Bret had I guess the most and had a previous relationship with James, the director. He became the defacto Music Supervisor. So he was definitely involved with the score. He sat in on a number of meetings and was spotting the film with us and contributed his comments. There weren’t many, but they were very helpful and likewise during the process of arranging and orchestrating the songs I was hanging around the periphery making what I hope were equally helpful comments the other way as well. So there was a little bit of cross-pollination between he and I, but mostly from the sideline.
SK: Interesting. You touched on something that I think is a staple amongst all the music penned for The Muppets, either from the show or the movies, and that is how the music plays these characters. It plays them very straight. In THE MUPPET MOVIE, they're not really puppets, they're actual living characters. Even Walter is a Muppet, but he's not, you know?
SK: I think that’s what makes The Muppets different from all other puppet films. They're living entities that you begin to relate to on a personal level.
CB: To take that a step further, I think what makes The Muppets special is not only that part of it, but there’s also a big part of The Muppets that’s kind of self-referential, you know, where they look into the camera and make a comment about the script or some tried and true filmmaking technique. I think there’s a gag in the new Muppet movie where they all say, “Let’s pick up the rest of the gang in a montage, it will be quicker,” and I think that sense of parody and self-referentiality is also reflected in the music. I think there’s a good half-dozen cues in the new Muppet film that would qualified as parody or pastiche type cues where I as a composer take a distinct and purposeful step outside of what we were just talking about which was to have the music be sincere and to really play the emotions as if they were very real and to just play the joke in a silly way. That’s really the challenge in a lot of comedies is, “When do you play the comedy?” and, “When do you play the actual dramatic situation that’s unfolding on the screen in front of you?”
I think that’s what makes The Muppets and has always made The Muppets really special, the ability to do both of these things so effectively.
SK: You just touched on what I hands-down my favorite scene in the whole film…the montage. Then it ends with Rowlf's comment. I don't know if I've laughed out loud so heartedly in a theater in quite some time.
CB: It’s pretty funny.
SK: I wanted to go back and talk about what you just ended your last comment about. I've always felt that comedies are probably the most difficult narrative genre to score. You are known for doing a lot of comedies. The fine line defined in scoring a comedy is finer than in any other genre whether it's action, horror, or drama. The strokes for other genres can be more broad but with comedy it takes an almost surgical precision.
CB: I think there’s truth to that. I think when you are scoring a drama or a horror movie the creative questions and the creative problems that need to be solved are pretty different. For example a horror movie, you always know what point of view the music is going to take. There’s never a question of, “Should we play the joke or should we play the scene?” You’re always going to play the scene because there are no jokes to play. If there are jokes, they are not reflected in the music in the way they might be in a comedy. In a comedy there’s a much more “anything goes” approach stylistically. You could have multiple styles simultaneously in a comedy and finding a way to balance that and to maintain a coherent musical experience from beginning to end is always a challenge.
SK: So what’s the difference between scoring the comedy of the narrative itself or scoring, as you said, a parody of it. There's a difference there but it's hard to define.
CB: (Laughs) It’s very hard to define. It's really a difference of how deep in the scene you want to go. Let’s say there’s a scene between two characters and it’s meant to be funny, but there’s an underlying current in the story to the conversation that might not be funny. So then the choice becomes the filmmaker’s choice. “Which one do we want to play?”
Then from the composer’s point of view it’s really just a question of adjusting your point of view as a composer from the character’s. If you are going to play the humor, then the pace will be quicker, the notes generally might be shorter and more staccato. The kinds of things we associate in music with comedy, light heartedness, whimsicality, all of those things need to come through, but in a restrained way that doesn’t overwhelm the scene.
Now if we choose to play the underlying sadness, let’s say if there is a sadness or maybe some tension…for example in TOWER HEIST there are many of these scenes where there was a lot of funny stuff going on on screen, but there was also an underlying tension of, “Will they get caught?” If you choose to play that then your musical devices change. You will play longer notes. You might even play more dissonance. You might choose to slow down the pace a little bit to play with the tension, but that gets into a fuzzy area that I have a lot of trouble talking about which is, “How do you translate emotion into actual music?” which is a process for me that is very instinctual. It works for me, so I don’t tend to look under the hood too much. I suppose if something starts to not work, then I will have to examine my process a little more closely, but it’s really very instinctual, from-the-hip and, from an actual process point of view, improvisational.
SK: I think one of the key moments in THE MUPPETS that demonstrates what we are talking about is the maniacal laugh gag that runs throughout the film. It’s actually a pretty funny gag and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I think each time it comes on I got a chuckle out of it, but I think you could have easily overplayed it and made it lose its comedic value. It's hard to describe really, but you were subtle enough in those scenes that you let the joke itself be what was humorous, not the music.
CB: Well I think that’s just a natural instinct that I have, to underplay the scenes. I generally tend to go there first and if we want to go over-the-top with something, it’s generally the result of some prodding by the people I’m working with. So that was just my natural instinct to go there. I think that comes from a desire not to make this bad guy too scary. This actually never came up in any conversations with the film. I just wrote what came to me and it worked. That’s pretty much what’s in the film.
I think my instinct to underplay the bad guy in this movie funnily enough comes from watching the original MUPPET MOVIE where I think the bad guy character was running around with a gun trying to shoot Kermit. He really kind of scared my six year old daughter to the point where she was a little apprehensive about coming to see the new movie. I had to reassure her, “There’s no guns. No one is trying to kill anyone. He’s just trying to get some oil. You don’t have to be scared.” I think it’s kind of interesting that you brought up that point. I didn’t even think about how evil I wanted to make Tex Richman, I just came up with my first idea and it felt right to me, but I wonder how much of that experience plays into that.
SK: And there’s a payoff too. By restraining the music through most of those earlier scenes, it becomes extremely effective toward the end of the film during the climax where Tex and Uncle Deadly have their confrontation on the broadcast antenna. The music is pretty intense there. You really get into the seriousness and grit of the narrative. If the music were as intense during the earlier "bad-guy" scenes it may not have had as much punch there at the end.
CB: It is a big moment in the movie in some ways. It’s one of the climactic points of the movie. Uncle Deadly has a big moment there where he realizes he’s playing for the wrong team so to speak, and it’s also in terms of the scope of the film. By going outside there was a little bit of air in the scene visually that I felt like gave me a little bit more room to do something more intense and a little bigger, more like what you might expect in a straight up action movie.
SK: One of the great challenges inherent to scoring comedies is composing short cues. I find really short cues to be among the most difficult to write.
CB: Oh God, I hate them! I hate them! I hate them!
SK: Twelve or thirteen-second cues are a bear to write. Your score for THE MUPPETS is chock-full of cues under thirty seconds in length. Was that particularly challenging?
CB: Always. With this particular film I think I got a few “get-out-of-jail-free” passes, because some of those short cues were actually part of longer musical sequences and you don’t perceive them as being short cues. They are part of something larger.
However, a short cue in any film recalls going to commercial when you are watching a TV show where the music really calls attention to itself. The music is starting, you notice it, the music ends really quickly before the music has had a chance to really make a really strong statement of any kind. You notice that too, it doesn’t flow. That said, you have to choose between the lesser of two evils. A lot of times, especially in comedies, you have to constantly compromise between what’s right for the scene and what makes an artistically pure experience musically from beginning to end. Composers prefer the elegance of longer cues, but that doesn’t solve the problem of how to help a short scene that really needs music. Some times you just have to bite the bullet and do the best you can with what you are given to work with.
SK: Yeah. I tend to think I’m overly sensitive to short cues in a movie. They do tend to stand out. I was surprised however, when I got the score for THE MUPPETS, how many short cues there were, because when I watched the film…
CB: They don’t feel that way, right?
SK: No not at all! It didn't feel that way at all. I get what you are saying about how these shorter cues are puzzle pieces of larger cues that we're already familiar with. I think that help keep it homogenous.
CB: Well that’s good then. Mission accomplished! (Laughs)
SK: I want to ask you about some of the early press that's been associated with the film. There were some interesting comments made publicly by some of the Muppets performers, Frank Oz in particular, about how he had disassociated himself from the film.
CB: Yeah, I’ve read a little about that.
SK: Was the fallout of some of the old-school Muppet faithful have any affect on your creative process? Was there a strategy by you or the filmmakers to counter that in some way?
CB: I felt none of that in the process of working on the film. I worked very closely with James and Bret throughout the process and some of the Disney music people as well. That never came up. My knowledge of the whole Frank Oz thing comes purely from my own interest in the business and having read some articles about it.
I do know that working with the filmmakers, James was very cognizant of what made a scene or a character more “Muppet-ty” is the word he kept using. That's sort of hard to define what “Muppettiness” is, but it’s a silliness and a certain approach to the material that is sometimes sincere and sometimes self-referential. That’s really what we talked about. We didn’t really talk about Frank Oz.
SK: As a genuine fan of the Muppets I thoroughly enjoyed the film and I didn't feel bad about it. It was a great Muppets film.
CB: Yeah. You could read Frank’s comments and come to the conclusion that they have completely destroyed what made The Muppets great, but they really didn’t. I understand he has some disagreements with where they took the story and where they took the characters after all of this time, but to me it feels 100% like a Muppet movie.
SK: Let's move on to the second film that you currently have in theaters…TOWER HEIST. Bret Ratner tends to embrace the urban sounds of the 70s with his action comedies.
CB: He does. He very much does.
SK: I love that about his movies. There have been films of his I've enjoyed and films I haven't enjoyed but one thing I consistently admire is his affinity toward a classic 70s sound in his scores. We really don't get that kind of music in cinema much anymore.
I wouldn't necessarily peg that style of music on anything that I've heard from you in the past, so how was it that you became the composer of this film?
CB: Well I too am a fan of some of those scores, in particular TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (1974) by David Shire.
SK: Oh yeah, a classic!
CB: A lot of my fandom toward that score actually comes from very early conversations I had with Bret. He loves that score too. That score is amazing! The grooves in it are totally infectious and the harmonic audaciousness. You can’t write that way now because it sounds too old fashioned, but in the 70s with all of that experimentation with jazz, twelve-tone figures and dissonance on top of these really groovy beats, it was awesome!
I think my job really at the beginning of TOWER HEIST was to figure out how to incorporate some of those sounds without it being this really retro score. I think Bret would have been thrilled with a score that sounded like it was written and recorded in the 70s, but I don’t think the studio would have been happy with that amount of "retro-ness" in the score. For me, I tried to come up with some other ways to make the score special and unique including using two drummers in unison the whole time to kind of create a slightly chaotic vibe. You know two drummers playing at the same time, especially if they are good, they will play mostly together, but they’ll never be exactly together, so there will always be a little of slamming back and forth that creates a very nice tension in the drum groove. I played a lot with odd meters, in fact multiple meters at the same time in the same piece where one section of the orchestra is playing a 4/4 fray while the drums and the bass are doing a 7/8 fray underneath it, which also creates a wonderful tension and chaotic feeling in the music. On top of all of this is a very simple catchy tune and very simple catchy baseline that makes it feel a little more grounded. It's just a great combination of sounds.
SK: You weren’t recording those polymeter cues together in real time were you?
CB: No, we did the 7/8 guys separately and then we did all of the 4/4 guys in a different session. It was tricky.
SK: There are actually concert pieces composed using polymeters. I couldn't imagine doing that live in a film scoring session.
CB: It is technically very demanding, especially for the rhythm section guys that are playing in seven.
SK: I enjoyed this score a lot but, yeah I would have liked to have seen it even more retro.
CB: (Laughs) Maybe next time.
SK: I can’t complain though. We surely don't get scores like this much anymore. It's one of the more retro sounding scores I've heard in a while. Anytime you bust out the bongos it's a good thing.
CB: Bongos and low brass hits.
CB: I think those make for a very nice retro device for sure.
SK: Have you been able to do anything like this in the past?
CB: Very early in my career I did a totally old-fashioned big band jazz score for a movie called STARFUCKERS. I think it’s since been re-titled. I think it’s called STARSTRUCK (1998) now. It stars Jamie Kennedy. That was one of the first films I ever did while I was doing my early TV work. I think since then I have not had the opportunity to really explore any kind of retro vibe.
SK: Ratner has a reputation that precedes him.
SK: What surprised you the most about working with him?
CB: What surprised me the most was just how much fun he was to be around. I’ve worked with some challenging filmmakers for sure and I was ready for that. You get mentally prepared to get your ass kicked repeatedly and it helps the process of actually getting your ass kick if you know it’s going to happen. I was ready for that. He works quite closely with his editor, Mark Helfrich, and the two of them make a really good team when it comes to post-production and with music. It was a really good experience I have to say.
SK: So what do you have next? What are you working on now?
CB: I’m working on THIS MEANS WAR (2012) with a director named McG who I have worked with before and we are actually recording that starting tomorrow. It's sort of a romantic action comedy with Reese Witherspoon and two very handsome CIA agents (Tom Hardy and Chris Pine) who are competing for her love. They use all of their CIA powers to thwart the other. It’s quite entertaining.
SK: I know that your score for TOWER HEIST has been released by Varese Sarabande. Is your score for THE MUPPETS going to be released?
CB: I doubt it. There was a scheduling issue with getting any of the score on the soundtrack, because the soundtrack had to be out in time for the movie release. The score wasn’t being recorded until a couple of weeks after we needed to have it ready. Maybe something along with the DVD release? It's not a lot of score. When people think of the music for THE MUPPETS and they want to buy a soundtrack they are going to think of the songs. I don't know if there's a perceived demand for the scoring music from THE MUPPETS. As you pointed out, there are a lot of short cues, which even though they might have succeeded in the movie of not feeling short, on an album it’s a different story. I’m not sure how that would all work.
SK: Chris it’s been a pleasure talking with you. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while. I’m glad we were able talk and I look forward to doing it again. I really appreciate it.
CB: Likewise. Thank you.
On behalf of Ain't It Cool News I'd like to thank Chris for his time. He and I first met in LA a couple of years ago and I always wanted to interview him. After I saw THE MUPPETS I thought it would be a great opportunity for us to finally chat.
Chris' score for TOWER HEIST is available on Varese Sarabande Records and is also available on iTunes. The soundtrack for THE MUPPETS featuring songs from the film is available on Disney Records and on iTunes.
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