Neal Acree is a composer without fear as he’s pretty much tackled all areas of music, whether it be for television (“Stargate SG-1” and “Sanctuary”), video games (“World of Warcraft” series and “Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty”), and of course, movies (“Assassination Games”, “War of the Dead” and “Six Bullets”). He recently took out some time to discuss with me how he got into composing, his influences, and a sampling of his body of work, in promotion of the official iTunes release of his “Assassination Games” score.
Jonathan Urban: Neal, I wanted to thank you for taking out time from your busy schedule to do this interview. So let’s get started. Was music always your passion and how did you get the music “bug” that led you to becoming a composer?
Neal Acree: Music started out as a hobby for me when I was 14. I had the same dream that every teenager who picked up a guitar had which was to be a rock star, but it didn’t really occur to me until years later that I could actually make a living writing music. I had always planned on being an artist and even started studying art in college with a couple music classes on the side, but it wasn’t long before music took over my life.
As far as the “bug” that led to me being a composer, I suspect that having grown up on the music of John Williams, I always had a fascination with the power music had to move me emotionally, even before I was old enough to understand it. When I was six I started spending my allowance on soundtrack records and the first one I got was “The Empire Strikes Back.” This was before VHS so if you wanted to re-live a movie outside of the theater the soundtrack was the only way. That movie began my first real relationship with music and to this day, I feel that it was the start of it all for me.
JU: Who were some of your early influences and composers past and present that you look up to?
NA: When I was 14, my friend Courtney turned me on to the “Beetlejuice” soundtrack by Danny Elfman. I was a little older and able to appreciate the subtle details of the underscore and that continued to feed the music “bug” that was growing inside. Around the time my interests really started to shift towards music (in the mid-90’s), there were a lot of great scores being written. James Horner’s “Legends of the Fall” and “Braveheart” scores, Jerry Goldsmith’s “First Knight,” John Williams’ “Schindler’s List” and “Jurassic Park” as well as Elliot Goldenthal’s “Interview With The Vampire” were all big influences on me starting out. James Newton Howard, Howard Shore and Hans Zimmer were—and still are—big influences.
JU: You’ve composed a variety of different genre scores such as television, movie and video games. Which do you prefer and what challenges do each present in the composing process?
NA: It’s hard to say that I prefer any one of them to the other as they all possess their own unique challenges and benefits. I enjoy the art of scoring a movie because ninety or so minutes of film is a nice canvas on which to tell a story musically. You can develop a theme, build it to a climax and allow it to pay off dramatically in one sitting. You have the opportunity to work closely to picture and create emotional experiences that are greater than either the music or the picture could be on their own. The challenges of film are usually budget and time constraints.
In television there are generally even bigger time and budget constraints, but plenty of opportunities to have fun musically. Dramatic television is getting more and more cinematic all the time and shows like “Game of Thrones” and “The Borgias” are practically a movie in each episode. In television you can develop a theme over a whole season and usually get a chance to write a lot of different music over the course of a series (depends on the show, of course).
Video games, in some cases, offer a unique opportunity to write music without the constraints of picture. As much as writing to picture can be a great opportunity to create great dramatic experiences for the viewer, freeform writing can be a great opportunity to develop themes and create interactive experiences that change as the player navigates the game. There is generally more time allowed in scoring a game and budgets can exceed those of low budget films, but not always. I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in some really cool game projects that have given me the chance to travel the world and work with some amazing musicians.
JU: You came onboard about mid-way for composer duties on the highly successful “Stargate: SG-1.” David Arnold created one of my favorite scores of the 90’s with the motion picture score of “Stargate.” What was it like coming into a show already in production, with a score by Joel Goldsmith (who recently passed away and was the son of the late and great Jerry Goldsmith) and also having to fall in the footsteps of the original Arnold score?
NA: I was a fan of the film and its score as well and always had fun incorporating its themes and orchestrational bombast into the series. Through the years, though, the series took on its own life and musically we were able to cover a lot of ground stylistically. Working with Joel (who was a dear friend and mentor to me before he passed away earlier this year) on the series gave me some invaluable on the job training early in my career. We wrote a lot of music in a lot of styles and with the quick turnaround of television I learned to work quickly and efficiently. I learned a lot working with Joel on the series and am grateful for the experience and opportunities it gave me.
JU: I’m a Jason Statham fan and couldn’t help notice you are credited as providing additional music for “The Mechanic” remake. How did this come about and when an additional composer comes in, what is the usual process in getting the score completed?
NA: Mark Isham composed the score to “The Mechanic,” but I did have the honor of helping out with the score on a couple scenes. It’s not uncommon for short post-production schedules or scheduling conflicts to result in the need for a composer to enlist a little help. At the time Mark and I were at the same agency and he had heard some of my more guitar driven music and thought it might be a good fit. The two main challenges of additional music (and I’ve been both the one hired and the one hiring) is that time is usually short (hence the need for help) and nobody wants a score that sounds like a bunch of different people wrote it. The best approach is for the additional composer to quickly become familiar with any themes and sounds that might already have been established and do their best to incorporate them into the additional music. It’s not always possible for one person to complete a quality score in the time allotted, but it is possible to create a cohesive effort in a team setting.
JU: You’ve been involved with video games such as “World of Warcraft”, “Star Craft II” and “Diablo III.” How did you become involved with those projects?
NA: I grew up on games and had always been interested in getting involved and in 2006 I had my chance when my agent at the time got me a chance audition to score the opening cinematic to “World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade.” That led to a fruitful relationship with Blizzard that has opened up a whole new world of opportunities to me and the fans of the games are unlike any others. I just got back from conducting some of my game music with Video Games Live in Brazil and I’m consistently amazed at how far reaching the game world has become and how devoted the fans are. In what other world could I fly halfway around the planet and conduct my music night after night to 3000 of the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever seen? I feel grateful every day for the opportunities music has given me.
JU: As a composer, you’ve likely either experienced scores not released or perhaps even rejected scores. There used to be a time where nearly every movie had a score/soundtrack released and on the store shelf. In fact, “Assassination Games” has been out for over a year without a score release, so it kind of falls into the unreleased category, until now. What causes some movies (big or small) to not have released scores?
NA: Contrary to popular belief, there’s not a lot of money in score soundtracks and on top of that, the record industry isn’t quite what it used to be. For these reasons it’s rare for studios to devote the resources to releasing soundtracks to projects that aren’t big theatrical releases and boutique soundtrack labels tend to release titles they know they can make their money back on. Usually, when a bigger film doesn’t get a soundtrack release it’s because there are permission issues or it’s simply too expensive to license the music for release. It should be easier to get the music out there to the people that want to hear it, but sometimes it’s more complicated than it needs to be.
“Assassination Games” is the type of film that doesn’t typically get a soundtrack release, but I’ve gotten more messages from random people who saw the film and wanted to know where to buy the soundtrack than on any other film I’ve done so it seemed inevitable that it get released in some form. Sony agreed to release it through their iTunes label and, to be honest, it only took this long because I wanted to personally oversee the album and with my schedule over the last year, it took a little longer than expected.
JU: Some companies like Intrada, La La Land and Film Score Monthly have been going through movies with unreleased scores and finally offering them. Looks like iTunes is following suit which is a good thing. What do you think about this recent (say in the last 5-8 years) trend of releasing limited editions, expanded editions and of course, previously unreleased scores?
NA: I think it’s great that the music is getting out there. It doesn’t do anyone any good to have it sitting on a shelf or on a hard drive somewhere when there’s someone out there who would enjoy listening to it or having it as part of their collection. Music is meant to be heard and the more accessible it is, the better.
JU:Have you ever had a rejected score, and if so, what were some of the reasons given and how does this prepare you more for the next score, knowing there’s always the possibility of rejection?
NA: Thankfully, I’ve never had a score rejected and it’s not really something I focus on when writing a score. Some of the best scores written were the result of a composer going out on a limb and trying something new, but sometimes it backfires. Sometimes the director doesn’t really know what they want or find out a little too late what they don’t want. Sometimes a test audience hears something a little too different and the studio is too focused on the numbers to take a chance on something new. All I can do is try my best to serve the film by helping the director realize his vision and hopefully push the envelope a bit in terms of experimentation in the process.
JU: In the movie music aficionado/collector world, there seems to be a bit of confusion as to whether score and soundtrack are just interchangeable words for the same thing or if there is an actual difference. I’ve asked other composers their opinion on this, but was interested in hearing yours. What is your take?
NA: I’m of the belief that when referring to an album of music from a film, a soundtrack can be either a collection of songs used in the film (or inspired by it), a portion of the dramatic underscore of the film or a combination of these two things. A “score” album on the other hand would only include the dramatic underscore and would generally be instrumental. The only real reason for there to be two different terms is that there are sometimes two albums released with a film, a “soundtrack album” (usually with pop songs used in the film) and a “score album” with the instrumental underscore from the film.
JU: You’ve worked with Ernie Barbarash on two recent Jean-Claude Van Damme films, “Assassination Games” and “Six Bullets.” (Note: Both films went through some name changes so “Assassination Games” is sometimes referred to as “Weapon” and “Six Bullets” was originally called “The Butcher.”) How did you get involved in these projects?
NA: Just prior to working on Assassination Games I had worked with one of the film’s producers, named Reuben Lieber, on a film called “Witchville.” He liked what I did on that film and introduced me to Ernie.
JU: I know many directors are very involved in the scoring process and others are hands off. How involved was Ernie?
NA: Ernie is just the right amount involved. He gives me plenty of direction and we both discuss the best dramatic and stylistic approach to each scene in detail before I even start and then he lets me do my thing. When we meet up to discuss the music he’s very specific in terms of adjustments he wants, but is always making them to improve the dramatic impact of the scene. He knows what he wants but is open to trying things my way as well. With him it’s a collaborative process, as it should be, and I always feel like he’s leading me towards a better film.
JU: How involved were other directors that you worked with?
NA: I’ve been lucky to have worked with a lot of directors, both in the film and the game worlds, that really appreciated the value of music in their films. I’ve noticed that in games, specifically the cinematics I’ve scored, the directors tend to be more hands on simply because the process of producing a 3-4 minute Pixar quality animated movie for a game is a lot more involved than shooting a movie. There’s a lot more that needs to be established dramatically and stylistically and with maximum impact in a very short span of time. Like I said, I’ve been lucky to have worked with directors that were doing their best to make the best film possible and my job is always to help them realize that vision.
JU: What kind of instruction or feedback did the producers give you?
NA: In my experience film producers generally aren’t involved too much in the scoring process, though I’ve worked on a few films where the producer oversaw the post-production. Sometimes producers will give notes that contradict those of the director, but I’m fortunate to have hardly ever had to deal with that. Generally, though, the producers won’t be too involved during the scoring process if they feel the director and composer are taking the film in a good direction.
JU: “Assassination Games” is the story of two rival assassins whose paths cross and the fireworks that ensue drive the film from one action-packed moment to another. Your score is a varied score, with big bombastic sound for action scenes, melancholy melodies for the interaction between Brazil (Van Damme) and his female next-door neighbor, but all have an encompassing foreign aesthetic to it. What were your influences musically and what instruments did you have to have to get the sound you wanted, that is not the traditional action score?
NA: Ernie put together a great temp score that gave me the opportunity to think outside the typical genre clichés one might expect from your typical action film. He wanted the score to sound exotic and Eastern European so I used a lot of dulcimer type instruments like the cimbalom and santur. The main title sequence was a chance for me to do something as crazy as I could come up with so I threw in everything from dueling didgeridoos to a frenetic gypsy violin on top of a cacophonous bed of drums. For the interaction between Brazil and his next door neighbor, October, I used piano and duduk. One of the recurring themes featured in the track “It Begins,” features a South American stringed instrument called the ronroco. Another recurring “instrument” was vocals by Laurie Ann Haus, which came to represent the women in the story, giving voice to their unspoken suffering and eventually to their redemption.
JU: As with most movie scores, there are often particular cues or themes for certain characters. Brazil is a very self-contained, pensive fellow who has a hidden world that he’s reluctant to bring others into, whether the girl-next-door, October (Marija Karan), or a partner in Flint (Scott Adkins). What were your goals in creating recurring themes for these characters or were your themes more situational-based?
NA: The goal was to create themes that went straight to the emotional heart of each scene, because generally in action driven films like this, there isn’t a lot of screen time allotted to the development of relationships. Each scene had to propel those relationships forward and music played a big part in that. I tried to create an emotional thread that ran just below the surface and built throughout the film without being too overt or schmaltzy, yet could get to the heart of the scene quickly. On one hand Brazil is a cold-blooded hit man, a “weapon” for hire and on the other hand, Flint is driven by emotion and a desire for revenge. Both are motivated by love, but in different ways, so the music had to walk this line.
JU: What are your favorite tracks on the score and why?
NA: I had a lot of fun with the “Main Title” because I got to go wild with it and do something as different as possible. “It Begins” is probably my favorite because it basically serves as the emotional theme of the film as Flint decides he’s going to take revenge on Polo. It builds slowly, but has an energy that propels it forward. I’m also really proud of “Redemption and Retribution,” which I think wraps up the film nicely both dramatically and thematically.
JU: This year saw the release of Van Damme’s “Six Bullets” aka “The Butcher.” I assume Ernie enjoyed working with you on “Assassination Games” and called you in to this “Taken”-esque action thriller. This time around, what were you looking for in terms of the score?
NA: I obviously wanted to do something different than “Assassination Games,” though there were some subtle similarities in the films. Both were set in Eastern Europe, both were Van Damme movies with a little more emotion than the typical genre fare and both had a lot of action. I kept the score as organic as possible and though there were certainly plenty of ethnic elements in it, I used a different palette of sounds than “Assassination Games.” “Six Bullets” had a lot of psychological tension as Van Damme’s character breaks down from guilt and Joe Flanigan’s character searches desperately for his daughter. I did my best to maintain the emotional undercurrent while maintaining the tension throughout. For the end credits I used a childlike solo female vocal to echo the innocence of the children lost in the film.
JU: Do you think iTunes will be releasing it as well?
NA: I’ve had some interest from a soundtrack label but the details still need to be sorted out. I’d love to have it released but couldn’t tell you for sure just yet, if or when, that will happen.
JU: What other projects do you have in the pipeline that may interest fans?
NA: I have a couple films on the horizon that I unfortunately can’t discuss at the moment but in the game world, I worked on “StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm,” which should be coming out soon. For that I got to record with the Skywalker Symphony and Choir at Skywalker Ranch and I’m really looking forward to it coming out because I’m really proud of the music. “World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria” also came out recently which gave me the chance to write in an Asian themed orchestral style ala “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and I’m also really proud of that one.
JU: Well, again, Neal, thank you very much for your time and I (along with other fans) look forward to your next efforts.
NA: Thank you!
Go support an excellent score by Neal Acree so iTunes (and other venues) will offer other prior unreleased scores, including Neal’s pulse pounding “Six Bullets” score!!!
Available on Apple’s iTunes store.