Who still knows... - Interview with John Frizzell

Composer John Frizzell has provided music for a dozen slimy aliens (Alien: Resurrection), the killing spree a hook-handed maniac (I Still Know What You Did Last Smmer), the misadventures of two MTV cult-figures (Beavis and Butt-head Do America) and revolting office workers (Office Space), while he also score catastrophe films (Dante's Peak), thrillers (Teaching Mrs. Tingle) and Civil War epics (Gods and Generals). Throughout his career, he experimented with almost every genre and style of TV and film scoring. His latest work, the family drama The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio stars Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson. We managed to interview Mr. Frizzell, focusing on his varied career.

Please let us build up our interview from the start of your career till nowadays. Why did you choose the musician career and what directed you towards the world of film musics? 

I was around music a lot as a child. My father wanted to be a professional pianist but went into architecture. He played a lot his whole life though. I studied music theory extensively in high school and then chose to major in jazz at USC. After USC I went to Manhattan School of music. During these years I thought perhaps I wanted to be a novelist or a scientist. But these other fields were difficult for me and while I enjoyed the idea of them, music was just my path of least resistance. I left Manhattan School of Music to work in a recording studio and my experiences there led to my interest in film music.

At the start of your career you produced the soundtrack of mini series Wild Palms – composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto – and you appeared on the end title as John C. Frizzell. Later on - in 1998 - your name changed to Gianni Frizzelli in the comedy Jane Austen's Mafia!. This is not an uncommon phenomenon among composers, where reason lies behind in the later abandonment of the registered name. What was the reason of the name change in your case?

My middle name is Callender, my mother's maiden name. I guess I didn't really think it through when I had the 'C' put on the credits of Wild Palms. The 'Gianni Frizzelli' was just a joke for that film. I thought everyone was going to give themselves mock italian names on the film and then I was the only one that did. It seems to have created more confusion than laughs over the years. So except for those two credits I'm just 'John Frizzell'...always have been.

One of your early works was Mike Judges' Beavis and Butt-head Do America. Are you a fan of these two crazy "actors"?

A huge fan. I always loved Beavis and Butt-head. I also enjoy South Park, Ren & Stimpy, Monty Python, Howard Stern, anything offensive works for me.

The other work of Mike Judge was Office Space. While the instrumental music didn't get too much emphasis in this film, what kind of feeling was to be a member of a cultfilm's team? 

Well, there is 30 minutes of score in the film. My friend Gabe Rutman did some pretty interesting vocal work on that film. We were all so disappointed when the film came out because nobody went to see it. Then slowly, it became popular, very popular. I hope that filmed saved some people from working in miserable places.

You worked with James Newton Howard as a keyboardist and later on you composed music for two films together. Where and how did you meet first and how did the working relationship between you develop? How did you split up the work regarding the score of Dante's Peak and The Rich Man's Wife

When I was becoming really interested in film music, after working with Ryuichi Sakamoto, it seemed that everytime I really enjoyed the score to the film it was James' work. I was introduced to him by my friend Rich Look while I lived in New York. I would send him a letter from time to time and eventually James listened to some of my work. While he was reluctant to advise anybody to venture into the fiercely competitive world of film music, especially while I was making a good living in New York doing record dates and commercials, I was adamant about coming to LA to score films. When I arrived in LA, James invited me to the scoring dates for The Fugitive. After that, James and I stayed in touch and I would sometimes come up with new synth sounds for his scores. But basically James was a mentor to me, and he taught me to compose for picture. The fact that James wrote themes for Rich Man's Wife and Dante's Peak was just to help me get my foot in the door as a composer. I will always be deeply grateful for his generosity towards me. And in return James asked me to do the same for a young composer one day. After years of looking, I feel I have finally spotted an amazing new talent named Frederik Wiedmann. Freddie has been working with me for a year now and I plan on co-scoring a film with him sometime soon.

It is an usual experience that collaboration evolves among two or more composers. How did the idea come to work together with Randy Edelman on Gods and Generals? How does the composition change in these cases and how do you organize and process the work?

In this case, Randy was al set to score Gods and Generals when the schedule changed on XXX. Randy had written a some gorgeous themes but was unable to work with their schedule. He asked me to write the score and incorporate what he had written. I met with the director, Ron Maxwell and we hit it off, so away we went.

At the age of 31 you found yourself in the crew of the legendary series Alien. By whom and when were you asked for the job of Alien: Resurrection

My friend Daniel Schweiger kept telling me I was perfect for the fourth Alien. But it was such a difficult job to get. I really didn't take him seriously. I sent in my music many times and nothing ever happened. Then one day Robert Kraft called me from fox and he said Jean-Pierre Jeunet had listened to my work (most of the cassette was music from a little known film called The Empty Mirror) and was interested in meeting me. We had a very short meeting and I started work the next week.

Did previous Alien soundtrack classics put any pressure on you when you commenced your work on the next Alien movie? Did you think about implementing some parts of the original trilogy music?

Of course. That's why there are two cues in the Alien Resurrection from Goldsmith's score to Alien. I had the original score's brought out from the Fox library and we recorded them exactly as Jerry wrote them.

Couple of years after the new Alien invasion you were picked for another success movie, the Star Trek based Enterprise sci-fi series. Different composers worked on almost all of the separate parts of this series (Jay Chattaway, Dennis McCarthy, Brian Tyler). How do you remember about this job? Were you told upfront in connection how many episodes they would count on you?

I was asked to do two episodes and I enjoyed it. It just seemed like a good idea to be part of this amazing legacy. It is a lot of work to score an episode of Star Trek. One episode has more music than many films. An additional challenge is getting a big sound out of a relatively small orchestra with very little time to record. I really admire Dennis and Jay's work. They have written some very influential work.

The music of the comedy Looney Tunes: Back in Action was started by Jerry Goldsmith, however due to his illness it was finished by John Debney. According to the crewlist you took part in the production as the composer of the music for animated short films. Which are these parts of the movie exactly? When did you join the project?

There is a Road Runner cartoon attached to the this film. That is what I scored. I didn't do any work on the main part of the film. I didn't even know they were going to run this cartoon with the film until one of my friends told me they had seen it. I scored four Looney Tunes cartoons.

Again, like doing Star Trek I saw this as a great opportunity and challenge to be part of the Stalling legacy. It was quite a challenge writing in this style and I got off to a bit of slow start. I usually write several minutes a day but for Looney Tunes I was lucky to get thirty seconds done. 

Your newest work is The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio which your first common project with director Jane Anderson. This airy music brings us back to the era presented in the film due to Sara Watkins' brilliant violin tunes and Sean Watkins' guitar plays. How did you start composing the music and what were your primary aspects? How much time did you have for this?

My goal was to write a very melodic score which related to the characters emotionally and then surround it with smaller ideas which were reflective of the place and time of the film. I used ukelele quite a bit because Woody Harelson's character plays it in the film and it just sounded 'small' enough for the mood. I also featured one cello playing pizzicato on several cues.

This was a sound I used in a few places on "Gods and Generals" and have really fallen in love with how much emotion can be projected. The harp was explored in the lower region of the instrument. I often accompanied this low harp with the right hand of the piano and had them work together as one sound. I used do-wop singers and some electric guitar (some times vari-speeded to play in double time). The string section was primarily used as a supportive canvas to all these other sounds.

Brian Kirk wrote the additional music of The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, who was present in the previous movies of the director as well, usually as a co-composer. How was he involved in this production?

Brian was the music supervisor on Prize Winner and wrote some of the jingles used in the body of the picture. He also did some fabulous arrangements of standards. Listen to his version of "Sittin on Top of the World" on the album.

Songs were placed next to the scores on the album. How deeply are you involved in deciding which songs should be placed on the actual album? How do you choose them?

Not very. That is usually the job of the music supervisor. Also, I was the second composer on Prize Winner so a lot of those decisions had already been made.

How different is it when you are working on the dubbing of a TV and of a movie? Which are the bad and the good sides of these genres? Where do you have bigger flexibility and why? 

TV sound is a big mystery to me. Sometimes I here my work on and I am happy with the sound, and other times it sounds thin and compressed. I think cable, direct TV and other types of transmissions all have a different effect on the music. I guess standards are great, that's why there are so many!

Have you ever had an idea which you didn't want to "sacrifice" in a smaller movie and rather stocked it for later usage? Or have you ever had tunes which were rejected by the creators of a movie, however they were happily accepted and adopted later by others?

Yes. I have a secret 'idea' box with half baked or discarded themes in it. Sometimes they never get see the light of day but often the 'nugget' of an idea I like will stay with me and eventually find a home in a score. This doesn't happen to often and the idea usually changes a lot to work with the new film. Often these are orchestral textures or conceptual ideas rather than melodies, sometimes a chord progression with no melody.

If we don't right you were the music producer of Wild Palms and beside this you were the composer of the Teaching Mrs. Tingle as well. What do you think about the process of composition from the chair of a producer? How does the whole picture change compared to a composer's point of view?

Well, I was not the producer on Wild Palms. I was an orchestrator and synthesist. I was working for Ryuichi Sakamoto and it was my first opportunity to work to picture. It was an exciting an intense couple of months and an experience that set me on the path to being a film composer, because I enjoyed it so much. The score producer credit usually associated with a score usually means that the recording, mixing orchestration was managed by the composer. As far as I know, almost all film composers produce there own scores.

AIn the past ten years you could show your talent in numerous productions and genres. In the world of soundtracks many changes took place during this period: the electronic music is asking for more and more space, the golden age composers are unfortunately leaving us, and the person of composer is changed more frequently, hence the deadline is shrinking as well. How do you perceive this trend from inside? Where does this path lead?

In terms of electronics, it seems to me there are a lot more orchestral and acoustic scores today than there were in the 1980's when the DX-7 and bad drum machines ruled the planet. I think that the return of the orchestra is largely due to John Williams but now the technology is helping more scores go in this direction. The union in Los Angeles has made it a lot more affordable for smaller films to work with the best players and Pro-Tools has enabled every composer to have a very powerful and portable multi-track recorder.

There are possibilities now like recorded an orchestra in Prague from Los Angeles using an internet connection to monitor the session and communicating of VOIP. In terms of the Golden Age leaving us, I think the period was only viewed as Golden in retrospect. In the same way only the great operas have survived, I think we tend to remember the great scores of the 1940's and 50's and forget about all the garbage that is always being written. I do think that the process of creating a synth demo is impeding on the quality of scores because the techniques a composer tends to use while sequencing are pretty limited. I believe that the technology has to advance in this area to preserve the quality of composition for film. Deadlines certainly are tight these days. I'm not sure how much shorter they are on average than in the past but I do think this has a negative impact on scores. One great thing though is that a computer system for composing on has come down drastically in size and in price which increases the competition which theoretically will increase the quality. Perhaps the Golden Age is over and the Platinum Age is just starting?

Do you have a favourite soundtrack composer? Who do you appreciate the most among you colleagues?

In terms of the great ones I pick Jerry Goldsmith first. Papillon, The Omen, Planet of the Apes are some of my favorite works of his. I love Elmer Bernstein's work especially To Kill a Mockingbird. As for my contemporaries I really like the work of Ed Shearmur, John Powell, Rolfe Kent, Don Davis, Marco Beltrami to name a few.

What do you do in your free time? Which is you favourite kind of music? Do you hear soundtracks on your own? 

These days my free time goes to my family. I think I agree with Duke Ellington that there is only one kind of great music, great music, you know it when you hear it. I do not listen to film scores all that often. I listen to the great orchestral composers pretty frequently and study their work. I also love blue grass and jazz and a lot of rock and some rap. I try to keep my ears very open to all sorts of different things.


Special thanks to Tom Kidd
January 27th, 2006 

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