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MODERN MUSIC MASTERS: Mark Isham & ONCE UPON A TIME

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Today we are going to continue our ongoing interview series focusing on composers whose work transcends merely one medium with this highly-lauded and respected film and television composer known for over 100 film scores in his thirty year career - such as his Academy Award-nominated work on CRASH; as well as this year's WARRIOR starring Tom Hardy, in theaters now - the immensely talented Mark Isham! Detailing the challenge of scoring each and every episode of ABC's hit new fairytale-themed series ONCE UPON A TIME and what it is like bringing the magical Disney wonderland of the show to musical life every week - as well as some hints of what we can expect in future episodes - we also look back at many of his most notable collaborations over his accomplished career, many with some of the finest theatre and film directors of our age - Sidney Lumet, Robert Altman and David Mamet included. Additionally, Isham shares insights into the work of fellow composers soon to be featured in this column - such as Alexandre Desplat and Alan Menken - as well as what we can look forward to from him in the future, near and far - on screens both small and large! Plus - much, much more!

ONCE UPON A TIME airs Sundays at 8 PM on ABC.

Emotional Glue


PC: One of my earliest memories is the fantastic audio book, THE EMPEROR AND THE NIGHTINGALE, starring Glenn Close, that you composed the music for. What memories do you have of that project and that series of sensational audio books?

MI: Yeah, I did a series of those for that company. It was a lot of fun because the music could be something sort of simple and ethereal, just to get into that world. And, of course, Glenn Close is one of the greats of all time.

PC: You can say that again.

MI: Something about that particular story just struck me. And, I remember working with some Chinese musicians - it was a blast.

PC: What do you think of Asian music in general?

MI: Well, you know, I have a great affinity for a lot of different world music. I don't have a traditional education in any of them, but I have studied them sort of afar when I have to write and bring those influences into my writing. So, I have a great love for a lot of that stuff.

PC: There was definitely some world music influence in your score for BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS.

MI: Oh, yeah! There was a sort of a Slavic influence in that score, for some reason. [Laughs.]

PC: It's a complex film.

MI: And there was a bit of the French, Creole, Louisiana feel in that score, as well.

PC: What was it like working with Werner Herzog? I've always heard he was a bit irascible and hard to please.

MI: Well, he's a character - there's no doubt about it! [Laughs.] But, he was delightful with me.  He just gave me a couple of instructions - he said, [Herzog Accent.] "This film is about the bliss of evil." So, once we got that ironed out, it was pretty smooth sailing. [Laughs.]

PC: Speaking of evil, your score for REVERAL OF FORTUNE - a Glenn Close master class in acting - is simply wondrous.

MI: Oh, thank you.

PC: I know that that film was very controversial when it came out. What was your feeling about the subject matter and the film at the time it came out and, now, twenty years later?

MI: Well, I think it was such a well-told story. I mean, the film sort of took no sides - it just presented this bizarre set of incidents with no one really knowing exactly who was the worst of the worst in that situation.

PC: What was it like working with director Barbet Schroeder?

MI: Barbet is a very bright guy and it was very fun working with him on that.

PC: The strings are so strong in that film - did you work with a string quartet? It has a clear classical influence.

MI: Yes, that definitely did have a classic influence - although it was a bizarre blend. I think it was a little bit bigger than a quartet - maybe eight or ten strings, I think. But, then, we also had an electric guitar and a glass harmonica, so it was slightly a slightly, you know, bizarre and twisted orchestration - to fit the story; to make it sort of other-worldly in a sense.

PC: You've worked with some truly amazing theatrical personalities, as well - tell me about working on SPARTAN. I feel it is his strongest original film.

MI: Well, David is just one of the most thoughtful, intelligent, well-read geniuses I have ever worked with. You know, his films are very precise and every word - that playwright background - he just wants every word right in its place.

PC: How does that play into how you compose a score, then?

MI: Well, he's a little more open in the music - he thinks much more broadly in his musical choices. He basically talked to me about the sweeping arc of things. I sort of had to say, "David, you actually have a thriller here, so it would help if we hit the bad guy every so often." [Laughs.]

PC: And he is a musician himself and has written a few musicals, as well. Does that affect the way a filmmaker will approach how they discuss the score with you? Will they specifically ask you to change notes and such on occasion?

MI: Well, certainly David never did that - like I said, he kept his descriptions to me much broader and much more philosophical. I mean, he got very deep into the meaning of the music and pretty much stayed out of the technical side of it. But, the one director who I did work with who is an accomplished musician and scores his own films, often, is Mike Figgis.

PC: Of course. I loved his COLD CREEK MANOR score - and much of the film, too.

MI: Yeah. He is an accomplished composer in his own right and I think I was the last composer to score one of his films before the studios agreed that he was accomplished enough to score his own films. [Laughs.]

PC: So, was it a bit contentious of a collaboration, then?

MI: No, he was really a total gentleman on the film - I did THE BROWNING VERSION with him, too.

PC: Of course.

MI: Yeah, he wanted to score it, but the studio said he had to work with another composer.

PC: What was that atmosphere like for you?

MI: Well, it was quite interesting, because we could talk specifics - he would say, "I know you modulate over there, but how about modulating eight bars earlier?" And, I'd say, "Oh, let's do that!" So, I think that is the only time I had a director who is knowledgeable enough and knows the tools of scoring well enough that we could actually have a conversation of that type.

PC: What was it like working with Brian DePalma on THE BLACK DAHLIA? Was it cumbersome to come in already knowing his amazing legacy of great scores for his films - particularly those by Pino Donaggio and Ennio Morricone? His film's scores are always so specific.

MI: Well, he was a gentlemen about it, too. I think that I had sent him some music early on for that and he didn't respond to it, and, so, I called the producer and I said, "Look, I would really love to do this movie. What is he looking for?" And the producer sent me over some pieces they were using for the temp-score and I realized that I had completely mis-guessed on how he wanted to score this thing.

PC: Oh, really?

MI: Yeah, so I re-sent him some music and he called me immediately and said, "This is what I am looking for!" So, I think we started off right on the right foot because, once I knew what he was looking for, I duplicated it and presented it to him immediately and he said, "That's perfect." So, we went in with a high degree of mutual respect and delight and willingness in doing this together. He was just great. Like you say, he is very specific and when he says, "That's good," then, you know you are doing great. [Laughs.]

PC: And if you are not?

MI: "Don't do that! That's terrible!" - then you know you have to rewrite it. [Laughs.]

PC: That film was plagued with behind-the-scenes shenanigans and I know there was originally a much, much longer original cut, so how did you deal with that? Did you score that version or only the version that eventually was released? Have you ever gone to an opening night and half your score was missing?

MI: [Laughs.] Actually, I have - but, not on that picture! From the time that we started scoring it, it was pretty much as it came out. I believe that the studio actually stayed out of that and I think what a lot of it was about was that he was working with Art Linson - who produced THE UNTOUCHABLES and they have a long, long history - and, I think Art is one of the few who can say, "Brian, you can't have a 3-hour movie," [Laughs.] and Brian will actually respect that.

PC: How interesting.

MI: I think they had already gone through the process of editing it down. Art actually came to me at one point and said, "Look, there are still a couple of things that I think Brian needs to change - but, I think Brian and I have sort of had as much of a discussion as we are going to have, so why don't you see what you can do to help these areas?" And, then, I think there were a few picture-trims at that point - but, pretty much, I worked on it when it was the final film and not much changed.

PC: There are some thrilling music cues - especially the opening scene with Josh Hartnett and, later, the Fiona Shaw mad scene.

MI: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

PC: Were you influenced by Jerry Goldsmith's CHINATOWN score?

MI: Oh, yes - of course. I love that score and know it very well.

PC: Jerry Goldsmith is another composer who hasn't been recognized enough by the Academy in his career. Do take your CRASH score nomination as edification for your career so far?

MI: Oh, yeah - I mean, I have one nomination and I am very proud of it and happy that it happened. It's great. It's an interesting balance - hitting the right tone in a film so that the film works and the music works and it also happens to hit the sensibilities of the Academy and the public in a particularly year at a particular time.

PC: Timing is everything.

MI: The Academy Awards are always interesting in that regard, because they are not just a measure of the person's work that year, but also the whole artistic climate of a particular season, you know?

PC: CRASH still is one of the most surprising Best Picture wins ever and is an example of exactly what you are talking about.

MI: Yeah. Yeah.

PC: The next year you did one of my personal favorite films of this century so far - Frank Darabont's THE MIST.

MI: Oh, yeah! Of course.

PC: That is Stephen King's own favorite of his many stories. How did the screenplay hit you?

MI: Well, I think Frank had to find his own way - that's one of his most successful things; to take one of Stephen's stories and then find that ultimate sort of Darabont twist. And, he definitely found that with THE MIST. I knew he was planning on doing THE MIST, and, then, when I heard about it, one of us called the other - I think I called him because he hadn't called me yet.

PC: What did you say to him?

MI: I said, "Frank, what's happening? Obviously, I would like to do this." And, he said, "Mark, I don't think there is any music in this movie. I want to do this sort of documentary-style - as if you are just sort of leaning over the shoulder of these people and you are just watching them from across the room." And, I said, "Wow. That could be chilling - absolutely chilling." And, he called me back a few months later and said, "It isn't working."

PC: How hilarious - and fortuitous, for you!

MI: Yeah, he said, "As much as I wanted that to work, there are just spots in here where we really have to build this up - we really have to hit this thing in certain parts." So, we went in and we spotted it. It's an average length movie and I think there are 18 minutes of music - score - total.

PC: Is that a very low ratio?

MI: That is a very low ratio. But, it is the perfect ratio for that tone that he wanted to get. So, basically, there are the three battles - where the creatures get totally ugly and devious and life is really threatened - and, then, there is the ending; the apocalyptic ending.

PC: Did you compose more music for the monsters than what ended up in the film? Isn't spider music a composer's dream?

MI: [Laughs.] Yes, we had spider music. And, we had octopus - you know, giant squid - music. And, then, the flying bugs.

PC: Have you used any of the score that was left out since?

MI: No. No. [Laughs.] It was enough hard work just doing that! Those scenes - they are so intricate. When you score scenes like that, it's a lot of work to get 18 minutes like that. That's a very hard-fought 18 minutes.

PC: One of my absolute favorite films of all time is Robert Altman's SHORT CUTS. Your score is so integral to the entire experience. How did you get involved in the first place?

MI: Well, Alan Rudolph and I had been working together for a number of years, and, at that point, I think I had already scores 4 or 5 of Alan's movies - maybe even more. And, Robert, of course, was Alan's mentor. Alan started off as an AD for Robert, and, then, he co-write some scripts with him. And, I think Robert also produced his first two movies. They had just been buddies forever. I don't remember the exact progression of events, but, I think Robert just said, you know, "Isham's doing such great work for you, why doesn't he come and do this for me?" I think it basically came through that. I know we had talked about working together on THE PLAYER, but the schedule didn't work out. And, I think, he came back and said, "Well, maybe the schedule will work out for this." And, it did.

PC: Was it a difficult project to take on?

MI: Yeah - that was a hard film to figure out what to do. There are so many stories and there are so many other musical elements in it - you have Lori Singer's cello playing and all the cello music and then you have Annie with all the jazz music. There are also a lot of songs. It was a very complex musical tapestry and it quite a bit of work to figure out how to fit a score in that would connect all those dots and still somehow make sense.

PC: Whose idea was it to use the jazz trumpet? Was it because of your affinity for that instrument in particular?

MI: Yeah - I think Bob was just that way. He loved me as a jazz player, as well. In fact, I actually have very fond memories of being in his house and Annie being there and the two of us just playing trumpet and vocal duets at Bob's kitchen table.

PC: What a memory.

MI: Yeah, he was just so spontaneous in that way - in fact, I think that night he called me at nine o'clock and said, "Annie has just come over for dinner, so why don't you bring your trumpet and come on over?" [Laughs.]

PC: Always creating.

MI: I think some of his filmmaking has a bit of that, too. He may have just said to me, "Hey, you are a great trumpet player, so why don't you just play trumpet in here? What would that do?" You know, maybe not with, perhaps, any intellectual reason why it would work, but just, "Why don't you try a little purple over there. Why not?"

PC: What scores did you look to as inspirations growing up? Was there a score that you remember hearing that just changed everything for you.

MI: I remember it was Henry Mancini's score for THE PINK PANTHER.

PC: A great, great score.

MI: Yeah, I remember going to see THE PINK PANTHER and I went, "OK. That is a whole other type of musical experience." And, I don't know why it struck me then - but, of course, later, I learned it was because of the jazz influence.

PC: Of course.

MI: Then, I discovered MiLes Davis and went into the real jazz world, as well. But, that single moment of seeing THE PINK PANTHER - seeing that film and hearing that music - introduced me to both film music and jazz music at the same time. And, I had the great, great fortune after having scored about five or six films to do a panel for ASCAP with Henry.

PC: What was that like?

MI: Well, I actually had the opportunity to meet him and tell him about it - that he was really the one to get me into both of those worlds. And, he was a really charming guy.

PC: Were you influenced by his other scores, as well - particularly his many films with Blake Edwards?

MI: Oh, yeah - I went back and researched all his writing. He wrote great songs, too. Movie scores like ARABESQUE I love. He was just a great melodicist - he know the strength of a great melody and was, perhaps, one of the great melodicist of the last century. I think he really was.

PC: Dame Julie Andrews has actually done this column and I was curious how you got involved with the soundtrack for THE PRINCESS DIARIES - in a producer capacity, I believe?

MI: Yeah, I was - I sort of came in at the last minute. They had a licensed song in there and I think the person who had built the song had not cleared their own samples, so, when Disney wanted to license it from them, they didn't have the rights to license it to Disney. So, they sort of vanished - because they knew if they pursued this they were probably going to get into trouble. [Laughs.]

PC: How strange!

MI: I don't even remember how, but somehow my name came up and Disney said, "Can you help us? We are stuck here. We have this film that is almost finished and we have this big montage in the middle here we need music for." I think it was because the initial song had a Nina Simone sample in it and it had enough of a jazz and blues flavor that they thought of me. So, I came in and did something and they just loved it. Then, they liked it so much that they asked me to remix the opening main title, as well. So, it was a different sort of job for me to get into the more pop music side of things. But, it was fun - a lot of fun.

PC: And Anne Hathaway was just announced as Fantine in the forthcoming LES MISERABLES film with Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe. Are you a movie musical fan in general?

MI: Oh, yeah. I can't say I know a tremendous amount about them, but I have seen a fair number. A well-written musical is always a beautiful thing.

PC: You just worked on the remake of FAME, which is a movie musical in its own way. How was that experience for you?

MI: Well, I actually had the last bit of the musical puzzle on that. I did not work on any of the songs of that movie. I think that was, again, another one of those situations where they had all this great source music and all these original songs, and, then, they realized that they needed some glue. Some emotional glue. You know, you can't always rely on the songs to do everything - we actually need some music alone. So, again, I was brought in at the end and I did about 20 minutes of music that was meant to tie the emotional scenes together.

PC: How fascinating. You never know the whole story sometimes with the way things are credited.

MI: They had done all of the pre-recording and all the dance routines and all the songs and stuff prior to my involvement. It was just, again, a recognition that they did not have quite enough - they needed one more layer of something. So, they thought, "Let's get Isham in there."

PC: Sidney Lumet recently passed away and I was curious if you had any recollections of working with him on NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN?

MI: Yeah, I mean, he was the most elegant guy. I do have a Sidney story: he had had the film scored previous to me. The studio was arguing with him about its effectiveness. He didn't want to argue about it - he felt reasonably OK. But, he also knew the political game that one has to play - you know, you pick your battles. So, he was willing to open the door again on music and what it could or should be. So, he interviewed me and he turned to me about halfway through the interview and said, "Mark I have made 37 films in my career and 8 of them have had no music whatsoever - this could be the ninth. However, I am willing to take a look at this and see what you can offer the film."

PC: Wow.

MI: [Laughs.] Those might not be the exact right number of films, but the concept is never lost on me - he was such a great filmmaker in the sense that his minimalism was so strong that he could get by with just the bare bones of something, and, still, make it so incredible powerful. You know, his use of words and the way he would pace words and everything was just masterful. So, I think we did find about, I think, 13 minutes in that film - which he thought actually did really help and played a part.

PC: Even less score than THE MIST - how funny.

MI: I know! Somehow you are only finding these scores that are so small - you should also point out to everyone that I have also written some scores that are like 103 minutes, as well. [Laughs.]

PC: I shouldn't even ask about THE HITCHER, then!

MI: [Big Laugh.] Actually, THE HITCHER had about an hour. But, yeah, certainly something like THE BLACK DAHLIA has a lot of music. When you get to thrillers, there is music all over the place. I think there is 100 minutes of music in THE NET.

PC: CRASH has a lot of music, as well.

MI: Absolutely.

PC: How did you get involved with that? Did you know Paul Haggis?

MI: Yeah, I knew Paul for years and years. He was the only guy I would do television with until recently.

PC: You recently did the music for the CRASH series, as well.

MI: Yes, yes. So, for the movie, Paul had sent me the script and he said, "We have been greenlit to do this thing and I have 3 cents for music, but I want you to do it." [Laughs.]

PC: The dance recreation of the CRASH theme was so uniquely enacted on the Oscars that year. Do you enjoy that sort of re-interpretation of your music in a theatrical milieu?

MI: Yeah, I think it is always very exciting and very informative, actually, to see how other people see it and treat it and want to interpret it.

PC: Is a musical something you would like to pursue someday?

MI: I've thought about it from time to time, but it's not something that I have been actually able to carve out. It's a time commitment issue. I tend to find that the extra time I have I put back into the trumpet world and playing and performing that music.

PC: And you are writing a score a week for ONCE UPON A TIME now.

MI: Yeah, I am. We have a little team here because 30 minutes a week is a lot of music.

PC: It is rare to have a composer of your caliber write all the music for a TV show. Did you always want to do all the music and not just the opening theme or selected themes?

MI: Yes, I did. Quite frankly, these scripts are so great - they are the best scripts I have read in any genre, really. They are so wonderfully constructed and it just keeps getting better and better - this whole series of stories. I just want to be a part of it. I obviously have help in doing it, but we are going to fit it into the schedule so I can keep it going and keep it churning along. It's a great world to be a part of.

PC: Will there be more strange sounds coming in for the fairytale world, or will it remain relatively the same?

MI: At this juncture, we are going to keep the concept as it's going - because it is working.

PC: It definitely is.

MI: You know, I sat down and watched the pilot a number of months after I had written it - which was a good thing, because I was far enough away from it that I was able to make a fair enough judication of how good I was. [Laughs.]

PC: Were you satisfied?

MI: Yeah, I think I did a good job - the themes are right and they can hold their own for a couple of years; which I hope we go. I think one of the things that is interesting about it is that we don't change the music that much between the two different worlds. I think that is one of the things that helps the story. These worlds are connected - the environment of one, emotionally, is the same as the other. These characters are dramatizing their problems and dramas of their fairytale world in Storybrook, and the music follows them from one place to the other emotionally. I think that's a very strong part of what keeps the whole thing all so beautifully connected.

PC: And Episode 2 ends with that great music cue with the Evil Queen and Rumpelstiltskin. Do you find you write in a different style for the evil characters versus the good ones?

MI: Oh, definitely. I think those are two of my favorites - actually, there are three. We have an Evil Queen theme; we have a theme for the curse itself; and, we have a Rumpelstiltskin theme. And, they really do all do a wonderful job - and we can play them on top of each other and mesh them together. We can play them back and forth. It keeps that sense of evil creeping over The Edges of everything - it keeps all that alive.

PC: The musical embodiment of that vast green smoke.

MI: Exactly. Exactly.

PC: Was the casting of the spell the moment you were looking most forward to musicalizing?

MI: Well, I think there were several moments - right in the beginning when you see the iconic kiss, you have to get the right musical moment for that. [Laughs.]

PC: Unquestionably.

MI: But, then, of course, when the Evil Queen throws the curse and you see those big, epic shots; the castle and fairytale-land and the green smoke.

PC: Will there be any musical numbers or integration of classic Disney songs?

MI: No.

PC: None?

MI: Well, I mean, it's something you'd have to discuss with ABC and Disney. Obviously, they have the rights to use all the characters - to bring them in and use their names and stuff. I have discussed with the music department, "Well, there is obviously famous, iconic musical material that is attached to those characters." But, I think, at this point, it's really important to define the musical vocabulary as unique and to this story. Not to say this can't be approached in some way in the future, but I think we would have to pick just the right dramatic point to use that device.

PC: I had heard "When You Wish Upon A Star" was going to be used. Do you feel like it would be interesting to adapt another composer's work at some point in the future?

MI: Yeah, I think we'd really have to discuss the power of it for a particular story. That's a big card to play. I mean, "How do you want to play it?" It's a bigger question than whether or not I want to score something, it's more a philosophical story about the show itself and the whole concept of the show.

PC: What can we look forward to in Episode 3?

MI: Yeah, there are a lot of wonderful moments in this show - it's the story of Snow White and Prince Charming and how they meet. Let's just say that they are both very strong characters and they do not meet in a friendly way, shall we say. [Laughs.]

PC: I've heard Hansel and Gretel and the Witch are coming up. Is that true?


MI: Yes, they are coming up. Cinderella is coming up. The back-story of Rumpelstiltskin is coming up. There is a lot to look forward to coming up.

PC: And Maleficent has some great material, as well. Great casting.

MI: Yeah, isn't it? And, the good news is that she wasn't done in, so she may return.

PC: The carriage scene scoring was utterly fantastic.

MI: Oh, thank you so much. That was fun to do.

PC: What's next?

MI: Well, we are up to Episode 6 on ONCE UPON A TIME, so we have another 7 episdes to score for the show. Then, I have a big Nic Cage action film to score.

PC: That will have a more contemporary sound, I assume?

MI: Yeah, that is a nice counterpart - the electronics and the drums for Nic when he is running around trying to find his brother.

PC: Thoughts on Alexandre Desplat and Alan Menken, who will be featured in this column in coming weeks?

MI: Well, you are talking about two of the finest composers around! I am a huge fan of both of them. And, Alexandre is just on fire right now - he has been doing this for a long time and he has been brilliant for years, so I am so delighted to see he has had such tremendous success in recent years.

PC: And you and Alan are Disney compatriots these days, of cours.

MI: Yes - we are! Exactly.

PC: Would you like perhaps to collaborate on an episode of ONCE UPON A TIME with Alan someday, given his relationship to Disney?

MI: Oh, yeah - that would be fun. Absolutely. I always enjoy meeting other composers and spending time with them - it's always a great learning experience.

PC: This was, as well. Congratulations on the huge success of ONCE UPON A TIME! It's already renewed, correct?

MI: Yes, we know we are doing 13 and I can't imagine we won't keep going. The response has just been fantastic.

PC: Thank you so much for this today, Mark. This was awesome.

MI: Thank you very much, Pat. It has been a great pleasure to spend this time with you. Bye.


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Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)