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Carl Thiel Reveals The Dark Musical Secrets To "Sin City: A Dame To Kill For"

Profile Of "Sin City: A Dame To Kill For" Composer Carl Thiel
Profile Of "Sin City: A Dame To Kill For" Composer Carl Thiel
Courtesy of Getty Images

About a year ago, "Machete Kills" was about to open in theaters and I had the privilege to interview composer Carl Thiel, who took on the scoring duties to that film and wrote a fun and exciting work working with Writer, Director and Producer Robert Rodriguez. Now fast forward to now as Carl and Robert have teamed up once again to write the score for the long in development prequel to "Sin City" in "Sin City: A Dame To Kill For" that features the returning cast of Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke, Rosario Dawson and new cast members that include Eva Green, Josh Brolin, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

For this new rocking score, Carl and Robert have kept the same sound created by Rodriguez, John Debney and Graeme Revell that made the original film a success sonically. Carl has also landed the primo scoring duties to the hit series based on Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's cult classic film "From Dusk Till Dawn" on the El Wray Cable Network which was recently renewed for a Second Season coming next year.

For this very special interview, Carl has taken time off his busy schedule to chat with me about "Sin City", "From Dusk Till Dawn The Series" as well his collaboration with Robert Rodriguez over the years. So please sit back and enjoy our conversation.

Hi Carl, how are you and thank you very much for this interview and for the opportunity to talk to you again after last year’s “Machete Kills”.

CT: Doing well Danny, thank you!

Please tell the readers about what inspired you to become interested in music and composing once again.

CT: Music has always been a part of my life. My dad was a concert pianist and as a kid I always admired the way he played, so I guess he was my first inspiration. I started taking classical piano at age 6, and by around age 11, I was composing pieces just for fun. I loved it. I feel very fortunate to be able to make a living doing what I love.

Now let’s talk about the long gestating sequel to the excellent “Sin City”, “Sin City: A Dame To Kill For” which features the return of most of the original cast including Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson and Mickey Rourke. What attracted you to this film?

CT: I’m a huge fan of the score that Robert, John Debney & Graeme Revell did for the first movie. So when I was approached to work on the sequel, I was honored to be a part of it and build on their amazing work.

Tell me about the approach you took in writing the score for the film?

CT: Robert and I met in late May to discuss the approach we’d take. We started by splitting the score by character. So I started working on the Dwight and Marv stories while he worked on the Johnny cues. He later wrote a great theme for the Ava character and we ended up collaborating on a lot on her scenes. George Oldziey, who’s also a great orchestrator/composer helped Robert orchestrate a lot of his cues, and Rick Del Castillo, who plays guitar on Chingon helped with the production of some of the songs.

Did you and Director/Co-Composer Robert Rodriguez have an idea of kind of score the film needed because the first film featured a very moody and at times, aggressive score by Graeme Revell and John Debney along with Robert and yourself. Was that something you both wanted to replicate to keep the continuity to link both films together or did you want to go in a different direction?

CT: We wanted the musical soundscape to be similar to the original, since so many of the characters came back for the sequel. So we used similar instrumentation and built on the themes from the original.

The original “Sin City” featured you in a different role as opposed to this one. What was different about your role this time around and what were the scoring sessions like?

CT: I didn’t work as a composer for the first film. My role then was that of music producer on the more rocking cues, like the main titles, end credits and some of the cues that Robert wrote. Those sessions were a lot of fun. We had Rafael Gayol on drums, Rick & Mark Del Castillo on electric & acoustic guitars, Johnny Reno on Sax, and I was playing keys and bass. Later I mixed in the strings and brass tracks that had been recorded in California. The result was a huge orchestral rocking sound.

How much music was recorded for the film?

CT: For the sequel we ended up with over 100 minutes of music.

Will there be an album released of this score?

CT: Yes! It’s available now on iTunes, and will be available on CD on Tuesday August 26th.

Was it hard for you to find a musical tone for this film unlike all your other films you’ve scored in the past for Robert?

CT: Not so much for this one, since the sound palate and melodic content had already been established on the first film. I carefully studied the original score until I became comfortable with the approach John, Graeme and Robert had taken.

You’ve worked with Robert Rodriguez previously on eight films including the original sin “Sin City”, “Grindhouse”, “Machete” and “Machete Kills”, how important do you think music is for his films?

CT: Robert is a rocker at heart. Music is very important to him, and it’s an essential element of his storytelling.

Do you think that his films are perfectly scored with a minimal amount that enhance the story rather than just act as wallpaper?

CT: Every film is different and every scene is different. Sometimes less is more, but other times the music needs to take over and help carry the scene. On Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, Robert wanted the music to be bigger than what we usually do, because the nature of the stories and how they were portrayed on screen left enough room for the music to have a bigger role in the storytelling.

You’re also involved with the hit series based on Robert Rodriguez’s and Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic film, “From Dusk Till Dawn” that just completed its’ first season on the new El Rey network. Please tell the readers what attracted you to the show?

CT: El Rey is a very cool new network and From Dusk Till Dawn is its flagship show. Robert has a lot of freedom at the network to take chances that no other network could give him, so that opened the door to creating a show that’s unlike any other on TV. He’s also made sure that FDTD was produced to the highest “Rodriguez” standards in order to stay true to the film’s fans and connect with new viewers. I have a lot of freedom to experiment and explore new soundscapes with the score.

Before you started working on the series, did you go back and watch Robert’s film to get an idea of what you wanted musically personally or did you use Graeme Revell’s excellent score as an inspiration for what something you would consider doing personally for the series?

CT: I did watch the movie again a couple of times. And initially we had talked about following a similar musical arc, but when I actually started scoring the first episode, the pace and tone of the show felt like it needed a different musical direction. I showed Robert several options for a test scene, and finally settled on a sound palate and approach that felt right for the show. There are however a few key moments in the series where the music does echo the movie.

Do you get to utilize an orchestra for the show or is it a smaller ensemble?

CT: On the show it’s mostly me performing all the parts. I do bring a few musicians to perform solos and additional instruments, depending on what the episode requires. Before we got started, I had written a melody that would become the vampire’s seduction theme. So I had a violin player come in and perform that part in many different ways and then catalog them for later use. I also had a couple of string players come in and do a bunch of different musical effects for the scary parts.

How much music do you write per episode for the show?

CT: There’s about 30 to 40 minutes of music per episode.

Which character or characters did you enjoy writing themes for and please talk about the process in which you came up with them?

CT: I enjoyed writing the theme for the Gecko Brothers. They’re bad guys since they’re bank robbers, but they’re also the guys you root for and they have noble qualities, so I wanted their theme to have that ambivalence between good and bad. So in the early episodes I started with a bass line that alternates between a minor and a major chord, so as a viewer, you’re not sure if you’re supposed to like them or fear them. In later episodes as the show progressed, their theme grew to a cooler more complicated melody as their characters developed.

Did Robert have any input on the music for the show or did he give you leeway in writing what you felt was needed for the show?

CT: He had a lot of feedback in the beginning when I gave him demos to listen to and we were trying to establish the sound for the show. But once we got going, he gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted. He’d send me notes here and there if something wasn’t working quite right for him in one scene or another, but for the most part he left it up to me.

Which episode is your favorite in terms of how the music played out and why?

CT: Episode 9 “Boxman” is probably my favorite. I really liked the way the music turned out in that one. It stands out from the rest because it’s the one where the Geckos go into the “Labyrinth of the Mind” and have to pull off a heist in order to escape. It was really cool to write a heist score in the middle of a vampire show. Getting to blend those two genres was a lot of fun.

Will there be a soundtrack featuring your music for the series?

CT: I haven’t heard of any plans to release a soundtrack, but I have hopes there will be one in the future!

Is it harder for you as a composer to work in television as opposed to film?

CT: It’s a very different animal. I had the experience of working on the TV comedy “Last Man Standing” a couple of years ago, but that was a half-hour show and we were only doing about 6 to 8 minutes of music a week. FDTD is a one-hour drama and has tons of music, so it’s almost like scoring a movie every week. It definitely helped me work on being more efficient in my compositions and streamline my workflow.

What was the hardest film you’ve had to score to date and why?

CT: I don’t know that there’s one that I’d call the “hardest”, but there was one film where the director and the producers had very different visions for the music, so it took several tries to find the right sound that everyone would agree on. I loved the movie and ultimately the score came out great. It was just challenging to find the right tone for it.

What is your favorite film score that you’ve written for Robert Rodriguez?

CT: Boy, that’s a tough one! I’ve enjoyed working on all of his films. I had a lot of fun writing the score to Spy Kids 4, and I’m very pleased the way that came out.

Which composer has had the most influence in your music so far in your career?

CT: This may sound like it’s coming out of left field, but I love Thomas Newman’s work. I’ve studied a lot of his scores over the past few years. But of course, John Williams has been a huge influence overall in my musical career. I grew up on Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and I remember figuring out those themes by ear on the piano as a young teenager. I’ve also had periods where I’ve studied Howard Shore and Danny Elfman. John Debney, who I’ve had the privilege of developing a friendship with, has also been very influential.

Please tell the readers about any future upcoming projects you may have.

CT: I’m finishing up an independent film that has a beautiful and adventurous love story where I get to write a much more romantic and passionate score than what I’ve been doing lately. I’m really enjoying that.

I would really like to thank you once again Carl for granting me this interview and I’m looking forward to your future projects.

CT: Thank you, Danny!

Very special thanks to Carl who was gracious again to doing this interview with me. You are a cool cat and we have to do again soon. Very special thanks to Jeff Sanderson as well for giving me the opportunity.

"Sin City: A Dame To Kill For" is now playing at a theater near you from The Weinstein Company

The soundtrack to "SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR" is now available digitally on iTunes and be released on CD on August 26th

Please feel free to visit Carl's official website at http://carlthiel.com/ for updates on his latest projects as well as past projects and sound samples of his work.

Here's Carl Thiel's Bio:

"Carl Thiel is an award winning composer/producer based in Austin, Texas.

Born into a European family and raised in Mexico City, he was exposed to a rich and wide variety of cultural experiences and musical styles from a very early age. As a young boy, he would listen to his father (a Swedish immigrant with a doctorate in music) play Mozart and Bach on the piano, while his older siblings would play Beatles and Carpenters albums. His mother, a perpetual student of the healing arts and spiritual well-being, and the daughter of German and Austrian immigrants, shared her love for Strauss and Vivaldi, as well as meditational and inspirational music. Immersed in the huge metropolis, it was impossible for young Carl to escape the colorful variety of Mexican music present at every corner, ranging from songs of traditional artists such as Agustín Lara and Los Panchos, to pop legends José José and Emmanuel, to all the folk and pre-hispanic sounds and melodies that live at the heart of Mexican culture.

At age 6, he began taking classical piano lessons under the tutelage of Carlos Alcaráz -from the National Conservatory of Music- and within a couple of years, he was already improvising and composing his own music. He had a natural talent for figuring out how to play music by ear, and by his early teenage years, he had built a vast repertory of pop songs that would amuse his family and friends. At age 14 he landed a summer job as a pianist at an upscale restaurant, where he played Billy Joel and Elton John favorites, as well as Frank Sinatra standards and the like.

His high school years were spent at Trinity College School in Ontario, Canada, where as a boarding student, he flourished in art and music studies. Noticing his creative potential, his teachers granted him unrestricted access to the school's fine arts building so that he could play, paint and practice at will; a privilege of which he took full advantage. In music, he not only took part in school orchestra performances but also persuaded his teacher and school officials to rent professional rock instruments and equipment and let his rock/pop band perform at various school functions with much success. He graduated with high honors, and was awarded the Art and Music Prizes, among others.

Seeking an education connected with Film, he attended the University of Texas in Austin, where he studied Radio, TV & Film, while continuing his pursuit of musical advancement by taking various courses in electronic music. He took two full time jobs during his first summer break -one delivering tortillas from before dawn until late afternoon, and the other working at fast food burger joint for the dinner shift until late at night- to earn enough money to buy his first synthesizer, an amplifier and a cassette 4-track. During his second year in college, he performed and collaborated in songwriting with self-sustaining pop/rock bands, further developing his abilities as a musician/composer. He also ventured out into the field of film production by volunteering as an intern and later as a paid production assistant in various TV commercial and film productions, where he developed connections with the local production crews.

As a self-motivated young man, he used his 4-track recorder to create a demo reel of mock radio commercials, and score them with his own original music. He distributed this reel to the various contacts he had made in the TV production circles and eventually landed his first opportunity with a local agency. The job was a very low budget local :30sec TV ad that paid him a modest $150.00, but it marked the beginning of his professional scoring career. That exposure led to more jobs scoring local ads and corporate videos.Eventually he was given the opportunity to pitch (competing against many other well-established music houses across Texas) for the official jingle of the Texas Lottery’s inaugural campaign. His winning composition (the vocals for which were recorded in his bedroom closet with a borrowed microphone) earned him the multi-market contract and opened the door to many more regional and then national campaigns for clients such as Coors Light, Subaru, Pepto-Bismol, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and many more. In between projects, he continued to develop his production and engineering skills by producing album projects for regional, national and international artists.

By the late 1990's, he had built his personal project studio -a state of the art 1400 sq. ft. facility set in the Austin Hill Country- and in 2001, his work attracted the attention of film director Robert Rodriguez, who hired Carl to produce the theme song for his second Spy Kids film. This marked the beginning of a unique musical journey and creative collaboration that continues to this date. Robert’s ‘outside-the-box’ approach to production has had a significant influence on Carl’s creative process. Over the past decade, Carl has steadily turned his focus from writing music for advertising and album production, to scoring feature films and TV shows. His latest scoring projects, "From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series" and "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" opened in the Spring and Summer of 2014 respectively.

Carl has had the privilege of working with amazing creative forces such as Sandra Bullock, Willie Nelson, John Debney, Bob Schneider, Billy Gibbons, Eric Johnson, Grupo Fantasma, Ray Benson, Andrés Levin, Selena, Stephen Barber, Joe Ely, Stephen Bruton, Del Castillo, Los Lonely Boys, Patricia Vonne, Andrew Shapter, Monte Montgomery, Trevor Romain and many more. He's received multiple accolades, including a Latin GRAMMY® nomination and two ASCAP Film & TV Awards. He currently serves on the Board of Governors of the Texas Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and frequently volunteers his time to teach and work with highschool and college students across the state during educational events such as GRAMMY U Speaker Series and GRAMMY Camp.

Carl’s endless thirst for innovation in sound and his passion for musical growth continue to propel him to the forefront of the creative edge."