It's hard to believe that three years have passed since the red hot Grindhouse trailer sensation, "Machete" was made into a full length movie starring a great cast headed by Danny Trejo, Robert DeNiro, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Lindsey Lohan and Steven Seagal. The film was so whacky, entertaining and so far out that it was a box office success because of its' inspired lunacy. Now three years later, Machete has returned bigger, badder and even more whacked out than before. Head by the returning Trejo and Rodriguez, the cast has added even more star studded actors that will make this one even more grandiose led by the villanious Mel Gibson, Sofia Vergara, Alexia Vega, Antonio Banderas, Cuba Gooding, Jr., William Sadler, Lady Gaga and Carlos Estevez. (Wait I mean, Charlie Sheen! Winning!)
The man behind the music, is the evertalented and exciting Carl Thiel who was onboard as one of the composers behind the first "Machete" adventure score as part of the group "Changon". The music was exciting and really fit the tone and spirit of those old Grindhouse films that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino tried to bring back and inspired "Machete" to come to life. With a rocking score for this film, Carl's hard work has really paid off in everyway.
For this interview, Carl reveals to me about the "Machete Kills" soundtrack, working on the film with his friend, Director Robert Rodriguez and what his all time favorite soundtracks are and believe me it's a long list! So enjoy!
Hi Carl, how are you and thank you very much for granting me the time to conduct this interview with you today.
CT: Hi Danny, doing great, and thank you!
Please tell the readers about what inspired you to become interested in music and composing.
CT: Well, my father was a concert pianist, so music was an integral part of my life from a very early age. He would play the piano at home every evening around dinner time, and I always loved hearing him play. When I was 6 years old I told my mom that I wanted to play like him, so she started me on private lessons and it all grew from there. I was writing instrumentals by around age 10 or 11. I never really thought that music would be my career, though. I always considered it my hobby. What I wanted to do was become a film director. But music always came easily to me, and during my college years I got the opportunity to write music for a cable TV commercial. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was writing jingles and scoring spots for national campaigns; major brands like Subaru, Coca-Cola, Walmart and Coors Light. That led to corporate videos, then documentaries, and finally feature films. So now I get to play in the best of both worlds: music and film!
Let’s talk “Machete!” Of course, I’m talking about the highly anticipated sequel to the hit 2010 film, “Machete Kills”. What attracted you to this film?
CT: I have worked with director Robert Rodriguez on many films now. As you know, he’s the ultimate Renaissance man: he writes, produces, directs, edits, composes, sculpts, paints, and does it all great! He’s given me a lot of opportunities, and I’ve learned a lot working with him. When I got the call to do “Machete Kills,” I was honored to be a part of the film.
Tell me about the approach you took in writing the score for the film?
CT: I worked on the original “Machete”, so we already had that musical palette as a starting point. Robert actually used a lot of the original “Machete” score as a temp when he was editing “Machete Kills”.
Did you and Director/Co-Composer Robert Rodriguez have an idea of the kind of score the film needed because the first film had a fun retro based score. Was that something you wanted to replicate?
CT: Yes and no. Obviously, the main Machete character motif/sound would have to stay. We had worked very hard on the first movie to find just the right tone for him. But “Machete Kills” is a different adventure for Machete. He journeys from the deep jungles of Mexico all the way to the futuristic sci-fi world of Luther Voz (Mel Gibson), and he meets a lot of colorful characters along the way. I wanted to give each one their own unique musical signature. It was a lot of fun coming up with these different themes and soundscapes, especially for Voz, who’s a James Bond “world domination” kind of villain. But at the heart of everything it’s still “Machete,” so there is a consistent thread weaving through it all.
What were the scoring sessions like?
CT: It was pretty intense, because time was short, we had a firm delivery date and the budget was very tight. But before things got crazy (and in preparation for the marathon ahead) I brought Dony Wynn into the studio to record a variety of percussion loops. He’s an amazing drummer/percussionist and he’s got a huge collection of instruments from all over the world. Once things got moving, I was able to use those loops as part of the score, saving precious time while adding a unique element to the music. I ended up working very long days for several weeks without a break, writing and playing most everything myself. When you get in that mode it’s kind of an alternate world where you enter this singleness-of-purpose Zen kind of state. I would work for weeks and then Robert would come to the studio to go over the cues, we’d discuss notes and changes, and then I would continue working. Towards the end, Rick Del Castillo brought in a really cool groove that we ended up using as the theme for one of the characters. He also wrote the music for the “space trailer preview” you see in the beginning.
How much music was recorded for the film?
CT: There’s about 103 minutes of new original score.
Will there be an album released of this score?
CT: Yes! The digital release will be available on iTunes, Amazon and other outlets on Oct 8th. You can pre-order it now. There will also be a CD version released by Morada Music.
How did you put the album together? Please tell the readers about this specific process.
CT: Robert had this great thought to make each track on the CD represent a different character in the movie. So we sat down and listened to every cue in the film, picking out and making compilations of the best moments of each character.
We also recorded an additional song called “They Call Him Machete” that Robert wanted to use in the film but we ran out of time. And as a bonus track we included a live version of Chingon playing “El Rey”.
You also were a part of scoring the original “Machete” film as part of the “Chingon” band that featured Rodriguez, composer John Debney, Tito Larriva and Rick Del Castillo. How did all of you guys come to score the original film the way you did instead of having one composer doing it?
CT: It’s funny you should ask, because it didn’t happen the way most people would think. We didn’t all get together in a room to create cues as a band. Instead, we were all in our own separate studios/workplaces working on different cues and sent our work to Robert. He acted as an anchor. He likes to have options, so there’d be times when he’d have two or three of us score the same scene, and then he’d choose the cue that felt best to him. There’d also be times when he’d send me a cue that Rick had written, and ask me to enhance it with some of my sounds/themes. And the same with cues that I’d written, sometimes they would come back to me with these cool enhancements by John Debney. Since then John and I have become friends. He’s a brilliant composer, and I learned a lot from working with him.
Did you improvise a lot of the music for “Machete” or played what you guys had composed for each other?
CT: We mostly only played on the cues each of us wrote. There were a few times when I’d call Rick or his brother Mark to come play some of their amazing guitars on one cue or another, and some of that was improvised; and then other times I played additional parts on cues that Robert or Rick had written. But it was never like a jam session. There was one instance though, where Robert used a track we had all played on. It was the traditional mariachi song “Cascabel,” played Chingon-style. We had originally recorded that for another movie that never got made, and when trying to find the right feel for the hospital escape scene, Robert had the brilliant idea to use that track. I edited it to fit the picture and then John Debney added some orchestration to it. That one track probably has the most of us represented. And that scene became one of the highlight moments of the movie.
You’ve worked with Robert Rodriguez previously on eight films including the cult classics “Sin City” and “Grindhouse.” What’s it like to work with a director, who pretty much can do it all?
CT: It’s really great. He is an amazing creative force and I’ve learned so much from him. He’s constantly working, juggling two or three projects at a time, and that can be a little challenging at times when you need his attention. But he’s very loyal to the people he works with. Going to the different movie sets you see the same crew, the same friends and many times, the same cast, so it’s like a big family. As a composer, it is so useful to have a director that’s also a composer, and can communicate in musical concepts and terms. If he had the time, I’m sure Robert would like to do all of the work himself, and he’d be great at it! But fortunately for me, he’s a really busy guy, so I get to write and produce music for him.
Was it hard for you to find a musical tone for these films unlike all your other films you’ve scored in the past?
CT: On “Sin City” I was hired as music producer and engineer, so I didn’t get to write any of that score. Robert went for a saxophone & orchestra driven Film Noir sound. He wrote this really cool descending line that became the main theme for the movie (the saxophone by the way, played brilliantly by Johnny Reno). John Debney and Graeme Revell also wrote fantastic scores.
I did however, write quite a bit of the “Grindhouse” score. For that, Robert wanted to recreate the retro sci-fi horror sound of John Carpenter. So I did some research on what synths Carpenter had used and studied his scores (particularly Escape from New York and The Fog). I got the software versions of the Prophet V and mini-moog synthesizers and then I combined those with other more orchestral sounds and distorted guitars. Graeme Revell, on the other hand, wrote really cool cues that were more dissonant and abrasive in nature, with very unique, visceral sounds. Robert had Johnny Reno add that gut-wrenching saxophone to the score. Rick Del Castillo & George Oldziey also contributed their talents. That combination became the sound for “Grindhouse”.
Are you pleased that these films have been as successful as they’ve become with moviegoers over the years?
CT: Of course! I feel very fortunate to be a part or Robert’s creative journey. He’s got fans all over the world, and his movies are viewed by millions. It’s definitely opened a lot of doors for me, and I’m very grateful for that.
You’re also involved with the hit ABC series “Last Man Standing” starring Tim Allen. Please tell the readers what attracted you to the show?
CT: One day I got a call from my friend Monte Montgomery, who is a monster acoustic guitar player and a friend of Tim Allen’s. He told me Tim had asked him to send demos for this new comedy he was going to star in, because they were looking for composers. Monte asked me if we could collaborate on this. The timing was perfect, because I had just finished “Spy Kids 4,” and my schedule was open. So we put some demos together and submitted them. We got a great response from the studio, and after some tweaking to the sound, we got the job. I stayed on for the first season. After that, Monte felt comfortable enough to carry on, and I got back to film projects.
Do you get to utilize an orchestra for the show or is it a smaller ensemble?
CT: It was mostly just Monte and me.
How much music do you write per episode for the show?
CT: On sitcoms there’s usually very little music. Mostly it’s just 3 to 6 second bumpers. And lately the trend is that even the main title themes are short. For LMS they needed the main theme to be 10 sec. Occasionally, they would request a source cue that would last longer than 20 or 30 seconds, but that was the exception.
Is it harder for you as a composer to work in television as opposed to film?
CT: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s harder. It’s definitely a different animal. On TV the turnaround is quick and you’re part of an assembly line. But you also build a catalogue of cues that you can rely on in a pinch. There’s also quite a range within TV. Half hour sitcoms are very different than one hour dramas. On film you sign on for a unique project and there’s more time to develop character themes and soundscapes. The arc is different.
What was the hardest film you’ve had to score to date and why?
CT: I think “Machete Kills” was particularly challenging simply because of the time constraint. But I still loved it. I haven’t really had a negative experience composing music for any project. There was one project early in my career that I really wanted to get. It was an indie film and a good friend of mine was the music supervisor. I sent demos and even scored a couple of scenes in good faith to show them what I could do. The producer really liked me, but the director was not convinced. He was used to working with another composer and was hesitant to work with someone new. I was disappointed I didn’t get the job, but looking back it was really a blessing, because it would’ve been a very difficult experience. Scoring and filmmaking are very personal endeavors, and there has to be a trusting connection between director and composer. The director is putting his baby in your hands. He or she has to feel absolutely comfortable with his/her choice. That’s why you see many directors always using the same composers. Once they find someone they can trust, they stick with them.
Would you prefer to work with big orchestra or do you prefer a smaller intimate ensemble of musicians that include yourself?
CT: I am very comfortable doing small ensembles and synth based scores, and I’m also very comfortable doing hybrid midi/live instrument combinations. I’ve also worked as producer on a few big orchestra projects, but as of yet, I haven’t had the opportunity to have my own scores recorded by a large ensemble. I know that’s in my future, and I look forward to it.
What is your favorite film score that you haven’t written?
CT: Wow, there’s so many! I really love a lot of Thomas Newman’s work. “Revolutionary Road” is magical, as well as “Cinderella Man” and “Road To Perdition,” not to mention “The Shawshank Redemption.” Ennio Morricone’s “The Mission” and ”The Untouchables” were fantastic. Bernard Herrmann’s “Cape Fear” is so intense. Early Alan Silvestri, like “Predator” and “Back to the Future” both left a huge imprint on me. James Horner’s score for “Braveheart” still moves me to tears. More recently I was also really inspired by James Newton Howard’s work on “Blood Diamond”. Howard Shore’s “A History of Violence” also perked up my ear, and Trent Reznor’s and Atticus Ross’s score for “The Social Network” was super cool.
But if I had to pick one, (and I know it’s cliché) I would have to say the original “Star Wars” by John Williams. Just the overture alone leaves me speechless. The melodies are so simple and memorable, but the support is so deep and complex, it’s exciting. It also came out at a time when I was very impressionable. It’s stood the test of time and new generations are still being moved by it.
What is your favorite film that you have scored to date?
CT: Ah, no fair… that’s like asking me to pick from my own children! But if I had to pick I think it’d be a toss up between the two “Machetes”. They’re both really fun films. There’s also a Christmas movie I did last year called “When Angels Sing” that has a special place in my heart.
What is your dream project?
CT: Well… I have a lot of dreams… I would love to do a movie like Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi”, where the combination of the stunning visuals, the incredible story, and the amazing music creates this spiritual experience in the viewer. That movie really touched me. Mychael Danna’s score was breathtaking.
I would also love to score a serious drama or thriller with enough budget to do a full orchestra and enough time to really finesse it. At some point I’d also like to be part of a positive life-changing project of global significance. There’s a lot of music in me, and I’ve just started scratching the surface.
Please tell the readers about any future upcoming projects you may have.
CT: I am currently working on an independent docudrama called “The Teller and the Truth” directed by Andrew Shapter. The movie explores the story of a beautiful bank teller that went missing after a bank robbery in the seventies. It’s a labor of love and Andrew is a very passionate and driven director. His cinematography is superb, and the story is really riveting.
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: It was my pleasure, Danny. Thank you!
Very special and heartfelt thanks to Carl for being so gracious with his time and taking a journey into the world of Machete, which is freakin' awesome!!! Thanks Carl!! Special thanks also go to the always solid Jeff Sanderson for setting up this awesome interview with Carl. You're the best man.
Machete Kills opens in theaters on October 11 by Open Road Films
Please visit Carl's personal website for music samples and latest updates on Carl's upcoming projects http://carlthiel.com/
The "Machete Kills" soundtrack will be released on November 5th and now available digitally via iTunes and Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Machete-Kills-Various-Artists-Chignon/dp/B00F38GGE8/ref=pd_sim_sbs_m_5