For most, the thought of scoring a sequel, a remake or a Hollywood classic like the "Wizard of Oz," is a heavy burden. Most would even consider the idea of it a major stretch, but after the success of "Oz, The Great And Powerful" I guess it's pretty much fair game now. Very few composers can tackle such a film unless they have exceptional talents. Composers like Danny Elfman, David Shine, John Williams and Ennio Morricone fall into that category but now you can add Toby Chu to that list as well.
Toby is somewhat of a newcomer to Hollywood eventhough he's been involved with major projects with composer Harry Gregson-Williams who was his mentor. He has heavily contributed to two hit series on the USA channel, titled, "Burn Notice" and "Covert Affairs," which his music is always first rate and exciting. Now Toby really gets his chance in the spotlight with the upcoming animated children's film, "Legends Of Oz: Dorothy's Return" featuring Lea Michele ("Glee") as the iconic role of "Dorothy amongst many others. The film marks his first solo big screen outing and the first of many to come that's for sure.
For this very special interview with Toby, he candidly shares his experiences working on the film, the recording of the music, how he came up with his memorable themes, his experiences working on television and his apprenticeship under composer Harry Gregson-Williams. So please sit back and enjoy the musings of this future star composer.
Please tell the readers about what made you become interested in music and what lead you to your career path as a composer.
TC: Somewhere I still have the Toys ‘R Us guitar my parents bought me when I was five. I guess you could say I started there. My path to composing though began as a painter. And although I was told that I had a knack for it, I sold my paintings to purchase instruments. I was a performer first, and eventually transitioned into composing. There are lots of similarities between painting and composing music. Both require creativity and a passion for your work.
Let’s talk about your recent work on the animated musical “Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” (opening nationwide on May 9, 2014) featuring an all-star cast of voice talents that include Lea Michele, Kelsey Grammer, Martin Short, Patrick Stewart, Bernadette Peters amongst others. What got you interested in this project?
TC: I’ve always been a huge fan of the original Wizard Of Oz (WOZ). It was a great opportunity to contribute to a timeless story. I was approached by Vicki Hiatt, an incredibly talented music supervisor here in Los Angeles, to write a piece for the film. I was immediately intrigued because Oz has limitless possibilities. You’re writing for magical landscapes, talking trees, flying monkeys, and iconic beloved characters. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to explore this wondrous world?
Were you a little intimidated that this was your first solo animation project as a composer?
TC: If you really care about a project, there will always be some butterflies in the stomach. A little anxiety never hurts. I find that it actually helps with the creative process. I’ve worked on over 50 films and done several solo projects prior to this one, including multiple seasons of primetime television. I’ve been working on my own for several years now, so being solo didn’t intimidate me. The initial anxiety came with having the daunting task of creating a score to a story that so many of us are passionate about, and Wizard Of Oz is one of the greatest musicals in film history.
After seeing the film, what inspired you to write the score that you did?
TC: I first saw “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” when it was in its earlier stages. In animation, it’s called an animatic. The animators put together a series of still images set to the voices of the actors (and some temporary voices), so you can watch the film before it is fully realized in CGI. Some sequences were further along than others, but the film wasn’t finished at this point. Several of the songs had already been recorded, so I was able to hear those as well.
The producers asked me to watch the film, and then compose something for a pivotal scene. I won’t tell you much, but it takes place between Dorothy and the Jester at his castle. You’ll have to see the movie to find out more. They liked what I did and afterwards asked me compose another scene. This carried on for a bit and before I knew it, there weren’t any more scenes to compose!
Another challenge was to make sure the songs and score were cohesive, and could relate musically. The songs also had to seamlessly transition into score and vice versa. I had the opportunity to video-conference with Bryan Adams when working with one of his songs, and we later met for lunch while he was in Los Angeles. That was a real treat.
Were the themes easy to come up with or did it take a little time for you to come up with one?
TC: Nothing ever comes easy. I spent hours at the piano working on the themes before a single note of the score was even written. The themes are the foundation – the color and texture of the thread if I may – that will eventually be woven into an image, which is the score. A great theme sounds familiar yet surprising every time you hear it. It’s quite difficult: I may go through hundreds of permutations of notes until it feels inevitable in its rhythm and architecture, and ultimately the feeling or idea it represents. Another important and incredibly useful characteristic of a good theme is its flexibility to work in different dramatic situations. I’ve spent weeks on a single theme in the past that I eventually felt was good, only to discover soon after through application that it was frustratingly limited in its presentation and use.
Did you and the director share the same vision of what the music should do for the film from the moment you got the assignment?
TC: Both directors, Daniel St. Pierre and Will Finn, were an inspiration throughout the process. I felt we had a great shorthand of what we thought the score should and could do to help propel the story forward.
How much music did you finally end up recording for the film?
TC: A little over 80 minutes of my music is in the final film, which is just over 90 minutes long. This is including the orchestration added to the film’s songs.
What were the recording sessions like?
TC: The recording sessions were my favorite part of the process. We used a big orchestra and choir, and recorded on the same sound stage where Judy Garland sang 'Over The Rainbow.' Working with these talented musicians, and in that hallowed space, was truly an honor.
Let’s talk about the soundtrack album upcoming on Sony. How was assembled? Please share your personal insight on this.
TC: The soundtrack to “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” is a compilation. The album includes the songs as well as score. I’m hoping we will get to do a full score release at some point.
Are you happy with the way the album ended up and do you think fans of the film will enjoy it?
TC: You’re never completely satisfied, but I’ll tell you that I poured my heart and soul into my music. I hope the everyone enjoys it!
You’ve also worked on television providing scores for the hit series “Burn Notice” and “Covert Affairs”. What is it like working on two popular series such as these?
TC: Working on “Burn Notice” and “Covert Affairs” is great fun. The turn around is quick and there’s quite a lot of music. I get only a few days to score an entire episode, which is quite a challenge.
What is the approach you take when you’re writing for television as opposed to that of a movie like “Legends Of Oz” for example?
TC: The approach to television and film is rather different. While the story arc of a television show spans over an entire season, a movie like “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” has defined boundaries with discrete themes. It was important to make sure the score and songs complemented one another – a challenge I have not yet faced in television. However, my approach to both initially starts by getting familiar with the story and character arcs. It’s around this time that I’ll begin experimenting with ideas and eventually develop themes. Depending on the project, a theme can be a melody, a motif, a style, a musical shape or interval, a single instrument, combo of instruments, or even a single sound or timbre.
Do you feel that television is an easier medium for composers to work?
TC: Television and film both have their unique challenges. I wouldn’t say that one is easier than the other.
Would you like to see a soundtrack of your work for either show released?
TC: I wouldn’t protest!
If you were to put together an album, what would you love to see on it musically?
TC: I’m quite proud of “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.” Because the score tracks on the compilation album represent only a fraction of the musical journey, there’s so much more I’d love to include. It would be great to compile a complete score soundtrack. I’d name certain scenes, but that might give the film away.
You started out working with a terrific composer in Harry Gregson-Williams, who got his start with Oscar Winner Hans Zimmer. Please share your experiences working with him.
TC: Harry was a profound influence. He was a teacher and a mentor. I learned a great deal. We worked together for over a decade.
Which score that you worked with him on was your most enjoyable experience?
TC: My fondest memories are of working on the Tony Scott films, which include Spy Game, Man On Fire, Domino, Déjà vu, The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3, and Unstoppable.
If you and Harry were to work together again, what movie would you want it to be and why?
TC: If I were king for day, I’d have Tony Scott direct one more film for us to work on together.
What is it like working with someone of the caliber of Harry Gregson-Williams?
TC: Because I started working with Harry in my early-twenties, he was with me through the formative stages of my development. In this sense, Harry was like a father figure to me.
What is your favorite film or television score that you’ve written to date?
TC: I think I’d have to say “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.” I can’t wait for people to hear it when the film opens on May 9th.
Name a film that has had a major influence on your career?
TC: Many films have influenced me. As an example, I watched “The Sound of Music” scores of times as a kid. The film was a popular mainstay in the Chu household. I drove my parents crazy singing those songs over and over and over…
Which composer do you feel is reflective of your work?
TC: I’d be curious to hear what your readers would say to that.
Who is your favorite director that you’ve worked with so far in your career?
TC: Tony Scott.
What is your favorite film that you’ve personally scored to date?
TC: “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.” Besides that, the films I had a chance to work on with Tony Scott.
Please tell the readers about your future upcoming projects.
TC: I’m working on a few things. Can’t say too much at the moment because of confidentiality agreements, but stay tuned! You can always find the latest news on my website www.tobychumusic.com.
I really want to thank you once again Toby for granting me this interview and I really honored to meet you and everything.
TC: Thanks for having me!
Very special thanks to Toby for his time and patience with this interview. I hope it wasn't too tough! You're a great sport. Also to Emilie Erskine for giving me the plumb assignment and for the nice emails. You're great!
"The Legend Of Oz: Dorothy's Return" Opens Theatrically On May 9. Here's the link to the films official website @ http://www.legendsofozmovie.com/
The soundtrack to "Legend Of Oz: Dorothy's Return" will be released on Columbia Records on May 6 and is available for pre-order @ http://www.amazon.com/Legends-Oz-Various-Artists/dp/B00J89SH72/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1398987857&sr=1-1&keywords=legend+of+oz+dorothy%27s+return
Please feel free to visit (as Toby mentioned earlier) his official website @ www.tobychumusic.com.
Here's Toby Chu's Bio:
"Toby Chu is an American film composer. In the past year, he has written the original music to two fan-favorite series, and an upcoming animated feature film starring some of Hollywood’s most coveted voice actors.
Toby’s music can currently be heard in the popular spy drama “Covert Affairs” on USA Network. Previously, Toby scored USA's critically acclaimed “Burn Notice” and FX's cult-classic “The Riches” about a family of crooks in the Deep-South starring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver.
On the big-screen this year for Toby is the 3-D animated musical “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” starring Lea Michele (‘Dorothy’), Kelsey Grammer, Jim Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Martin Short, Hugh Dancy, Oliver Platt, Bernadette Peters, Megan Hilty, and Patrick Stewart. The film is based on the book “Dorothy of Oz” by Roger Stanton Baum, great-grandson of L. Frank Baum, and begins where “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” ends. Toby had the honor of recording the orchestra and choir on the same soundstage used by Judy Garland for the beloved 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz”.
Toby’s music has been informed by many sources. Among his influences, Toby cites classical, world music, and jazz, though perhaps the most prevalent is American painter John Singer Sargent. Toby studied fine arts with Walt Bartman in Bethesda, MD, and the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts recognized Toby as a candidate in the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program. His paintings are in a number of private collections and have been displayed at the U.S. Capitol Building. As a sign of things to come, Toby used monies raised from sales of his artwork to purchase music instruments and equipment. He has since strived to bring his sensibilities to bear as a visual artist while creating music for film.
Toby’s education continued in Miami and Boston, including private lessons with Mick Goodrick at the New England Conservatory and directed studies with cellist/conductor Ronald Feldman (BSO). After receiving a degree in film scoring from Berklee College of Music, Toby moved to Los Angeles where he quickly began working on a number of projects for Golden Globe and Grammy-nominated film composer Harry Gregson-Williams, with whom Toby worked for over a decade.
In 2010, Toby collaborated with Daft Punk, arranging and orchestrating “Adagio for Tron” on the “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack. Other credits include musical contributions to “Déjà Vu”; “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”; “Domino”; and “Team America: World Police.”
He currently resides in Los Angeles."