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Nathan Furst: Shrugging Off The "Dust" To Gain The "Need For Speed"

Profile of Composer Nathan Furst of Dreamworks Pictures upcoming action-thriller "Need For Speed" Starring Aaron Paul of "Breaking Bad" and Michael Keaton.
Courtesy of Getty Images

Writing music for film is not as easy as it sounds, let alone an action film that requires alot of music and has very little breathing room for dialog. Alot of composers have tried their hand at scoring action films and many have succeeded like the late Jerry Goldsmith (who was pretty much the master of the genre), John Williams, Elmer Bernstein, Michael Kamen, Alan Silvestri, Christopher Young, Hans Zimmer, John Powell, Marco Beltrami, Michael Giacchino amongst many others. When the action is good, the music can be great. However, when a film heavily relies on the music to bail it due to its' own problems, then that's big hit or miss proposition.

Nathan Furst, you can say an action kind of a guy. Musically speaking. After his breakthrough and astoundingly exciting score for the 2005 documentary film, "Dust To Glory" documenting the most notorious and dangerous off-road race in the world, the SCORE Tecate Baja 1000. Years later, he would lend his talents to the semi-documentary action film involving the Navy SEALS in "Act Of Valor" which was a surprise it with Nathan writing a tense, but eclectic score for it. When his friend, Director Scott Waugh got the chance to helm the much anticipated video game adaptation of the hit game, "Need For Speed", Nathan was the first on call without a doubt. Their collaboration produced the grand and exciting score that made "Dust To Glory" one the more memorable scores ten years ago and still is very memorable. The score to "Need For Speed" is one of the more exciting and engaging action scores I've heard so far this year. It is a very thrilling and melodic effort that will definitely knock the socks off your feet with its' high powered orchestrial energy.

For this very special interview with Nathan, we candidly talk about Need For Speed and the process that the score went through to sound so bold and exciting, the recording sessions, the subsequent upcoming soundtrack and revisit the music of Dust To Glory, as well as Nathan's favorite score that's he written, which will surprise most of you. I know it did me! So sit back and relax enjoy our conversation together!

Please tell the readers about what made you become interested in music and film.

NF: I remember being interested in music and specifically film music before I really knew I was a composer. My earliest memory is watching "Back To The Future" at seven years old and just having a visceral response to Alan Silvestri's themes. Of course, I experienced the same feeling with Raiders, Burton's Batman, etc. When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I started tinkering and teaching myself the piano. By 13, I was writing music. It was dreadful, of course, but you've got to start somewhere!

Let’s talk about your recent work on the upcoming action-thriller “Need For Speed” which is based on the hit video game Starring "Breaking Bad’s" Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper and Michael Keaton. What got you interested in this project?

NF: Our trusted and fearless director, of course! Scott Waugh called me and asked me to read the script - this was before casting or any of that had started. As soon as I read it, I thought it was so fun and I knew that Scott would just pull it off the page in a fantastic way, and really cultivate the opportunity for character and story in his signature way.

Did you spot the film with Director Scott Waugh before you started writing and did he have a specific plan as to exactly what he wanted the music to sound?

NF: After I read the script, I started thinking of ideas, and Scott had a lot of ideas as well. We had a couple of really great conversations on the phone, and we quickly found our true north. Right off the bat, Scott knew he wouldn't need me to play on the excitement of the cars. That's very clearly already on the screen, and it's very intense. Instead, my job was to really play to what's going on in the head of Aaron Paul's character, Tobey. The entire score really follows what Tobey is experiencing - whether it's frustration, hope, redemption… these are the things that the themes convey across our story.

The score has a big powerhouse and energetic sound to it which is really bad ass. Was it difficult for you to find an immediate musical tone for a movie that involves a lot of sound effects and not to mention, plenty of racing scenes on screen or did that come to you fairly quickly?

NF: Playing Tobey's sense of danger during some of these races in a way that would work with fx was a little bit of an experiment. However, it was much easier with the way we work. I would get updated material from sound fx, they would get updated cues from me as well. So we always had a sense of what the other was doing. As was our chosen musical esthetic, we wanted to stay away from big boomy hits and generic "action" music. I stayed with big, memorable themes and sub themes, and I personally have found that even when the music is not dominating the mix all the time, the audience still sort of follows the thread of the music, because it's actually SAYING something! The generic action music technically will poke out better, but at that point, it's just another sound effect. Especially for a fast paced film like this one.

Let’s talk about the recording sessions. What were they like?

NF: That was a really fantastic experience. We recorded an 80 piece orchestra at the Sony Scoring Stage, which is one of the best places in the world to record a score. Everything from Wizard Of Oz to Lawrence Of Arabia to Jurassic Park to Schindler's List was recorded there, and I think you can really feel that energy and history when you're in that studio. We recorded the different sections of the orchestra separately - strings and brass - for maximum flexibility so our director could have mixing control when we put all the sound together. I also did a separate percussion date at Sony, recording a bunch of drums and noisy elements in that space. And then we also recorded some vocals and a crazy amount of guitars at The Village in Santa Monica. Dreamworks was so incredibly supportive throughout the process!

Do you prefer to use a traditional big orchestra as well as a smaller solo ensemble of musicians?

NF: It all depends on the film and what it's needs are. In general, though, for me, I absolutely prefer the traditional big orchestra with a few solo elements to add specific character. I feel you get this beautiful cinematic scope, and then also a little personal signature, or character, if you will. For "Act Of Valor", we used a shakuachi as a character against the big orchestra to almost equate the Seals as modern day American Samurai's. In "Need For Speed", we're using vocals and classic sounding guitars as characters to almost evoke what I like to think as the nouveau concept of Americana.

How much music did you end up recording for the film?

NF: Scott and I are all about trying a few different options if it feels right in a scene. So there is quite a bit of music that I wrote that we ended up scratching, either because the meaning of a scene changed to us a little over time, or we decided to approach it slightly differently, etc. I probably wrote and produced a little over 2 1/2 hours of music, and the actual score in the film clocks in at around 93 minutes!

Tell me about your experience working with Director Scott Waugh?

NF: I've been working with Scott Waugh for almost 10 years now, since Dust To Glory in 2005! Scott is an awesome director. He's supportive, he has a clear vision, yet he's open to ideas. I've never experienced a safer environment to experiment openly with the music as I do with Scott. I usually write themes for Scott before the film even goes into pre-production. Of course, this allows me to really take time and cultivate the correct theme for a project, and then by the time the film shoots and is in the editing room, they're often already editing to my sketches. Approaching it this way really allows the film to feel completely autonomous and organic. It's a beautiful thing!

Let’s talk about the soundtrack album upcoming on Varese Sarabande Records. How did you put it together?

NF: Robert Townson is a great at what he does, and is obviously a huge film music fan. When I was looking for a home for the "Dust To Glory" soundtrack, I was so thrilled and honored that Robert agreed to release that score under the Varese Sarabande label all those years ago - especially considering what an underdog the score and the film was at the time. Unfortunately, there hasn't been an opportunity to work together since then! So when Dreamworks asked me where I'd like to release the score for Need For Speed, my first call was Robert at Varese. He liked the idea as well and is making that happen. We have a short turnaround to get the album out, so I know he's out there now pulling various miracles to get it out as soon as possible.

Are you happy with the way the album ended up and do you think fans of the film will enjoy it?

NF: Absolutely! My amazing music editor Matt Shelton and I went through the score and built new tracks, focusing on making a standalone listening experience. So several cues became a single cue, and various other adjustments. Then our great score engineer and mixer Mark Curry did a completely NEW mix specifically for the score album! As a film music fan myself, I always really enjoyed longer, nearly complete score albums. So as I do with every one of my score albums, it runs nice and long! We now have 20 tracks that run almost 73 minutes that I think are a way to aurally immerse yourself in the Need For Speed film.

Let’s turn back the clock ten years and talk about a score that I love and it was a great discovery which was your score for the fun documentary, “Dust To Glory”. Let’s reminisce about it a little bit and talk about your work on that project?

NF: Thank you so much. I had a lot of fun writing that score. That was my first experience working with Scott, and it was definitely a baptism by fire! We all were giving 150% to make that film the best we could possibly make it. Scott had started editing Dust To Glory, and was looking for a composer. I was scoring the Bionicle trilogy for the team at Creative Capers, and they had the same lawyer as Scott at the time. I was recommended to Scott and we hit it off. It wasn't very long before I was scoring little pieces of scenes as Scott edited them. We worked pretty closely together on that for around 7 months. One of my favorite memories was when I had scored the long sequence where Mouse McCoy drives his bike along the cliffside of a beach. Scott liked the direction it was going, but wanted a few changes, and we were discussing it. He then says, "if possible, I'd love to be able to put a new version in the cut I'm going to show at a screening this afternoon". It's something like 10 in the morning! Of course, I'm nuts and said, "Totally. That'll be fun." And we did it! I wrote a bunch of new material, and was mixing the music about 90 minute before it was being screened. Looking back I think he might have been testing me!

After watching the film for the first time, did the themes come to you quickly or did it take a little time for you to come up with the great material that you ultimately came up with?

NF: I went over to Scott's editing bay, and he showed me mostly rough cut material or raw footage. I then went home and created the main theme. I probably spent a week or two just on that. He loved it and we used that widely through the film. Because that was a documentary, Scott widely shaped the film with the footage he got in Baja, so as he would go through and start building sequences, he would call me and say "When I was shooting there, this and this was happening to so and so, and I'd like to show the arc of that. So think about what you might want to do musically for that".

So in that way, Dust To Glory was more about dealing with the different moments and stories as they happened or shaped. Because Scott had something like a 200 hours of footage, he was really building the stories and trying to make them sing through the edit and I would write ideas and adjust in tandem with that process. Organized chaos for sure!

In regards to putting together the score, were you and the director of the film Dana Brown on the same page in regards to how the film sound in particular moments that didn’t need music?

NF: I think so, yes. But I honestly worked very closely with Scott on Dust To Glory, since he has a passion for score and had a vision for the tone. So that was really the birth of honing our process that we've been doing all the way through Need For Speed.

Do you remember the recording sessions for the score and what they were like now?

NF: They were much more modest than Need For Speed! That's widely built in my studio utilizing individual elements and musicians, and then I produced the score to re-create that large scope sound.

Varese Sarabande also released this album which was their first of your terrific music by the label. How did you feel personally, when you got the call that they were interested in releasing your music for the film?

NF: I was honestly flabbergasted. I grew up listening all these amazing scores that Varese put out. I was completely shocked that they were willing sully their A-list reputation with my little score! I felt like had snuck into the kitchen entrance of a prestigious night club!

What was it like working with such a great soundtrack producer such as Robert Townson?

NF: Robert is obviously fantastic at what he does. He's a straight ahead guy that knows how to get these things done, and he's such a huge film score fan. I love that! He can absolutely have a long conversation, and I'm willing to bet get into a spirited debate about, say, Bernard Hermann's best film score, or who's written the best theme, etc. He's a passionate guy, and it's great to know that's the person handling my music that I've worked so hard on for so long!

Looking back ten years after the film and writing the score, are you more affectionate for the film more so now than you did then? Tell me your perspective at this time in your life.

NF: Yes. Absolutely! For various reasons, but especially to see (and hear) the beginning of a creative spark that has grown into something bigger than be defined in a single film. I truly grew as a composer on that film, and I've come to know some of the people from that film (on and off screen) fairly well. That film is a big chapter of my life, and I have a special affection for it.

Is assembling an album as easy as most soundtrack fans or collector think it is? What is the process that you go through to make an album of your music.

NF: It may be easy for others, but for me, it's a arduous process! As I mentioned before, I always prefer to take all the cues and then build tracks for the album as a standalone listening experience. I also like to do a new mix specific to the album, because if you simply fold down the 7.1 surround sound music tracks for the film down to stereo for the album, it doesn't usually translate 100% correctly. I also insist on sitting in on the mastering process as well.

Let’s talk about your career so far to date which features a lot of interesting projects from “Need For Speed” to “Act Of Valor”. Is there one movie that really has defined you as a composer personally?

NF: Oh wow. Let's see. I'm incredibly fortunate enough that at this time in my life, I often feel like the most recent score I compose is my best. Both Act Of Valor and Need For Speed, for me, are by far my best work that defines me as Nathan Furst, the composer. I say that because, for myself, it's a long journey to get there and say that with true honesty. At the end of the day, everyone will have different opinions - my music editor Matt Shelton probably has his favorite. People have told me that "Dust To Glory" is their favorite score, or "Waiting For Lightning" is their favorite score. And Honestly, as 'the artist', I'm probably the least qualified to have an opinion. I'm way to close to all of it.

Orchestrating is a very difficult job when you basically have three hats to wear not just a composer and conductor. Do you enjoy those as much as you do composing the music?

NF: When I'm writing themes and ideas, I'll often peck on my grand piano in my house. But when I'm in the studio actually writing the music, I'll usually write all the parts from the 1st violins to the Tuba as I go. Of course, especially at the speed I sometimes have to write, my orchestration-as-I-compose method can be a silly and inefficient mess! Luckily, I have the fantastic Penka Kouneva clean it up and keep me in check! She's fantastic at fixing some of what I do into more sensible choices, yet maintaining my intention. I'm grateful to have her!

What is the most difficult film you’ve worked on and why?

NF: Oh, wow. That's a good one. They all seem equally challenging in their own ways. Especially when I'm in the middle of them!! I'd have to say a little low budget horror film I did a few years ago. The filmmakers had made rough choices when it came to their music, and then they found themselves with a bad, almost nonexistent score with no more time or money. As a favor to some friends who were working on the film, I came in and saved the day on it. That's not an easy thing to do with no resources or support. But it definitely good to know I can do that - and you never really know until you just go for it!

What is your favorite film score that you’ve written to date?

NF: I know this sounds obligatory, but Need For Speed. It was also such a dream to score some of these amazingly beautiful location shots, and to be the aural emotional support for these great actors. I'm incredibly pleased with how the score turned out. I'm proud of my themes and motifs, and absolutely blessed that I was able to use the best musicians in world to play my music.

What is your favorite film of all time?

NF: I think it's impossible to list just one! For RomCom's, I have to say that I think As Good As It Gets set a standard that's nearly unmatched. For gritty Sci-fi, I'll go with Children of Men. For action, the original Die Hard sets the standard, in my opinion. Adventure, I have to say a tie between Raiders and Back To The Future. For classics, a tie between Rear Window and Vertigo. Am I boring you yet? ha!

Name a film that you wish you wrote the music for yourself, but was written by someone else.

NF: Hmm…there's a few choices there. But I'll say Gattaca by Michael Nyman. The arching themes in that, to me, are just so haunting.

Is there one film or film genre that you hope to get an opportunity to write great music for?

NF: I would love to do a big scale fantasy/adventure movie. That would absolutely bring me back to experience from when I was 7 years old.

Please tell the readers about your future upcoming projects.

NF: I'm actually working on the themes right now for Scott Waugh's next film. It's top secret and can't talk about it. I can however say that the script is fantastic and incredibly unique. I'm excited to get started!

A very special and heartfelt thanks to Nathan for being so generous with his time to revisit memory lane on one of my favorite scores as well as navigating through this assortment of questions that I hope weren't too tough for you! We definitely have to do it again! This was great!

P.S.: Oh BTW. I was watching the film, "Up The Creek" starring your father, Stephen the other day. Tell him, it's a wonderful picture after 30 years! Good times!

Dreamworks' Pictures "Need For Speed" will open nationwide in theaters this Friday.

Nathan's score for "Need For Speed" is available for pre-order digitally through iTunes and on CD by Varese Sarabande.

Nathan's awesome score (for those who haven't discovered it yet) for the 2005 documentary, "Dust To Glory" is also available to order from Amazon.

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