The submarine thriller, Phantom which was written and directed by Todd Robinson (White Squall was just released on March 1st starring Ed Harris and David Duchovny and features the music of composer Jeff Rona, who's career has been a rather interesting one in every sense. Starting in the stable of Academy Award winning composer Hans Zimmer as well as reknowned jazz trumpteer Mark Isham, former Red Hot Chilli Peppers band member Cliff Martinez and world reknowned classical composer, Phillip Glass. Aiding to their fine musical sounds with his own electronic innovations along with own original compositions.
A fine composer in his own right with a brilliant and memorable score for his debut, White Squall, which is a fan favorite for most soundtrack afficionados including myself as well as other fun scores to Exit Wounds, The In Crowd and his latest, Phantom is a fine work that will definitely please fans of submarine thrillers such as Crimson Tide, Das Boot, U-571 and The Hunt For Red October. I finally had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Jeff about Phantom and his career, which also includes his latest video game score to the hit God of War series, God of War 3.
I was very pleasantly surprised that Jeff was able to navigate through these questions for which there were many and I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did.
Hello Jeff, how are you and thank you very much for granting me the time to conduct this interview with you today.
JR: I'm doing very well, thank you. And thank you so much for having me today.
Please tell the readers about what made you become interested in music and composing.
JR: Although I played music while I was growing up, I was studying photography as my planned profession. There have been many in my family. But in college I was experimenting with composing, and I had a roommate who was a fanatic about film music. It sent me on a new track, and I worked my way towards it from there. I became a musician and synthesizer programmer for a lot of great film composers, and that was sort of my composition school. I was also doing other things musically. I recorded and performed with some other artists , including Jon Hassell- the innovative trumpet player who worked so much with Brian Eno.
Your most recent film is "Phantom" which was written and directed by Todd Robinson and starring Ed Harris and David Duchovny. What attracted you to this film?
JR: The director Todd Robinson thought of me specifically for "Phantom." He wrote Ridley Scott's "White Squall", one of the very first movies I ever scored. He wanted a deeply emotional core to the new film, which there was in Squall. He really liked that score. He also knew I'd done other scores that were less traditional and more textural. He has very specific tastes in music, but was really open to me finding a fresh take on this. He wanted to avoid all the preconceptions about the genre of movies about submarines, including the music. So he came to me with Phantom and the idea to find a balance between those musical approaches, while still creating a score that was filled with emotion.
Tell me about the approach you took in writing the score for the film?
JR: In a very straightforward way I came up with a theme I thought reflected the haunting mood of the film. It's atmospheric and quite dark. It set the tone for the film very well. After visiting the set of the submarine, I came up with the idea of using the submarine itself as an instrument. After a lot of processing, it created quite an interesting set of textures and rhythms. But at the heart of the score is just a theme carried out with a particular color that I feel works well. Todd and the producers gave me a lot of freedom to try some unconventional things, and I was glad to be able to experiment until I found what I really felt worked. Many parts of the film are very hunting and moody, but others are very very tense. It is, after all, a thriller. Another significant aspect of the score is the idea of time ticking. Part of serving on a submarine is waiting for bad things to happen. Time moves very quickly in a conflict. The score is there to accentuate this, so we keep reminding the audience that sometimes there is very little time.
What I found very interesting is that you created your own percussion sound design for this film. Was that your idea or did (Director) Todd (Robinson) influence you on that?
JR: I always develop a sonic palette for any electronic score. I create instruments and then allow what is unique about these new instruments to inspire my writing. I did a lot of sampling, sound design and programming before actually writing. That's how I can create the most organic relationship between sound and theme. A composer will write radically different music for a solo piano than they would for a marching band. It's the same working with electronics. You can not be generic. I create the ensemble and then write for it. Todd really enjoyed the approach, but really only cared about how the music was making him feel.
You also used members of the Calder String Quartet for this score. What inspired you to use them?
JR: We were introduced through a mutual friend. The idea of working on a film score was very interesting to them. I don't think they'd really done it before. When you get members of an ensemble of theire caliber, it sounds quite different than when you just hire musicians to play together. They perform seamlessly. Like one person.
Was it hard for you to find a musical tone for a film such as this unlike the other films you’ve scored in the past?
JR: Every film I do begins with the search for what that score will be. What will be unique about it. What makes it the right score for that particular film. It's the hardest part of the process. But once I find it, then everything I do either fits in or it doesn't. I can filter things much faster as I write. It gives me and the score a sense of focus. Plus, I'm s very drawn to this style of film making. Ethereal, smart, dark, but with deep, deep soul. I think Todd and his team have created a really cool film here.
Will there be an album released of this score?
JR: The good people at Milan Records are releasing the score on February 26th. It's on CD and digital download, and a limited edition of signed copies of the CD are available on my website (www.jeffrona.com).
How did you put the album together? Please tell the readers about this specific process in which you go through to assemble what ends up on CD, MP3, etc.
JR: It's a process where I take the music I wrote for the film, remix it to sound better over regular stereo speakers and headphones, and then begin a long process of editing them to be more musically structured. Most soundtrack albums go through a similar process. There is a lot of music that doesn't hold up as well when listened to alone than in the film itself. For me it's a bit like putting together a musical jigsaw puzzle - looking for pieces of shorter cues to put together in organic ways, tightening longer cues, working around pieces that are too reactive to the visuals to feel more structured. Finally, the brilliant mastering engineers at Warner Records polish the sound to be as close to perfect as possible.
Let’s dip into the past a little bit which also involves Writer/Director Todd Robinson, all the way back to 1996 and the film White Squall, which starred Jeff Bridges and directed By Ridley Scott. How did you end up getting that job?
JR: Ridley had run into a big problem. Due to circumstances, he needed to rescore the film in a very, very short period of time. He asked my friend Hans Zimmer to do it, but Hans was in the middle of another film at the time. He recommended me to Ridley, and I started working on the film that night. Nineteen days later I was recording with the London Symphony at AIR Studios. A crazy, ridiculous schedule. However, I didn't meet Todd Robinson until many many years later and didn't work together till now.
According to some trade sites, Maurice Jarre originally wrote the score for White Squall. Was it hard for you to take over a project such as this knowing that a composer of his legendary caliber was originally involved and let go?
JR: Yes, I knew what had happened. And yes, i was taking over from one of the great film composers of all time. But it was a very complicated decision on everybody's part, and had nothing to do with the quality of his music. Because Ridley wanted a different direction for the music, I didn't have to think about comparing myself to another composer of such enormous stature. I know that some part of that score was recorded, but I've never heard it. Also, with only three weeks to go before the movie had to be done, the previous composer had no way to do demos or mockups, because he never used a computer in his work. I on the other hand did, and could work much much faster. These things happen for all kinds of reasons. It's not that unusual for scores to be replaced from time to time. And it never, ever reflects on the quality of the composer at hand. It's just a difference of opinion or style. And in this case time was a major factor.
What was it like to work with Director Ridley Scott?
JR: Amazing. He was under a lot of pressure at the time, and was going back and forth between Los Angeles and London where he was still re-editing parts of the film. Luckily, the first theme I wrote for him he really loved. And from that point forward i had gained his trust and confidence. He knew what he wanted, what he didn't want, and was able to communicate to me very very clearly. Once he knew he was getting the score he really wanted, he relaxed, let me do my job, and we got along incredibly well. I went to London to record the orchestra, and Ridley invited me to the dub at Shepperton Studios for the entire time. It was only then that we really got a chance to get to know one another.
How did you feel when the soundtrack to White Squall was released?
JR: Thrilled! My first score album. Hollywood Records, part of Disney, put it out and did a great job. Mitchell Lieb, head of the label was great - supportive, helpful and a real music junkie. And there was very positive response from critics and film music fans. It was such a pleasure to hear from so many people moved by the score.
The White Squall album was a wonderfully put together album mixing your score along with the pre-recorded music for the film. What was your thought process in assembling the music that ended up on the CD as opposed to that of what ended up in the final cut of the film?
JR: I had edited quite a number of soundtrack albums for Hans Zimmer and other composers, and I had a good nack for it. Some albums require more effort than others. White Squall was pretty simple. There was only a handful of tracks on the soundtrack other than mine. I actually wrote some of the period music in the film as well, which appears on the album. I did a modest amount of remixing of the score, and edited the tracks into a sequence that felt good. Only a few of the tracks are made up of composites of several cues, or have significant structural changes with editing. It flows pretty well.
You provided a hip, fun action score to the Steven Seagal action film, Exit Wounds. Did you feel comfortable using a modern contemporary sound (Hip-Hop at the time) for that film as opposed to saysomething like White Squall for example?
JR: Don't forget, I've written music for films like Traffic, Black Hawk Down, The Mothman Prophesies, and many others that veer very far away from the style of Squall. I don't think any one score or style "defines" me, but it is critically important to me to be able to spread out and work in any musical style that interests me and that supports the film makers vision. I've written other scores with elements of hip-hop, ambient music, IDM, Asian, European, Balinese, Native American, and plenty of other influences and styles. With every score, I take what is great about a musical genre, and then live in it - much like an actor inhabits a character or role. It's still very genuine to me - I'm not pretending to be a different composer than I am. But I get to live a chameleon life as an artist. I like that.
Early in your career, you worked as a synthesist for composers such as Hans Zimmer, Mark Isham, Philip Glass and Cliff Martinez. What was your experience like working with very diverse composers such as these early on?
JR: It was the best opportunity to understand the demands, politics, logistics, production techniques and many compositional aesthetics of making film scores. It was my "film school." It also afforded me a deep insight into other people's process, so I could avoid a lot of mistakes when I would do it myself. And these are people whose music I respect, but it was more about seeing how to be an artist and a human being under very complex and challenging conditions. It can't help but form bonds. These people also became my close friends and colleagues. I owe them a great deal, and they know my gratitude.
You went on to work with Hans Zimmer for a long time and assisted him and other composers such as Mark Mancina and John Powell under his wing for example, during your period working with him with additional music to the films they each scored. Was that something you felt very comfortable with or was it a learning experience in that regard?
JR: I had my studio for many years in the same "Media Ventures" facility with Hans, John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams, Nick Glennie-Smith, Klaus Badelt, Ramein Djawadi, Steve Jablonski, and an amazing group of musicians, engineers, film makers, and just interesting people. It was a unique and exciting environment. There was a lot of generosity, sharing ideas and criticism with one another.
You composed the music for the mini-series based on the film Traffic, which you were involved in. How did you feel following up that great film as well as following up Cliff Martinez’s marvelous score that he had written?
JR: I worked closely with Cliff on the overall sound of Traffic, and provided some additional original music as well. Cliff wasn't interested in working on a TV series at the time. The TV version was based more closely on the original British series, which was about trafficking globally and not just in the United States like the film. They wanted a score that reflected the music and culture of many countries, which is a strong suit for me. I very much drew from some of the ideas and colors of the film, but brought it into a very different context.
You’ve also worked in television composing for such hit series such as Brotherhood, Profiler, Chicago Hope and my personal favorite, Homicide: Life On The Street. Was there a major difference writing music for those series as opposed to working or assisting on a feature film?
JR: Yes and no. The composing process is pretty much the same, except on a much tighter schedule. But you also repeat the process again and again for each episode. For me, I look for a balance of bringing a consistent sound to the series as a while, while also giving each episode it's own unique elements. I don't like to be too repetitive. I like some surprises. 'Homicide' was a very unusual score. I thing we broke the mold for tv music of the time. I sampled the sounds of police radios and sirens, and blended elements of jazz and ambient music. It was so experimental. Many times you could not tell score from sound, but there was a lot of thought and care that went into it. We won an Emmy for sound, and the music was a big part. Chicago Hope was so much more traditional, except I was using Celtic instruments and stretching things in other ways. But it was a more conventional show. I also arranged songs for Mandy Patinkin to sing.
Of these series, Chicago Hope had a soundtrack album released. What were your feelings on the success of the series, as well as the music you had written for it?
JR: A drama/comedy with graphic medical situations that revolved around a singing surgeon that debuted on the same day and time as "ER", the most successful medical show in history. Who knew it would still connect with audiences around the world 20 years later! But it does.
Do you find it difficult for your work to compete with pre-recorded music, like films such as White Squall, The Fan, Toys and Exit Wounds to name a few for example?
JR: Most films are made up of some original music, and some pre-existing music. That's very normal. Each has a function and purpose in the fabric of the movie. So I don't compete with any other music just because it's in the same project. I give the recording, production and mixing of my music as much care as any other album you hear. So it's all part of the holistic experience of music in films.
Please tell me about your first feature that you scored and your experiences.
JR: I spent a few years ghostwriting music on a lot of films. Was very exciting for me to hear my one or two minutes of music up on the big screen. Later it was 20 or 30 minutes. It could be frustrating to work so hard and see somebody else's name up on the screen. But that's part of the education that I had learning how to do my craft. It's what we call "paying our dues." I don't regret one thing I did. My first film on my own was "White Squall." It was a crazy situation, since I had no time whatsoever to do such a big score. I didn't know enough to be scared out of my mind. And I got through it just fine. Every project is a learning experience to come closer to understanding the process and the effect music has in people. It never fails to amaze me.
You also worked on the music for God of War III. Was there a major difference going from film to the video game realm?
JR: The goal is the same - to create music that is emotional, dramatic and evocative. But it is a unique world. There is no picture to score to, for the most part, so there is much greater freedom to create music that is less inhibited and structured. There is often less dialog as well, so the music has more room to swell and have scale and weight. Unlike film, we create a lot of variations to each track to allow for different possible actions. So there can be a suspense version and an action version of the same track. This is often achieved through remixes as well as composing.
Video games have a lot more music overall. A game like God of War can have well over two hours of music in it. So the structure of scoring a game is different, but music is music.
What was the process you went about in scoring God of War III?
JR: It was funny because I was actually only asked to score a short trailer for the game. But I came up with a theme they liked very much and asked if they could use it in the game. From there they asked if I could write a few variations of that theme for some other spots in the game score. And eventually they just decided to have me be one of the composers for the game. I joined four other composers to do the score. I ended up doing quite a bit of music and developing more themes.
Were you satisfied with the final product?
JR: Absolutely. I'm so used to being involved in every aspect of a score, not just writing. I choose musician's, orchestrator, studio, engineer and supervise the mix to my satisfaction. With God of War, like all the games produced at Sony, once my music was approved, I was more or less finished. I did attend the recording sessions with the orchestra at Skywalker Ranch Studio, which allowed me to make any last minute changes. After that, the music producers did everything. So I didn't hear any of the final mixes until the game and soundtrack were released. It was a very ambitious project.
Was there a soundtrack for God of War III released?
JR: Yes, the soundtrack is on Sony Music.
Would you prefer to work with big orchestra or do you prefer a smaller intimate ensemble of musicians that include yourself?
JR: The types of ensembles and instruments used for a film is a creative choice. Working with a large orchestra is fantastic, but its not needed in many cases. I'm better known for my electronic scores, so I've done a smaller number or orchestral projects. I've always had a great time writing for large ensembles, but working in a more intimate environment is incredibly creative. Both are fantastic opportunities creatively. I guess I am happiest when I can mix it up and not stay in any one place for too long.
Do you think movies have changed for better or worse since you’ve become a composer?
JR: I don't see a specific change like that. Budgets and deadlines have shrunk a bit. Composers have to work harder sometimes to keep up. My process is more streamlined in a way to get my best work out and keep up with everyone involved. Technology has had a huge impact on how films are made and who is making them. Directors are so much more comfortable trying a scene more ways. That makes things a bit harder overall, and there is no guarantee the end result is better.
What do you think about films today in general?
JR: Overall, this is an amazing period in film making. The field has never been more diverse. Yes, there is more film making by committee, marketing groups and focus groups, and that's been negative. But some of the best directors in movie history are working now. And the sophistication of technology, which has always been a part of movies, has put more creativity into the hands of people making films on very small budgets.
There have always been good and bad films made every year. That part hasen't changed. And I think maybe a few more production companies have figured out you can't make a good movie with marketing and surveys. I love all kinds of movies and tv. Nothing beats a great story well told.
What is your favorite film score that you haven’t written?
JR: It's a little like asking which one of your children you love the most! I really have a hard time thinking this way. Every piece of music I've written is both a success and failure to me. Every piece of music I write is an opportunity to explore the depths of music, and the depths of filmmaking. I always feel closest to whatever I've written most recently. It's still lingers in my mind, which gives it a different perspective than pieces I've written in the past.
What is your dream project?
JR: As long as I get to spend my life making music, that is my dream. It's been my dream for a long time and I can't see myself doing anything else that would give me as much pleasure and satisfaction.
Please tell the readers about your future upcoming projects you may have.
JR: I'm just putting a few final touches on a feature documentary called Revolution. It's directed by Rob Stewart (who did the award winning doc Sharkwater, which I also scored) and Gus Van Sant is an exec producer on it. I'm also scoring a massive video game now, but can't say the name. I'm about to start an indie film by a young Brazilian director that looks amazing. All great projects!
Very special and heartfelt thanks to Jeff Rona for being gracious with his time for this interview and Milan Records' Stefan Karrer, I'm very grateful to you!
The "Phantom" soundtrack is available from Milan Records
The God of War 3 Soundtrack is available on Sony Music
Also head over to Jeff's site http://www.jeffrona.com for more information on his work, music samples and upcoming projects.