The 2013 World Series is currently under way between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals. In celebration of the baseball season, and the year’s most relevant baseball film “42,” we are pleased to present an interview with the film’s soundtrack composer Mark Isham.
While most people know Isham for his work on the popular television series “Once Upon A Time” and its spin-off “Once Upon A Time In Wonderland,” he has created the musical backdrop to many sports-centric films, including “Varsity Blues” (1999), “Hardball” (2001), “Miracle” (2004), “Kicking & Screaming” (2005), “Invincible” (2006), “The Express” (2008), and “Warrior” (2011). No stranger to accentuating what it means to be a human being and an American, Isham pulled all the stops for the score to “42.”
Read on, as we discuss the music to one of the most important films of the year.
You’ve scored music for culturally relevant films in the past, is "42" the first time you’ve worked on a story of historic significance?
Well, I did a film about Bobby Kennedy [“Bobby” (2006)], which did have a big impact on history, but as far as what I think you mean, yes, this is a pretty unique story. And Jackie Robinson has really risen to become one of America’s great icons.
With that in mind, when you created the score for "42," did that weigh upon your mind as you were doing it, kind of like the teacher was watching over your shoulder the entire time?
Sure, there is definitely a sense of responsibility to it. This is the music used to reflect the importance of the story as well as the individual. And certainly, the fact that Rachel [Robinson, Jackie’s widow] is still alive; she’s going to hear this, so I want it to be right. It’s not so much as an attempt to do my best work, but to really get it right. I did not want to betray Jackie emotionally or character-wise in any way; I wanted to represent him and the story in the best way it could be represented.
The way the score progressed, it reminded me a bit of what you did for “The Warrior,” which was create a score that wasn’t as much meant to be heard as it was to be felt.
That’s probably good; I think, in a sense, that’s what a good film score does. You are aware of it as an emotional presence, not as ‘Oh, I’m not sure if I like that clarinet there.’ You feel more deeply and more complexity because of the presence of the score. So, you are aware of it in that sense, but you’re not really listening to it.
Was it your intention to use a lot of ascending motifs? I noticed throughout the score that you make use of several ascending chord patterns, which gave me the sensation of different forms of ascension – the sun rising, a veil lifting, eyes opening, simply standing up, as well as a ball flying out of a park.
[Laughs] Those are all the right images, and I don’t know if I had quite intellectually put it together after I had done it. Writing the main melodic theme, I knew that I wanted to set it against various different backdrops. And one of the ways I tried early on was over these ascending scales. It just worked; it worked great, and it got me a lot of those images you had mentioned. The impact had been made, and I really clung to that as a motif within the score. Even if another theme is being played on top, I wanted it to be part of the fabric of the score.
Since a lot of soundtracks for films are released as an additional means of promoting the films, does the score as product ever weigh on your mind as you are putting one together?
I never think about that when I’m writing it. I try to think, for my own aesthetic sensibility, that I want it to be able to stand outside of the film as well as to be a great film score. In other words, I don’t want it to distract you as you are watching the film, and yet, I want as much richness, sophistication, and complexity in it, so that when you listen to it on its own, there is enough going on that you are entertained while keeping the story intact.
Whether or not a score will be released, there are so many variables within that that are beyond my control, and it is one of the reasons I have my own small label. I have the ability to release products if the larger companies don’t want to do it. But really, that whole consideration is something that goes on at the end.
Tell me a bit about the sound palette you chose for this film, because, while the film is set in the past, the music has a transcendent, timeless quality to it.
I essentially wrote for the most traditional film scoring orchestra we could afford, which turned out to be a reasonably good size [laughs]. Legendary Pictures stepped up and gave us a budget that allowed us to get a 65-piece orchestra for, believe it or not, forty-two minutes of music. Brian [Helgeland, director] was feeling, before he even hired me, that this should have a traditional score. Any other approach would not benefit us the same way. I watched the movie, and listened to some of the temporary cues he had in there, and I said, 'I think you’re right. We want to make the story as big and as far-reaching as we can. We don’t have to tie it to a time period, and we really don’t even want to tie it solely to America. The story is human rights. The story has relevance to everybody.'
I understand what you’re saying, but in several spots on the score, a lone trumpet rings through, and I don’t know what expresses Americana better than a lone trumpet.
[Laughs] Well, I’m a sucker for a lone trumpet, what can I say? And at one point in process, Brian said, 'I keep wanting to be reminded that Jackie is a very special person. Can you do this for me somehow in the score?' And we see him in a lot of situations where we may forget that. And that’s when I came up with the idea of using that lone, solo trumpet. And it definitely works. And you’re right; it gives it a sense of Americana, as well.
The score ends with a near seven-minute piece called ‘Jackie Robinson’. Was that an actual cue or a suite?
Oh, that was a cue. Believe me, when I saw that on the spotting notes, I said, 'I’d better get started on this right now!' [Laughs] That was a tough nut to crack, because the momentum of the last seven minutes of the movie is quite powerful. There’s a point where Brian said, 'We’re gonna drive this baby home.' And it just goes and goes and goes, and it’s really a beautiful ending to the film. A lot of the responsibility was in my hands to make that work through one long piece of music. In dramas, it is fairly rare to find cues of that length.
You have done several sports films throughout your career; do you feel more connected to one sport over another?
Personally, I am a fan of football, and I have a son who is a D1 football player [Nick Isham, Arizona Wildcats], and my other son is a high school football player. So, there is a lot of football in our household. But all three of my sons played baseball and soccer and football all through their school years, and that is probably my closest relation to sports. They certainly brought me closer to being a fan than I was before I had children.
Does seeing your children in action ever inspire or influence your composing decision making?
Well, it certainly enhances the emotional connection. There’s nothing like seeing my one son, the Division I quarterback out there with literally everything on his shoulders. When he’s in the playoffs, the emotional tension is quite something, especially when you realize, 'That’s my boy out there!' It heightens my sense of the drama and the emotional adrenaline that the players got through, and therefore the understanding of the story perhaps a little bit more.