Michael Wandmacher enjoys a challenge | Interview with the composer of DRIVE ANGRY and PIRANHA (english version)

06. März 2011

Michael Wandmacher

If you belong to those critics who miss unique voices in today’s filmmusic scene and wonder where the rising talents might be that are able to shape the sound of movies for years to come, then you have probably not heard a single score by Michael Wandmacher so far. From the unsettling string patterns of „Piranha“ to the wildly shrieking guitars of „Drive Angry“, this composer’s music hits the spots that turn a cinematic experience into a visual and aural ride hard to resist. Always willing to experiment with sounds and styles in a way never heard before, but just as much capable of delivering a classic orchestral approach, Wandmacher has all the skills to easily become one of the most sought-after composers in Hollywood. With us he talked about his approach to scoring, his love for electronics, the musical side of 3D, video games and composing with a bucket, a broom and a violin.

screen/read: To start off with an obvious question for a German publication in regards to your Teutonic sounding name – is there any German heritage?

Michael Wandmacher: Yes, I’m almost entirely German, 100 percent, except for my father’s mother, she was Polish, but otherwise as far as we can trace the family history back, it’s completely German.

screen/read: That’s really interesting. Actually, when I read your name for the first time a couple of years ago I was guessing you were probably one of the many German composers gathering round Hans Zimmer – which is obviously not true.

Michael Wandmacher: [laughs] I’ve met Hans and I’ve done work over there but no, I don’t work for him. I can see how that can be mistaken though. A lot of people ask me how to pronounce my name, and I really don’t know what to tell them.

screen/read: But you don’t speak German, or do you?

Michael Wandmacher: No, very little. My brother though, I would call him fluent, and a few other people from my family speak very well. But I want to learn more because I’m going to be trying to travel to Europe a little bit more in a couple of years.

screen/read: I think the first time I got really aware of your music was actually last year with „Piranha“ because it’s so different compared to what we would usually get to hear in a film like that one. It’s rather experimental and has electronic elements in it, and that seems to be something you’re dealing with in most of your other scores as well. Would you say it’s a trademark respectively something you feel drawn to a lot?

Michael Wandmacher: Yes. You know, for my background there’s two parts. I played in a lot of Heavy Metal bands and Glamrock bands when I was younger, so I was very much a fan of that style of music, and when I went to college there was this guy who was very much into the first New Wave era of the mid-80s. He had all these albums, and he used to bring them to my room and said, „Check this out“, stuff by Joy Division and Alphaville or Skinny Puppy and all these different bands. And there was stuff that I was exposed to just as it was getting to the states, so I considered myself very lucky that I was in that position, and that was what really turned me on to the electronic side of it. And on the other side I’ve always been a fan of film music from when I was a kid, and I had been listening to scores and collecting albums from the time that I first heard „Star Wars“ and I still do.

When I first got into doing music full-time I was working for an ad music house and I had to take on multiple jobs. So in addition to composing music I was also doing sound design and foley art and ADR and engineering, so I was kind of learning all the facets of audio post production and as a result of that I’ve taken all those skills I’ve learned and put them into my composing. I have no fear of trying to insert the sound of somebody hitting a dumpster or something with a baseball bat into a percussive piece. In the case of „Drive Angry“ I completely destroyed a piano in the process of making that score, and went for sampling that and so used actual sound effects and processed them through plugins or re-recorded them into guitar amps to get tonal quality out of it and be able to insert it into more traditional textures.

In the case of „Piranha“, Alex Ajas definitely wanted a hybrid. At first he was leaning pretty much toward the electronic side, but as the film went along we were seeing just how chaotic and huge the movie was. It felt like the orchestral side of it would illustrate the chaos of the fish better, and then we came up with some kind of an amalgam of putting the two together. Thinking of one of the first attacks in the cave, there were literally smash cuts between the orchestra and the electronics like there’s one scene that’s all electronic and then there’s a cut to another scene and it’s all orchestra and then back again to electronics and so on. It’s literally one to the next and it was fun to make all that stuff blend together. There’s a pretty big chunk on how the score was done on the Blu-ray. In the behind-the-scenes documentary there’s a very substantial portion on how we did the score and Alex was very adamant about that being on there. Doing that score was so much fun. I think there’s a shot somewhere in the documentary where we we’re all laughing, because it was a blast. – But I guess the short answer is yes, I love doing that as part of the process. I’ve no issues with putting any sounds together. I’m perfectly happy with doing entirely acoustic scores or entirely electronic or both.

TRAIN, Music by Michael Wandmacher

screen/read: You took quite another interesting experimental approach for „Train“, a horror film that’s mostly set, well, on a train. Is it true that you actually sampled train and rail sounds?

Michael Wandmacher: Yeah, my assistant and I took a remote recorder and went to a train yard not far from here and just recorded the sounds of trains. We were not able to walk around the actual train yard for safety purposes, but we were by the fence and definitely close enough to capture these sounds that I later manipulated. That was the electronic part for the score but it were meant for blending it with the orchestral elements. We figured that was something that was aggressive enough to go along with the extreme visuals, and this kind of relentless, harsh, unforgiving type of approach was something Gideon Raff, the director of this film, really wanted.

screen/read: And there’s also a violin that sounds like being played backwards.

Michael Wandmacher: Yes, that was another thing where Gideon wanted something in the score to illustrate where in the world the movie was taking place. It was in Eastern Europe, and what I did was have a violinist play folk-type phrases and improvisations that would be authentic to that region. And then I chopped those up and reversed them and started cutting and pasting them together into phrases that were musical but placed backwards. It’s still sounds though as if it’s from that part of the world. That was a really tricky thing, and it took a while to get it right.

screen/read: Now apart from scoring movies you quite successfully also compose music with a more trip hop and electronic related style under the name Khursor. Is that something that happens on a parallel level or is it completely separated from your approach to filmmusic?

Michael Wandmacher: It depends. Sometimes they work in tandem and sometimes I’ve been asked to do instrumental tracks that are very much of a Khursor style, electronic, trip hop kind of thing for trailers. When I worked on „The 6th Day“ I did a song under the name Khursor specifically for that film and additonally wrote other music for that movie under my own name. It just depends on the project and what the director is looking for. If I have to drop into that mode, I will. I’m just finishing another EP of Khursor tracks that are not film scores. It comes from having such a long relationship with electronic music and really liking that side of it and so I decided to continue doing it as an artist.

screen/read: You did a score for a movie called „Cry Wolf“ in 2005 and I might be wrong but the whole score sounds almost entirely electronic. Additionally there’s actually a Khursor remix of one of the tracks. Is this an example where both sides came together as close as possible?

Michael Wandmacher: The director Jeff Wadlow wanted an electronic score, and we did a couple of acoustic instruments as well. There’s a single solo cello featured on some of the cues that are specifically tied to the main character but otherwise it’s completely electronic. The idea was, he wanted a lot of rhythmic elements both to drive the pace of the movie and also to intensify the sense of claustrophobia and dread in the movie. He was much more interested in some kind of an internalized sound as opposed to a big externalized sound that you hear in movies like that. I think for him the idea was, how can music illustrate what’s going on inside your body when you’re scared, you know, your heartbeat speeds up, your brain starts working faster, you start having crazy thoughts. The idea was to illustrate a sense of panic in the music but in an internal sense, and that’s how all those overlapping rhythms and weird meters and all the filtre drums and things like that came from. That score was very collaborative and we went through a lot of experimentation and I learned a lot of new stuff about programming and blending instruments.

In some cases doing an electronic score is harder than doing an orchestral one. I’ve done both. I think both have to be taken seriously as filmmusic and as an approach to scoring a film. Good electronic music is as much of an art as good orchestral filmmusic and still there are a lot of people who don’t acknowlegde that. Because just as there is a lot of crappy orchestral music there is crappy electronic music, and the people who can either or both well are as competent composers as anybody else. So that’s one battle I fight with people who are very purist. In the case of „Cry Wolf“ I’ve spent days and weeks coming up with just very specific percussion samples to use in the score that were colored just right to sell an idea. That was a very intense, very focused process. It wasn’t like I just pulled a kick drum out of the sample library. If you’re recording a kick drum and then processing it and finding a way that it fits the right way in the context of the score, it’s a very intense creative process, it’s the same as writing acoustic music. So I would say, when you hear electronic scores or orchestral scores they deserve an equal amount of praise or criticism. Each require a lot of work. There’s nothing easy about doing an electronic score, I can tell you that much.

screen/read: It’s a very listenable score working well as a separate album without ever having seen the film.

Michael Wandmacher: Thank you. It’s a hard thing to do because you definitely want to serve the film. That’s your first and foremost job as a composer and if you end up with something that is musically listenable, that’s just icing on everything else. It’s hard to do though, especially on big horror films where you’re using a lot of effects and dissonance and you’re trying to create sharp harsh loud dynamics on purpose. It’s a genre where you generally get bashed a lot [laughs], because the music is hard to listen to, but that’s the nature of that kind of movie. So if you’re able to come up with something that is interesting for a larger audience away from the movie, that’s a good thing.

Michael Wandmacher

screen/read: Moving away from horror, you wrote the music for a younger audience related adventure movie called „Ben 10“ by Alex Winter. And you did a big budget science fiction score for that one. What was your approach there?

Michael Wandmacher: With kids films in general you can make an interesting observation. Because when you look at Cartoon Network or Saturday morning television with all the animated material, anime or manga, the music is actually very sophisticated. And thinking of Pixar or Dreamworks Animation, stuff like that, the scores are usually very big, very articulated, usually the ones that have the most money spent on and that have the biggest orchestras and the biggest palette. I think that people who haven’t listened to that stuff a while maybe dismiss it as kids’ stuff, but it’s not, it’s actually great music. Kids are really open to anything and everything, and they’re completely into these more complex bigger scores. I think they have the more sophisticated ears than people give them credit for. When you’re writing for children there are no boundaries, because they are much more open to hearing whatever and they like it. I had done a kids movie for Disney in 2001 called „Max Keeble’s Big Move“. That was a big orchestral score that  had a lot of fun electronica in it, and it was all blended together. And in terms of orchestration it was probably one of the most complex scores I’ve ever written. And with „Ben 10“ Alex didn’t want to do anything that was cartoony, he wanted it to be a serious approach, a straightforward scifi/action/thriller approach because he thought that was what would appeal to the audience. And he was right. So that was the road we went down.

screen/read: Now apart from feature films you also scored a couple of video games, documentaries, you did shorts and ads and other stuff. What would you say is the difference between writing music for a feature film and all the other types? Especially speaking of videogames for example which are a growing market for composers today.

Michael Wandmacher: Oh yes, especially for composers who want an early opportunity to work with a big acoustic orchestra, video games are the best avenue for that now because it’s very hard to get on a feature film with a serious orchestral budget right away. You’ll have to work for quite a few years before you get a shot at something like that but with video games you can get into it. I think the biggest difference between working in all those media though is who is in charge and managing the process. In advertising it’s usually the art director and the copywriter and a little bit the producer of the spot. In TV it’s the executive producer, the showrunner, as some might call him. In films it’s the director. In video games it’s the developer. And the publisher is usually the go-between for the composer and the developer. The decision-making structure on each of those different media is very different, so you learn how to navigate the politics of each of them in terms of who to listen to and how to deal with the decisions and the requests that they’re making.

And also it’s the time frame. It’s very different for everyone. For television everything is really fast, you have to crank out a lot of music really fast, and it’s a grind. It’s something that only very few people can really do over a long term. Television composers don’t get the credit they should because they work really hard to keep up a sound for a show. They’re writing 30 to 35 minutes of music a week for doing an hour-long drama, you’re usually given three or four days, and you do that every week for 26 weeks. And that’s really hard work. Films usually get about six weeks on average. Video games can be odd because if you get signed on early you can be working on a game for over a year, sometimes two years if it’s a big title. There are phases where you have to compose really quickly for a certain part of the game for two or three weeks and then you hand over the music to the developers, they implement it in the game, do a bunch of testings, you don’t hear anything for a month and then suddenly they come back and want you to do another round of stuff. So it can be a constant kind of stop and go. With television ads it’s usually a big demo process where they narrow down people to get whoever they want to do the spot and then usually have to go through multiple versions of a single thing over a period of probably two weeks to get a spot done. It’s very different for each one. But I’m really grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to navigate through each of those. Cause it really helped me in terms of managing both the creative and business side of the process and remain sane [laughs]. It can get pretty crazy sometimes.

Music sheet for PUNISHER: WAR ZONE by Michael Wandmacher

screen/read: What is interesting, we have Volkswagen ads in Germany as well and when I saw the original ones that you worked on I realised they used the same music here although they’re different spots. So I’ve heard your music a hundred times before in them without knowing.

Michael Wandmacher: Yeah, that was fun because it was just a nice change of pace. It was a completely different approach. Musically for me, being in that genre of doing more quirky, comedy type of music with fewer instruments, odd combinations of instruments, and it’s more of a tune than a cue. And it’s fun to be able to do something like that, it’s very organic and it also shows that you can do other things besides attacks by prehistoric killer fish [laughs]. It’s more fun to try different things.

screen/read: I can imagine. It must be a nightmare for composers who get typecast and have to do one horror film after the other or action, comedy or whatever genre. There’s only so much you can do and invent, so at some point you just run dry I guess.

Michael Wandmacher: Yeah, it’s a problem, I mean, I can’t mention names or anything but I’ve definitely talked to composers who are known as action guys or comedy guys or romantic comedy guys or animation guys and they want to do something else. They want to change it up and try something different. It’s a tough thing and it got tougher because as the industry changes and the risks financially for these movies to perform become greater, a studio will feel more confident hiring someone who has a track record of a specific kind of movie that performed at the box office. So they’re more risk-adverse to bringing on someone who doesn’t have a set of credits that read exactly right.

screen/read: On an ironic note, you are actually on the best way to be typecast for 3D movies though. You’re the only composer as far as I can see who scored three films of that type so far. How is the process? I guess you do not get a 3D version as a workprint.

Michael Wandmacher: It’s funny, I tell people you get one eye. Either you get the right eye or the left eye, but you don’t get both eyes. It’s a two dimensional image. But it’s enough to score to, I mean, you score to it in terms of the emotional, narrative and the story arc. You work with themes and ideas and try to get a cohesive musical narrative from beginning to end. But the one thing that’s different, really different about 3D is that whatever you think is big in 2D needs to be bigger in 3D. You mix in 2D and then watch in 3D and realize, oh man, we’ve got to turn the music up. It’s because once you’re placed in that 3D space you become accustomed to kind of sensing things coming from all directions as opposed to a 2D world where you’re looking at the screen, expecting everything to come at you from the screen. So that’s why the scores for „My Bloody Valentine“ or „Drive Angry“ for instance are really loud, aggressive and relentless. Because it works in the movies. „Drive Angry“ is very much a classic straight ahead 70’s style rock´n´roll score. It’s loud and it’s fast and it’s wild. And I go along with what’s going on in the movie. But the whole idea was, make sure that it’s big enough to carry along with all of these big car chases and all the action sequences.

DRIVE ANGRY, Music by Michael Wandmacher

DRIVE ANGRY, Music by Michael Wandmacher

screen/read: In an action movie there’s always a certain danger that the music might get buried under the sound effects anyway, so it’s obvious that with 3D it can get even worse. So I guess there’s a lot of balance work to be done before it turns out to become all too loud.

Michael Wandmacher: It depends a lot on the group of people who are mixing a film and where you’re actually viewing a movie, if the theatres properly calibrate it. I know from my experience when we were up at Skywalker, mixing „Drive Angry“, Tom Johnson, the guy who’s mixing the music part of it, was taking a lot of time and care especially during car chases, where you have these huge muscle cars that are going full blast down the road with tons of old school engine noise. And then additonally there’s this loud Ramones kind of guitar rock playing along with that, and Tom would one by one go through the tracks of guitars and drums and pan them very carefully around the room and then place the car engines away from that, so that you get the full impact of the music and still get the full impact of the cars as well.

But you know, some theatres take their action films and turn them up on purpose in the hope that the audience will get more of a thrill ride out of it and talk about it and get more people to the theatre. It turns out that even the mixers will go see the movie somewhere else just to find out the general public experience, thinking, „Man, this is way too loud, it’s louder than we ever intended anybody to hear it.” Because they are working in a highly calibrated environment with a baseline where everything is pretty much adhered to in terms of the vast majority of transience in the sound and music will never go above a certain point or below a certain point, so that it sounds very even and detailed. But then you go to some theatre, and even if they’re THX they don’t care and just turn the volume up.

screen/read: That’s a problem you don’t have with your home entertainment systems where you can align the sound quality according to your demands and preferences, and the more comfortable and affordable these get, the more people rather stay out of the movie theatre. And it’s pretty likely that this will have a dramatic effect on release politics in the near future.

Michael Wandmacher: Yeah, I totally agree, the home theatre experience is really going to dig into the market of theatrical releases. I just don’t know when the crossover will happen, when people will be comfortable doing a first run release straight to home video in terms of a direct download or something like that and have people still see it as something with the prestige or the market value of opening in a theatre. It will happen eventually. And that will be especially suitable for smaller productions while the big ones like „Tron Legacy” or „Transformers” or „Avatar” will still have their biggest impact in theatres.

screen/read: Would you as a composer say there’s more creative freedom in the smaller, more independent films than in the big budget studio features? You’ve experienced both.

Michael Wandmacher: Yes, in terms of taking risks with the music, definitely. You’ll find that the bigger budget the movie, the the more safe and derivative the score is, because it’s a huge risk financially for the studio and everybody involved. Especially in case of a big summer film you won’t find a lot of decision people who are willing to do something experimental. They want a formula that perhaps performed in the past and looks relatively safe on paper. It’s a business and they just don’t want to see any part of it taking a huge risk. It’s the nature of the beast, the reality of doing this for a living. And as a composer in addition to writing good music you want to make sure that your resume includes some films that have performed well at the box office. It makes a big difference.

Piranha 3D, Music by Michael Wandmacher

Piranha 3D, Music by Michael Wandmacher

screen/read: I don’t mean you to mention names of course, but did it happen that you came to replace an already existing score or do additional music for a movie where producers or directors wanted something different at one point or another? It’s not a rare case in general actually.

Michael Wandmacher: It happens fairly often. Things will be augmented, and when a movie goes into additional photography and the schedule gets pushed back and they happen to have a composer on board who has a really tight schedule, they have to bring in somebody else to add more cues or finish the job or in same cases when a movie doesn’t test well they want to change up the feel of the score, maybe add more electronic elements or more orchestral elements, so bring in somebody else to add those elements. If a movie doesn’t test well and it has a score already in it, the music is usually the first thing to go.

screen/read: So it’s a good thing when there’s a close and long-term relationship between a director and a composer to make sure things go hand in hand and won’t get rejected too easily. In your case, you did two films each with Patrick Lussier and Jeff Wadlow so far. So if Patrick’s much talked about „Hellraiser“-remake should come true you’d pretty likely be involved in that one. I guess many people would be interested in hearing what you make out of that.

Michael Wandmacher: We’ve talked about it. I don’t know what the status of it is but we’ve definitely had discussions about musical ideas already and I really hope that’s something that I’m working on. I would love to do that and I already have some pretty nutty ideas for how to approach that. But you’re definitley right about the relationships. If you look at every composer in Hollywood who has risen to the greatest heights of the industry, there’s always one or two directors they’re tied to that have risen along with them and it’s a combined effort. It’s this Williams/Spielberg, Silvestri/Zemeckis, Burton/Elfman kind of thing. There’s always a composer tied to a director and vice versa. That’s usually the best way to build a diverse career. You just have to hope that the relationship is good enough and the director has enough say in the process going in where they can make the music decision because there are too many people who can sabotize that. But still you never know, that’s what all composers say, you never know if you’ve got the job until you sit in the theatre and watch the finished movie. [laughs]

screen/read: If you look at films of recent years or upcoming projects, do you see any that you would have felt very comfortable in doing and that you would have like to be a part of in terms of showing a side of your abilities that you didn’t have the chance to so far?

Michael Wandmacher: Yeah, I would love to do a serious drama, something very melodic, very thematic based. I would love to do a big budget superhero film where I could really go there because I’ve been a comic book geek from when I was a little kid and I would love to have the resources to do the big superhero score. That is something I would take very, very, very seriously to make it memorable. And just like everybody else I’d love to do a sword-and-sorcery film, the kind of epic fantasy thing where you can use every color and voice you can think of and choral music and just try everything in an epic way. That would be fun. But there’s also the kind of score where the director comes in and says, „OK, I’m giving you this bucket, a broom and a violin, and that’s all you get. Make a score!“ That has the same amount of being challenging and inviting in its own way as having a 120-piece orchestra and an endless budget. On an artistic level they both have the same sort of appeal.

screen/read: If only they had though of you for that „Conan“ reboot. It would have been very interesting to see what you came up with musically.

Michael Wandmacher: I’ve been following that. It’s the type of movie I really like. I love things that are primitive, I love big music, it’s something that I grew up with and it’s something that I really like. Working with percussion and just trying to find a different way to express an idea. I like people to look at it and realise that I really did try something that was out of the box and made it work. That’s important to me as an artist and just something I like to do.

screen/read: It took a while for people to realise and get to accept that scoring movies is an artform in itself at all. Remembering back in the 80’s, the more serious side of music criticism considered filmmusic generally as something to rather laugh about. But it all has changed pretty much in recent years.

Michael Wandmacher: Very much. People who made it into doing bigger films are good composers, they’re great composers. But up to this day I still sit in conversations where I have to explain the difference between a soundtrack and a score. A lot of people think that the songs in the movie are the score, and they don’t get the concept of the underscore. And music can really make or break a movie, it’s really important. I’ve heard a lot of people say that dollar for dollar, music is the best investment you can make in your film in terms of elevating it to another level. Because we already know that the effects, the actors and the other parts of the film are going to cost X in order to get them in there. But if you spend a little extra time and money into the music the impact on the film will be exponentially greater. And that’s not talked about enough. You and I know that, and other composers know that, and we have to do what we can to illustrate that to everybody else. If someone did a documentary on how a film is scored, how a composer goes through getting a score done, it would be actually a very fascinating thing to watch. It would just be a very scary thing for a composer to put their heart on the line, to expose that to the world. It’s a process where you go through a lot of different emotions, you don’t sleep for weeks, it’s very hard. And I think a lot of people would find it very interesting to see. It’s a lot more intense than some people think. It’s not just sitting down at the computer and throwing in a few loops. It’s a very detailed hard process.

screen/read: Well, what can I say, we’re still waiting for the first biopic on a filmcomposer.

Michael Wandmacher: Yeah, that would be something. I think if anybody it would be about John Williams. I personally am very fascinated at how he constantly comes up with that amazing stuff. I would love to see that.

screen/read: Let’s make a question out of that: If a documentary filmmaker would approach you with that idea, would that be something that you were willing to do?

Michael Wandmacher: I tell you, I thought about it and I really don’t know, because you never know if you’re going to expose something about your process or yourself that would damage your career or help your career. You never know if you’re going to say something wrong about somebody or make somebody mad or make it look to easy or make it look too hard, you just don’t know.

screen/read: Thinking of the growing success of the „Lord of the Rings“-concerts worldwide and a few others, would you say that the screening of films with a live orchestra playing the score is a future model, maybe even with 3D involved? And would that be something you’d like to be a part of?

Michael Wandmacher: I think that would be a blast, I would love that! I think that it’s a wonderful thing when that happens because filmmusic is our modern classical music for especially a younger generation growing up now. It’s how they’re exposure to orchestral music and if that’s the way that kids and the generations to come get to experience orchestral music and find a way to connect with it, then I’m all for it. Because audiences that are going to see symphonic music in regular music halls and with the classic repertoire and seeing symphonies performed by major orchestras, those audiences are dwindling and they’re consistently getting older, and I don’t want to see any of that die. I’d rather see kids and younger people being exposed to orchestral music via film, decide that they really like the sound of that, and then follow the path and listen to Mozart, Beethoven and Bach and finding joy in that. But I think that the conduit to that happening now is through filmmusic.

screen/read: Michael, thanks a lot for taking the time and giving us that much insight into you work and view on the craft. Good luck for all of your future projects.

Michael Wandmacher: My pleasure and thanks for having me.

Michael Wandmacher

Recommended LINKS for further reading:

[Images: Drive Angry © Warner Bros. Entertainment | Piranha 3D © Kinowelt GmbH | Train © Sunfilm Entertainment | Photos Michael Wandmacher © Michael Wandmacher]

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  1. [...] Still playing in theaters is the Nicolas Cage-starring 3D action film Drive Angry, which Wandmacher recently scored. To read a new lengthy interview with the composer about his career, visit Screenread. [...]

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