He may defer to John Williams as the most important composer to ever work in film, but for the past four decades Alan Silvestri has created some of the most vivid, memorable and influential scores in the medium’s history. “Back to The Future.” “Predator.” “Forrest Gump.” “Avengers.” And fresh off his work on Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” Silvestri provides the musical backbone for “Avengers: Infinity War,” the culmination of 10 years of Marvel Cinematic Universe filmmaking that brings its expansive roster of iconic characters full circle and propels them into the future. Silvestri recently spoke with Moviebill about the process of following up his enormous success on the original “Avengers,” recounted the challenges of merging dozens of different scores into a cohesive whole, and reflected on his varied career as a composer — from the days of “Romancing the Stone” through Thanos and the Infinity Stones.
When you compose the score to a film that it’s safe to assume will have sequels, is there anything you do differently at the beginning of the process?
Not really. It’s great to note going in that [producing sequels] is the intention of the filmmakers, but you still need to accomplish the same goals, whether it’s going to be a franchise or a single film. You need to find appropriate thematic material, you have to have the score be coherent and dramatically support the film, and — certainly with the first “Avengers” film — there were some thematic needs that wound up carrying through the future iterations of “The Avengers,” which is fantastic.
What were those thematic needs you felt like you were challenged to meet?
In the first “Avengers,” the interesting way into that film for me was this scene where they are in the middle of a city street and are kind of shoulder to shoulder — we’ve just been in the midst of a giant battle — they’re standing there and it is one of the iconic Marvel images. The interesting thing about it was we’re in the middle of this big battle, it’s really desperate and yet they aren’t moving. So what are you going to do there? We all knew when we got to this scene that whatever is going to be an Avengers theme is going to have to be right here. Of course, once you find something like that, a piece of thematic material, that becomes part of your vocabulary as you work your way through the film.
Is that how you tend to start — by looking at the script or footage and going, wow, that’s a moment where I can start?
Yeah, and sometimes it’s not like that. Sometimes I literally start with the first frame of the film and work my way through in chronological order. “Forrest Gump” was a film like that — the first thing I did was the opening of the film, which was the feather theme. The great surprise for me there was that I thought when I found that theme I had somehow unlocked the key to the core of the film, but as it turned out I couldn’t use any of that theme again until the very end, the last scene in the film. I remember the euphoria when Robert Zemeckis had loved that piece of music so much and I was kind of on my way, and then I was as disappointed as I had been thrilled when I discovered it wasn’t going to work thematically. So, sometimes I do go to a specific place. In “The Polar Express,” I knew that thematically I’d find something that worked when Santa appears in the North Pole and walks over to our guy and gives him the bell, so that was again an entry point for me into the score. It really varies. In “Avengers,” that scene I mentioned was an entry point to the sensibility of the entire film, so I started there.
Was there a scene in “Infinity War” that you felt like you could build around in the same way, or given the fact you used this moment in the first “Avengers” as a point of inspiration, is it not quite the same experience?
It’s interesting. That theme has been used in the first two “Avengers” films. It is such a clear-cut, obvious-in-its-thematic-sensibility, piece of material that you can’t overuse it. But it has to be used judiciously. We knew in “Infinity War” that we would revisit that resource, but you have to be very careful about how you do that. Of course, we also had this tremendous presence of Thanos, who clearly deserved his own music sensibility. It was again trying to find how much thematic material the film could really stand without overdoing it. As you know, there are quite a few characters from the Marvel Universe in “Infinity War,” so there were many discussions about how many themes for which characters, or none for any specific characters. We had a long ongoing process about an approach to the score that would be appropriate for the film.
When you are inheriting what is, in this case, a library of themes from other Marvel movies, how difficult is it to give them your own spin or integrate them into what is obviously going to be this larger tapestry?
The real thematic material inherited on this was mine from the original “Avengers” film, which had also been revisited in the second film, which I did not work on. I didn’t really have the constraint of having to use character themes and having to rework them on my own. The thematic material that the filmmakers in “Infinity War” wanted me to reference were the themes from the original film, which were mine. That kind of worked out nicely, but even with that there still needs to be a very measured approach, because when you hear a theme it often brings a lot of anticipation and hope and all the rest, but it can also kind of stop the narrative so you have to be on your toes about how much to use.
What sort of music did you compose for Thanos, and what have you learned about composing for a character where you don’t overplay how heroic or villainous they might be?
One of the aspects of Marvel characters — and this includes Loki and Red Skull from “Captain America” — is to create very wide ranged characters. Loki was capable of terrible things and yet he had this fantastic sense of humor, and as you went through the first “Avengers” film you started to understand that Loki had some challenges as a kid — family issues … he had a reason to have some gripes. It’s one of the great things that they are able to do, and Thanos, I think, is no different. He’s probably, scope-wise, the biggest character Marvel has ever had in any of their films, but he’s not one- or two-dimensional — he’s a very complicated character. The fun part of writing for that is you don’t have to treat him one- or two-dimensionally. It’s a very interesting challenge to not turn him into some sort of character of evil or something like that; you have to really be with him moment by moment, musically in my case, and see what his character or what his behavior will elicit.
How effortless or challenging is the composing process for you at this point in your career? Not so much in terms of creativity but in terms of knowing where to start and how you start each time.
That’s a great question, and I think at the beginning of anything that would approach an answer, there has to be the fact that if you’re composing music for film it automatically presupposes that you are in an artistic, collaborative endeavor. How that ultimately presents itself is that you are asked to bring your point of view, sensibility and your craft to the film and the storytelling of the film. That being said, you do have a captain, and that traditionally in the film world is the director. In the end it is the director who will make the final decisions, piece by piece, in terms of what he or she feels the music is doing. Is it helping in the way the director feels it needs to help? Of course, that is a very subjective process and it should be. This is a human being who is artistically trying to guide the telling of a story by working with script people, actors, composers, set decorators, a director of photography. If you look at all of this in terms of crew members on a ship, the captain is responsible for making all of this fit together. You begin by offering your point of view and ideas, but the director can say, “I don’t feel it, I think this doesn’t have enough pace or scope or it’s just not tugging on my heartstrings to the intensity level I need here.” Then you have to be willing to refine, adjust and throw something out that you feel is a completely valid, strong idea and start over. It’s just the nature of a collaborative art form.
How do the Russos work, or more specifically what direction did you receive from them? And if it’s relevant, how did that contrast with Joss Whedon on the first “Avengers” in terms of guidance or clarity?
The difficulty between a composer and a filmmaker is that you’re talking about something that kind of defies verbalization. Here we are talking about music and very often it is a bit of a dead end. In both cases you mentioned, with the Russos and with Joss, you find yourself going back to the film. The best explanation or direction a film composer can receive from a director is to look at the film they made, because if the director didn’t get it on film, all the explanation in the world is not going to get it on film. I’m making this up now, but something like this will happen: a filmmaker will have a scene and there’s a dog running in a field. You may look at this dog running in a field and that may elicit a certain tempo and sensibility and you do that and bring it to the director who may theoretically say, “You did exactly what I showed you, but here’s the thing: I really wish that dog had run faster on the day we shot that scene and it has bothered me for the past nine months. Now, we can’t make the dog run any faster but I’m hoping you can give us a sense that things are happening more quickly than what we are seeing.” That is a very clear direction where you are going to have to do something that you’re not quite being given in terms of messaging from the filmmaker, but that’s very rare. Usually, the film ultimately becomes the communicator between the filmmaker and the composer. Then you just have to follow along with the unfolding of the film.
Shifting gears just a little bit, one of the things I’m always fascinated by is the cultural shorthand that audiences have for certain kinds of music, be it representations of place or even tone. “Black Panther,” for example, is a good example of a score that really uses a lot of traditional African elements. Referring to your work, I’m a huge fan of the music for “The Mexican,” which combines Ennio Morricone–influenced stuff and also sort of traditional Mexican elements and more contemporary elements as well. Do you maintain an awareness of that sort of thing of, it makes my job easier to do this, versus I don’t want to do what’s expected? Does that enter your creative process at all?
Of course it does, and the reason it does is because it’s just a reality. If you look at the Western scene that we used for the trailer at the end of “Back to the Future 2” for “Back to the Future 3,” that sonically was kind of in the genre of what audiences have known as Western music, and that is just part of the modern audience’s syntax. Now, what you do with that is up to the composer and the directors creatively. One of the fun things about scoring comedies is that you can take advantage of the high sustained strings, tremolo, which very softly played can be associated with tension or something scary and you can use it in a place that completely plays against what we are seeing. You can have a baby come around the corner in a little walky thing, and he’s going to see something on the other side and you can play it like he is seeing a monster and have a lot of fun with that because of the audience’s conditioning to certain genres of music. It’s all part of the tool set of scoring a film. All of these things can be used literally or at cross purposes.
How has composing changed since the ’80s, not so much technologically as musically? Do you feel that the way themes are constructed is different from when you were doing “Back to The Future” or some of those other scores?
I think John Williams single handedly changed the profile of film music, in terms of its importance for the audience and filmmakers. There’s a great awareness to audiences about what it can do for film and what it is. That being said, the mission of music’s function in film [hasn’t] changed at all. But I think the greatest difference since the ’80s has been technological. It’s just been astounding what has happened, not just in terms of the way we make sound but, for instance, back in the day you would go off and write a film score and most often, short of playing a fragment of a theme, the film director had no idea what was going to happen when the orchestra walked in, and they were spending a lot of money. Now technology is such that there are ways to show a very good representation, even of a 100-piece orchestral score, that didn’t exist back then. That has really changed how composers and filmmakers interact. Now the filmmaker can see how the score is going to work in a scene and can critique and guide it in a very tangible way, not just theoretically.
Looking back at some of your earlier work it is remarkable how eclectic and diverse, but ideally suited some pieces are for films. The score for “Predator” is one of my all-time favorites — the juxtaposition between the tribal, military stuff and the Aaron Copland-esque finale are these amazing and brilliant choices that work for the movie. How organically do you come by your influences or discoveries for scores, in general?
Everything I’ve ever done, musically or played, is inside of me. I’m smiling when I hear you mention that cue from “Predator,” because we used to call that “Fanfare for the Common Mercenary.” There are genres where if you mention Aaron Copland, even if you didn’t recognize a certain piece, of course you recognize and hear Aaron Copland. Well, what is that? Someone will say that was his style, but the way he put notes together consistently had his sensibility all over it. Everything I’ve ever learned is part of my vocabulary and I speak with whatever aspect of that I need to communicate.
To that end, was there one score that you felt was pivotal to helping find your voice as a composer?
I wouldn’t say that, but I mean there were pivotal scores. “Romancing the Stone” was my first real studio film with stars; “Back to The Future” was my first film with that level of success; “Forrest Gump” was success on a level that was global. So they were all pivotal for different reasons.
Is there a score of yours you consider underrated or that you felt like was overlooked because maybe the movie didn’t do as well as you thought it deserved?
I can’t really pick one out. I always use the child analogy: if you had eight children and someone asked which is your favorite, you say every one of them was unique and the best I could do at the time. Hopefully everyone was trying to service the narrative. The director is always my audience, and if I am helping the director tell the story in a scene, then that is the audience to me. The moviegoing public is the director’s audience. From that point of view, if the music is in the film it was successful.