It’s day nine of scoring for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and the mammoth task of recording a two-hour score is a day from being completed. “This is drive-by scoring…” says director Rob Cohen as a large action cue from reel six is swiftly built from the ground up and put to hard disk in Studio One at Abbey Road Studios.
There’s a man on the podium wearing bright red tartan pyjama bottoms and he’s conducting the London Symphony Orchestra… that man is Randy Edelman. “I can’t believe he’s wearing those in public” says Cohen with a grin; and when I tell him that I’m writing an article about Randy he simply smiles and says “he deserves it.” Theirs is a grounded friendship which, like any, has had its ups and downs. Above all though it has given rise to a handful of major motion pictures, including Dragonheart, Daylight and xXx. This new adventure is one of their biggest yet and it’s set to be one of the big summer draws, following in the sandy footsteps of Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy and The Mummy Returns. The scores of those first two movies, by Jerry Goldsmith and Alan Silvestri respectively, offered much in the way of high adventure, romantic sweep and exotic thrill and in that sense Edelman has a lot to live up to. It seems the O’Connell’s are in good hands though and as soon as I walked through the studio door I was hit with the composer’s flighty theme for the film’s younger hero and was immediately convinced that this would be a great score.
“That should be the theme for the United States!!” says an ecstatic Tiffany Jones, Universal’s ‘Director of Film Scoring’, who’s keeping watch on the studio’s baby. But she needn’t worry, it’s in fine hands and Edelman and the mighty ensemble quickly move onto more action specific cues and the monitors light up with yet to be finished scenes – indeed Cohen would head back to his hotel suite in the evening to oversee effects work being carried out in California. With me in the booth are the engineers for the score and its three orchestrators Nick Ingman, Matt Dunkley and Ben Foster. Each have been overseeing different parts of Randy’s score and they take it in turns to sit beside the composer/conductor as their music is performed. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, despite the looming deadline, and spirits are high. I’m very fortunate to be allowed along for the ride and in such esteemed company, but I am given a warm welcome by the director, who is obviously very proud of his movie, and its music. Cohen is a very hands on director, even when it comes to the music – he admits to me that ‘music defines the movie’ and as such he takes a keen interest in how everything sounds, commenting on percussion choice and even going into the studio to ‘direct’ cellist Tony Pleath at one point during his emotive solo turn.
The main man though is Randy and he joins me, pyjamas and all, in the courtyard garden for a chat. The grey British weather is a welcome change to the stuffy studio and Randy’s feeling good – “Right now I’m just happy to be outside; in the afternoon it almost feels like you’re in one of those indoor swimming pools…”. Adding to his happiness is the knowledge that a very fine burger – just minutes ago recommended by Cohen – is on its way from a recently discovered local burger bar.
London has been a regular destination over the years for a busy composer who has seemingly had a film in theatres every year since the late 1980s when he scored Ghostbusters II for Ivan Reitman, not to mention a chart topping career as a singer/songwriter… “Most of these people have no idea that I ever did that and you’re too young, you weren’t here when I was doing Top of the Pops and all that stuff (laughs). It’s always nice for me to come here though – I mean in a different life when I was doing records. I had a group here and one of them’s in there playing string bass! I see a lot of old friends when I come here.”
Randy is a wired kind of guy who takes no prisoners and likes to get things done. Before we sat down he strode behind the bar in the commissary to find a paper towel to wipe the seats. He’s an infectious personality though and you get the impression his life has been as colourful as those pyjamas. There’s a sparkle in those eyes behind the frames and I couldn’t wait to delve a little deeper into what Randy Edelman is about.
This film marks a fine return to A List scoring for a composer who hasn’t had much of an opportunity to spread his wings in recent years and, between bites of the burger (it did look good), he spoke at length to me about the pleasures and pressures of delivering a big blockbuster film score in 21st Century Hollywood.
It feels like it’s been a while since we heard a ‘major’ score from you… Does it feel good to be back in Blockbuster territory?
Yeah, well I don’t think of it like that; it’s just that you never know what’s gonna come up and then you live through a patch of lighter things or comedies, which I’ve done my fair share of, and then something like this will come up with a director like Rob, who I’ve worked with several times. I just have fun and whatever it is I always approach it the same way and this is almost two hours, so it’s a lot of music.
Is that why it tends to take so long? You’ve been recording for almost ten days now?
Because of the way I prepare my pre-records and my tracks I usually go pretty fast. This is different because there’s so much music and also I had the luxury of wanting the sections separate, and I don’t normally like to do that. I do all my pre-stuff and the other elements, the non orchestral elements as you know, first and then I really like to do it live. That’s the way I usually do it and since I do my own conducting and everything, it really goes fast – I mean I do a take or a second take and unless there’s something drastic that’s it and we move on. This is different though; it’s great but it just takes a long time…
You’ve got programming in it then; will there be a lot of that?
It’s in there, not so much on this really as it’s fairly acoustical. All the percussion we did here and the Chinese group that we did are coming back again tonight, but it’s a pretty acoustical score really.
Of course you’re following on from Goldsmith and Silvestri with this series. What’s your approach to The Mummy? Are you taking anything from them?
No, because it’s completely different. This is a different story, a completely different genre – this is a Chinese Mummy and it has nothing to do with Egypt. So there’s nothing, there’s no themes or anything like that and Rob didn’t wanna do that. I would’ve been happy to do that if he was into it, but it was the opposite approach.
Obviously there’s a location change here, from Egypt to China… What challenges or inspirations did that hold for you?
Well I’ve done a lot of stuff before, I mean I met Rob doing the Bruce Lee story Dragon and all the Jackie Chan stuff, which we did here – like Shanghai Noon. It’s the Tibetan kind of aspect of this story – the Emperor’s looking for eternal life in those pools in Shangri La, but it’s not like the old Lost Horizon Shangri La it’s a little different – but that aspect and some of the different instruments we used and the Tibetan horns and these great temple bells and that stuff, that was kinda fun. But it’s not like I haven’t done the whole Asian approach before. There’s a couple of terrific people who I know in London and they came and played. The music though, it’s got a very nice palette; there’s some very moving, beautiful things and things that use the ethnic element but kind of melded into a really big orchestral backdrop. There’s a prologue to the whole thing, which is probably fifteen minutes long, which tells the story of this Mummy, this tyrant that ruled China and that’s got a lot of the authentic stuff in it. But all the themes in the movie I really worked to introduce there, even when it suddenly changes and it’s 1945 and we meet this character that everybody knows – Brendan Fraser – and he’s retired from the whole occupation and he’s given one last assignment. But the themes that you heard in that section continue as they go to China as they discover things about this guy from the past, and that’s really nice.
You’ve always had a gift for melody, perhaps thanks to your songwriting days; what themes have you constructed for this film?
Oh there’s many. In a picture like this I’d say there’s a half a dozen major interlocking themes. That thing that you just heard is kind of written in an interesting way because they wanted a kind of fun theme for this character, but as far as what I saw I didn’t see anything at the beginning. So it was kind of funny because I actually wrote it because it’s like Rob wanted something that I wasn’t seeing and I understood what he was saying. So we wrote this kind of first and then I started incorporating the melody, even if it was in a minor key or something, and then we worked it into a plane crash that you would not normally have this kind of thing in. It’s interesting, so that theme evolved, but that is not the main theme of this picture. There’s about two other themes that have more to do with the Emperor and Michelle Yeoh, the girl from Crouching Tiger who’s got a great part in this. There’s interlocking stories and those, the Emperor theme and the story of her and her daughter, those are really the main themes. This other thing happens at various times and… well I won’t give the whole thing away; it’s one of the themes but that theme, if you heard it on its own, would not lead you to what this is at all.
What sort of process do you have? Do you like to form those melodies first, then shape the score from there – or do you literally go along a reel at a time and take it as it comes?
Sometimes. What I just told you I did, but normally it just always comes out of what I’m seeing. It’s never a case of I have a theme and I’m applying it to the movie, it’s always the movie really supplies the passion and the impetus for a melody or a mood or a style, or whatever it is. This was just a little different, what I just told you, because I knew what they were looking for and I didn’t see it exactly. What I saw at the beginning was a very interesting story, which you’ll see in the beginning is terrific, about this guy who lived on this river and had an army of a million people and he was just trying to rule, you know? That’s the start and that’s really what it’s about; it’s about the Mummy and all of a sudden it’s melded to this character who we’ve seen in two other movies.
Was there a moment or scene when you sat and watched this film where you thought to yourself ‘I know exactly how I’m going to tackle this movie…’?
No, you have to think that you know how to tackle it. You’re always nervous at the beginning, but this is a huge canvas for somebody like me to have; it’s just fantastic because it has very moving and treacherous and really dark stuff in it too that you can do with this character – it’s all about the characters. This has the ultimate in a panorama of colourful figures who you would want to emotionally write about, and they’re all in it. There’s a million effects and they’re not in there yet and they don’t have too much time. This is a very surprising movie, people I think are going to be shocked to see what this movie turns into – it’s not what it appears to be at the beginning; once they get to a certain place and discover this Mummy then something else happens and it’s also very close to the real history of the Terracotta Armies and what happened, so it’s got a lot of stuff. It’s meaty and I hope that’s good; I know it’s good for me personally, but I hope it’s good for an audience who wants to see this picture.
You have a handful of orchestrators working on this; is a score of this scale just impossible to orchestrate yourself?
Well normally I never do this… I did it on a movie called 27 Dresses which I did here a few months ago. I usually do a lot of the stuff myself and then I have one or two people in LA who I’ve used for years, you know? Each of these projects is different in that it depends who the director is, if the director has control, if you’re just dealing with the director – which is the way it should be – or you’re dealing with a director and x amount of producers, or a studio person’s coming round… Anyway, to make a long story short, on the last picture that I was doing, which compared to this couldn’t be more simple, there was a lot of interference from a particular studio and nobody could settle. There were like twenty people coming over to my place every other day and it was getting close and they were supposed to like release it at Christmas and so I had to figure out a way to save a little time. Nobody ever wants to hear “we have to stop ‘cause stuff needs to be orchestrated, copied..” so I figured, and this is unbelievable to me, because it’s rather a light job maybe I’ll go over there and try working with someone there. It was a little weird, but in literally an hour or two I came up with this notion and called Isobel [Griffiths] and I said I think we can do this, it’s not too much. And that’s when I met Nick and Matt and Ben, and right from the beginning they were kind of surprised when they saw my sketches and everything. So we hit it off and when this came up, Rob wanted to do it here and I said this is a great project to do like this. So even though I feel bad in a way for not working with people I usually do, it was great. I got here a little early and did all the copying and they just took my sketches and we went over everything very carefully and it’s terrific ‘cause I’m a musician and they’re terrific musicians.
So the size of the thing wasn’t a reason why you used three other people…
No, it’s just that I didn’t want to burden one person with too many things, so we just came here and I divided it up. All my stuff is laid down, I mean they’ll tell you, they’re looking at my sketch and listening to a fully done thing. There’s nothing new in there, you know they may bow a little differently or tremolo as opposed to playing harmonic, but that’s what it is.
You’re back with Rob Cohen for this of course – how has your professional relationship developed over 15 years?
Yeah, we’ve had an interesting period because we do have a close friendship, but then we didn’t see each other for a while and I ran into him in China a year ago. Well it’s not like we hadn’t been in contact, but it’s a very crazy story that happened and I wont get into it ‘cause it’ll take too long, but we literally were both in Shanghai for less than 24 hours and I got an email from his assistant and he said “you need to call Rob” and I said “I’ll call when I get back as I’m like not in the area”, and so he said “where are you?” and I said “I’m in Shanghai and I’m leaving for Thailand at four o’clock in the morning” and he said “Rob’s in Shanghai, he’s leaving for LA at nine o’clock!” Within twenty minutes he was in the lobby of the hotel and we started talking about this and he started telling me about it. I didn’t know he was doing it…
So he was filming at that point?
No, they hadn’t started anything. They had decided to build two of the sets in Shanghai and they were gonna shoot part of it in Montreal and in other parts of China, but they were gonna do some of the stuff in Shanghai and that’s why he was there. So they hadn’t filmed anything and it was probably two or three months after that that he actually started filming, so you know we just sat down and talked and I kinda told him the way I felt about ‘it’ and ‘us’ and so this has been great, really it’s been fantastic you know?
What sort of lead does he give you as to what he has in mind musically?
He is a very emotional, passionate guy. He doesn’t tell musically what to do, but he lets me know about how he wants a character to be seen and what he wants. We don’t go over specifics and I just start; I mean we have a history so we just started and he sent me a few things and I went up to Montreal where they were filming. The thing about Rob and I is I always go to where he’s shooting; when we did Dragonheart I went to Bratislava, when we did Daylight I went to Rome, when we did xXx I went to Prague – what does it really mean? You know I don’t do that with anybody else, nor do I ever wanna be around when they film the movie, it’s just completely like when you’re done show me what it is and I’ll do it. I don’t need to be there for ‘the star will be here in fifteen seconds…’ and all that, but I did go to Montreal where they had these incredible sets, all the tombs there and that was really interesting to see, it was unbelievable and that was good emotionally. What does it mean in the end, I can’t tell you, but we always get into it from the beginning and he kinda tells me – it’s like when he told me about this theme that you heard part of, which is kinda outside everything, I understood what he was saying, he wanted something that would be heroic in a sense for this character and a new character – Brendan Fraser’s son – who’s maybe being introduced as the new Mummy catcher or whatever… (laughs)
You’ve been scoring pictures for a long time now… Are you still excited by making movie music, are you still challenged?
Oh definitely challenged, definitely excited. You know you can scream and yell and there’s all kinds of pressure and everybody driving you crazy, but the bottom line is, which I have to tell myself, is you go in there every day and it doesn’t exist and at the end of the day hopefully you’ve done something wonderful that didn’t exist at eight o’clock in the morning; hopefully it has an originality. It still is a thrill for me to think, to be honest as a kind of selfish thing, that all these people have put all this time and effort and everything else into making a movie and I am contributing a major element, which hopefully can help the director with whatever it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s an action picture, a comedy or an historic thing, if it will help complete the vision of the filmmaker. If this didn’t turn me on I could never do something like this. This has been, I don’t wanna tell you, two hours of music and its all big stuff and I could never do it or figure out a way to do it if I wasn’t completely emotionally involved in the music. It’s the only way to do it and as I said it doesn’t matter if it’s a picture like this, or something else, you gotta get into it and they all present their own set of problems which I’m sure you’ve heard people talk about forever. But I’m completely enthused and it’s like, you know, a different person walks through the door, a different film, different director, different ideas, personalities, situations and you have to figure out how to do what it is you know. That’s the importance of what you’re doing, which is the music, and deal with all this other shit, and it is shit, but you’d better figure it out or you can’t do this. For me there’s enough in writing the music and hearing it performed – I mean to be able to come here and hear something which you have basically just written, whether it’s two months ago or three months ago, it really is thrilling. There’s nothing better than this, there isn’t. Now you could get me at a different time and I’m going nuts, but that’s the nature of it and I don’t think there’s anybody who’d disagree. You can’t approach this lightly because the work is too hard, it’s back breaking work; I mean I don’t have a studio, or people – I have a guy who’s my engineer who’s back there mixing now, that’s the only reason he’s not here, that’s it, just the two of us…
That’s quite rare these days as well, so many composers have a studio and a network of people…
I have a place of course where I have keyboards and enough equipment to do mock ups and show them, but nothing for anyone to take anything out of. The other thing is that I’ve worked with a lot of directors where sometimes they go “why aren’t you in the booth?” and I’m like “I’m conducting!” – that’s what I do, that’s my thing. I cant even imagine not doing that, but nobody does that except the guys who… I mean I have a background in traditional music before I ever made a pop record. And that was a fluke that I was doing that, it’s not that I wanted to be a pop singer or a songwriter; I was doing arranging and conducting when I was young and all of a sudden I’m a singer/songwriter and so I started doing that. But my background is in traditional music…
The industry is constantly evolving it seems and you’ve ridden the waves of many changes; what do you think the future has in store for film music? Do you like where it’s headed?
Well listen, here’s the thing. I would like to see more original music being written, but you’re not going to be able to write original music if you don’t have people making original films. I don’t care in terms of melody or instrumentation, I mean it would be great to do that, but when you get on a picture, a Hollywood picture especially, you know what you’re doing; you’re dealing in redoing genres. Obviously in the independent film world there are differences, but I’m talking about something completely unique and original that someone could approach from a musical standpoint a little differently, ‘cause I haven’t heard that – maybe you have. There are a few filmmakers doing it to give somebody, whoever it is, an opportunity to do something a little different. That’s important ‘cause we’re just kinda recycling… I mean we’re dealing with people who temp their films and preview their films, and then the composer comes in and you try to get them a style or a sound or even the placement of cues, and they already got an 82 on their film – that’s why I like doing films that preview like ‘40’, I’m serious. If it got an 82, you wanna try convincing somebody that that’s not the right sound, or the music should start somewhere else – they’re like “I dunno, it got an 82 so if we change that we may get a 74” and you’re looking at them and thinking “well maybe if I do that you’ll get an 88!!”. I mean Rob’s great, it’s like it’s the two of us and that’s a great thing to have, but it’s sort of rare. You know how few close relationships composers have with directors, that’s how you do your best work but there’s not that many of those. People who you have a history with and a trust, that’s the best way to go but you’re not doing every film with that person…
Lots of people are scoring by committee in many ways it seems…
Yeah, it’s very difficult. But you know what, once you say ‘yes’ then you have to try to deal with whatever it is. If a director is in control, even though he may be difficult, that’s always better, ‘cause he’ll tell you. What I’ve found, to be honest with you, I’ve found that tougher guys, like a guy like Alan Parker – who’s like my idol – that guy is a blast, and I’ll tell ya Michael Mann, when I was involved in a very odd situation with Last of the Mohicans, he was very straight ahead, there was no bullshit. They were in control and they knew what they wanted, not necessarily in musical terms, but they were very direct and that’s what I’ve found with people who know what they’re doing and are confident. When someone’s not confident then you’ve got a problem, but Rob’s confident…
You always seem to be attached to something and have seemingly had a movie in theatres every year since 1989; what do you attribute your success to?
I had other interests musically, but I found that when you do this you can’t fuck around. Once you start something you’re life can’t be diverted, that’s your life when you’re doing a film. It’s not like I’m constantly looking for stuff, but it seems that there’s a lot of people that I worked with who have kept going and it keeps me going. I’m as enthused about this as I was about the first thing I ever did; it’s a very energising thing. It’s also a very contagious thing, everything about it is almost addictive and you get addicted to the adrenaline rush. When I’m doing something I’m out there at three in the morning, ‘cause I forgot something, or I can make something I just did better. And I would think that everybody that does this is like that, ‘cause I don’t know how you could do it if you weren’t like that – how you could pull it off in the amount of time…
It’s not a 9 to 5 job is it.
No… so for me it’s still the same. It was never a dream of mine to do this, but as a musician it evolved. When I first started doing this I baled. I said “this is not for me, this is hard”; I’d gotten so nervous I didn’t do it for years. I learned a thing as I saw someone scoring and I thought “holy shit that’s serious stuff”, so I went out and learned, and at that time it wasn’t cool. People would say “what are you doing that for?” and then after I did all the records and everything, which musically was very limiting, I started doing some television and got onto this thing called MacGyver, which seems like a joke now, but that was like writing forty minutes of music overnight and people are actually listening to it and criticising you, so I went nuts. However, talk about a good education… I never have to do that again.
What else do you want to do? Is there a dream film project out there with your name on it?
Oh of course there is, yeah something wonderful, interesting and intimate to do my thing; my thing is not this – I’m a pianist and that’s what I’d like to do. It’s not that I’ve never done anything like that, but those things don’t necessarily come round my way; so it could happen tomorrow, but I don’t search for it. Let me just tell you, when you’re doing this, if you really wanna do it well you really can’t do anything else; I can’t go out and conduct – once in a while I’ll go out and do some conducting, or a masterclass somewhere and that’s always fun, but you can’t make any plans. You can, but then you know it’s gonna happen… it never fails, you make a plan to do something and you get a call to do a picture the next day.
So what is up next when this wraps?
Right now this is it for me, I’ve done five in a row and I just wanna go and relax. You ask me next week (laughs). No, I don’t have any date to start anything and that’s really making this nice for me.
Can it be problematic to know what’s round the corner? In terms of keeping focused on what you’re doing I mean…
Well it wouldn’t be good. If I was going back [to LA] and I was under the gun next week, I wouldn’t feel that good about it, no matter what it was. When I was here a few months ago I knew about this and I was looking forward to it, ‘cause I knew what this was going to be. It’s not that I wasn’t into what I was doing, but this is such a different situation, different musically, different movie, different personalities; what this has turned out to be, which is not usually the case, is everything that I hoped it would be. It has been a while since I had a canvas like this…
So that in itself must be inspiring…?
Yeah, I hadn’t seen Rob in a while, so it’s all been good and it couldn’t be better. I just hope this movie does well…
What are you most proud of in this new score..? Is there a best bit for you?
Yeah there is… but I’m not gonna tell you what is. What’s pretty good right now is this hamburger… No seriously though, there are a few very moving moments; there’s a beautiful cello solo that you hear at the beginning when you meet this guy and this theme creeps in that relates to this other character and its just a solo cello and then it’s played on the erhu, the Chinese violin, and it melds and hopefully it all comes together.
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is in cinemas now, with the soundtrack released on Varèse Sarabande Records.
My thanks to Randy Edelman, Isobel Griffiths and Rob Cohen.
Originally published at Music from the Movies in the Summer of 2008.