An interview with Mark Snow, Frank Spotnitz
On 20th Century Fox’s scoring stage, producer Frank Spotnitz and composer Mark Snow seem to share the energetic second wind of two artist who know they’re in the home stretch. Months after we were invited out to the set of The X-Files: I Want to Believe (read Ryan Rotten’s report here), the pair are overseeing the scoring of the same scene we witnessed with intense, booming notes that mark a decided departure from the television series to something much grander on-screen.
Snow, who scored the series from its very first episode (including 1998′s The X-Files: Fight the Future feature film), has evolved as a composer, moving across dozens of other projects since the series premiered in 1993. He concentrates on the images on-screen, syncing his orchestral sound with the picture.
By his side stands Spotnitz who – joining Chris Carter’s 10:13 Productions in the The X-Files‘ second season – has been working on the show for nearly as long. He wrote nearly 50 of the series’ episodes, shares a story credit on Fight the Future with Carter and co-penned/produced I Want to Believe.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: How much of this is starting something brand new and how much is returning to material you’ve already created before?
Mark Snow: That’s a good question, because it was 10 years ago that we did the first movie and this one is totally different. It’s a different time, musically, for the world and for me. And having the wonderful nine years of the show and the first movie, there were certain kinds of sounds and instruments that I’d use that have found their way back in this one, but morphed in a sense and a different perspective and a different creative sensibility about it. With this movie, there’s still so many complex musical motifs. For example, there’s a lot of percussion stuff that just plays by itself. There are some very, really emotional pieces of music that people might not associate with classic X-Files sounds. And then the combination of my own studio electronic stuff that I did on the TV show and now with this almost 100-piece orchestra. And we’ve got a live boy soprano singing, coming in later. We’ve got a second orchestra that just plays effects, not music. We had a session where I just conducted and gave them instructions on what kind of sort of sound effect things to do, not melodic pieces. There’s a fellow who’s doing a special percussion sample overdubbed. So, we’ve got two orchestras, all my synth master tracks, a singer and we’ve got the greatest mixer here, Alan Meyerson, who’s done every big movie in the last five years. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. He’s just amazing. This is a great scoring stage.
Shock: How has the musical world changed since the last movie? Is it bringing in those percussive elements?
Snow: I think mostly it’s about what the movie is about. I mean, after reading the script and I spoke to Chris Carter. The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘This is a love story, mostly, with religious sort of overtones and spiritual overtones, so just keep that in mind.’ But I’m reading along and there are some pretty wild things that go on. I’m trying to make sure that the love story really becomes apparent to the audience. And it’s a big part of it.
Shock: What’s your process? Where did you start?
Snow: Well, I start with my home studio stuff. And then, there are glorified demos of all the material so I can play it for Frank and Chris and get the this, or the this, or the this. I can adjust those. It’s interesting, because now we have the orchestra here. By the time the orchestra comes in, it’s just pure pleasure, because there are no surprises. Everyone knows what the music is going to be, but now it’s fleshed out with this marvelous group. After it’s mixed all together, it should be a great CD.
Shock: Do you assign specific motifs to the characters and themes? How do you come up with what the body of what the score’s going to be?
Snow: It seems – and actually with the TV show as well – there were mostly themes for situations, not so much for characters – oh, here comes someone, oh, this theme. I mean, that’s a little traditional, a little old-fashioned. I don’t think that applies to this. This is more of a standalone episode rather than the mythology episode that the first movie was, which is really kind of fun, because there’s a little more room to have a more creative palette with this. The mythology movie, there was a certain palette that I established in the TV show that flourished in the movie, but this one has really more latitude and room to do some crazy stuff.
Shock: How long ago did you start?
Snow: I guess it was as soon as there was the first rough cut, which was about a month and a half ago. The nerve-wracking thing about that is we had to sort of race to do a temp dub. I had to write music, myself and Jeff Charbonneau, the music editor, had to prepare music for this temp dub pretty quickly so the studio people could see it and start their discussions and how they wanted to shape the movie and work with Chris and Frank. But that was very helpful, because we saw what was working, what wasn’t, what areas needed help and it was a really good place to start. It was frustrating, because then getting to the final cut took quite a quite a while and we were all, ‘Let’s go. When are we going to get it?’ Anyway, it arrived and we’re here and it’s going to be great.
Shock: On the temp dub, was it existing X-Files music or did you get something new?
Snow: It was half and half. There was some existing X-Files stuff and stuff that I’d written. It was a short time to prepare for that, so I couldn’t do too much. But the music editor and myself got it together in time.
Shock: Had you read the script previously to get some kind of feel or idea for it?
Snow: It was the emotional part of the script that was most interesting, because then I could hone in on this melodic, thematic part. There are two major melodic themes that appear in the movie that I think, if people heard alone, they might not associate with X-Files, but in this particular case it just marries up beautifully. And then having that interspersed with all the mysterious atmospheric sounds and stuff.
Shock: Frank, can you talk about what your collaboration was? What kind of guidance did you give him?
Frank Spotnitz: Well, that’s the beauty of working with Mark, is that obviously he knows X-Files and the X-Files musical palette better than anyone, because he created it. So there’s not a lot, honestly, of discussion. It’s general, like you were saying. The love story is important or we talked a lot about atonal stuff, sections of the movie that aren’t melodic. But just very general, because Mark knows how to do it better than anybody. It’s more us reacting to what he does than providing guidance.
Snow: It’s always collaborative. The collaborative nature of it is always very, very exciting to me, because sometimes I think I’m dead-on with something and here’s something, and it’s like, ‘What the hell is that?’ No. Or vice versa. I’ll write something and say, ‘I don’t know if this is all right.’ And it’s like, ‘No, no. Just make more of that.’ That’s the excitement for me in film music, it’s that collaboration. You’re alone and you do it and then you bring it out there.
Spotnitz: My favorite part of the process is hearing his music, because I don’t do a thing. I just sit there and the movie gets fifty percent better. That’s not an exaggeration. It gets fifty percent better just from the music. And it’s also interesting because Mark is like this amazing barometer, and you can judge how successful what you’ve done based on his music. It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s what we did.’ It’s like a counterpoint to what you’ve done and in some ways it’s like, the better the score is, probably the better the movie is. There was this cue you did last week, Steve was there, and we were just sitting there and we were all silent afterwards and it was just like… [Spotnitz claps] It was so fantastic.
Snow: I’ll make a note. Which one was that? I’ll make a note.
Shock: You talk about the romantic theme, but Frank has mentioned there are a lot of scares. What’s the balance for you? Is it just seeing what the footage ends up being like or punctuating something that jumps out? How do you figure those moments?
Snow: I think it’s sort of the challenging part about that. Where you need a good sense of sophistication, there are moments where you could do so little and it could be so amazingly effective. And then, on the other hand, where you can really jump on something. When you see the movie in full tilt, you’ll see these sections where wow, the orchestra is just going crazy, you know. Other times where it’s just making these atmospheric sounds. But there’s action yet, it’s just sort of my feel for the material and the experience of doing the show from the get go, of knowing when to sort of hold ‘em and knowing when to fold ‘em.
Shock: Do you think modern technology could ever replace a live orchestra?
Snow: It’s getting close, but I don’t think so. I mean, what’s fascinating in this combination is there’s such cool mysterious sounds that I’ve sort of invented or altered, taken something that you might know as a, for a lack of any better word, a bell, and toned it down and taken the attack off, and it used to sound like “ding” and now it sounds like “wha.” All these kinds of interesting electronically treated sounds are laying in there in a special way for me, and the orchestra plays along. The combination is really interesting.
Shock: The level of secrecy that the filmmakers have had, have you had the same amount of secrecy?
Snow: Well, I guess there’s certain things I can’t reveal. You know, if I said something about a certain musical section.
Shock: Give us an example.
Snow: When I got the script, the cover was bare and I opened the first page and it had my name watermarked on each page. Underneath, ‘Dear Mark, you will be killed if this finds its way into the world somehow.’ So, you’d better shut up. Also, when I get footage it has my name on the film, “Mark Snow. Do not copy.” If one of my kids takes this thing and chucks it into the garbage and someone sneaks around, I’m in trouble. Anyway, that’s not going to happen.
Spotnitz: I have to tell you as an aside, I was flying and I had a DVD of the movie because I had to give notes and I was out of town. I’m in the airplane and I’m flying coach, and I’m about to load the DVD into my laptop and it dropped. It’s the second half of the movie. This is true. And it says, ‘Frank Spotnitz. Do not Copy.’ I’m reaching on the floor under my coach seat and I can’t feel the DVD. I look and the woman next to me is asleep, so I can’t sort of…I’m contorting around, trying to get the DVD, I could make the story go on for quite a while. I couldn’t find it, I asked everybody in the plane, all the way back to the back. It was about an hour and I was in absolute agony, and it turned out that it had fallen and slid like here, behind my seat. The guy behind me finally pulled it out. It was just like, I could see it happening. It would be on the Internet. Like, somehow the X-Files fan behind me realized what this was.
Shock: Can you talk about the atmosphere or tone of the music. Were there any classical cues or composers that you took inspiration from?
Snow: When I was in New York, a student at Julliard, I was a huge fan of avant-garde music, and I guess one of them… For me the most exciting thing about X-Files is when we did the pilot, they tracked music from other movies and Chris said, ‘I love the sparseness of this underscore, and I love just tons of very atmospheric supportive music under dialogue.’ No slick stuff, no melody, just pads and supportive atonal kind of mush, in a way. That was very successful at the beginning, and it got to be a little old at about episode eight or something. I slowly started to sneak some other things in it. It was based on my early experiences as a student being influenced by Ligeti, Penderecki, Xenakis, I mean all these really atonal composers. And the beauty of it is I kept sneaking these different elements in there and no one said stop. It was encouraged. Then eventually some melodic themes came in and it just blossomed beautifully. No one ever sat on me and said, ‘No, no, no. Go back to the original. Just tread water here.’ That was the most exciting thing that I naturally just followed my own instincts, and that’s so unusual, because most TV shows and films you’re sort of told what to do or here’s the temp music and please sort of copy it.
Spotnitz: And because the episodes were so varied, the score was so varied as well. It was just an incredible range.
Snow: From black comedy to all the scariest stuff possible.
Shock: Have there been any scenes in the movie where you thought this needed some score accompaniment and you saw the scene and you thought it would work better without music?
Snow: I don’t know. It felt like we were pretty much in agreement.
Spotnitz: Yeah. I think there are some cues we’re recording here that at the end of the day we might not be using. We’ll see. I think we’ve decided we’ll cover ourselves and then we’ll decide whether to pull back.
Shock: You basically design wall-to-wall music and then figure out what fits and what doesn’t?
Snow: No, I mean we’re used to a certain kind of working relationship where we sort of have an instinct with each other knowing where things should go. If you err on the ‘a little too much’ it’s much easier to take it out than to add at the last minute.
Shock: How was it years later to come back and revisit this franchise? Was it easy to get back into it or was it like an old friend?
Snow: That’s sort of the same thing. Was it easy to get back? Yes. Was it an old friend? Yes. It was just fantastic, especially that this movie was more of an individual standalone piece, where the palette…there was much more room for new kind of X-Files sounds, if you will.
Shock: Are there any fears that X-Files fans are going to not recognize it? Because what we heard sounds very broad and huge.
Spotnitz: Well, that piece might not be…
Snow: There’s another version of that, by the way, that is so totally different. But it remains to be seen which piece will survive. All I can say is from the very opening of the movie there will be no disappointed X-Files fans.
Spotnitz: I agree. If we can, I’d like to play that music without picture before you guys go. To me, it sounds unmistakably like The X-Files. It’s like we were saying…in the series Mark did such an incredible range of styles of music and he has something very personal that you recognize regardless of what it does.
Snow: But seeing, also, how the characters have grown and changed, just physically over the years, and what’s going on with their relationship in the movie made a big impact on me in coming up with these emotional pieces, because it couldn’t be over-the-top schmaltzy. It had to have a real super honest, emotional quality about it. I think the fans, it’ll help them get what they want out of this. They’ll be very satisfied.
Spotnitz: That’s the thing. I don’t know what the fans were expecting this movie to be. I said before, I don’t know what they think it is, but I can tell you it’s not a cynical movie. There’s nothing about it that is calculated, ‘Oh, they’re going to want this.’ I think you’ll see that when you see it. It’s a heartfelt film with integrity and I suspect people will respond to that, or not, but that felt like the right thing to do rather than trying to be calculating and handicapping, ‘They’re going to want this.’ The movie has none of that quality.
Shock: Sometimes soundtracks reveal spoilers in the titles of the songs. Are you guys taking any precautions?
Spotnitz: Track one, track two, track three. [laughs] No, it’s a good point, though. I hadn’t thought about that. But that’s a good point. We’ll have to be careful.
Snow: It’ll be in French.
Shock: How has the nature of composing changed since you first started. Do people want the same kind of music that they did then?
Snow: Well, this temp track thing is a big deal. Nobody wants to be surprised anymore. So they put temp music in these movies and it’s discussed with the composer and if the composer has a big reputation like John Williams, etc., they’ll always use his stuff, so he’s sort of copying himself. It used to be, when I would conduct the orchestras, the producers and director didn’t know exactly what was coming and there were always those moments I call walking the plank. It’s where you’d be out there conducting and you’d have to walk back into the control room and hear the comments or in your headset you’d get something like, ‘Mark, could you come in here please.’ And you think, ‘Oh, shit. I’m dead.’ Or, ‘Oh, man, you’re the greatest blah, blah, blah.’ And sometimes they’d fool me and say, ‘Mark, uh, we’ve got to talk.’ I’d go in there like, ‘Oh, shit.’ And I’d walk in and they’d go, ‘Yeah!’ Like, ‘What just happened?’ But I think for a lot of composers it’s been sort of frustrating, a safety net for the studios, that there aren’t going to be a lot of surprises and, like, ‘Wow, what the hell is that? We didn’t expect that.’
Shock: Putting you under the gun here, you’ve been around since day one, story-wise, what do you think about this movie? How does it stand?
Snow: I thought it was an amazing script. I had to read it at least twice, and I read it a third time. On the second reading, I started making notes, so I made sure I understood exactly what was going on. It’s very dense and complex. And seeing it on the printed page is so one-dimensional compared when the film is fleshed out. I had to re-read things and make sure, ‘Is that right?’ Because sometimes there will be literally a half of a line that’s like a clue to a big part of it, and if you just kind of fluff over it, the story is like, ‘What? What the hell happened here?’
Shock: How much of a break do you take between movies? Do they kind of overlap?
Snow: It depends on if you’re offered something. You can’t do too many things at the same time. I guess it’s a good question. The worst time of that for all of us, we were doing the X-Files series, the X-Files movie, Millennium and was there one more?
Spotnitz: That was it.
Snow: That was it. I remember, I’ve never seen this before, but Chris Carter’s a pretty mellow guy. He talks quietly, there’s nothing really flamboyant about him. I came out of the scoring stage and I saw him, like one of those keystone cop movies running from one end of the lot to the next. I mean, literally running. It’s totally unlike him. And he said, ‘Man, that that was the toughest.’ For you too? We were all dying. But we survived.
Shock: Was it hard to keep the music from overlapping?
Snow: That wasn’t too bad. Millennium luckily it had a sound of its own. It was in the dark realm as well, but it had this thing with this violin thing and that never showed up in X-File-land. That was kind of easy to keep that off to the side.
Shock: For the trailer, did you do the music on that?
Snow: That’s become a whole art form in itself. I mean, apparently, for good reason, that is so important, that the trailer get people to show up on opening weekend. Those trailer people, if they think some other music is right, they use it, or if music from X-Files is right, they use it, or a combination, and I think, in fact, my wife called me last night, she saw it on Fox TV, that they played the trailer and she heard [whistles X-Files theme].
Spotnitz: Weren’t there five pieces of music in that trailer? Five distinct pieces. They saved the little thing for the end, the best.
Snow: Which is going to be in the movie. [laughs]
Spotnitz: Surprise, surprise.
Shock: Is there a point where you feel like you’ve used it way too much? How did you decide how many times to put that in?
Snow: Well, there are a couple of times it’s used as you once knew it and loved it by itself. And, I don’t know if I can [talk about it]. Throughout the score, you’ll hear it mixed in with the score in variation. It’s sort of subliminal, but I’m sure, it’s such a simple tune, it will…
Spotnitz: It works on you, though. Like at times you’re watching the movie and you go, ‘I feel something,’ and you go, ‘Oh.’ It does have its affect.
Snow: You can use it, it’s six notes, sometimes it’s four or three. All you have to do is, ‘Duh dee.’ I mean, that’s it. ‘Duh dee duh.’ That’s enough sometimes. But there are a couple of really cool variations of it.
Spotnitz: There’s one, when you see the movie you’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s what they wouldn’t tell us.’ There’s one that’s very memorable.
Shock: Is the process of composing for you very academic? Is it literally constructing these pieces or is it kind of intuitive?
Snow: Because of the advent of the technology, electronics, I’ll sit down and I’ll have the movie synched up to my equipment, I’ll push ‘go’ and I’ll start sort of improvising and playing along with it. Then ideas come and they start to grow and form, and that’s really how it happens. God, I remember my first jobs where you’d go, you’d see a show, there was no video. They’d give you these timing notes where every tenth of a second someone jumps or runs or dialogue and you’re trying to imagine this and you’re writing it out, you know? There’s no keyboards. You have a piano, certainly. But things have really changed. I mean, John Williams still sits down and writes out his sketches and they’re copied just like the old days. He is, for that stuff, the best.
The X-Files: I Want to Believe opens in theaters on July 25th.
Source: Silas Lesnick