Evan Evans is the composer of the upcoming films “The Gauntlet” and “Night at the Templar”. Evan is the son of the late legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans. Media Mikes had a chance to chat music with Evan and his process when scoring a film.
Mike Gencarelli: Tell us about your work composing the film “The Gauntlet”?
Evan Evans: First let me say how excited I was to become involved in this film. When I read about this movie on my hotsheet, it just jumped out at me, and I immediately developed a strong bond for the concept. Based on what I had read in the listing, I imagined a film filled with spaces for the thematic, the atmospheric, the intellectual, and the visceral, all rolled into one.
After a conference call with Director Matt Eskandari, Producer Jonathan Shih and Film Editor Ryan Cooper where I expressed my enthusiasm for the project, I put together a two minute demo track overnight, to submit under the pretext that I had of course not yet seen the film. However, I felt I understood the tenets of the story deeply enough that I could show them, in music, that I was thinking in the right vein. My biggest heros in this art are Bernard Herrmann (“Psycho”, “Taxi Driver”, “Citizen Kane”, “Vertigo”) and Jerry Goldsmith (“The Omen”, “Poltergeist”, “Basic Instinct”, ”Papillon”), both of whom were pioneers in understanding the psychology of film and communicating drama through music, and I’m doing my best to follow in their example, and try to be one of the more considerate film composers out there… so, I was anxious to hear back if they agreed I hit the bullseye, blind. Eskandari called later to mention that “no other composer came as close to your passion and sound”, and I was hired…and felt thrilled.
Once I recieved the film, it turned out to be better than I had imagined. There was a surprising new element threaded throughout the story that I did not originally anticipate, that of a Political Thriller, in the same vein as a film like “The Da Vinci Code”. Also there are several sequences lending themselves brilliantly to powerful score, and those moments are going to be very rewarding, as they offer the opportunity to really move people and get them excited about, and relating to, what they’re watching.
The Director and I spoke a lot about musical approaches. Something that came up was the possibility of using “screaming voices” recordings, recorded from a site in Russia where supposedly you can hear “hell” down a massive hole in the earth that goes straight down to an undisclosed depth. Indeed, there will be some choir in the score, but it remains to be seen if I’ll be able to use the “voices of hell” sounds, specifically. In the end, music score is meant to be felt and rarely heard, so the exact sound is less important than the practical use.
Academy Award winning sound designer, Bruce Stambler (“The Fugitive”, “The Fast and the Furious”, “The Mummy 3”, “xXx”), is working on the film and I don’t want to step on his toes, so I’m going to try and stay pretty traditional with the score and let organic sounds and sound design lay on top of music as it’s own supplemental layer. Because we’re working at the same time, I can only take my best guess based on my fifteen years and sixty films of experience, as to what frequency ranges he’ll be putting sounds in during each moment, and if I have music during those moments, I will try and write a “hole” in that area for his brilliant sound work.
There’s nothing I enjoy more than going to see one of my films, as an audience member, and letting go of everything, and sitting back and enjoying it like one of the guys. If I hear any ego coming from my score, I have failed myself. So I’m very careful to always make the decisions the movie-goer would want, not the music-lover. That said, I’m going to give my fans some very enjoyable music to listen to as an aside. I do my best to try and make each and every cue a work of art in and of itself, and as well, together as an entire score. Those are some of the major goals I must balance when creating score, in addition to highlighting plot points, character development, philosophical reflection, and audience enjoyment.
After going over the film more extensively, one thing Eskandari and I settled on, is that this is a film more about humanity, society, and compassion above all else, and that it should always be told through that point of view. We experimented with other approaches like you’d see in a film like “300”, or “Kick Ass”, but those films were eventually thought of as taking enjoyment and fun in violence, and that is not where we wanted the audience to be at all. We want the audience to be plunged into a world of dark corners and steamy corridors, where they’ll feel pushed beyond their will to do things they would find repulsive, horrific, traumatic, and will test their moral fibers. So coming across as fun, cool, or taking any delight in any of what we’re showing the audience, is not going to be part of the plan that makes this film speak the Director’s vision. In that sense, it’s not a genre horror film. It’s more of a thriller. However, that said, there is some serious blood shed in this film. But we are going to try to make it come from a philosophical perspective rather than have it play out like a blood filled romp.
As far as approach for the score, after exhausting many creative channels, we’ve decided on a more traditional approach. The reasoning being that the audience will already be most familiar with a traditional straight emotional sound, and we’ll instantly win over their trust for our guidance throughout the film. And that will be crucial in communicating ideas in a way that every member of the audience will understand equally in unity. Music score done masterfully can be the strongest force unifying the audience’s experience and all the thought-provoking and manipulating that must occur. I’ll get everyone thinking when they need to be thinking, paying attention to things together that they should be noticing, glossing over things that are not important, and getting excited and terrified at the same levels at the same moments. In my observations, the more those around you share in the exact same experience, the more it amplifies everyone’s experiences and it grows beyond the personal into a mass experience as it should…something I dub in the psychology of this art, “resonance”. There is a new frontier here, that I am attempting to carve out, describing the psychology of dramatic music. No one, I know of, is currently developing any new theories in this area of film scoring, and yet I feel it is the most important aspect of this art and craft. That is, to use music and sound to manipulate thought and feeling, as opposed to just stimulating thoughts or feelings, or for some degree of artistic statement. In The Gauntlet, I am going to be pushing my craft to it’s extremes and I hope it’s going to create a strong experience for everyone. This is one film that can really be at it’s best if it’s extreme.
There is a religious and supernatural element in the film. And for that I’m using Trumpets and Choir, and twisted metallic sounds. Those colors will help convey a sense of the ethereal, the dark, and something Biblical. For the political backdrop, I’ll be using a stirring section of orchestral strings trembling and percolating mysteriously. Each character has their own musical theme, what’s called Leitmotif in musical terms, but what I prefer to call a “primer“ to borrow a term from psychology and give it practical purpose. Occasionally character themes intertwine, and new derivative themes are born…connections between characters such as the bonds of friendship, trust, affection, attraction, and the dark clouds of dislike, fear, suspicion, jealousy, and hate.
Bai Ling (“The Crow”, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”) plays Kim, a sexy enigma discovered hiding, and in shock, covered in blood, inside one of The Gauntlet’s many rooms. Her interactions with the others run the gamut of those bonds and dark clouds I’ve mentioned. She is the biggest wildcard amidst the group.
There is a lot of deception and confusion inside The Gauntlet. Each person has a past that is going to catch up with them. No one knows where they are, or how they got there, or who to trust. And getting out alive is going to be a test of their life. Stay tuned to my Twitter for updates throughout the scoring process: @OriginalScoreBy
MG: How did you get involved with the film “Night of the Templar”?
EE: I also found that film on one of my hotsheets. I remember the first call to Director, Producer, Paul Sampson. We talked for a good while. He was very energetic and engaging. I felt he was very dedicated to his art and craft and those are the kinds of people I really like working with. He also mentioned the film was not ready yet. So, over the course of a few months I tried back a few times, until the film was finally ready, at which time I arranged for a meeting at my studio in Calabasas. When he walked in the door, I was surprised at how young he was, and I said “Wow, you look so young for your age” (read later why I made this mistake). His reaction was something akin to “Well, thank you?” It had to be one of the most awkward Composer-Director openers in history. But the man has a way of attracting the unusual. It wasn’t until we got talking that I realized I had confused him with another medieval film I was also tracking, directed by an older gentleman. There aren’t too many medieval films out there.
The thing that cemented the deal was, he had to go to New York City, and while he was gone, he left me with a copy of the film, and after watching it I was left with some opinions I wanted to share with him. I called him, but I got his voicemail. I left a message, saying I thought the film was great, but wouldn’t it be great if such and such happened in the film, and I proceeded to describe a scene that is actually now in the film but at that time was not in the film. Well, he called back later sounding like he called his long lost brother after seeing a ghost, and with every ounce of excitement in his body, he left me the following voicemail: “Evan, I can’t believe you said that. I shot it. I shot that scene. And we’re putting it back in. Call me.” So I think it impressed him that I understood the movie enough to know not only what it was, but also what it was missing, and that if I understood what was missing, which turned out to be a part of his original vision, than he felt I was more aligned with his vision than the film could even provide. And with that, I was hired, and I additionally became Associate Producer of Post Production, and we brought the film back to one of my powerful workstations at my studio, and we hooked up Final Cut Pro, and we proceeded to make a new roughcut of the film into approximately the way you see it now. Somewhere towards the end of the post production process, we finally plunked down and created the score.
So that’s how my involvement with Paul and that film played out. It became personal for me, very important, that we made the film the best it could be, because it’s destined to become an instant classic, a favorite, a potential cult film. I could settle for nothing less than the absolute highest standards. And we owed that much to David Carradine (b.1936 – d.2009), who sadly won’t ever be able to see his last film.
MG: What do you enjoy most from working in the Horror genre?
EE: When I was younger, or perhaps it was simply before I had children, I experienced Horror films very differently than I do now. They always put a smile on my face and gave me something cool to talk about. But I had nothing to relate to. It was like going to see a freak show at the circus, to see something weird and imaginative. As I grew more mature, I realized that the horrors you see in those films, stem from capabilities we all have inside of us, held back only by whatever morals we have instilled inside us from how we were raised and what we believe is right and wrong. But each person committing an atrocity in the world is the same as you and I…a human being, whether you are at the maturity level to be able to admit that, or not. We are one and the same. And in that respect, a horrific act, to me, is a philosophical statement about society and what we allow, what we don’t allow, what we enforce, what we punish, and the evils we create inside people around us by what we do or what we don’t do.
My approach to a horror film is in trying to communicate a moral reflection. I like to get people shaken up morally so they question themselves, so that they will begin to question others, and share their ideas for change. Because most people are only compassionate about things that align with what they believe in. And if they don’t believe they can be pushed to the limits of human horror, than they can never understand how to prevent it and our world will continue to diminish in morality. But if I can show them that inside them is something inside everyone, and that they too could be driven to the point of any horrific situation, than that should get them to understand how important it is to play an active role in society and be both an advocate for good and an enforcer of bad behavior.
As far as I know, all modern societies work on punishing bad behaviour and allowing you to be free with good behaviour. But personally, I don’t think that’s enough. I think as populations grow so large, that, the more “free” unpunished people there are, the greater the “laziness divide”. The social dynamics are that large groups of communities form, where complacency works for them. And nothing really atrocious happens to them on a whole. If something does happen, they cast that person out, pointing fingers, and completely reject any responsibility for what happened. But that attitude is not good enough anymore, as these large communities hit critical mass. Their children are growing up with little moral guidance other than not to do the worst things, the things that they’ve learned on TV are bad, and they’re turning into spoiled apathetic narcissistic materialists, nurtured that way into adulthood by people just like themselves. They are clueless as to what the punishment might be like for terrible behaviour. How many of them have visited a prison, seen an execution, or know someone close to them in that situation, or on the other side, a victim? The answer is fewer and fewer of them as these communities expand. And the ones who are aware, get broken off, cast out, a shellshocked rejection of the community. But this apathetic zombie society loves to veg out and watch movies. They’re the same people that are the hardest ones to get off their asses to vote. Because why should they, The Kardashians come on at 7pm.
Well, a lot of filmmakers care about the condition of humanity. It’s a massive endeavor to make a film, and you have to be a person with incredibly deep beliefs to do it. It isn’t for someone who doesn’t understand how life works and who hasn’t seen the world. And it turns out, Horror movies are a great way to get through to these popcorn communities in mass … to show them what happens to those around them when they don’t play an active supporting role in society. That’s why, in my opinion, the best formula for this kind of movie, is your everyday middle of america community being attacked by some kind of socially rejected force. Anytime you can set the backdrop to an ordinarily complacent unwitting set of people in a community of like minded people, and you push some of them to come to startling realizations about what they need to do to course correct the evils around them, you’ve got a top notch relatable story which challenges everyone watching to loftier goals, more valiant thinking. That’s what “The Gauntlet” offers, and films I’ve scored like “Hoboken Hollow”, a true story about some Texan ranchers who were abducting migrants around the border, enslaving them, and turning them into human beef jerky. True story. Life is stranger fiction.
I think one of the reasons filmmakers love working with me is I’m so much more interested in telling a moving story than taking their paycheck, punching a time card, and spewing out my latest ego lovechild. I hear a lot of soundtrack fans say “the movie was god awful, but I bought the CD, and I love the score.” Well that composer failed. Though in their defense, I have been there, and there are some movies that are nearly unsavable. And you butter them up with a great score so it feels like other great movies, but in the end you still have failed to properly help. I believe there is a good score that makes every movie great if you just dig deep enough. Unfortunately, the truth is we don’t always get enough time to dig that deep. And if it’s not Stanley Kubrick or Sam Raimi it’s going to need some time for strategizing. But just because the music is good, does not make it a good soundtrack. The music must make the movie good, and that’s the only good soundtrack in my opinion.
MG: Do you direct any influence from your father, the legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans?
EE: I can remember very well from when I was a young child. In particular, I remember sitting at my father’s upright piano at his highrise apartment in New York City when I was around 3 years old, banging on the low keys, making booming rumbling sounds with the keyboard, and commenting “King Kong is coming…King Kong is coming.” Even at that young age, I was interested in using musical instruments to communicate drama. My father passed away when I was only 5 years old, and it wasn’t until I was 11 that I even understood he was anything more than just my father, that he was a musician. Anything more just never occurred to me, despite all that was going on around me. Maybe I was tuned out, but it just never clicked. However, on my own accord, I was passionately drawn to the piano in the house that early on. Just after he passed and we moved to Southern California from the East
Coast, I started the infamous piano lessons every parent tries give their children. My reaction was total excitement, and by six I had decided I was going to become a concert pianist. It wasn’t long before my curiosities took over however. I was constantly questioning my teachers about why the composers chose the notes they did. And so I started private lessons for music theory at 7. Around that age I also picked up the trumpet. By 8 I was enjoying three lessons a week, one on piano, one on theory, and one on trumpet, and I wanted them to continue during vacations. I couldn’t get enough.
One day, when I was 9, I was watching a black and white Alfred Hitchcock film, and in one particular scene, a car was driving around a cliff at night and it slipped off the road and fell off the cliff. The camera did not move with the tumbling car, instead it remained pointed at the cliff as the car fell off the bottom of the screen, disappearing from sight. After a moment, loud music banged a low calamitous note of great tension, to show that the car had fallen to it’s peril. It was at that point that I realized there was music in movies to describe things that you see and feel (and sometimes don’t see). I really loved movies, but I had never before realized there was music in them. And music was previously what I wanted to do with my life. And so it was from that moment, combined with my natural instinct in communicating the dramatic with music (recall King Kong piano story in New York city apartment above), that I knew I was destined to become a film composer.
Although I was going to events regarding my father’s music, and meeting great musicians and friends of my father’s, I never really gained any benefit in my field. Despite meeting Michel Legrand, Vladimar Cosma, and studying with Lalo Shifrin and Clare Fischer, and being around Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, David Benoit, and other greats who crossed over into film, I had to make my own way entirely. And I’ve never had a single door open to me and come to any fruition because of who my father is. Everyone making films are truly interested in quality, and hiring the son of someone to create the music for your film is not something they do lightly. In that sense, they have a built in acknowledgement that music score is very important to them. A filmmaker has spent months, if not years, cultivating their project. It’s their baby. Would you let the daughter of a nanny take care of your newborn baby sight unseen? No, you would want to know if she could take care of babies too, or if she rebelled against her parents and hates doing it, or if she does a half-assed job just to fulfill her duty. I’m fortunate in that respect, in that Film Music is quite a different animal and field, than concert jazz music, and I have had to earn every ounce of what I’ve achieved.
Before my father died in 1980, in a late interview in his life, he was asked, almost prophetically: “If you could do anything else besides Jazz what would you like to do?”. His answer, was “I would like to write music for cinema.” I did not learn of this interview until I was 24, having already chosen this path when I was 9, and having already scored numerous projects since age 12, and several films since age 21. But as you can imagine, it was shocking to my core to hear that I had naturally chosen the path that would have been in my father’s next footsteps. I am very proud of him and his accomplishments and his dedication to his art, and I am similarly proud of my career. I am enjoying doing what I’ve always wanted to, what I was designed to do, and apparently what he would have wanted me to do. So I feel very complete and at peace with him, despite that he passed when I was only 5.
MG: What has been your most difficult film to compose to date?
EE: Well, on the film “Tripfall”, Directed by Serge Rodnunsky, and starring Eric Roberts and the late John Ritter (“Three’s Company”, “Slingblade”), I had to write 70 minutes of music in less than 10 days. Composing more than 2 minutes of music per day is very difficult, very demanding, and composing 3 minutes at high quality is pushing the physical capabilities of man. So to compose 7 minutes per day, I had to really streamline my process. At the time, I was composing in Opcode’s StudioVision Pro, the most advanced computer based sequencer for composing music ever created. Gibson unfortunately killed this company by buying them out and then killing the product, an anti-trust move that still to this day haunts the big league composers of my industry. So, with the help of that superior software and some other shortcut techniques, I was ableto pull it off. Nowadays, using leading softwares like Logic, Cubase or Digital Performer, you could never approach that kind of speed and quality, so that was a one time historical event.
Also, the film “Killers”, directed and produced by the guys at the infamous The Asylum, now known for doing quite well in a niche they’ve carved out, creating mock-offs like “Transmorphers”, “Battle of Los Angeles” and “Paranormal Entity”, as well as cult originals like “Megashark vs. Giant Octopus” and “Supercroc”. Long before their success in direct-to-video mock-offs, David Rimawi and David Michael Latt attempted to be auteur filmmakers. “Killers” was their first picture. As was on “Tripfall”, the situation here was music had to be written in a very short amount of time, 8 days. So I was working round the clock, with a 4 hour sleep schedule. And on the final days, 1 hour of sleep at best. It was gnarly. I used the latest virtual acoustic physical modeling synthesis technology by Yamaha on that film, coupled with 24 tracks of live percussion, as well as screaming voices, chanting, and other live vocalizations to create the unusual tapestry requested for the film which takes place in an abandoned industrial complex.
And if I may, some of the most satisfying films I’ve worked on, quickly, have been “The Poker Club” (Johnathon Schaech, Judy Reyes), “The Kid: Chamaco” (Martin Sheen, Michael Madsen), “Skeletons in the Desert” (dir: Gregory J. Martin), “Hunting Humans”, “Hoboken Hollow” (Dennis Hopper), “Future Murder”, and two films that sadly never got released, “Miss Wonton” and “Joe Joe Angel and The Dead Guy”.
MG: What do you have planned next?
EE: I continue to try and select excellent films that could suffer without a great score and offer my helping hand, because I’ll be completely honest with you, I don’t have a lot of faith in the other film composers out there. Other than Howard Shore and Elliot Goldenthal and a maturing Marco Beltrami, I am a little scared of the quality in my field as the real masters have died off around me, such as Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, John Barry and others. We’re left with decent enough get-it-done composers, and shallow composers composing on instinct, plunking notes out and watching the screen to see if it seems to work and who are unfortunately being rewarded for their fare since they are the best of the worst, which only reinforces it and does not challenge them to do better. It scares me.
To heal this deepening abyss, I have started to develop some web courses for this art, the psychology of dramatic scoring, to teach the new up and coming talents how to properly wield this power. I was taught privately by Lalo Schifrin (“Mission Impossible”, “Rush Hour”, “Cool Hand Luke”), Jerry Goldsmith, and Scott Smalley (Orchestrator for “Batman”,”Conan The Barbarian”,”Robocop”), and I studied deeply the works of Bernard Herrmann, Sergei Prokofiev, Alan Silvestri (“Back to the Future”,”Predator”,”What Lies Beneath”), Howard Shore (“The Fly”,”Lord of the Rings”,”Silence of the Lambs”), and others. I enjoy teaching and it gives me great pleasure to give back. So, for those interested composers reading, they can currently go to: http://secretsoffilmscoring.blogspot.com The feedback has been incredible, “I learned more about film scoring here, than I had in the last 10 years”, “No one out there today will teach you what Evan does”, “god bless him for his commitment to improving the condition of the film music industry”, “a genius at what he does”, “incredibly well informed with a lot of experience”. Together we can continue to break down new barriers in this art. In 1000 years I expect great things.