Moving into a new home is such an exciting time. Figuring out where everything goes and creating new routines allows for new memories and a new way of life to be established. However, it’s only natural to not really want to think about the life that has left this new abode. While it’s the beginning of one story, it’s the end of another. And perhaps that previous story did not have a happy ending. The new movie The Intruder plays on this idea and stars Dennis Quaid as Charlie, a man who has sold his home to a lovely young couple played by Meagan Good and Michael Ealy. However, Charlie is not all that he seems and not quite ready to let go of this house and the life he once had in it.
The Intruder offers a unique take on the sub-genre of home invasion films, and it makes sense that this unique film would require a unique score. When director Deon Taylor needed to choose just the right person for this undertaking, he knew just who to call; Geoff Zanelli. Not only did Deon previously work with Geoff on his film Traffik, Geoff’s credits include films such as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Christopher Robin, Secret Window, Disturbia and Mortdecai. A composer with incredible versatility and flexibility, Geoff is a composer willing to think outside the box and achieve just the right soundscape for each and every project he’s involved with. I recently had the extreme pleasure of speaking with Geoff about his approach and path to film composition, scoring for the most ambitious video game ever made, working with Hans Zimmer and of course, Dennis Quaid.
Rachel Prin for Nightmare on Film Street: Alright, let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into film score composition? What initially attracted you to it?
Geoff Zanelli: I was in high school and I was a guitarist, so I was a little bit older than most musicians when I started. I had a band and we were terrible. The drummer and I were writing most of the music and what we were finding was we weren’t really writing in normal song form. There wasn’t verses and choruses and it just sort of felt like if we wanted the song to be 8 minutes it should be 8 minutes, and if you want it to be 1 minute it should be 1 minute. We weren’t really boxed in and that kind of naturally leads you into film music where you’re not really constrained to certain forms. You’re of course constrained by what the movie is, but I think that kind of opened up my eyes. That and I’m a terrible lyricist. I also didn’t really want to have a band as a career, sort of what excited me about it was the writing.
I think I started thinking already, even at that age, about instruments that weren’t in the band, different sounds you might not hear that often, and I think that naturally kind of leads you into film where you get to experiment like that quite often. I also always talk about Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory being this movie that I saw as a kid and realized that there’s specific music for a movie. It’s obvious now, but as a kid it just kind of hit me, ‘Wait. Somebody wrote all that just for this.’ That was an exciting idea even though I wasn’t a musician at that point. When I finally became one, it all kind of added up into something that pointed me in that direction.
NOFS: On top of studying Film Scoring & Music Production at Berklee College of Music, you had the unique opportunity to work at Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions. Tell me a bit about that experience.
GZ: I actually still have a studio at his place! We go back now 25 years and I just never left. Funny enough, I was driving to the studio just a couple weeks ago and thinking when I started there I was Hans’ intern and he was writing The Lion King. And I was driving and thinking, ‘Wait. He’s still writing The Lion King.‘ There you go, it’s the circle of life right there. Starting there, that was the first time I had ever been in a professional studio actually. Obviously, in those early days it was really just me putting food on a plate and putting it in someone’s room and that was my job. But it grew from there into assisting other composers and then arranging for composers including Hans, John Powell and a few other guys.
That was really my crash course and I just climbed up, literally from intern all the way up to composer. Hans still remains a mentor and a friend and he’s a mentor to so many composers. He’s really unique in that way. He loves to have people around.
NOFS: You’ve been involved with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise in various capacities from the very beginning, all the way up to the latest (2017’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) where you were the lead composer. What are some of the challenges and perks of composing for such a successful and long running franchise?
GZ: I certainly didn’t know how big the first movie was going to be. I knew it was a good movie, and I loved it, but I had no idea it was going to lineup with the zeitgeist and become the biggest pirate movie ever. I just kind of thought we were doing this fun adventure movie that was a little quirky, and the director Gore Verbinski was really interesting. Hans had written a bunch of themes, but there was a very short schedule. Only 3 weeks actually, and Hans wrote a bunch of themes overnight and we went to work.
In the first one, I did a lot, but it was a big team. And then when the second one came around Hans was like, ‘Well, anyone that helped on the first one…come on back!’ I would never say no, I love making them. I love adventure movies and fantasy films and that was kind of perfect for me. I guess because it was right in line with what I like to do, that was really the movie that I felt like I was really important to the process.
I don’t really know quite how to explain it, but I know that on that film, my profile was elevated I guess you’d say. That led on and on and by the time they were making the fifth one, I’m not sure where Hans was with it. Part of it was he was going on tour, but he certainly could have done it if he wanted to, but I think he just kind of felt like it was time and he sort of helped me, well…not sort of, he very much helped me get the job and get started on it. But once I got it, he left me alone and it was just the perfect mentor gift.
Working on all five really worked in my favor because not only did I know about all those old themes, I had worked on them already. I knew certain things that I could do with them and certain things I had always wanted to do with them. So in a way, it was a huge step up for me career wise, but when it happened it felt very natural. It was a soft landing into a giant movie. There was a safety net of great tunes and I didn’t have to write 8 new tunes, it was really just 3 or 4. I wonder what it’s like for people working on say, a Marvel movie and there’s themes that somebody else had written that they hadn’t worked with. You know what I mean? Or a Mission: Impossible, or a Bond where you really have to pay attention to the legacy music, but you may not have been in the trenches when it was written.
NOFS: I found the instrumentation really interesting in the score for your latest film, The Intruder. What was your approach to scoring this unique take on a home invasion film?
GZ: It’s absolutely terrifying to just be starting a film score. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. If it’s three instruments or 200 piece orchestra, choir and percussion, you still have a blank page. I find that really nerve-racking. Usually I try to take that problem of scoring an entire film and break it down into digestible or achievable mini goals. Maybe I’ll start with thinking about what instruments or sounds I want to use.
So when I started on The Intruder, there was a conversation with the director Deon Taylor about what he was hoping for. Then we started talking about what will make this score unique sonically. Then he came up with, ‘Well, it should involve the house somehow. It’s a story about a house.’ So we started talking about doorbells, what can we do with doorbells. And that gets you thinking already because, yes, you can use bells in the score and it can be really interesting. Then I thought, ‘Well, if it’s about a house…there’s more to a house than a doorbell.’ So, I went off to Home Depot and bought a bunch of metal sheeting and air ducts and doorstops, they’re laying on the floor of my studio and I’m looking at them now. I nailed about 5 different types of doorstops to a piece of wood and made that part of the percussion. I had air ducts and sheet metal and we dangled it off of this giant PVC cage that I had someone make for me and that became my percussion section. So now I’m thinking, ‘I don’t want to use traditional percussion, I’ll just bang on things myself. I can scrape em’ and bow em’. I was walking through Home Depot with a hammer and drum sticks hitting things and getting strange looks trying to decide what I’m going to buy to bash on.
But that became the entry way to the score for me. Now I have a sonic world. I also got a cello, which I cannot play at all, but I can torture it and kind of make it wheeze, and that becomes part of the sound too. A lot of times when starting a score I think of something sonically, a signature. Which may or may not have anything to do with what the notes are. In Pirates, it’s very tuneful and you have to write a great tune. With The Intruder, it’s more about sonic uniqueness and bespoke sounds that say ‘This is The Intruder‘ and not another thriller. I don’t like when music is general.
There were other times when I’d do that thing that musicians do which is I’d sing into my phone and record it. As I was doing demos for this movie, I was sort of chanting into a microphone to try and create a sound that I had in my head, but the intent was always to go and replace it with an instrument that kind of sounded like that. And of course, I never ended up doing that. I ended up just recording myself grunting into a microphone because it was the right sound. For this it ended up working for me to be a little bit more primal and to manipulate my own voice and these things that I had hanging around my studio.
“In Pirates, it’s very tuneful and you have to write a great tune. With The Intruder, it’s more about sonic uniqueness and bespoke sounds that say ‘This is The Intruder‘ and not another thriller.”
NOFS: The Intruder is your 2nd film with director Deon Taylor. Looking at your credits, you’ve worked with multiple directors, multiple times. What do you gain from an already established working dynamic?
GZ: That’s a great question. In the early part of your career, because directors typically make a movie every 3-4 years, you don’t have repeat business yet. Once directors started rehiring me, I think David Koepp (Secret Window, Mortdecai) would have been the first one, that second movie was almost more important than the first movie with anyone. It meant that I was rehireable, that someone liked what I did and then came back. And it also means, like any relationship, it’s easier to start on the right footing. And what you gain from it, is you start developing a kind of short hand with directors. I certainly have that with Deon. The conversations become either shorter, because they get their point across quicker, or they can start talking about less mechanical things and more artful things, more philosophy. I think that really helps inform the music.
NOFS: A good score is always so crucial to a horror/thriller film as it nudges an audience along and sets up certain events. What was your relationship like with the sound department on this film and how did your two jobs intersect?
GZ: Right! Actually, funny enough, the doorbells would really be the main focal point of that conversation. As we were looking through the movie we’d see where we could use an actual literal doorbell as part of the sound design and where that would become more figurative in the score. So that would be a clear case of the two intersecting.
But I think with The Intruder, the sound design is more focused on realism. Like in Pirates, it’s focused on super-sized sound with fantastic elements. But on this, it’s meant to feel real and grounded. So the music is actually doing more of the subtext, which I think is more common in thriller movies. It’s certainly how a Hitchcock movie would be scored. Where the music isn’t on the surface of the picture, it’s doing more of the deeper, emotional lifting. In this case, I’d get reels that were works in progress from the editing department, and it would have a lot of the sound designers work in there already so I could work to it. In other projects, where there’s a heavy load of sound design, it’s being done kind of concurrently with the score, and those are the times when you really need to be on the phone with them and saying, ‘Here’s what I think the music is going to be.’
“..the music [in The Intruder] is actually doing more of the subtext, which I think is more common in thriller movies. It’s certainly how a Hitchcock movie would be scored. Where the music isn’t on the surface of the picture, it’s doing more of the deeper, emotional lifting.”
NOFS: Dennis Quaid plays the character Charlie, the villain in The Intruder. The song ‘Charlie’s Foot’ has these interesting layers of emotion and humanity with a darkness lurking underneath. To me, it conveys a brutally broken character with perhaps a dark hidden agenda. Can you talk about scoring this track for this character?
GZ: Nobody has seen Dennis go this dark. Funny enough, years ago I did a movie where Dennis was also the villain (Beneath the Darkness), but in this one he’s just straight up twisted. And you don’t expect it out of him! And that’s what makes it so great. So the plot is that Scott and Annie are a married couple that end up buying Charlie’s home. But Charlie doesn’t really want to sell his home. He never really wants to move out. And before you know it, it becomes a thriller and people are in grave danger. But Charlie’s very twisted, he’s very manipulative, and he’ll do whatever he can to get what he wants. So what you’re hearing in ‘Charlie’s Foot’ is that duality, that manipulation that he’s trying to pull off on Annie. But at the same time he’s motivated by some not-so-good intentions on his part. That’s what makes it interesting to write for a character like that. In the beginning of the movie, he’s very welcoming and he’s a lovely guy, but then we begin to learn little by little what his secrets are. There has to be an element of that, it has to be present in the music or introduced at just the right time.
NOFS: Another great track from The Intruder is ‘Don’t Let Him In.’ In it you’ve got these terrifying, creepy strings and it got me thinking about how in ‘Charlie’s Foot’ the strings can be so beautiful and emotional, and here so haunting and scary. What do you think it is about the stringed instruments that allows them to convey such duality?
GZ: A lot of times I think about how an instrument relates to the human voice. Most melodic instruments are trying to in one way or another, or are invented in one way or another, to relate to a human voice. Something like a cello, which is generally in the range of a typical adult male voice, it has kind of a resonance in that way. For wind instruments, it’s pretty much exactly like a voice box with the wind going over it. But with a stringed instrument, you’re one extra step away from humanity. You have to use a bow to play it and you can sustain notes. Unlike a piano where you hit it and it starts disappearing right away, on a bowed string instrument, you can continue to hold it. I think that makes it immediately emotional. And you can do almost anything on a cello that you can do with a voice, it just isn’t a voice. But because you’re also using a bow, and the bow works by grabbing the string, if you emphasize that it, it becomes more of a percussion instrument. It’s less vocal and more guttural and scary. So if you expand that and have a bunch of violins playing a bunch of different pitches, it becomes inhuman and percussive and quite scary in that way. It’s difficult to imagine being as scary with say flutes, however it might be nice to try.
NOFS: On top of films, you’ve also composed for a variety of video games including Call of Duty: Black Ops, Modern Warfare 3: Defiance and the upcoming Star Citizen: Squadron 42. How is composing for an interactive user experience different, or is it?
GZ: Star Citizen is probably the best place for me to talk about it. In terms of scale, it’s the biggest video game that I’ve worked on to date. Stylistically, it’s a space opera basically. I think the actual mechanics of scoring for a video game is really a lot different from a film. By the way, I didn’t always use to think that, but now that I’m neck deep in a video game score I realize it’s quite a bit different and that’s been pretty exciting.
For me, because I come from working on films, I wish a person could play the game, I could score it and play it back, but you can’t. You play a game in real time and that’s not how it works. So, what is the next best thing, is to get the audio engine in the game, with the help of the programmers, to kind of make some of the decisions that I would make as a composer if I were scoring the game play in real time. Obviously that’s not exactly the same as writing a score, but the idea is, I’m writing these pieces for game play that work on many different levels. Then, the engine can decide to bring in certain elements that have different meanings.
To give a basic example, you’re flying in a space ship, and nothing dangerous is happening. That should have a certain tone. Now a bad guy shows up. It should have a different tone. And now he brings 8 of his friends, and that’ll have a totally different tone. The game should be able to make all those moves, and that might all happen in 2 minutes of game play. So, I’m having to write pieces of music that are able to jump at almost any point in the music to a different stream, without it sounding abrasive or like it’s been edited. That’s what makes it different. It’s totally different. You have to work on a few different axis. Intensity vs. danger vs. activity level. All of those things come into play and the engine is able to pick out elements on the fly and make it still sound like music.
“..you’re flying in a space ship, and nothing dangerous is happening. That should have a certain tone. Now a bad guy shows up. It should have a different tone. And now he brings 8 of his friends, and that’ll have a totally different tone. The game should be able to make all those moves, and that might all happen in 2 minutes of game play.”
NOFS: That sounds very…intense.
GZ: It really is! It ends up being, for a piece of music that when you’re playing the game is only going to play for 3 or 4 minutes, you end up writing 25 minutes. There’s probably whole swaths of the score that certain players won’t hear that much or maybe never because they never got into much trouble during that particular fight. But I think there’s something kind of cool about that.
NOFS: Alright, last big question. What is your favorite Dennis Quaid character or film?
GZ: That is tricky isn’t it. Well, honestly I loved seeing him in this role (in The Intruder) because it’s so unexpected. It’s just not the thing you expect to see him doing. I also have something of a soft spot for baseball movies, and there was a movie called The Rookie. And the book was called The Oldest Rookie. It’s about the oldest guy making it to the majors and that’s kind of great isn’t it!
Make sure to check out the film and Geoff’s score when The Intruder hits theaters May 3rd. The score will also be released digitally on all major digital platforms so make sure to keep your eyes peeled for that. Release date currently forthcoming, but soon for certain! Curious what other cool projects Geoff has been involved with? Check out his website here.