Christophe Beck is the mighty and effervescent composer who has defined the sonic worlds of iconic films including Frozen, The Hangover franchise, The Muppets, American Made, Edge of Tomorrow, Pitch Perfect, and Ant-Man. After attending Yale University, studying under Jerry Goldsmith in the prestigious USC Thornton School of Music Film Scoring Program, and apprenticing for Mike Post, Christophe broke into the mainstream with his compelling work on cult classic television series, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which resulted in an Emmy win. Christophe's prolific nature and his innate ability to twist and transform his musical identity have cemented his status as one of the first calls in film music. In advance of the release of Ant-Man and the Wasp, Christophe discusses striking a balance of familiar and fresh for the sequel and reveals the key components at the heart of his approach to scoring.
Growing up, who were defining musical influences for you? Can you tell us about the initial spark that led to your pursuit of film composing?
Depeche Mode, Styx, New Order. It wasn't until much later in life that my list included names like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith.
I really came late to film scoring. At first, it was all about getting a record deal and getting my face on MTV. I got into film scoring almost by default. It was a way of conceding and letting go of my rock star fantasies, settling for some other way to make a living making music. I kind of fell into it by accident. Of course, I found out quickly that there was a lot about the job that I was very well suited for and it ended up being a good fit. In fact, it was a much better fit than me trying to be a rock star.
Sliding doors, if you would have gone and become a rock star, would you have been the front man? The lead guitar player? If that had been your path, what would you have been doing?
I think only one door was sliding. I think the other door would never have opened for me because I'm not comfortable on stage. I don't like lyrics. I'm definitely not a front man. It just took growing up, really, to realize it. I much prefer being the guy behind the scenes.
I understand that you will be performing your original work at Movie Score Malaga. What can those in attendance expect from your upcoming performances?
Well, it's my first time. I'm looking forward to it, but I also don't know much of what to expect, myself. There will be two concerts, one for TV music and the second being a film music concert. At the TV music concert, I'll be conducting a suite of my music from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The next night, at the film music concert, I'll be conducting a suite of music from four or five of my films. In either case, it will be the first time I've gotten up on stage to perform like this before. I'm much happier just hiding out in my cave. So, it's definitely gonna be something a little bit out of my comfort zone, but I'm really excited about it.
We are looking forward to the release of Ant-Man and the Wasp. For this sequel, you are reuniting with the director, Peyton Reed for the third time. How was your collaboration different this time around?
The first thing to understand is that we worked on Bring It On seventeen years ago. Then the next time we got to collaborate, it was only a couple years ago for the first film. There was quite a bit of time in between our first and second collaborations. I believe both of us have evolved quite a bit as director and composer, respectively.
I think any time you work with a director that you've worked with before you start to develop a shorthand. You start to get comfortable with their taste and you start to be able to anticipate their direction. I think it's really a lot like dating. You know, the first date you really don't know the person very well. You're just exploring and trying to figure out what makes the other person tick. By the second or third date, assuming that things are going well, there's much more familiarity, comfort, and confidence. Especially when you're looking at doing a sequel, there's a real shorthand that developed. There's a common language, so in a way, you can kind of dispense with pleasantries and just get right down to the work.
Of course, working on a sequel invites different challenges than working on an entirely different movie. Mainly, you're faced with the task of deciding how much of the material from the first movie you want to keep using for the second. This is true for the entire movie, not just the score. You have to find that balance between keeping things familiar and coherent. You also have to make sure that it doesn't become stale or repetitive, incorporating enough new stuff in there to keep it fresh.
Digging a bit deeper into the score of the sequel, I noticed that the meter of It Ain't Over Til The Wasp Lady Stings is 5/4.
I love you. That's correct! You're observing that the new Wasp theme is in a different odd meter. The subsequent cues rely on that theme. It was on purpose. I feel like one of the most distinctive qualities of the original Ant-Man theme is that it's in 7/4. In fact, that informed most of the entire score. I would say two-thirds of the entire score is in 7. Only a minority of the cues are in the more standard 4 or 3.
For the sequel, I wanted to figure out a way how to continue that again without making it too repetitive, so I thought, "Can I write a new theme for The Wasp, but also have it be in seven?". Then I thought, "You know, maybe that's just a little too easy." So I thought, "Well, a compromise situation would be to keep it in an odd meter, but a different odd meter." I think it makes it feel just different enough to be unique to her character as opposed to his. The score is a combination of cues in 5/4, plenty of them are in 7/8 because we have to represent Ant-Man too. In a few places, we explore some 9/8 time signatures as well.
Creating cues in odd meters has become a signature sound of the Ant-Man scores and I'm happy about that. It's something Jerry Goldsmith liked to do a lot. He was a teacher of mine back at USC, so I'm proud to say I'm continuing that legacy.
Your score for American Made was another departure from the traditional Hollywood treatment. It has a strong '70s rock influence and features killer guitar work and a lot of funky groove bass. A personal favorite track of ours is Sandanistas Y Reagan. What was the core impulse behind this musical treatment?
That's a great question. In fact, that movie's directed by a great director that I've done a couple movies with, Doug Liman. In my opinion, he's one of the best directors in the working in Hollywood. In my experience, he's also one of the more challenging ones to work with as a composer. There's definitely good and bad with him. The bad is, I'm pretty much guaranteed to be miserable for at least part of it. It might take awhile and it might take some hand wringing, but the good part is, I know when I do a movie with him, I know I'm going to end up with something great.
For American Made, we had the added element of Tom Cruise, who was, of course, the star of the movie. He came in towards the end of our process. Doug and I had been at it for four, five, six months, developing a sound that was quite a bit more modern than what you hear in the film. It was a little bit experimental and a little bit chaotic. The piece you mentioned was actually a little bit of a remnant of that initial direction. I think it's a bit of an exception, but you definitely get the feeling listening to that piece that it's less of a faithful, retro time travel trip. It's more referential.
We kind of realized towards the end, with some influence from Tom, that we were trying a little too hard and that we just needed to make things simpler. The movie's set in the '70s and '80s in the American South. We thought it was best to not overthink things and rewrite the score in a more Southern rock style.
That is exactly what the collective thinking was behind it. In fact, by the time Doug, Tom, and I came to this conclusion, there really wasn't much time left to complete the score. Just a few weeks to put it all together. Luckily, there wasn't an enormous score needed for the film, so we were able to pull it off.
So, you kind of hunkered down with Lynyrd Skynyrd to finish the score?
Yes. Or, at least, a cardboard cut-out of them because we couldn't get the actual band.
When and how did you fall in love with modular synthesizers?
About 20 years ago, before it was cool to fall in love with modular synthesizers. I had a couple of systems at a time when there were really only about a dozen companies making modules. I got really into it, used them a little bit in some of my scoring work, and made a lot of my own music with them. In fact, I made an album called Rubber Bug that I didn't really do anything with, then I fell away from it for about 10 years.
It was only more recently, about a couple years ago, that I came across a demo video for one of the newer companies that didn't exist when I first go into it. It was completely by accident. They were just demonstrating a couple of their new modules. What I was hearing and the stuff I was seeing these modules do just melted my face. As I reentered this world, I realized what used to be a very limited field had grown into hundreds of companies making modules. Now, it's many, many hundreds. There's something new coming out every week and every single one seemingly does something really, really special, unique, and exciting.
The good news is, I have this amazing playground to experiment with. The bad news is, I can't stop buying modules.
What's the longest amount of time you've spent working on a single patch?
Oh, my goodness. On YouTube, I have a patch called Rubberneckers. That took three weeks, but I tell you, I have worked on patches longer than that. I worked on another patch for five or six weeks before deciding it was going nowhere. I ended up striking it and starting over.
I'll tell you, the most fun part of a patch is during the first few days when you're playing with the central idea, the exciting idea, Then, of course, I get obsessed and I want to make a whole piece out of it, not just a sonic exploration. That's when things get tricky and challenging, especially toward the end.
If you check out the Rubberneckers piece I mentioned, you will just see a massive pile of cables. In fact, when I say massive, I mean it literally. It's heavy to lift those cables out of the way when you want to put in a new patch. There were a couple of times working on that particular patch, and really every patch, where I'm trying to make room for a new connection that I put in, and then maybe my elbow might push on a cable over here on the right. Then I just hear a "Bing!" and look over to see that there's a cable just dangling. You know, the end just swinging in the air, and now I have to figure out where that was plugged in and repair it. That process can take hours. Maybe even a whole day of repair work to figure out where that one patch is supposed to be.
Sometimes, I just feel like I'm insane. My laptop is just sitting to my left and I think to myself, "Well, you know what? I could just open my laptop and be done in half a day." Somehow, I just keep coming back to the physical interactivity of the modular, and how inviting it is to experiment, and how intoxicating it is to play with.
I thought the question you were gonna ask me was how many hours straight have you worked on the modular without stopping for eating or going to the bathroom, or whatever. The answer to that is probably five or six hours. Maybe longer. You know, it feels like half an hour because it's really an amazing instrument.
While watching your rogue swing automation modular synth performance, I couldn't believe it had walking bass. It sounded like the oscillators were doing saxophone solos. How did you achieve that?
Wow. Well, I'm sure that would be a lot of really boring inside baseball talk for your readers. Very briefly and generally, it's a lot of random voltage generation to control the bass line and the saxophone. And then, I have set up the system where it was switching back and forth where you would hear this so-called saxophone play the solo for a little bit, and then it would pause, and then it would trigger random samples from a very old score of mine. I actually did that score with a Big Band, so you can hear all these crazy hits. Not only were the samples triggered at random, but the loop settings also become randomized.
You might have a horn blast that plays clean one time, but then next time, there may only be a small portion of that horn blast that will play in a loop. It might make a "waaaa" one time, and then go "dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun" the next. That spontaneity really made for a pretty crazy sonic tapestry. I would say that my life was made much easier by the fact that I decided there were going to be no chord progressions and no tonal centers. By deciding to make it free jazz, it didn't matter what notes any of the voices were playing, which simplified the process.
In the second phase of my love affair with modular synths, it was the first patch that I completed and was proud enough to record, shoot, and post on YouTube. Experimental music is an exercise. I really just wanted to see if I could do it and it turned into something that was pretty presentable.
In your career, you've scored an impressive range of high-profile projects, from blockbuster comedies (The Hangover franchise, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Pitch Perfect) to definitive action films (Edge of Tomorrow, American Made) to animated motion pictures (Frozen, The Muppets) to superhero epics (Ant-Man and now, Ant-Man and Wasp). Can you elaborate on the signature stamp you have put on such a broad diversity of work?
Tuba solos! That's a joke, obviously. I wish I could tell you what that was. I think what you're asking me is to define my style. It's really hard for me to do that for myself because I think I'm just way too close to it.
I will say there are three things that I keep coming back to. I have a continuing love affair with electronics, processing inside the computer, and messing around with analog synths outside of the computer. Of course, I don't get to do this to a full extent for every project, but I look for any opportunity to include it in my work. Interestingly, it's not featured in the majority of the projects you just mentioned, but it's definitely something that is a true passion of mine.
The second thing is placing importance on having melody be the primary musical focus on a cue. I try to never spend too much time just treading water musically. Having a strong theme gives you a constant feeling of forward momentum. For example, if you listen very closely, you'll hear the pneumatic element very strongly even in a score like Anon. There is an emphasis on melody even though it's a synth or a violin that has been heavily processed. Fundamentally, there's still a melodic sensibility there that is mine.
The last thing would be versatility. I feel like one of my strengths as a composer is the ability to be a bit of a chameleon. I have the ability to embrace a lot of different styles and produce them convincingly.
Don't miss Ant-Man and The Wasp in theaters nationwide this Friday, July 6th.
Coming up this month, Christophe will lead the initial workshop of SESAC Scores: The Beck Diversity Project, an initiative to promote diversity and gender equality in film music.