Michael Wandmacher is a multi-faceted and prolific composer working within many genres. He's scored intense horror films like Pirahna 3D, My Bloody Valentine, The Last Exorcism Part 2 and the upcoming film Patient Zero. He's scored video games like Bloodborne and Singularity. On the other side of the spectrum he's been composing music for the hit ABC comedies, The Goldbergs and Imaginary Mary. He recently completed a more intimate orchestral score for the movie, Voice of the Stone and scored the latest installment of the Underworld franchise, Underworld: Blood Wars with an epic action thriller soundtrack! It was a pleasure talking with Michael. I learned a lot, and I think you will too!
Did you play in a band growing up?
Yes. I probably started when I was 14, after school with friends in mostly cover bands. I was only in a couple bands that actually did original songs. I played in groups all through college. We would do four or five hour gigs until two or three in the morning. It was actually a really good experience for what I do now because I can think like a band member as well as a composer. It taught me about improvisation and being more reckless at times musically, in a good way, even though I didn't go to music school. There's a certain chaos playing live that's so joyful.
A lot of your music is orchestral in nature. How did you learn to write for an orchestra?
Sheer will! Just by listening...When I was younger I listened to a lot of film scores and I would look at a lot of sheet music. I would get the CDs and music of famous symphonies or concertos, and try to understand the relationship between the instruments, how they were combined, how the different sections of the orchestra worked with each other. I mainly did it by ear, a skill I developed from playing in bands. I know it's a weird association to make, but when you're trying to pick apart a song and learn all the parts it’s much the same as when you're listening to orchestral music - your ear starts to pick it apart. Over time, like a jigsaw puzzle, it just came together in my head.
Do you have any secret to writing music for film?
I visualize music when I write it. It has a shape and personality and point-of-view. Sometimes it can be a very abstract construct in my head, but it’s a living mental thing. I put that in the movie as its own character and think about, musically, how does it feel or react to what’s going on in the story?
Is there an advantage to being self-taught?
In some ways I see it as an advantage, because you don't have any rules in your head about how things should be combined or structured. Putting stuff together sonically, I have no constraints in my mind about where the music will spawn from or how it will be presented. I'll try anything if I think it'll sound cool!
What's your musical template for The Goldbergs?
The main template I use is pretty straightforward: electric piano, drums, bass, guitar, and hand percussion. Plus there's a secret sound in there, a melodic sound that I use that’s a combination of instruments that I won't give away, because it's The Goldbergs "instrument" that’s very specific to that show. Sometimes I throw in organ, standard piano or a little bit of 80s-style synth to fill out a particular cue. In contrast to working with orchestral or modern electronic templates, this group of instruments makes scoring the show more like writing a bunch of little songs or tunes. It’s actually a very challenging way to score because I have to come at the arranging part of the task in a completely different way than is usually required.
The Goldbergs is set in the 80's, but your music doesn't sound 80's per se.
The music I do for the show doesn't scream 80's when you hear it. Some of the guitar tones I use and some of the ways I produce drums and things like that would be more of a call back to that time, but it still feels fresh and modern. That balance was a very important thing to achieve for the producers - something that speaks to the time period of the show, but also makes it timeless. However, there are times when I get to write music that sounds really 80's, like the beats for the Big Tasty raps, or highlighting some specific event, like a school dance or other in-the-moment scenario. Or I get to re-arrange 80’s songs at the end of the show so the cast can sing them. It's a lot of different hats, crossing the whole gamut from being a composer to music director to songwriter and everything in between. That’s a big part of what makes working on this show so much fun!
How do you build cues for The Goldbergs?
I usually lay down a beat, then pick up a guitar or bass and start playing along with that and just let it grow from there. It's usually a very organic process and taps into both my songwriting and scoring brain at the same time. A lot of the arrangements of the cues are similar to what they would be in pop songs in terms of shape and structure. Instead of movements or passages, I think of verse-chorus-bridge-type sections. The music for The Goldbergs is all very upbeat and energetic and positive feeling. Even in sad moments, the music is still in a major key! I don't think I've ever written a cue for that show in a minor key. (laughs)
Wow! I never would have guessed that! What instruments do you play?
I mainly play guitar but I also play cello, bass, piano. I play whatever I have to play! Necessity is a great motivator! I can probably competently play about 12 or 15 instruments, mostly different types of stringed things. I also play drums and other peculiar percussion instruments.
What was your process when you composed the action sequences for Underworld: Blood Wars?
Most of the action sequences in Underworld are pretty long, so the first step was to map out their construction, and decide how the music should ebb and flow with intercutting between large battle shots or exteriors, close-up fights and moments for dialogue. How the story unfolds through the course of the action is paramount, so this map always acts as the foundation for the cue. Once these key points were marked up in the sequence, I usually started with a rhythm or “motor", either in strings or percussion (often something I was just singing out while watching!). Then, I would add layer after layer of instrumentation to augment the intensity of what’s on screen. The tricky part becomes maintaining the immense level of energy and scale required by an action movie like this, and still injecting melodies where everything smoothly pulls back and lets the movie breathe in order to highlight a turning point in the narrative. Another major consideration is deciding where to change up the “feel” of the cue in order to mark significant plot points, emotions, escalations and de-escalations as they evolve onscreen. The rhythms, colors, pace and raw energy of the cue have to reflect the arc of the sequence.
What is the most challenging part about writing for action sequences?
Keeping the music dynamic, constantly changing and elevating what’s onscreen is probably the most difficult aspect of writing for action; and also what makes it so satisfying when it all comes together! On Underworld, in particular, it was a challenging thing to do because the template for electronics and orchestra was so massive that even pared down for quieter moments, it still sounded huge!
What's on your musical wish list?
The list is long and varied, of course! A couple off the top of my head...I’d love to do a horror score that is completely comprised of human voices and nothing else - the whole movie with no other instruments, just people. Everything from solo female and male voices all the way up to a full-blown Jerry Goldsmith-style satanic choir! That, I think, would be a colossal challenge and I don’t think it’s ever been done before. Other than that, I would really love to do a deeply ambient electronic score where I can really stretch my electronica chops. I’ve been working with synths, modular hardware and organic sound manipulation for decades and it would be cool to show that off!
Right on! Who are some of your musical heroes or influences? Beatles or Zeppelin?
I was more of a Zeppelin person growing up. Van Halen was my favorite band. I never would have picked up a guitar if it wasn't for Eddie Van Halen. Back in the formative years I was listening to everything - from Industrial Electronic Music that was coming out of Europe to funk and rap. I was really into N.W.A and Ice T. Also The Police and Nine Inch Nails. On the classical side, I started with the stalwarts: Mozart, Bach, Wagner, Stravinsky. Over time, I got into progressively more modern and experimental music. But I still go back and listen to a lot of Beethoven and Bach because of my cello playing. I want to at least get through one of those cello suites before I die! (laughs)