Mark McKenzie

Film Score Monthly – Mark McKenzie – Feburary 2011

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(Film Score Monthly – published: Feburary 2011)

Mark McKenzie
The composer shares his thoughts on music, Jerry Goldsmith, the need for real orchestra, and much more.
Interview by Tim Curran


Mark McKenzie is a familiar name to most film music fans; he’s known for his work both as a composer and orchestrator for the past 25 years or so. His orchestration resumé is a Who’s Who of favorite Hollywood composers: Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Alan Silvestri, Danny Elfman, John Barry, Bruce Broughton…the list goes on. And as a composer himself, Mark has nearly 20 feature films to his credit. In the midst of frequent Hollywood cynicism, his is a refreshing voice, both literally—in candid conversation—and musically, with his gift for, and love of, melody.

FSMO: Can you tell us about your musical background?

MM: I came from a musical family with seven kids. Every one of us studied the piano with top-notch teachers. There was always someone in our home practicing from early in the morning till late at night. While going to sleep or waking in the morning I visualized each note being played by my older siblings; I learned later that is called perfect pitch. Music consumed most of my thoughts growing up and I vowed to learn as much about it as I possibly could. The first thing I said to my music-therapist future wife when I asked her to marry me was if she would be okay living “hand to mouth” while I earned a masters and doctorate in music composition and then very likely long after that. She immediately said yes; that’s true love. Money is never an issue with her, she’s happy from within.

FSMO: You studied with Witold Lutoslawski. What was that like?

MM: He visited USC and I was fortunate enough to study briefly with him. I’d studied his scores and had deep admiration for his music. He was complimentary of my writing but really I just felt so inferior as a young composer that I can’t remember much from that experience except how much reverence I felt for him and how nervous I was.

FSMO: When and for how long did you study with Morten Lauridsen?

MM: Officially about three lessons. He disliked what I was doing at first and almost removed me from the composition program. At that time I wanted to write tonal music and it just wasn’t acceptable to do that. I immediately wrote a piano sonata making use of wonderful dissonant harmonies that Skip (that is what we called him) really liked and at that point we became friends. In part because of that experience, he was a huge influence on me in my early development of thematic/motivic writing and musical craftsmanship. He became my boss as a USC teaching assistant and later instructor. When finishing my doctorate, I invited him to be on my doctoral committee for final evaluation. Skip gave me the score to “A Midwinter’s Song” to study after that was premiered. I was “knocked out” and wanted to know how he could make the voice and words become so inexplicably expressive. I must quickly add there are so many fine composition professors at USC who gave me a fantastic education; people like Frederick Lesemann, Robert Moore, Anthony Vazzana, Don Crocket, and Robert Linn.

FSMO: How did you end up in Hollywood?

MM: While finishing my doctorate I was thinking about applying to teach at a university and then I met Bruce Broughton. It’s really his fault. I will always be grateful to him.

FSMO: Did you aspire to orchestrate, or did things just evolve into that early in your career?

MM: I had no aspiration to orchestrate. Bruce Broughton was looking for help and I was hungry for anything I could find. It seemed a way to start earning a living as a musician. I’m a terrible perfectionist and strive to go to bed each night and be able to say to myself honestly: “I did my very best today!” One job led to another. All the while I looked high and low for composing opportunities. My friend Cliff Eidelman (who actually was a student of mine at USC for a short time) gave me my first project; a sequel to a horror picture he had done. I’ve completely forgotten the name of that film…or at least I want to. [Ed. Note: It was Son of Darkness: To Die for II]

FSMO: Working for Bruce Broughton on Young Sherlock Holmes was one of your first orchestrating gigs. Can you describe that experience?

MM: Two words: Sheer exhilaration. Bruce Broughton, a genius, Steven Spielberg, a genius, producer Mark Johnson, a genius, director Barry Levinson, a genius, Abby Road, the Beatles, Eric Tomlinson. I couldn’t have been happier especially after I heard the “Final Duel.”

FSMO: When did you begin orchestrating for Jerry Goldsmith? What was the first film for him?

MM: I got a call in August of 2000 and the guy on the phone said “Hi Mark, this is Jerry Goldsmith. How would you like to orchestrate for me?” I was thinking no-way; [orchestrator] Bill Ross is playing a joke on me. But then it did sound like Jerry and he was seriously waiting for an answer. My mind raced…he wants a long-term commitment and I want to compose! I said: “Well Jerry, I am so honored to get this call. May I take a day to think about this?” And then after I hung up, my inner thoughts collided: “You fool…are you going to turn down the greatest living composer?” (Well I know that’s up for debate, but it wasn’t for me.) “Think of what you’ll learn from him! Of course you’re going to say yes.”

It turned out to be a golden time for me with no regrets. We had some great musical adventures together. The first was for Disney’s California Adventures theme park ride “Soarin’.” We went on to a number of great scores, interestingly enough, ending with “That’s all folks” in the last frames of his last movie Looney Tunes: Back in Action. I get choked up at the sadness of that.

FSMO: Did you have to ease in to the relationship with him, or did you two click from the outset?

MM: From the very first meeting Jerry was very interested in me personally, my thoughts, my life, my goals. Up to that point in my career I’d never had a composer I worked for actually be really interested in me, and it set me at ease. I put my opinions out there from the beginning and we just heard music the same way and thought in similar ways. For example in the first recording session I said: You know Jerry, the basses don’t sound full and rich and it’s affecting the breadth of the orchestral sound, and he quickly said, “I’ve been saying that over and over again,” and turned to his amazing engineer Bruce Botnick for help.

I grew quickly to love Jerry like he was my own dad, and he responded saying I was a “godsend,” calling me “one of his angels.” He seemed to really mean it. I often say: “I learned that the reason there was greatness in Jerry Goldsmith’s music is because there was authentic greatness in the man.”

FSMO: You’ve referred to him as your mentor before. What were the most important things you learned from him?

MM: First and foremost: unabashed genuine love and care for others. On a more musical front, to push boundaries, to be true to myself, follow my instincts, to let the music grow organically, to let each film suggest an approach but to keep things simple and direct.

If We Could Remember: Mark with Jerry, at the recording sessions for The Sum of All Fears.

FSMO: You have had plenty of long-lasting orchestration relationships with major composers over the years. Do you find that they learn from you, too, as you learn from them? And does that back-and-forth help create a more symbiotic relationship? Or perhaps is it the opposite, where each person brings his approach and it’s that separateness that helps give a more objective perspective throughout the process?

MM: It’s both. It’s always a synergy creating something better with composers who are hungry and smart enough to hire the finest orchestrators and pay attention to the details. Details are what make greatness in music. I chose a university education and I’m grateful I did. Many of the guys I worked for had little to no formal education, but they are sponges, learning from everyone around them. You can learn far more in scoring 20 movies than a college degree can give. But not everyone gets the opportunity to do 20 films and get paid to work with the finest musical minds in Hollywood, so I always recommend a strong formal university education to those who want a career in film music.

FSMO: You also worked with John Barry, right? With his recent passing, can you tell us a little about your time spent with him?

MM: Well, remember that I spent 10 years in college studying every conceivable type of music, and complexity was highly valued at the university. I was called by my dear friend Greig McRitchie to help out at the last minute on Dances With Wolves, so I stayed up late and orchestrated the “Buffalo Hunting” music. I added stuff I thought John’s music needed to give it more energy—I know, very arrogant—but remember my background, and without explicit instructions from a composer, I always feel my job is to do my very best work. Well, he peeled off what I added without belittling me, and then those eight horns in unison, and five trombones, plus tuba, with thick, rich pads, and the soaring strings along with the visuals of thousands of stampeding buffalo—it grabbed my heart, my mind…I was transfixed! I was cured in one moment from the need to be complex. From that moment I made sure there was emotional depth in my music. It is a dream before I die to compose something truly meaningful, dramatically powerful and emotionally satisfying. That dream was ignited after working on Dances With Wolves and seeing John Barry at work.

FSMO: While you were orchestrating, you were also composing. Was that a struggle to avoid being seen in the industry as solely an orchestrator?

MM: We have so little control over how we will be seen. We can only control how we treat others and how we use our time and talents. I happily gave my talent for years to other composers and now I happily give whatever talent and experience I have to filmmakers on films and projects I care deeply about. To me composing is a sacred calling that can’t be ignored. Whether it’s big pictures, tiny pictures, concert works or sacred works, it doesn’t matter to me. Some know me as an orchestrator and thankfully now many, many also know me as a composer. I’ve read certain agents saying self-serving things like “orchestrators don’t make good composers.” That can be true, but everyone is different. I take pride in the fact that John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry, Max Steiner, Henry Mancini, Hugo Friedhofer all began as orchestrators, and they made pretty good composers. Orchestrating is a noble profession that requires a great deal of talent. It is an important part of composition. It can be a great springboard to a composing career if the chops are there and if you get a little help from key people.

There were two composers I worked with who encouraged me at my composing, and one of them was Jerry Goldsmith. While we were doing Star Trek: Nemesis, LeVar Burton (Star Tek’s Geordi) completely as a coincidence happened to be directing a film, Blizzard, that my friend Ralph Winter was producing. LeVar gave me the job, and I called Jerry to say: “Ah…gee…Jerry….I’ve got this other film that I could compose; I’d really like to do it, but I don’t want to screw up Star Trek…what do you think?” Jerry didn’t think. Instantly he said, “Well of course you are going to compose that. You just orchestrate what you can and when it’s too much for you we’ll get someone else, but promise me you’ll be at the recording dates. I did help at the recording dates and LeVar, who has my deepest respect and love, stopped by. It was great fun to hang with someone who just happened to be the actor in the film I partially orchestrated, as well as the director of the film I was composing. The Blizzard music ended up opening and underscoring the 75th Academy Awards Diamond Tribute to the 75 best pictures of all time. And, I’m happy to report I just re-released Blizzard on iTunes. It’s a movie that shows up every year at Christmas time.

FSMO: At a certain point, you really put the orchestration aside to pursue composition exclusively, right? Can you describe that decision?

MM: You know I always wondered what my midlife crisis might look like, or would I bypass that? I was married to the love of my life, had two great kids, and had tons of great friends. Well I missed the obvious…I wasn’t happy in my career. Orchestrating another blockbuster wasn’t fun any more…the only thing that brought me real satisfaction was composing. I developed a bad attitude towards some key relationships, made mistakes, and things naturally slowed down for me. About that same time I was asked to compose two Hallmark Hall of Fame films almost back to back and then a couple films by director Michael Landon, Jr. I’ve helped some friends from time to time orchestrating, but that sort of midlife career crisis ended up propelling me into a fertile, fruitful period of composing and I couldn’t be happier about that.


FSMO: Much of your film music is very melodic. Is that your favorite kind of writing to do?

MM: Absolutely no doubt about it, but I also like the variety that scores like The Ultimate Gift provide. I figure I’ll keep working on perfecting melodic writing so that when it comes back in vogue I’ll be ready. I was very happy to see Michael Giacchino’s melodic score win the Academy Award last year and to see Up clean up at the box office. When people tell me that melodies take them out of a film, I want to ask them if Darth Vader’s theme takes them out of The Empire Strikes Back, if Morricone’s theme takes them out of The Mission or if Alexandre Desplat’s theme takes them out of Girl With a Pearl Earring. Directors sometimes can be like irrational teenagers: If mom and dad like something, they hate it! If melodies were used in films in the past, they hate them. It has nothing to do with great filmmaking; it has to do with trying so hard to do the teenage thing of “self individuation.” A strong theme can add tremendous value to a film. Using a theme, especially the wrong theme or a poorly written theme in the wrong place, now that creates a problem.

FSMO: Of your original scores, which ones have been your favorites?

MM: Hmmm…that’s like asking me which of my kids I like the most. I like them all for differing reasons. I’m really close to the music in The Great Miracle, and I think time will show this to be one of my best works. It has the advantage of a rich melodic and emotional fabric, beautiful symphonic orchestrations, choir, and boys choir. A mentor who carries my deepest respect and knows everything I’ve composed called me last week in tears, telling me that it was the best thing I’ve ever written and that he had no idea where I would or could go from here! I’m excited to get that out there in the hands of people. It is in the process of being put up on iTunes and Amazon, etc.

FSMO: What can you tell us about the film The Great Miracle?

MM: The Great Miracle—El Gran Milagro in Spanish—is a 3D, animated Catholic-themed art film produced by filmmakers Pablo Jose Barroso and Claudia Nemer and directed by my friend Bruce Morris. Bruce has helped shepherd the stories on Disney films such as Finding Nemo and was the writer of Pocahontas. The story centers around three hurting individuals, who, through the help of angels and divine love, have incredibly interesting and redemptive experiences. The movie will be released in the USA, South America, and parts of Europe.


On the Lot: With director Bruce Morris at the recording of the score for The Great Miracle; Newman Scoring Stage, 20th Century Fox lot.

FSMO: Do you use any traditional religious hymns in the score?

MM: It is a film that in large part takes place inside a Cathedral, so there is a deeply spiritual nature to the music but it is all my own music, my themes, my Latin lyrics. There is a brief quote from my favorite composer J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C Major that has a hymn-like quality to it. There is also a piece for boys choir that I composed as a showcase anthem. The idea was to make it as moving and spiritually rich as possible. I used the London boys choir Libera for that one, and they did a stunning performance.

FSMO: You’ve also developed a relationship with the Hallmark Hall of Fame film-production unit. How did that evolve?

MM: Hallmark Hall of Fame, as you probably already know, is the longest-running television series ever. My relationship with them began with two movie scores (Durango and The Lost Child). Doug Fake at Intrada released those scores and they became favorite CDs for some of the Hallmark people to listen to. Durango, in particular, got some attention when it was used on the Academy Awards and later was used in the trailer for Finding Neverland; they had never had one of their scores end up in places like that.

FSMO: And can you tell us about the latest big project you did for them—scores for logo treatments that will run for the next 10 years, is that right?

MM: For some years now Hallmark has wanted to freshen up their theme and possibly come up with a new one. A couple of us wrote themes and none of them seemed right. Last summer, surprise, Hallmark called and said, “We choose you! We want you to go back at it and write us a new theme and still incorporate some elements of the old theme.” I wrote a theme we called “Radiance,” which is a brass fanfare that came to me in a matter of seconds; I fell in love with it and they did, too. Next task was to compose one theme that could be recognizable in seven different versions: adventure, light romantic, Christmas, playful, emotional drama, epic and deeply romantic. The executives at Hallmark are very musically astute and sophisticated and great fun to work with. We fine-tuned a theme we called “Megan’s Theme” after my daughter, and now each Hallmark Premiere, depending on the nature of the movie, will include Megan’s theme in one of those seven different versions. We used a large orchestra and choir and it will take over two years just to make use of each version. If I’m fortunate enough, they will open each movie premiere for the next 10 to 20 years. And, for the closing theme we just took Durango and used that. There is a certain timelessness to that theme; at least I hope so.

FSMO: As you began to do more and more composing and had to use orchestrators for your projects (mostly due to time constraints, I imagine), was that hard to let go of, having done so much of that for so many years?

MM: I’ve used my good friend Pat Russ on some of my projects like Blizzard to help save me time. My sketches are like Jerry’s or Bruce Broughton’s: very complete. On the last six movies I’ve composed, I’ve also orchestrated every note. I find that it both streamlines things and gives a control freak like me exactly what I want. I also have a fantastic copyist in Gregg Nestor.

FSMO: Your scores have been written primarily for live orchestra. What is your setup like in your studio in terms of what you use to create mock-ups?

MM: First let me say I believe that an orchestral-based score, or at least some live instruments, gives a producer the best chance at giving a film a long “shelf life.” It helps give a timelessness to the music. Inevitably, synth scores become dated. The way I see it is that the profit for filmmakers is not just the upfront money, it is the money that keeps coming in year after year, decade after decade, in TV and on DVD. Music performed and recorded well can help or hurt that income stream.

I have a powerful home studio that never has enough toys for my liking. My mock-ups are beautiful reproductions of what I strive for with the orchestra. I’ve had engineers and musicians say to me, “Why are we recording this? It sounds perfect the way it is.” I find it necessary to warn producers that when we record, it will not sound artificially perfect like the demos, that performances with live instruments often have minor flaws and those flaws give the music a living, breathing, character and expressivity. There is no replacing the symphony orchestra, live players and the unique expressiveness they bring.

FSMO: Are you a fan of the technology needed in today’s film music landscape, or do you feel it gets in the way?

MM: I’m totally a fan; I’m always looking for new sounds to enhance my color palette. My scores are filled with electronics even though they often sound very acoustic. There are a few sounds I find myself drawn to repeatedly, and one is the tenor recorder, or some call it the renaissance flute. John Clark is the player who played that instrument with incredible sensitivity on Frank and Jesse. Sadly, John is no longer with us. A few years ago I discovered a library by SampleTekk called Renaissance Flute. I love that and I feel like I have John Clark again. Another sound I’m attracted to lately is the boy choir in Spectrasonics Omnisphere. I used it in my Hallmark Main Title along with six women’s voices and again in The Great Miracle mixed in with 48 voices. I usually try to keep the electronics limited to 24 tracks and the orchestra to 24 tracks, though on The Great Miracle that wasn’t possible. Engineer Armin Steiner and music editor Marc Perlman both have been immensely helpful to me in integrating synthesizer technologies with orchestra.

FSMO: In light of the Oscars coming up shortly: What role do you play on the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?

MM: I’m just one of about 250 music branch Academy members. I have what I think is the privilege to vote and nominate scores and songs for an Academy Award and then also I vote later for best picture and all the other categories for the final Academy Awards. Musically there was some interest in my score The Great Miracle, but this year the Academy is going a different musical direction for the “In memoriam” segment.

FSMO: Can you explain a little bit about how the nominations process goes down? Did all five of your nominees make the cut?

MM: Each member has the opportunity to nominate five scores; the top choice gets weighted the most and the bottom the least. You don’t have to choose five if you think there aren’t five worthy scores. We are asked to not discuss our particular votes so I’ll respect that.

FSMO: Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

MM: A powerful movie called Journey to Jamaa, directed by Michael Landon, Jr., is being released soon by the relief organization World Vision. It chronicles a true story of two orphans with AIDS in search of a new home. Profits and money raised will be directed to AIDS orphans, primarily in Africa. I’m creating a suite of my music from that movie that will be up on iTunes before too long. Regarding future projects, I’m really excited about some things that are happening. A hugely prolific producer working next door walked onto the dub of The Great Miracle and said, “I hear all this beautiful music. Who are you? You’re really good! How can I find you?” There are a few specific things coming up I’m excited about but I’ve learned to not speak of projects till I’m done with them.

FSMO: Thanks very much, Mark, for taking the time.

MM: Thanks very much to you and the FSMO writers and readers for your passionate support of film music.