Film soundtracks are probably one of the most powerful assets in any motion picture production. Fans around the world put their fists up when Rocky ran up those steps, cried with joy when Sam carried Frodo up the side of Mt. Doom and even fell in love with Kate and Leo on the bow of the Titanic. Other than the images and stories in movies, the music is often a key in making that emotion flow through to the audience in ways many cannot anticipate.
A few years ago I was captivated by the HBO series, The Pacific, a historical story set in the Pacific theater during the Second World War. The Pacific, along with its ties to the critically acclaimed Band of Brothers series, which told the story from the European scope and composed by Michael Kamen, had fantastic music paired with the dramatically heartbreaking stories from American soldiers. As an avid fan of both soundtrack scores, I thought it would be an interesting transition to learn more about one of the composers from The Pacific, Geoff Zanelli, and his musical path to date.
To start, Geoff shared with me his initial introduction to music, which was a bit different than most musicians in his field. “… [It was] right around my 15th birthday, so I was a very late bloomer musically, in some respects. When I was younger, I was always a huge music consumer, listening and digesting, and I was also musically inclined. I’d talk about the music I was writing in my head to my parents from about age six, but I wasn’t playing an instrument or able to get those sounds out into the world until I was a teenager. There are people who say they don’t remember learning to play an instrument because they started at age two or three, and I’m always envious of that upbringing because my childhood was instead spent thinking that professional music was something other people in other cities did. It didn’t even occur to me that I could make a living at it until pretty late in life. So, at 15 I got a guitar restrung, and within a matter of weeks I quit all my sports, I stopped doing all my homework, I joined a band and played guitar all day and night.” Well, as readers will learn, Geoff definitely put his heart into his craft after that day. Numerous films have his musical stamp attached that only enhances their entertainment value.
Mr. Zanelli has made his career thrive by what seems to be through active research and experience. “I figured out pretty quickly that being in a band was fun for me but I didn’t ever want to go on tour, and I really didn’t like what I perceived as limitations to what you can do musically in that context. If things go perfectly for your band, you still have to go and play your greatest hits three decades after you wrote them, which didn’t have the same appeal to me as getting to change hats, write something new and move forward all the time. So, you can see what this led to. I planted my roots in Los Angeles and bashed my way into the film and television industry. When I was only [an early] musician I went off to college, and two years after that I begged my way into an internship with Hans Zimmer. He was writing the Lion King at the time, and I was pouring coffee for everyone. In retrospect, that’s when it all seemed plausible that I’d be able to build a career in this.” What a spectacular start to it all, which must have been quite an adventure!
After Geoff finally gained a foothold in the Hollywood soundtrack world, he has had a hand in some fantastic endeavors. He kindly elaborated a bit on some of his favorites. “That’s a tough question, because I try to leave everything behind when I finish a project, but there are still some that stand out. The Odd Life of Timothy Green is one for sure. I felt I was doing something original, and that I found a voice for the film that was unique. Part of that is due to the way Peter Hedges, the director, works. He created the most free and creative environment to write music in that I can think of.”
“Into The West is another one, because it was totally terrifying! I was scoring a nine-hour western television miniseries, having not really immersed myself in that genre before, just trying to keep up with the pace of production for eight or nine months. It was also a huge break for me… [The fact that] I was able to prove that I could stand on my own two feet, gave me a certain confidence that I can’t say I had before I did it.”
“I scored and wrote two songs for the film Mortdecai with Mark Ronson which was a fruitful collaboration, too. Getting to share our processes with each other was fantastic, and many of the times we were working together brought me back to that pure joy of creating music that I recall from my early days playing in bands.”
“I was raised on fantasy and sci-fi movies, and I feel particularly at home working on them. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies come to mind as places where my work resonates. Those were all dream-come-true projects for me.”
Since Mr. Zanelli place has been in a unique genre, he has also gained a special perspective on the technique. “What I love most about movies is how they stir our imaginations. I realize that applies to many genres of film, but the films I latch on to are ones where the creators poured their imaginations into every detail. Sometimes composing is difficult because there are too many good ideas for how to approach something and I’ve got to commit one way or the other… It could be that it’s emotionally difficult for me to visit some dark place that I need to tap into to get to the right notes… That’s all just personal demons, that’s before you play it to anyone! Those are difficulties I signed-up for, and I know myself well enough to know those things are going to happen and I’ve got to be ready for it. It’s hard for me to pinpoint a specific experience as the most difficult. When I’m immersed in writing, which is pretty much every day of my life, thinking about it keeps me up at night. In that sense, it’s perpetually difficult. I’m always trying to figure out how to elevate the movie, bit by bit, until I arrive at a place where there isn’t any more work to be done.”
To go even further, Geoff explained the interesting evolution of music across the board. “I think we are seeing a new type of diversity in film music, which is encouraging. There are so many approaches that are valid these days and a lot of the new talent that is emerging via a different background than you’d expect. DJs for instance, songwriters and great record producers are collaborating on scores. I find that all exciting, because it’s bringing in a perspective that wasn’t there before… There’s room for this new breed, which I’m lucky to be part of, to coexist in the industry with a more traditional approach. The old rules broke down a decade or more ago. I get to treat the orchestra like a rock band if I want, when I worked on the Pirates movies, or go straight into an organic, folky sound for The Odd Life of Timothy Green. Film composers are exercising their right to explore new sounds, and combine things in ways you simply don’t get to do in other mediums. In fact, it’s not just a composer’s right to do that anymore, it’s our responsibility. We’re also playing a huge role in keeping orchestras alive. That’s something for our community to be proud of.”
Music may have not always been his only medium. “At one point in my life, I thought I wanted to be an architect. I’m not sure I’d have made a good one, though. If I were going to work outside of music, perhaps I’d try to write a novel… The reality is I don’t see my schedule opening up to the point where I could really do that. I could see myself, time permitting, making a return to songwriting at some point. That would open things up in terms of instrumentation, but again it’s difficult to see how I’d manage to find the time, given my current schedule.”
Writing soundtracks, like many art forms, can be a career that requires patience. “… I try to change up my process every time I write, actually. One thing that happens, though, is as I’m working on a film, the instrumentation or the soundscape will gradually reveal itself to me. What I mean is, I may start by, say, trying to add vocals to a score and if they don’t belong there it becomes apparent pretty quickly. In a funny way, that stuff isn’t really under anyone’s control. The film takes on a life of its own, and it tells you what it’s own rules are. So, I always go through an experimental phase where I’m trying to find the voice of a picture, what sounds work, what the musical language is, and that evolves into the score over time. The discoveries that are made along the way dictate what I can change or add to the music.”
Luckily, there are many artists that keep Geoff inspired through his exploration. “… I would be remiss if I didn’t say Johnny Depp. I’ve written music for eight Johnny Depp movies! He’s almost always on my screen when I look up from the piano. His performances are always inspiring. He inhabits his characters, which always feel like singular creations, and each little nuance or gesture informs the score. Hans Zimmer and John Powell are both profoundly important and inspirational to me as mentors. Working with Mark Ronson last year was inspiring as well. He’s as passionate about what he does as I am, so we found ourselves to be kindred spirits in that regard. He even brought in a rough mix of Uptown Funk one day. ‘I did this track with Bruno the other day that I’m pretty excited about’ he said, and he played it.” Honestly, there may not be a more amazing entourage like that.
“Peter Hedges did this magical thing when I scored his film The Odd Life of Timothy Green. He fostered such a great, creative environment for me that it made it feel like I wasn’t even being directed, but simply allowed to go and find the score for the movie. He has the lightest, most unassuming touch. You don’t realize you’re being directed even when you are. It was similar with Jared Hess, who directed Masterminds. You guys will get to see that in theaters later this year… He gave simple, direct notes, and then leaned back to let me write. David Koepp, whom I’ve scored three films for now, is always inspiring. He and I have developed a shorthand by now. With him, I always read his script closely. It helps me get right to the soul of the film, which is always there in the script. His writing is impeccable, and it makes it very clear what the goal of every scene is, what the subtext is, so I get the same context that the actors got.”
Other than Masterminds Mr. Zanelli remains hard at work. “I’m just putting the finishing touches on a score for Joe Ruben’s next film, The Mountains and the Stones. This is a love story set during World War I in Turkey when the war breaks out there. It’s a beautiful film, and very relevant to today in that it deals with cultural clashes both in love and war… I’m scoring Star Citizen for my old friend Chris Roberts. That’s a video game, which you may have heard of because it is now the most successful crowd-funded project of all time. He’s raised over $106 million dollars to make what has to be the most ambitious game ever.” Will be sure to watch and listen!
Well, I really do not know what else to say. Geoff Zanelli is one of those pioneers of the screen who is making movie magic come alive. His past work still resonates beautifully and there is no doubt that his next projects will be just as inspiring. Please go give him a listen, if you have not already. Explore the soundtracks of yet another legend in the space!