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Interview with Geoff Zanelli

Geoff Zanelli

Geoff ZanelliInto the West and Disturbia

FSC:  What inspired you to compose film music?

GZ:  Let me start by thanking you for taking the time to do this.  It’s always flattering to know that people want to hear more about my work and me.  As far as how I ended up in film music, it really started with my realization that I admire versatile musicians and wanted to be one.  As a teenager I had a band and while I considered trying to succeed in that world, even at age 16 I could see that successful recording artists face a big dilemma.  They have to keep performing the material that made them successful in the first place, even when it’s 20 or 30 years old.  You don’t get to switch styles so much because you’re still responsible for retaining your fan base.  So I combined that thought with the passion I had for the films I grew-up on and could clearly see where I’d be happy.


FSC:  What has your experience working with composer Hans Zimmer been like?

GZ:  Hans and I have been friends and colleagues for 20 years now, which is hard for me to believe!  The way we work together has evolved over the years.  If you look at the early scores I worked on with him, like Hannibal or Pearl Harbor, I was mostly an arranger, which is to say I’d take his music and re-work it in different contexts to either fit a scene or just experiment a little bit.  It was the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie where the tight schedule necessitated that I take on a bigger role and actually write original music for the film.  That was a turning point for me in my career.  I really got to play a big role in that score which led me to bigger and bigger roles on the rest of the Pirates franchise.  The experience has always been nurturing and collaborative, and these days when we work together I’m usually brought in to lend my voice to the project rather than just write arrangements of themes that are already there.  The Pacific, which I co-wrote with him, would be a good example of that.


FSC:  How challenging was it to compose the music for a re-created Alfred Hitchcock film as you did with Disturbia?

GZ:  I treated Disturbia like an homage.  It was definitely a challenge, but to me almost anything you can do with music is challenging.  If it wasn’t, I would think I wasn’t doing it right!  You may find this surprising, but the key to getting the score for Disturbia to really work was the love theme.  I think everyone was hooked on the film cause of the chemistry between the two leads, and I didn’t want to lose how genuine that felt.  So I thought about how I’ve heard teen romances played in scores before, and thought the most honest approach here would be to write it as a pop song, not a big sweeping orchestral love theme.  That meant the orchestra would be used to play the larger than life things in the film, the murders, the stalking, and the love story would play as a song.  For most people, the music of their first crush is whatever songs are meaningful to them at the time.  I even found a band to come in and write lyrics for and perform my theme, which became the song “Don’t Make Me Wait.”  That plays when they finally kiss in the film.


FSC:  America has always been fascinated with the Kennedy family.  When you composed the music for the music for Killing Kennedy, how did you try to incorporate the Kennedy family into the music?

GZ:  With Killing Kennedy, I was really trying to play the man, not the gun.  The intimate story, in other words, cause we all already know the big story, that resonant and world-changing event.  I don’t know that I was necessarily thinking of the Kennedy family, but I was certainly trying to get into the heads of both JFK and Oswald with that score.  Oswald was a tough character to score.  If I say “I’m writing a theme for a misunderstood loner with an overbearing mother who feels out of place in his country, so he flees for a new home in another nation, falls in love and struggles to keep his marriage together” you’d think I’m scoring a sympathetic character, but he’s indisputably a villain.  So what drives a man to commit such a crime?  What does the noise in his head sound like?  That’s what kept me up at night as I wrote that score.

FSC:  Into the West aired back in 2005 but the soundtrack wasn’t released until 2013.  What is it like to finally have that out?

GZ:  It’s a huge relief to release my Into The West score.  Ever since the show came out, I’ve had people asking how they can get their own copy, so I knew it’d find a home with my supporters.  I don’t really like to look back on the things I’ve already done since I’m always trying to move forward, but putting together that release made me go back through 6 hours of music I wrote a long time ago.  I found myself pleasantly surprised.  I was still in my 20s when I started writing that score, but already it has the elegance I strive for in my scores these days, mixed with a touch of earthiness that really makes it effective.

FSC:  That really is quite an incredible soundtrack.  (Very belated) congratulations on the Emmy win for it!  How were you able to achieve such deep layers that stay true to the script?

GZ:  Thank you!  I really did have to dig deep for Into The West.  I remember having a hard time falling asleep during those months of writing, cause I was so concerned about being sensitive to the different cultures that are represented in the show.  These are the kind of things that keep me up at night when I’m working on a project.  For example, there are long story arcs that deal with the Lakota people, so I reached out to every Lakota resource I could find to talk with them about my music, especially in the early days when I was still defining the tone of the score.  I met a man named Charlie White Buffalo, who worked on the show as an advisor, and I played him the things I was writing.  I hope you can appreciate how nerve-wracking that is, for me to play my music under those circumstances.  It was a huge relief when he said how much he liked it.  I recall very specifically how much he appreciated that I didn’t portray the Lakota only as an aggressive nation, but instead focused on their peaceful nature, their spirituality and their appreciation for life.  One thing that helped immensely was Robert Dornhelm, who directed the first episode, had the forethought to record some live music that the actors were playing during their downtime in between takes.  He had recorded a few traditional pieces played on a type of flute that his cast was playing which I incorporated into my music.  They didn’t know they were being recorded even, until after the fact, which is why it feels so genuine when I use it in the score.  There’s a rawness to it cause it’s recorded outside, far from a sterile recording studio environment.  I mean there’s the sound of the wind hitting the microphone and all sorts of other noises going on around the set, but we still got that brilliant essence of music passed on from generation to generation, played genuinely out in the open air, and there’s no way you can top that emotion in a recording studio.


FSC:  Changing the topic a little, what director have you not yet worked with but would like to?

GZ:  I’ve led a charmed life in that I already get to work with some of the directors I admire most, like Gore Verbinski, Peter Hedges and David Koepp.  There are so many directors I’d love to work with, though!  Off the top of my head, Tim Burton, Andrew Stanton and Paul Thomas Anderson.


FSC:  What is your proudest work to this point?

GZ:  I try so hard not to let pride enter into how I feel about my work.  Once I finish a score, I move on to the next one.  I do feel, though, like I got every note right when I wrote The Odd Life of Timothy Green, and the same is true for Into The West and The Pacific.

FSC:  Do you have any exciting projects coming up?

GZ:  Well, I haven’t had a weekend off this entire year so I’ve had plenty to do, but I can’t actually announce anything at the moment.  You’ll hear me at the theater in a few different films, though.  I wish I could say more, but I’m afraid I can’t at the moment! But when I can, I will announce them on my facebook and twitter feeds.


FSC:  For any young and aspiring composers, what advice would you give?

GZ:  I give this same advice to aspiring composers all the time:  Get an internship with a composer.  Be around film music as soon as possible, and don’t go home early.  I got my best education by sticking around to learn about anything and everything when I was an intern for Hans during The Lion King.  I got so good at bringing in a tray of coffee and walking ever so slowly back to the door so I could hear one or two more sentences of the conversation Hans was having with Jeffrey Katzenberg about the music.  For me, it was a conscious choice to be around great filmmakers and try to glean everything I could about filmmaking.  An invaluable education, which I suggest young composers actively pursue.

FSC:  Thank you so much for your time.

GZ:  Yes, of course!  And thank you for your interest in my work!

For more info on Geoff, go to his website at

Special notes:

Geoff will be appearing at the Fans of Film Music panel on August 30th.  More information can be found by clicking here.

Thank you to Geoff Zanelli and CW3PR for letting us have first run of the photos in this post.

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