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Interview with Marc and Steffan Fantini

Marc (right) and Steffan (left) Fantini

Marc and Steffan Fantini – Criminal Minds and Army Wives

FSC:  What inspired you to compose film music?

Steffan:  Well basically Marc and I started out in the Rock-and-Roll world and we worked on lots of big records and we had a recording and touring career ourselves and we got to a point where the music industry was kind of going in a certain direction with Napster and everything, it was really, just kind of dying away.  We were always interested in film, we love film, we love film music, we’re big fans of that, and so a director friend of ours came up to us and said, “Hey what do you guys think of maybe trying a small indie movie, doing the score?” and we thought that that would be really fun and a chance to kind of use different aspects of our abilities.  Because with working on a record you’re kind of, say you’re doing a rock and roll kind of world, but with film music, you know, one day you could be doing jazz, you could be doing big orchestral stuff, you could be doing European feel, or doing different kinds of combinations.  So that was kind of how it happened, we just got inspired by things that we’d seen growing up and said, “Let’s try our hand at this” because we’re , we’re kind of limited in one sense with records and there didn’t seem to be that kind of limit, and then you add the film part to it where you’re not just recording music with nothing to look at.  Here we have the visuals to help tell a story, so, I think that was all part of our inspiration – being able to help tell stories and all that.

FSC:  How are you involved with the filming process (scripts, set visits, etc.) on your projects?

Marc: It varies. Sometimes with television you don’t really have the luxury of time. So, you’re very involved, I mean sometimes the writers can come down during what we call spotting sessions where we decided where the music is going to go and what they want the music to help with or in telling more of the story that’s maybe not quite there from the visuals. But the more we can get involved in a movie – like Mom’s Night Out, we were involved in the script stage, which generates a lot of excitement and you don’t have a whole lot of time to think and stuff like that, not a lot of visiting sets although we’ve done it on Criminal Minds often, but again there’s not the luxury of time when that delivery date is set in stone and there is a lot of music and not a lot of time. But I love being involved in the script stage and I think my brother feels the same way because there’s no picture yet, there’s nothing to taint what you’re thinking about musically, so you can just read it and say “Alright, these are some ideas that I have based off the way that I’ve interpreted the script.” That can either be great – you could come up with something no one would have ever thought because you weren’t tainted by the visuals yet – or it can also be like “You know what, that’s not working,” which can also be helpful in directing and telling me which way to go with the music.

FSC:  You both do a lot of work together, but let’s say (hopefully this won’t happen) one of you is offered the job to compose the music for a major film project but for some reason it is only one of you, how would that go?

Marc: I mean we’re kind of a package and we also like to work with Scott Gordon the third component we do Criminal Minds with.  As far as movies, we work well together so I don’t know why we would ever change that and I think there’s just a comfort level working with somebody you know and trust and you are inspired by and that’s part of what I think, as to hopefully making what we think is good music by pushing each other, and so it’s a difficult question but I don’t think it would ever come to that, I hope not.

Steffan:  Um, I’m looking to do a solo career (laughs).  No, you know its funny because when we first started out, as a team we came against a lot of adversity to the idea, people didn’t like it, they said, “This is weird, who do we talk to,” and so at first it didn’t work for them mentally, but then as the years have gone by it really does work for so many reasons: the camaraderie, we can do way more music faster and more intensely, so if you have three people working on, say, 30 minutes of music, you can really focus on that 10 minutes that you’re responsible for and get this massive cinematic quality and really have time for experiments.  And, just the music is better because you have more time to really dig in. So as time went on people said, “Wow, this team thing is really cool,” and now they call us all the time because it’s a team, and when I look into the industry – we were at the ASCAP awards last week getting honored for some stuff that we did as a team – and I said, “Wow, look at all these teams now.”  So many teams, its so frequent.  So I think it’s an asset for many reasons and that’s why we like to work together.

FSC:  And it works well, as you said!

Marc: Thank you.

Steffan: Thank you.

FSC:  Now you’ve worked on projects with Stephen Baldwin before with Six: The Mark Unleashed and I believe its an upcoming movie To The Wall, do you have any sort of working relationship with him?

Marc:  You mean like dialogue or anything like that?

FSC:  Yeah, just any sort of connection with him specifically?

Marc:  The connection is actually with the producers of those particular movies.  We’ve probably done upwards of maybe 12 or 13 movies with them over the past 10 or 12 years, that’s where the connection is.  We have a tremendously wonderful relationship with the producers Kevin Downes and David A. R. White, they do a lot of faith-based things, but you know I think more main stream now than before, and that’s where the relationship is.  I don’t think we really have any relationship with Stephen Baldwin.  He does his stuff, they film it, and he’s gone.

Steffan: Any time we ever have involvement with actors is if they’re either directing or producing something and they get involved with music.  Probably in a case like with Stephen Baldwin or any of the big actors we’ve worked with, they come in and do their stuff before we’re even involved with the project and then they’re off to their next thing.  Now for example on Criminal Minds, its really cool because some of the cast members will direct, so for example Matthew Gubler directs a few every season, Joe Mantegna is beginning to direct, same with Thomas Gibson, and so Matthew Gubler will actually sit down with us and we’ll have pretty intense meetings about pushing the envelope with the music and you know what his vision is, and so in that case we’ll have a relationship with an actor if they’re more involved than just acting and then just going on to their next project.

FSC:  In a few years from now, what would you like to have on your resume that you don’t currently have?

Steffan:  Wow, great question.  Well, more projects that we can be proud of.  I’m pretty proud of everything that we’ve done and we’ll keep on that track.  My brother and I’ve been enjoying doing movies, it’s something you can do maybe twice a year because of the time table.  So it’s intense pressure for like 2 or 3 months but then you can chill.  It’s pretty rewarding if you do end up using things like a live orchestra or things like that to hear your music come to fruition through a beautifully played orchestra with tremendous musicians and a great orchestrator.  Those kinds of things are priceless and they still sort of give me a chill, so doing more of that, making more movies.  I would really love to get into some more action movies, for me that’s an area that I love, and adventure and things like that, but anything.  As long as its inspirational makes us work hard, makes us push ourselves.  I hope that we have many more of the same, more TV, love doing TV, and I love doing movies.

Marc: I would agree with that, pretty much any project that’s done well we would be, you know, more than happy and lucky to be involved with.  So I think that’s the bottom line.  It’s probably the bottom line for most composers, they want to be involved with something great. And it just makes the music greater when the visuals and the story and the project is great, your work is just elevated from that and so that’s what we aspire to I think.

Steffan: Yeah, and when it is really a great project you feel tremendous responsibility to not let it down and to actually bring it further and that responsibility, that kind of pressure is something that we thrive on.  That may be different for some composers, but the pressure and the need to do better each time and to elevate the project is always going to be there and is probably always going to be our inspiration along with the story telling as well.  For every project you work on, you get to work with – even when we work with some of the same producers, each project is different and you learn and you keep learning and you work with different directors and you learn, work with different producers and you learn, or maybe you’re working with the actors and you learn.  It’s this great learning experience and you keep bringing it to bear on your next project.  It’s a cumulative learning thing.

Marc: It never ends.

FSC:  I do have some Criminal Minds questions for you since that seems to be a consistent and major project of yours.

Marc: We love it.

Steffan: It’s an amazing project.

FSC:  I know, its exciting right?

Steffan: We’re going on our 10th season of hopefully 30 (laughs).

FSC:  Well with Criminal Minds have you ever considered creating a specific theme, even if its short, for each of the main characters like something that could be played when something major occurs to one of them.

Marc:  You know it’s interesting because the kind of running orders at the beginning of the show were, “Treat each episode as its own movie,” so I think by design I don’t think they wanted any specific themes for each character.  And that’s not to say that, like I remember when we introduced Joe Mantegna as a new character, they wanted to have his feel be represented musically and what he was about and so we did something that was really cool and we introduced him well, but it was never reused.  So I guess the answer is sort of no.

Steffan:  Though not for the main characters, what they really do like is a theme for each episode in some sense creating an identity for each episode.  Maybe the unsub or the bad guy has a theme or maybe there’s another ancillary character or maybe one of our team members is going through something and we have a theme for that.  But not so much every time they’re on screen, but yes to having scenes represented and each one uniquely.  Each episode uniquely.

Marc: Which is it’s own challenge too because each week you’re tapped with coming up with one or more themes for the episode to make it its own and I think a lot of the reason why it does well in communication is because they do feel individual.  You could turn on any episode and it just feels like its own show, you don’t feel like you have to start from the beginning with Criminal Minds.  We’re getting a new character this year, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and I think perhaps – and I can’t speak for the writers and those who are going to be involved with the first episode – but they may very well say, “We want something special for her. We want you to introduce her to the world as one of our profilers so let’s do something special.”  It could be a theme that only happens this one time, who knows, but we’ll find out pretty soon on that.  But I suspect they’ll have some kind of something special musically in mind.

Marc: It’s interesting, I think it would make probably the job a little easier if we did have some systematic elements for each character, but I think in a way that wouldn’t work for the show in as much as we were talking about the individual episode feeling.

Steffan: It works for serialized stuff, like House of Cards is done brilliantly, but there’s the thread, and you have to kind of start from Episode 1 and Jeff Beal uses themes.  The main theme comes back in and out and its done really, really well and tastefully but it’s different than our show the way that’s formatted.  That’s kind of like from start to finish it’s a story, but with ours each one is a story, and as Marc put it, you can just pop on Season 5 Episode 20, and you’ve never seen Criminal Minds, and it doesn’t matter – you’re into this movie.

FSC:  Well, you did kind of answer my next question (laughs) because I was going to say that the show did just recently add Jennifer Love Hewitt and they have, over the years, added and taken away characters.  As that happens, do you try to change your approach at all or do you see yourselves more as the consistent element throughout all of the change?

Steffan: Great question!

Marc: Well, consistently inconsistent (laughs).  What we try to do is to try to treat each episode like we haven’t seen any other episode before.  So in that way I guess we are hoping that each one feels fresh.  They have had a lot of cast changes starting from Mandy (Patinkin) to Joe Mantegna, and Paget (Brewster) was here and then she was gone, and then there was a girl on the first – what was her name in the very first seasons?

FSC:  Elle? (Lola Glaudini)

Marc: Elle! Yes, thank you, then she was gone and then they had someone in the place I think of J.J. (A. J. Cook) or someone for a little while, it’s been a little bit of change for a little bit, but it’s always exciting when someone new comes along and they bring their own kind of character.  And I’ll be thrilled to see what she bring because I’m sure she’ll bring something great when they put her on there.

Steffan: No pun intended, some fresh blood (laughs). Though that’s really not the thing to say with Criminal Minds because there’s a lot of fresh blood.

Marc: I’m sure the imagery will evoke something for us and we’ll see it and we’ll say, “You know what?  This deserves something special, an introduction.  It would be cool to do something like that and I think we probably will be asked to do something like that, or we’ll probably imply that something like that would be good.  And they’re very open to the creative process and we have a very good working relationship with everyone there.

Steffan: We kind of did that, a little bit thematically with the kind of ending it was.  The departure of Tripplehorn and we kind of did that thematically and emotionally at the end in that last scene with her and Reid, and I’m not sure if they’re going to – we go in as fans as well when we go to the first session, we don’t really know what’s going to happen.  So I’m not sure if they’re going to speak to that anymore with Tripplehorn’s character or if that’s just going to go away.  We don’t really know, which is kind of cool because we’re seeing it for the first time after its all been edited and all the acting is done and everything is done, and we watch it as fans which is kind of cool.

Marc: Absolutely

Steffan: And you know we kind of can start a new kind of character ourselves.  They always tell us, like, “You guys are the last character to add.”

Marc: And it’s funny it’s, maybe anecdotal, but no matter where I go or whatever, I do, for some reason I end up watching it in reruns and I can’t help myself even though I’ve seen it thousands of times.  When we’ve seen a scene a thousand times, I still pop the thing on when its on (laughs). I can’t help myself. I like the show, I think its great.

Steffan: I normally freeze-frame it on my name and just leave it there for party guests and stuff (laughs).

FSC:  The music for any film project is one of the characters of it, almost like a narrator who can help give insight into what the characters are feeling and it will set the tone and things like that.

Marc: That’s a great way of putting it.

FSC:  Thank you.  But with such complex characters to work with, like Hotch and Reid and all of them, how do you achieve that communication with the audience?

Steffan: In other words, how do we emotionally convey what they’re feeling at different times because of their complexity?

FSC:  Yeah, exactly.

Steffan: Ah, the secret recipe (laughs).  Well, it’s all dependent on the moment and that’s why film scoring and television scoring is so dynamic – there’s not really anything that just works automatically, there’s a lot of trial and error, and one note can change the entire feel of a scene, it can ruin a scene, or it can make it brilliant.  So it’s just kind of like cooking.  Very much so, and so we just keep adding ingredients and pulling them out and sometimes we’ll rewrite a scene 20 times until we say, “This is now doing something special, I’m feeling what they want us to feel from a story teller’s point of view,” and that’s how we approach it.  Every scene is kind of its own thing, we don’t really have a definite answer other than we have grown up with these characters in a way for 10 years now, and we know what music doesn’t work for them, and if we go too far in one direction it doesn’t feel like our show anymore.  I think it’s just a balancing act and a cooking process for us and it’s a fun, experimental process.  And then at the end of the day it all goes to the filmmakers and they have to review it and make sure we’re all on the same page, and its quite frequent that they’ll basically say, “We love this, we love this, can you make a little adjustment here? Can this be a little scarier at this moment? Can Hotch – can you pull more emotion here or a little less?”  And so we all work together.  It’s a collaborative process, it’s not like we hand in the music and then that’s what you get.  That’s part of what we love and what we learn from, it’s how they’re thinking as well, so that’s kind of how we go about it.

Marc:  Yeah, and it also goes back to us being fans of the show.  How do I want to feel if Reid gets shot, or how do I want to feel if Jeanne Tripplehorn is thinking about her son?  As a fan and viewer, that definitely comes into play when we write.  And we’re like, that’s just not enough, I’m not feeling the right thing, as a fan I’m let down right now.  Then my music has to make it happen for me when right now my music is not making it happen for me, so then we rewrite it.  And then we sit and we watch it and as a fan I feel like this is cool, I feel like people are going to dig this, and that’s how we approach some of it.   I don’t know that we would approach every scene – some of it is very clinical and you have to go back and forth and say, “Eww, no good.  Let’s rewrite it.”  And not even from an emotional standpoint, but from a standpoint of it just doesn’t work for the scene – wrong.  It doesn’t happen that often, and we’ve been doing it now for 9 and going on 10 years, and we’ve kind of got the vibe, but you know it’s still a trial and error for every episode.  And again this season coming up with a new character, there’ll be more challenges for us, which is great.  Which is, like I said earlier, part of what we enjoy.  So anyway, being a fan helps.

FSC:  Definitely! You make a lot of good use with somewhat non-traditional sounds in your music like car keys scratching piano chords or something, how fun is it to come up with new ways to create sounds that still fit into the music?

Steffan: It’s great. The tapestry of the show, the underpinnings of that show are scary. I mean most of it’s kind of terrifying.

Marc: Disturbing, yeah.

Steffan: And so we have fun creating disturbing sounds, and just people wouldn’t believe the kind of things we record and alter in the studio with equipment and effects to make these sounds.  You’re like, “What is that, its really creepy!” and its probably all these layers of stuff, who knows, it could be a baby crying that we flipped backwards and we put a weird echo on it, and we recorded a car screeching and a door screeching, and we changed the pitch of it, and we added it all together and it’s like a big pot.  We do have a lot of fun making sounds.

Marc: I’m a guitar player, Steff’s a piano player, so being able to – piano works well on Criminal Minds and guitar doesn’t, so a challenge for us is using guitar, but how do we make it creepier.  How do we make it haunting, or how do we make it sound like it’s not a guitar but still be able to add some of that organic qualities of guitar.  It’s a tremendous challenge with tools and plugins and maybe even no external effects, just doing weird things with how you mic it, how you string it, how you tune it.  So for me I like to do as much as possible.  There’s not always an opportunity to do it, but if you listen closely there’s some weird guitar things going on in there, and my brother takes a lot of time with weird piano sounds.  Like acoustic piano, or he has a lot of synth he’ll use, and just do weird things, very contemporary approach to it.  And that’s the challenge, is using our instruments.  It’s a lot easier to just grab a patch and say, you know, “Patch 61C – Killing Someone,” (laughs) that’s fine, and then you do have to do that a lot of times.  The challenge in creating unique sounds that no one else can do is, again, is making those individual choices for an individual episode that can stand on its own.

Steffan: We did 7 years of another show called Army Wives and that was kind of the opposite approach.  Oddly enough, it was a lot of guitar, a lot of performance based music.  So we might look at the scene and just play the guitar.  Marc would play the guitar (while) watching the scene and just record it, and that performance is what you hear on the air.  Or I might play a piano and watch a scene and just play it as if you were watching an old black and white movie and there’s a piano player in the pit in the theater.  We were just watching it live and sometimes the three of us, with Scott Gordon, would set up our instruments like a band and just watch it and play along.  That was what wound up working and it was very organic, and they didn’t want to hear, obviously it’s a different kind of show, but they didn’t want to hear a lot of electronic and those kinds of sounds that we are doing for Criminal Minds or any other kind of dark project.  It’s very organic, performance based, so it was much more sparse, but a fantastic learning experience and a really cool score that we got to do.

FSC:  Now, going ahead a little bit, you’ve just finished the last day of composing for season 10 (this is in the future), what is the very next thing that you’re going to do?

Marc: Ooh!

Steffan: Go to Disneyland? (Laughs) that’s me, Steffan is going to Disneyland.  I have to un-numb myself from those images so I got to go on some of the rides to forget about it.

Marc: We enjoy the process, we enjoy the work, so, for us, Season 10, last note, finish composing, what’s next? You know, we’re ready to do something at the drop of a hat and we love what we do.  And so I don’t consider it to be work.  That’s kind of an expression of our inner-selves, and music is catharsis in a way.  I think for my brother and I, Scott’s the same way, we convey things and communicate things musically that maybe you can’t do verbally and you can get to places emotionally that you can’t maybe get to in other ways.  It’s like having a family, you can’t explain what that’s like, having a child, it’s the most incredible experience in the world, and in a way music has that kind of effect if you really are a true fan, and you really love music, it can bring you to a place that you know is pretty exciting.  For us, just continuing to do things – we’ll probably do another movie at the end of the year, maybe beginning of next year, and we love to do maybe another TV series.

Steffan:  Normally by the end of the season of our show, that’s kind of pilot season.  We’ve pretty much done pilots every year and so there’d be a high likelihood we’ll be working on a pilot towards the end of Season 10 of Criminal Minds.  That’s always a pretty frantic, crazy experience that you learn to love.  It’s definitely a ride.

FSC:  What would you guys say is the main difference, if you have to choose one,  between composing for a feature film versus a television show?

Steffan: I would say the biggest difference is time and probably money. On a movie, generally, I can’t speak for every single project, but you have a couple of months to write the score.  Sometimes much longer, sometimes it’s accelerated, but in that ballpark, and there’s the ability to say, “Hey we want to have a full orchestra for this,” so that means we’re going to have, when we write, we know that whatever we write is then going to be played by 110 musicians and we’re going to get to use a great conductor and a great orchestrator, and it elevates everything in that sense.  I think the time and the fact that you have more money to work with and you get to work with orchestras are two differences. We don’t bring anything quality wise different.  I mean we try to write a television show with the same quality, we don’t change anything if we’re writing for a movie, but you just have more time and more budget.

Marc: I think, honestly in the last 5 years the lines have become blurred.  Especially when it comes to cable, I think that they strive to make cable programming (this shows what I’m a fan of) things like Game of Thrones and things like that, you wouldn’t know necessarily that that’s not a movie.  It just feels like a movie, and so cable, I think, the lines are blurred.  Unfortunately, with cable, the money is not really there, so it’s a difficult situation for a composer.  You want to do something great on cable but its not always a gig that pays well.  Definitely, network pays very, very well.  And with network I think the lines are starting to get blurred, but I think it’s still, like my brother said, it’s a time thing, it’s the orchestral factor. You have 4 days to write it and its due that day no matter what, if you feel sick, if you break your leg – my brother hurt his elbow, he broke his elbow, during the end of the season, we were in the middle of a pilot, and –

Steffan: A movie.

Marc: The last couple of episode for Criminal Minds and a movie, we were doing 3 things at once and he had to do it with one hand, and nobody cares because it has to get done.  If my rig blows up, nobody cares because that music is due on that Monday morning.  So TV has its pressures, definitely, but once again I think that it’s all getting a little blurred and that’s a good thing for the viewer and for the quality of what we’re seeing on TV, cable, and movies.

FSC:  Well I think that is the last question for you guys.

Steffan: Thank you, it’s great that you care about film music and TV music, it’s great that you care about that and are reporting on that. We’re kind of in our little dark rooms and at the end of our composing nobody claps like if you’re playing a live show.   But this is kind of our clapping, you’re kind of highlighting the little hidden art and we love it, so thank you.

Marc: Yeah, we appreciate it.

FSC:  Thank you so much!

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