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Interview with Carlos Rafael Rivera

Carlos Rafael Rivera
Carlos Rafael Rivera

Carlos Rafael Rivera A Walk Among the Tombstones

FSC: What inspired you to compose film music?

CR: Well I’ve been into film music since I was a kid. I was more inspired to do music, just generally, than specifically film music, but it was definitely the work of Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams that got me going early on. I remember the E.T. soundtrack, I saw the movie when I was about 11 years old, and that soundtrack just blew me away – the moment when the bike takes off. Just the whole feeling of that. I knew that music was playing something really powerful. A little bit on later I remember a movie called The Twilight Zone which was Jerry Goldsmith’s score. It was one of those little vignettes that they had that was called Kick the Can, and I just love the music in that for some reason. The Great Train Robbery, I remember that music specifically as well, and those were really pulling me toward getting into music. Film music started happening almost as a background to the classical direction I started going. But for the most part, for the past 15 years, I’ve been doing classical music. But this opportunity for the movie came up. It’s been sort of a long gestation thing, but it was just a dream come true without a doubt.

FSC: I know you’ve been working with film music and some other types of music for some time, but you just recently scored your first feature film in A Walk Among the Tombstones. What was that experience like for you?

CR: Surreal, man. I mean, I felt like the dumbest guy in the room most of the time. The fact that I was surrounded by people whose work I’ve admired – the cinematographer was Mihai Malaimare Jr. whose last project was The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson, and I had seen that movie and just reveled in the way it looked, and I found out that he was going to be the cinematographer for this movie.   Then the sound design was made by Wylie Stateman and Branden Spencer and Dror Mohar were basically the guys behind the sound design, and Wylie Stateman is a veteran. The most recent project they had done was Django Unchained. And they had done Inglorious Bastards, and most of the Tarantino work for the last few years. I had just walked out of that film going, “Oh my gosh, this is incredible!” as just a complete fan. I’m a total film geek. Not just film music geek, but just a film geek. I felt like this experience was very much a learning one. I had nothing really to base my decisions on other than getting supported by them, as a team in the post-production side of this. It was very, very enlightening, man. It was an education without a doubt.

FSC: Our review noted that you did an excellent job in Tombstones of capturing a very suspenseful atmosphere. How did you go about doing that? (Click here for our review)

CR: That was actually the 3rd take on the score. (Laughs) Maybe the short answer is that because the atmosphere was intense and the schedule was very tight. I had to deliver about 40 minutes of score in about a month. I had about 30 days to write it, so it was very pressured. I think the main titles, specifically, was a result of having to change gears last minute. I got a call from Scott Frank saying, “Listen, we’re gonna bring back this main title sequence with something that was originally done, then taken out of the film, then brought back.” And when I got that call saying, “We’re bringing back that main title sequence (the one that appears in the film), I need you to write music to that.” I said, “Wait, why don’t we just use the music I originally wrote when you shot that?” and he said, “No, just cut a bunch of the film, we’re changing direction, I really need you to do the same thing.” I said, “No problem.” He said, “I need it Thursday.”

“No problem.” (Laughs)

It was, like, 2 days to work on it. And I really was on the edge of, “Maybe this is when I’ll get replaced,” because in my own experience, there’s so many other people who I figured would probably be fine for the job at that point. Well, it was one of those things that came through and the music did reflect that and became the seed for the whole soundtrack. A lot of the material in that main title sequence finds a way to be changed or varied for the rest of the soundtrack. It was a very, very surreal two days of work. It was just all or nothing. But it came and I think the music does reflect that to a large degree.

FSC: What do you have in your music that sets you apart from other composers?

CR: Man, that’s a really tough question. All I have is the one IMDB credit, so there’s nothing to compare it against film-wise. But musically speaking, I definitely try to write visceral music, music that has some sort of connection in the classical world and the concert music I write. The most interesting thing, I think, was my focus in this was not so much to write a good piece of music, it was more to really help tell the story. That really was what helped the score become noted or noticed by people to the certain degree that it’s been. And that’s been beyond expectation, because the job, I felt, was very clear from the beginning that my job was to support the story. If I was doing anything more, or less than that, I wasn’t really doing my job.

FSC: Let’s talk for just a little bit about Randy Newman. What was it like to learn from one of the greats?

CR: Oh man. This came about through USC, I was getting my doctoral degree there, and they began a mentorship program. I had been doing the rock ‘n’ roll thing for a while, I was signed to Universal Records actually for, like, 3 years as a guitarist in a band, and that experience was another education. But when I’d come back to get my doctoral degree in composition, they paired me up with him, I guess because I’d been doing the rock ‘n’ roll thing and I’d been doing the classical music concert recording before that. What was cool is that he ended up becoming assigned as my mentor. I was expecting, maybe a 15 minute meeting. It turned out to be a 2 hour hang, and I did not expect that. I thought he would just go back to his world and say, “Hey, nice, keep going.” But we ended up making a connection. I checked in, he started inviting me down to sessions, I started learning how the pecking-order works in a recording session, when to talk and when not to talk, and I think that was very helpful for me to get through this project. It was surreal. When I hung up with him sometimes, I would be like, “I can’t believe I just talked to that guy!” It still blows my mind. What I’ve noticed with people at his level is that they are really who they are. There’s no front, there’s need to front, there’s just this person – very honest about where he’s at, what he’s doing, and I really felt some sort of strength. If I’d be stuck on something, I’d call him and just talking to him meant the world to me, in order to keep going. It was a very intense month for me, writing the score. I checked in with him a couple times and he was just fantastic. Great, great human being. Apart from his music and everything he’s done, as a person he’s just top-notch.

Carlos Rafael Rivera
Carlos Rafael Rivera

FSC: If you could pick any upcoming film project, like Star Wars, Jurassic World, Avengers 2, whatever, to do the music for, what would you pick and why?

CR: I mean, all three? What I noticed in this experience is that writing film music is larger than life make-believe. Everybody’s pretending on screen. The actors aren’t them, the sound you hear – and that was the biggest lesson for me, the sound you hear in a film isn’t real for some of it, especially at the high level production. Someone’s recording the footsteps of the actor later on. The car door is replaced. The rain sounds aren’t real. It’s all this beautiful make-believe that suddenly music fits into and it even enhances it. You mention these three great franchises, and they’re operating at that level as a starting point. So to be able to come and help tell a story that way is just a bigger canvas to work on. It’d be a privilege. I’m just grateful to work at all, to be honest. To have this experience is really a gift. If I get another opportunity, at any level, as long as the story’s strong, as long as the team that’s making the picture is really intending to say something. Even if it can’t be tangibly or articulated. That was exciting. This movie was a definite direction of intention, and I learned so much from that. So any environment that would be similar would be more than welcome.

FSC: I’m going to put you in a little difficult spot with this next question here.

CR: Alright.

FSC: Would you rather listen to a soundtrack by Randy Newman or Thomas Newman?

CR: (Laughs) Oh, man. Well I think it depends on the situation. Thomas Newman, with his incredible choice in sound and color is just, from Scent of a Woman to Wall-E, which is more classically written, or Finding Nemo, which is classically written. There’s a film I listen to, a Steven Soderbergh film, and he worked the music for it, Jude Law is in it (Side Effects), anyways, I have that running in my car most of the time. When I connect my phone to the car, it’s the first track that plays. You know when you connect your phone to the car and by Bluetooth connection it starts playing? It plays that soundtrack, but I usually let it run because it’s more like sound design meeting music. In the film world, there is a beautiful gray-zone where music, and all the notes and all the correct harmonies, kind of dissipate themselves into sound design. And I think he’s a master at that. It’s more like mood or tone for the story as opposed to just notes or check out this chord. It’s more like what the picture’s calling for. He’s so versatile at that.

But at the same time, Randy Newman is the Old Guard for me. I look at his scores and I go, “This is something that’s precious.” The whole process in of itself and how he writes the music is old school. Truly, in the sense of the word. So, I don’t think I can answer that question. (Laughs)

FSC: Okay! If you hadn’t gone into composing, what career would you have pursued?

CR: I started off as an accountant. Then I switched to music. I fell in love with music and at one point I made a decision that I was just going to do music no matter what. Teaching has been a big part of it. I teach at University of Miami, and I teach in their music program, the Bruce Hornsby contemporary program, and I get such a kick out of it, out of giving back in any way. I just made a decision about, maybe 12 years ago or so, that I was always going to be doing music somehow. I think it would still be music in any capacity because it gets me closer to the thing I love. But pretty early on, going back to The Great Train Robbery, watching that movie and listening to that music, I knew that was something to play in my life. It developed itself that way. I don’t think I could have done anything else. I can’t (laughs).

FSC: Do you have anything exciting coming up?

CR: At this moment, I’m actually back on to the classical realm right now. There’s a label, a classical label, called Cedille Records, that issued a commission to write a trio that I have to deliver at the end of January, and it’s going to be recorded I think throughout the summer. It’s going to take a bit of time because that’s how they work. Super excited about that! As far as films go, I’ve been taking meeting which I’ve never done before, so it’s been sort of surreal and cool because I’ve gotten to meet people who are “important.” I’m grateful for any opportunities. There’s nothing concrete to even talk about, and usually when these things come through, it’s best to not even say until the film’s locked and ready to be delivered than in the process of because this job is quite a replaceable one. People get replaced throughout projects here constantly. I’m just grateful to get to meet the people I’ve been meeting the past few weeks. It’s been really, really cool, man, I mean dream come true stuff.

For more, visit Carlos’ website at

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