The life of a film composer isn’t all Jaws themes and Imperial Marches. It’s an often-solitary calling that involves a lot of decidedly non-musical stress, where every hour on the piano is met by two hours sorting out productions logistics, sending emails, and struggling to meeting deadlines. All for an endeavor that, if you’re lucky, a few people will remember as they leave the theater.
Joseph Trapanese doesn’t mind. In fact, the classically trained composer/arranger/producer—who worked on the soundtrack for the sci-fi thriller Oblivion—takes special pride in film reviews that make no mention of his work.
“There’s a great quote from Futurama, ‘If you do your job right, no one will be sure if you’re doing anything at all,’” Trapanese says. “That’s the secret to film composing.”
Oblivion, which opened last Friday, stars Tom Cruise as Jack Harper, a space-colony repairman who makes routine visits to a now-barren Earth, long ago ravaged by an invading alien race. It’s a CGI-heavy visual feast—with incredible post-apocalyptic landscapes and impressive depictions of 2077 technology—that called for an equally epic score.
The movie is the baby of architect-turned-director Joseph Kosinski, who wrote the first treatment for Oblivion, an adaptation of his unpublished graphic novel of the same name, back in 2005, years before he directed his first feature film, TRON: Legacy. Even in early drafts, Kosinski had music on the brain, scribbling in the margins the names of artists he had in mind for the score – Boards of Canada, Ulrich Schnauss and French electronica band M83. When production began years later, Kosinski returned to his notes and zoomed in on M83 mastermind Anthony Gonzalez, whose profile had since risen considerably, thanks to the critically acclaimed double album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, and its cavernous international hit, “Midnight City.”
Gonzalez’s knack for spacy soundscapes and ambient layers of synthesizers made him a natural choice for a story heavy of sci-fi action but also full of lush cinematography (courtesy of Life of Pi’s award-winning cinematographer, Claudio Miranda). What Gonzalez didn’t have, however, was the symphonic expertise to push his indie-pop work into soundtrack territory fit for the movies, so he and Kosinski called in some help: Trapanese, whom Daft Punk had personally selected to give their futuristic sounds the classical treatment when they worked on the music for TRON: Legacy.
If M83 was a solid pick to dream up music for an elegant sci-fi picture, Trapanese was the right man to marry that sound to an orchestra for a touch of cinematic grandeur. He’s a conservatory-trained musician who developed an interest in electronic music when he was a teenager, and he decided early on to pursue the orchestral life after a middle-school encounter with another movie that combined outer space fantasy with symphony sounds: Star Wars. “If you talk to 50 other L.A.-based composers, they’ll all tell you the same thing,” Trapanese, 28, says.
Perhaps more importantly, Trapanese also knows how to be the missing link between a mainstream musical act and the film world, having arranged and orchestrated with Daft Punk as well as Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda on the score for 2011’s martial arts flick The Raid: Redemption, which Trapanese and Shinoda cooked up in about six weeks. “We work very well together because he’s doing things I can’t do, and I’m doing things he can’t really do either, so we’re very complementary,” says Gonzalez, who previously worked with Trapanese on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. “He’s a genius.”
Unlike with TRON, the scoring process for Oblivion resembled a move toward convention. TRON had been in production for about two years by the time shooting began, so Daft Punk and Trapanese had already created more than 40 minutes of music – enough that Kosinski could play songs on set during filming.
Oblivion didn’t have the unusual luxury of several years — only about six months — so Gonzalez and Trapanese pieced the score together as the film took shape, trading musical sketches and demos back and forth in the early stages. The two had an all-access pass to the film’s source material, starting with playlists of musical references and ideas courtesy of Kosinski to multiple script drafts, rough cuts and even a set visit with cast and crew. As is often the case with big-budget films, the studio kept a tight leash. “I signed a bunch of paper work saying that if I stole anything or put it on the Internet, I’d lose my life,” says Trapanese, who sometimes would spend several hours in a studio office taking notes on a script that he couldn’t take home.
Reading the script was love at first scene for Gonzalez, but creating Oblivion’s musical backdrop wasn’t without challenges. In the years since Kosinski first jotted the name down, M83 had blown up, so much so that Gonzalez had to vary from his usual creative process and do most of his writing on the road in the middle of a huge tour. “I was a little bit stressed out,” Gonzalez admits. “I realized the soundtrack was really important, and I worked night and day to try and find cool synths to make this an amazing film.”
With a running time of two hours, Oblivion was also a behemoth to score—Kosinski estimates that around 80 percent of the movie is scored, a substantial amount of music for most feature films. Because it spans elements of sci-fi action, psychological drama and even a nostalgic love story on top of its soaring visuals, Oblivion needed a score with muscle, so Universal Pictures gave Trapanese and Gonzalez the resources to flex it. The score’s 90-member orchestra included a symphonic-sized string section, a brass section twice the size of most brass sections, and an abundance of percussion. All that freedom called for some ground rules—early on, Trapanese restricted the use of flutes and other woodwinds, typically used to add color and texture to a composition, because Gonzalez’s synthesizers filled that role. But it also meant Trapanese had the chance to experiment and see just what sounds and ideas he could sneak into a Hollywood mega movie.
“What’s really great is Joe [Kosinski] took his film back,” Trapanese says. “Joe took his huge-budget Universal film that they want all the teenagers to see and want to make money, but was able to have some moments of true artistic hype that I think your average bubblegum summer blockbuster doesn’t really get to do.”
With so many cooks in the kitchen – the artist, the director, the studio – Trapanese’s job is a little like that of a translator, going back and forth between all of the major players and keeping them on course for Kosinski’s vision. But Trapanese also translates what’s happening on screen, saying a film score is what gives the audience permission to feel whatever emotions the director’s trying to get across — even when the score has to play second fiddle. “Joe understands that the music has to support the film at every point,” Kosinski says. “We’re not just making a record, we’re making a movie, so there are times when you want the music to stand out and revel in the sound that is M83, but there are times where the music has to take a back seat.”
How those decisions are made doesn’t leave much room for surprise. Trapanese mocks up and arranges every note of the score on top of Gonzalez’s work before orchestra members ever touch their instruments. Digital recording techniques make it easy to produce extensive demos that serve as a sonic blueprint of the movie, which means Trapanese and Gonzalez had a clear sense of what the movie was going to sound like before they had a clear picture of what it would look like.
That might sound anticlimactic for a process that involves a constant cycle of throwing out ideas and returning to the drawing board, but having 90 musicians at your command to play the score you’ve slaved over is anything but.
“It’s 99 percent turmoil and 1 percent ecstasy,” Trapanese says. “When you’re in that moment with the orchestra, it’s a sensory overload, and it’s almost incomprehensible to me how much is happening in those moments.”