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Interview with Jeff Rona (2)

May 1, 2013

Gent , October 2002. Jeff Rona is in the grand jury for the International Filmfestival in Gent , Belgium . Apart from that, he is also a guest speaker at two seminars about filmmusic. Mr. Rona and I met in the lobby of a five-star hotel in the center of the city. A little tired from talking at the seminars, Jeff leans back on the comfortable couch. Utterly relaxed and completely frank he talks about his departure from Media Ventures and about his recent music.
(From the Archives – by Peter Simons)

PS: Is it true you left Media Ventures?

JR: Yeah, like three months ago. Actually many people are leaving, Harry Gregson-Williams is also leaving. He’ll leave just after the first of the year, I think. And you know, John Powell left more than a year ago. Mark Mancina left ages ago! John Van Tongeren left not long after, because he collaborated a lot with Mancina. So actually, after Harry goes at the beginning of the year, the only person left from previous time is Klaus Badelt, who mostly works from home anyway. He lives a few miles from the studio. Things are really changing over there.

PS: So, Zimmer’s got a whole new batch of composers?

JR: Actually, no he doesn’t.

PS: What about all those “new” names like Steven Jablonsky, Geoff Zanelli…

JR: They are all former assistants. There’s my assistant James Levine. Then there’s Geoff Zanelli who worked for John Powell. Jim Dooley used to work for Hans. And Steve Jablonsky used to work for Harry. These are four less experienced composers. They are very experienced at helping out on other scores, but in terms of they own credits, they’re just getting started. But it’s not the same as with Harry, John or me, somebody doing their own work on a regular basis.

PS: Will they remain assistants or will they move up the ladder?

JR: Well, they are now junior composers. To be honest I’ve only talked to Hans a little bit since I left. I think, for all of us it’s important to, at some point, step away from what is actually a really big shadow. He’s an important friend and mentor, but I think it’s also important that a composer does what he wants to do in his own way, without having so much association with such a successful composer. Actually, I moved out a couple of months ago and have been staying at the beautiful studio of an old friend from high school, who does commercials. And now, when I go back to Los Angeles I have a new space and it’s very big–and over the next few months I’m going to put together a new kind of studio.

PS: What is your goal with this new studio?

JR: My goal is this: What I liked about Media Ventures is that it is a communal space of creative people. The friendships and relationships and camaraderie are really good. But what is difficult is that it’s Hans’ business. And all of us where there because he wanted us there, but if he didn’t, you weren’t. There was a business arrangement, not a communal arrangement, because it’s a business that belongs to one man and his partner (Hans Zimmer and Jay Rifkin, ed.) . And what I’m trying to do now is setting up a group of people who really share, but also remain independent. So it’s more about equality for everybody, but also more about separation, so that everybody’s identity is their own identity. The studio building is ready and I’m the first to move in. It’ll take quite a bit of time.

PS: Because you have a lot of gear…

JR: Yeah. Well, less than I used to, because I’m doing so much more work completely in software. No more samplers, synthesizers, effects or mixers! In fact, the last three projects I’ve done, were done without any musical hardware at all! I did ten or fifteen minutes for Black Hawk Down and I did that completely inside one Macintosh. I did some work for The Mothman Prophecies and no hardware there. And then I just finished a little movie called Shelter Island ..again, all software. I don’t want to do every movie this way, because it has limits. If it’s a big orchestral score, I will need a lot more equipment and eventually a real orchestra.

PS: What is Shelter Island about?

JR: It’s a little thriller about a murder. It has Stephen Baldwin and Chris Penn. It’s a very modest film. I did it mostly because I liked the director and it gave me the opportunity to work together with Michael Brooke. There’s wasn’t much in the film to begin with and we split it in half, so I only had to do about twenty minutes. We didn’t sit down together to work on the same pieces. We did our own pieces and played them to each other and we d swap ideas and go back to our camps. Actually, Michael and I almost did a movie together last year. We got hired but then they changed their minds, but then we got hired again and then they changed their minds again. Eventually we didn’t get it, but I remember the meeting we were going to. It was on september 11th! I drove to Michael to pick him up to go to the meeting and I got a call on my cell phone: “turn on the tv”. Now, Michael has a tv but no antenna. So we got some tin foil and build ourselves an antenna to watch what was going on. And then we decided to not go to the meeting.

PS: Tell me about Freefall, which is your first computer game.

JR: Yeah, my first and only. I don’t know if I’ll do it again, but I did have a good time doing it. I only did it though, because it was programmed and conceived by a good friend of mine. A toy designer who makes high-tech toys. He had done this game and showed it to me. He gave me an enormous amount of freedom and I had a really good time. And that score I did completely on a laptop computer! Not even in my studio. I did it in hotel rooms, most of it during vacations! On my kitchen table. It’s interesting to get away from all the equipment, it gets this sort of lightness. I did it completely with this software called Reason, which is mostly good for doing techno music. Reason is one of the most astonishing program’s you’ve ever seen. It’s a sampler, synth, sequencer all in one.

PS: Will there be a release of the music? It says so on the official site anyway…

JR: Yeah, the official site says there will be, but now I’m not so sure. I’ve come up with a better idea. One of the reasons that I was interested in doing Freefall the game was, because I kept ownership of the music. So I own the music, no one else. I might be the only composer to ever get such a deal. Now what I’m doing is that I’m working on a non-score record and some of the Freefall music will end up on this record. I’ve also been working with some singers. I’ve also done some other interesting things lately. A new electronica label, called Vitamin records, put together an album with different electronica composers doing covers of Peter Gabriel song. And they asked me to do one, so I choose Biko , which is probably my favorite song of his. I did some research on Biko’s life and discovered how long his story continued even after his death. Instead of doing just a cover of Gabriel’s song which only tells about the murder, I figured “what if I did something about Peter Gabriel’s song?” So I wrote an original piece called Leaves From The Tree . I was able to find some sound clips of the actual confession by Biko’s killer and I put that at the beginning of the piece. Then I also got this wonderful speech by Biko, which I put at the end of the piece. And then I got a wonderful singer to sing in the middle of the piece! It was quite fun. I have tons of non-score things and I am working toward finishing them, but I am really slow. There’s no deadline! There’s no point in going to a label until it’s pretty much done, but it’s never really finished.

PS: Here in Gent , you are doing this workshop about electronic music. Needless to say, electronic instruments have developed tremendously over the years. How has you music or you way of composing changed, artistically, because of this development?

JR: When I started out I came to filmmusic as a sort of sound designer, you know, the “samplemeister”. I wasn’t so much thinking about melody and harmony and the traditional aspects of filmmusic, but as I’ve continued on in my work I’ve been much more careful and concerned about more traditional elements of music and how they apply in filmscores. But now what I’m trying to do, without letting go of that care for thematic development, I am once again becoming more interested in scores that have a sonic character. I think most my scores have it in them, with a few exceptions. There’s so much new interesting software, like virtual samplers and all kind of tools. I’ve rebuilt my studio almost from scratch to take advantage of these new virtual instruments. My studio is hardly anything more but racks and racks of computers and I’m slowly getting rid of things, I’ve been selling a lot of stuff! My studio is getting smaller, yet more powerful. With these new tools come new capabilities that I want to try, so I’m having a lot of fun again with sampling and sound design but with a somewhat more mature musical perspective.

PS: How do filmmakers react to this new tools?

JR: They never care. All film directors know by now, with few exceptions, that when the composer presses the spacebar on the computer they will hear the score. Some composers are more elaborate on their demo’s, others like to keep it simple. Some composer don’t like doing good demo’s, because they want the orchestra to sound definitively better. The thing with really good samples is that the real orchestra can be a little bit of a disappointment. But personally, I want the demo’s to sound great. And directors know that when they want the melody to played an octave higher, I only have to go click-click and it’s done. There’s no secrecy.

PS: Doesn’t that make directors more demanding of you, now that they know you only have to click a few buttons and it’s done?

JR: I never let them watch me work! (laughs) I don’t let them see me make edits. Something simpler, like moving the melody up an octave or take a phrase out, that I’ll do in front of them. Because if I do it badly I don’t want to see that. And when I can do it in three seconds I don’t want them to see that either!

PS: With this software being available for anyone to buy and use, don’t you think a lot more *crap* music will be released?

JR: Well, those composers would have already been crappy. This software may make it easier to produce and release music. This new and inexpensive software gives quality to anybody. Most people can afford, but whether they can use it is something else! When I see a movie I sometimes have to laugh because I can recognize which sample CD’s the composer used. Certain sample libraries are so popular! They cost $99 and everybody has them, so you hear that same weird scraping sound in fifty different movies. It’s amazing!

PS: What about upcoming projects?

JR:  My main concern right now is getting my new studio up and running, which will take a lot of time. But between now and christmas I am involved with a new television project, that should be done by Christmas. And by that time I should find out about a film for right after Christmas, but I can’t say what it is as it’s not confirmed yet.
Many thanks to Jeff Rona and to the International Flanders Filmfestival.

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