Cell: Interview: Composer Marcelo Zarvos

CellSoundtrackThe latest Stephen King adaptation, Cell, is scored by Brazilian pianist and composer Marcelo Zarvos, whose music has also recently been heard on the Le Carre adaptation Our Kind of Traitor, as well as the TV shows The Big C and Ray Donovan. He recently took time to answer some questions from Paul Simpson…



What are your first musical memories? Were you brought up in a musical household, and what instrument(s) did you learn?

I was not brought up in a musical household. I did have a cousin who played jazz piano and one of my first memories is listening to him play and thinking to myself I want to do that. My other first love in music was The Beatles and their sound really captured my imagination as a child. One thing led to the next and I begged my parents for piano lessons and that was it for me. I started piano lessons at age 9.

When did you develop an interest in scoring?

StingI always loved movies and was kind of a movie buff as a kid. One of the things that really captured my imagination were the scores. An early one I really loved was The Sting which had all that wonderful ragtime piano and my first recital at age 10 was playing ‘The Entertainer.’

I somehow always knew ultimately I would score films but had a few pit stops along the way playing in rock bands, then jazz bands, then modern classical music. Always very centered on piano and keyboards. I always get a great kick out of hearing how the sounds of my childhood in the 80s are now coming back everywhere and I fid that really exciting.

At age 18 I went to Berklee with the intention of studying Film Scoring but felt after I got there that it was too soon to focus on scoring only. I ended up going to Cal Arts where I was exposed to a really broad range of musical styles which to this day I consider to be the backbone of my work.

How did your first movie score come about?

After graduating from Cal Arts I moved to NYC and started playing my music in jazz and alternative spaces around town. In one of my concerts at the Knitting Factory in the 90s a Brazilian director named Paulo Machline heard my group and said, “I want you to do that for my film.” It was a wonderful short film named A Soccer Story which went on to win awards everywhere and was nominated for an Academy Award in the short film category.

I can basically trace everything I have done since to that one lucky break. From then I went on to score indies in New York and eventually expanded into studio films and TV as well.

Which do you prefer working on – the conciseness of a film score, or the more expansive canvas that a TV series provides? What are the pros and cons for you of both?

I really like to do both. I started firmly in the film world but have had great experiences working in TV as well. I like the back and forth between the speed of TV where you have to be very decisive right away and the more leisurely pace of film (which I know is not a word often associated with film scoring!). I think the walls between the world of film and TV have really collapsed and really it’s all about story telling and finding your voice and the voice of the story you want to tell musically.

DoorHow did you become involved with Cell?

I had worked with director Tod Williams on The Door in the Floor. A very different movie from Cell to be sure but we became very close over the years and when the opportunity to score a Stephen King adaptation came up needless to say I jumped at it.

With Cell, what parameters for the music were you given by the execs? I’m intrigued that you describe it as a “sci-fi” picture on your website, given that I’d have thought it was more like a horror movie – did that influence your approach?

I think of it as both horror and sci-fi and frankly what we call it was not very important to me. Also, as in all my scores, it was very important to find the emotional backbone of the story so it would go beyond the genre and really deal with the humanity (or lack of) in the characters. The technology aspect is very interesting to me and couldn’t be more timely. The execs were very open to the ideas I had. Director Tod Williams wanted the music to have a lot of complexity and shades of 20th century classical music. He also loved the use of synths with the orchestra.

Did you compose to picture for it?

Yes, always for this one in particular. Even though, as in all my scores, I usually write some wild material first to get things going.

There are so many horror/sci-fi scores around now: how did you look to make Cell sound different?

I just try to be myself with anything I do and have something that resonates. Being “different” in and of itself is not something I really think about and always come back to the same place which is by being myself I am different since nobody can write my own music the way that I do. It was a really fun and open process with the director and I started by playing him sketches of music only and there was very little temp so we used those sketches as the temp and then went from there.

There’s only 45 minutes of music on the score album – the size of an old LP. What governed the choices of tracks – or is that all you wrote?

I felt it was the right amount. There may have been a few more cues in the film, but I am always mindful of trying to capture the experience of the score without being redundant and most importantly have a flow in the tracks that somehow makes sense with the subject matter.

Zarvos-194Finally, how would you define a “Zarvos” score? There’s references on your website to your “trademark sound” but are there particular harmonic sequences or orchestrations that you use consciously or realise when you listen back are coming in subconsciously?

As I said before, the idea of a trademark is really an afterthought for me. Certain trends do come up time and again which may not apply here necessarily, like the flowing quality and a certain ethereal quality in the music that appears often throughout my work. Cell being case in point, the constant expansion of my vocabulary is what really interests me. To tackle something I have not done before, ultimately, is the most exciting thing for me.

Thanks to Ashley Moore and the Krakower Group for their help in arranging this interview.

The Cell soundtrack is available now from Filmtrax

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