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For ‘Fences’ Composer Marcelo Zarvos, Minimalism Made Room For August Wilson’s Melodic Prose

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A renowned Brazilian composer with work spanning the film and television spheres, Marcelo Zarvos immediately responded to Denzel Washington’s approach with Fences, the actor’s third directorial effort, from a script by playwright August Wilson. Of course, Washington’s command of the material was understandable—an actor and movie star of the highest pedigree, Washington had initially taken Wilson’s play of the same name to Broadway, with the support of Scott Rudin.

Beyond these credentials, though, Zarvos found Washington to have musical abilities matching his abilities on both sides of the camera—an ear and a musical sensitivity that was unique among directors he had worked with over a decades-long career.  “I really believe that, in a parallel world somewhere, he could have been an amazing musician, conductor, composer, instrumentalist, whatever,” Zarvos shares. “Miles Davis, or Gustavo Dudamel.” Below, Zarvos elaborates on Washington’s talents and his desire for a minimalist score, one that would allow Wilson’s words to remain the primary focus.

What was your response to Fences in seeing it for the first time?

I had sent some music in like so many composers do, and they really responded very favorably to my music from many other films I had done before. I also had one indirect connection. I had worked with Antoine Fuqua on Brooklyn’s Finest.

I was summoned to go and meet Denzel and watch the movie, and I went to the Paramount lot and screened the movie by myself in this giant theater. I was blown away. After the movie I was supposed to go talk to Denzel, and I asked for ten minutes to decompress because I was very, very moved by the film.

It was a rough cut, but even at that stage, it was clear that this was a special project. I had some ideas of what I thought it should be before I watched it, but as I watched it, a few things that were a little counterintuitive became clear to me.

One of the big ones was that I felt that we should stay away from any jazz or blues or any music that was very local, and we should be more universal with the music. I told Denzel right when I met him, and I think he was very pleased, because that’s what he was thinking, too. After doing this for a while, sometimes you go to these things and you’re like, “Wow, I wonder what they want, maybe I can tell them what they want to hear,” but after a while you trust your own artistic sensibility and talk about what you think.

There was a couple of instances where they asked me questions that I didn’t know the answer to, some specific things about instrumentation and what do I think of this idea and that idea, and I think that, too, was a positive thing.

Before I met him, I saw Denzel as the great movie star that we all know, and he was very disarmingly mellow and open and warm when I met him, and he was really passionate about the film and loved to talk about it, and we talked for a long time. On a human level, it felt very good, and on an artistic level, it felt very good, so they hired me. A lot of people get jobs this way, but somehow, this time, the artistic synchronicity really was there.

How did you go about finding your musical themes and the instrumentation employed in the score?

It’s a lot of trial and error. Very early on, Denzel knew that I’m a classically trained pianist—he loves the piano, and his wife is a virtuoso pianist. I didn’t realize that. He saw the piano as being part of his life for as long as it’s been a part of mine, through his wife’s playing and love of music.

That was always on the table as a very big possibility. We knew that we wanted the music to support what was there, but I knew that there was not going to be a lot of music. The first cue comes in 30 minutes into the movie—I never work in a movie where there’s 30 minutes of movie before the music comes in.

It’s not because, “Oh, let’s try to be different and do that.” The film is based on the August Wilson play and the words are extremely important. There are a lot of them. The first 30 minutes, it’s almost one uninterrupted monologue of Troy Maxson, Denzel’s character. There’s so much energy in the performance and the words, and frankly, there was no space in there for music.

Denzel always said, “The music is going to have to fight its way into this movie,” because the original play does not have any score. While this is a movie adaptation, the words, as far as I can tell, were pretty much kept exactly the same. I think they might have added literally five words to the whole thing, but essentially, it’s really about the text. The other thing that he said very early on was, “The score are the words of August Wilson and the music needs to support that,” and it’s very true. It’s very Shakespearean in that sense.

The words, I read and reread. I had read this play before when I was in college, studying theater history—even though I was a music major—and this was a seminal play. The words dictate everything, and there’s such a dramatic tightness to this text that you’ll have to find your way around the words, and around August Wilson’s vision. The other thing that Denzel always said is, “We all have to be good as August, so either this is going to elevate that original work, or it’s not going to make it.”

Of course, that’s an impossibly difficult task—this was a case where I really had to learn almost a different vocabulary because there was no real road map, in terms of anything I had done before. I think the movie is very unique because it’s just a different animal. We just had to find the spaces and massage the moments where music could elevate it.

There were different modes where I felt like it could work. One was transitional music—like in a play, where you have scene changes, or act changes. That would take care of maybe one third of the cues.

Then there were places where the music was supporting the dialogue, and those were some of the most difficult ones. We quickly found that very high-register stuff seemed to work the best, being out of the range of Denzel’s and Viola’s voice, which all lays a little bit lower.

The third way was when we needed to have an emotional uplift or release—one of the big ones is in the final scene, but also there’s a sequence that happens when Troy is at his lowest point, in the bar, drinking and singing to himself and thinking about his son, and his son is thinking about leaving and joining the army. There are those places where the music looks from above, and it’s trying to give you an overall view of what these characters are going through.

Along with the main message of family that exists in this film, there’s a spiritual component to this, and I feel like we get that through the character of Gabriel. He’s Troy’s brother who has brain damage from the war, who carries a trumpet and hears voices from the sky. I feel like he works as a Greek chorus to the story, but also was a connection to this other world.

I always find it interesting to notice that the very first cue we hear, it’s when he appears in the story—30 minutes in—and the very last cue we hear in the movie comes out of Gabriel playing the trumpet.

As a musical artist, where are the lines drawn in terms of your responsibility on a film? Did you conduct the music during scoring sessions, or play the film’s piano cues yourself?

In the recording process, sometimes I conduct, sometimes I don’t. Obviously, this was a very big movie, and a lot of responsibility for me, and I felt like I wanted to be in the booth with Denzel, feeling his reaction to the music. We did have a conductor and I pre-recorded all the pianos, but also when we recorded the score, we had a pianist there playing with the orchestra—an incredible LA pianist named Randy Kerber—and the performances that wound up in the movie are a combination of Randy’s and my playing. Sometimes, even within the same cue, it could be both.

I’ve always been very skeptical of having anybody play piano for me. This is really, I think, the second score ever where I had somebody play the piano for me. The first time I wasn’t so thrilled about it, but this time I was very happy because we had the best of the best.

Every step of the score, for me, was an education on how this can be done right. As an aside, it’s interesting to note—I don’t think people really know this about him, but [Washington] has an incredible musical ear, perhaps unmatched in any director I’ve ever worked with.

His ears are very, very fine-tuned, and he can really pick out, from a very complex texture, because he’s always hearing the music within the context of the movie, and everything that’s going on. It’s very dense, even in a movie that is relatively sparse. There is this real, complex fabric of sound that any movie has that we take for granted when we watch it, and Denzel can really absorb all of that and hear the music in really very, very minute detail. It was really amazing to see.

What do you find is the major distinction between your work in film and in television—on Ray Donovan or The Affair, for example?

The big distinction is time. You just have a lot more time in film; sometimes, for whatever reason, they have no time, and you just make a run for it, as I’ve done several times. But by and large, film tends to be something where you have time to just reflect. On TV, you can’t second-guess yourself. I actually think that they complement each other very well, because your instincts are everything, as an artist and a composer. When you’re doing the cue, you have to trust that, OK, it’s good. In film, you do have the luxury to reflect more on it. Really, I would say that’s the main difference. At one point, before I got involved in TV, there was a very big distinction in TV music from film music—there was a sense that in TV music, it was always going to be more on-the-nose. I really literally started when this golden age of TV that we all talk about started. The quality has really been raised, across the board.

You’re something of an experimentalist with your scores. Are there specific ambitions you hold at this point that you’d like to realize in the studio?

Absolutely, the list goes on and on. Animation is something that I really would like to do. That’s another area that has become so rich. I dabbled in horror, but I would love to do more of that. I find that for music in particular, it can be a very rich terrain, and the same thing for sci-fi. I haven’t really done anything that is sci-fi, and that’s something that I would also find very interesting. There’s also just trying to find new ways of doing the things that you’ve been doing. I think finding the freshness within what you’ve done before is almost harder to do, because you have to dig deeper and reinvent yourself, with every score and every cue.

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