Dario Marianelli has scored action movies. He’s scored period pieces. He’s scored thrillers, and animated films. His IMDB is about as an eclectic listing of films as you’ll find on the site — running the spectrum of genre, format, and sound. So naturally, we were interested to learn more about this Oscar-winning modern film composer. And we did. Check out our chat with Dario below, as he spoke to us about rejecting musical styles, scoring a Transformers film, and using a breath controller to control expression (genius!)
How and when did you first start composing?
I have been making music since I was six, one way or another, and I always liked improvising at the keyboard. I sung in a choir as a kid, I studied piano, and from the age of 19 or so I studied counterpoint, something that interested me very much. Actual “composing” only started in my early twenties; I think of the beginning as the moment when I was asked to write a piece for a specific destination and I had a proper deadline. I had set up a tiny studio with a friend in my hometown (Pisa, Italy), mostly for fun, not really thinking seriously that we could do it for a living. We had an Atari 1024 and an early MIDI keyboard-sampler. I really liked that plucky little computer and my first sequencer, Steinberg’s Pro 24. I loved that improvisation could be recorded, and manipulated and expanded at will. We started making music for tiny events; a town festival, an exhibition of slides from the local photographic club.
What was the path or the turning point that landed your first major scoring gig?
Difficult to pinpoint one single moment: I think there were a series of steps. After I moved to London in 1990, the first major turning point was when a young director heard my music for a fringe theatre show (I had made a tape that found its way to him). He asked me to write the music for his first feature film, back in 1993. I threw myself into it, discovered that I quite enjoyed the pain, and started to be on the look-out for more. While looking, I enrolled at the National Film and Television School, made a few friends and contacts, and made sure to say yes to everything that was ever offered, no matter how small or silly. It was a few years of very chaotic endeavors, studying, writing some concert music, contemporary ballet scores, the odd TV thing, mostly documentaries, teaching piano, helping out other more established composers on occasion.
A big turning point was Terry Gilliam ringing me up, in 2003: he had heard one of my tapes, somehow. He asked me to work on a big fantasy-adventure, The Brothers Grimm. There were some hairy moments, but I pulled through, and the following couple of years were very intense, with a number of projects coming my way. Some of them were quite important for me, like Pride and Prejudice and V for Vendetta, and then Atonement.
Who/what are your biggest musical influences?
The influences of which I am quite conscious are mostly from classical music, which is what I grew up with, going to concerts, operas, but also playing as part of my piano studies. In my teens, besides listening to anything between Monteverdi and Bartok, I shared with some friends a love of Jazz and progressive Rock — especially Emerson Lake & Palmer and Pink Floyd. And growing up in the sixties and seventies I heard a lot of music in films and on TV that left a deep mark. I was in love with the music of some TV series I watched as a kid, like the quirky “Pinocchio” produced by the Italian state TV in the early seventies, which left a big impression: I could still recall and play on the piano all its musical themes 30 years later. It was impossible not to be affected by Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone, but also by some now more-obscure names like Fiorenzo Carpi, Armando Trovajoli, Riz Ortolani, whose musical presence was ubiquitous in those years on Italian TV.
When I started being more consciously aware of film music, and especially when I started writing it myself, I had a few people that I really admired: mostly European composers, like Gabriel Yared and Alberto Iglesias. I was very intrigued by their ability to avoid cliches, to make the music interesting in its own right, to elevate the soundtrack to be another character in the movie.
We’d love to hear a little bit about your creative process. How do you usually get started on a piece?
Depending on the director I am working with, and on the subject matter, I might end up using different approaches. For example with some directors, I start writing early and not to picture. I try coming up with something that is interesting musically for me while keeping at the back of my mind a few vivid moments of the screenplay, ideally trying to give a sound to some abstract idea that I picked up reading the story. Sometimes the starting point is the necessity to have a piece of music that is “seen” on screen, as in Pride and Prejudice or in Anna Karenina: they need to be written early because part of the film is shot to the music. Another way to start a piece has often been for me the famous “messing about”: just throwing my hands on the keyboard and absent-mindedly improvising until I hear something that clicks with my sense of what the story needs. It is like “going fishing,” and a bit slow and tentative. But given enough time and persistence, something comes up.
Do you ever encounter writers’ block; what’s your remedy to cure it?
Touch wood, I haven’t yet. But I think it is a simple matter of persistence. As the saying goes: seat of the pants on the seat of the chair…
With the film Bumblebee, you were tasked with composing for a film with really familiar characters, that were a part of a pre-existing world. Did you find that challenging? Was it exciting to dive in at this point in the franchise’s storyline? Did it change your process at all?
Challenging? Utter terror, rather. The only thing that made me relax a little was director Travis Knight’s support and trust, and his insistence that we would not have to reference the musical world of the other movies. In fact, if we were to reference anything, we were attempting to have some echoes of the Amblin spirit back in the 80s: something I felt was not totally out of my reach. Eventually, it became apparent that we needed not to abandon a more modern approach to electronica and sound design in the music, and I think it turned out to be one of my most synth-heavy scores.
You’ve had the opportunity to score such a wide range of films from a genre and style perspective, do you approach a film like Darkest Hour differently than you would a film like Bumblebee (and differently than you would a film like Paddington 2)?
Every new project comes with its own set of requirements. It’s kind of fun to discover the language that can belong to a specific movie. Having said that, “style” can be a treacherous word, and I personally find it can cripple creativity and the free flow of ideas. So, rather than thinking about “style,” I try to concentrate on what the detail of a melody or of a harmonic progression is, and allow the side effect of the detailed work to accumulate: usually some kind of coherence starts to emerge after a while. The surprising thing, for me, is that in spite of my approach being more or less the same every time, the end result is always different. In a film like Bumblebee, one has to contend with an overwhelming wall of sound effects, which is very different from more intimate movies like Darkest Hour. If there are common elements, they are to be found in the desire to give a voice to something that is not immediately visible on screen; to add something to the storytelling, rather than simply decorating what’s there already.
What’s your studio setup like? (DAW/Hardware systems); do you have a favorite piece of gear (or plugin)?
I use Digital Performer. I have one main Mac for the DAW, and a couple of slave Macs with Vienna Ensemble Pro, hosting most of my sounds. I am still using a couple of ancient Kurzweils and EMU Outboards, just for a few sounds that I never found elsewhere.
The one piece of gear that has accompanied me over the last 20 years or so is a breath controller, with which I control the expression of all my sustained sounds. It used to be a Yamaha BC3 until recently, which has now more or less disintegrated after years of abuse. I now use a TEC-Control breath controller.
If you could snap your fingers and have any virtual instrument custom-tailored for you, what would it be?
A truly good solo cello that understands when and how to use double-stops in the middle of true legato: haven’t quite found one that I like, yet.
What role do Heavyocity products play in your work?
I must have been living under a rock, till last year, but I have been using your sounds since. On Bumblebee I would probably have found myself in serious trouble, had I not been using your brilliant work. Once I discovered that the fairly straight orchestral approach we had originally imagined for Bumblebee (some sort of “Amblin” sound I was referring to earlier) was only going so far, it became really important for me to find something that would integrate with what I was doing orchestrally. I am really picky in my choice of non-orchestral sounds, and it was an utter delight to dive into AEON, GRAVITY, and DM-307. I’m now just starting to experiment with NOVO and FORZO, and they sound great!
Check out Dario’s full list of credits and upcoming projects at: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0547050/