Interview with Don Davis (Composer) from The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

By Paul Martin August 17th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix Reloaded

Archival interview with Don Davis from the official Matrix website.

MINI HISTORY

MATRIX: What was the draw to music for you?

DON: I started playing trumpet when I was 9 years old, and I started writing tunes and stuff when I was about 12. It’s kind of hard to pinpoint the time when music changed from being a nice hobby to basically taking over my life, but I think it was some time in high school. I was basically spending all my time doing it, and decided at that point that I wanted to spend my life creating music.

MATRIX: How early was it that movies came into the equation?

DON: I think I was in college before I thought seriously about being a film composer. Film seemed more an outlet for a composer to express himself and to be involved. I think some people look to movies as a glamorous place to be, they want to figure out how they fit into that, and end up in music. For me, it was more like: where do composers fit in, in our culture and music? Film seemed to be one of the few real outlets for compositional activity.

MATRIX: Initially, how did you get into film work?

DON: While I was in college I studied orchestration with Albert Harris, and he introduced me to a TV composer named Joe Harnell who was scoring a show called the Incredible Hulk. Joe started to hire me as an orchestrator on that show, that was really my first job.

MATRIX: Did you have anything to do with the Incredible Hulk transformation music?

DON: I didn’t really have anything to do with the transformation. Joe would do that at the first of every season. He would re-record the main title, the bumper music and the end title music, and he would also re-record the transformation. So every week they would use that same recording during the transformation when David Banner got angry, and he’d look up and his eyes were white, his clothes would start to tear and then he emerged. I believe the format was two transformations an episode. Before the half-hour break commercial, the Hulk would have to do some damage, and then at the end of the show he’d have to save the day. It was actually a pretty interesting show considering it was about a big green monster jumping around.

MATRIX: Was The Incredible Hulk the first professional work you did?

DON: That, and I also did some work for Hoyt Curtain down at Hanna Barbera. But The Incredible Hulk was how I first got into it.

MATRIX: Did you feel you had arrived at that point?

DON: I didn’t quite feel that I had arrived, but I certainly felt I had been offered a pretty auspicious beginning. I felt very lucky to be getting that kind of work, no question about it.

MATRIX: Were you doing any orchestra work back then?

DON: Back then I was also pretty active, and am still pretty active, writing concert music. While I was working on The Incredible Hulk, I was working on a Chamber Symphony of my own, which premiered at the Gaudeamus Music Week in Amsterdam. From the beginning, my real focus was on the orchestra. Being a brass player kind of focused my energy toward that acoustic environment.

MATRIX: Where do you draw your inspiration from?

DON: I still get a lot of inspiration from the concert composers. Back then I was more interested in Lutoslawski, Boulez, Berio, and composers like that. Now I’m very interested in composers like Roger Reynolds, John Adams, Steve Reich, David Lang, and Aaron Jay Kernis. The thing that always really interests me is the way music evolves in acoustical space.

MATRIX: With work going on in different areas, was there a decision to be made about which direction to keep going in?

DON: The fact is, when I was starting out at least, I wasn’t busy all the time, so there was enough down time that I could pursue the concert work I was always interested in. In terms of chronology, I did The Incredible Hulk for Joe Harnell, I orchestrated a miniseries called V, and I started working for a composer named Mark Snow who was scoring a TV series called Hart to Hart. I eventually got the opportunity to score four episodes of Hart to Hart on my own when Mark was unavailable. That was really the first time I had scored something on my own, I guess I was about 25 at that time. I also scored a film called Hyper Space, which I got through some friends of mine I knew from the film department at UCLA; we scored that with a 52-piece orchestra. It was kind of a Star Wars and War of the Worlds knock off. It never got a real release, but it was a great experience for me, it was a really fun movie. Shortly after that, actually I think on the basis of the demo tapes from that show, I got the job of being the composer on Beauty and the Beast. It was pretty neat for me, it was kind of the last of the big orchestral TV shows. Lee Holdridge had scored the pilot and wrote the theme, and he had ushered me in as his successor, kind of like what John Williams did for me on Jurassic Park 3.

MATRIX: How difficult is it to work under or with another composer?

DON: It’s not difficult as long as you’re working with someone who is professional. If you’re working with somebody who doesn’t know what he’s doing and you’re pulling all the weight and he’s getting all the glory, that’s not really fun. But I’ve never really been in that situation. In terms of difficulty, I don’t know if it’s more difficult or less. I’ve had the good experience of being able to work with quality themes, so I haven’t had the difficulty of trying to make bad music work. Lee’s themes on Beauty and the Beast were really brilliant, and of course John Williams’ themes on Jurassic Park were absolutely stellar, so it wasn’t difficult from that standpoint, but the general difficulties of accompanying film with music are all there.

MATRIX: When you are working with another composer’s themes, as in the case of Jurassic Park 3, are the themes usually already written when you come into the project?

DON: In most cases, yes. Mostly it’s a process of limiting yourself to the stylistic demands that have already been established. In other words, knowing that it’s not really going to be appropriate to go off into some kind of weird tangent that’s not going to be consistent with what has been established. There’s a certain discipline of maintaining that balance, but on the other hand, you don’t have the problem of establishing a style in the first place that works with the picture. So in a way you can jump in and start swimming without doing your stretching exercises. Every dramatic situation has its challenges, and that doesn’t change when you’re dealing with someone else’s materials.

MATRIX: I assume most of your work is done to an initial rough-cut; where do you come into the process of actually starting to put some pieces together?

DON: Traditionally, they’re supposed to be finished editing when we spot the music. Spotting means sitting down with the Director and/or the Producer to decide exactly which spots need music and how long, that sort of thing. As time has gone on, film editors seem to have been disregarding that element and just keep cutting, even after the composer gets the cut. It’s pretty much become common practice for composers to spot a film and then, after they start writing, figure that they have to change the music to fit any new cut. That in itself makes the creative process quite a bit more difficult. One of the things about film music is that the structure of the music is dictated by the drama that you’re dealing with. When you’re adhering to that structure and then the structure changes, it can be very disconcerting. It’s become pretty much common practice to have to readjust the timings of the music after you’ve actually written the music.

MATRIX: If they take away a dramatic beat, that totally undermines what music you might have already laid down to coincide with the drama unfolding.

DON: That’s right, everything is thrown off. Sometimes that means that you have to completely start over, but it’s more disorienting than anything else. It was particularly difficult in Jurassic Park 3, because the music that John Williams had established for that was very complex and had a lot of structural integrity. When I had to go through it and add a few beats here and take out a few beats there, it was a lot more difficult than normal, because you were kind of rewriting the whole structure of the piece just by making those slight adjustments.

MATRIX: At this point you’ve seen the film a lot more than most have seen the film; does the perspective start to get a little difficult?

DON: Yes, it does. Your perspective starts to become askew because I’ve felt that I’ve established some kind of continuity going through these scenes, sometimes you’ve done a lot of painstaking work to make the continuity work from cut to cut to cut. Then, as those cuts change, I have to come up with a new justification for that structure that’s not predicated on the fact that there’s a cut here to a certain scene, because that entire shot may be gone now, or there may be a new cut there, a different shot, or something like that. So all the things I had used to justify the structure of any particular point, are suddenly shifting.

MATRIX: Do you listen to soundtrack albums to see what other people are up to?

DON: Yes I do, as much as I can. I try to listen to concert music a little more, because if film composers just listen to other film composers, it gets a little bit incestuous, and I like to widen the references just a little bit more than that. But I have heard some pretty astounding things. Elliot Goldenthal wrote a score to a movie called Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within that’s just tremendous. Moulin Rouge has a great soundtrack, talk about theatrical cliches and Greek tragedy and musical theatre and Gilbert and Sullivan and Shakespeare; it was like this big goulash of all kinds of cultural references. I thought it was just spectacular – actually it was spectacular, spectacular. And, of course, John Williams always comes up with something brilliant, like the music for AI Artificial Intelligence – that’s John Williams going into territory I never expected him to go in – minimalist references which I thought were just superb. I’m talking about the scene in particular where the helicopter is going into the submerged New York City. He did some kind of a John Adams/Steve Reich sort of a reference there, which I had never heard him do before. Even now he seems to be really growing as a composer, just when we thought there was no more growth to be had.

WORKING ON THE MATRIX

MATRIX: How did you first get involved in THE MATRIX?

DON: I had worked with Zach Staenberg, the Editor, on a couple of projects a few years back, and we became friends. When Zach got the job to edit Bound, he let me read the script and introduced me to Larry and Andy. When I read that script, I just flipped out, it was something spectacular. I recognized right away the abilities of these guys, as writers, to take a genre and expand on it exponentially. They were definitely riding the wave of the Quentin Tarantino/Reservoirs Dogs phenomenon, but they took that genre and made it work in a story kind of way the Tarantino films weren’t doing. I think they took that as a jumping off point and were like: hey, let’s remember Citizen Kane, and 1940s, and film noir, and update it a little. They referenced the whole gamut of that kind of filmmaking. So, when I read Bound, I just flipped out. Anyway, I got a meeting with Larry and Andy through Zach, and also Randy Newman called them and recommended me, which helped quite a bit.

MATRIX: What was it like working with them initially?

DON: The really interesting thing about Larry and Andy, especially at that time, is that they were complete newcomers to directing, they’d never done it before, but they learned so incredibly fast that it was just kind of astonishing. A lot of times we’d start off on a path that wasn’t quite orthodox and then they’d come around to it real fast, for example, the way Bound opened. Originally it opened on the shot of the closet with Corky tied up in there, there were some voice-overs, and then it segued to the hallway with Violet and Caesar coming to their front door. As we spotted that scene, Larry and Andy said they wanted the closet music to be really abstract and strange and weird, and then it would go into something else in the closet… but then they wanted a theme too. I said, “There isn’t time for a theme here, and if you want it to be abstract and weird, what am I supposed to do?” Then they added a 30 second sequence at the beginning, it’s not a credit sequence, it’s basically just a title sequence. The picture opened with that cast of “bound” in shadows, and the camera panning around it. It seems they basically added that because they wanted time for the theme to happen, and then the music to get abstract in the closet.

There was some of that sort of thing, where their initial concept was impractical, and then they worked around it. Zach has always been very helpful to me in trying to figure out what Larry and Andy are looking for in a scene, because Zach works with them every day. On THE MATRIX, Zach was very helpful in suggesting what Larry and Andy meant. Luckily for me, they are probably the most loyal people I have ever met. When they made the transition from Bound to THE MATRIX, they brought along myself, Zach and Bill Pope [Director of Photography], and a number of other key people they felt were essential to their collaboration. You don’t see that very often.

MATRIX: What was your first reaction to getting your hands on the script for THE MATRIX?

DON: I knew immediately it was going to be a big success, because they had all theses action elements and anime elements that I knew were going to be very popular with the so-called young male demographic. They also threw in religious overtones so, essentially, it was an encapsulated Christ story, which always means a big hit. Look at ET: he comes down from heaven, performs a few miracles, dies for his sins and goes back into heaven. That’s Christ right there, and ET was a huge hit. It seems like every time a director slightly veils a Christ story, you have a big hit on your hands. To do that, and couch it in terms of an action film, with not just action, but spectacular action and innovative action, I was convinced that THE MATRIX was going to be huge. You didn’t have to talk me into that one.

THE MATRIX is a very abstract story, it’s not the kind of script the studios get very often, so I can’t really blame them for not getting it right away. I’m convinced Larry and Andy left out ideas they had in their heads that made the difference between the script of THE MATRIX, and the movie of THE MATRIX, that nobody else would really know about. So I can’t really blame the studio for not quite getting it, it was a big risk for them.

MATRIX: Even if the story is great, the style is so important to be able to tell that story well.

DON: But you can’t read the style.I couldn’t read it, I didn’t know what the stylistic aspect would be, except I knew what they brought to Bound, and I had seen some of the storyboards for THE MATRIX, so I was a little bit tipped off.

MATRIX: At the beginning there were different possibilities for the cast, do you remember some of those?

DON: As far as casting goes, Keanu Reeves wasn’t Larry and Andy’s first choice, Johnny Depp was their first choice for Neo. Warner Bros. was going for this thing where they didn’t want Johnny Depp, they wanted Brad Pitt or Val Kilmer. They told Larry and Andy if Brad Pitt would do the picture, they’d green light it right then. After Kilmer and Brad Pitt said no, Warner Bros. was willing to consider Johnny Depp, so it sort of came down to between Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves, who Warner Bros. was pushing. Keanu was always really tuned in to the concept and that made a big difference for Larry and Andy. I think it was a brilliant choice.

Gary Oldman was considered as Morpheus at one point, and Samuel Jackson as well. For Trinity, I think they were generally looking at lesser known names for that character.

MATRIX: What was the process of composing like for THE MATRIX?

DON: I have to credit Zach Staenberg, the editor, a great deal because once he came up with a concept of how to cut a scene, he didn’t alter that, unless he really had to.

The procedure on THE MATRIX was actually a little bit different than I had ever really dealt with before. First of all, I was demoing each cue for the Wachowskis, so I would mock up a cue on the synthesizer and then they would come over and look at it with the picture, and we’d all discuss it. What we all wanted was to take those mock up demos and actually mix them into the picture for the preview screening, so it actually had all of the music in demo form that was going to be shown in the completed picture. Zach did do a fine tune cut after the preview, but that was actually before I had orchestrated all the cues. So my procedure on THE MATRIX was: we spotted the show and then I wrote each cue on the synthesizer, I presented these mock ups to the Directors, then I would orchestrate the mock ups, and in the process of orchestration I could update them to the new cut. It was kind of a streamlined process, when you think about it.

MATRIX: I saw that preview cut, it’s interesting that it wasn’t a typical temp score.

DON: I think a number of people did note that the music did not seem like temp music. It seemed like it was made for the sequence, which I think contributed to the success of that preview quite a bit. That’s something we want to do in the next two MATRIX films, and I’m hoping there will be nothing that will come in to throw a wrench into the process. I think it not only helped the preview quite a bit, but it also gave the Directors very good continuity, in terms of giving me notes of what the music needs to do. In other words, if we’re just looking at one sequence and we put music up against it, that’s a little bit out of context to give me notes, but if the Directors see the film from beginning to end, then they can give me a much more informed decision. I can make a much more informed judgment as well, in terms of what is working in continuity and what isn’t.

MATRIX: The textures can also be self-referential across the board, without being isolated.

DON: That’s right. There’s thematic material that shows up in, let’s say, the third act, to which we can refer, then we can see how it refers to the first and second acts. That’s really a big advantage. So I’m hoping, in the next two MATRIX films, we’re going to have the opportunity to do that.

MATRIX: Early on, was there discussion as to how digital or how acoustic the music would be?

DON: The discussions were more what they wanted the music to achieve. They weren’t too concerned whether I did it acoustically or digitally, although they were adamant that they didn’t want just a synthesizer score, they wanted the grandeur of the orchestra. We were able to come to it from that standpoint.

MATRIX: Now it is easy to say the film was a success and, as interesting, I think it is easy to say that the music was extremely successful. What does it feel like to hear your music in any number of other places?

DON: It’s pretty wild. I was in a stereo store a couple of weeks ago, and I heard the end of THE MATRIX come on, and I was like, wait a minute, that’s me! They had this room for demonstrating speakers and DVD players, and they had two or three different movies up that anybody could come in and listen to their speakers with, and THE MATRIX was one of them. That was kind of a trip.

MATRIX: I’m continually hearing trailers with snippets of music from THE MATRIX.

DON: One thing which has happened that’s a little disconcerting, is that I’ve gone in to score movies and they’ve temped it with some of THE MATRIX music. It’s a drag when it doesn’t work because I guess they’re saying, “We’ve got THE MATRIX composer, so let’s plug in some MATRIX music”, but it’s just all wrong. So that’s a little bit of a drag to have to kind of talk them into something that works. The thing about THE MATRIX music is that it really doesn’t work in other contexts. It takes a particular film of that kind of style that it’s going to be appropriate for. The action has to sustain the style of the music, you can’t just throw it in there and hope it works. That’s kind of a good thing because I don’t want to be doing other movies where they say, do your MATRIX thing. Fortunately it doesn’t really work, so I haven’t had to fall into that quagmire.

MATRIX: THE MATRIX is full on, but Larry and Andy timed the breaks so wonderfully, as far as where you can take a break to relax, and then get back into the Government Lobby action. That must have been absolutely wonderful for you to score to.

DON: When the structure of the film is working, then the music will work. I didn’t have to knock my head against a wall on that movie to make something work in a situation that was impossible. So, to a certain extent, they made my work easier, just by Larry and Andy being excellent craftsmen.

MATRIX: How much do computers play a part in your work?

DON: Certainly, if I didn’t have the computers and the whole set up, I wouldn’t have been able to demo each cue for Larry and Andy, and we certainly wouldn’t have been able to prepare those cues for the temp dub to show them the preview, so from that stand point computers are absolutely essential. Outside of that, all the synthesized and sampled elements of the score were done with computers, as well as mixing them. But of course the traditional orchestral elements were done with pencil and paper. It was really the best of all world situations, in which we could turn towards traditional acoustic instruments and voices when that was needed, but we also had the benefit of technology when we needed a synthesizer approach.

MATRIX: I know the choices of songs were very late in the game as to being locked down, for instance, the Rage Against the Machine song came in at right under the wire.

DON: That was because of the deals. Making deals for soundtrack songs is very, very complicated; you have so many different entities. Whereas for the underscore, you make a deal with the composer and that’s it, you’re not dealing with a number of different record labels, you’re not dealing with a number of different publishers, you’re not dealing with a number of different artists. It didn’t surprise me at all that they had difficulty in that area.

MATRIX: Does that play and affect your work, or is it completely separate?

DON: The way it affected me is that I had to cover all those scenes that were questionable. That’s really the only drag I had in this, because I’m doing work that becomes fruitless. It was necessary though, because if they ended up not getting those songs, they had to put something in there. I was very happy to accommodate them in that regard.

I had covered the Rage Against the Machine sequence with an orchestra, and that shows up in the end credits. It worked out pretty well, because when Neo walks out of the phone booth and flies by the camera with his cape flapping, the music goes wham right as Neo goes by the camera. Then at the end of the credits, Joel Silver’s logo comes up, which is a Frank Lloyd Wright tile spinning around, and the music goes wham as it locks into place. It’s kind of cool if you were sitting through the whole credits.

MATRIX: Are you and Dane Davis, the Sound Designer, related?

DON: No. I’m not related to Miles or Sammy either.

Dane and I speak quite often when we’re working on the same project, and we’ve actually worked on a number of things, not just THE MATRIX and Bound, he also did Anti Trust and House on Haunted Hill. Whenever I work with Dane there’s a lot of communication between the two of us. Sometimes we send each other sound files to reference, so I’m pretty confident when I work with Dane that I’m going to know what I’m up against when we get to the dub stage. It’s a pretty great situation because we can approach it from the standpoint of a collaboration rather than being adversarial.

MATRIX: I’m sure at some point in some films, that has to be an issue.

DON: In almost every film it’s an issue, because it all has to be sorted out at some point, and that’s when the expertise of the dubbing crew comes in. Fortunately, on THE MATRIX I think we’ve had the best dubbing crew in the business with [John] Reitz [sound re-recording mixer], [Gregg] Rudloff [sound re-recording mixer] and [David] Campbell [sound re-recording mixer]. David Campbell is, I think, the best music mixer in dubbing. I feel very, very fortunate to have their guidance on the dubbing stage.

MATRIX: It seems that right now, in films like Requiem for a Dream for example, the sound design is becoming more and more musical.

DON: Sound direction is very, very important, it’s gives a film its identity along with the music. So I think it’s essential that sound designers and composers should be in synch. It can become adversarial, and usually the music is not the winner of that little fight. It gets pushed down, or re-recorded to take all the balls out of it. Fortunately, when you have a team like this, it becomes collaborative and not adversarial, and that makes all the difference.

THE MATRIX RELOADED

MATRIX: Have you done any work yet for the sequels?

DON: In THE MATRIX 2 there’s a temple scene where one of the Zion elders talks about remembering the warriors who have gone down in battle, then Morpheus comes out and gives the crowd kind of an uplifting speech, and then they start to sing and dance to some music. They asked me to provide some music for them to dance to, and they shot to that when they filmed in Alameda.

MATRIX: Did you get a chance to visit the set you provided the music for?

DON: Yes I did, it was outrageous. I was up there because we were dubbing Jurassic Park 3 at Skywalker, so I stayed in San Francisco for three weeks kind of going between that and THE MATRIX 2 set. It was actually a nice little rest bit after pounding it really hard doing Jurassic Park 3.

MATRIX: How similar or dissimilar are you finding the process from the first film to the sequels?

DON: I wasn’t in Sydney for any of the shooting of THE MATRIX, so I can’t really make any comparisons about what the set was like. I have been to some of the dailies screenings for THE MATRIX 2, and just seeing the interaction between Keanu Reeves [Neo] and Hugo Weaving [Agent Smith], seemed a little bit like déjà vu. There’s a real feeling that the continuity of the first show is being carried into the second. Those two actors in particular have it down so well. Their characters are so clearly defined that the continuity is definitely going to be there when Hugo walks up and says “Mr. Anderson”, you’re in for the same thrill ride. I saw a couple of scenes from the freeway chase with Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne, and they’ve got the same energy going. So I’m very confident that they’re coming up with something really special, something that’s going to be in the same tradition as the first.

MATRIX: I can’t wait to hear what you do with the freeway sequence.

DON: You know, I have to say, I’ll wonder if you’ll hear it, because Dane Davis [Sound Designer] is going to have a field day with that one as well. It’s about a fifteen-minute sequence, so I think it’s pretty fair to say that at some point there’s going to be a song in there of sorts that Jason Bentley [Music Supervisor] is preparing. Until there’s some kind of rough-cut or some kind of real presentation of the sequences, it’s pretty hard to say exactly where music is going to be. I think it’s fair to say that, in the freeway chase, what music will be there is going to take second stage to the sound effects. When you’re following Trinity on the motorcycle and the camera is right behind her, and she’s weaving in between cars that are coming straight at her, you better hear those motors, or it’s not going to be exciting.

MATRIX: In reading the scripts to the sequels, did you feel any rhythm at work?

DON: Yes, I did. I was exhausted when I finished reading both scripts, because that’s probably the most ambitious filmmaking I’ve ever experienced, in terms of script writing. They’re in a class of their own; they don’t have any peers when it comes to this kind of thing. I’m really looking forward to what they do after THE MATRIX films, because I’m pretty well convinced that after THE MATRIX 3 they’re not going to continue with THE MATRIX, at least in the movies. They might continue the anime series, or something like that.

MATRIX: THE MATRIX is far from the end for Larry and Andy.

DON: They’re going to go off and do something else, and I’m really excited and interested in knowing what that’s going to be. There are very few Directors who really put the story first and foremost, because they’re writers first. All of the visual extravaganza and style and everything are there to serve the story, and that’s what film needs now, because story is suffering. These two guys are in a position to revitalize the whole industry. And that’s why I think they can pretty much call their own shots, certainly after THE MATRIX 3 comes out, presuming it is a success, and I have every confidence it will be. They’ll be able to do the David Lean thing or the Kubrick thing, or whatever, but it’s going to be new and exciting and spectacular.

MATRIX: Thanks Don.

Interview by REDPILL

July 2000

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