“I’m still a rhythm guy!” – A conversation with Back to the Future composer Alan Silvestri

During this year’s World Soundtrack Awards in Ghent, Belgium, we had the immense pleasure of sitting down with Alan Silvestri, one of the greatest composers in Hollywood and responsible for so many iconic scores in the last three decades – the most famous of which is obviously the Back to the Future trilogy.

We’ve reported from the World Soundtrack Awards on multiple occasions in the past (in Norwegian), an event that is arguably the Oscars of film music and certainly one of the biggest film music events in the world. Each year, a host of high-profile composers swarm to the festival for concerts, awards and mingling with the fans. This year saw the arrival of Patrick Doyle and George Fenton – both of whom received Lifetime Achievement Awards – as well as Daniel Pemberton (Steve Jobs), Antonio Sanchez (Birdman), Stephen Warbeck (Shakespeare in Love) and several others.

The main guest, however, was Alan Silvestri – a man who’s made his mark on film music for more than three decades. He’s worked on genre hits like Predator (1987), The Abyss (1989), The Bodyguard (1992), Judge Dredd (1995), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and The Avengers (2012), but his legacy is firmly cemented through his many collaborations with director Robert Zemeckis, including box office hits Forrest Gump (1994) and the Back to the Future trilogy (1985-1990). For this writer, he’s certainly one of the key components in my passion for film music.

Although we often associate him with big and muscular symphonic music in the style of John Williams, he’s an incredibly versatile composer who started out as a drummer and explorer of electronic music in the 70s and 80s. What drew him to this particular idiom?

– I began as a rhythm guy, and I still am a rhythm guy. I think my entrance into electronic music had to do with the first drum machine. I had not played drums for many years, but then the first LinnDrum sampler came out just before Romancing the Stone (1983). I actually programmed all of the drums in that movie, and I think I had all the Yamaha DX7s in America in the control room played live.

– I’ve always seen the electronic side of music as this incredible expansion of the pallette. Folks who had been working before the advent of these tools were doing the same kind of thing, but they were doing it acoustically. People like Jerry Goldsmith or Emil Richards, the percussionist in LA – they were making unique sounds using cello bows on tin cups and so on. If one were a painter, it’s like every day there’s an entire new set of colours that becomes available. And that’s really a big part of it.

Romancing the Stone (1983)

Romancing the Stone (1983), of course, was the first collaboration between Silvestri and Zemeckis, and in many ways the platform that launched both of their careers. How specific is Zemeckis when it comes to giving musical directions to a composer?

– He is not specific. I think the most powerful direction a director can give a composer comes through the work they’ve done on their film. If they’ve directed their film masterfully, it’s the best direction a composer could hope for. That being said, Bob will have very clear opinions, but he doesn’t send me off saying “do this, do this, do this”. He gives me the opportunity to watch his film, and then bring something to him. Only then will he be very, very direct about whether or not that is capturing the tone and the needs of his film.

– It’s a win-win for a composer, because you have a chance to be creative, and not have someone say “oh, I don’t know, could you try something else?”. That’s not Robert Zemeckis. He’ll go “Al, that’s beautiful, but I don’t get it”. And then that’s that. He’s not specific about musical directions. In fact, there’s this funny story that goes around about what’s the worst thing a composer could ever hear from a director, and the answer is “I play a little guitar” (laughs).

After exploring the virtues and weaknesses of motion capture animation during the first half of the 2000s, Zemeckis finally returned to a live action format with Flight (2012) – a film that also returned the director to his grittier, acidic roots with R-rated content. Silvestri responded by providing an unusually restrained score, driven by guitars , dark textures and careful spotting (there’s only 20 minutes of score in the whole film).

– Flight was a very, very personal film, and although there was humour in it, it was quite serious. It was a difficult subject, and it was very real – both tragic and triumphant. That was a case where I think the music really wasn’t going to be about the surface of the film, it was about something else.

– I knew I needed to find something for the end of the film that would allow for this ending to be there. Our hero was in prison, maybe for the rest of his life. And yet, for someone who suffers an addiction, that was a better resolution than killing more people or killing himself for someone who finds freedom from addiction like that. They’re not incarcerated, they can’t be held by bars, they are free now. So it’s a very difficult thing to speak about and show cinematically. That movie, in Bob’s eyes, has a happy ending, and yet it’s a dark, real subject.

Flight (2012)

For their latest collaboration, The Walk (2015), Zemeckis once again explores ambigous heroes in his fictional retelling of the French high-wire artist Philippe Petit – treated so wonderfully in the 2008 documentary Man on Wire – who walks a line between the twin towers in 1974.

– Philippe is very complicated character, and yet not. He’s very driven. His art clearly comes first. There was collateral damage in his life with these people and this girl Annie; he called them all his accomplices. And so here he is – he’s a very triumphant figure in terms of his physical accomplishment, but then in terms of his acccomplishments on the personal side, very different.

A hero that isn’t quite as complicated can be found in Marty McFly from Back to the Future (1985). With the current buzz surrounding the film and the date October 21st, 2015, the trilogy is more popular than ever. For these films, Silvestri eschews a more traditional leitmotif approach in favour of a score that is mostly organized around one central theme, with minor motifs for other characters and settings. How did he map out the thematic material for these three films?

– I think it breaks down to some fairly basic components, and they really develop as needed. Certainly the underpinning of the whole trilogy, musically, is that central theme, which was the first thing I did in the first film. Bob wanted a big score for a movie that didn’t have a lot of big images, but had big themes. I knew I needed a payoff (hums theme), and just by humming it, you can feel what this is (hums again). It’s almost playacting. Your question’s a good one, because I didn’t attach that theme to Marty or any character. Most of the characters in Back to the Future can be heroic.

– So that was one thematic zone for the film. Another was to do something for Doc. Like the scene in Doc’s study, when he says “unfortunately, there’s nothing that can create 1.2 gigawatts except a bolt of lightning”, and then Marty gets it, and we hear this chord. And then it’s like this during the clocktower sequence (hums rhythmical pattern), which for me was the neurons of Doc’s brain firing up.

Back to the Future continues to recruit new generations of film (and film music) lovers, and Zemeckis is adament about not allowing any more sequels or remakes. Instead, he’s shooting a new film in February-2016 – an untitled romantic thriller set to World War II. Unsurprisingly, Silvestri is slated to score.


You can listen to the whole interview, as well as clips from the scores being discussed, at the film music webcast Celluloid Tunes.

Alan Silvestri in conversation with Montages/Celluloid Tunes
Alan Silvestri in conversation with Thor Joachim Haga
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