With a fresh approach in mind for his latest project, Scottish film composer Lorne Balfe was given the opportunity to build on a major franchise with an iconic music history. In “Terminator Genisys,” the fifth installment of the series, Balfe took on the challenge of giving the franchise’s theme his own spin and creating a score that would be different while still give fans the sounds they wanted to hear.
During an interview with me, Balfe, 39, whose recent musical scores include animated films like “Home,” “Penguins of Madagascar” and “Megamind,” talked about working with the already memorable “Terminator” theme and why the process was beneficial to him as a composer.
There’s a lot of history behind this film franchise. How much pressure does that put on you to allow yourself to give your own take on the score, but also appease fans wanting to hear the original theme?
Well, I haven’t felt the pressure until now! (Laughs) When they told me I could use [the original theme] that was great. When you do hear the famous [sings main “Terminator” theme], you smile. It’s nostalgic. I’m coming from working on things like [the video game] “Assassin’s Creed,” so I was invited into this [film] world. This is not my world. I am just a guest. That’s how I looked at the world of “Terminator.” The fans are very important and they are very loyal to the theme. Visually, there is a nod to the past, but you can’t just take the music and pretend like it’s going to work. There is a lot more development in this film, especially with the relationship between Sarah (Emilia Clarke) and Arnold’s [Schwarzenegger] characters. That had to be delved in a lot more musically than what happened before.
So, how does that work as a composer? I mean, you have this iconic theme in front of you. Are you allowed to do anything with it? Do you put your own spin on it? Can you keep the framework, but add something new to it?
I think halfway through the process I started doing some research to see what hadn’t been done yet. I had been a fan of all of the films. I think when you break that theme down and you simply play the melody and simple chords on the piano, it’s a beautiful theme. There’s an innocence to it and an emotional connection. I tried to embrace that. That’s something I don’t think had been touched on before. How do you take the famous [sings main “Terminator” theme] and give it a fresh approach in the same way the film has given the franchise a fresh approach?
What kind of conversations did you have with director Alan Taylor before starting your job? Did he give you free rein or were there a lot of notes?
It was a very interesting process. With “Terminator Genisys,” we literally had meetings every single day. What’s really scary about being a composer is when you sit in a room and write and you don’t get any feedback. You could go down a path and it could be a bad path. So, I think it was great to have that interaction immediately. It’s our job to translate what the director has been thinking and dreaming of. And it’s always evolving.
What influences did you have when writing the score? I heard a lot of heavy metal stuff going on.
I think it’s a mixture of every metal known to man being used. The tricky thing musically was the sound design, like the sound of the T-1000. Things like that are so iconic visually that we wanted to give it a sound motif that wasn’t necessarily a melody but still musical. That one sound that is only two notes long probably took longer than the whole score, ironically enough.
Maybe you can shed some light on this for me. There’s this sound a lot of film composers have been using over the last decade or so that is reminiscent of a foghorn. I want to say the first time I heard it was in Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” but you also hear it in films like “Inception” and “The Dark Knight” and others. Why is that specific sound used so much and where did it come from?
Where did it come from? I think that is a long, long, long debate. I’ve read articles about it. The one note thing has been done before, but that one note sonically is always different. It’s just a case of giving it a different approach. The one note really is an immediate hit with the T-1000. I think people might wonder if what we are doing there is sound design or music. That’s something that has been happening in the last 10 years. Sound design and music have become more of a hybrid and less defined in their own separate worlds.
Is it a goal of yours as a film composer to create a piece of music that is always going to be remembered? Themes from “The Godfather” and “Jaws” and countless others are going to live forever. Is that something you think about in this industry – to write something as iconic as that?
Honestly, I don’t think if you set out to do it that way it happens. If I wrote a piece of music and my only intention was that I wanted it to be memorable, I probably wouldn’t sit and write it to film. Yes, I may have a good idea for a melody, but there is a director and a producer and dialogue. All that is going to change the whole formation musically of what I’m going to tell. What makes this job enjoyable is being part of this storytelling experience. If you asked John Williams when he wrote [the score for] “Jaws” if he knew it was going to be memorable, I doubt that he would think that way. Well, I don’t know. All I know is that I never think long-term like that.