A few days ago, I arrived in Gent, Belgium for the 2015 World Soundtrack Awards and Concert, as part of the Film Fest Gent, that was celebrating the music of the great Alan Silvestri. I entered a beautiful hotel and proceeded to an equally lovely room within. There, greeting me with a welcoming smile, was the man himself. I am a lifelong fan of him and his incredible music, so the simple act of shaking his hand seemed surreal to me. But with his relaxed and approachable demeanor, it was only a momentary thing before I felt as completely comfortable as I would talking to a friend. The real task was knowing where to begin.

With such a huge filmography spanning over forty years, and a vast array of music covering all corners of the globe and beyond, it is almost impossible to pick something to focus on from Silvestri’s unbelievable career. As his working relationship with Director Robert Zemeckis has been one of the longest in film history, while producing some of the most popular and well-loved films ever made, such as the Back to the Future Trilogy, Cast Away and Forrest Gump, it seemed like a solid place to make camp.

Robert Zemeckis: Developing a language

I began by going all the way back to the past, and engaging his thoughts on the success of his collaboration with Robert Zemeckis, specifically whether it was still an attractive challenge creatively and whether their process is easier now.

Yeah, all of that. It’s easier because we’ve been together for thirty-three years and we have a language between us and a lot of history and a vocabulary. It’s also challenging because of his film-making and what he does. He sets the bar very high and we all have to go there and it’s always challenging. So it’s both easier and more difficult.

With that in mind, I wanted to go deep into their vocabulary and learn how they worked on a specific project, and with Cast Away being singular in all aspects, it came to mind first, because it only has around fifteen minutes of music in the entire film, and had such an unusual filming schedule.

That was a rather unique experience. As you probably know, Bob shot the first half of that film and then Tom Hanks had to lose something like forty to sixty pounds. So Bob went off and made an entire film in the middle. He went and shot What Lies Beneath, I scored it and we finished it. Then he went back to the island and shot Tom as the skinny Tom.

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Robert Zemeckis and Alan Silvestri

In film, composers are brought in at differing times of course. It can be right at the start of production, which mostly happens with long-term collaborators like Silvestri and Zemeckis, but usually composers come in towards the end, when the film has been shot and the time-frame tends to be short for the music to be completed. As I expected, Silvestri was exposed to the film at the beginning, but with the break in filming of a year, and scoring a whole film in-between, what effect did this have on his overall writing process?

I had seen the first half of the film before he shot the second half, and I remember sitting in the screening room, just with Bob, and I was thinking I don’t see any music in here. So when it was all put together, we sat in the screening room again and I’ll never forget that about an hour into the film, Bob’s was sat next to me and I kept seeing him every once in a while start to glance in my direction, like really, you’re not going to do anything, really?

This is surprising because I, like many others, would assume that Zemeckis perhaps always intended on the wonderfully sparse use of music, but it was Silvestri who just didn’t feel the film needed a lot of music, which is a big compliment to Zemeckis’ film-making.

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Holding Back: The art of knowing when less is more

As all composers have their own way of drawing their music from within themselves, I was curious as to how he finally came to a decision about the music of Cast Away, and what difficulties he faced with not using it for so long in the film.

We spent the whole time on the island with no music. The decision really had to do with the fact that I get motivated by something narrative, by something in the story, and the way all of this worked for me was that the music somehow really didn’t feel like it should be there until this dramatic shift in the film. For me, the dramatic shift was; okay Tom crashes, now he’s on the island, he’s surviving, but it was still all known. All of this stuff was known. So for me it was only after he had somehow made a decision that he would rather face the unknown and even die, than spend another day living the way he had been living, that the movie then moved into this new place for me.

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In the modern-day, it is almost unheard of for a film to have such a short amount of music, and with pressures from studios, producers and even audiences, I wanted to know if he ever felt the need to just write more music and not take the risk.

There was of course a temptation to score him trying to get the raft out of the waves, but it would have been such an obvious kind of way to go. So with all of this I just kept waiting and waiting, and then he did break out of the wave, but I still didn’t feel like it was time to play any music. Where I felt it was time to play was after all of the action was over, he’s through the wave and then he looks back at the island. The island was the known world. That was security to him. He knew how to eat there, to sleep there, exist there, and now he’s out in the elements all alone, and that to me was the beginning of that whole phase of the film.

So that’s where the music came in for the first time. But again, there was a tremendous amount of pressure on Bob to just have me playing score all the way through the island and Wilson. That is one of the most amazing things about Robert Zemeckis; he will dare to do something like that. It was incredibly bold for him to do that.

Back to the Future: The live-to-film concerts

Moving on from the specifics of his composing process, I asked him about perhaps his most historic film score; Back to the Future, specifically its renewed life as Silvestri’s score is now being performed all over the world in a live-to-film concert setting. What were his thoughts on these concerts, and what other film scores of his were on the radar to make the transition to live performances?

We are looking at some things yes. I think Back to the Future two and three are kind of built in to do it, and I don’t even know if I’d have to write anything additional. I think they’d just work the way they are. But there are some considerations such as the basic financial side, the crews, the theatres and musicians as well. But actually one of the big ones is the length of running time. For instance when we were putting together Back to the Future, we had a two and a half hour window including the intermission that we needed to work within. Because we needed the intermission, and we needed everyone to get back to their seats, and importantly we needed to finish the film within that window. So when it came time for me to put something together for the overture, it was done to a very specific amount of time, as was the entr’acte. It needed to be more than a minute, but less than a minute and a half. Complex stuff like that.

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It must be a very complicated job to convert a film to a live performance concert. It would be easy to think that they just put the film on the big screen, and the orchestra sits and plays the music. But it is a huge undertaking that requires a lot of work to come to fruition. For example, not all the original music is actually written down. Composers change their work mid-recording session after already printing, and sometimes it isn’t documented. So from the original sketches to the final film, it can differ immensely. I asked him about travelling back in time himself to put his mind back into 1985 again, so he could write new music.

I added twenty minutes more to the original because the whole front of the film had no music. There’s nothing. You don’t hear any score until the DeLorean is coming out of the truck. So the orchestra would be just sitting there. It’s fine in the theatre, but in the concert hall it wouldn’t have worked, so the idea was to go back and do some more music which I did, and Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale blessed it. I took the music from the original scores and did it the way it was done in the original scores as well, so anyone who is a future fan is not going to say “oh my god, what did they do to my movie?!” That’s what we really didn’t want people to feel. We wanted people to just feel like “ah, it’s Back to the Future.”

I’ve been to a number of these performances now and it really seems to work. The idea was to have it really sound and feel like that music was always in the movie. Many folks have come up and said “where did you add music?”

Personally, I believe another absolute classic from Zemeckis and Silvestri; Forrest Gump, would be a big success converted to a live-to-film concert. The music plays an integral part in the heart of that film, and seeing and hearing it performed by an orchestra and choir live would be very special. Silvestri gave me his impression of the idea, and excitingly teased the possibility:

When you start to look at a film like Forrest Gump, which the film alone is two and a half hours, it’s not to say that we wont eventually be able to do a film like that, but it’s going to require some strategic thinking. And of course the margins are probably not that great for the folks putting on these kinds of shows. But anyway yes, we are talking about it.

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The 2015 World Soundtrack Awards and Concert: Honouring a legend

The whole reason why I was able to sit down with Alan Silvestri and talk with him about his beloved music, was because, as I mentioned at the beginning, I was in Gent, Belgium for the 2015 World Soundtrack Awards and Concert, where the Brussels Philharmonic and The Flemish Radio Choir, under the baton of Dirk Brossé, beautifully performed a large selection of his great work; including Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Predator, Mousehunt, The Polar Express, The Mummy Returns, and in a moment of utter delight, Silvestri himself took to the stage to conduct a suite from his most recent score for the film The Walk, which is again another collaboration with Zemeckis. He told me what it meant for him to be recognised in such a generous manner:

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Silvestri conducting his suite from The Walk at the 2015 World Soundtrack Awards and Concert

It’s pretty amazing. I had my first rehearsal last night where I had the chance to hear the orchestra and work with them. They’ve done a recording that I’ve heard, of quite a few things of mine that they will perform tonight, which is fantastic. Very often when people go off and record something that I’ve written and I’m not involved in it, you get some things that make you think oh, that’s not exactly what I had in mind, but this was a very pleasant surprise. Maestro Dirk Brossé really captured the heart of everything and it was a pleasure for me. So I’m excited about tonight.

As our time together drew to a close, I mentioned my recent trip to Vienna, where I attended the ‘Hollywood in Vienna’ concerts that honoured him in 2011 and James Newton Howard this year. He then continued to tell me about how special it is for him to be asked by film music festivals and concert organisers about performing his work.

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Silvestri collecting his Max Steiner Award at the 2011 Hollywood in Vienna Concert.

It is overwhelming. It’s incredible. James had talked to me a good while ago about it, and he said “so you’ve done that right?” and I said “oh yeah” and he asked “well, you know they’ve asked me to do it and what do you think?” I told him “you should go do this! It’s just amazing.” I’ve not talked to him since he did it, but I’ve seen pictures of him there. I think it was an amazing experience for James and for everyone there I’m sure. He is fantastic and it’s so overwhelming; the whole thing. Being in that place with all those people and feeling how they embrace one’s work, it’s just over the top. I continue to marvel that I even get to do this. So it’s a thrill, still.

So that was the end of my time with the great Alan Silvestri. It was so special to hear someone of his talent and prominence talking about his astonishing career. To spend time with such a legend of film music; sharing his thoughts with me and giving an insight into his mind, was a joyful experience that I will never forget.

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I also had the pleasure of interviewing the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’-winner of the 2015 World Soundtrack Awards; Patrick Doyle, and also the ‘Best Original Film Score of the Year award’-winner and Birdman composer Antonio Sanchez. So look out for those two interviews in the near future.

I hope you enjoyed this look into the musical genius of Alan Silvestri, and again a big thank you to the man himself. Also I would like to give a huge thank you to Clothilde Lebrun of TrailerMusicNews.com, who accompanied me in the interview.

If you want to know more about his upcoming projects then you can find out more here on IMDB. All of his work is available on iTunes. His most recent score for The Walk is available now on iTunes and Amazon. You can find out more about the World Soundtrack Awards on their official website.

Posted by Lee Allen

Film and Television Score enthusiast. Podcast Host at Bombad Radio. World traveller.

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