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A Fireside Chat with Terence Blanchard

AAJ Staff BY

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...I generally draw a lot of motivation from the performances of the actors... I (also) lived in New York for fifteen years and the whole idea of trying to create a score that would represent post-9-11 New York was very intriguing to me too.
The biggest faux pas of this year's Golden Globes and their governing body, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (of which I am not a member, yet oddly foreign), was giving that hump Richard Gere an award for anything, much less prancing around in a Miramax hyped Chicago. A close second was not giving the "Best Original Score - Motion Picture" award to Terence Blanchard for his haunting 25th Hour score. Elliot Goldenthal won the award for Frida, yet another Miramax film (coincidence). Blanchard is no wet behind the ears film composer. His resume includes Malcolm X, Gia, Love and Basketball, Next Friday, Glitter (a film we are all sorry for), Original Sin, and Barbershop. (In my best Stuart Scott impression) That's money kid. Oh, and did I fail to mention that Blanchard has a day gig as well. He is one of the wickedest trumpeters in jazz, with a group that is too much live. Academy voters pay attention to my conversation with composer Terence Blanchard, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Having already established yourself as a jazz composer, what prompted you to venture into scoring films?

TERENCE BLANCHARD: It was by accident. Spike (Lee) heard me playing something on the piano when we were doing a session for Mo' Better Blues and he asked if he could use that. I said, "Sure." Then he asked me to write an orchestral arrangement for him. That is how it basically started. That is how the whole thing started. After that, he heard the arrangement and he said that I had a future in this and I said, "Thank you," and thought that was it, but then he called me to do Jungle Fever.

FJ: What are the nuances that are involved in composing music for film?

TB: The thing about writing music for film is that basically, you have to put your ego aside and really do what is best to help the director tell a story. You have to realize that sometimes dialogue is important because it carries a lot of information that is crucial to the story. You are basically helping somebody else tell their story, not your own. When you are writing music for your own situation, it is basically about your life experiences, your own personal growth. The basic difference is in the intent of the music.

FJ: You compose music based upon what essentially is a rough draft of the film. What challenges, if any, does that present?

TB: Most of the movies that I have been doing so far, it doesn't present that much of a challenge. It only becomes a problem, not even a problem, I think sometimes when you are working on action films, you may get a film that may have a lot of action, but you don't know exactly what is going to take place. For example, you don't know if that exploding car is going to be more important right there or whether the music needs to help that. Sometimes that is interesting, but other than that, most of the films that I work on do not present a big problem. Even in action films, you get used to it.

FJ: How many films have you scored?

TB: A total of thirty by now.

FJ: How many of them were Spike Lee Joints?

TB: Boy, I think it is about twelve.

FJ: 25th Hour is a story about redemption and regret, stories not easily told. How did you approach composing the music for the film?

TB: The first thing, I generally draw a lot of motivation from the performances of the actors. I think everybody did a great job in the film and the look of the film is amazing and I think Spike did a great job putting it together as well. So that is where the motivation comes from. You just have to realize that there has been a lot of work, a lot of good work put into it and you are the last link in it. You don't want to be the weakest link. The other thing too is that I lived in New York for fifteen years and the whole idea of trying to create a score that would represent post-9-11 New York was very intriguing to me too. So I tried to make sure that there were elements in the score that New Yorkers could definitely realize and who weren't familiar with New York, could come to kind of get a sense of. For example, the bagpipes and Irish whistles were things that I generally relate to a policeman's funeral, which is a sad occasion, but what I thought could be used to great effect in the film. And then I thought it would be very appropriate to represent Al-Qaeda because their story is very relevant to our story now and so I thought of bringing in the Arabic vocalist and Arabic percussion.

FJ: Did you catch the Super Bowl?

TB: Yeah.

FJ: Did you notice they used your 25th Hour theme in the pre-game show?

TB: I heard. I was on my way from the airport, so Spike (Lee) called and said they were using it, but I didn't hear it. I got back just in time to catch the kickoff.

FJ: You were robbed at the Golden Globes.

TB: I was nominated, but I didn't win.

FJ: The Academy ballots have been mailed and nominations are pending. Do you get a vote?

TB: No, I am not a part of the Academy yet.

FJ: Do I need to make a phone call? I bet that twit Stifler from American Pie is a member (5,607 members).

TB: I am working on though. You have to sponsored by two people. I am working on that.

FJ: Your two most recent films have garnered both critical and box office success.

TB: Barbershop. Yeah.

FJ: Who knew that would be the hit that it was?

TB: I kind of felt that it would be, but you never know. Sometimes you work on projects and you feel that the project is a good project and you feel like it can do well. Sometimes they come out and they are not. I felt that Barbershop could be very successful given all the people that were involved and the story and how the director, Tim Story, put it together. He did a great job.

FJ: What film would you have liked to score?

TB: The Lord of the Rings. Yeah, because it is an epic film and it is a very challenging and creative film. It has an interesting story and it presents many different types of situations that can be musically enhanced. The scary thing about it is that it seems like it is damn near wall-to-wall music. I think it is a really great film.

FJ: There are The Lord of the Rings people and then there are Star Wars people.

TB: I am a bit of both, a bit of both. I haven't seen the second Lord of the Rings yet. I haven't had time, but I really want to go see it. I haven't seen many films this year and that has been the problem. When all the Golden Globe nominations came out, I wanted to go see all of those films, but between teaching, performing, doing film scoring, and four kids, I don't have much time. I went and saw Catch Me If You Can and I liked the opening credit sequence that John Williams wrote. I thought that was amazing.

FJ: What directors would you like to work with?

TB: Oh, boy, that is interesting. It is hard to say because there are so many great directors. Scorsese is a person that I would like to work with. Spielberg is definitely another person that I would like to work with. The other thing too is that I have worked with a lot of great directors already. I've worked with Ron Shelton and people like that, whom I have learned a great deal from. The thing I like about Spielberg's films is they are just challenging films. He is a very creative person and he tells interesting stories and I think that comes across in his films more so than anything to me, is the fact that he is just a lover of the medium.

FJ: What films do you have in the can?

TB: I have two things in the can. One is called Dark Blue with Ron Shelton. It stars Kurt Russell and Ving Rhames. Then I also have a Pacino movie titled People I Know. That will be released in April.

FJ: How do you put music over the Godfather ?

TB: (Laughing) It was challenging because he is a great actor, but again, it is one of those things where working with great people like that makes your job a lot easier.

FJ: What about your day gig?

TB: Oh, I am getting ready to go into the studio in a couple of weeks to record a new CD for Blue Note Records. That is still the primary part of my life. That is still how I identify myself.

FJ: Whoa, I thought you were with Sony?

TB: No, it is going to be my band: Eric Harland on drums, Brandon Owens on bass, Brice Winston on tenor saxophone, and Aaron Parks on piano.

FJ: First Tommy Mottola and now this?

TB: (Laughing) Yeah.

FJ: Terence Blanchard, the trumpeter or Terence Blanchard, the film composer?

TB: There has to be a median. I am just a person who loves music. I'm a jazz musician, who loves all types of music. I think that is the best way to put it.

Related Links
1999 AAJ Interview with Terence Blanchard
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Photo Credit
Josephine Ochej

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