Music from the Movies
Speaking the Truth – Mark Snow on reopening The X Files
[Original article here]
Strange things are happening… again, this time in the snowy wilderness of Virginia, where a series of mysteries invite many questions and very few answers. While the FBI scratches its combined heads, a couple of familiar faces are drafted in to help find the truth…
The X Files have been re-opened on the big screen six years (can you believe it?) after ‘The Truth’ was told and the curtain drawn on nine years of paranormal investigations, personal tragedies and an all consuming search for answers. The show, which was a phenomenon in itself, made icons of the names Mulder and Scully, not to mention the sight of flashlights in the dark. It also made international superstars of Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, who return to the roles that brought them to the public conscience and together make us want to ‘Believe’ all over again.
One of the series’ strengths, aside from a raft of fine storytellers and actors, was its music. Despite a lengthy career in film and television prior to 1993, it was six notes that made Mark Snow’s name around the world, not to mention week after week of emotive, exciting scoring and all achieved with his own fair hands in his studio. As the years flew by, the music continued to scare, hearten and amuse audiences and in 1998 fans were treated to the first movie, Rob Bowman’s The X Files. The film offered the composer the grand opportunity to engorge his music with a full orchestra, delivering what remains an exciting and wholly listenable score on album.
Ten years later and Mark returns with Mulder and Scully to the silver screen for The X Files: I Want To Believe, and once again he’s been let out of his studio to play with much bigger toys and paint his music with an enlarged palette of sounds. The result is again a stunner, with its roots firmly in the weighty emotional textures and that melody we’ve known and loved for fifteen years.
I was able to catch up with Mark Snow recently to speak with him about returning to old friends and creating new music for the reopening of The X Files…
Mark it has been over 6 years since you scored for The X Files; has it been a welcome return to familiar ground?
It has indeed. I guess the most exciting part of it is that this movie is basically like one of the standalone episodes from the series, which has always afforded me much more creative space and I’ve been encouraged to experiment as much as I want, while the mythology stories are more of a classical sort of traditional film music genre. But this one was really exciting because, amongst other things, I got to write some really beautiful melodies – which is not really something The X Files music is known for.
It’s quite an ensemble you assembled I gather?
There was a marvellous combination of two different kinds of orchestras, an aleatoric orchestra where there was no music but I basically gave the orchestra verbal instructions to do certain effects. Whatever seemed right we made variations of and sprinkled those on the large orchestra, which by the way contained no trumpets and no high woodwinds. I just wanted a little darker sound and also all the midi samples and synths stuff on top of that, plus some singers – especially this counter tenor, this male voice that sounds like a female mezzo soprano which is a very eerie sound and used so much in renaissance and medieval music – and then there was a percussion sampler. So all of these elements together was really such a marvellous grab-bag of tricks and stuff to employ in the score – and I had this great mixer Alan Meyerson who did The Dark Knight and all the Pirates movies, so that was great. So it was great having all these things at my disposal and having people pat me on the back and smile at me saying ‘come on Mark you can do it, you can do it…’ (laughs).
It must be great to be able to give your music that kind of brevity once in a while given that you’re usually locked away in your studio on your own!?
Right, you know and the thing is that I’ve been practising my stand-up comedy routines for a while and being in front of the orchestra you know -seriously, just to be out in public for Christ sake – is always a brilliant thing (laughs).
Did you ever think you’d be returning to these characters again?
I never thought I wouldn’t; I always thought it was a distinct possibility and I remember probably about five years ago Chris Carter calling me from London and saying ‘hey we’ve got another one coming so get ready, sharpen your pencil…’. So I said okay and then there were some legal matters he had to work out with Fox that finally got settled and then the stars’ availability came into focus and away it went.
What is it about The X Files that you think gets people so excited, even all these years later?
That’s a very good question. I think it’s sort of knowing that from week to week on the series there were so many unexpected things; even with the standalone shows you’d wonder what kind of monster would it be, would it be a monster, would it be some vapour, would it be a child speaking in tongues and then turning people into Rabbits – who knows?! And I think that’s part of the excitement of this one; and also for the fans, wondering where the relationship with Scully and Mulder is headed.
That relationship is a complex one at times – they’re together, they’re not together – what challenges or inspiration does their chemistry offer you as a composer?
Well there are some marvellous moments, as I said earlier, of being able to do some melodic music and, as corny as it sounds, dare I say a ‘love theme’ that’s sometimes unrequited and sometimes successful. So there’s variations of that, with their complex on again/off again relationship.
Now the plot of I Want To Believe has characteristically remained a secret – I don’t suppose you can tell us anything about what we can expect from this film?
Well the interesting part was, when I read the script the first thing I got out of it was deep, dark complexity and I spoke to Chris Carter afterwards and he said ‘what do you think?’, I said ‘man, it’s so complex and dark and mysterious’, and he said ‘and it’s a love story with religious overtones…’ Okay! He said ‘just keep that in mind’ and you know I re-read it and I got what he meant, and then seeing the movie I certainly got what he meant. Besides the Mulder and Scully relationship there are some other very very emotional, intimate if you would, moments there that do add spiritual and religious weight to it. And that’s where this counter tenor voice comes in and it felt like such a great fit for this sort of ecclesiastical sound; but very intimate, not a big broad choir sound, just a soloist singing over some very modal and transparent music.
So amongst that have you been able to add in some of the Mark Snow ‘sound’ that we would recognise?
Oh certainly, absolutely. There’s the naked X Files theme that happens three times in the movie and each time it seems such a completely dissimilar place and sometimes it’s actually hilarious, sometimes it’s scary and sometimes it’s extremely tender and heartfelt. There are also variations of the theme and using two or three of the notes as little motifs throughout the score so as not to have people forget where they’re at.
So it’s quite a versatile theme then in that sense; you can get quite a lot out of it?
Right, that’s what you get when you’ve got six simple notes (laughs)
Is it difficult to retain your sound when thinking orchestrally though? The style we’ve become accustomed to is very much a synthetic one – is it an evolution of your sound maybe?
No, I mean the orchestra can only do so much actually, as well as all the synth things, and when you combine them it’s great, but especially for The X Files. Plus I had the ancillary orchestra, which were almost like sound effects in and of themselves.
You mentioned using the X Files theme; are there new thematic threads in this new score?
Well there are and I’m trying to figure out a way how I can describe them without giving away plot points (laughs). But definitely one is a very heartfelt, tender and intimate theme and then there’s a love theme and they both get really great treatment so I’m just gonna have to let you see that when it happens…
You mentioned the religioso aspects to the music, but I’m sure this film has a few traditional spinetingling moments too. Do you enjoy working in the shadows and creating dark stuff?
I do. You know when I was a student in New York at Julliard and I was an oboe player, I was very much into avant garde, contemporary music. So The X Files was the first project where I could really delve into my past, my sort of beloved younger days as a music student and do this music that I felt so akin to, so close to and so personally part of my musical background and fabric. And so to be able to exploit it here… I thought ‘oh my god are these guys gonna get it?’ and they might not have intellectually understood it, but they certainly emotionally got it and that was all important.
You mentioned the love theme etc. Those pieces must be a breath of fresh air in a world of darkness and shadows?
Right, and I’m really looking forward to you listening to this. If I could mention that on the CD, I’m not sure what number the track is, but there’s a piece called ‘Surgery’. That’s particularly sort of one of my favourite pieces in the score…
I was going to ask if you had a favourite moment…
Right, well that’s one of them anyway! You know there’s other contrasting things, but that really turned out beautifully. That’s not a typical X Files sound whatsoever…
I see… well one of my favourite cues from the first film is ‘Crater Hug’ – would that be in a similar mould?
Yeah that’s a good point, it is but this is a little more intimate and is in its own way you know slightly baroque and medieval, so to speak. It’s a little quieter and a little more intimate, while that was a bigger, more expansive piece.
You obviously wrote a lot of music for the original series’ – will any more of that become commercially available do you think? It seems a shame that it won’t be heard outside the series…
Well I’ve got good news on that; I think they’re going to be doing that, releasing another CD…
That will be great – who’s doing that?
Well certainly through Fox, but I think it’s going to be on the Decca label that this soundtrack is on.
And will you have input in its production, selecting pieces and such?
Yes indeed, I will…
In which case you have to include the vocal theme you wrote for Scully in one of the later seasons!
Oh right! Yeah certainly… That’s a good point because that ‘Surgery’ piece and that Scully thing, there might be I think a similar emotional feel. But the ‘Surgery’ thing is much more detailed and much more colour and much more going on.
So is the last we’ve seen of Mulder & Scully on screen do you think?
You know, this movie, most of it takes place in a snowy cold climate and after the movie was mixed I overheard Chris talking to Frank Spotnitz the producer and saying ‘we gotta do the next one in Hawaii, this is ridiculous!’ So I think really what it boils down to is if this one makes money and does well there would be no reason not to go onto another one.
Well let’s hope so…
Well this certainly isn’t the last we’ve seen of you… What’s coming up for you?
Well oddly enough Chris Carter has just directed another movie, but it’s something he’s financed himself and it has nothing to do whatsoever with X Files themes or any subject matter of that ilk. It has all unknown actors and they’re all just brilliant and it is kind of slightly autobiographical – he shot it in the town in California that he grew up in, which is Bellflower near Anaheim and Disneyland. So as I say slightly autobiographical, you know, accent on slightly…
Bit of surfing involved then..?
(laughs) well no there’s none of that , but all I can say is think Blue Velvet… and that’s as much as I can tell you about that. Again with him secrecy is everything.
So in terms of television, you’re still attached to Smallville?
No I’m finished with Smallville. They’re going on for one more year, but they cut everyone’s budget way way down and I thought it was time to go; all the producers left and they have sort of a skeleton crew. It’s definitely the last year and I thought it was time for me to go on that. I’m doing the fourth year of this Ghost Whisperer show and hopefully I’ve got some other irons in the fire; there’s a movie in New York that I might be doing – but I don’t wanna talk about it, don’t wanna jinx it!
The X Files: I Want To Believe is in cinemas now and Mark’s score is available on the Decca Records label.
My thanks to Mark Snow and to Melissa McNeil at Costa Communications.