We Create Music Blog
March 14, 2014

Film Music Friday: Nathan Furst on Need for Speed

By Jennifer Harmon, Director of Film & Television/New Media

Nathan Furst, giving gentle instructions to the orchestra

Nathan Furst offers gentle instructions to the orchestra during the Need for Speed recording sessions

When composer Nathan Furst started scoring films, he could barely dream of the day when Steven Spielberg would hear his music, let alone personally give it a thumbs up. But that's just what happened while he was scoring Need for Speed, DreamWorks' film adaptation of the popular Electronic Arts video game series. Furst's "driving" score gives an emotional backdrop to the automotive adventures of Tobey, played by Aaron Paul in his first acting role since Breaking Bad. We asked Furst what revved his engines about this score.

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Need for Speed is the most recent in a string of action films you've worked on with Scott Waugh, beginning with Dust to Glory about the Baja 1000 off-road race, and then Act of Valor, which featured actual Navy SEALs in true-to-life wartime situations.  How did this decade-long relationship begin?

I worked on a trilogy of video feature films called Bionicle back in 2003, and they were really happy with what I did. Someone in that production recommended me to Scott Waugh who at the time was looking for a composer for Dust to Glory. Scott and I hit it off, and I knocked it out of the park for him, and that's lead to a very creatively satisfying relationship for the last 10 years.  We did some commercials and shorts, and then Act of Valor a few years ago, which of course became a hit, and that paved the way for Scott to get HIS opportunities to manifest his ideas on a large scale. I'm very grateful for our creative bond and his loyalty.

With so much collaborative history, how early in the process were you brought in to start working on the musical palette for Need for Speed?  

Scott Waugh called me and asked me to read the script very early - before casting or any of that had started. After I read the script, I started thinking of ideas, and Scott had a lot of ideas as well.  We had a couple of really great conversations on the phone, and we quickly discovered what felt right to us.

I wrote the Need for Speed main theme for him when they were still working on the script. He loved it, and he played it for Spielberg, who I hear gave the thumbs up. I would send ideas and sketches based off of what I read in the script and send him mp3s while he was directing on set. When they had a break in shooting, he would call and give me ideas and notes. 

We also worked this way for Act of Valor, and to a lesser extent Dust to Glory. By the time they wrapped filming and started editing, I had about 30 minutes of sketches that the director loved, so we just temped most of the film with the sketches for the themes. I love working this way – it allows you to truly build a score that feels completely organic to the film!

Scott was a stunts and stunt coordinator before becoming a director. As someone who has literally been in the driver's seat, did that shape the emotional direction he gave you throughout the film?

Absolutely it did, though perhaps not as one would expect. Because Scott knew exactly what he was going to do with the races, and what they would look like, he already knew he wouldn't need me to play on the excitement of the cars directly. That's clearly already on the screen, and it's very intense. Instead, my job was to really play to what's going on in the head of Aaron Paul's character, Tobey. The races and the revenge is the act, but not the “why.”

It was important to play the “why” in the score – his hurt, his frustration, and of course, his determination. I created two key themes, one being a long sweeping melody. I spend a good portion of the film using segments and 'callbacks' to that theme in a lamenting way, which I hope pays off when we explode in the big moments where the theme just soars over us. 

How do you maintain the pulse and adrenaline musically throughout these action films without wearing out your audience? 

We knew we wanted to tell a big cinematic story, and not do a "Dude! Look how awesome these cars are!" score that could trap others. It was also important that it not be gimmicky. It needed to be timeless, yet (hopefully) fresh in its own way. For us, that meant we needed to stay away from big boomy hits and generic "action" music. I stayed with big, memorable themes and sub-themes. This allows us to feel energy and tension without getting fatigued. Even when we're in the middle of an intense sequence that is sound FX heavy, I try to stay as broad and lyrical as possible.

Need for Speed pays homage to iconic road and racing films such as Bullitt and Thelma and Louise. Did your score pay homage as well to the respective film scores, or even to your own score for the racing film Dust to Glory?

There is actually a little Dust to Glory easter egg in the film itself, as well as a little moment in the score. Something to entertain ourselves and particular fans, I guess!

I did watch Bullit, French Connection, Grand Prix, and a couple others to get a vibe going, but I didn't consider incorporating those films' musical tones into our score –most of those films' scores sound very….of that time. Instead, I was focused on Scott's directing aesthetic as well as my tendencies.

Was there a scene in the film that challenged you to create a particularly wonderful piece of music?

I think many are challenging in their own way. Sometimes scoring these intense racing sequences and not resorting to "action" music can be an exercise in itself. Once I got in that head of never leaving the lead character's mind, it became a little simpler. There is another big story-oriented sequence that lasts about six minutes long, and we transition to several different locations with several different conversations happening at the same time. Arcing all those moments and story together without it sounding very "score-y" definitely takes a light touch. In the end of course, it often came to deconstructing the main theme and building moments with that theme.

Everyone on the film seems to have a different favorite piece of music. Matt Shelton (our fantastic music editor) loves a sequence called “Crazy Little Tart,” I think I'm torn between “Hot Fuel” and “In the Lead,” one of the post supers likes “Utah Escape,” the director also loves “Crazy Little Tart…” They're all my little babies!  How could I choose one which one is more “difficult” than the others?

Nathan Furst analyzes the <i>Need for Speed</i> score
Nathan Furst analyzes his Need for Speed score

During the recording session you were heard delightedly calling for more "Mahler milk" from your orchestra. Are there other composers that you draw upon regularly for inspiration?

Haha! How did you know that?! For the strings I was always saying "papa needs his Mahler milk," and for the brass it was always "more Mahler balls" (what - doesn't everyone say that?  Don't make it weird…). We're all a result of our influences, I believe. For me, there are a lot - Mahler, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Bernard Herrmann, Henry Mancini, John Williams, Alan Silvestri, Danny Elfman, yada yada. The usual suspects!

What's next on the slate for you?   

I'm currently writing the themes for the next Scott Waugh film, which is also being done by DreamWorks. It's a bit top secret, but it's an exciting script and I'm excited to get right into it!

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Need for Speed raced into theaters on March 14th, 2014. The film’s website is parked at theneedforspeedmovie.com.

Speed on over to Nathan Furst’s Facebook page and Twitter feed

Nathan's Need for Speed score soundtrack is now available on iTunes. The physical version will be released on April 15th by Varese Sarabande