January 23, 2015

Film Music Friday: Geoff Zanelli on Mortdecai

By Jennifer Harmon with Etan Rosenbloom

A mustachioed art dealer travels the globe to recover a very important painting, armed only with his waning charisma and a strapping manservant in Mortdecai - the new Johnny Depp caper comedy now out in theaters. The title character may be a bumbling investigator, but he's got an impeccable soundtrack for his misadventures in the funky, zany collaborative score from ASCAP composer Geoff Zanelli and it-producer Mark Ronson. We asked Zanelli about the particulars of the film's madcap music.

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You’ve worked with director David Koepp previously, on the psychological thriller Secret Window and the comedy Ghost Town. What’s unique about working with him?

David fosters an incredible environment for creativity. There’s plenty of space for me to bring something to the table, and that comes from having a history of trust with each other. And when he brings his own big ideas to the score they’re inevitably inspiring. Which is to say that hearing “Do you want to meet with Mark Ronson and see if you can work together?” down the phone was instantly exciting, and I think has proven to have been a smart move for Mortdecai.

Where did David get the inspiration to have you collaborate with Mark Ronson on both the songs and score?

When David is writing, he always listens to music. One of the things that stayed on his mind as he wrote the script for Mortdecai was Mark’s album Version. That’s where the ideas started.

I keep in touch with David, and when I heard he got the film green-lit, I called him. Before I could say anything, he says “Geoff! I just got off the phone with Lionsgate. I hope you want to work on Mortdecai with me.” And then he asked about putting Mark and me into a room to see if we could approach the score and songs together.

Break down the process of putting together the cues with Mark. Did you build each one together from the ground up? Or was it more about you realizing his melodic ideas?

The first thing we did was talk about the score, the instrumentation and the style. We visited the set to get a sense for the look of the film so we could start while David was still shooting. From there, we went into our separate caves for a bit and when we came back together we showed each other what our first ideas were. And that’s when we knew it would work. There was enough overlap in our musical languages, so we started finding ways to marry our ideas into a single piece of music. The first thing that really landed was one of my melodies built into Mark’s arrangement and production, but there are plenty of examples of things going the other way around. Some of Mark’s music ended up on the orchestra, some of my stuff ended up in the songs, and by the end of it it really is difficult to point out exactly where Mark ends and Geoff begins. It really was a genuine collaboration.

Once we found a sound, we were in the studio together for most of it. We had instruments strewn about everywhere so we could quickly grab a '60s guitar or a clavinet or a farfisa, and we’d play most of our demos ourselves, knowing that the Dap Kings were going to show up someday and bring it up to the next level.

Ronson brings his signature “retro” aesthetic to the productions here. Did you look back to older styles of scoring or orchestrating to match?

Mark and I both were able to see that the film has one foot in the '60s and one foot in 2015. So yes, the retro aesthetic was a goal for both of us, and it really opens up all sorts of colors both harmonically and instrumentally that you don’t always get. Old soul, new vibe!

Talk about the two songs in the film, “Johanna” and “Heart’s a Liar.” Was your role there any different than with the cues?

Well, both of the songs came about as an evolution of themes from the score. So the starting point in both cases was our co-written score.

With “Heart’s a Liar,” Mark brought in Rose Elinor Dougall to sing on the cue I had written, and she was inspired to write some lyrics and turn it into a song. She sent her idea over and Mark and I were both blown away. From there, I just worked the arrangement up a little differently to complement her amazing voice, and that was that.

“Johanna” is built from both of the main themes we use for Mortdecai. If you’re splitting hairs, one of them is Mark’s melody and one is mine, but they work together to create something fresh, especially when Miles Kane shows up with his voice and lyrics.

So that’s the long answer. The short answer is my role in the music was the same. We simply added another artist to the mix to write lyrics and evolve the melody.

Mortdecai has a comedic caper style that harkens back to the Pink Panther series and the antics of Inspector Clouseau. When scoring for that sort of film and that sort of character, how do you find the right balance between looniness and dramatic tension?

That, I have to say, was the hardest part of this whole project. Most people would agree that if you play “funny” music over comedy, it feels really corny. So we never went for that, but it also turned out if you play dead serious music it somehow makes it feel like a parody. It’s bizarre, but it’s true. So we did have to find a line there, how loony could we get before we lower the stakes.

In most cases, the answer was to write something stylistically interesting that works counter to what’s going on on screen. So Mortdecai’s bodyguard, Jock Strapp, gets a full-on funky, brassy sound that isn’t necessarily what you’d expect. It highlights his character without going over the top.

Mortdecai himself gets what we called “Harpsichord Aristo-Funk” music. That’s what happens when you take a crusty old aristocratic harpsichord and merge it with a clavinet going through a dirty '60s guitar amp.

There’s a moment in “The Duke’s Funeral” where we hear Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” out of nowhere. Did you play around with any other musical in-jokes like that? If so how did you decide where they would pop up?

Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the Bach usage is a source cue. So that was there to begin with. The question was what to do with it to bring it back to our score. And the answer was to be a little bit irreverent with it, and do a mashup with Bach and our brand of funk.

The score has such a huge palette - spy music, surf music, funk, folk chorales, swing, glam rock. Were there any stylistic ideas that didn’t pan out? 

I can’t say we tried a style that we couldn’t get to work in the score. I’m really thankful that I got to use all those colors though. I don’t recall ever calling in a flugelhorn before, or a Russian choir singing about bollocks. And I made this poor harpsichord collector in London record her whole collection so as to find the crustiest sounding one!

Thanks very much for your interest in my score, by the way. It’s a pleasure to talk to you about it. This collaboration with David and Mark was pure joy.

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Mortdecai snuck into theaters on January 23rd, 2015. Inspect it further at mortdecaithemovie.com.

Pick up Geoff and Mark's score on iTunes.

Visit Geoff Zanelli online at geoffzanelli.com.