Mark McKenzie: Composing an Exciting Career
Interview by Vance Brawley
Mark McKenzie has orchestrated a solid and prestigious career with film music, working alongside the cream of the crop in the industry from Bruce Broughton to John Barry, and Danny Elfman to Basil Poledouris. But the real story here is Mark’s own stunning career as a composer in films and his deep passion for the art form. Since having his music played on two airings of the Academy Awards®, McKenzie’s Dr. Jekyll & Ms. Hyde has become a heavily sought out piece that represents the best of the old Hollywood sound mixed with some vibrant contemporary themes. His latest score for a Hallmark Hall of Fame telepicture is going to make people listen and take notice of this strong talent. Durango is a vital piece of Ireland, it’s music and the people and the piece will become an important part of an already exciting career.
Durango has a vibrant ethnic feel to it. Explain the journey you took into Irish music and sounds as well as the whole experience of this particular project.
One of the areas that director Brent Shields and I discussed in our initial meeting about the music direction for Durango was the use of Irish music. I originally was thinking of hiring a group of four to five Irish players and composing a portion of the score for just Irish players (somewhat along the lines of what I did for Frank and Jesse with the small four piece western group that plays the more intimate relationship music). Brent felt that might be over the edge and wanted the score to stay more main stream. I worked the Irish instrumentation (Bagpipes, Bodhran drums, Penny Whistle, Pan Pipes and recorders – I love the sound of the recorder) into the score in hopefully a subtle way. The thematic material is Irish in flavor I suppose because I researched Irish folk songs which are rich in beauty. I played through as many of these Irish folk songs as I could find. I also played through jigs and Irish dance tunes to get a feel for what I liked and what effectively might work in the humorous scenes.
As an experienced orchestrator, how important is it for you to do your own orchestrations as a composer and what kind of collaborations have you experienced with orchestrators on your projects.
The orchestration is extremely important to me. Having orchestrated over 70 motion pictures, I’ve begun to be very attracted to certain orchestral sounds. The only way to get those particular sounds is to write them out in the sketch. Technically I wouldn’t need to be so particular in my sketches because I know Pat Russ who has worked with me many times can take a single line and make it sound fabulous (as he has on many other composer’s projects) but that doesn’t interest me as a composer. I finally have some great sketch paper that has 11 lines on it and it is comfortable to write detailed sketches on it.
Most of your released scores are on the Intrada label. What kind of freedom do you have with how much score is released and tell us a little bit about your relationship to the label and to Doug Fake as executive producer.
Intrada has released Warlock: The Armageddon, Frank and Jesse, Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde, The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca, and now Durango. Doug and I joke that Intrada has become my own personal label as he has been so supportive of me and my work. I feel so grateful to a man like Doug Fake who is willing to take repeated financial risks with someone like me. He believes in my music and hopes that one of these days one of these scores will make business sense as well as musical sense. I’m grateful that he allows me complete freedom as to what to include and how to arrange the CD.
What kind of process do you follow when scoring a film. Do you start with a script or a finished film before writing?
The Hallmark Hall of Fame writing experience was different than other writing experiences. Karen Mayeda, the postproduction supervisor is truly a composer’s best friend… actually she must be every creative personís best friend in Hollywood who works on these Hallmark projects. Karen sent me a script early on and I fell in love with Durango. It was at this time that I began to listen to all the Irish music I could get my hands on. I didn’t start really writing until I had the film in my possession. I find there is just no way to know for certain what the film needs are until you see the film. The subtleties and nuances are so great in film and music. I find composing music from a script is too far removed from what actually might get onto the screen. Actors and the director bring an emotional interpretation to the script that might be somewhat different than mine when I read it. I see my job as a composer as one who is to emotionally enhance the directorís vision. I won’t know exactly what that is until I see what he’s done and what he wants to accomplish emotionally. Once I get the film I spend many many hours watching the film trying different approaches to see what works for me and what doesn’t. I use my midi setup to hear what I compose and see it to picture judging then whether it works for me or not. With the technology we have today it seems a shame not to make good use of it.
Your scores all seem to have large orchestras and are filled with great melodies. What are some of your favorite themes and why?
What an interesting question and thank you for the kind word about my melodies. I passionately love the orchestra. My desire to compose strong melodies is one of the driving forces in my composition process. Melody is probably the part of film music that I am most attracted to. Music that is melodically strong often grabs my emotions in the most wonderful way. I’m always striving for that in my music.
One of your most famous themes from Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde was featured on the Academy Awards one year, what was that like watching the Oscars and hearing your music?
It was very rewarding to hear Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde used on the Academy Awards. They used the Overture in ’97 and the Old Movie Music cue in ’98. The 98 Academy Awards was the first time I had personally attended and when the organ solo started from Old Movie Music I wanted to stand up and say…hey everyone I wrote that and that’s me playing that too. Kind of childish of me isn’t it?
As an orchestrator you have worked with some of the best including Bruce Broughton who is frequently called the composer’s composer as he has had a hand in helping a few up and coming talents. Any thoughts on composers you worked with in the past and how they have helped you in your own career?
Each composer I have had the opportunity to work with has had a unique influence on me; everything from how to work effectively with directors, producers, contractors, musicians, studio heads etc., how to write dramatically for the screen, how to challenge complacency and go for a more creative alternative, how to compose stronger melodies, how to orchestrate more colorfully, how to use electronics effectively, and how to organize the whole movie scoring process. Bruce Broughton, Danny Elfman, Randy Edelman, Marc Shaiman, James Newton Howard, Cliff Eidelman, Alan Silvestri, Basil Poledouris, and John Barry and others all have been helpful to me. I’ve feel very privileged to work along side these many tremendously talented musicians.
What advice would you have for orchestrators dreaming of composing and aspiring orchestrators all together? What was the best advice you ever received regarding your career?
The advice I have for composers and orchestrators is to just do it. The more you do it the better you get. I went the university route and it was a good route for me to go but that is only one way to learn. There are many ways to arrive at the goal of becoming a stronger composer or orchestrator but all of them involve composing and orchestrating. The best advice I got regarding my career was to make sure that all my relationships with people stayed strong. In this business of continuous stress, strong opinions, long hours of work and painful time pressures, relationships get strained. To leave a relationship hurt from unkind words said or strong differences of opinion is hurtful to everyone involved. The best thing to do and as quickly as possible is to mend relationships. I’ve tried to be true to that advice and it continually challenges me. We all need each other too much and life is just too short to let potential friends turn into enemies.
You have a webpage now, how has that helped get the word out about your work? Has it put you in touch with fans and what importance does the internet technology have on your career?
It is so encouraging to know that there are people who have heard my work and it has found a meaningful place in their life. I love music passionately and when I compose I compose from the heart. To have others connect on some level is to become a soul mate in some sense. The internet has allowed me to communicate with a few of those people. I told my wife, I think I’ll save some of the notes I get and read them on days I feel depressed. Regarding my web page, I’m very grateful to Patrick Ruf. He took it upon himself to create a page for me (located at http://members.xoom.com/markmckenzie/). He did an amazing job of collecting information about my career and putting it in a useful understandable format. The internet is still new to me and I see increasingly how incredibly powerful it is now and will continue to be. Intrada just put one of my favorite Durango cues up on the web at http://www.intrada.com/catalog.htm. It is rewarding to me any time someone listens to something I’ve composed and the internet now gives more opportunity for that.
What projects do you have coming up that you can talk about?
A few things are brewing but nothing that I can talk about at the moment.
Many Thanks to Patrick Ruf and to Mark McKenzie!