Interview by: Dan Goldwasser
Composer Rolfe Kent has been quickly moving up the Hollywood ranks in the past few years, and was recently named the "It" composer in Entertainment Weekly's "It" List. He also scored the hit comedy Legally Blonde, which took first place when it opened in theaters. SoundtrackNet had a chance to catch up with Rolfe at his studio in Los Angeles.
Legally Blonde was recently at the top of the box office. What sort of scoring approach did you take to this quirky comedy?
Legally Blonde is very different from most of the films I've done, mainly because it's very obvious as to what it is. The challenge on most films is to find the line to take - the emotional core of the film. In many of the films I work on, the emotional core isn't defined - and it's quite elusive. I think that's why they ask me to do it - because it requires a bit of effort to work out what line to take. With Legally Blonde, that wasn't quite the case. I still had to find the emotional core, but it was quite straightforward. I think Legally Blonde is perhaps the most mainstream film I've done. And mainstream means, in part to me, that it is very upfront as to what it is; that it belongs to a known genre.
There seemed to be two main challenges for me with Legally Blonde. When I first saw the film, it had a temp score, which was kind of failing because it wasn't living up to the sparkle and zest and zing of these characters - it seemed to me that the music had to support that. That was the first challenge - how to make that quality apparent. So there's a lot of light and sparkle in the score.
The other challenge was that I always want to do something new - something I haven't done before. It dawned on me that if I was going to do another comedy, I wanted to write it in a way I hadn't done it before. For me, that meant rethinking my instrumentation. In the past I focused on certain instruments like marimbas, plucked instruments like mandolins, and decided to move on from there, and work more off the brass and the woodwinds. So to keep the sparkle and the brightness of the score alive, I went for sparkly sounds. I had lots of celestas and glockenspiels, and flutes being very active and the high strings being very textural with lots of figures, loops, and motifs. It gave the score a whole fizz of energy - and effervescence - that was crucial to help the score live up to the nature of the characters in the film. Then the melodies came first and foremost from the woodwinds and the brass. A lot of the woodwind instruments are quite high, and the brass has a lot of high harmonic quality to their sound - that added to the "brilliance" ofthe sound.
So I was actually able to experiment writing in a slightly different way, and as well as fulfilling everything I felt the score had to provide. Certainly I was aware it was a comedy, but I didn't think the music had to be funny - it just had to keep the life and energy up in the film. I think much of [the humor] comes out of the characters and the writing and the performance, and the music didn't have to set up any jokes, but it had to keep the energy high. Reese Witherspoon plays a very reactive character, and something will happen and there will be an instant reaction - the music had to somehow keep up with her.
Why is there no score release planned for this album?
I think that between studios and record companies, they have their own agenda, and the score gets squeezed out. But they didn't know that the film would be a huge hit. It's a weird thing, and I'm always baffled by when they decide to release a score release. But you can go to RolfeKent.com and download MP3s of the score! That's the best thing about having a website. Before the internet you couldn't get hold of unreleased scores, but now I can make some of it available for download.
How do you approach a film that doesn't have an obvious emotional core?
The starting point is, by and large, to figure out what the director is trying to get across. So you talk to the director a lot to find out what he or she wants the audience to get out of it, because in most of these films from the rough cut it's not obvious. Especially in an Alexander Payne film. The images are not the story; the images are there for us to watch as the actual story unfolds, and the story is what Alexander has to contribute, and the music is depended upon to provide his perspective. So finding the center of the film starts with talking to director, and then I go for walks and think the thing through. Then I just experiment; I put things to picture and see what things work and what doesn't. Often I come back thinking that something would work, and when I put it to picture, it's wrong! "Oh, how fascinating! It's not what the film is about after all!"
And sometimes that is what the director has asked for. When I was working with Mark Waters on The House of Yes, after playing one cue for him he said, "That's interesting, because that's exactly what I asked for - and it's completely wrong!" So it was a learning experience for both of us. The film isn't necessarily what we think it is, and that's why it takes time to work out the emotional core.
You were recently listed as the "It" Composer in Entertainment Weekly's "It List". How did that come about?
They just called me out of the blue! It's very surprising - I seldom get any attention outside of people interested in film music, so I think it's the first time I was in anything "mainstream". It's very funny - I didn't realize that so many people read that magazine, and suddenly I'm getting calls from all my friends, even over in England!
Town and Country had years of post production problems, and even had another composer attached to it for quite some time. How did you get involved?
I got involved because New Line decided they wanted a singular approach to the film -something that had a lot of personality, and they had a lot of confidence in me - I had already done two New Line films. I think the original concept wasn't to have a score - it was to have a lot of existing material reworked, and that's what the original composer was asked to provide. When they decided they wanted a definitive score, they thought they might look for someone who they'd worked with before.
So the irony being that Legally Blonde, a success, doesn't have a score release, but Town and Country does..
One of the ironies is that I think all of the CD releases I have out are for films that haven't done well. And all of the films that have done well, don't have a release. Well, Election has a suite of score on it. But it's odd. I long for the day that I have a successful film with a successful CD release!
What can you tell me about Mexico City?
It's a kidnapping thriller, and it takes place down in Mexico City. So we decided to score it exclusively with Spanish guitar - there are no other instruments used. Often the guitar is used as a guitar, but I also allowed myself freedom to completely process the guitars and put them through filters so they come out like a drone, or a drum. Again, this desire to be doing something new - I didn't want to find myself repeating myself. I think that all film scores are experiments, and this one was no exception. It worked out rather well - it has some lovely bits in the score that I'm really happy with. The film was a small one, and I think it might be available in your video store.
What is this new Alexander Payne project, About Schmidt?
Well, it's still evolving, which is one of the great things about an Alexander Payne film. No one really knows what the film is. I think interesting directors make films where we don't know what we've got at first. The same thing applied to Nurse Betty. I got hired because everyone thought that it was going to be a quirky comedy - but that's not what it turned out to be. I think it's one of the brilliant things about film - you don't know what you have, you wait and see - it evolves. And that is the case with all of Alexander's films. There's creativity involved in every aspect of it, including the editing. It can completely change the film, and helps determine what the film ends up being.
What is 40 Days and 40 Nights?
Well, director Michael Lehmann (Heathers) told me it's a sex comedy - which I suppose it is. It stars Josh Hartnet and it's really good, it's really funny, it's really sexy, and it's coming out early next year, I think. It was really fun to do. It's very interesting how Michael thinks about music. He's a collaborator who likes to watch how things evolve, but he's also very open to seeing how things which weren't part of his original vision can become part of that vision. How you originally conceive it isn't necessarily how it comes together. So again, it was a matter of finding the center of the film, the emotional core, and just seeing where it goes from there. I have all of these Middle-Eastern motifs and references, even though nothing about the film is remotely related to that area. It's about a guy who is all messed up about his sex life, in that he's having too much - so he decides to spend Lent without having sex. Which doesn't sound intrinsically funny, but when you see the film, it's extremely funny.
When we were recording the score, some of the orchestra could see the picture on the monitor and we kept on stopping because they were all stunned and laughing too much at what they were seeing on the monitor. So everyone who has seen this film responds really well to it.
So why the Middle-Eastern motif?
Well, sex is so on the mind of everyone on this film, because sex is the one thing he cannot have. So I decided to find a way of creating something sexy in music which isn't contemporary and obvious, but has a certain sensuality about it. And having writhing Middle-Eastern ideas and rhythms seemed a very good way to go. There's something about such music representing sensuality that is subconsciously in our musical vocabulary.
What else are you working on now?
Well, aside from the Alexander Payne film, I'm working on this British six-hour thriller thing for television, and it looks stunning. It is called "The Jury" and it has 89 characters in it. The footage I've seen just blew me away. It follows the lives of the twelve jury members - all of whom are teetering on the edge in some way or another. I don't usually work in television, but "The Jury" looks so cinematic, and the story is so gripping, I am really looking forward to it. It's certain to come to the USA.
Rolfe's score to Town and Country was released on New Line Records, and is available in stores. Legally Blonde is currently in theaters, featuring Rolfe's effervescent score. He is currently working on "The Jury", which he expects to make it over to the United States sometime in 2002. Meanwhile, go check out his website at http://www.rolfekent.com/ and check out the sound clips! Special thanks to Jeff Sanderson at Chasen & Co. for arranging the interview.
The Art of film and Television Music
Release date: 07/24/2001
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