Mulderville catches up with composer mark isham to discuss his latest film, the unbearable weight of a massive talent and how he got started as a composer
This week I had the distinct pleasure to sit down with composer, musician and writer, Mark Isham. Mark has been creating incredible scores for dozens of films for four decades now going back to the 1980s and this week his latest work comes out in theaters bringing a whole new level of energy and cinematic nostalgia with The Unbearable Weight of a Massive Talent (UWMT) from director Tom Gormican (That Awkward Moment), who also co-wrote the script for the film, and stars Nicolas Cage, Pedro Pascal and Tiffany Haddish. The film opens in the US and most European territories on April 22, 2022. The story of UWMT is genre bending and unlike any other film in recent memory. Unfulfilled and facing financial ruin, actor Nick Cage (who plays himself) accepts a $1 million offer to attend a wealthy fan's birthday party. Things take a wildly unexpected turn when a CIA operative recruits Cage for an unusual mission. Taking on the role of a lifetime, he soon finds himself channeling his most iconic and beloved characters to save himself and his loved ones. This is a fun ride from start to finish! The following is a my transcription of my chat with Mark Isham. You can also listen in to this call and watch the transcription in real time on our youtube page.
Mark: Hello there!
Phillip: Thank you so much for taking the time. And congratulations on yet another brilliant score.
Mark: Oh, thank you so much. I appreciate that.
Phillip: I have to say, I've been a fan of yours for many years and every film I feel as if you reinvent the way the movie and the score work together to tell the story. So just basically to dive in because we don't have that much time, I wanted to get a little bit (of an idea) of where you started. I’ve read about in your bio about you working with Van Morrison, and then you switched over and really got into musical composition. So, what was the inspiration in the beginning and who were some of the composers that you looked up to and wanted to emulate at the start of your career?
Mark: Oh, my goodness. Well, because my background at that point was in jazz and electronic music, I guess obviously listened to Van Jones as he came out of the electronic world and Blade Runner was coming out. And then Jean-Michel Jarre, no, Maurice Jarre Witness, it was a very early electronic score, which I remember taking notice of and thinking, oh my goodness, there's all that technology being used in a new way.
Phillip: And also The Big Blue, I'm sure was Le Grand Bleu. I think that too must have been an inspiration as well. It’s very much in the same genre
Mark: And so, there was a burgeoning world at that point, and I sort of thought, well, I'm allowed to do this because of them... and because my very first film is a Disney film, it takes all place in nature, and yet I scored it electronically. There are some acoustic elements, but it sort of established the groundwork for the style that I still work with a with a great deal where the musical environment can be created through electronics, but for the warmth, you put an acoustic performance in front of it. I never cried Wolf. It was bassoon and a Chamber Orchestra and percussion, and it sort of stuck with me until I've dropped a lot of my career. Obviously, I've learned to write for Orchestra over the last number of years and really enjoy that, but the path came in through that. And then, of course, when I started working with Alan Rudolf, he loved my Jazz sensibility. So there was a big jazz influence on all the movies I’ve done with him.
Phillip: Yes! Now that inspires me to ask another question... You said that you have learned to write for Orchestra. Did you study music or when you did study music, did you write or was that part of your education, or is this something that more progressed over time?
Mark: I am completely self-taught. Basically, in high school, I realized that I was a musician. There was no question about it. So I practiced. I would cut class to go and practice that sort of thing.
(It was at this point that I dropped my pen and just stared at the phone. Could this be true? Mark was a college drop out! He is a GENIUS I thought... if you are in school, don’t just drop out because of Mark. You need to be TRULY talented and driven. Just saying... we can’t all be like Mark!)
Mark: There was a music theory class of which I just bought my Walter Piston book and went through it in two weeks. I was voraciously searching for knowledge. My parents were very supportive, and they found me a composition teacher who I studied with briefly for one summer. I last in college for about four months and dropped out and just really went to work. I started working as a professional trumpet player and just started writing. And because electronics were starting to grow at that point I bought a tape machine, and as soon as I could afford it, a synthesizer. And that was my education, it was just by doing it. So I have never taken an official orchestration class or classical composition class beyond the brief summer analyzing Bartok string quartets.
Phillip: Wow! (My mouth was still wide open in disbelief. I was so happy that this was an AUDIO only interview. My face was NOT very pretty with the mouth open like a cod fish.)
Mark: But I sat in the Orchestra. I played in an Orchestra under Sage Yeozawa. I've played under Carlos Chavez. I’ve experienced a lot of classical music from within the Orchestra, so it's not like it’s an unfamiliar terrain to me. I just don't know. I haven't picked apart Wagner and Scriabin and Brahms like a Juilliard trained composer has. But I know enough about it that when it was offered to me the chance to write, I said, yes! Let me dive in and thank God. At that point, the music technology had evolved, and I could mock-up some rough demos of using string patches and state to see what I think, will this work? And of course, I just could avail myself of the tremendous talent here in the Los Angeles area and ask for advice and ask an orchestrator, look, if I do this, is this going to work? And they woudl say, no, why don't you try this way? But it was the story of my entire career. I've just learned by doing. I've just taken the opportunity, taking the job and said, yeah, I'll figure it out, or to the producers, I said of course, I could do this... and then you go home and you figure it out!
Phillip: That really speaks to a tremendous level of confidence. There are a lot of people who've completed Masters and doctorates in musical composition and analysis and many of them never feel confident enough to be able to do something like this. Where do you think this confidence came from? Do you think it was instilled in you by your parents, or was it just self-born?
Mark: I think it was of my own. Because my father was an academic. He was much more the one that wanted to study about it, talk about it, read about it... He had a long and lovely career as a teach and a professor, and he wrote one book. So he was not inspired to doing this. He was insprired to the intellectual side and the talking and teaching side. But I didn’t want to do that. I didn't want to read about it. I wanted to make it. I wanted to write a piece that used harmony like Wagner. So I could really understand how it worked and why it worked and what I could learn from that technique to apply to something that would sound like that would be mine.
Phillip: So basically, you're telling me you were a rebel?
Mark: Well, I don't know if it's a rebel. I think if you look at a lot of people who seem to get things done in this world, that seems to be the way to do it. If you want to do it, then you have to do it. You can just sit around and talk about it. You actually have to do it.
Phillip: Right! And I think that's truly going tobe very inspirational to the readers who are and a lot of our reader are in the film business or or students of film or contemplating going into the business and reading something like this, I think, will really, I hope, open people's eyes.And instead of thinking or talking about it, just getting in there and doing it. Which is great to hear.
Mark: Don't get me wrong, it's very necessary to recognize there a gap in one's understanding of something. And if there's a technology involved in the doing this, that one has to grasp on it or one has to put a competent person next to you and help you through it. That's a crucial part of this process. But if I saw an orchestral score coming that needed to be very romantic, I took two weeks out and bought all the Samuel Barber scores and all the Grecki scores and just poured over these things and said, all right, that effect that he gets in the third Symphony, how does he do that? Oh, okay. Now, how can I use that? So there's plenty of study time in here, but it's not going to class every day.
Mark: Going out, finding out exactly what I need to know to do what I want to do.
Phillip: So. Now, talking about doing, I imagine, the way that you got project at the very beginning let’s say you first ten scores to now, can you walk us you got projects at the very beginning, let's say you first ten scores, to now, can you walk us through what the process is like? You get a phone call, I imagine, from your agent, and you hear about a project. What happens then? You heard that the Unbearable Weight of a Massive Talent. How did that happen? How did it come about?
Mark: Well, at this point in my career, my agent has her ear to the ground, and she knows when these films are coming around to looking at composers. And so she called me and said, look, put a real together. I think you'd be great for this film. So, I put a reel together and sent it off, and they didn't hire me. So, I said, well, it's a clever idea. Having not seen it, I don't even know if it would work. It's very clever, but it could be disastrous... an idea like that. So unique. Does it work? I didn't think much more about it. And then a couple of months later, agent calls back and says, they're on the phone with you to do this film. They're very serious. They're pretty sure you're the guy that's actually going to bring this home. So obviously, it hadn't worked, their earlier choice, and so I met with them and I said, well, look, I really need to see this to know anything about how I could even discuss it with you. And so they showed it to me, and by God, it worked. It was very entertaining. It was hysterically funny. And again, that clever, clever idea really did... Tom pulled it off. He made the film that he dreamed of when he thought this whole thing up and he actually got it made, and then it works. So, I said, Look, I think what we should do here is so that we can keep the tongue in cheek to a degree, but then not sell the music short, is do a sort of a traditional John Barry, Lalo Shifrin, Ennio Morricone influenced score that they're going to have all those great grand gestures and cool s and s sounds to it, and it'll make you feel as if you are watching a timeless actor because there's timeless music in the background, and yet you'll be able to be serious, you'll be able to be romantic, you'll be able to be Western as they draw their guns on each other, and you’ll be able to hit all those beats, and yet it won't be dark and brooding. Like Chernobyl.
Mark: It'll be fun because you're paying tribute to the masters here. And I just thought that would fit with Nick's character, the fact that we're looking at history of years of filmmaking looking at the master here. So they loved the idea. I did about 25 minutes of music on the first pass, and they loved it. And so we just kept going, got it done.
Phillip: Now, I'm glad you referenced some of the other composers that you were working with and that you were trying to reference. I thought I heard a nod to the beginning of Mission Impossible. Was that intentional?
Mark: Yes. Of course.
Phillip: When I heard that, I said it was a genius take. And I love how it ties to just the mood that you're setting.
Mark: Yeah, even some Mancini in there. I use some basic Alto flute stuff. I tried to just be subtle and respectful and borrowing. I stole pretty flagrantly that Ennio Morricone tremble guitar from the Westerns. There's a lot of stuff like that that I just said it's the right gesture. And Tom agreed to hear that guitar and said, let's have more of that.
Phillip: That's so nice when you, as a composer and the director are on the same page and it just makes everything move so much more smoothly. Now, that's wonderful. But have there been times where you've delivered music and a director has just not been into it at all.
Mark: Yeah, but not that often. What I try to do, what I did with Tom, fortunately, it worked, was that I delivered that first pass with enough time so that if he hated it, we had time for a second pass. I remember very clearly working with Jodie Foster on our third film, I think and I delivered that first pass, and she said, no, it's not right. It's this, this and this... And I said, well, quite frankly, those are some of the adjectives you said you wanted. Well, then both of us are wrong. So, I said, okay, good, we have time. So let's talk through this again and give me more what you've come to realize you wan there. And she did, and I changed it, and it got a Golden Globe nomination. So it worked. You schedule these things out and you develop a relationship with your director so that you can talk out any misunderstandings or any changes of heart. You know?
Phillip: So, talk to me a little bit about when you say you had time. What is the normal or what is the preferred amount of time from the moment you receive the film so that you can start working on it to the time that you get to deliver your first pass and then when you have to deliver the final composition?
Mark: It depends on the number of minutes. I mean, the usual traditional time is six to eight weeks. If you're doing a heavy action score, you need more. You need at least eight to ten weeks.
Mark: I did A River Runs Through It, I think in three weeks, really, maybe three and a half weeks, it was just shy of a month. I remember that. But there was a long, many long nights when a studio says this film has to be done by such and such a day. Usually with these things, one’s sleep schedule doesn't enter their pattern. They don't care, they just need it done. But some scores are minutes long, some scores are nine minutes long. So really that's the crucial number. And if you see minutes looming they you have to have to discuss this with production and tell them you’ve just asked for X number of minutes of music, that's going to take three months.
Just know that that's what it's going to take. Right.
Phillip: And you got an Academy Award nomination for it. So perhaps having that short amount of time, wasn’t that bad, correct?
Mark: Right. Well, I did, yes. I tend to like to have a deadline because then experimenting is fine. And I like experimenting, and I like putting a certain amount of time up for experimenting. But I also like sort of being in the
position where you have to sort of make decisions.
Mark: The waffling about well, door number one, door number two, waffling about that for two weeks, does not help anyone. But if you have five options, do experimentation, then in a day be able to pick the right option and move on. Don't spend three weeks coddling that decision.
Phillip: I know we're running up short of time. I wanted to go back to a moment in time where you went from working on Nell, and then one of the next films that you had was Blade, a very, very different type of film, a very, very different type of genre. Are you comfortable doing those types of switches? Do you enjoy that?
Mark: I do, actually. I sort of relish it. If you are doing something that you spend a long time on it, then it's nice just to be able to switchgears. You know, if you're being soft and romantic and introspective, then all of a sudden it's nice just to stab a knife in someone's throat.
Phillip: And The Hitcher was one of my favorite horror movies when I was in high school. And I remember the night when I saw it on a VCR. And then it was Reversal of Fortune, again, such different films, such incredible scores. And Reversal of Fortune is absolutely one of my favorite films of all time.
And most of it is because of the incredible feeling that you generated with that tremendous score.
Mark: Thank you so much.
Phillip: Yes, so, last moments here. Are you able to share with us what we can look forward to hearing from you coming up?
Mark: Yes, I am currently doing the second season or the second mini-season of The Nevers for HBO.
Phillip: Oh, wonderful! Mark, wonderful show!
Mark: Yes, it's one of my favorite shows and am really enjoying that. And then "Godfather of Harlem" will be coming back for season three. And I hear that "Justified" is coming back. And I think I just closed that deal. So, I've got some interesting television. There is a movie that I think we’re just closing that I’ve got plenty of stuff on my plate, but The Nevers will be the next thing I think people will actually see.
Phillip: Good! And we're looking forward to it. And of course, hopefully we'll have some recognition for you during awards season for The Unbearable Weight of a Massive Talent because I truly think that it’s a film that's going to live for quite a while. And if it hasn’t become a classic, it's going to be an instant classic because it's just that great!
Mark: Well, thank you so much. That would be such a hoot if that’s the case for the music. I think the film, it definitely deserving of its own special place in history.
Phillip: No, it really is. And how often do you get an actor that plays themselves but in a convincing way and not like a cameo, just sort of funny moment where they come in and say a few words. It’s a really, really great spin. And you helped tell that story.
Mark: Well, thank you very much. It was great fun to be a part of it.
Phillip: Terrific. Well, I thank you very much for your time, and I wish you to have a great summer! And we look forward to catching up again next time you have a great film coming out.
Mark: Great. Well, thank you! It's been a great pleasure to talk to you. Happy, you have a good summer as well!
Phillip: Thank you so much.
And with that Mr. Isham was gone. The call ended and I was left with a flashing cursor on my desktop. I had only asked 1/3 of the questions I had prepared for the maestro. He was so easy to speak to and told such incredible stories about his past and his career in film scoring. I wish we could have had another hour to talk! Maybe next time. If you have the chance, do go and see his latest film UWMT and then check out some of his previous works. He really is one of the best in the business and it is very gratifying that he is still a humble artist who remembers his past and that speaks volumes. Be sure to check out his channel on Spotify where he has the entire soundtracks of most of films ready to be heard. Until next time, this is Phillip Nakov in Burbank, California. Thank you for checking out Mulderville.net and I’ll see you in line at the concession stand!
Nicolas Cage is now an indebted actor waiting for the big role that will revive his career. To pay off some of his debts, his agent suggests he attend the birthday party of a dangerous billionaire who turns out to be his biggest fan. But the trip takes a completely different turn when the CIA contacts him, asking him to investigate the criminal activities of his host. Nicolas Cage will have to play the role of his life and prove that he is worthy of his own legend.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
Directed by Tom Gormican
Written by Tom Gormican, Kevin Etten
Produced by Nicolas Cage, Mike Nilon, Kristin Burr, Kevin Turen
Starring Nicolas Cage, Pedro Pascal, Sharon Horgan, Ike Barinholtz, Alessandra Mastronardi, Jacob Scipio, Neil Patrick Harris, Tiffany Haddish
Cinematography : Nigel Bluck
Edited by Melissa Bretherton
Music by Mark Isham
Production companies : Saturn Films, Burr! Productions
Distributed by Lionsgate
Release dates : March 12, 2022 (SXSW), April 20,2022 (France), April 22, 2022 (United States)
Running time : 93 minutes
We would like to thanks Mark Isham for this great interview…