Interview with Hughes Hall
About his music and breaking into the film composing business
If you know the films Seven, Blade, Dark City, An American Werewolf in Paris, City of Angels, and Arlington Rd., then you probably know Hughes Hall's music. Not only is the man a master at soundtracks, but his current instrumental rock CD, Pacifica, is damn hot. And now, all the way from Hollywood, smog capital of the world, ladies and gentlemen, HUGHES HALL...!!!
[Ben Ohmart] Thanks for the talk. How did you get into film composing?
Hughes Hall It was a fluke, actually. In 1987, I was clubbing in an experimental rock band in LA when a friend of mine mentioned that he was producing film trailers and needed some music and would I be interested in doing one? I didn't know anything about it so, of course, I agreed to give it a try, and the project really clicked and led to about 14 years of scoring for trailers and TV spots. We formed a company that ended up doing a lot of big studio projects.
I viewed that original trailer again recently and, boy, it was terrible, but it established a relationship that led to a lot more, better quality work.
[Ben Ohmart] Your bio lists your work for the trailers of Seven, Blade and other gothic mega-hits. Are you also in the films themselves?
Hughes Hall No, just the trailers. It's actually very rare that any of the soundtrack music from a film will be used in the trailer, or that any trailer music ends up in the film. The trailer is a very specialized bit of advertising designed to motivate the largest number of people possible to get out and see the movie, so it has to be over-the-top exciting and doesn't conform to any of the dramatic rhythms of the long form film style. (For a while there were even complaints from movie-goers that the sound intensity and volume levels for trailers were getting to be too extreme.) But anyway, the dynamic and build of the trailer needs a specific score that gets much more exciting much more quickly. Imagine being able to take an action type film and be able to cut all the coolest looking and most exciting moments into your trailer. There's just so much going on visually and story wise that it needs a very specialized soundtrack approach to glue all that together, into anything cohesive in a two to three minute time span. This kind of "dramatic glue" is way too hyperbolic for the actual film and, conversely, when you put any of the soundtrack music onto the trailer, it just sort of sits there and nothing happens.
[Ben Ohmart] Is there much difference writing for trailers than for feature films?
Hughes Hall Well, since I pretty exclusively operate in the world of Trailers and TV spots, I can't really comment on that other than to describe the differences in feature soundtracks versus trailer soundtracks. Feature films swallow up months of your life while a trailer usually only takes a couple of weeks from start to finish. On the other hand, you don't get much of a chance to stretch out artistically, your confined to a sort of musical shorthand to get all your ideas across as directly as possible. It's a trade off.
Also trailers are more a branch of the advertising industry than the film production business. Actually, it kind of straddles both, but it has to be separate because marketing is such a different animal than film making, not so much about attaining a cinematic vision as it is of taking that film and packaging it commercially to attract the largest possible audience.
[Ben Ohmart] What are some of your favorite movies and film composers?
Hughes Hall The types of films I tend to gravitate towards are usually outside the standard Hollywood story driven format. One of my current favorites of the last few years is Baraka directed by Ron Fricke. For someone like me who really focuses on the soundtrack music, this film is all soundtrack, contributed by many different composers and musicians. It's a smorgasbord of soundtrack possibilities. Wings of Desire is a beautiful film. More recently, Amelie had a wonderfully inventive, almost slapstick, soundtrack. Looking back, I'd have to say that Harold & Maude is still one of my all time favorites and that the soundtrack of Cat Stevens' songs is still so powerful and nostalgic for me, evoking the feelings of that time. That to me is the best you can ask of a soundtrack.
As far as composers, one of my current favorites is Thomas Newman. All his scores create such an original space in which a drama can unfold and it really makes you feel that you're experiencing something unique and wonderful. Even a mundane scene and setting is given an otherworldly perspective because of his score. From The Player to American Beauty, and recently Six Feel Under, all his work is unmistakably original. Elmer Bernstien is another favorite of mine. His score for To Kill a Mockingbird sets such a poignant emotional tone without ever becoming maudlin and overbearing.
[Ben Ohmart] Pacifica is quite a world apart from film soundtracks - yet, it's pretty similar. What are you doing with this release that you can't do with a film? Or do you even Want to do this stuff on the big screen?
Hughes Hall The original intent of Pacifica was to do something totally unencumbered by any philosophical or creative limitations, although I have to admit that my more filmic tendencies did keep sneaking in now and then, as is evident in those parts that get pretty layered and dramatic. Originally I just wanted to do a project that was totally outside the bounds of the various disciplines of soundtrack work, as a sort of free-form exercise to blow out some of the creative cobwebs that can accumulate when you do a lot of the same sorts of projects. Film projects tend to be driven by so many constraints, scheduling, other people's visions and expectations, and the actual dramatic structures of the scenes that you have to nail everything to. I wanted to do something that was just sort of a creative release from those boundaries. Also a desire to have music relate more to real life feelings and experiences and perhaps not so much to the grandiose fantasies of the "Big Screen."
That having been said, I can certainly see some of this type of music fitting into a particular kind of production, but once again, it would end up being so restructured that it may not end up bearing any resemblance to its original source.
[Ben Ohmart] You produced the entire CD in your home. But I can't tell a difference between this and 'studio' recordings.
Hughes Hall Well to be honest, these days there's not much of a difference between many people's home studios and professional studios, especially here in Hollywood. One block away from me is a house with three major surround mixing suites in the living room, dining room and den. Some of the biggest pictures in town are being remixed in 5.1 surround for home DVD. You'd never know it from the outside.
With the advent of digital recording, it's now possible to get the quality of sound that you once could only get from an expensive pro facility. This doesn't mean that the era of recording an entire symphony orchestra on a large sound stage for a soundtrack has passed, but it does mean that using sampled instruments you can create a pretty close approximation of a symphonic score.
[Ben Ohmart] How long did it take you to put the whole thing together?
Hughes Hall I actually had the luxury of being able to work on Pacifica as the mood struck me, so it was sort of bit by bit, gradually accumulating pieces and building momentum as it went along. It took about a year to do it, but if I took the actual production time and figured it out in actual days, it probably took about 3 or 4 months.
[Ben Ohmart] What were the influences for your album? Who do you usually listen to when nobody's looking?
Hughes Hall For Pacifica, I think I was influenced by a lot of different music from my past. There's definitely a Pat Metheny vibe going on in there since I was listening to a lot of his music a few years ago. But I'm also influenced by some of the jam band style music starting with the Grateful Dead. I grew up in the same town that the GD were from, so that had to be an influence even if not consciously. I also like fairly concise pop song-structures which tend to mediate some of my more "rambling" musical tendencies, so most of these tunes have a pretty focused structure and development. Throw in a little Pink Floyd and early Genesis and I think that rounds out the influences here.
My musical tastes tend to be very eclectic. A brief look at my CD stack right now starting at the top: Ben Folds-"Rockin' the Suburbs," Sarah McLachlan-"Surfacing," great production and a stunning job of recording her voice, Jeff Beck-"Blow by Blow" and "Wired," Lumin-"Hadra," intense deep-house mixes of middle-eastern music, Steve Tibbets- "Exploded View," one of the best guitarists I've ever heard, Debussy-solo piano works. Other favs, Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar music, and Morton Lauridsen-"Lux Aeterna," sublime post- modern choral works, and rounding out the list are Ravel, Mahler and Mozart.
[Ben Ohmart] And now - the question everyone's been waiting for... how the hell do you break into the jail that is movie composing? Everyone wants to write a screenplay or a score. But what do you Have to do to get closer than most?
Hughes Hall Well there are probably about as many ways to "get in" as there are people who have gotten in. But the bottom line is to have a demo CD or video tape that is at least as good as anything else out there and to somehow be able to hand it to the person who just happens to be looking for something new at that moment. It also certainly helps to be around the area where films are being produced, whether student of professional. But the bottom line is you need to assemble a reel of work that you'd be confident to put up against anybody else's, that is completely industry ready, strong and attention grabbing. Directors and producers are always looking for new colors, something that gives their project another dimension, originality, and if you can provide that you'll get their attention because nothing makes them happier.
The two aspects of this business are:
1) Strong creative product
You have to be technically and creatively strong and spontaneous, and you also have to fit into a production environment in terms of temperament, artistic vocabulary and communication skills (and when you're not sure about things just keep nodding yes.) You need to have confidence in your creative abilities so that you can make other people feel confident about the project too. This business is full of people who are operating under the tremendous pressures of deadlines, changes, re-edits, and incomprehensible notes from faceless executives in some tower somewhere, and the more confident they feel the happier they are to be working with you.
So basically you just have to do any project you can get your hands on because the key is to build some sort of reputation and you can only do that via your willingness and creativity. Gradually, you find yourself working on better and better material as you make new connections and as more people become aware of you. This way your reel always contains your latest and greatest projects and stays fresh and competitive. And people aren't necessarily going to find you, so you have to go out and try to connect with them.
[Ben Ohmart] Are you going to be touring to promote the CD? Can you make it sell without rigorous touring?
Hughes Hall Warning: Rant Alert. Part of my decision to make this CD was based on the advent of the Web as a means to promote, advertise and otherwise get the music out there either as a CD or as an mp3 from the comfort of my home computer. In retrospect, I have to admit that what was supposed to have been a technological tidal wave has ended up as a dry creek bed. There was so much hyperbole regarding the potential of the internet to create a new economy for independent musicians but the revenue streams and advertising channels of the recording industry and traditional media outlets are so firmly entrenched, and the music buying public has limited bandwidth with which to absorb new material, that it's pretty difficult to swim against this current. The premise that web based media would be able to make an end run around the traditional way that music is heard and distributed, and still be able to provide comparable revenues, just hasn't materialized. So having confronted this reality I'm now considering more traditional means of distribution which would then ideally lead to increased airplay and then the possibility of touring in support of the album.
[Ben Ohmart] What's next for you?
Hughes Hall I really enjoyed writing and recording this CD and I'm already planning my next one, which will be more dark and edgy. I did a piece of music a few years back for the soundtrack album for the sci-fi film, "Dark City," and I still get a fair amount of fan mail for that one, so I'm considering doing a project of material in that vein. I'm also working with a few songwriters in the capacity of a writer/producer to help develop material and to help craft a production style that suits them. This is something I'm really interested in... developing more. One thing I have to say about soundtrack work, is that it's basically being locked in a room alone for ten hour stretches staring at a monitor, so you really grow to value creative interaction and that is what I get from producing and I hope to be doing much more of it.