Scottish composer Lorne Balfe has worked on big budget films like Mission Impossible: Fallout, Bad Boys for Life, Terminator: Genesys, and the upcoming Black Widow. He has been in collaboration with Hans Zimmer for decades, as the famed composer helped Balfe along his way, working together on dozens of projects. One of those projects was Rebuilding Paradise, the Ron Howard documentary depicting the devastating fires in the California town.
The two-time Emmy nominee chatted with AwardsWatch about his experience working on such a tough documentary, his love for The Greatest Showman, and the pressure of using the famous themes of franchise films.
Michael Frank: For Rebuilding Paradise, how do you put music to something so devastating? How do you find a balance between cinema and realism, and attempting to add some hope?
Lorne Balfe: It’s a difficult thing. And the way I look at it is that something like Paradise is the story is real. So in one respect, the music doesn’t need to create a fake fabrication, or enhance an emotion because it’s real. I love doing documentaries, because the fact is I learned something which I didn’t learn from television. So I’m able to learn to be dealing with subject matters that are real. So you have to be honest. And by being honest, as soon as you go into the kind of the usual film scoring, where you’re trying to enhance every emotion, or really enhance the character, I think you didn’t do justice to the real people. Because you’re turning it into a Hollywood moment. And it’s not. It’s a story. Now, ironically, this is the period this comes out. It came out at a period of time where the whole world ended up suffering. It’s a strange time. But I think it’s about less is more. You’ve got to remind yourself that you don’t need to work as hard on the visuals, because the narrative is something you can already relate to.
MF: How does that process change when you’re working on a big budget project?
LB: I think there’s so many other factors. The other thing with Paradise is the timeline. It was maybe two years working on it. It’s far different than a film where sometimes you kind of come in, and it’s six months, but you’re still staring at no visual effects. And that’s the last thing to get done. And then the sound effects have got to get redone. But everything, everything is there in a documentary, you’re not relying on tricks. So I think that to me, when you’re doing an action movie it’s different, every single project. If I look at something like Mission Impossible, one of the best action sequences I think there ever has been was the fight in the toilet. And there’s no music in it. So I wish I could take credit for one of those scenes. But there’s something so pure and honest about it, and it’s primeval. I learned from every genre, and I still keep learning. And that’s the point. And it’s like oh, okay, so when you look at something like Paradise when when you see there’s a fire and the sound effects are so real. You don’t want to do music because you want the audience to be able to hear and feel that heat. And I think that music just ends up over complicating it. And there’s brutal honesty.
MF: Do you feel odd saying that? As the person creating the music?
LB: I think some people have a problem with it, I don’t. I’m a filmmaker, and then I’m a composer. And I try to think more about the audience. Personally, and the fact is music can sometimes overbear and overshadow things and, and it can just become just a wall of sound. You’re competing against narrative, and you can be doing sound effects. And you shouldn’t fight. And I think that that’s a difficult learning curve. When I started, when I would watch the film and I couldn’t hear any of the music, I used to get quite upset about it. But, it’s not about it’s not about the music, it’s about what the story is, and what you walk away with?
MF: And how does each film stay with you? Are you able to move on, especially from something like Rebuilding Paradise?
LB: You’re always affected by it. You feel for these people. Every couple of months, I start Googling and seeing what the latest is, and there is a Facebook group page for Paradise that I joined that I still follow. We wanted to make sure all the proceeds went to the charities. And by somebody getting the soundtrack, it can go back to the community. And so that’s another thing about being invested in it.
MF: Do you have a genre you really prefer?
LB: No. What a bad answer. The genre that I don’t do is horror. But ironically, I love watching it. If you look at my Netflix, it’s just continuous horror movies. And I love it. But to me, it’s one of the biggest challenges, because it’s based on tricks. And the audience is so well educated now musically, the tricks are known. So every time I’ve been offered one, I’ve stepped away. I said, “No, no, no. I have no idea how to do that.”
MF: Would you ever do horror or do you think you will just always stay away from it?
LB: Yeah, I don’t know. I just wouldn’t know what to do. I have so much respect for some of the people that work in that genre, because the successful ones where they can reinvent each movies and I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t enter into a project where I wouldn’t know how to do it. I think everybody would lose faith very quickly. I find it very difficult, but never say never. Yeah.
But then I think if you’re able to kind of look at doing an action, an action movie, like even Bad Boys for Life is so different than 6 Underground 600. There’s different sensibilities to it. And a different grand gesture and it’s different colors. I think that’s what it’s about. It’s different. It’s about different colors and different ways to kind of try to create something new.
MF: What do you mean by different colors?
LB: You’ve already got a great theme. You’ve got iconic themes. And yes, it’s about trying to reinvent them. But there’s a different color scheme musically to them. And whether that being a hybrid school with electronics or purely orchestral with Bad Boys. I look at colors in regards to kind of the sections of the orchestra. And I’m trying to treat it that way. But did you continuously have bass or yellow, it becomes monotonous. Just to try to kind of try to kind of use your orchestration the way as a color scheme basically said, Yeah, I’ve never thought of it like that. I also don’t I’m also dyslexic, etc. So So I ended up looking at everything as colors. Yeah.
MF: Are you someone that watches movies all the time? Are you able to focus on the film and not just the score?
LB: It’s why I got into it, it’s escapism. As a child, when I was six or seven, I watched so many movies. And then when I was at school, it was a case of watching Jerry Bruckheimer movie. The Rock, Crimson Tide, all these films which I just loved, and I embraced. And I loved that genre. And I love movies. Films will bring the same sheer enjoyment and love and escapism as they did when I first started watching them. Then there’s the biggest eye opener since having children, children’s movies. And I missed a whole section of films that now I get to watch. Like Ratatouille or The Greatest Showman. Have you seen The Greatest Showman?
MF: Yes, I have. Fun movie, definitely.
LB: Yes, it is. It’s so adorable. Yes, the songs are so perfect, a lovely story. And again, I probably wouldn’t be in that genre of watching it without the children. Personally, I don’t think so. But gosh, it’s brilliant. I’ve listened to that soundtrack countless times. Before COVID, I was commuting back and forth between LA and London, two weeks every month. Now my family now knows my name. They recognize me.
MF: Have you ever checked your Spotify? Do you know how much people are listening to your songs?
LB: No, I don’t understand it. I think they’re getting a different experience from it than I am. It’s like the concept of going and studying film music to become a composer. I don’t personally understand that. Because you’re getting told how to write music, there is no right or wrong. That is just simply the fact. I’m still trying to find my voice and find my musical path and you look at your look at the composers that are all kind of unique and interesting. They’ve all got different backgrounds. So there is no one clear path. My point of view of how to score a scene doesn’t mean it’s right. That’s my point of view. I’m just trying to figure out how to help the story. And the visuals.
MF: How does it feel to work on these famous themes? Like Bad Boys and Mission Impossible.
LB: Gee, I always get nervous. That’s the main thing because those themes are part of our, of my memory. And you want to be very loyal to the theme. But also you want to be loyal to the audience and what they remember of it, and when they hear it, their emotional attachment to Mission Impossible for example. It’s just simply a character. And I think that you’ve got to kind of determine when do we use it so that the audience really, really feels it? Because you look at some of the franchises and they didn’t use it? Yeah, they used it for the beginning. And then that was it. I don’t understand it. Sometimes they can’t legally and it costs money or something. So I understand that. But it’s a shame when there’s that bureaucratic point of view regarding it, because as soon as you hear them, you smile, because you remember those past experiences with it. It should be about that connection to the audience.
Rebuilding Paradise is currently available to stream in the National Geographic section of Disney+. Lorne Balfe is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Music Composition For A Documentary Series Or Special (Original