Today Alan Silvestri is one of Hollywood’s most respected composers for film, but he began his career as a guitar-slinging Berklee College of Music dropout backing up blue-eyed soul shouter Wayne Cochran. “The head of the guitar department at Berklee called me into his office about a week before finals in my second year and explained that a former student of his, Hap Smith, was leaving the guitar spot in Wayne’s band and asked if I’d have any interest in that,” Silvestri says. “I said, ‘I think I do.’ So they sent a ticket to Las Vegas. I went to my apartment, emptied my drawers into a suitcase and borrowed a solid body guitar from a teacher, Mickey Goodrick, who is still there, and I was on my way.” Silvestri did two stints in Cochran’s group. But “life on the road just didn’t fit my personality,” he explains. “That was the last time I did that kind of thing.”
The 62-year-old versatile master scorer’s credits embrace more than 100 films including the new blockbuster The Avengers and such classics as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Back To the Future, Romancing the Stone, Forrest Gump, Contact, Cast Away and The Polar Express.
1. How did you become a film composer?
I became a film composer by default. It was never in any kind of master plan. I was a drummer as a kid and then I started playing guitar and became interested in writing. I had bands in junior high school and high school, and worked on weekends playing dances. My main dream was to be a wonderful bebop guitar player…but one thing led to the next.
I wound up in Los Angles. I had been an arranger since I was a kid, although it was more big band jazz than orchestral. But a crazy thing happened. I was asked to go to a meeting about a film that was in need of a score. I had never thought about film scoring. I went out and bought a book on film scoring the night before my meeting and went through the book and an accompanying record, then I went to the meeting, and I got to score the film, which was called The Doberman Gang, about five dogs trained to rob a bank. That was the beginning for me.
The first orchestral film score I did was for [1985’s] Fandango, and my next film after that was Back To the Future. That was only the second time I’d written anything for the orchestra. Back To the Future, the film that really elevated my profile, came out of [1984’s] Romancing the Stone. After that I was really in the movie business. Then the success of Back to the Future was so tremendous — and it was an orchestral score — that it was really the beginning of what’s become my career.
The world of orchestral music was very foreign to me until a few years before. I had never been to the symphony. The first time I heard a Beethoven piano sonata I might have been in my early 20s. I have to give Bob Zemeckis tremendous credit. He had this amazing faith in something in me. He could have had anyone he wanted for his films, but he’s always felt that “If Al doesn’t know this, he can figure it out.” That’s how we’ve proceeded for our 14-film career together. He’ll call and say, “Al, we’re going to do our Western now,” or “We’re going to do our Hitchcock film now.” So my move into the orchestral world was because someone as tremendous as he is has always believed I could figure things out.
2. You’ve worked in every genre of film: comedy, cartoon, horror, action, children’s. What’s the key to your versatility?
You have to be led by the film. And film music should be very conversational. I watch a film with a very open mind as to what it says, and then I respond as appropriately as I can. If it’s a horror film, the film will be asking of something darker from me. I don’t worry about style or approach. When I listen to what the film is saying, that’s laid out for me.
Most often on a big budget film you have bigger and potentially better resources, but the mechanics of writing the score remain essentially the same. There is an interesting element on a large-scale film that’s almost atmospheric. When a studio or company has a $200-million or so investment out there, a lot of money is at stake, so there’s pressure that is just in the air. That is an interesting experience. When I walked into Back To the Future, it was a much larger-budget enterprise for me. Steven Spielberg was the producer and there really was a tangible difference in pressure.
3. How did you approach scoring The Avengers?
The Avengers came rather quickly after I scored Captain America, which was my first experience working with Marvel Studios. That film seemed to go really well. I had fun working on it and Joe Johnson, the director, and all the people at Marvel were tremendous to work for and with. And since the film did well we all walked away with a positive experience.
So when the call to possibly do The Avengers came — it was again from [Marvel Studios producer] Kevin Feige, but with a new director, Joss Whedon — I felt the connections we’d made were still very strong. I was invited to meet Joss so we could get to know each other, as much as is possible in a 30- or 40-minute sit-down, and when the film came my way Joss and I started to work out spotting and sending him material and having conversations. It was another very positive experience.
4. Is there a particular scene in The Avengers that you’re especially proud of?
There was a lot of music in this film, 110-minutes of score. One of the places that was interesting and fun was one of the first cues I sent to Joss. It’s a very quiet scene that happens about two-thirds into the film, after Agent Coulson has died…It’s a very daring beat that Joss wrote, because until then it’s been a very driving action packed film, and then there is very, very quiet dialog and long pauses as the team is digesting that someone they all had in common and all loved had left.
After I send the first cue I wrote for it to Joss, I remember getting the comment back that there was too much going on in the music. So I wrote the final cue as one of the last parts of the writing process, and we were so late in the game that Joss heard it for the first time with the orchestra at Abbey Road as we were recording. It’s a very simple string cue in the middle of this roaring film, and I remember how happy Joss was when he heard it because he had written a beautiful scene and he felt I’d captured its sensibility. It was a nice feeling to be there as he heard the orchestra play it, and to know that he and I had really gotten in synch. A filmmaker is vulnerable when it comes to the music and wants so much for their film and their voice to be understood, and when the music helps make that happen it’s a beautiful thing for everybody.
5. Who are the three composers who’ve influenced you most?
Certainly John Williams, for many reasons. His pure musicianship is so important. His film sensibility…his ability as a storyteller, because a good film composer needs to be a storyteller. His vision is tremendous. His use of themes, his melodic sense. He has an ability to not just play to the film, but allow someone to walk away from a film with accessible music in their heads that can allow the film and its impressions to live on outside of the movie theater.
I also have to mention Jerry Goldsmith, for that same ability. His love of experimentation…his love of the exploration of sound as sound. Those qualities were inspirational. Beyond that, I learn from the composer of any film that I watch. I get to see how they converse with the film. There’s a lot to learn from everybody who is doing this job.
6. What’s your favorite film?
The Godfather and Godfather II; I do not keep moving if I’m channel surfing. And It’s a Wonderful Life and the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol also fall into that category. They resonate with me.
7. What advice would you give composers just starting in the business?
The business has changed in many ways since I began. The age of the computer and digital technology has created great new developments and great new challenges. But in terms of general advice I would speak to the idea of understanding the collaborative aspect of being a film composer. I think it can be challenging for creative people to understand the collaborative aspect of film, because so much of our musical development is private and intensely personal. But when we’re asked to write for a film, we are serving the film and the director, and it can be very difficult for a composer to find their place collaboratively and allow their music to be exposed and criticized and guided to the level that it is in film music. So my advice is to be aware of that and to find a way to always keep that in mind. You are signed on to a crew here, and this crew has a captain, and the bulk of your responsibility is for you to assist this captain in the navigation and guidance of his or her ship. If you keep that awareness close by it will allow you to be more effective and have a greater chance for ultimate success.
8. If you weren’t a composer what would you be doing?
I do own a vineyard, but I don’t know if that would replace what music has been in my life. If it stopped now, having had my career, that might be the answer. But if the answer to that is what I might have done in place of my career…I’ve always had this dream of having gone into medicine, although I don’t think I had the gifts for it to be a reality.
9. What’s your favorite live music venue?
I don’t get out to a lot of places other than the big venues that a lot of other people have been to: the Hollywood Bowl, Lincoln Center, Symphony Hall in Boston, the Opera House in San Francisco, the concert halls in Vienna…they are all interesting spaces. They are all unique acoustically. They all have a personality and add an interesting element to the music being performed within them.
10. Why did you join BMI?
When I first started at BMI it was before I did the music for [the 1978—’83 TV show] CHiPs. I was a very young composer. Once I was working on CHiPs I met with the folks at BMI. BMI was very supportive of new composers. It showed me that I could have a family and make a living through music. As time went on, I met [BMI VP of Film and Television Relations] Doreen Ringer Ross and we became very dear friends. There was a period where, purely for personal financial reasons, I made a switch. But as I got a little older I missed where I had been. I missed Doreen terribly in my life and my work, so I went back. I’ve been back at BMI now for three years. It’s been so great to have Doreen back in my life. My kids have grown up knowing her and she’s been so supportive with my benefits for children’s diabetes. So I’m thrilled to be back at BMI and looking forward to the future.