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June 06, 2019

Scoring the Scenes

Brazilian composer Marcelo Zarvos loves composing for the screen, be it large or small.

Brooke Carlock Miller

Growing up in Brazil, Marcelo Zarvos fell in love with music while watching the scores of 1970s and '80s films.

Blade Runner was a favorite, as was pretty much anything scored by John Williams. At age 10, he decided to start playing the piano, and trained classically. However, by Zarvos's teenage years, his musical talents led him to join an '80s pop band that ended up recording and touring all over Brazil.

Although he knew he wanted to be a composer, the detour into pop and jazz artistry left an indelible mark on his musical style.

When his time with his band came to an end, Zarvos travelled to the United States to attend college at California Institute of the Arts, where he continued his study of classical piano with a goal of scoring for film and television. Ten years after graduating, his dream became a reality when he scored his first short film.

Blending the influences of his Brazilian youth with hints of classical, rock, and electronic sounds, Zarvos's scores have set the tone for such films as Kissing Jessica Stein, The Good Shepherd, Remember Me, American Ultra, The Choice, and Wonder.

His television credits include The Big C, Extant, The Romanoffs, The Affair, and Ray Donovan, as well as You Don't Know Jack and Taking Chance, for which he earned Primetime Emmy award nominations.

Most recently, Zarvos scored the two-part HBO Sports documentary What's My Name: Muhammed Ali, directed and produced by Antoine Fuqua.

You originally started composing for films, and then branched into television. What was that transition like?

I didn't start scoring TV until I was a good 10 years into my career. It was right as everything was changing so fast. It was the beginning of the "Golden Age" of television, around the time where we were introduced to The Sopranos, and The West Wing.

I started working on a Showtime series called The Big C, starring Laura Linney, which led me into a few more Showtime series -- some which have endured to this day, like The Affair and Ray Donovan.

It used to be that there was "TV music," but now those walls don't exist anymore. I feel like all of it is just music for the screen, no matter what screen it is now. My career is split between both television and film, and I really enjoy both sides of it with the different content available.

A lot of your work is piano-based, since you were trained as a classical pianist. But you're also well known for your ability to cross musical genres and delve into jazz, rock, and electronic sounds. Do you have a favorite musical genre in which you like to compose?

Not really. The piano is a big part of my voice. I started as a pianist, and piano is a very versatile instrument. It can weave in and out of scenes and dialogue and it's very good for intimate scenes. The piano's been a good companion for me! But I love composing music for film and television because not only is it okay for you to cross musical genres, but it is kind of expected.

In a wonderful sense, it's kind of like the Wild West. People combine and recombine things all the time, so I find the mix of genres itself to be my favorite thing about it. I tend to sort of bounce around between things -- usually I'll be doing a project that's a somber drama, and then maybe the next project will be a comedy and has a different take on things.

And I find that dancing between the styles is what I find very attractive.

Has technology changed the way you work since the beginning of your career?

Absolutely. When I started we were on the cusp of where we are now, in terms of computers being the guiding element in the scoring process.

In the beginning, there was a little bit more writing down, but frankly I've kept that up. I still like to write music down, especially when I'm capturing a verse. And then usually that will quickly go into the mock up sort of process, but I kind of started right when it all began to change, and it's just more amazing every year, with the richness and depth of what you can do.

For the HBO Sports documentary What's My Name: Muhammed Ali, you drew on your experiences composing for modern dance and ballet, correct?

That's correct, yes. When I started writing, my first scoring gigs were for dance companies. I was living in New York and I first wrote for a company called Dance Brazil, which combined Brazilian dance with modern dance. Then I wrote for another company that mixes a lot of acrobatics and circus-type things with dance.

It was a very formidable experience at the time, and I remember that I was interested in film already, but had not had the opportunity to score films yet.

I remembered hearing someone describe scoring a scene where helicopters were flying as choreography - you know, as opposed to action - it was the idea that the helicopters were dancers. That stayed with me, and even to this day I see certain scenes and sequences like a dance.

When Ali came, I really started to analyze the scenes from a choreographic point of view. Even though it's obviously a battle, a fight, there's a lot of movement that goes on, and I could see that Ali, the moves he was doing, were dance movements, really. So I used that as a basis to form my rhythmical choices and how the music was cut for the picture.

Was there a particular style or emotion you were going for in What's My Name? It seems to favor jazz and the trumpet.

There was definitely that. I remember talking about what Miles Davis would sound like in a fight, just as a creative exercise. It was a lot of action, percussive music that was really exploding, like the hits and punches, in a very brutal way … Especially in some of the more fun fights, like the early ones, and for the Olympics.

But there was also some great ballet music that was in my mind too, when I was writing it. As he got older I think the reasons that he was fighting became deeper and more profound, and he was fighting just to help people. So in the second half, which happens right after his defeat to Frazier, the music takes a much darker and intimate turn.

So what is the process like for you, personally? You've done so many different films and shows, and each score has its own sound. What steps do you usually take in the creative process when you're first starting to create a score?

Ideally I want to try something different, but of course you have your own style and people hire you for a reason! I think Ali is a good example of a project where I had to stretch creatively from what I had been doing recently and go to another place. Which is what you hope for in your career as an artist - that things will come that will push you towards somewhere you didn't think about before.

And in the case of shows like Ray Donovan and The Affair, I feel like there's a responsibility of trying to honor the show and what it's supposed to be, which is what I try to do. But I'm always eager to try something different … it's exciting.

Is there any style or genre for which you'd like to compose that you haven't had the chance to do yet? Any future goals?

There are many, really, but animation is something that I would really love to work on. Having small children, I feel like I am an expert in animation, so I may as well do it! It's mind blowing how much animation there is now, when there used to be only a couple of movies a year, and now there are a ton. So I would love to do that.

Another is … I kind of dabbled in family movies a little bit doing the film Wonder, and I really enjoyed that, so I'd like to do more material for children and families. Also, going into musical theater is something I would love to do … there are so many genres, so there's still plenty to do!

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