So Who Really Composed The Score for TRON: LEGACY?

Daft Punk/TRON collaborator Joseph Trapanese sets the record straight.

My final “lost” interview is with Joseph Trapanese who collaborated with Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Cristo (better know as Daft Punk) for two years helping them bring their score for TRON: Legacy (2010) to the big screen. Watching this film for the first time back in 2010 was an incredible learning experience for me. Nobody who writes publicly about film or music (or both) wants to admit having made up their mind to not like something before experiencing it; however, that’s pretty much where I was with TRON: Legacy.

I’m a fanatic of the original TRON (1982) and every direction Legacy was heading communicated to me that this was nothing more than a blatant cash-grab cannibalizing another beloved franchise from my youth. What few positive spikes piquing my interest were completely eroded away when it was announced that Daft Punk was composing the score. I had nothing against Daft Punk. I longed recognized them as great musicians, but were they great filmmakers? Film composing has more to do with the art of filmmaking than it does music-making. Was this the right choice? I dismissed their selection as just another paltry scheme pandering to popularity.

When I finally experienced the movie for the first time, I was pretty taken aback. I loved it. I was in awe of it, yet I could hear the devil on my shoulder coming up with excuses to justify hating it. Finally, the angel on my other shoulder told me to just shut up and enjoy it. I did.

The score ended up being my favorite of 2010 (read my review here). I couldn't get enough of it. Not long after viewing the movie, I wanted to know more about the score and how it was created. The problem was, there were a lot of rumors floating around out there. It was difficult sorting through what was fact and what was fiction. I decided to go straight to the source. Daft Punk routinely declines interviews (believe me, I tried) so I opted to talk with Joseph Trapanese who worked intimately with them for two years. There’s a lot of mystery and conjecture surrounding this score. Hopefully this clears some of it up.

Enjoy!


 

ScoreKeeper: I’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. For starters, I’d like to know how you got involved with TRON: LEGACY.

Joseph Trapanese: I was really lucky, or how should I put it…it was really serendipitous. Some people I had worked with on multiple occasions know Thomas (Bangalter) and Guy-Manuel (de Homem-Cristo). They were speaking with them about potentially scoring Legacy and the challenges that they faced, not the least of which would be scoring a film which they had never done before, and certainly not one of this size or kind, and also working with an orchestra which they had never done before.

Luckily my friends thought of my skill set and knew I was orchestrally trained. I’ve worked on scoring, orchestrating, and arranging to picture, but I also have a deep love of electronics. I’ve worked with synthesizers since I was in high school. My friends saw that I could possibly bridge this gap between the robots and the logistics of actually taking on this project. So, he recommended me to them, and, I guess the rest is history (laughs).

SK: During the beginning stages of collaboration, how did everybody figure out and adapt to what your role was going to be?

JT: That was established as we went on. It was open-ended because we started so early. In the beginning it was very much an experimental phase. There wasn’t supposed to be that much music and it was supposed to be a mostly electronic score. The orchestra was going to be an addition to the electronic layers, but Thomas and Guy-Manuel had a vision for a much more powerful role for the orchestra.

It was a slow evolution from a batch of ideas that the director and composers had. So our roles evolved with that. My role in the project wasn’t clear to me or everyone else. It was something that evolved along with the project.

SK: Two years is a very unusual amount of time to work on a score. Around what month did you get directly involved?

JT: I started working with Thomas and Guy-Manuel in January 2009. They already had a clear idea of the melodic ideas, sonic ideas, and electronic demos and sketches that were ready even months before I became involved. This had been something that Daft Punk, and the director and our music supervisor, and the producers, took really seriously from the very beginning, even before I was brought on board.

SK: Take me through the creation of a typical cue. How were the ideas presented to you? What did you end up doing with those ideas and then how did your input affect the final product? Could you walk me through a day in the life of creating one of the cues for this film?

JT: Most of them were all electronic ideas. Sometimes I would begin working with the in the room, whether we’d be all alone or together. Other times, I’d go off and do something and bring it back to them. It was a consistent collaboration from front to end.

Everything that wound up in the orchestra had its gestation in original electronic ideas. The melodies you hear in the french horn were melodies in synthesizers before that. The orchestra is really kind of a variation on themes based on the original ideas that Daft Punk started with. What I really enjoyed about it was this kind of classical development of this material, and I can’t emphasize it enough, the creative control and creative collaboration that the guys had from front to end.

We shared a studio on this project from the beginning. I was always working in their studio. They were there. It was very much an intense process, but everyone was heartily invested in time and effort. This was a real collaboration, wholeheartedly. That probably answers some of your other questions, because some of these blogs out there, where people just don’t understand the kind of artistry that Thomas and Guy-Manuel possess, they hear the orchestra just as well as someone who’s gone to a conservatory, so to speak.

SK: You touched on one of the real beauties of this score. A lot of critics who are quick to glance over the score, or immediately dismiss it are missing out on a very effective amalgam of electronics and orchestra like we really haven’t heard in cinema. It makes it unique.

Acoustic-based composers use electronics all the time, but this is something completely different where that you’re taking the aesthetics of what makes electronic music truly unique, and you’re taking the aesthetics of what makes orchestral music unique, and you’re combining them together to create a brand of music that is superior to the sum of its parts. It’s like combining and apple and an orange to create a whole new super fruit. I can’t imagine that was an easy process.

JT: You put it just as well as I could. The only thing I should really add to that is that’s why we really took our time. I use the word “we” in general. That’s why Thomas and Guy-Manuel took their time. As much as I would like to say “I’m a collaborator,” I was also just along for the journey. Thomas and Guy-Manuel really had the artistic vision from beginning to end.

They had the answers before I was able to figure out the question. The thing was, they had come to the table with this really distinct vision of the role of the orchestra, and the role of the electronics. They were able to articulate it in a way from their demos, and from the way they spoke, and the type of music we were listening to.

They had given me an iTunes playlist of the music that inspired them, both film music, classical music, electronic music, all sorts of different types of music. Between that, and their original ideas, and the way they articulated their original ideas, we sort of had the answers first. We knew what the score was going to sound like, but the question was, ‘How do we get there?” That’s why it took two years. They had this really bold, distinct vision, and this bold idea of how to combine the orchestra and electronics that we all knew from the beginning.

When you combine orchestra and electronics, there’s a real chance that it’s going to fall flat on its face. It’s not going to be a good orchestra or good electronics. It’s going to be this weird, messy combination of loops, and what not, which really doesn’t do anybody any justice, much less the film.

Our goal was to do justice to the film. We all had such a fondness for the original Tron. We had this great love of what (director) Steve Lisberger was able to achieve. We knew that this film demanded nothing less than faithfulness to that vision, that really bold world he created, and also a faithfulness to a bold, unique idea and a unique approach to the score. That dictated this was going to take a year and a half to two years of work from the dedication of a small team of musicians.

SK: I think every film composer on the planet is envious of that. They’re lucky to get four months on a particular project. Most likely, they get six weeks to two months. How is it in this day and age in Hollywood, on such a big-budgeted project, they were able to convince the powers that be that they needed two years, and ended up getting it?

JT: The people at Disney, the producers and executives behind the project, once they got a sense of what the guys wanted to achieve — and by the guys, I mean, Kosinski, the director, Sean Bailey, the producer, and Thomas and Guy-Manuel — once they realized what was happening and what kind of trajectory we were on, they were nothing but supportive.

If you look at the history of Disney, it’s really one of the few studios in town that really encourages this kind of experimentation. Look back to the ‘40s, and to the first animated films. When they were working on BAMBI, Walt Disney himself brought in a deer for months.

He wouldn’t just check in with the animators, he’d have the animators go down every day, and work on finessing how to draw a deer properly, and every sort of motion. You’d think that’s expensive, but what came from it was a great achievement in film history.

You know, I think everyone on board the project at Disney realized what was at stake here, what the goals were, and what was possible, and the creative team were able to describe it well enough and showed that they had the vision to achieve this, that everyone at Disney believed in what they were doing.

The studio, from day one, was extremely supportive of what we were doing, and yes, you’re completely right! In this day and age, to have this much time on the film is unbelievable, but luckily we were involved early enough, and had enough people behind us, that it was able to happen.

SK: I am a lover of the original TRON. I think Wendy Carlos’ score for TRON is one of the great electronic masterpieces of cinema. Although I would not categorize the LEGACY score as having anything to do with the Carlos score, there’s a nice parallel between the two. Carlos’ score really captured the world of TRON in its infancy in 1982 when the grid was new and relatively archaic. There was a lot of chaos and uncertainty.

The score for LEGACY in turn captures the world of TRON in its current form. It’s evolved, sleek, polished and powerful. It captures the high achievement of society. The two scores create a wonderful pairing where each crystallizes their individual worlds.

Was this part of Daft Punk’s vision? Was there any acknowledgement, or any talk or any discussion about the earlier score, and how the new score would reflect upon it?

JT: There was one discussion, and it was something that we all agreed upon, that we should stay away from the original score and movie. You’ve probably experienced this, but when you go back and watch a film from your childhood, and you see it and you say, “this isn’t what I remember it to be,”, it doesn’t ruin it, but it kind of changes it.

We wanted to preserve the original memory of the film that we got without seeing it. We didn’t want to be overtly affected. This is my interpretation of it, but I just wanted to be affected by it viscerally and not directly. I didn’t want to reference anything. I just wanted to know that in the back of my mind, I had this memory of the original film, and that kind of inspired me to do good work on the new film.

There wasn’t anything overt, but we’d all seen the film. It was all something very memorable. It was all very memorable for us. It’s one of those films that changes the way you think about the world, so no matter what you do, you’re going to not necessarily reference it but be influenced by it somehow. To avoid being influenced by it in the wrong way, we just avoided watching the film and paying any direct attention to it while we were on this project.

SK: I’m one of those minority film music buffs and composers that believe that a sequel needs to be scored in its own unique way. If there’s an opportunity to bring back themes, and is appropriate, then that’s fine, but I think the best sequel scores out there are scores that are their own original entities.

JT: No film score should ever be something other than what the film demands. If you watch TRON: Legacy, in an early cut without music, you see that it doesn’t call for that original Wendy Carlos score or style. It’s a fantastic score in its own right. I listened to it recently, and I was astounded by the maturity of the combination between the electronics and the orchestra. I didn’t remember how well that combination worked for the original, and how good of a job Wendy Carlos did with that.

The film dictates all, and as you know, a sequel, if it means original themes from the previous one, then so be it. Harry Potter is a great example to look at for sequels and music, because some of the sequels are fantastic, musically, and some of them are really quite poor, musically.

Some of them rely on the original themes by John Williams, and some of them don’t. Some of them should rely more, and some of them should rely less. That’s an interesting thing to look at for sequels, but again, our goal was nothing more than creating a great score that matches the film. So the film is the holy grail.

SK: Creating and understanding film is a completely different beast than creating and understanding music. I’m constantly annoyed by the belief that just because you’re a musician, it’s automatically assumed that you can score a film.

When Daft Punk was announced as the ones who would be scoring TRON: LEGACY, that’s the first thing that went through my head. They’re great musicians but are they great filmmakers? I had my doubts. When I finally saw the film, I was pretty taken aback. It’s an incredibly functional score which I thought was amazing.

Who led their creative vision? Did the director have a lot of input or were they more-or-less left to explore their vision on their own?

JT: I think there are two types of Daft Punk fans out there. The guys that bang their heads and dance with Ecstasy, and it’s all good. Then there are the more mature ones who realize what type of artists Daft Punk are. Look at their output. They made a movie together, and directed it, and starred in it, and shot it and wrote it.

Their music videos are incredible. They’ve collaborated with fantastic directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. These are creative artists who, since the very inception of their being as artists, they’ve been filmmakers and they’ve been storytellers. “Dance music” is a poor term to describe their work.

People who have a great awareness of Daft Punk know that they’re kind of the perfect guys to score this picture. All along the creative process, these are consummate, full-on artists. They’re not just music makers. Music happens to be their main choice of productivity. You can see Electroma (2006) which is the film they made. It’s a fantastic piece of work!

It just goes to show that these guys can easily score a film. I don’t think it’s a big surprise as to how well it came out. They have the artistry. They’ve had it for years. It’s a natural evolution of where they’re going. Who knows where they’re going next? I wish I knew, but they’re very secretive.

SK: I obviously don’t want to ask you too many questions to put you in a position to speak for them; however, you’ve worked with them for so long, in your professional opinion, do you think they’ll score a film again sometime in the future?

JT: To be honest with you, I have no idea. I’m being 100% honest with you. I’ve asked them that and I don’t get a clear answer…ever.

SK: Do you feel like they enjoyed this process?

JT: Yes. I think everyone enjoyed the process, from me, to the director, to the last chair viola, to our mixer. When there’s a clear creative vision at the very beginning — which is what he had — everything else comes very easily, from the arranging to the recording to the mixing. Everyone else sees that whole vision and is able to take that and run with it.

SK: What about satisfaction? Again, from your professional observation, did the finished product resemble their original vision? I know a film score can change and evolve a lot during the process. It happens with every composer.

JT: Would I be correct in saying that your base question is how much did the director and the studio change the music from what it was creatively?

SK: Yes, but even more generally, I like finding out how every composer originally approached their score and how much that vision resembled the final product. Did it remain largely intact?

JT: Yeah. We got really lucky on this one in that everyone was on board. The basic answer is yes. There are always surprises, here and there. There are always things that you never imagine. Some of the changes are for the better. Some of the changes are not, but what we all bought into was the fact that we were scoring the film. We’re not the end all, be all. We had to achieve our basic goal, which is, you write for the film. So I think the basic answer is yes, in short.

SK: I want to throw this out there. I’ve been hearing a lot of rumors out there about who really scored this film. There are fanboys and industry insiders alike who claim that “some guys at Remote Control ended up composing this score” and that Daft Punk “didn’t have much involvement as everybody was led to believe…”

JT: I’ll just stop you right there. Anyone who says crap like that has no idea what they’re talking about. What’s great about these robot characters is their sense of mystery. Who did what? How did this happen? I won’t speak much into that, but I will say one thing. The fact is that (Daft Punk) was involved in every single note that you hear in that film. The credits are very fair on it. There was no weird “voodoo magic” on it by anyone other than who you see listed as credited as what they were doing.

You know, I don't want to quell any rumors because rumors are great. They allow people to fantasize and pontificate about music, or about what we do. I love that, because if I had all the answers about how Star Wars (1977) was made, I wouldn’t have gone into what I was doing.

Because of that sense of mystery, of how this was achieved, that’s why I do what I do, because I want to be part of that mystery. I want to be part of the ability to achieve something greater than one’s self. It’s funny to see all these people going on rants about ‘who did what’. The fact is, the word composer is attributable only to Thomas and Guy-Manuel. Period.

SK: Tell me about Bruce (Broughton). He told me that you came up with the idea to bring him aboard.

JT: I’ve always been an orchestrator ever since I was young. It’s something that I’ve always been passionate and detail-oriented about. When I brought up the idea (of me orchestrating Daft Punk’s music for the film), the general thought was, “That would be great!” But I’ve never orchestrated a million dollar film. So I suggested we bring in someone who can oversee my work and verify it. I told them that Bruce has been my mentor since I came to L.A. There’s no better master of the orchestra than Bruce. So lucky for me, that got approved.

I would finish the cues, send them to Bruce and he would look them over and give me any necessary advice. He was joking with friends that Disney was paying for “advanced orchestration lessons” for me. It was great for me because I got to orchestrate every note of the film, but also have the input of one of the great masters of the orchestra.

SK: Bruce brought up a point with me about how some Daft Punk fans might have been disappointed with the score because it ended up not being another Daft Punk album. It was a film score. That’s primarily the reason why I ended up loving it so much. It wasn’t just the next Daft Punk album.

When they were first announced as the composers, I was skeptical for sure. Then I sat down to watch the film and within the first two minutes of the movie, I realized I was could be wrong. I opened myself up to it and it turned out to be an amazing cinematic experience for me. I’m ashamed to admit but, but I was predisposed to not like this score.

JT: I know exactly what you’re talking about. I too am a child of the ‘80s. The films you grew up with are magical. The thought of someone remaking, or redoing and sequel-izing it, or franchising it, is almost heresy! You’re ready for it to be this absolute disaster of epic proportions. You go into it saying, “how can someone do this?” We felt that as much as anyone else, so that informed us how we treated this film.

SK: You did a marvelous job. It was my favorite score of 2010, and I love that my relationship with it is still growing. It’s forced me rethink and look at things a little differently. It’s the way I want all those childhood properties to be resurrected.

JT: It’s an honor to hear that from you. Thank you so much. At the end of the day, that’s all that we want. I’m honored and humbled to think of myself as a filmmaker, and my role is simply that — to help other filmmakers achieve their vision properly, whether my music sounds great or sounds terrible. That’s secondary. Everyone had that resolve. So that kind of dictated that the final film would, at the very least, be supported by its score.

SK: What kind of things have you been working on since then, or will be working on in the future?

JT: Well, that’s up in the air. I’m working on a couple of albums with some electronic artists, actually, and I scored the trailer for the animated TRON series, which is now on Youtube. It’s called TRON: Uprising. Thinking about that, and working on that has been taking up my time, as well as collaborating with other electronic artists, and moving onward with more orchestration and more composing for independent projects, and all sorts of things like trailer libraries.

It’s a very mixed plate right now, of things. There’s nothing quite as big as TRON on it. Talking about a two year process, I don’t know if I’ll ever be as fortunate to again work on something that I have two years to work on, but it would be nice. We shall see!

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