Geoff Zanelli is one of the most sought after composers in the film and television scoring industry. Zanelli – an alumnus of Berklee College of Music where he majored in Film Scoring and Music Production and Engineering – first began his musical career as a guitar player and songwriter for several acts in Southern California. It was during this time that he caught the attention of Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer. Zimmer recognized Zanelli as a promising talent and invited him to Los Angeles to join his prestigious group of composers at Remote Control Productions. This was on the beginning of what has proven to be a long and successful musical career for Geoff Zanelli.
Zanelli has gone on to find success as a leading musical talent. He won his first Emmy in 2006 for his score in Steven Spielberg’s miniseries “Into the West.” Spielberg was so impressed with Zanelli’s work that he brought him back on to provide the score for HBO’s “The Pacific,” which earned Zanelli his second Emmy nomination. The theatrical film scores that Zanelli has written include his breakout original music for “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” “Disturbia,” “Secret Window,” “Mordecai” a collaboration with Grammy-award winner Mark Ronson, and “The House of D.”
Zanelli has contributed additional music to a long list of well-known films including all of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, “Rango,” “Hannibal,” “Angels and Demons,” “Shark Tale,” “Antz,” as well as Golden Globe nominated scores in both “Pearl Harbor” and “The Last Samurai.” Outside of film scoring Zanelli has also gained recognition for his work on various projects including writing all of the string arrangements for Steve Martin and Edie Bickell’s Grammy-award winning bluegrass album “Love Has Come For You,” and the follow-up album “So Familiar.”
Zanelli recently scored the music for director Jared Hess’ latest film “Masterminds” which stars Zach Galifianakis and Kristen Wiig alongside Jason Sudeikis, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, and Owen Wilson. The film follows the true story of a night guard at an armored car company who organizes one of the biggest bank heists in American history. Zanelli was able to orchestrate the perfect mix to enhance every scene making his score the perfect addition for what is sure to be a hit film for audiences worldwide. The film opens on September 30, 2016 and a digital score album will be released that day.
I was recently able to speak with Geoff Zanelli to find out more about his career as a film composer and what his experience was like scoring the music for “Masterminds”.
Geoff Zanelli Interview
TAMMY: Who were some of your biggest musical inspirations growing up?
GEOFF ZANELLI: I was a huge consumer of music growing up, so my tastes ran far and wide. I liked anything that felt rich and varied, so The Beatles stood out for me. Guns ’n Roses was happening right as I was entering my teenage years, and I responded to how visceral that music was. Later, I had a phase where I wanted to hear things that broke away from conventional song forms, so I got into Yes and Genesis, and a few other bizarre records from that era.
In the world of film music, it was impossible to ignore “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” and “E.T.” which were contemporary at that time. I found the scores Bernard Herrmann wrote for the Harryhausen movies to be compelling, and I watched just about every fantasy or adventure movie I could find in the 1980s, so it’s inevitable that those scores got into my musical DNA.
TAMMY: What lead you to wanting to score music for films?
GEOFF ZANELLI: I recall having something of an epiphany watching “Willy Wonka” when I was very young. That was when it dawned on me that there was original music created specifically for a film. In retrospect, that was the moment that started me on this path, but I had no idea at the time that it was happening.
I can only guess that I was about seven or eight years old when that happened. Up until then, I just watched movies and enjoyed them without thinking about how they were made or who they were made by. Still, at that age, growing up in the suburbs of Orange County, it didn’t even seem possible that I could get involved in it as a professional. It always seemed to me like music, or movie making, was something that other people in other cities did.
Many years went by before I even started playing an instrument. I was 15 when I got the guitar I found in the attic restrung, so I was a very late bloomer, musically speaking. But in only a month or two, I had given up doing all my sports and most of my homework, and I just played guitar all day. Two years later, I was applying for colleges and thinking about all the ways one can make a living in music.
I was growing up in Orange County as a musician which means it was almost mandatory that I had a band that sometimes played ska. We weren’t going to make it, cause we couldn’t help ourselves from breaking away from traditional song forms and doing these long passages. Exploring, really.
On top of that, it occurred to me that if things went well for me as a member of a band, performing live all the time, the best you can hope for is a few hit songs, and then you’ve got to go and play them for a few decades. I couldn’t imagine myself playing those songs year after year.
When you think about film composers, you realize we all get to change gears every few months. A new style, new recordings, new melodies, new sounds, every few weeks. So that was exciting to me, and I started looking for ways to get involved in it.
TAMMY: You have had the opportunity to work alongside some of the biggest names in the business including Hans Zimmer, Steven Spielberg, Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer, Ridley Scott, Tom Hanks…the list really does just go on and on. How do you feel working with such a variety of talent has influenced you and helped you to grow as a composer through the years?
GEOFF ZANELLI: When I first started out, I made a conscious decision to get as close as I could to the filmmakers I admired. I knew I wasn’t going to be hired as a composer for the next huge movie when I was only 20 years old because that job would go to a great, established film composer. So by a bit a luck I was able to get an internship with Hans Zimmer, who was writing The Lion King at the time, and that got my foot in the door with all sorts of great directors and producers.
That was my best education, sitting in those meetings and listening to how Jeffrey Katzenberg talked about music with Hans. Any of the filmmakers that were coming around all the time, they all had amazing things to say about the process, and I started to accumulate this culture I had never been exposed to before. Practically everything that a great filmmaker or composer says can educate a young composer.
The first thing that struck me was the relationship Hans struck up with his filmmakers. They were always peers, they were in it together, searching for the best version of the film that could possibly exist.
TAMMY: You have such a gift for combining music from different genres and cultures. What does your creative process typically entail when you are going into a new project and looking for ways to connect the dots between your music and the story?
GEOFF ZANELLI: Thank you for saying that. I used to think that a composer had the right to go and explore any sound they wanted to for any film. Now, I double down on that and say it’s not just their right, but their responsibility. So that’s what I do, I go and explore sounds, cultures, instruments and approaches.
I’m always conscious though of the line between using those influences effectively and cultural appropriation. When I decided to use mariachi music in Masterminds, for instance, I didn’t just go and write some pastiche of what I think mariachi music is. I went and hired real mariachis and worked with them to get something authentic.
Or in the score for “Into The West,” the Native American woodwinds were all captured on the set, played authentically by people who had been steeped in that tradition. In that case it was a stroke of luck, really, that Robert Dornhelm, one of the directors of that miniseries had gotten some field recordings with the actors in his show.
When I start a project, I just search for any way that I can connect the audience with the picture. I don’t really like it when people are just watching the movie, I want them to lean into it, to feel like they could walk through the screen and enter the world we’ve created. That might mean that my score has to have some sort of cultural or geographical element that enables that. It may also mean that the score specifically shouldn’t have those elements, but instead should relate strictly to the culture of the audience you expect to have, to ground them in something familiar.
Star Wars is a fine example of that second approach. You’ve got a story that requires the audience to suspend their disbelief, and the score helps achieve that by being acoustic, orchestral and easy to relate to.
There aren’t hard rules about when to use which approach. I can say that for “The Pacific,” we only briefly entertained the idea of using Japanese instruments and quickly abandoned it but for a very few exceptions, because the story just begged to be treated from an American armed forces point of view.
“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” would be another example of a time when I found I could go deep into the world and create sounds that were unique. There, I wanted to get Timothy’s point of view, which is truly innocent and unbiased, and I went for what I thought the music in his head would sound like. Pencils tapping together, little ukuleles, a tiny string section, a rock guitar, bells, dulcimers, all acoustic and all organic, bubbling along in some handmade version of youthful music.
TAMMY: I was reading that you actually did all of the string arrangements on Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s bluegrass album “Love Has Come For You.” What is the biggest difference for you as far as your approach going into arranging linear vs nonlinear scores? Is there more of a sense of creative freedom when working on non-film related arrangements?
GEOFF ZANELLI: Yes, with Peter Asher producing the record, too. You may find this surprising, but I got the call to do that because Peter liked my music for the fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean” score. Talk about a leap of faith!
Songs are self contained in a way that a single cue in a film score almost never is. You don’t have to think about the grand architecture of a story when you do a string arrangement for a song. By that I mean in a film, you write a theme only after you decide what each and every function of that theme is going to be throughout the film. It might need to play a heroic moment, a vulnerable moment, a death, a rescue and a comedic dialogue scene all in the same film, so you have to write something that lends itself to all those different moves.
But a song arrangement is just it’s own entity. That doesn’t necessarily make it easier for me, because I keep trying to find ways to enhance the song, build with it, follow all its moves and maybe find a few places to augment the emotion that weren’t there to begin with. You don’t have as much room to do it in a three-minute song.
But the final goal is still the same, whether it’s a three-minute arrangement or a 110 minute score. You’ve got to tell the story, and you’ve got to connect with your audience.
TAMMY: You recently scored the music for the upcoming film” Masterminds.” Tell me a bit about your experience in creating this score. What were the creators looking for and on your end what sort of research went into preparing to write the music for this film?
GEOFF ZANELLI: At its heart, “Masterminds” is a heist film. So I started there, and quickly settled on the idea that the heist elements should be played straight, no comedy, just tense and maybe slightly sophisticated. I didn’t want to make fun of the people in the movie, in other words. We are to laugh with them, not at them.
“Masterminds” is based on the true story of David Ghantt, who robbed a bank of $17 million in a completely brazen manner, by simply putting it in the armored car he was hired to drive, and taking it. Unfortunately for him this turned out to be not only brazen, but ludicrously inept, and he was easily caught, along with his conspirators. Jared Hess told me about his conversations with David Ghantt, who is no longer behind bars and in fact served as a consultant on the film. What struck me was that David was able to find humor in his own story, despite having to serve time for his crime.
The film only works if you root for David in some way or another, even though you know he’s simply not going to get away with stealing the money. So I aimed the score at making the audience relate to David, and be sympathetic to him.
TAMMY: What has been a highlight for you so far of getting to be a part of “Masterminds?”
GEOFF ZANELLI: Working with Jared Hess is the highlight, for sure. I must have watched “Napoleon Dynamite” a dozen times, and “Nacho Libre” as well, so I came into this as a fan of his work already. Jared has a unique voice in the world of film. He’s making comedies that feel modern and slightly left of center, with none of the malice that typically goes into other films in the genre. It’s difficult to do anything in comedy, but if you’re trying to find a large audience without being corny, you’ve got the hardest job in Hollywood. This is something Jared succeeds at time and time again.
TAMMY: What were some of the challenges (if any) that you were happy to be able to overcome while working on the “Masterminds” score?
GEOFF ZANELLI: The hardest thing was finding the tone of the score, especially how comedic the music could be before the whole thing crumbled apart and stopped working. We figured early on that the heist music had to be serious, and not influenced by the geography or the accents, or even the stupidity of the characters. But there were still many other aspects to the score to write.
There’s a hitman that Jason Sudeikis plays in the film, and he’s basically scored as a horror movie character, dark and mysterious, full of threat.
Since David Ghantt eventually makes it to Mexico, I was able to use that location to bring in new elements. That’s where the mariachi music I talked about earlier comes in. Before he goes to Mexico he has a phone call from Kelly Campbell, and he dreams of going to Mexico with her. That’s where I get to start that sound, and in that case it’s written as a piece of music that has Mexican influences, but really owes more to exotica records from the 1960s. By that I mean it’s really meant to be what David Ghantt thinks Mexico sounds like, rather than what it actually sounds like. So a deliberate, calculated pastiche to play a musical joke, in other words.
Then, when he actually makes it to Mexico, the music shifts to the authentic mariachi sound I talked about earlier, with the big trumpets, guitars and violins. That’s one way I was able to play the comedy without writing actual comedic music.
TAMMY: As someone who has achieved so much success as a film composer what advice do you have for anyone who is just getting started in film music?
GEOFF ZANELLI: I tell everyone, get involved in film music in any way that you can. You pretty much need to be in Los Angeles or New York for this. And then finding an internship at a studio or with a composer is the next step. The idea is to be around composers and filmmakers, not because you’re about to get a job scoring the next huge blockbuster, but because you’re going to learn from smart people every time they talk about film or music.
TAMMY: What are you currently working on, or have coming up that you are excited about?
GEOFF ZANELLI: I have two big projects right ahead of me. I’m writing the score for “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” right now, which is a continuation of my work on the first four Pirates films. There’s a lot of new musical territory in that one so I’m getting to add a lot to the world of Pirates music.
And just after that I’ll be working on “Star Citizen: Squadron 42,” which is a video game my friend Chris Roberts is making. It also happens to be the most crowd-funded project in history, currently at $123 million.
The “Masterminds” score album is also releasing digitally on September 30, on the same day as the film’s U.S. theatrical premiere.
To find out more about Geoff Zanelli, his latest work, and news you can visit his website at geoffzanelli.com.