The genre of comedy films is almost a sad pit for soundtrack composers to find themselves consumed within. Comedy films rely so heavily upon visual humor and extraordinary dialogue that the musical score is almost a negligible concern. However, thanks to students of the late, great Elmer Bernstein, a handful of composers have cropped up to make music in comedies more relevant to the films. One such composer is Christopher Lennertz.
Although primarily known for his work in comedy and family films like ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS, MEET THE SPARTANS, CATS & DOGS: THE REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE, and the just-released VAMPIRES SUCK, he yields a greater spectrum of talent and inspiration that has led him into the world of television (SUPERNATURAL, THE DEEP END) and video games (GUN, QUANTUM OF SOLACE, MEDAL OF HONOR: EUROPEAN ASSAULT). Read on as Lennertz introduces us to the seriousness of comedy.
One thing that struck me as interesting about your background is that you spent some time living in Easton, PA. I live in Boyertown, so I have to ask, was there any environmental influence that played a hand in the way you compose music?
Well, I definitely feel that I do family films well – with that middle America, two dogs and a picket fence kinda thing. It really makes sense to me. I think a lot of that was buried in my memory and comes through in my work. Easton is very much like a classic, high school football on Friday / weekend parades, small town America. I probably have a better respect for those kinds of films than someone who was actually from LA – they might think it was slow or simple. I think there’s something wonderful about small towns where everyone knows each other, playing wiffle ball on Saturdays and having cook outs in the summer. Once you get to LA, those traditions stop, in a sense.
You are also among the younger crop of composers out there busting your backside to make a name for yourself and carve a niche in the genre. Do you ever feel pressured by producers and directors to emulate another composer rather than work on your own merits?
Oh, all the time. Because movies are made so quickly these days, a lot of times, early cuts of the film will have music from other movies in them as a temp track. And when the studio and everyone sees that rough cut, they oftentimes fall in love with the way the temp tracks fit with certain scenes, even before the composer goes to work.
So, a lot of times, we’ll get the direction that everyone loves the temp score and wants us to retain those feelings or tone colors. And this happens all the way up to the biggest blockbusters. Even James Newton Howard has to deal with temp tracks that have Thomas Newman on them. It’s just standard for the industry now. And I think it’s our job as composers to find precisely what they like about the temp track that is not melodic or harmonic and how it makes them feel, so we can create an original score that hits the same emotions without being a copy.
And a lot of times, looking at your filmography, you work on sequels where you are following composers who are much better known in the field.
It’s funny, because I am very aware of my age and the fact that I am about 10 years behind guys like David Newman and John Debney and guys I think the world of. If anything, for me, it’s an honor to just follow in these guys’ footsteps. And I think I can learn a lot from what they did on the first movies. For something like CATS & DOGS, where the first one was scored by Debney, I told him flat out that I hope I do him justice. However, I tend to raise the bar very high for myself when approaching sequels.
As well, on the video game front, you followed another young composer whose name has exploded over the past few years, Michael Giacchino.
Oh yeah, definitely. I actually just spent ten days in Spain with Michael. He’s fantastic, and he has blown up because he’s been attached to so many great projects. And again, if I can follow in his footsteps or path, I will be very, very happy, because he’s done an amazing job and I find him an incredible inspiration. The other thing that I think is great, and I told him this, is that he came from doing MEDAL OF HONOR video games and then end up working for Pixar and winning Academy Awards. For the younger guys like us who are trying to follow that path, it seems that much more doable. I hope we can all emulate that.
Beyond that, there definitely seems to be a method to your madness. Looking over your credits, it seems like you made smart choices with smaller projects to get your feet wet and grow a portfolio from there to bigger and better things. Which project do you see as the turning point in your career to date?
Certainly there were two very big turning points for me, which both happened right around the late 1990s – when I orchestrated 101 DALMATIANS for Michael Kamen (this was a moment when I got to see how a big studio session was made and I got to meet a lot of executives), and at the same time, one of my demo tapes got into the hands of one of the executives at Warner Bros. Television and, at 27 years old, I got a show called BRIMSTONE, which was my first network TV series. And that opened the door for work with major studios.
The work with Warner Bros. led to met getting a series called THE STRIP, which in turn led to my current series, SUPERNATURAL. I think the next big “door opening” was when MEDAL OF HONOR gave way to what I consider some of the real A-List video games and launched my relationship with EA, which then led to my relationship with Sony and Activision. Those two to three years really opened the world to me and got me out of doing the super, super small projects. I still love doing small projects; I just love to be involved with good things.
There is also a strange perception of your career in that your work on video games and SUPERNATURAL is better known (or more respected) than a lot of the work you do for movies. Does that strike you as odd at all?
Not really, but I feel like I have been pigeonholed in three different mediums. In film, I’m definitely pigeonholed in comedies and family comedies. And yet, in television, I’m known as the guy who does horror, because of SUPERNATURAL. And then in video games, I’m known as the guy who does big action and war games.
So I am pigeonholed, but luckily I am not typecast the same way in each medium. It keeps my life from getting dull. Hopefully, as more people take notice of the work I do, maybe eventually I will be more involved with action movies, or comedy television, or whatever. I really would love to branch out from those genres.
It is interesting, because as far as music is concerned, people take the importance of music in horror, drama and action much more seriously than they do in comedy. But the fact of the matter is, comedy is really difficult to score, and nobody really seems to take note of that. Take Teddy Shapiro, he’s a fantastic composer, one of the best out there, I think, but he’s not recognized among the greats, because he is primarily a comedy composer. It really can be a thankless job at times, but I do enjoy it.
Well, I think the primary issue with comedy is that the audience is so focused on what they are seeing on the screen and what the actors are saying that the music ends up getting swept under the rug. Do you find yourself becoming a little schizophrenic, musically, when scoring for comedies, because “comedy” is a film genre, but it’s not exactly a genre of music per se?
Yeah, exactly. In fact, I play a lot of the music very straight, especially for the spoof movies I’ve done. If you listen to the score without seeing the movie, you probably wouldn’t even know it was a comedy. But I don’t really feel schizophrenic, because I like the fact that I don’t have to sit in any one style for too long, and I think that keeps it interesting.
But for some of the zanier comedies, I think that as long as you can make the music make sense in terms of the arc of the story – for example, the score for MARMADUKE has a lot of rock bass and light-hearted stuff at the beginning, but by the end of the movie, there are some pretty decent action cues – so as long as the story is supporting the moves of the music, I think you’re okay.
I also think you are a great product of your mentors (if you want to call them that). I mean, you’ve spent time with the likes of Elmer Bernstein, Christopher Young, and Buddy Baker, who were/are all guys who were so dialed into their work that they ultimately created genres within genres.
Oh, definitely, and Elmer did it multiple times. He basically invented the sound of the non-Spaghetti Western in the 1960s and then created what everyone knows as comedy scoring with stuff like ANIMAL HOUSE, STRIPES, and CADDYSHACK. And Chris Young is a genius in horror and thrillers, not that he can’t do anything else well. And working with Michael Kamen and Basil Poledouris, too, between CONAN, ROBIN HOOD and DIE HARD, they really made their marks. So I feel really lucky to have studied with and spent time with those guys. I hope that shows through in what I write and that a little bit of their spirit comes through.
Well, it’s funny, because a couple of my favorite scores by those guys are usually the lesser known ones – meaning that people either don’t know the movie or don’t know the music. My favorite from Elmer Bernstein is SPIES LIKE US.
Oh, its genius, isn’t it? He really set down the law as far as scoring straight comedy. And I definitely think that was one of his best scores for that style.
And my favorite Christopher Young score is THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE.
[Laughs] That was a great score! His use of the big band and everything was just amazing. You find out it’s Chris Young and you go, “wait, that doesn’t sound like HELLRAISER!” [Laughs] Chris really is a genius and he can do anything. And again, if I am typecast in family films, here is a guy who is primarily known for horror, yet he has the musical adeptness to do anything he wants. It’s just a matter of people giving him the chance.
So are you cognizant that these guys’ versatility has rubbed off on you and has allowed you to approach comedies better than you might have otherwise?
Oh, absolutely. I don’t know if my music actually sounds like Elmer Bernstein scores, but my approach and sensibilities in comedy are very much influenced by Elmer. And I think if you listen close to the scary and tense moments in SUPERNATURAL, you can make an obvious connection to Chris Young.
I think what is great about the parody films you do is that if you listen to the scores apart from the movie, they are actually homages to the films being parodied and their distinct genres.
That’s really how I approach it, and I think that’s one of the reasons I keep getting called for those. What I think these directors are fond of is that the best way to parody a genre, be it a vampire movie or a sword-and-sandal epic or whatever, is to go through and find out what makes the music for that genre special, and then turn it up to 11, take out all the subtlety but take it seriously.
One thing that nobody knew when we did MEET THE SPARTANS was that all of the choral dialogue was actually Ancient Greek. We had actually hired a language coach to translate a passage for the chorus to sing in Greek that was about a person being asphyxiated by penguin testicles. Those little things that go above and beyond to make it authentic yet tongue-in-cheek is the way I try to approach those movies.
We just got back from Hungary, where we did the score for VAMPIRES SUCK, and again, if you listen to it on CD, you will have no idea that it’s for a comedy. But once you hear it, you’ll think it is perfect “teen” vampire music.
Getting into VAMPIRES SUCK, you are once again standing on the shoulders of giants. How did you handle this one?
Again, I will say that I am absolutely thrilled to be following in the footsteps of all those guys. I’m a huge fan of Carter and all his Coen Brothers movies and I love what Desplat does. I was done writing the score before I heard any of what Howard Shore did, but I definitely think that what we did is still in that world. I really loved both the TWILIGHT and the NEW MOON scores, and I think it is still a very different score from either of those because it is a hybrid of both.
And I think we went even further over the top with the notion of the tragic love story to the point of an almost ROMEO & JULIET-styled theme for the two main characters. And I think there is a real tip of the hat to a modern view of romantic vampires – there are female vocals, electric guitars mixed in with pianos, and lots of lush string textures. So I definitely think it fits within the category well, but it’s not really a sound-alike at all.
I’m frankly surprised that this film was made in the time period that it did, because there is an immense, ferocious fan base for the TWILIGHT Saga, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a public backlash from it.
You know what? I think the directors are hoping there is. I think they’re counting on the audience of boyfriends who didn’t want to go see TWILIGHT with their girlfriends and went reluctantly. And so now this is payback. They’re hoping all the 15-year-old boyfriends drag their girlfriends out to watch their beloved characters like Edward and Jacob get skewered.
Something that surprised me when I listened to the score for CATS & DOGS: THE REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE, was that it was quite obviously a tribute to every spy/espionage film ever made. As I was going through it, I was picking up on these little nuances that reflected everything from the BOURNE series to OUR MAN FLINT…
Don’t forget MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, THE PINK PANTHER… [laughs]. My marching orders for that movie were to take John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, and Henry Mancini, throw them all together, and as the movie gets more modern, throw in some Jason Bourne [John Powell].
Musically, in comedy, one of the things that help people find humor is memory. So we try to bring back those smarmy strings and the twangy guitar to play with what people are accustomed to hearing. And that’s my job, to help make the comedy funnier. It would be nice if every cue was designed for a concert hall or a CD listen, but the bottom line is that my job is to help the director tell his story.
Something else that struck me while listening to CATS & DOGS was a level of restraint from going into that area that appears on most spy scores, which is a growing, ominous danger or threat of impending doom that adds a bit of darkness to the scores.
Yeah, there was a bit of that in there originally, but it got really dialed back. In the screenings, one of the things that the execs at Warner Bros. were really cognizant of was that the core audience for the film was going to be 8-10 year olds. And we don’t want kids to go running and screaming from the theater, and we had to be really careful about that. The idea of making the Kitty Galore character sinister is good, but making her devilishly evil started getting into the “scary world.” We went more towards the sinister, evil genius, which wasn’t necessarily a monster – she’s just trying to take over the world; it’s not that big a deal [laughs].
This brings me to a theory I have about the CATS & DOGS 2 score. As a musical entity, the album comes across as a history lesson in espionage film music to entice a younger generation to explore and enjoy.
It was definitely intended to utilize the best parts of the espionage genre from the last 50 years. As to whether or not it was designed to lure a younger audience into film music, I don’t know. I hope it does, because after doing two Bond games [FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and QUANTUM OF SOLACE] and this movie, I’m even more a fan of classic John Barry than I ever was…and I was a pretty big fan before! If it does entice a couple of ten-year-olds to go out and buy some old James Bond soundtracks, that is certainly a great thing.
With children’s films and video games, one of the things I try to do with the music is, beyond serving the project, to elevate a sense of curiosity. For instance, in the QUANTUM OF SOLACE game, there’s a scene where James Bond is at an opera house, and for that scene, I had an opera singer sing my theme song for the game. And if that inspires a kid in Iowa to check out some opera and eventually get into Puccini; that would be great! I don’t know if I have that kind of power, but if it is happening, I feel it is very important for kids to at least be exposed to all different kinds of music.
So what do you have on the horizon beyond these films?
Well, next I’ve got Season Six of SUPERNATURAL, and then I’ve got this movie called HOP, which was directed by Tim Hill, who did ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS. It stars Russell Brand as the real Easter Bunny, who gets run over by a slacker and can’t finish his Easter deliveries and has to get a stand-in. It’s somewhere between THE SANTA CLAUSE and GET HIM TO THE GREEK, I guess. The script is great; it’s really irreverent and musically, I think we’re going to have a lot of fun with it.
For more information: Learn more about Christopher Lennertz at his official website.
Check out CATS & DOGS: THE REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE at Amazon and Varese Sarabande.
And check out VAMPIRES SUCK at Amazon and Lakeshore Records.