One of Us
Discussing movies and movie music with Alejandro Amenabar, the man behind
The Others and Vanilla Sky.
by Jeff Bond
Excerpted from FSM Vol. 6, No. 10
Readers of this magazine are often infuriated by what they regard as
posers who come in from a rock or amateur background, grab a keyboard and
suddenly become a successful film composer. We've all been indoctrinated
with the mantra that classical training is a prerequisite for any respectable
film composer (okay, we make an exception in the case of Danny Elfman).
But what if it wasn't some rock musician but rather one of us, a dyed-in-the-wool
film score addict, who was dabbling in the art? Better yet, what if it
was a film score fan turned acclaimed writer and director? Alejandro Amenabar
is the test case: His first two Spanish-language films (Thesis and
Open Your Eyes) were immediate hits in Europe and both have now
earned solid cult reputations in America. Thesis follows a female graduate
student doing her thesis on violence in the media, and specifically on
snuff filmsÖwhen she begins to suspect that one of the films she used for
her research was made right on the campus where she resides. In Open
Your Eyes, a handsome playboy's life is ruined by a vengeful former
flame who mutilates his face in a car accidentÖor is that really what is
happening? Amenabar's first English-language film was this summer's period
ghost story The Others with Nicole Kidman, one of the few bright
spots in an otherwise dismal summer movie season, and a movie extremely
popular with audiences. And no less a figure than Cameron Crowe (Jerry
Maguire, Almost Famous) chose to remake Open Your Eyes
as Vanilla Sky with Tom Cruise.
Amenabar not only writes and directs his movies, he also scores them.
And the results are far from your average keyboard noodling: The Others
is a haunting and complex orchestral work, ranging from gentle impressionism
to violent, dark passages. Amenabar has even taken to scoring films made
by other directors. So do we congratulate this triple threat or fear him?
First, maybe we should just talk to him:
FSM: What did you think of Vanilla Sky?
Amenabar: I was very pleased, particularly because I think the
film to me is like two brothers who sing the same song with a completely
different voice. I think Cameron has made this story his and it's his own
style, and I appreciate that it's not just a copy. On the other hand, it
doesn't try to avoid the complexity of this story and to me all the psychological
and even philosophical aspects of the story are intact. There's no attempt
to make it simpler or more naïve.
FSM: What was your inspiration for the original version, Open
AA: I've always been interested in reality versus fiction, right
down to my first film. I had thought about all these cryogenics things
and I was very interested by that idea, particularly when I found out that
it was real and that this company really existed that did these things.
Then I had a serious cold and I was in fever for a few weeks and I think
then I made everything work for me, the whole structure of the story, and
then I started to write.
FSM: Thesis and Open Your Eyes really explore the
idea of fiction versus reality and particularly film versus reality in
AA: Our perception of reality and how perspective can change
things has always been something that interests me, and particularly in
Open Your Eyes there's a duality, many moments we see the same elements
but something's changed so that it can completely become disturbing, something
that was meant to be completely innocent. I like that kind of effect.
FSM: Were you able to work that into The Others as well?
AA: I think The Others, since we can say that it's a story
that takes place in limbo, is also a story about perception and about perspective
and how things around us can change depending on how we look at them. Compared
to the two previous works I would say my first film was [about] the idea
of extreme violence, something very physical, and very real, violence of
the media. The second one is much more about speculation about the future,
and dreams are more important there. The third one is really fantasy, so
there's a process of going away from reality in my three films. But there's
also the fact of leaving in the reality that we find out is different at
a certain point.
FSM: What about this idea of being sensitive to light in The
Others -- where did you find that?
AA: The photosensitivity? I read about it, I don't remember when.
The first thing I read about it was in the newspapers, about two children
who had a sensitivity to light so NASA designed a special costume for them
so they could go outside. That was a few years ago. That was for me the
perfect excuse to have all these characters isolated in a single location,
which was my first idea.
FSM: And I've heard one of your big inspirations for The Others
was the movie The Changeling.
AA: Yeah, The Changeling. Once I knew it was going to
be a ghost story, The Changeling obviously became a big influence.
It really shocked me when I was a child. But then I tried to look at every
good film with a haunted house and ghosts that had been made when I was
getting ready to film. The Innocents is a film that you can tell
influenced the film, and To Kill a Mockingbird, which is not about
ghosts, but is about childhood, and The Shining of course.
FSM: I've read that you got into filmmaking because of your interest
in movie scores, is that right?
AA: I think the first film I was interested because of the music,
the first score I got interested in was Superman when I was like
seven years old. I wasn't allowed to go to the movies at that age and I
didn't watch too much TV. But I got interested in this music and I got
the soundtracks, and I started buying soundtracks many times without even
seeing the film. I would say I got first engaged with soundtracks than
with film, than when I was 10 years old I started watching films. I watched
The Changeling because I especially liked the music for that film.
By that time I used to write little stories and do drawings for them and
compose the music for them, not really knowing what that meant. So now
it doesn't surprise me that I do those three jobs.
FSM: How did you get educated in music, though? Did you perform
the music you wrote?
AA: I got interested in guitar when I was seven years old, and
then I kept playing guitar for two or three years and my parents got me
a little keyboard for Christmas, and that was the beginning. I never learned
music but I just played by ear on my keyboards, which were bigger and bigger
every year. So when I did my first short movie I decided to do the music
FSM: And did you score the first two electronically?
AA: The first one was composed electronically, basically because
the producers didn't have enough money for the orchestra. I wished I had
been able to have an orchestra because I always intended symphonic music
for all my films and I think it really fits with them. All the rest were
played by an orchestra.
FSM: How did you establish orchestration for the latter films?
AA: Well, what I do takes a lot of time and work, but I work
with a computer program called Notator Logic, samplers, [other] music devices
and a keyboard, and the computer is connected with a video player and synchronized,
and I just try with different tracks all the instruments I need. Then my
demos and my files are transferred to a score. The computer writes a kind
of primary score where you can see the notes and move the notes and change
them, which is very useful to me. Sometimes you spend more time playing
with a mouse than you do with the keyboard. But then all that is transferred,
and on The Others there were four of us orchestrating.
FSM: How did you learn orchestration?
For the full story, check out FSM Vol. 6, No. 10, on sale now...