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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 Your Eyes?

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 Thesis.

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 myself.

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...

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