It would be nearly impossible to have gone to the movies in the last 25 years and not heard an Alan Silvestri score. Silvestri has over 70 motion pictures to his credit, including the monster box-office hits Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Van Helsing andThe Polar Express.
The melodies he has composed, like the wistful main title in his Oscar-nominated Forrest Gump score and the pounding sequence in Back to the Future (when Doc Brown’s DeLorean time machine is being transported from 1985 to 1955), have entered American popular culture-much like Max Steiner’s theme from A Summer Place or Bernard Herrman’s violin screeches for the shower scene in Psycho did for earlier generations of moviegoers.
In fact, Silvestri’s own unlikely rise to the top echelon of Hollywood composers seems almost like something out of a movie script. He grew up about as far from Tinseltown as one can in this country, in the New York suburb of Teaneck, N.J., and considering his mastery of melody, composition, and orchestration, his earliest instrument was a most unlikely choice.
“I was a drummer,” he says in a recent telephone interview from his home in the coastal California town of Carmel (where Clint Eastwood literally used to be the mayor). “I started playing drums when I was very young in Jersey, and then I started studying various woodwind instruments-bassoon, sax, and clarinet-in school.
“At age 15,” he continues, “my dad bought me a $15 guitar and a Mel Bay book, and I started playing the guitar.” He studied guitar for a time with Les Spann in New York. “My original dream was to be a be-bop guitar player,” he says. “My big idols were Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell and Charlie Bird.”
The young Silvestri went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he majored in composition, but he left after two years when a job opened up as a guitar player with the popular r&b band Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders in Las Vegas. It was tough work, but the kid from Jersey loved it.
“We were based at the Flamingo Hotel, and when we got there we were playing three shows a night-at 10:30 p.m., 12:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m.,” he says. “Back then, everyone used to dress [up] in the lounges. It was all a very different kind of world in Vegas then, a real education.”
Still, most of all he wanted to compose. He left Vegas when his girlfriend said she needed arrangements for an album she was cutting in Los Angeles. Once Silvestri got there, he learned that the she didn’t even have a record contract, so he was stranded at the Travelodge Motel on Sunset Boulevard, on the famed Sunset Strip. A fellow musical wannabe he met at the Travelodge heard about a B-movie, The Doberman Gang, which needed a film score. He asked Silvestri if he wanted to try writing it. A whole new career, much to the Teaneck product’s surprise, loomed ahead. “I never even thought about writing music for movies until that night,” Silvestri says.
Since he was virtually clueless about the process of scoring a movie, Silvestri quickly made the rounds of Hollywood’s bookstores to see if there was anything on the subject. He found one book, How to Score a Film, written by Earle Hagen. Hagen is far better known as a composer of TV music-notably the theme for The Andy Griffith Show-than for his film work. That night, however, Silvestri read the book from cover to cover. He got the gig the next day, and he then proceeded to use every one of Hagen’s techniques in that first score. “I had cues on top of cues,” he recalls.
He got some more movie work after that, thought nothing big at first, and wrote about 120 hours of music for the TV show CHiPS. After the show was canceled, Silvestri felt devastated and went about 18 months with almost no work. One night, a former music supervisor from CHiPS called and asked if Alan wanted to try writing something on spec for a new movie.
The film was Romancing the Stone, and the director was someone Alan had never met named Robert Zemeckis. Zemeckis told Silvestri that night that he needed three minutes of music for a South American sequence in which Kathleen Turner is chased through the jungle in a rainstorm by a gang of machete-wielding bad guys, and that he needed the music the next day. No stranger to writing under pressure by this time, Silvestri proved himself and was hired. This taught him a lesson, which he passes on to those who want to write for film and TV today.
“The first important thing is to constantly develop your craft, so that when you do develop an at-bat, you have to get a hit,” he advises. “Then, the continued ability to get hits will ultimately generate a career. Luck will not make a career. And the next thing is that there’s no reason to treat anyone less well than you do anyone else.” In Hollywood, the guy working in the mailroom at William Morris or Miramax Pictures today may be the studio head in a few years.
How important is it for young film composers and songwriters to study orchestration and arranging? “Knowing orchestrating and arranging is absolutely a big, big boost,” Silvestri says. “You have to develop a palette from which to write. The palette and the colors are going to come from orchestration. If you look at the melodic ideas and the harmonic ideas as a pencil sketch, the color of your final painting will come from the orchestration.”
“The orchestral element can be as thematically significant as the notes,” Silvestri continues. “One thing that’s most spectacular with the advancement of musical technology is that with a minimal amount of expense, a young composer can have an enormously powerful tool to explore their compositional talent. The other thing is that with [limited funds], they have a way to create music and show it to prospective clients that I didn’t have.” Silvestri uses Apple Logic 7 software to put his music together; earlier he employed Logic 6.
Should a composer work from a script or view the movie first, as he tries to come up with his musical cues and themes? “The ideal thing is to see the film,” Silvestri says. “No matter what you read, when you see a character, see how it moves, see the syntax of the speech, the setting, and the tonal color of the picture-it brings a tremendous amount of information you don’t see on the page,” he says.
It also helps a great deal to ally oneself with a successful director. John Williams has composed nearly all of Steven Spielberg’s scores, including Jaws, E.T, Superman and the Indiana Jones films. Silvestri and Zemeckis have teamed up on loads of hits, from Romancing the Stone, all three Back to the Future pictures, and Forrest Gump, to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, What Lies Beneath and The Polar Express. Decades ago, Hitchcock adored the strange, beautiful music of Bernard Herrman, and he used Herrman on such classics as North By Northwest.
To write the main title music for Forrest Gump, Silvestri first met with Zemeckis in Santa Barbara. The director showed the composer the opening sequence-the famous scene in which the feather glides down and eventually finds Forrest (Tom Hanks)-but in the early version, the feather wasn’t on film yet. “It was just a camera move,” Silvestri says. “Bob was standing in front of me with this screen behind him, moving his hands back and forth [simulating the movement of the feather]. He said, `Right there, it’s gonna kind of almost land on his shoulder.’ Then he rests his hands on Hanks’ foot, and says, `That’s it! It’s gotta be great. It’s gotta be beautiful.'”
As he drove home up the Pacific Coast, Silvestri got the same enormous “knot in my stomach” he always gets before he starts writing a new score. “I literally went right away to my office,” he says. “I had seen the film, and I felt we needed some kind of piece of music that would essentially define the film. The first thing I thought of was Forrest’s innocence. There was something supremely pure and innocent about him. He sees the horrors of disease, war, and death in his family, and yet, somehow, his innocence is untouchable. You can’t destroy it.”
But how do you translate that into musical notes?
“Then the thought process took me to wanting to write something childlike-simple, like a nursery rhyme,” Silvestri says. “I sat at a piano, and within 15 minutes it was done. It doesn’t always happen that way. I made a demo of it and brought it to Bob, and he said, `Put it in the movie!'” In fact, Silvestri loved that piano theme so much that he kept trying to find other places in the film to use it. He searched and searched through the 142 minutes of film and countless other musical cues before he found the right spot. “I could not find one place where it felt appropriate until the feather comes back at the very end of the movie,” the composer says. “It wound up being the bookend theme, at the beginning and at the end.”
During the filming of Back to the Future, Silvestri went to see Zemeckis as he was shooting the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance scenes, where Michael J. Fox performs “Johnny B. Goode” to a stunned audience at a church in Los Angeles. “Bob, do you have any thoughts about the score?” Silvestri asked. “It’s gotta be big, Al, really big,” Zemeckis replied. “That’s one of the most interesting directions because Bob’s images are not big,” Silvestri says. “It’s a small town in the 1950s, with lots of small images-in a car, on a street…in a small town square. Yet, the story has this tremendous sense, this epic hero who’s on a great mission doing noble things.”
One of the film’s most compelling themes is the clanging, busy music that accompanies Dr. Brown (played to the hilt by Christopher Lloyd), the mad scientist who befriends Marty McFly (Fox). “As I wrote that one, I thought the music would be kind of like Doc’s synapses in his brain,” Silvestri says. “He’s firing on all nine cylinders all the time.”
That same type of boundless energy helped propel Alan Silvestri, the Jersey kid who’d never played a guitar until he was 15, to become one of the greatest composers in Hollywood.