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Hollywood Composer Geoff Zanelli: Telling Stories Through Film Scores

Composer Geoff Zanelli at the piano
Geoff Zanelli is the Emmy Award-winning composer behind "The Ottoman Lieutenant" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales." | Brandi Welles

As an Emmy Award-winning film composer, Geoff Zanelli is always searching for a sense of connection. "What I’m forever trying to do is find a way that I can connect with the material," he explained, "because ... that allows me to take my language of music and connect people in the audience to the story."

In the case of "The Ottoman Lieutenant," a lush romance set in 1914 during the outbreak of World War I, he tapped into his relationship with his wife. "I’ve been in love with this woman for 20 years," Zanelli said. "There’s a way of bringing that feeling into the music."

For Zanelli, whose film composing credits include "The Odd Life of Timothy Green" and the upcoming "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales," "The Ottoman Lieutenant" presented a special challenge. The film, which premiered March 10, follows Lillie, an idealistic American nurse (Hera Hilmar) who journeys to the edge of the Ottoman Empire to aid American doctor Jude (Josh Hartnett) at his medical mission. There, she falls in love with Ismail (Michiel Huisman), a lieutenant in the Ottoman imperial army.

"You’re always running a risk when you go, 'We’re going to tell a great big romance set against the backdrop of war.' We have plenty of very brilliant movies made in that zone," Zanelli said. "Love isn’t a new concept, and World War I isn’t such a new concept either. We’ve got to find the things that make the story unique, and, frankly, the things that make it worth telling."

"The Ottoman Lieutenant," he added, "is a war story but it’s a war story second. It’s a romance first." As such, it deserved a sweeping score.

Geoff Zanelli composed the score for "The Ottoman Lieutenant," featured in this official trailer.

Asked what first ignited his interest in film composing, Zanelli, 42, recalled watching "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory"  as a kid.

"That’s when it dawned on me that this music exists because this movie exists, and it’s not just some songs that they stuck in the movie. It’s actually written for this thing," Zanelli said.

Despite that revelation, the act of composing music for movies "felt distant to me. It felt like music was this thing that the people in the big cities went and did, and I was out in the suburbs [behind] the landlocked, graffitied walls in Westminster, California," said Zanelli, who now lives in Woodland Hills. "There wasn’t really a way for me to get in. Not from there."

As he entered high school, his dreams of a career in music started to take shape. After getting a guitar on the first day of his sophomore year, "I became a musician quickly. I gave up on all of my sports and I gave up on most of my homework," he said with a chuckle. Within a year, he had an Orange County ska band in the mold of No Doubt.

It wasn’t long before Zanelli started rebelling against the restrictions of the genre. "I wanted not to feel constrained by certain forms of music or certain lengths or 'what does the radio want?' It inevitably started to lead me in the film direction," he explained.

Michiel Huisman and Hera Hilmar in The  Ottoman Lieutenant
A Muslim soldier (Michiel Huisman) and a Christian nurse (Hera Hilmar) fall in love in Turkey during World War I in "The Ottoman Lieutenant." | Courtesy of Paladin

While studying film scoring and music production and engineering at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, he went in search of an internship. "I knew literally nobody working in professional music or filmmaking or Hollywood. Literally nobody," he recalled.

So Zanelli wrote a letter seeking an unpaid gig — "I just want to clean some toilets and be around music," he said — and sent it to about 60 film score companies. Just one responded — Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions in Santa Monica.

Zanelli was just 19 when he went to work for Zimmer, the Oscar-winning composer behind "Gladiator," "The Dark Knight" trilogy and the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, as an intern in 1994. "At the time he was doing 'The Lion King,'" Zanelli recalled, "and I was sneaking in the room with a cup of coffee and walking really slowly back out of the room because I might get to hear a little something that was going on."

Zanelli also worked with acclaimed mix engineer Alan Meyerson and Oscar-nominated composer John Powell, whose credits include "The Bourne Identity," "Kung Fu Panda" and "How to Train Your Dragon." "I just sat there and watched [Powell] write scores for three years. That was where I started getting the deeper education," Zanelli said.

Geoff Zanelli's score for "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" can be heard in this trailer.

"Before I started working at Hans’ studio I’d quite literally never set foot in a studio," Zanelli said. "Then, when he let me in, I just didn’t go home that much. [When] my shift was over, I’d stay in the mix room or I’d beg somebody to let me listen to something."

Zanelli credits Zimmer, who later hired him as an arranger and assistant composer, with helping him find his own sound. "It’s not universal that a composer is comfortable with other people’s sounds infiltrating their work," said Zanelli, who’s contributed music to Zimmer scores such as "The Lone Ranger," "The Last Samurai" and "Rango." "That’s a real display of his confidence in his own work."

In 2006, Zanelli won an Emmy for his score for the miniseries "Into the West." He earned another Emmy nod for his work, with Zimmer and composer Blake Neely, on the miniseries "The Pacific."

His film composing credits over the past decade have ranged from sci-fi actioners ("Hitman," "Gamer") and dark thrillers ("Disturbia," "Secret Window") to heartwarming family dramas ("The Odd Life of Timothy Green") and goofy comedies ("Masterminds," "Mortdecai").   

Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar and Josh Hartnett in The Ottoman Lieutenant-.jpg
American nurse Lillie (Hera Hilmar), center, is torn between soldier Ismail Veli (Michiel Huisman) and Dr. Jude Gresham (Josh Hartnett) in "The Ottoman Lieutenant." | Courtesy of Paladin

"I never had some huge overnight success or some big break. I had a series of maybe a thousand small breaks. Each of them was just one little rung on the ladder. It’s a 'get successful slowly' story," Zanelli said with a laugh.

This summer, moviegoers will hear his music in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" when the Disney film hits theaters on May 26. It’s the first time in franchise history that Zanelli, who collaborated with Zimmer on the previous four "Pirates" movies, is stepping out on his own.

Other composing projects due out this year include the sci-fi video game "Squadron 42" and the thriller "Stranded," starring Paula Patton as a journalist who is kidnapped after she starts investigating the world of sex trafficking.

As a composer, "You get to change hats all the time," Zanelli said. "There’s an opportunity to play with different instruments, to find musicians that don’t always get to play on the pop records. You get to make a new noise. And I think that’s what’s exciting."

Composer Geoff Zanelli at the piano
Film composer Geoff Zanelli started his career as an intern for Oscar winner Hans Zimmer. | Brandi Welles

Let’s start by talking about "The Ottoman Lieutenant." How did the movie’s story and setting inform the way you approached the score?

The story is actually about a girl from Philadelphia named Lillie going on an adventure — basically a humanitarian effort. She’s a child of privilege and she wants to bring medical supplies and a truck to Turkey where they can be of good use to the people there.

She is really the catalyst for the story in a lot of ways, and so the score begins with her. Most of the experiences in the film, as told through the music, are from her point of view. She’s American. She’s a Christian and she comes to this very new and exotic country.

There are some influences of the music from that culture within the score, but it’s really approached from a Western sensibility but incorporating Turkish instruments.

Although "The Ottoman Lieutenant" is set during the early 20th century, you didn’t want a period-appropriate score. Why?

I wanted the score to be timeless because I felt that the story was timeless. ... It’s also shot with a very classic look and a very timeless approach. ...

The important thing with a movie like this is to find a way that it communicates in 2017, with our audience. That doesn’t mean that you can’t do that with period music — but it didn’t feel that it was the right way to do it here. A lot of the issues in the story — for instance, a Christian woman with a love interest who is Muslim — are 2017-appropriate, timely. I felt that the music should feel more modern [to reflect that]. ... It’s not written to sound as though it’s coming from the perspective of the 1910s. It’s meant to help really bridge the gap, actually.

We’re talking about 100 years ago. I don’t think our audience today needs anything more than the visual to know what time period they’re in. The music can instead try to play the emotion in the story and the romance and the drama.

How did you incorporate Turkish elements in the score?

We have these exotic instruments, [which offer] a flavor that exists outside of Western music. The duduk, for instance, which is a woodwind instrument, or an oud, which is like a lute. And those make appearances — along with some of the [Turkish] percussion [instruments] — in the music so it can bring some of that exotic flavor.

I wouldn’t be the guy to write a Turkish score. You would want a Turkish composer for that. But what I can do is bring in those elements and find musicians that can help bring those beautiful colors into the score.

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What is typically in your musical toolbox as a composer? Do you prefer to stick with a traditional symphony orchestra sound, or go farther afield in terms of instrumentation?

It used to be I thought of it as a composer’s right to go and explore and find new sounds, keep the laboratory doors open and go find a new noise to make. But now I actually kind of doubled down on that. I don’t think it’s a right anymore. I think it’s a responsibility.

I think we have to go "How can we find a new way of doing this?" That’s what makes storytelling evolve. And that’s all a composer’s job is — to help tell the story.

I had a director, David Koepp, tell me once that anybody who ever works on a movie should have on their business card, "assistant storyteller." I took that to heart.

It’s nothing new that a composer would be thinking about driving the story or enhancing the story, but it certainly is what drives this score and all of my work. I’m forever looking for "How can I help people connect with the story?" That definitely means looking outside of just a traditional symphony orchestra even in cases like this where I employ one. I’ve augmented it with other instruments.

What, in your mind, should a good score do?

I like especially when a score can bring out subtext — meaning a piece of music that doesn’t necessarily play exactly what you’re [seeing] on screen, but maybe plays what’s going on in a certain character’s mind, or what’s going on in the grand architecture of the story, for instance.

In this case, Woodruff, which is Ben Kingsley’s character, is a good example of that. ... When he’s on screen and the scene is about him and his story, the music is trying to play what’s inside his heart, which is, so often in his case, quite tortured. The music is able to bring that to the surface. ... It makes the story clearer, and it adds depth to everything that’s going on.

How does it feel to be the sole composer on "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales," given your experience with the franchise?

At some point I realized I’ve now worked on "Pirates" movies for more time than I was in high school or college. (laughs) I’ve been involved in every one of them from start to finish sometimes in a role that was pretty large. ... Those scenes that [Hans] wrote, and some in the earlier movies that I wrote as well, are part of my musical identity. So it was not a difficult hat to put on. ...

It was just a matter of going "Well, I know this language." The reason I got to work on all four of the first "Pirates" movies is I understood that language. In some ways, I feel like I was some small part of creating it to begin with. It felt very organic. It just felt natural.

How did you approach the project?

Joachim [Ronning] and Espen [Sandberg], who are the directors of this "Pirates" movie, came out to meet with me. ... They talked to me a little about what the story was going to be and how they were going to shoot it. The idea that they had was "We know that we’re going to use a little of the old music. Are you OK with that?" I said, "Of course I’m OK with that! You don’t walk away from something that iconic." ... I think "Pirates" is undeniably one of the most important scores of its time period. It’s had such exposure, and people know it and love it. I want to hear it! ...

At the same time, Joachim and Espen had a lot of new directions they were going — not just new characters but new story points for Jack Sparrow and Will Taylor. ... They wanted to go to a different type of emotional exploration. ... In [previous] "Pirates" [movies], there was a really blossoming love theme with Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom. There was a romantic love element to that score that was gorgeous and deeply emotional.

But now we’re going to some new places where we can actually feel something in the middle of what is ultimately a big huge spectacle movie.

Geoff Zanelli at his piano
Geoff Zanelli won an Emmy Award for his score for the 2005 miniseries "Into the West." | Brandi Welles

What is the musical language of "Pirates of the Caribbean?"

In a nutshell, it’s rock and roll played by an orchestra. And that’s something that I get right away.

Listen, I can go and write conventional orchestral music ... but I also have my roots in songwriting and bands. I was a rock and roll kid; that has great appeal to me.

And also I’m fearless about asking an orchestra to do something that might be slightly out of character for them. ... The players that gravitate to the film music orchestras are the ones that want to experiment, and they want to do something new and exciting. ...

In the first "Pirates" [movie], the best direction we got for how to talk to the orchestra came from [director] Gore Verbinski and he said, "Look, it’s like Cinderella is trapped at a Metallica concert." (laughs) As soon as you say that to them, they get excited. They get a little wicked. ...

It’s interesting to me because we have hundreds of years hearing what those instruments sound like but when you start putting something unconventional in the notes — when you start writing rock and roll music for them to play — it just comes out different. And it comes out exciting and fresh.

Who are a few of the composers who changed the way you thought about music?

The first person who pops into my head is [Juan Garcia] Esquivel. He was just fearless about grabbing at different instruments. He just wasn’t afraid to go, "There’s marimbas in this because I said so." I like [his music] from a coloristic standpoint.

[Maurice] Ravel is another one. I just responded so much to the orchestra and the detail. It’s so minutely fine-tuned and I find that really intriguing.

Bernard Herrmann certainly is an influence. And it’d be foolish for me to say Hans wasn’t or John wasn’t. All three of them for the same reason — their music is focused on story and their music is focused on subtext, bringing out story elements that you wouldn’t necessarily perceive as much if it weren’t for the music. I think that’s an extraordinary thing.

What are three film scores that have special meaning for you, and why?

"Willy Wonka" — I don’t know what captures the delight of childhood more than that. The main song, "Pure Imagination," every time it kills me. We’re composers; we live in our heads. So our imagination, which is the thing we need to foster more than ever ... Now it’s a marketable skill, actually. When I was a kid it distracted you from your math homework. (laughs)

It’s hard not to think about "The Lion King" [as] a special one. The score for that movie held up against the songs from that movie, meaning [it had] equal weight. It should have been so easily a musical with a background score. ... There are so many extraordinary moments in that movie. That movie was a landmark for me.

I thought that "The BFG" ... was beautiful and the score was extraordinary. That one jumps out only because it’s a fantastic example of what you can do with just the orchestra, which is no longer the modern way of driving a score.

John Williams is still writing something fresh and interesting at a time in his life when he could really simply be phoning it in. I just think it’s inspiring to see that he’s still at it and he still cares about it. It's such an important thing for me to know that there are like-minded people. I’m only 23 years deep into my career and hopefully I’ve got a long way to go.

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