It was maybe a 2000 km round trip in all, probably a fair bit more all told. But it was some ride!
When David Menke and I came together to co-write the score for STUNG, we had a few tricky logistics to figure out. We're based in Paris, France. The film was in post-production in Cologne, Germany which is also where director BENNI DIEZ was at. We wanted to do our music mix in a great 5.1 studio in Vienna, Austria. And the final film mix was at ARRI Studios in Munich, Germany. Hmmm.
In this day and age of Skype and clouds, we could have shacked up in a studio in, I dunno, Alaska? On the moon? Just get some good internet and you're in business, right?
We got to know our director Benni, broke down the script together with him and spitballed our ideas about the film's narrative style, its aesthetics and so on. Figured out how we were going to make it all tick. We spent some time developing test themes and musical approaches that you can listen to here, working out of long-time friend and collaborator Nathaniel Méchaly's NX Studios in Paris. As our ideas and directions started to align, one thing became clear: the best way to score this film was going to be via close-knit, hands-on work with as few barriers between us and the director as possible. The film needed (and I quote Benni here) "a score that can turn on a dime, changing direction and intention at 180 degrees in a heartbeat". It also needed to be hyper-aware of character perspective - who is being affected by what in each scene, even in each moment? And so how should the music make us feel if we're experiencing that moment from that particular character's perspective?
So instead of skype-dropbox-studioconnect-ing it, we decided to go old school. Rented a slick Volvo (this is not an oxymoron), loaded up a whole bunch of gear in the back and hit the autobahn.
First stop: Cologne.
We were lucky enough to be able to set up a pretty sweet makeshift studio in the garden house of David's parents in Cologne. It was a hot summer (yes they have summer in Germany) so it was great to experience a month or so living as a bike-riding, obsessively recycling eco-German. I even got to know the lovely lady at the local kiosk where I'd pick up my daily emergency caffeine hit. I don't speak German but I got a good laugh when I figured out how to ask for "eine Amerikanische Rotwein" (American red wine), my attempt at a funny way to order a Coke Zero. Bad jokes are clearly a universal language!
Working out of this space, we were able to easily pop over to see how sound designer Tilman Hahn was progressing at his end, and vice-versa. It also meant that Benni could easily split his time between us, sound design, the edit room and VFX. So we got a pretty cool cottage production vibe going. Obviously since we were making a film about giant killer wasps, literally a couple of days after we got our garden house studio up and running, a wasp came and built a nest in the ground right outside the front door. I mean why wouldn't it?
The time in Cologne turned out to be super productive. Conveniently, David's parents Reinmar Neuner and Christiane Menke are both professional musicians in orchestras, so that had us covered for flute, violin and viola to add to the cello we'd already recorded back in Paris with Guillaume Bongiraud and Nathaniel Méchaly. We also did an all-night session till the crack of dawn recording percussion with Augusto Stahlke, with an obligatory late night feast at what I'm sure is the best Turkish joint in Cologne. Not to be completely obstinate luddites about it all, we did of course end up doing some international recording sessions using Skype. I mean we may be idiots but we're not stupid. Unfortunately my cousin, the fabulously talented guitarist Frank Gambale was on tour at the time so it was not going to be possible to get him to record some guitars for us in the short time window we had. So we turned to our other favourite guitarist in the whole world also based in LA, the awesome Daniel Rojas who incidentally also plays a mean banjo... which we actually did need, believe it or not. Also imported from LA were some fantastic vocals for our end credits song, provided by my talented singer-songwriter cousin Libby Lavella recorded by Michael Perfitt. And finally - what better way to end the Cologne chapter than by watching Germany win the World Cup Football in a bar in central Cologne? Can you think of one? I can't.
So, with 85-90% of the cues locked down, it was time to load up the (really quite sweet) Volvo, say auf wiedersehen Cologne and hit it for Vienna Austria. Which is a longer drive than it probably sounds. OK it's not Albuquerque to New Hampshire, but a road trip of over eight hours between two cities where they still speak the same language (more or less) is a long way for Europe. And that's eight hours at 200kph on the autobahn, by the way...
Destination: Vienna, to the legendary Sound Mill Studios of Peter Müller, where we were all set up to start on our 5.1 music mixes in the PDV Records mixing studio. But before we made it there, we just had this one little detour to make...
I guess I'll put it this way. How many film scores do you think get made with an impromptu violin and viola recording session while on a lunch stopover at Grandma's house in Nürnberg? Not as many as there should be is what I'd say! Turns out Papa Neuner just happened to be passing through town on the same day as we were headed to Vienna, and it just so happened that he had his violin and viola with him. En route in the (lovely) Volvo, we'd already been talking about some cues that could use a bit of extra string work. So why wouldn't you just set up your laptop recording system in grandma's living room, hold up an iPad with score PDFs on it for our violinist of the day to read and just hit record? It's like what they say about the best camera being the one you have on you when you want to take the photograph. We got some excellent material that afternoon that ended up being used all over the film. Dankeschön, Reinmar und Oma Neuner!
After our productive Bavarian truckstop, we made it to Vienna and immediately went to check out the fabulous studios we were going to be working in for the next couple of weeks. To call the place vintage with history seeping out of the platinum records on the walls would be a trite way of putting it. If ghosts have parties to relive the debauchery of the 60s, 70s and 80s, this is where they do it, and they're dancing to Der Kommissar. Even the building itself looks better than most haunted houses you've seen in the movies, so it was clearly perfect for us and our killer wasps.
While our music score mixer Philipp Treiber got underway mixing the first cues, we still had some composing and recording left to do. Philipp also happens to be an excellent violinist (with a bow that costs 10 times more than our music budget!), so he was obviously not going to get away without helping us record the remaining violin parts we had left. We also made use of the gorgeous Schimmel grand piano played by Volker Werner and David Menke, not just for our piano parts but also to create some nasty creepy sonic material to use. Because you know, it's a horror film. And speaking of horror films, no horror film score worthy of the name would be right without some haunting soprano vocals, which Doris Jaindl totally nailed for us. Actually, we also used some female vocals from David Menke as well, because he sings like a girl. But some notes were just out of his range, poor dear. Lastly, we were not going to have dragged along our director Benni all the way to Vienna without getting him to play at least something. He turned out to have a real talent with the drum sticks, and we came up with one of our favourite percussion-based cues in the film using his tom tom bashing. As a reward for his prehistoric boom boom drumming, later back in Paris we took him to see Planet of the Apes. Benni like.
So there you have it people. As is usually the case with tight budget films, it all came down to the wire at the last minute with plenty of very late nights getting our mixes done in time. But by the time we all met again at ARRI Studios in Munich a month or so later for the final film mix, it turns out that all that hard work paid off. The mixes sounded just like they were supposed to, and the music and sound design all came together like icing and cake.
Sometimes providence is nice to you because as an added bonus, the apartment of our producer Benjamin Munz in Munich where we were all crashing during mix time just happened to be a 30 second walk from the entrance to OKTOBERFEST. A 30 second walk that becomes a 15 minute stumble on the way back home, that is... I don't remember the last time I was standing on giant wooden tables dancing in a beer hall so huge you could repair jumbo jets in it, surrounded by drunk Norwegians while holding a beer jug bigger than my head. This is because the last time I was in this situation was never. But can you think of a better way to end a freakish road trip of a film scoring adventure than like this? Nope, me neither.
It's impossible to put out a special thank you here to each and every person who helped us out on this amazing adventure. But you know who you are and believe us, we could not be more grateful! Still, we really do want to give special thanks to the Menke/Neuner family for the most warm welcome and hospitality in Cologne, and the same to Volker Werner and Doris Jaindl for taking care of us in Vienna along with the all the boys at PDV records. And of course Nathaniel Méchaly for his mentorship, generosity and support during our pre-production phase in his studio. And last but definitely not least, it was something of a realisation of a childhood dream that our agent on this project was none other than Gilbert Marouani, the music supervisor from one of my favourite films of all time... in fact it's not even a film, it's a legend: Dune.