An award-winning composer, conductor and music producer, Ludek Drizhal has received international acclaim for his wide-ranging scores and arrangements.Born in Prague, Czech Republic, Drizhal started studying violin at age five. Shortly before turning twenty Drizhal relocated to the United States where he immediately began performing as a concert violinist with a number of symphony orchestras, working with the likes of Marvin Hamlisch, Bobby McFerrin and Lynn Harrell. His virtuoso violin performances, as well as his piano and guitar accompaniments can be heard in numerous recordings and in works of other composers, and he has conducted for and recorded with many orchestras including the Slovak Radio Symphony, The Golden Hornet Project of the Austin Symphony, USC Symphony Orchestra and the Hungarian National Symphony. Today he frequently records and guest-conducts with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and the Prague Metropolitan Philharmonic Orchestra.
JM: How did you become involved on BADLAND and how much time were you given to score the picture.
LD: I worked on a film called “Rounding First” and Soren Fulton, one of the lead actors who starred in the film, had a little sister Grace Fulton, also an actress. At the time I was finishing my score for “Rounding First” Grace was filming “Badland”. When Grace’s parents overheard that Francesco Lucente, the director, was looking for a composer, having liked my work on Rounding First, they recommended me to him. Francesco and I met, I played a few pieces of my music for him, and he liked them. He then asked me to write three demo cues for scenes from “Badland” and I guess I came pretty close to what he was looking for because he ended up offering me the job. It took me close to three months from start to finish. We mixed the score in Germany. I recorded most of the solo violin parts as well as all the pianos and guitar tracks, and I also sang on “Nothing’s There” which brought me back to my days of being a singer-songwriter playing clubs for many years before I turned to film-scoring.
JM: Was Francesco Lucente very Hands on,when it came to the placing of the music and also what style of music should be written,also did the director have a temp track on the movie and if so did you find this a help or a distraction?
LD: With every new director there is a courting period. It takes the composer and the director a little while to learn what makes the other tick. Once we found common language Francesco saw that I understood what he was after and he gave me gradually more and more freedom. We started with temp score. However, a time came when I started to feel that I wanted to take some of the scenes in a slightly different direction and more away from the temp score. I have learned that the key element in the film making process is to always listen to other people’s opinions. Fresh perspective is invaluable and often contributes greatly to the creative process and it’s most effective when it works both ways. I always try to approach these situations by offering my suggestion with the option to go back to what the director asked for in the first place. That way the director has nothing to lose if my approach isn’t his cup of tea.
As far as temp-scores are concerned, most composers that I know will probably tell you the same thing. By the time I start working on a film, the majority of producers and directors have already attached themselves to the temp-score, they develop demo love, and it becomes a very careful dance around the pre-existing music to make the new score sound original, but still close to the temp-score. One of the earlier films I worked on before “Badland” did not have a temp-score. As a result of that I created an original sound for the film from the ground up. It’s truly a worthwhile effort to work without temp-music. It becomes a discovery path for both, the director as well as the composer.
JM: The use of female voice on Badland is very haunting, who was the vocalist.
LD: The main vocalist is Olimpia Lucente, a wonderful singer. For change of color we brought in one more vocalist Gian Carla Tisera who sang in a couple of places. Both voices ended up complementing each other quite well. I also wrote all the orchestral arrangements for Olimpia’s solo album of Neapoliatan songs. The CD is in its final stages of preparation for a worldwide distribution, and Olimpia will be traveling to Europe to perform several concerts.
JM: What size orchestra did you use on BADLAND?
LD: We had somewhere around 70+ musicians with number of solo instrumentalist overdubs.
JM: You started your involvement in music at a very young age, did you always intend to make music your career?
LD: When I was five and started learning violin, I don’t think I was thinking about career since there were more important things in my life at the time such as playing soccer with friends, fishing, swimming, skiing etc. but by the time I was ten or so I taught myself how to play the piano. Around that time I recall telling my uncle, a professional musician and a music conservatory professor, that I wanted to be just like him and play music for living. By the time I was thirteen- fourteen, basically middle-school age, I knew that I was a musician. There were no two ways around it. I did, however, take a brief detour in college and considered pursuit of medicine as a field, but after a year or so I returned back to music.
JM: When did you know that you wanted to write for film.
LD: I started writing music at a very early age. By the time I was nine or ten and I had my first rock band I already wrote dozens of songs. I played keyboards and piano and also was the lead vocalist. This is kind of a funny story but it explains where I came from. When I turned twelve or so, my band and I were asked to perform at a music festival, but first we had to pass the audition. A guy from the Ministry of Culture showed up to our audition. He listened to our set and after every song he would shout out some other artist’s song-name that our tunes reminded him of. At that time I wasn’t familiar with any of the names that he called out. As you can imagine it was difficult for us in communistic Czechoslovakia to get our hands on western music. As the audition continued I recall getting more and more annoyed with the guy. After we finished our set he came to us and asked who wrote all the tunes. I told him that I did. He said, and I recall clearly, “somebody’s been playing a lot of black musicians around you”. I wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or a criticism, but I was too embarrassed to ask him who those musicians were. He then turned to the judges and told them that we will play the festival. So I guess it was a good thing. Soon after I watched “Anatomy of Murder” with score by Duke Ellington and “Lift To The Scaffold” with score by Miles Davis and I fell in love with Jazz. About a year later I was transformed by Bernstein’s score “The Magnificent Seven” and I knew that there was something special about music and film. But it took many more years of studying violin, playing in orchestras, being a studio musician, singer-songwriter before I wrote my first incidental music for a theater production. I recorded it with a full orchestra and it was then that I knew that was it. I was twenty-eight. I told my wife that I wanted to study composition. I was awarded a full scholarship to attend Masters in Music program at the USC Thornton School of Music. One thing led to another and I’ve been earning a living writing music for films and television for the past thirteen years.
JM: You work in various countries and also record in those countries as well, what are the differences between film makers approach and attitude to scoring movies in say, Poland and The United States?
LD: The European film-makers that I have worked with seem to have different attitude toward film music and they seem to be more opened to experimentation. At least those that I have been working with. Jacek Bromski and Juliusz Machulski, the two gentlemen that I have worked with are brilliant film-makers with decades of experience. In Jacek Bromski’s films the music tends to be an equal partnership with everything else that takes place on the screen. Each one of his films has offered me a very different experience for which I am very grateful. I’ve written polka’s for his films, have taken a recorded bugle call from Krakow tower and wrote a modern orchestral score around it, and our most recent film consists of sixties kind of songs. His new film for next year will be a jazz score in style of Miles Davis’ “Lift To The Scaffold” of all things! In America I tend to write more orchestral scores so, in a way, I get the best of all worlds.
JM: I understand that you also taught for a while?
LD: I taught at USC for number of years, first as a teaching assistant, and then for several years as an adjunct faculty. I stopped teaching in 2006 but lately have been thinking I’d like to get back into it. I do miss the interaction with students and I also feel that I have more to offer from my personal experiences, so this would be a good time.
JM: Do you have a routine when you write?
LD: Actually I don’t. Every film is a different creature and it requires different approach. Our new film “Starbright” by Francesco Lucente proves my point. Before “Starbright” I have never written music well before even the script was finalized, but in this particular case I have already written several pieces of music for the film and it is just now about to go into pre-production. When I work from a temp-score, then the process is quite different. Generally speaking, I don’t like to write sitting behind a piano. I write as I drive around town, picking up groceries, or driving to the beach or taking my daughter to school etc. I rarely listen to the car radio. I sing a lot and record snippets of melodies into my iPhone, then those pieces that stick I develop in my head and give them structure. I hear the harmonies and all the orchestrations in my head before I ever sit down behind a piano and try to play it. I find piano distracting because after all these years, I still am a lousy pianist and find myself learning how to play the new piece that I am writing instead of composing a new piece. It tends to slow me down. Generally I try to be as familiar with the film as possible before I write a first note. That way I can plan and structure the score.
JM: Do you perform on your soundtracks?
LD: I perform on every one of my soundtracks. I sing, play violin, piano, guitars, accordion, mandolins harmonicas etc. I have laid down parts that I then would give to professional players to record and then the directors would ask me to put back my original performances. I tend to be very self-critical and like to hear my parts performed by someone who plays them flawlessly, but it has happened several times that the directors preferred my performances over the very polished ones recorded by other musicians. When I play, I go all out, and perhaps that is what they fall in love with, all that emotion.
JM: Do you conduct all of your scores, or are there occasions when you feel it is better to have a conductor?
LD: I find myself working well with orchestras as a conductor. I can be very quick at fixing problems while on the conductor’s stand, which in the end saves me a great deal of time. When I have to explain from the engineering booth what I would like the orchestra to do, something often gets lost in the translation. I feel much more anxious about the recording process when I’m not conducting, so conducting my own sessions gives me an opportunity to get it all out.
JM: Orchestration is I suppose a big part of the composing process, do you orchestrate all of your scores?
LD: I have had a couple of negative experiences with other people orchestrating my scores so I budget enough time to orchestrate myself. I may ask a trusted friend for an opinion, but otherwise I do prefer to do the work alone and keep full control of the final product.
JM: Did you have input into what tracks were used on Badland soundtrack release?
LD: Personally I wasn’t too concerned with the choice or the order of the tracks. I love them all equally. Each piece of music I write is like my child. When I let them go into the world I loose objectivity. Sometimes some pieces surprise me when they come out and it’s that element of surprise that I love. I felt that whatever would end up on the disc would represent the score well in any case.
JM: How many times do you like to view project…?
LD: As I mentioned earlier, it’s never quite the same. Each film works its special ways on me. There are times when I hear the title and it brings up musical ideas, other times I watch the film once and then walk around for a while and think about it, and then there are times when I start watching a film and have to pause because all these ideas and thoughts start pouring in. the one thing that is consistent every time is that I never take the first thing that comes to me and run with it. I plant it and nurture it for a while. I tweak it, move notes around, shuffle rhythms, find the best combination of those two and work on giving it a form. It’s kind of a musical sculpting process. I have also read scripts that inspired me and by the time I finished reading them I had several themes in my head that I developed into full compositions. As I said, I try not to get tied down to one way of doing things. It keeps the process fresh and exciting with each new film that I work on.
JM: When Angels Sing, was a score that you worked on, what happened on this assignment?
LD: That project changed gears, or you may say, directions, in mid air. Tim McCanlies started the film with a composer that he was given by the producers, he felt that he would prefer to have me instead since we created a wonderful team while working on “Alabama Moon” so he convinced the producers to hire me. We had a good start, we finished the score for “Angels” and were ready to record it with an orchestra. Tim McCanlies was very happy with my music, but the producers had a different direction in mind. The film is a simple story featuring many wonderful actors/musicians such as Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Harry Connick Jr. and the producers decided that they preferred the previous composer’s style, so as a result my cinematic orchestral score got replaced by simpler, more songwriter styled, soundtrack. There are no hard feelings. You win some, you loose some. It’s all good. It’s a charming Christmas film and one that the film-makers are proud of. That’s all that matters in the end.
JM: I understand that you will be scoring STARBRIGHT in the near future. When will will be able to see this and hear your score, also what style of music do you think you will undertake for the project?
LD: I am preparing to score “Starbright”. It will be a great undertaking. I enjoy reading scripts and I read the first draft a couple of years ago. It’s been my experience that one can get a pretty good idea of weather the story and the characters will work or not, but as I heard one director say, making a movie is always a leap of faith. Francesco Lucente’s Starbright is a wonderful screenplay. It’s a fantasy with quite a unique, and touching love-story. After reading one of the earlier drafts of “Starbright”, so many vivid images were jumping at me from the pages that I actually wrote and already recorded a theme with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. With some adjustments, it looks like it will become one of the themes in the film. Of course the new version will be re-recorded. We are planning to use up to a one hundred-piece orchestra plus a choir—and that’s just for the score. There are also numerous Big Band pieces that will be arranged to play under the score in several scenes. We are also planning to write a couple of theme songs. In other words we are aiming for the stars with this one. (no pun intended. ;-)) The recording process will most likely be broken down into three recording sessions and over several months. I don’t want to speculate when the film will be released but the IMDB scheduled release date is around summer next year. Fingers crossed all goes well.
JM: What other musical genres are you involved with?
LD: I’ve been producing and co-producing music with other artists. I worked on Spencer Gibb’s two most recent solo records. I am not sure what the timeline for their release is at this time, but only a year ago, as I’m sure you may know, he lost his father Robin and has been preoccupied with other responsibilities. I also produced Olimpia Lucente’s solo album that is in the process of world-wide distribution as we speak. I also conducted performances with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and I have also been working on my solo jazz album. That is something that will take a little more time as I am trying to not to rush it. I will be using the Prague orchestra that I have used in the past and most of the rhythm sections that I recorded with for Jacek Bromski’s most recent film “Ticket To The Moon”. That project is scheduled for release in Europe in November 2013. I have also been developing a screenplay and working on a spy novel loosely based on the lives of two of my close relatives set in the cold-war era.
JM: You orchestrated the score for THE CELESTINE PROPHECY,the music is by Nuno Malo who I have interviewed and also love his work,how did you become involved on THE CELESTINE PROPHECY?
LD: Nuno Malo is a wonderful composer and, in fact, one of the closest friends I have. We both just bought houses and so we’ve been exchanging decorating and remodeling tips for the past several weeks. When Nuno called and asked me to help him out, I was available -so of course I agreed. He was working on a very tight deadline and his glass was filled to the top, so I tried to take some of his load off. He is a wonderful composer with great sense of style. His melodies and harmonies are very unique. He never ceases to amaze me with his creativity to build the perfect score whatever he works on.
JM: How do you work,out your musical ideas,by this I mean do you use technical means, piano,or straight to manuscript?
LD: As I mentioned earlier, I write without instruments. They tend to hold me back. The exception was true when I was working on the sixties type of sound where I pulled out my custom telecaster and was rocking out every chance I got. But with orchestral scores I think the melodies, then I sing them, then I nurture them inside my head. I may doodle on my violin, but then go back to perfecting the themes in my head first. After that I sit down and create a mock up orchestral version and tailor it to the specific scene that it is intended for. That is the fastest way for me to work.
JM: You have worked on a number of SYFY projects, as the budget for some of these are low,what elements of orchestral and synthetic instrumentation do you utilize?
LD: I work with a dear friend, writer/director Kevin VanHook. He is one of the most unique and creative people I know. Being a brilliant and prolific comic book writer he strives to preserve that kind of a feel in his films. We’ve done four films together and three of them had mix of live and MIDI sounds and one of these was completely orchestral. As far as the amount of money for music is concerned, producers will require the same amount of attention and music as if one was scoring $150 million dollar film. Every film I work on I always approach with the attitude that I am scoring the best movie ever. With that in my head, I give it my all, regardless of the budget. I don’t put my name on anything that is mediocre nor will I release music into the world that is anything but of the highest quality that I am capable of. And as far as amount of music, I write as much as is necessary. For Jacek Bromski’s “Ticket To The Moon” I wrote close to one hundred songs, orchestrated around fifty-two, submitted to Bromski forty-nine and finally recorded twenty-four. Nineteen are being used. For Tim McCanlies “Angeles” and Jacek Bromski’s “Entanglement” I wrote essentially double the amount of music that ended up being used in the films. As a self-imposed rule, I can’t stop working unless the director is one hundred percent satisfied.
JM: What composers if any do you think might have influenced you in style and maybe approach to scoring movie?
LD: there are so many composers that I love. I am a big fan of Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Thomas Newman, Nino Rota, Morricone but I also come from the classical world so I am a huge fan of Mozart, Brahms, Stravinski, Dvorak, Smetana, Janacek. I love the whole French and Russian composing world. It’s hard to call out just a couple of names. But I also learned to take hints from Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Parker, Gillespie, Ellington and many others from the Jazz world. I love Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, Burt Bacharach, Carole King and the list just goes on and on. My influences are so wide that each time I try to summarize my “favorites” I feel guilty because I leave out so many amazing composers that should be on the list, so I will stop here.
John, thank you for taking the time to chat with me and for your interest in my work. Also thank you for your kind review of my score for “Badland” I truly appreciate it!