Rodrigo Flores Lopez is a rising voice in the film music arena and is becoming a prominent name within a generation of new composers – with two Master’s degrees in film composing – one from the University of Bristol and the other from New York University. He also studied composition at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada and at North eastern University in Boston. He studied a bachelor’s degree in music, specializing in composition and piano at the Universidad de las Américas, Puebla in Mexico. He was a selected participant at the 2004 NYU/ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop in memory of Buddy Baker.
Can you tell me what is for you the primary job of music in film?
I think music in film adds another layer of meaning and emotion. And I think this layer should try to be something that is either not so evident in the script or visuals, or something that needs reinforcement in some way. And many times it is done in a subliminal way, since it is supporting the narrative.
But I also believe that music in film, opposed to the idea that it should never be noticeable, should rather seek its balance and try to find exactly how to support each moment where it is used. Of course dialogue should always be the most important aspect at all times, except if it is conceptually not meant to be like that. But there are certainly some moments when either the sound design, the score, or any other music may have more relevance in a given moment. Therefore, when it comes to the score, a composer should try to be aware of the director’s vision and use music accordingly. The better a composer learns how to communicate with the film’s director, the better he or she will find ways to achieve that vision and enhance it with the score. A composer may even find aspects of that same vision that the director had not foreseen, but then discovers. Of course it is the director who has the final call, but it is sometimes the film itself the one that dictates that final say.
What musical education or training did you receive?
I studied a B.A. in Music at the Universidad de las Américas-Puebla in Mexico, and I specialized in composition. My main instruments were piano and voice. While I did my undergraduate degree, I went on two exchange programs where I could start focusing on film music, whether from courses or from teachers. So I went to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada and then to North eastern University in Boston, U.S.A.
After I graduated I was incredibly fortunate to get two scholarships to study two Master’s degrees in Film Scoring. The first one was an M.A. in Composition of Music for Film, Theatre and Television at the University of Bristol in the U.K., and the second one was an M.A. in Composition with a specialization in Film and Multimedia at New York University (NYU). I was also a selected participant at the NYU/ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop in memory of Buddy Baker in 2004 and I took a film orchestration course with Steven Scott Smalley when I was living in NY.
You have worked in TV, Film and also have written for the theatre, what would you identify as the differences in scoring projects from these three mediums?
In my experience TV has been the most demanding process in terms of timing. Tight deadlines can mean sacrificing quality, but some productions don’t even care about it. And in some TV projects I have actually been asked to compose music that somebody else will eventually put into the scene. So I’m sometimes not even exactly sure what the music will be used for. It can become quite messy and your music can end up being chopped up and inserted in ways that can be quite frustrating and completely out of context. My experience in theatre and film so far has been much more rewarding. Of course theatre projects are usually the ones that suffer the most in terms of budget, so I usually have to do a lot of sequencing and limit the number of live instruments, whether they are recorded or played live. But I think the most important difference that I have experienced between film and theatre has had to do with the possibilities each one has to offer.
When you work with a film, you get the very best acting each performer has given, the best shots and the best takes they were able to get during filming, and it has all been edited with utmost care. Therefore, you work with a final cut that puts all that together. You can find nuances and details that can be highlighted with music in an incredibly precise way. So what I love about scoring a film is the possibility of taking advantage of that. Nowadays many of those aspects are sometimes going to be very subtle, but they are planned in a way that is unique to that specific moment in the film. That can be incredibly powerful. Add to that the possibility of having a wonderful recording session with an orchestra of amazing musicians, in which you strive to get the best performance possible, and it is just fantastic. Now, in theatre I do tend to have smaller budgets and in many cases I do not get to have live musicians during the performances. So I end up pre-recording the music and it is then played through speakers during the shows. But the amazing part has to do with the process and how it translates into the performance. I love going to rehearsals and playing music for the actors in order to do exercises before the play has even been staged. And I’ll probably make a lot of decisions based on that. Or I create the music based on how the scene develops. There are even instances where the music ends up dictating changes in the blocking or in the way the scene itself is conceived. So the reaction of the actors as the score starts becoming part of the narrative is amazing, because, unlike the actors in a film, they are listening to it.
And even though I do use a lot of non-diegetic music in theatre – the characters are not supposed to be listening to it-, the actors are in fact listening, and they are constructing their emotions and reactions every single show because of the music too. It becomes part of the essence of their performance and I’ve had amazing experiences with it. I remember an actress that cried the first time I brought a piece of music to try with a scene; she said that it was the music that made her understand what the character was going through. Or another play where the final scene was all accompanied by music and the synchronization came perfectly every single time because of how the actor always built his emotional climax based on the structure of the music.
But at the same time, every single performance was different. That is also fantastic, but in a different way.
Do you orchestrate and conduct your music for film, or is this not always possible?
I do orchestrate my music every time. I actually like doing it because I feel it is an important part of the essence of the score, like colours in a painting. It makes the process a bit more stressful because of timing, but I really enjoy it. But I would like to work with additional orchestrators if I had to. Now, when it comes to conducting I guess it would be nice to do it, but the first film scores I did were recorded in Bulgaria, and most of the musicians didn’t speak English, so I knew it wasn’t going to be a very effective process. And the most recent film score I did was recorded in London, and I had the great opportunity to have Gavin Greenaway conduct it, so I decided to stay in the recording booth. On the other hand, even though I know conducting your own music can be very rewarding, I have also enjoyed the experience of being with the recording engineer and the film’s director. It’s a different perspective and I feel like I can be aware of things I might miss if I were conducting.
You have worked with director Jorge Ramírez Suárez, does he have specific ideas when it comes to the style of music he wants for his movies?
Yes. Our first collaboration was actually a TV documentary series about the future of Mexico, and it was during that project that I actually started to know him and his vision. After that, we have collaborated on two films so far, and the experience has been wonderful.
Jorge does tend to have some concepts about what he’s looking for in terms of music. For example, for the TV series Futuros Posibles, he knew he wanted a signature theme that could be varied according to which aspects of living in Mexico were being discussed, since the series dealt with different topics: sports, legal, technological, romantic, etc. And in Guten Tag, Ramón he knew he wanted to have an acoustic guitar as part of the score, and to somehow make distinctions musically between Mexico and Germany.
He sometimes may want to clarify which musical style he does not want, and that starts giving me pointers as to how I can experiment. So in a way, some limitations are always good to start creating. But at the same time, he’s always been very open to stylistic suggestions he might not have considered before.
At what stage of the production do you like to become involved on a project?
I like to get involved as early as possible. I think time constraints can be a limitation when scoring films and visual media in general. And since projects are actually conceived from the moment there is an approved screenplay, I think it can’t harm a composer to get to know the project at that point if possible. Of course a lot of things are going to change, and the resulting film can differ greatly from the original script, because of directing, acting, editing, production, etc. But what I like to rescue from that early process is the essence of the story: What is it that defines the film that will be made? And some core aspects are there throughout the entire process. So that helps me to begin drafting ideas and playing with them. Many of them will not be used in the end, many will be reimagined once the film has been shot, but there are also things that may prove to be an integral part of the identity of the film, and I like to try to discover those before I actually start scoring the film.
Was music something that you always wanted to do for a career, and what are your earliest memories of any kind of music or musical instrument?
I was always very fond of the arts in general. My dad wanted to study piano, but life took him in a different path and he became an accountant first. Then, by the time I was born, he was already studying a degree in piano, and I would sometimes fall asleep while he was studying in the evening, and I really enjoyed listening to the music. I was maybe 3 years old when he first tried to teach me very simple things. Later on I started playing the piano by ear under an uncle’s guidance, and I gradually fell in love with music. I also started taking singing lessons. I was about 8 years old when I decided I wanted to pursue a career in music composition, but I kept learning empirically. At some point I realized that the music I loved from several films had actually been composed specifically for the films themselves!
So I then figured out I wanted to become a film composer. I applied to the National University in Mexico for a 3 year preparation course in order to be able to study a career in composition, but I was already 15 years old then, and even though they said my musical abilities had been outstanding during the admission process, I hadn’t been able to write the composition I played on the piano because I had no formal training yet. So they basically told me I had no future in music and that I should just give up. I got quite depressed, but I eventually started studying piano formally at a small music school in Mexico City. I wanted to prepare in order to apply to the Universidad de las Américas-Puebla.
Is the Mexican film industry producing a lot of movies at this time, and do directors and producers value the symphonic score?
Yes and no. The amount of films produced in the past 20 years or so has increased exponentially. There was a golden age of Mexican cinema during the 30’s and up to the 50’s, and there was a huge industry back in those days. But then there was a decrease in the number of films produced each year that continued until almost the end of the 90’s, in which there were about 8 films produced each year. The number has increased to more than 150 film’s last year, but the huge problem in Mexico is still distribution. Movie theatres make a huge profit from Hollywood film’s, so they will always favo8r them over Mexican productions. And Mexican cinemas are supposed to be among the best venues in the world, but of course, business is always a huge part of the whole deal. And Mexican film’s tend to try to be on one of both extremes. They either try to be a commercial success, and therefore focus on romantic comedies that are not always round projects, but that will manage to recover the investment and secure a screening opportunity, or they will try to show the film makers’ particular vision, with the support of the government’s funding for their production. But in many cases the latter will never even see the light of day outside of festivals and will therefore not make a profit. And I guess it’s difficult to say if this is right or wrong, but it is probably a consequence of the way the industry works nowadays in Mexico. So, what happens in the end is that directors and producers end up facing one of two situations in most cases. For a commercial movie they will try not to spend too much of their budgets on symphonic scores because they don’t realize that an integral part of a commercial success could be supported by a well produced score, and they tend to license more pop songs and try to have a really basic score that is either done with a small ensemble or it’s only a MIDI score in many cases. And then many others choose not to have music at all or to limit the score to the same options, and in this case it could seem like an aesthetic idea, but personally, I believe, it sometimes serves the purpose of making a film that will be more acceptable in festivals, and the general belief is that art films will try to be “more realistic” and avoid a symphonic score as much as possible.
At least that’s what I feel happens with Latin American films in general. Then again, budget limitations could also be a part of the decision-making process for them, since most likely the investment will never be recovered and the films may not even get distribution even after winning awards in several festivals.
Of course, with so many more films produced in Mexico nowadays, there are some chances for symphonic scores, but I think we still have a long way to go.
Have you a routine when you are working on a movie, by this I mean is there a set way in which you approach a film, do you like to create central themes firstly and build on these or do you start at the beginning of the movie and work through to the end titles?
I don’t think I have a unique way of approaching a film. I may choose the scenes that I feel are important to work on them first, but never in a very particular order. I guess I do try to leave the very last cues at the end, because I think they will flow better once the musical material has been used in different ways throughout the film. And in a way, those last scenes will end up being a musical conclusion as well.
One other thing I like to do is to start coming up with musical ideas when I first get to know the story or read the screenplay. As I was telling you before, many of those ideas will end up being discarded, but I may find the core aspects of the story and come up with some possible melodies or motifs to represent them. Once I have the final cut I can start seeing which of those will be the ones that really seem to resonate with the film, and only then will I start to consider my orchestral palette and the kind of synth sounds I will end up using. I feel that helps me define the particular sound of that specific film. That palette may change a bit during the process, usually to enrich it, but I like to have a starting point that defines that sonority.
What is your principal way of composing or working out your musical ideas, piano, keyboard or via a more technical method?
In terms of the music I use the piano a lot, since that is my main instrument. So the main ideas will be born there most of the time. When it comes to orchestrating then I will get away from the piano of course, but it does seem to work as a starting point for me.
Something else I like to do is come up with conceptual ideas that will help to structure the score. Those concepts may end up being quite subliminal, but they help me to unify it and make statements about the story that are musical, structural and narrative.
How many times do you need to watch a movie before you start to formulate any solid ideas about the style of music and where music should be placed to best serve the film?
I think first impressions are very important, so I like to watch the film just 2 or 3 times at first. The most essential aspects of the film should pop up in those first times. And I have to be aware of them because they will probably be an excellent guide as to what the film is asking of me and how I can support it.
Of course I will talk to the director about it and the spotting session with him or her will help define both the style and where should the music go, but watching and getting a first impression will also help me understand the director’s vision and sometimes even find concepts that help enhance what the director had in mind, but from a parallel perspective.
Do you write music that is not film music, are you involved in any other musical ventures?
Well, I also write music for the theatre and sometimes for TV. I would love to write for video games as well, but I haven’t had the opportunity yet.
I am also a songwriter. I even had a pop duet about ten years ago, but I’m trying to apply song writing now to musical theatre.
I also compose concert music and I really enjoy the possibilities it gives me due to the fact that I like to work with the emotional aspects of music. For many years, the emotional aspects of music were disdained in concert music, as if focusing on them would take away the academic and serious aspects of music making.
But the truth is, the emotional aspect, in my opinion, is very important in music, and it comes in every detail you add to the score and in the way it is interpreted by the musicians who perform the music, whether it is in the form of a recording, or in a live performance, where the audience will react to the music through the unique performance the listener is experiencing. I am currently working on a composition project that explores the emotional aspects of music, with the support of a grant from the Mexican government.
Do you think that it is important for a score for a movie to have themes rather than contain drone like passages as the trend seems to be at this time in Hollywood produced pictures, or do you think that the theme as we know it has disappeared from the film score?
I honestly don’t think themes could ever disappear from the film score. I’m aware of this trend and I still find it difficult to understand why it has become so prevalent in many Hollywood scores nowadays. I sometimes think some directors might be afraid that the music could somehow “steal” the audience’s attention. But film music, when tailored to a specific film will not do that. It may be noticed, as I mentioned before, but because it is enhancing the storytelling experience. Eventually recognizing themes, motifs and musical gestures should not be mistaken for a distraction. And I wish directors would know that for a fact. Great film music can be experienced separate from the film for which it was created and make great concert music, but it must work in the film first. And the power of melodic recognition is an amazing tool for composers in the art of storytelling. And again, it can be motivic, thematic or even gestural, but music and visuals get a lot of power and meaning from that association. I don’t think it could ever disappear and I hope that all those drone passages can learn to co-exist with the thematic material. I love some minimalist music, and ostinatos, and even drone like passages, but they should be part of a wider spectrum of possibilities.
I am pleased to see that your soundtracks get both a digital and a compact disc release, do you have any involvement in the preparation of the soundtracks for release, and which do you prefer the digital versions or the physical CD?
I do get quite involved in the release of the scores, which is probably part of the reason they get released in the first place. I’ve always loved film music aside from the film as well, and I grew up listening to film scores and letting my imagination flow freely with them, so I think it’s important to give the score that chance to live outside a film. When a film score is released, I think it’s important to plan the album so that it is an interesting listening experience. That may mean leaving cues out, re-editing some and in general, whatever process is necessary to turn the score into an experience of its own, whether it reminds you of scenes in the film or not. I guess I like to have both versions because the digital release is widely available and it can reach many more listeners than the physical release. But CDs have that magic that collectors appreciate: the booklet, the pictures, the additional words and insight from the people involved or from film music critics. The quality of the audio file. And it has something that I value a lot: credits. The problem with digital releases on their own is that they don’t tell you much about the product.
There is music I have composed available on Spotify that doesn’t even have my name on it because it is an album with pieces from many composers released by an ensemble, and they did not include our names in the info. Or even my pop music is not related to my film scores because only the name of the duet shows up. So releasing a physical Cd gives you the opportunity to give due credit to everyone involved in the project, because they are part of it. For my latest release, La Gran Promesa, which is being released in March by Kronos Records on Cd (and Movie Score Media digitally) I was happy to include those credits in the Cd. Maybe because I produce my scores every time, I know who’s been part of them, and even in the film, Jorge himself, being the producer of his own films, wanted to include the names of everyone involved in the score in the end credits. And I think that shows respect for the film score itself. If many films include the names of caterers, drivers, and a lot of other people involved in production, I don’t see why the team involved in the score production shouldn’t deserve the same recognition, if possible.
When you are spotting a movie with the director do you focus on any one scene or a character to begin to fashion your score?
Yes, I think it is important to focus on characters, concepts, etc. according to their relevance in the story. Sometimes a character doesn’t get any musical treatment because it won’t help the storytelling, and it is important to have those things clear as early as possible. And some scenes are going to have a huge impact on the way the story develops, so the spotting session clarifies a lot of those aspects.
Were any of the movies you have worked on tracked with any music or songs by the director to give you an idea of what is required?
Yes. Even though there aren’t music editors in Mexico, there is usually a temp track that gets assembled to help the editing process. It is usually selected by the director and the editor, and it can prove useful when you need some pointers as to what the director wants. But I try not to watch the film with that temp track at first, because I don’t want those tracks to limit my creativity. The temp track can be a useful tool, but it can be very dangerous too. If the director gets married to those tracks, your process could turn into a nightmare. I’ve only had that happen to me with a TV commercial fortunately. I guess directors should try to understand that the risk of asking for a pastiche of those tracks is against the uniqueness of the score that will be composed for their films. And I guess the most authentic films should aim to create that originality in every way possible. Maybe it is true that everything has been said already, but there will always be plenty of ways to say those things again differently.
What will you be working on next?
This year I have several theatre projects on the calendar, but the main one is the second part of the composition project for which I got a grant, and it consists of a musical theatre play with puppets for children. I recently finished a work for String orchestra that is also part of that project and which will be premiered this year by the Wratislavia Chamber Orchestra at a music festival in June-July in Poland, which I hope I get to attend. And next year I will be composing a work for Symphony orchestra that will conclude this composition project that focuses on emotions in music. There is also the possibility of another film and a documentary series this year, but I still haven’t confirmed those so I prefer not to get too excited about them until they are a fact.
Thank you for taking the time to ask all these questions and for your interest in knowing a bit more about my work. I truly appreciate it.
I think the world is still not quite aware of the idea that there are film composers all over the world, and I think an-interview like this is an amazing opportunity to let film music lovers know that composers can come from places from which they don’t usually expect to hear about us, like Mexico! I think that is also how international collaborations come to be. It’s a big world!