AN INTERVIEW WITH COMPOSER, PRODUCER and PERFORMER. Reinhold Heil.

Reinhold Heil is a German-born musician and film and television composer based in Los Angeles. He initially achieved success in Germany as a member of the post-punk and Neue Deutsche Welle bands Nina Hagen Band and Spliff and later as a music producer. He is known for his frequent collaborations with Australian composer Johnny Klimek and director Tom Tykwer on films such as Run Lola Run and Cloud Atlas. He has scored the TV series DEUTSCHLAND and has just completed the music for DEUTSCHLAND 89. My thanks to the composer for taking time to answer my questions and also many thanks to Andrew Krop of White Bear PR. Without whom this interview would not have happened.

You seem to utilise a mix of both symphonic and synthetic instrumentation within your scores for film and TV, when you are working on a score how do you work out your themes and bring them to fruition, keyboard, computer etc And When working on a series like DEUTSCHLAND, do you recycle themes or expand upon ideas that you have previously used in the series and how many times do you like to be able to watch episodes of a series before working out the style and sound plus where the music will be best placed?

I work in Logic with a template that allows for quick import of all my acquired and self-made sound library and that performs in 5.1 surround instantly (mainly for my personal pleasure and inspiration.)

I also sometimes improvise freely on some of my instruments, mainly my Bechstein grand and my Hammond B3 but also various guitars, bass, and percussion. For all the latter instruments I am not claiming to be able to really play them, but I use them as musical sound generators and I can absolutely find themes and riffs on them. Every instrument has a different paradigm of performance and leads to different results.

This last season of the series will certainly recycle motifs and themes from the earlier seasons but mostly in a brand-new arrangement. The main theme comes from episode 101 and used to be brooding, threatening, with hints of air raid sirens signalling the potential nuclear conflict. Then it was super rhythmic for the African section of Deutschland 86 and now it’s an in-your-face dramatic version, performed in part by a string quartet. So, I try to apply the thematic material consistently but give it twists and turns and of course always shoot for fresh material as well.

I have one co-arranger, who is also the music editor on the show: Paul Parker. We both watch the episodes a few times and then exchange our thoughts. There’s also temp that mostly consists of cues from the previous seasons. Sometimes it works so well that we roll with it (always working it to picture) and often we try different avenues. Luckily, I feel that the show runner, Jörg Winger, trusts me with my instincts. He lets me present him with a full episode pass and then – without fail – gives me excellent notes that make the score and the episode better.

Paul Parker takes over all the previously existing cues and sometimes puts his stamp on, not only with his heavy guitars (on one cue) but always finding some good angle that makes perfect sense with the scene.

So how did you become involved with the DEUTSCHLAND series? 

I have a reputation for having written and produced a few German classic pop music from the era. So, when the creators started looking for a composer, a friendly music publisher recommended me, because I also had a bunch of movie and TV music on my resume. I asked them if they really wanted a score in Eighties style and they said no. They wanted a contemporary score. And I tried to stay away from the old pop sound. For the most part I think I succeeded. But especially for the romantic themes I slipped. It became a thing… And it culminated in the fact that I even wrote a song, based on the love theme of this season. It’s very romantic and certainly evokes the era but it came too late to make it into the series. Not that there really was any space for a song.

The sound that you achieve for the series is very ominous sounding at times, when you were first offered the assignment, were you given any specific instructions as to how the music should sound and how it should work for the series? 

Not really. Jörg and I both lived through the era and he did a lot of amazing research that certainly enhanced my understanding of the historic events. Out of our conversations came some rough material and that is always the best way to figure out the sound of a show. Rather than talk about it, I like to present a variety of demos and get the thumb-up or thumbs-down. That can be accompanied by words but is helpful no matter what. 

When starting a collaboration with a new team you always have to learn the specific way these filmmakers talk about music. A word can have vastly different meanings when uttered by different filmmakers. And developing a personal relationship that becomes more and more comfortable is the basis for a good outcome and a pleasant experience along the way, no matter how hard the work might get. The fact that Jörg and Anna were able to come to Los Angeles in December of 2014 and discuss my first layouts in person was extremely helpful. Being in the same room a few times makes the phone- and online-exchanges that follow infinitely easier.

I FRANKENSTEIN is I think a very powerful work, what percentage of electronic instrumentation did you have on the score compared with a more conventional line up of instruments?

This is a big orchestral score and was requested as such. But both Johnny Klimek and I always try to weave in the synths or the organic sample textures. I’d be hard-pressed to give you percentages but it’s orchestral for the biggest part. Maybe 80%?

One note was: no flutes! That’s the personal taste of some producers and to me felt like a bit of a missed opportunity. But on the other hand, style comes out of limitation.

CLOUD ATLAS was collaborative work, did you work with the other composers in the true sense of a collaboration, or were you all asked to score specific sections of the movie?

The partnership between Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and myself happened from 1996 to 2012. We always conceived of everything together but of course you will find quite a few pieces that originate with only one or two of us. Throwing ideas at each other and then even picking up arrangements and having them altered by another team member is certainly the hard way of doing this. Many other teams prefer to rather divvy up the work ahead of time. But that way you dont get that thing that is greater than the sum of its parts. That did happen quite a bit and thats why ultimately it was worth the extra effort.

When any of your music is released onto a recording or made available on digital platforms, do you take an active role in what music will be included on the release?

Absolutely. To be honest, most labels won’t care much and it’s up to me to pick the selection and re-work certain cues so that they become palatable as a stand-alone piece of music rather than underscore. Sometimes there is a camping part that’s good for the suspense of the story but becomes boring or tiring when just listening. I dont like to do that to an audience. So, Paul Parker and I pretty much mix, compile and master this album.

You initially started out in a band and then moved in to producing, was writing music for films something that always attracted you?

I was certainly always fascinated by the thought. But I didn’t have the confidence. Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Alien was a moment where I started to think of it more and a big breakthrough was Bladerunner, because I loved the score and was convinced, I could have done this too. I was in possession of a Yamaha CS-80 synth and certainly had the chops for all of these elements. That boosted the confidence. But it took another 10 years of mostly producing pop and thoroughly getting sick of that before I told myself to start re-orienting my career and another 5 years before that really rendered the first results.

What musical education did you receive, and did you focus on any specic area of music whilst studying?

I attended the University of the Arts in Berlin and got a Master’s degree in classical music production, in German: Tonmeister. That to me was only a means to an end and that end was playing in a band and producing eclectic pop music. I was stupid and arrogant and wish I had fully taken advantage of the program. I had great teachers and received piano lessons and music theory and all the technical basics of recording. So it was certainly good that I went through with it. The last two years I had to split my time between my studies and daily rehearsals with the Nina Hagen Band, my first professional gig as a musician. It all came out better than I deserved.

Simon Rattle conducted your score for PERFUME-THE STORY OF A MURDERER, Do, you conduct at all, or do you prefer to be in the recording booth supervising the scoring process?

As a trained producer I feel more at home in the booth. But I feel more compelled now to try my hand in conducting. This might have something to do that I now work by myself and perform my music every step of the way. Conducting is performing, so it would only be natural. There just does not seem to be budgets that allow for the hiring of musicians. 

I was really looking forward to working with the string quartet in a studio but that was thwarted by the pandemic. So only two of the musicians recorded at home and played all the parts. Back to the good old pop-approach.

Your music is varied and inventive, what composers or artists would you say have influenced you or had an effect upon the way you write or perform and what is the first music that you recall hearing as a child?

Thank you! I love so many kinds of music and have really dropped my adolescent attitude, maybe starting in my thirties. 

There’s Frank Zappa, Miles Davis, Bach, Stravinsky as my early idols. And then of course the full gamut of great pop and jazz music and all the other “serious” composers. Of course, Debussy and even Wagner. And amongst the film composers I could pick out Thomas Newman, Johan Johannsen and of course Williams and Goldsmith. Elliott Goldenthal is way under-employee. So many amazing colleagues. Last but certainly not least Ben Salisbury and Jeff Barrow, who always push the boundaries and evoke pure benevolent envy.

Do you like to perform on your film scores?

At this point I am almost the only performer. This is OK for certain things but it’s not my favourite way and more born out of the lack of funding. Good and bad.

Are any of your your family musical at all?

I think my dad was very musical and so are all my siblings. And all our offspring!  There is only one nephew who is professionally active and he’s definitely a great guitar player and engineer.

But my parents were working class, not what you’d call “Bildungsbürger“, in Germany. They’re the typical WW-II generation who’s motto was: our children have to be better off than we were. They worked their asses off for us and I think we are all eternally grateful. They enabled us to rise to the next level.

Is there for you any difference between working on a TV series and scoring a feature film?

Not in principle. You write themes and apply them. But on a movie that process of development is limited and then you work out the details. With a series you always add to the material and try to juggle the older and newer themes. For a streaming service or a European producer, you get to finish the whole thing before it goes on air. In a Hollywood-produced TV series they make you chase the broadcast. While that means that there is never a dull moment, there are missed opportunities to make everything coherent. You must guess and anticipate.

What is next after DEUTSCHLAND 89?

I sometimes help my friend Mac Quayle who is blessed with a lot of pretty great work. I worked on Mr Robot seasons 3 and 4 and just finished a documentary series for HBO called “The Vow”. 

I also just did two branding films for a company that makes superb architectural lighting. All these smaller jobs widen the horizon. I really enjoy the advertising work, as long as it’s not promoting awful products. 

I am also in the process of moving to Hawaii. That in itself is quite a process. During that time, I have my piano overhauled. I have a bunch of fresh equipment and I can’t wait to make sinister sounds in a beautiful environment.

Watch the trailer (German only): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6lyhIBHuSI