At a small record store in Genoa, Italy, a young kid finds the CD he was eagerly looking for, under the letter “M” section. The soundtrack to “Hamlet” by Ennio Morricone. That was a turning point for Massimo Sammi, which ignited a love for film music that defined both his musical and personal life.
After moving to Los Angeles in 2014, he enrolled in the Certificate Program in Film Scoring at UCLA Extension, and through the school’s connections he landed several jobs assisting composers actively working in film and TV. As a result of an extensive on-the-job training writing hundreds of minutes of music as lead and additional composer, his writing credits include animation series, documentaries, romantic comedies, holiday features, westerns, dramas, super-hero parodies and independent shorts. His most recent score for the action-comedy “Plunder Quest” won the Best Soundtrack Award at the New York International Film Awards and at the Masters of Cinema International Film Festival.
Plunder Quest has a rousing and entertaining score, it’s like Raiders meets Star Wars, meets Star Trek, meets Pirates of the Caribbean and The Goonies. How did you become involved on the movie and what was your brief when you were asked to score the movie?
First of all, thank you so much for your kind words, I’m so glad you liked the score! I got in touch with the production company towards the end of 2020, and they got back in touch right before they started filming. Kalani, the director, sent me the script, I read it cover to cover and I really loved it. The story was full of twists and turns, and I got really excited at the thought of writing music for it. The movie was conceived in the vein of classic movies of the 80s and 90s, particularly The Goonies, Back to the Future, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was very lucky, because Dave Grusin, Alan Silvestri and John Williams are all musicians that are amazing in their knowledge of jazz beyond the orchestral and classical vocabulary, and so, coming from. a jazz background, in studying their scores I felt like a kid in a candy store, finding so many interesting chord progressions and a sophisticated harmonic language, that was accessible at the same time.
Was the film tracked with a temp music track at all, and was it helpful or distracting if one was used?
We didn’t have a temp track, which I found helpful in terms of cohesiveness of the score, and in terms of freedom to experiment with different things.
Its sounds like a large orchestra but I may be wrong, how many players did you have for the score and where was the soundtrack recorded?
I’m really flattered that it sounds realistic, the only live instrument in the score is the live trumpet and everything else was programmed by me in Cubase.
The score for Plunder Quest is on most digital platforms, did you compile the soundtrack album, and will there be a compact disc release?
We worked together with the label (Movie Score Media) to put together the tracks in the most meaningful way possible – I’m not aware as of now of CD release.
Do you conduct, or do you prefer to supervise the session from the recording booth?
I had some training as a conductor here in Los Angeles, and it’s certainly a thrilling experience to do that whenever it’s possible, but there are many many people in town there are more qualified than me in conducting so I think it depends how many factors. If I orchestrated the music myself, then I feel more confident in conducting it, whereas if someone else orchestrated it then I prefer maybe to supervise from the recording booth since I’m not a great sight-reader.
What is your routine when scoring a movie, by this I mean do you establish a central theme first and then build the score around this, or do you prefer to tackle smaller/larger cues before establishing the core theme?
I think it changes from project to project, in this case I wrote the end credits suite so was able to create the main themes and then we decided to score the movie backwards deciding how to reveal incrementally themes throughout the movie. The story has a beautiful arc and we were very careful not to be anti-climactic and to reserve the biggest energy for the cues that are turning points in the story and fill the remaining parts of the movie with sections that were leading to the big moments. There are also a few montages for example the track “This Place is Weird” is for a montage of a very intense poker game, the track “Trip to the Island” is a montage with drone shots looking at the boat as it sails to Bannerman Island in New York. Those were big moments and of course the finale of the movie was crucial, so we reserved a lot of attention to them first.
When you are asked to score a project, do you like to see the film initially on your own or do you prefer it if the director is present so you can begin the process of spotting there and then?
When possible, I try to read the script as soon as possible, and let my subconscious begin the work, without the visual reference, before the movie has been filmed, that’s what happened with Plunder Quest and other projects. And one of my favourite moments in all the process is to have a conversation with the director based on the scene numbers of the script, almost as if I had to write music for a play, in which we decide the tone and the intensity of each scene, in what could be called a pre-spotting session. That moment is truly inspiring, leaving so much space to brainstorming and possibilities, since everything is still developing, and one of the reasons I really love this job. Then we usually go in detail with a spotting session once the movie is locked, and in an ideal scenario we end up not using any temp, since we already established things in detail.
What for you is the purpose of a score in a movie?
It could serve many purposes; in some movies the score can create a tone or a mood without necessarily being connected to a specific character or place whereas in other cases is thematic or connected to the characters which is what happened in Plunder Quest. But I think that the main purpose is to fulfil the vision of the director in terms of the message that he intends to give with the movie and of course the clearer the vision of the director the easier is the job for the composer because in that case he just has to really pay attention to the story and pay attention to not to be too invasive but just have a propulsive function, since the story is very strong by itself. Kalani’s writing I think is great so in my case my job is very easy because I just had to support a very solid architecture that came from his talent as a writer and director, whereas sometimes it’s not as easy.
How much time were given to work on the movie from start to finish writing and recording the score?
They were incredibly patient because I had to take a break due to my brother’s wedding for which I had to flew fly back to Italy, so it was not a continuous process. I would say that it was probably around three months if we take away the break, because I was also working on other projects at the same time. But this project was something that I really liked so I really wanted to avoid cutting corners and deliver the best cue I could every time.
It’s great to hear so many themes within a score, the music is inventive and fully supportive of the movies scenarios and characters, do you think that the current trend of non-thematic film scores is just a passing phase and maybe we will return to music for main titles etc soon?
Thank you! I think that the current trend has brought the focus on the sonic medium itself, rather than a melodic or a harmonic progression, and it’s probably just a different concept of themes. I’m a big fan of musicians that use harmony as a narrative tool since it’s probably more like the kind of music I grew up with which is classical and jazz. There are composers that are revolutionary in the way they’re changing the perspective that is something that I deeply respect and admire, but there is something about the shifting harmonies and reharmonization of the same theme in different ways that I find incredibly fulfilling and something that to me comes more naturally.
Who would you say in the music world has influenced you or inspired you to do what you do?
There are so many amazing musicians and composers from the past and the present, it’s really hard to make a list, but I would say that it’s constantly shifting, because both because of curiosity and need for survival you have to expand your vision and learn new things. The one constant is probably that there’s nothing that I find more exciting than music which appears simple and approachable, but that has a lot of craft and knowledge behind it. That’s why I like John Williams, Alan Silvestri, Dario Marianelli and Debbie Wiseman because they’re so deep that they’re not afraid to write music that sounds simple or frugal. Even a child can sing “Hedwig’s Theme” or the opening theme from “Forrest Gump”, but only giants like them can write music that is so accessible. And I look for inspiration in that simplicity and clarity in any genre of music I listen, and to try to achieve that the best I can, working and studying every day to get better at it.
What musical training did you have and were you from a family background that was musical in any way?
My older brother played piano and had a band, so I guess I started taking piano lessons at 8yrs of age to emulate him but I was literally falling asleep during the lessons, which I found incredibly boring at the time. Later I started studying classical guitar around 13 years old, and soon I got interested in jazz as well, thankfully my music teacher was very acknowledgeable in music theory and harmony, so I received a solid foundation in my early years that would have helped me later. At the same time, I was spending around 3 hours every day for several years transcribing by ear everything that caught my attention, in many different genres, mostly jazz. In 2004 I started to study jazz composition and improvisation by correspondence with a teacher from Boston, Charlie Banacos and soon I auditioned and got accepted at New England Conservatory where he was teaching. While there I fell in love with jazz arranging and classical composition, which opened the door for film scoring. The students at New England Conservatory were incredible, they played like seasoned studio musicians and they were fresh out of high school, so having your music performed at such level, while approaching composition for the first time, was a real thrill. Meanwhile I was also studying music production in Digital Performer privately with some Berklee teachers, and in 2010 I attended the Buddy Baker film scoring workshop at New York University, where I met some of my future teachers that I studied with during my Master’s degree. In 2014 I moved to Los Angeles, and I attended UCLA Extension which was really fantastic on many levels, and some of the teachers became my mentors and some of my best friends. I also kept doing private score studies with one of the teachers from the school, which were incredibly important, since they introduced me to a lot of classical music repertoire that I knew only superficially. I also attended many workshops from the Hollywood Music Workshop, which are absolutely amazing. I’m a lifelong music student and try to practice guitar for at least around 40 min. every day and spend the same time every day studying scores, trying to improve my orchestral knowledge which at the time is still really basic, as well as counterpoint, chromatic harmony and generally everything that can serve as a catalyst for the creativity and keeps my mind and imagination active, otherwise I find myself getting too caught up in the patterns of what I already know and when that happens your music starts to become stagnant and predictable.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on an indie romantic comedy that just finished filming and soon I’ll be starting to work on the next movie by Kalani Hubbard, another adventure comedy called “The Squatchers”. I’m also working on a jazz arrangement for a flute orchestra here in LA.
Many thanks to the composer for answering our questions.