Working from his studio in Los Angeles, Christopher Wong has established himself as one of the top composers in Vietnam’s film industry, having twice won Vietnam’s Oscar-equivalent Golden Lotus for Best Original Score, and is a frequent collaborator of the rising generation of Asian American film directors.
As well as your musical education studies you also studied with Jerry Goldsmith, where was this and how long did you study with him?
I was one of 6 students at UCLA’s music department that were selected to study with Jerry in 1998; they chose 2 PHD students, 2 Masters students, and 2 undergraduates — I was one of the undergraduates. We got to meet with him once a week for about 3 months and he had the classes at his home in Beverly Hills. Probably the moment that made the biggest impact to me was watching him conduct the sessions for Star Trek Insurrection at Paramount stage M. But I have many wonderful memories of him during those 3 months, sometimes just funny memories of things he would say, his stories and thoughts about other musicians and composers, funny moments like when I said “isn’t your theme to Chinatown in *dorian mode” and he played the first 3 or 4 notes on the piano and said “I don’t remember how it goes”…it was definitely one of the most memorable 3 months of my life, but it was because I got to know the actual person behind all of this great music, hear about all of his ups and downs.
*(The Dorian mode, sometimes called the Doric mode, is the second of seven modes of the major scale. If you were to play all the notes from C major but starting on D you would have played D Dorian scale. It uses the formula of semitones and tones: T – S – T – T – T – S – T. Which in half and whole steps is: W – H – W – W – W – H – W).
I think I am right when I say you began to score movies in 2003, how did you break into film scoring?
Well, I was doing some little things like student films, commericials, and trailers starting around 2000, but I think the first film I did that had some significance was “The Anniversary” by Ham Tran, who I met in 2002 through a mutual friend at UCLA. It was his graduate thesis film, and it went on to win awards at over 20 film festivals and was short-listed for the Oscars that year. Of course we know that after that he went on to make films like “Journey from the Fall”, and the recent film “Maika”. When Ham was working on “The Anniversary”, he was renting a house with another director who I would end up working with many times, Victor Vu.
When Victor saw the music in “The Anniversary”, he wanted me to score his first feature in 2003. The lead actor in that film was Charlie Nguyen’s brother, which is how I ended up working on “The Rebel” a few years after. And then it seemed that from then on, I became well liked by many Vietnamese directors — the ones that I met here in LA moved to work in Vietnam around 2008, so I became introduced to audiences over there.
One of your recent scores Maika the Girl from another Universe is now available on digital platforms via Movie Score Media, you have released twelve of your scores with MSM do you have an active role in deciding on what music will be released as in what cues will represent the score?
I’m very lucky that Mikael Carlsson, who runs Movie Score Media, really likes my work and wants to release so many of my scores. At this point I usually just send him a score anytime it gets finished and see if he wants to release it and he usually does. Sometimes it comes to the ownership of rights on the music and that makes it difficult if the movie studio didn’t let me have certain things in my contract, so in those cases it might not be up to me. Mikael, by the way, is an incredible composer himself — he does mostly choral music, and it’s fantastic. So from that point of view, I’m incredibly flattered that another composer likes my work enough to release so much of it.
Was writing for film something that you always had an attraction to, and what would you say are your earliest recollections of any kind of music?
I actually didn’t get really serious about film until I met Jerry Goldsmith. I grew up as a kid playing classical piano (I actually started on violin and wasn’t very good at that instrument), and then in high school I learned guitar and played in some rock bands. I also learned a bit of jazz piano and played in a small jazz group with some friends. I think probably the through-line for my musical experience is that when I started writing music as a teenager, it always seemed to be imagining some kind of story. And when I studied with Jerry, I was in the middle of writing a musical theater piece. So I think I realized eventually that I always tended to think of music as a story, and then film became the storytelling medium that I became most involved in as a musician.
Maika is a grand sounding score, for me there are certain passages and phrases that evoke the work of both Williams and Goldsmith, how did you become involved on the project and how much time did you have to score and record the score?
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve known the director, Ham Tran, for about 20 years now. So he told me about the Maika project before they started filming it. The film itself was intentionly designed to have a throwback 80s feel, so Ham really wanted the sound of those classic 80s adventure scores that Williams and Goldsmith did — both of them were in the temp track I think, as well as some Silvestri. It was great fun, especially since most film projects these days don’t want composers to write in that style anymore. I was sketching theme ideas for Ham early on while he was editing, but the bulk of the work was done over about 2 months.
When asked to score a movie what is the normal routine for you as in the scoring process?
I’ll sometimes read a draft of the script if it’s sent to me, but I can’t get a specific idea of what will work on a film until I see the picture. I see myself more as a filmmaker than a composer when I work on a film — I’m a filmmaker who is in charge of the music aspect of the film. So, every decision has to be based in what will improve the film so that it’s better after you worked on it. The first few times I watch a film, I try to determine what the strengths and weaknesses of the current edit of the film are, learn the characters and the story as well as I can. You ask yourself “What does the audience believe in this current edit of the film, and what parts are hard to believe? What characters have emotions that are easily relatable, and what characters are having a harder time getting the audience to connect to what they are feeling?” So, then you develop a strategy for what the music needs to do to maximize the strengths of the film, while improving any areas that the film is struggling in. One of the best feelings is when a director tells you “This scene never worked for me before, but after seeing it with your music in it, it’s one of the strongest parts of the movie now!” It feels like you made an important contribution and are helping the team create a movie successfully.
Understanding the film on a fundamental storytelling level is more important than anything concrete in the musical syntax, syntax as in what kinds of harmonies or instrumentation you are using, because if you don’t understand the film on a fundamental storytelling level, you’re never going to arrive at the correct musical decisions. Once I feel confident I understand the film on this level, I’ll do about 3 or 4 cues to scenes that would show primary musical ideas, whether they are themes or stylistic choices, and send them to the director for feedback. Once the director is happy with some initial ideas, I know I’ve established a general direction to head in, and then from there it’s just writing enough music every day to hit the deadline.
You have worked on numerous genres of film, is there any genre that you would like to work on that at this time you have not?
I’d actually love to do some more children’s films like Maika, maybe some animated films. At this point of my life I want to work on some more things that my kids can have fun watching. And in general, I love working on films about Asian culture, films that have important issues to Asians and Asian Americans, whatever the genre is.
You use the Bulgarian Symphony orchestra on Maika, do you conduct the score or is it preferable to have a conductor and supervise the recording from the booth?
On Maika, we recorded remotely, meaning that my team and I were monitoring the sessions from Los Angeles, while the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra was recording in Sofia. In situations where I can be in the same place as the recording session, conducting myself is great if we have a lot of studio time — you can get really specific with the details. But if you are on limited studio time, it is faster to have someone else conduct and supervise from the booth.
Maika is also a score that fuses both symphonic with electronic support> Samples and synthetic sounds have in the past decade developed greatly and are now a staple tool of the film scoring family, what is your preference as a composer to utilize live performances or use electronic elements etc: or is there room for both?
My preference is always to use live musicians on anything that is supposed to sound like traditional symphonic instruments, and to only use the samples/synths on parts of the music that are intentionally supposed to sound synthetic, like in many parts of the score for “The Guardian”. The thing is that you also have to work within the budget requirements of any film. So sometimes you are keeping some of the sampled orchestral instruments and replacing others with live musicians, and hoping that the result when mixed together is that it tricks the ear into feeling that everything is as live as possible. You learn to adjust on every film to deliver the best possible audio production based on what the resources are.
Your music for film is always thematic, but in recent years the main theme for movies seems to have been faded out or sidestepped by composers, is the use of motifs and themes for characters and locations important to you when writing a score?
I think when it comes to thematic music, maybe I’m a lucky composer — writing thematically is something I enjoy doing and most of my favorite music by other composers is thematic, and in most places in Asia, thematic music is still encouraged by the filmmakers and audiences. I know in Hollywood there are some composers that would like to write more thematically but are told not to by the filmmakers or studios…in certain kinds of films it’s seen as “old fashioned”. For me, the themes are the most interesting part of film scoring, which is what I admire about some of my favorite composers like Ennio Morricone or Joe Hisaishi, they just have an endless well of great themes they have written. And the real magic happens when a theme is varied or adjusted into a slightly different tone to reflect a change in a character or situation.
Dreamy Eyes is a beautiful film and score from 2019, within the score you use soloists, for violin piano etc, which purvey the fragility, and the intimate and delicate elements of the movie. Do you perform on any of your scores?
I think Dreamy Eyes is actually my favorite score I’ve written, maybe my favorite film I’ve worked on as well…it just had everything I love in a story, and leans into all the things I love to do. I played some of the guitar and piano parts on that score, though anything that’s too hard to play I’d rather have someone else do it!
One of my friends who works with me, Ian, is actually a great guitar player, so on some other scores with tricky guitar parts, I’ll have him do it. My wife Holley is a classical soprano, so she’s on some of the scores. But a lot of the time I’ll only perform something if it’s easy to play, since so much of my mental energy is already being taken up by the composing chores.
Is orchestration an important part of the composing process, and do you work on all your own orchestrations?
Orchestration is a very important part of the composing process, and I usually do the orchestrations for the cues that I’m really picky about and have the time for. The more straightforward cues, I’ll usually have one or two orchestrators that are helping out, because there’s usually so little time to get all the work done. A lot of people think that orchestration is only about hearing a unique instrument in a piece of music, like a Duduk in Gladiator, or a Hardanger Fiddle in Lord of the Rings — certainly these things are important, but people often forget that orchestration is also about all the subtleties about how different instruments perform, like how a viola and cello are capable of playing the same notes between middle C and the C an octave above, but the cello will sound more strident, and so you would choose one over the other based on the feel you are trying to get. Or quirky stuff like when Ravel uses 2 snare drummers on Bolero, he knows that it’s all going to sound like flams because there’s no way those 2 drummers can be exactly in sync, or when Debussy divides the celli into 4 parts in La Mer, he knows it’s going to be out of tune — he actually wants that because it sounds like cool dolphins underwater, or whatever he was imagining at the time. So, for me, those are actually the interesting things about orchestration, it’s not just the obvious things like finding an unusual instrument.
How many times do you like to see a prospective project before deciding you will score it and also how long does it take before you begin to formulate ideas regarding the style, the sound etc of the music and where it would be best placed to server the movie?
With a prospective project, the one of the first things to consider is the director. If it’s a director I’ve worked with before and had previous good experiences with, I’ll usually just say “yes” to it without even needing to read a script or see anything, because I figure the work process will go well and it’ll likely be a movie that I like. There’s a lot to be said about the importance of having a good experience working on a film, just as much as the quality of the end product itself — I see some creative people burn out and it’s often because they’ve been through too many bad experiences. If it’s a director I don’t know and I’m not familiar with their work, I’ll usually ask to see the rough cut first to make sure I like the film, and I might also ask some colleagues if they know anything about how that filmmaker runs their productions.
I can usually tell if the movie itself is something I want to work on after just 1 viewing. Most of the rough cuts that are shown to me these days have temp music in them, so if I think the general direction of the temp in terms of style and placement feels pretty good to me, I’ll be able to hone that in with the director pretty quickly, make some suggestions about how to improve it….probably takes about a week. If the temp is totally off for me, or if it’s in a style that I don’t do well, that takes longer, but at this point of my career that doesn’t happen to me very much…I have enough work to listen to that people can figure out what I do well and so I tend to be offered films where they need what I do.
Do you have a set routine as in what order you score a movie, for example do you prefer to develop a core theme and use it as the foundation for the remainder of the score, or is every film different?
Yes, I usually try to start with something that I think will end up being a main theme, whether it be for a character, a relationship, or a situation, and I try to find 2 or 3 scenes where that theme would end up being very prominent and score those first. I know if the director responds really well to the demos of those scenes, then I will have a musical answer for several of the scenes in a film and a general direction to head in.
I never do the scenes in order, I usually choose the scenes that would demonstrate thematic material strongly first, as well as scenes that speak to me very strongly, in the sense that I very quickly have a feel for what I want to do in those scenes and I feel the scenes strongly in terms of emotion. I have a good friend who is a film composer, who I think is brilliant, and I know their work process is to score all the scenes in order. I could never do that, it’s just not how my brain works. But it works for them. I don’t think there’s a right way or a wrong way, it’s just how every person most efficiently organizes information for themselves.
I love your score for Journey from the Fall, it is so melodic and filled with haunting themes, when you were working on the movie did the the film have a temp track to guide you and do you find the use of a temp useful or distracting?
This was one of the few films I’ve worked on that had no temp in it, perhaps it shows! I was actually drafting themes just based off of the story and conversations with the director, which doesn’t always work, but in this case it worked well — there were a few scenes in that movie where the director actually cut the footage to the demos that I was turning in to him. Bad temp is distracting, as well as when a director is so attached to good temp that they can’t accept any other approach. But I find that a well temp’ed film from a director that is flexible can actually be a useful starting point to have conversations about the music, because music is already so hard to talk about and is so subjective by nature — something that feels like “heartache” to one person might sound “uplifting” to another person.
So the temp provides a place to start and say “this seems to be working well overall, but in this moment it stops working, so we need to think of a way to change directions once it gets to this point”. It tends to make directors more comfortable interacting with you, and it’s a concrete musical example to point to and try to adjust, suggesting “less of this” or “more of this”.
The Guardian, is a score that has many styles and components, up-beat electro-pop, a Hermman-esque dramatic and atmospheric style and various electronic sounds and blend to create an effective work, was it difficult reaching the right balance when working on the movie, and did the director have any specific ideas regarding the music?
This was a bit of a strange score in terms of the various styles involved, mostly because the story involved an aspiring pop singer who falls into a horror-movie situation involving mysterious murders and occult magic. The director didn’t really push for a specific idea when we started, but because of the prevalence of all of the electro-pop music, I realized that the suspense and horror underscore should be heavily electronic so that it would feel like an organic part of the soundscape of the film when heard in between the pop songs. There is a small amount of orchestral music in the score during some of the more intensely emotional scenes, but I knew we could only use that in key moments.
What is next for you?
I’m about to start a new film, a thriller by the same filmmaking team that did Camellia Sisters. Also, I’ve been developing a musical theater project in my spare time, and we’re just starting to talk about it publicly now since we’re close to finishing the first draft. These things take a long time to develop, so I won’t go into detail yet, but I’m hoping to get the project into the workshopping stage during the coming year and if we’re fortunate we’ll get to show a fully produced version to the public sometime in the future.