I was first introduced to Marcelo Zarvos, a Brazilian Composer of Film, Television, Dance, Jazz, Classical, Theatrical and just about anything else, while I sat in the cinema in 2010. I was watching the film Remember Me and thinking “this music is beautiful”, and it has stayed with me ever since. So when I was faced with interviewing the person responsible for that, I couldn’t have felt more honoured.
Born in 1969, Marcelo Zarvos’ musical journey began very quickly, and it progressed exponentially throughout his childhood and into early adulthood: He discovered music via watching movies and listening to the Beatles, since his family was not a musical family. Still he really wanted to play the piano and learn songs. So gradually he got into studying Classical Music under the teachings of Hans-Joachim Koelreutter, and eventually “fell into a Rock band” as a teenager. Within a few years they recorded a couple of albums and toured a lot in Brazil. Only after this period of his life, Marcelo decided to study film scoring, composition and piano in the U.S. It is clear from anyone who reads a short bio of his, that variety is the spice of life when it comes to his story, because dipping your hand into many pots can ensure a diverse outcome.
As we settled in, I wanted to know further about his adventures into many different genres of music, so I asked him about his own personal view of his many talents, and how they have sculpted his style and choices.
I would say there is an overall style that I have that draws from Brazilian music, which has always been at the heart of what I do. I would say Jazz music is as well, although not in the way that I am emulating Jazz itself, but definitely the improvisational aspect of it. So I think having studied Jazz helped me a lot as a composer, even when I wasn’t writing it, because of course we are all a product of the music we are exposed to, and in-particular the music that we do.
Moving to New York: The first scoring gigs and a trusty companion
After establishing his early life and the many doors he knocked on towards the beginning of his career, I was interested to hear the next chapter of his journey, and his early experiences within the film music industry.
After graduating from college and moving to New York, I did, for some time, have a band that played my music, which was a mixture of Jazz, Classical and Brazilian music, and my first few scoring gigs came out of that.
Anyone, who knows his music, will know his wonderful use of the piano in some of his scores. The way he gives it a voice; whether a solo voice that hooks you to every note, or a collective voice that allows the piano to speak within the rest of the orchestra, each time he makes use of it, you can’t help but feel like it’s Marcelo himself saying the words of the notes personally. I was fascinated to gain an understanding of his connection to the piano, and why he felt so comfortable with it as his continued companion:
The Piano was my first instrument. It’s still my go-to instrument for when I’m writing because a Piano can work in many different ways. Early on in my career, I would hire someone to play how I played and I would drive them nuts spending hours on very specific things. That made me learn that I should perform my own Piano parts.
At one point, when I was doing The Good Shepherd with Director Robert De Niro, he came to me and said “I want you to play all of the piano parts again, because what was played in the orchestra stage was not really right, and I like how you play it.” So it has become a very expressive thing for me and very personal, but at the same time I’m very excited when there is a Score where I don’t use Piano at all, like the one I just finished for American Ultra, an action comedy film that’s very electronic and doesn’t have a single note of Piano in the whole thing. But of course the Piano is always a trusty companion.
Scoring for Film and TV: Crafting details vs. trusting your gut
Moving on from his instrumental choices, we came upon the countless different mediums that he has taken part in and is still taking part in. The philosophy of us all being a result of our environment, seems to be strong with Marcelo. As I said to begin with, there really isn’t many things that Marcelo hasn’t been involved with. So you would expect that writing music for one thing will have an affect on another, and you would be right.
From one extreme you have film and television music, where you’re following a pre-existing work of art, and at the other extreme you have classical music, where it’s just music and nothing else. The rhythmic flexibility that you develop as a film composer, from working with images that are not timed to a specific tempo, makes you look at music in a very elastic way. You become more comfortable at stretching rhythmically in a manner that you wouldn’t do unless the image was asking you to. The influences definitely go in both directions and they help each other enormously.
From the styles, the genres and the mediums that have accompanied Marcelo as a composer, the more prominent ones of late are film and television. Music is ubiquitous now in those areas, and is arguably more important than ever as well. So with the sheer amount of film and television that is around today, I was curious as to whether he had a preference for one over the other, or whether one was more challenging.
You have more time in film for a specific amount of music. But obviously in Television, it can run for years. I really like both things. I started with film, and that has sort of been the backbone of my career, but now I’m right smack in the middle of the golden age of television, and at this point, most composers have opened their eyes to it.
For instance, when I started there was a real division between film and TV, and then certain people like Michael Giacchino, who is perhaps the best example, came from TV and became one of the great film composers working today. So those walls really crumbled, and the migration between them now is enormous. With film you still have more time to really craft details, but in TV you’ve really got to trust your gut and go with an idea earlier, because you don’t have a lot of time to second guess yourself. As it turns out though, it can be a really good thing, as it trains your intuition and it makes you trust yourself.
Reaching for the Emmy: The scores behind Extant and The Affair
I was excited to hear about his work on two very recent and very different television series, Extant and The Affair, which are both up for Emmy consideration. First, I asked Marcelo about working on the science fiction drama Extant, with one of the most successful and brilliant filmmakers of all-time; Steven Spielberg.
He was very specific about the things that he wanted; in terms of themes and where the themes were used. He had this idea that ended up being all over the show, which was using the human voice. So we do have a lot of that and choir as well, which was a great choice. From the moment he suggested it and we tried it, we both found it great. So that is another prime example of a director opening your mind and making a suggestion that completely changes the score for the better. It is something that I may or may not have thought of myself, but he thought of it and shared his idea, which was great.
He spoke highly of his experiences working with the incredible storyteller that Spielberg is, and showed his deep respect for the career that he has had, alongside his friend and collaborator; the legendary John Williams.
If you take Jaws for example, it’s a meeting of two amazing minds. You have a great score, but you also see the great master of suspense that Spielberg is. With their partnership, it’s hard to tell where one finishes and the other begins. And that’s why it’s one of the greatest creative relationships in film history.
Then, I asked him about his experiences on the Golden Globe winning series; The Affair.
It was one of my best creative experiences. It was interesting when it came up, because I was very busy working on a couple of things that were very challenging, but after watching it I just said “damn! Now I’m definitely not going to be sleeping for the next few months because this is fantastic!’ It’s a very sophisticated group of filmmakers, and the way they wanted to use the music and the way they allowed me to write it, was so fresh and different. You are never scoring the obvious with The Affair. It’s always something else.
I was thinking that if you consider the music as lighting, then if you’re lighting something, you would never be doing direct lighting. You are always reflecting it off of something else. So the music is always uncovering something that is not quite there. We really try to take the road less traveled as much as we can and try the unexpected. It was creatively very rewarding for me as a composer. It’s a really smart show.
Keeping the tension: How to deal with unexpected events
Speaking of film and television with him really sparked my interest towards a certain aspect of scoring. How exactly does a composer approach something with a revealing ending? How do you treat something that clearly has mystery involved in its story and so perhaps will be moving towards a twist at some point? Marcelo was kind enough to share his own opinion of this ever popular movement in film and television, that comprises of shocks and revelations, and of course how he scores things of a similar nature.
I think there is a real value in not knowing where it is going, and having the opportunity to watch it as a viewer. So whenever I get the cut for something like Ray Donovan, I tend not to read the scripts, and instead just react emotionally like I would as a viewer. On the other hand, there are other series like Extant, where things happen later in the season that we want to hint at musically, which would come into fruition later.
With Remember Me, we made a decision that we were only going to use the full orchestra at the end. (You can listen to that particular piece ‘I Know You Can Hear Me’ here on Youtube) So that particular colour was reserved for the final sequence, because it had to come out of nowhere and be different musically from the rest of the score. It was important that nobody saw that ending coming.
Exploring the future: On the lookout for good stories
Up to this point, we had spoken thoroughly about his early life and early career, his introduction to music and his beginnings in the film and television industry, all the way through to his more recent works. But you come to a moment when you hit the present day, and look ahead to what the future holds. It was time to do just that, but I can say with complete honesty that I was content to go all the way back to the beginning and hear even more stories and insights into his fascinating world, because Marcelo is an extraordinarily gifted human being with a polite and giving personality.
Perhaps I will have the privilege to do so, sometime down the line, but for now it was all about what his immediate plans were, what his future interests were, and what we can all expect from him in the years to come.
I will keep working in all of the different areas. Right now I’m doing new seasons of The Affair and Ray Donovan. And one genre that I’m very fascinated by is animation. I’ve never really done any animation. I’m really looking for a project that would feel right and be a really good fit. Also I’ve done a couple of horror things, and really enjoyed it, so that’s another area I’m interested in. But ultimately I’m just looking for good stories.
Outside of the film world, I will always continue to write for different classical music groups, and perform my own music as well, which is very rewarding, but there’s no specific design to do ‘this and that,’ because you learn to read the signs and consider the things that come to you.
I would like to thank Marcelo Zarvos personally for spending this time talking to me, and giving me this opportunity to learn even more about a world that I have been fascinated with for as long as I can remember. I hope you have found his words as valuable and interesting as I did.
If you’re wanting to hear more from Marcelo, then you can read a follow-up article here, concentrating on his tips for young composers.