Music to Die For

April 21st, 2007

Marco Beltrami did his best to avoid music. He started off studying geology, but "couldn't tell one rock from another." He switched to urban studies, but a postgraduate stint in a Rhode Island planning department proved "the most boring period in my life." He managed to sneak in a few courses at Brown's electronic music lab, even though his parents discouraged it because they wanted to protect him, he now jokes, from starvation.

They needn't have worried.

For the past decade Beltrami has earned a handsome living as Hollywood's go-to composer for horror films. In 1996 his synapse-jolting music for Scream scared moviegoers senseless; producers took note, and since then he has scored more than a dozen thrillers.

Ensconced in his backyard recording studio - part of the Malibu mini-compound he shares with his wife and two sons - Beltrami says, "At Brown I made a conscious decision that music was going to be secondary. But the thing is, music always came easily. Everything else was like pulling teeth. I just couldn't get the music out of my system."

After shelving his planning career, Beltrami buckled down for two rigorous years at Yale School of Music, then moved to Los Angeles to study film music at USC with Oscar-winning composer Jerry Goldsmith. Those academic credentials meant nothing when he tried to break into the business, so Beltrami concocted "John Carnegie Artists Management" and phoned hundreds of production offices pretending to represent a hot young composer named Marco Beltrami.

The ruse paid off in 1995 when he landed a season-long gig to score the TV drama Land's End. That series led to a TV movie and a real agent, which in turn led to a career-defining weekend assignment from Scream director Wes Craven. "They called me in on a Friday afternoon and said, 'Take the opening scene of this movie, write something, bring it back for us Monday morning and we'll see if it fits with the picture.' I went home, shaking, because I knew this was my big break."

Though he'd never seen a horror movie in his life, much less scored one, Beltrami hired a twenty-piece orchestra and pieced together thirteen minutes of spiky music that perfectly complemented the mayhem on screen. As a horror-film novice, Beltrami recalls, "I wasn't jaded. I was terrified. You see someone coming around the corner with a knife, and I was hiding myself! I just put myself into the music and I was really scared."

Beltrami subsequently scored Hellboy, Resident Evil, Blade 2, Joy Ride, Angel Eyes, Dracula 2000, The Crow: Salvation, The Faculty, Mimic, Scary Movie 2, and both Scream sequels, as well as sci-fi blockbusters I, Robot and Terminator 3.

There are more spine-tinglers to come, including the vampire film Underworld: Evolution and a remake of The Omen. But at the moment, Beltrami is especially proud of his music for Tommy Lee Jones's character-driven western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. "I started doing research into indigenous instruments of the southern Texas and Mexican region and found out Indians would actually pluck the thorns of these cactus ne?edles with their fingers to make this very soft sound," he says. "I love taking organic acoustic sounds and manipulating them so that sometimes you can't tell what's orchestral and what's not." He incorporated the cactus tones into his score.

"People hire me to absorb [influences] and create the character of the film score yet do something original as well. For me, music from a Jamaican bandleader has the same weight as a German composer of art music. It's wherever you find the intensity."

Hugh Hart writes about the film industry in Los Angeles.

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January / February 2006