Music for Games, Process, and Triple Frontier Interview with Composer Rich Vreeland

April 26, 2019

Written by Barmey Ung

I had the chance to sit down with film and video game composer Rich Vreeland.  We talked about games, process, and about his recent score for the Netflix movie, Triple Frontier, starring Ben Affleck, Pedro Pascal, Oscar Isaac, and directed by J.C. Chandor.

PPLA:  First of all, Triple Frontier has a very interesting and unique story in my opinion.  It had a very survivalist aspect to it. And reminded of the Revenant.  But in the beginning of the movie, you think it’s going to be a drug heist movie, but it’s something very different and less predictable.

It’s way different than your previous work.  Musically, it has some heavy metal, rock, latin, ambient, and more traditional orchestral film music.   And it’s got the drummer from Metallica. So why did you decide to do that project and how did it happen?  And how much of the soundtrack did you write, and how much was source music?

RV:  The director reached out to me.  His editor is someone who’s familiar with my music, and they were looking for a composer.  The normal composer, that J.C., the director works with, didn’t want to work on a military movie.  

It seemed like an interesting thing to do.  I never really was interested in doing action movies, and the director had never done an action movie, but I’d seen some of his movies, and I liked them.  So, I thought it’d be different, and it was.

The source music was a couple Metallica Songs, a Pantera song.  There’s a lot of classic rock, latin stuff. There’s a Bob Dylan song.  There’s probably like 15 or 20 minutes of source music, and then close to an hour of score. 

PPLA:  Thats a lot of music.

RV:  I probably had to write 2 or 3 times that much, because the process was very unique.  Instead of temping the movie with a lot of external reference material, they wanted to sort of build out a library of internal music.  So I did a fair bit of writing blind, like without the picture, and then I sort of used that to figure out the score. So I had to write a lot of music.

PPLA:  How long was the whole process?

RV:  Like 5 months.  A couple of months of writing and recording and mixing, and then, there was a little bit of a break, and then soundtrack preparation.

PPLA:  Being only your 3rd2nd feature film, and being your first very big budget film, how was the experience?

RV:  They were very supportive, but it was just the circumstances made the project challenging.  Like the distance. The entire team was in New York and I was here (Los Angeles). And just the scale of it, there were a lot of parties involved. So it could be challenging at times, creatively.  Like there was definitely some oversight which made it a little more of a challenge to figure stuff out, I guess.  

PPLA:  What was it like working with Lars? (Lars Ulrich, drummer and co-founder of Metallica)

RV:  He was nice.  It was a new experience for him, so it was interesting.  He threw down a lot of pulses, pulsing rhythm type of stuff, which is what the score needed.  

PPLA:  How was your GDC? (Game Developers Conference) 

RV:  I’m always looking for a way to get there and not have to pay.  So this year, I got invited to DJ, so I DJ’d in the park. It was kinda interesting.  I’d never done it before, so I had to practice and figure it out.

Every year’s a little different, but generally it’s like see old friends, see some talks when I’im tired.. Go to some parties but not too many.

PPLA:  Are you playing anything right now?

RV:  There’s a puzzle game that I’ve been playing that pretty cool.  Babba is You.  I’m playing it on the Sswitch.  I played Red Dead [Redpemption 2] too.

PPLA:  Did you like it?

RV:  Yeah, it was good.  It’s a little clunky, But just the amount of work that went into is just crazy.  It’s like the largest game that’s ever been made. The amount of labor that went into it is insane.  It’s a remarkable thing, but it’s interesting also to see the ways in which it is a little bit a byproduct of being so large. That it makes certain parts of it a little hamfisted.  Like simple things like interacting with objects can be a little weird.  

PPLA:  So, you have about 40 albums out

RV:  55 or 56

PPLA:  I mean that’s a lot, and I think your success is well deserved.  I think about other composers who I know and respect who are just as prolific.  Like Austin WiIntory said he composed for around 70 films when he was in college.

RV:  haha, I would never do that.  I’m just not that interested in composing. 

PPLA: But I really admire that work ethic though.  

RV:  I think it can be admirable for sure, but I think there’s sort of a personal economy that you have to balance.  So if you have other things in your orbit that you care about, you know, you’re making sacrifices.

PPLA: How do you decide which projects to take?

RV:  For me there’s always a cost benefit analysis.  Like what are the parameters of this project? What are my personal goals, what are some of the challenges, what are some of the things that I like and don’t like about this project?  I’ve actually gotten into the habit of trying to systematize my decision making on programs.

I made a spreadsheet – the WiWi score.  The idea was basically that you’d setup categories for yourself that are important to you. Like how much creative freedom do you have, how compressed is the time schedule, how much traveling do you have do, how’s the pay, all these kind of things.

So I setup a spreadsheet with all the categories I feel like I care about right now, and then I weighed them based on how important they are.

Then I give the project a score in every category, and by the end of that, out of 100% it would give me a score of how much it’s worth it.  

PPLA:  Do you have a preference toward one or the other, between working with films or games, or is there anything you don’t like in one or the other?

RV:  Yeah, I really don’t like the politics of movies and the complexity of dealing with a lot of companies and producers, and people.  It’s just very complicated and just logistically, it’s kind ofa a struggle. And there tends to be a lot of abstraction. You tend to be far removed from people who are making decisions about your work, which I don’t like.  I like the simplicity of working on small game projects where the people who are making game decisions are the people you know, because they’re generally a small group of people.

PPLA:  Do you have any writing techniques?  Any tricks that you like to do?

RV:  Yeah, one of the things I like to do is sort of like.. Its like scatting and beat boxing together. Like just cComing up with a melody and rhythmic contour, just vocalizing it, and recording, and using that to determine the musical structure.  The theme for Triple Frontier actually came out of that.  It was a voice memo of me basically doing a beat box.  

PPLA:  I’d like to hear that.

RV:  I can probably find it right now..

“Mouth Meters” Sketch

“Original Title” MIDI mockup

 

This is just in the box that I did at home.  It actually sounds pretty simple.. But to write it out is pretty strange.  It was a more complicated version of the theme. It had a very weird meter.  The turnaround had a very weird happens in the middle of a triplet, like it was a pain in the ass to write for.  This was the original idea for the theme. Yeah, I couldn’t figure out a way to easily write with that bar structure cause it was either gonna be like some bizarre 5/16 or 4/16 kind of thing, where it’s a tempo change at the end of each bar.  I didn’t end up using this version of the theme because technically it was going to be very difficult to write like that. Having to time things to the movie would make my life pretty miserable.  

PPLA:  Is there anything else you’d like to promote or talk about?  Do you have anything coming up?

RV:  I’m gonna be working on a movie.. Called “The Hole in the Fence” with a director from Mexico city.  His name is Joaquin del Paso, but I don’t know how much I can say about it.  

(Rich looks in his phone for an article online)

Here’s an article about it.  ‘The first year students of an elitist religious school are attending a faith and integration camp outside of Mexico city, what begins as a tranquil retreat soon becomes dangerous when a mysterious hole is found in the perimeter fence. ‘

It’s one of those classic descriptions that doesn’t really explain the movie.  Haha.. It’s just the setup. It’s sort of like a psychological thriller. It’s kinda like a socio-political psychological thriller.

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