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BACKSTAGE - INTERVIEW WITH COMPOSER CHRISTOPHER DRAKE

The World's Finest sat down with composer Christopher Drake to discuss his work on the animated feature Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part One. The film, released as part of the acclaimed DC Universe Animated Original Movie line, is the first in a two-part adaptation of the acclaimed comic series. In the following Q & A, Drake reveals how he nailed down his 1980s-inspired synth score, what you may not have heard in the film's final cut, and teases for some of his major upcoming projects. Continue on for more...


The World's Finest: To start things off, can you give us your general thoughts on scoring the Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part One animated feature? What type of pressure comes with it?

Christopher Drake: Well, the absolute thrill and excitement you feel when you sign the contract that says "The Dark Knight Returns" is quickly replaced by horror and panic as you realize you now have to write music for an adaptation of one of the greatest, influencial and defining Batman stories ever. Yeah… no pressure!

WF: How much did the original comic influence your scoring choices? What about the time period?

CD: Well, if your not familiar with the graphic novel, and you watched our movie cold, there really isn't anything that really signifies to the audience the time period. There's no title card at the beginning of the move that says "GOTHAM CITY-1986" And you don't see or hear Reagan in Part One, so Bruce, Jay and I felt the music really needed to do the heavy lifting and establish the setting, and tone of this world.

I told Bruce and Jay, that I didn't want to use any orchestral instruments and use only authentic 80's era analog synthesizers in the beginning of the film to represent the decay of the city. As Batman returns I start to introduce some orchestral brass to signify the classical hero against the analog synth and modern decay.

I didn't want it to sound like any of the previous Batman films we did. I spent a good month programming synths to dial in that authentic 80's John Carpenter, Vangelis, Tangerine Dream sound. Bruce and I dabbled with this idea for Batman: Year One, as that also took place in the 80's, but Bruce felt it might be too distracting for that story. Batman: Year One was a more intimate look into Gordon and Batman's relationship, so the idea was to have the music play more ambient and minimalistic.

A lot of vintage analog synth gear was used, including the Sequential Circuits Prophet-V synthesizer, which was prominently featured in synth scores of the 80's. The other big synth sound that defined the 80's was the Yamaha CS-80, which is the Vangelis Blade Runner sound. Unfortunately that synth weighs about 200lbs, and now costs about $15-20,000, so I used a digital software emulation of that in the score. You'll definitely hear a bit of homage here and there acknowledging the works of John Carpenter and Alan Howarth in the score - Escape From New York is one of my favorite movies! I took great pains to make sure the score sounded as authentic to the time period as possible.

WF: You’ve previously scored Batman: Gotham Knights, Batman: Under the Red Hood, and Batman: Year One. How would you compare your work on those Batman projects to Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part One?

CD: I think the hardest thing for me, that is unique to my films, unlike other Bat-composers, is that I have to essentially throw away any thematic material I've developed from one movie to the next and start from scratch each time. The Batman movies I've worked on have no continuity between them, with different voice casts, etc., and are stand-alone stories. The real trick though, besides having to musically "re-invent the wheel" so to speak, is that it still has to "sound" like Batman. I think Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part One really stands apart from my other scores due to it's design, in that it completely embraces the 80's synth esthetic, but also fits as a "Batman" score.

WF: Are there favorite moments when it comes to your score work in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part One. Anything you want us to keep an ear open for?

CD: My favorite cue is called "The Dark Knight Returns" and it's the scene where Batman is on his first night back, taking out pimps and bank robbers. Unfortunately, the music got really buried under the sound FX. There's a lot of cool musical sound design, and synth stuff that doesn't quite come through in the movie mix. I will be really happy when people can really hear all of that track on the soundtrack release.

I also really enjoyed scoring the scene with the General - which was not in the graphic novel - it was a simple, dramatic interaction between Batman and this General who, in way sold his soul to help his dying wife. I think it really plays well as a dramatic piece between the two actors, which in superhero animation is rare.

And I had a lot of fun writing the scene where Bruce has his flashback to Joe Chill, while seeing The Mark of Zorro on TV. You will hear what sounds like movie music from Zorro, then start to get really weird and scary, and at one point begins playing backwards as Bruce remembers the murder of his family. It's a musical "bad acid trip."

WF: A semi-follow-up to the previous question - are there any particular themes or notes you try to hit when working on an animated Batman film? Does the character perhaps dictate more influence over the music then we may think?

CD: Well here's the thing - Batman is a brand, and there's a lot of cinematic history from Danny [Elfman], Shirley [Walker] and Hans [Zimmer] that has musically defined the character to audiences. There is already an expectation from the audience on what Batman music should sound like before they've even heard one note of my music. So, I think my music needs to be original, and serve the story, but at the same time, needs to be "Batman" music. It shares that "dark, minor chord DNA " of what has come before.

WF: You've scored a lot of Batman-centric animated features, and others featuring Superman and Wonder Woman. Is there any particular DC character or story you'd like to set your music to?

CD: Sure I love gothic, supernatural, characters from the DC Universe - The Demon, Deadman, Swamp Thing. I love [Neil] Gaiman's Sandman. I would love to do a period, gothic score to Mignola's Gotham by Gaslight and, of course, The Killing Joke. How cool would an animated Vertigo title series be??

WF: You seem fairly busy scoring titles for the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line. Do you find time to pursue other projects or your own interests?

CD: No.. sadly, I have no life!

My biggest interest besides seeing my family when I can, is sleep!

I've been stuck in my own batcave at WB Studios surrounded by blinking musical technology all summer. I pretty much write music from 6pm-4am, and have recently purchased a very fast, all black car, that one of the sound guys at WB wants to record as a sound element for the Batmobile sound FX library. My last name is Drake, and I work for a guy named Bruce - I am afraid I might be becoming a "method" composer. Help!

WF: Is there anything you can say about your score work for the upcoming Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part Two?

CD I don't think I'm allowed to! All I will tell you about Part Two, is that nothing has been "toned down" from the source material. I can't believe we got away with it - it's really hard core!

WF: Outside of the Batman: The Dark Knight Returns sequel, any other projects you can fill us in on, or tease us with?

CD: I am scoring a really cool DC Universe video game called Injustice: Gods Among Us. It's from WB games and Nether Realm Studios, who are responsible for the Mortal Kombat franchise. I think fans of the animated DCU might want to pay attention to this one as I'm not the only familiar thing they may "hear" in the game. I'm scoring all the cinematic story elements in the game.

I scored a short animated film that ties into events from the movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter called The Great Calamity, which will be featured on the Blu-ray release of that film around Halloween.

And I am involved with a massive, top-secret project which won't be announced until next year. I'm really excited about it, as I will finally have a real full size orchestra to perform my score.

Lots of cool stuff to look forward to! I'm very thankful and happy to be called in to contribute to these amazing projects, and really appreciate all the kind words I've received from the fans!

WF: Thanks for doing this, Chris!

CD: Thanks for listening!



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