David Lynch's regular composer tells how he creates the acoustics for the visionary director's features.
One of the most beguiling collaborations in cinema began with a call from the north Carolina set of Blue Velvet, David Lynch's 1986 landmark exploration of corrupt small-town America.
The production needed a voice coach to help Isabella Rossellini, and Angelo Badalamenti, who had scored a couple of features but had yet to make his mark, landed the job. Lynch heard a tape of the composer playing piano for Rossellini to rehearse to and was so impressed he asked him to score the film.
"Magic happened with Blue Velvet, because a sound was created," Badalamenti says.That sound is the composer's haunting, ethereal music that has gone on to define Lynch's surreal world almost as much as the director's own off-kilter themes and images. "It is not the top melody or even the bass, it is something in the middle that kind of rubs wrong, and is maybe even mildly dissonant," says Badalamenti. "You hear it, but it is not in your face."
Their latest collaboration is Mulholland Drive, which opened in the US last month, taking $587,591 from 66 screens on its opening weekend, before widening to 247 screens in its second. The murky, character-driven tale heralds a return to darker Lynchian territory, and Badalamenti wrote the "dark" title theme at concept stage a few years before the project was shot. The theme was later resurrected when the project was originally being made as a TV pilot for ABC.
When the network turned the project down, StudioCanal stepped into the breach. Some new footage was shot and Badalamenti added a string orchestra to beef up the soundtrack. The director and composer also travelled to Prague to record the abstract atmospheric music for the film. Layers of low instruments - basses, clarinets, bassoons - were recorded, creating an abstract effect the composer describes as "giving you something to turn firewood into flames, to warm you soul."
For Blue Velvet, the duo's working method was relatively conventional. After the film wrapped, the pair got together for a standard spotting session to determine when music should play and so on. Since that film, the relationship has taken more of an intuitive, collaborative bent, with Lynch typically describing the concept or mood of a project to the composer.
"Instead of normal talking, he gets quiet and says (adopts startlingly low Lynchian-style drawl) "I see this world... I see this dark, beautiful world... there's trouble underneath the surface." /p>
Writing is a continuation of this process. "He puts me on track with his descriptions and I start improvising," Badalamenti says. This style of writing also feeds back to Lynch. "As I'm playing, David sees things. It paints pictures in his head and he sees projects or ideas other than the ones we are working on." /p>
Lynch has also been known to cut to Badalamenti's music and to play his scores on set as pacing guides for actors."Maybe just hearing that is worth a thousand directions," the composer suggests. "It is like describing an elephant to a kid 15 billion ways - just take them to the zoo and it says it all."
In his work with other directors, such as Jane Campion on Holy Smoke and Mark Pellington on Arlington Road, Badalamenti says he is using his Lynch-honed collaborative methods more and more. "A composer would generally want to be alone before he plays anything for a director, but I am not afraid of that. I love to have a person next to me, to feel their vibes. I pick up a word or two of what they might say and it just throws me into something. Half the battle is done right there."
Badalamenti has a busy diary these days. There are several soundtrack, remixes and original albums in the works, as well as several films, including Jez Butterworth's Birthday Girl and bob Gosse's Julie Johnson. And, as usual, there is a Lynch project on the cards - a Broadway musical that will keep Badalamenti busy and is sure to get Lynch die-hards salivating. "David would love me to buy a home adjacent to his," says Badalamenti. "Of course, I wouldn't have any life if I did. He would call me up at 7:30 in the morning and say, 'Come on, let's make music. Just play.'"
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